The Browning’s Jonny McBee Talks About Overcoming Bell’s Palsy
Eight months into the writing of The Browning’s fourth studio album Geist, frontman Jonny McBee found himself unable to move half of his face. The singer for the Kansas City, MO, electronicore quartet had come down with Bell’s palsy, a condition in which the nerve that controls movement of the facial muscles becomes pinched. For most people, such a diagnosis would be incredibly upsetting; to the singer of a popular band preparing to record vocals, it was a nightmare.
“The whole time, I’m wondering, do I need to get another screamer?” says McBee. “I think our fans would understand, but I know it’d be really weird for us to have a different vocalist. Something our fans always say is that my vocals are unique, and anyway, the vocalists I really like don’t sound anything like me. What would it do to our sound if we had a vocalist who didn’t sound anything like me?”
Fortunately for Jonny, there was a light at the end of the tunnel — while it can be permanent, Bell’s palsy is treatable, and he was able to overcome the condition. Meanwhile, Jonny’s streaming of his creative process via his popular Twitch channel allowed him to share his healing process with fans and feel a little less isolated in his recovery. And by the sound of his roaring screams on Geist, it’s safe to say that McBee came out of his palsy with all his vocal abilities intact, if not stronger than before.
“You don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh, I affect so many people! I’m so important to people!’,” says Jonny. “So whenever you have these people who are so committed to wanting to support me, it’s really humbling.”
KERRANG!: How far into the writing process of Geist were you when the Bell’s palsy affected you?
Jonny McBee: I spent about a year and a half writing this album, and it was about eight months in when I got the palsy. I was thinking about starting to do vocals, and it was clearly not possible to sing or scream with my face like that. It was really stressing me out.
What did the palsy feel like? Was it only a loss of motor function, or did your face go numb?
It was just a lack of being able to move [my face]. There’s a part of your brain that controls the functionality of your face, and that part of your brain goes through a really narrow portion of your skull. If that portion of the brain swells at all, it gets pinched, and makes it so your face can’t move. So I could still feel it — all the nerves were there — but part of my brain was swollen. It’s super strange. They told me that most people get it via stress — a lot of stress can make your brain pump a lot of blood and swell.
How quickly did it set in? Was it gradual, or did you just wake up one morning with half of your face inoperable?
It was pretty much out of nowhere. I was walking around a Walmart, shopping, and I started noticing that whenever I would bite down, my mouth felt a little funny. And then I noticed that whenever I spoke, the corner of my mouth felt really weird. Then I started noticing that whenever I blinked it felt strange. You blink so fast, you can’t really tell when your eye’s closed. So I asked the person I was with, ‘Hey, is my eye closing when I blink?’ and they said, ‘No.’
That sounds terrifying! How freaked out were you?
Well, luckily I knew what was going on, because my bassist had palsy at one point. But I knew it could be a stroke, too, so I immediately went to the doctor. I would’a freaked the crap out if I didn’t know what it was! Luckily, when I noticed it, it was midnight the day after Thanksgiving, so no one was [at the ER] — I just walked straight in. I went to the doctor and told him, ‘I think I’m starting to have Bell’s palsy.’ They had me sit on a table, and within fifteen minutes — I looked at the number of fingers he had up, and then I watched his hand — and they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s palsy.’ They gave me some steroids and sent me home.
When it affected you, were you worried that it might be permanent?
So, this is the crazy part — it can be permanent. Lots of people have it. Sylvester Stallone and Angelina Jolie have it. It can last anywhere from a week to a few months, and normally it’s on the two week side. After the second or third day it got WAY worse. At first, I could sort of blink, but by then my eye wasn’t moving at all. And a week and a half in, I realized that my face had started hurting, which isn’t supposed to happen. So I started freaking out: ‘Why is my face hurting?’ So I went to urgent care, and the guy looked in my ear and realized I also had a sinus infection on that side of my head, which he says is what likely caused the palsy in the first place. If it hadn’t been treated, I could’ve had it permanently. Because of that, my palsy lasted two months, rather than two weeks. Two months in, you don’t know if your face is ever going to work, because there’s no sign that this was going to get any better.
How did it affect your vocals? Could you still scream?
I would try, but it’s crazy how much the shape of your mouth makes a different. It’s not like my throat didn’t work, or my tongue didn’t work, but I literally couldn’t make a scream sound. It was also difficult trying to stream [on Twitch], because when I stream I talk a lot, and that would just hurt my face. I would have to hold my eye shut. It also gave me a really, really bad lisp. If you think of a P or B sound, it’s closing and clasping your lips and pushing air out. So not only could I not scream, but I realized I couldn’t pronounce half the words of our songs.
What about your fans on Twitch? Streaming your process is such a big part of your public identity — were your streaming fans supportive?
It was really nice, because…look, The Browning aren’t the biggest band in the world. But the fans that we have are extremely supportive. And my stream is basically fans of the band, and they’re fans I’ve connected with on a new level, because I talk to them every single day. At first, streaming was stressful, because I got on the first day and said, ‘Look, I need help.’ The steroids I needed were $400, and that was on top of my medical bill. And after that first stream, my viewers donated about $850 to me. It really helped me out in that time. Because I make light of any crap situation that’s going on, so whenever I was on there I’d make stupid faces, but they also understood my issues, and…you can’t really make light of having enough money. And they understood that, and hooked it up.
Real talk: I’m sure at the time, the experience was harrowing, but looking back, is it funny? Do you ever think, ‘Hey, remember those two months of my life where my face didn’t work’?
Yeah, dude! You never expect something like that to happen. It’s so random, thinking back on it. I’m very lucky. I remember one time, I was hanging out with my sister and her husband. My sister made me an eyepatch, which I still have in my room. But this was, like, the third day of the palsy. They hadn’t necessarily seen it yet. My brother in law was a stand-up comedian, and he cracked a joke, and I was dying laughing…but only half my face could smile!
The Browning’s new album Geist drops October 26th on Spinefarm. Pre-order it at their website.
WORDS: Chris Krovatin
PHOTOS: Jonny McBee