(Note: this was an interview between myself and Anthony Jewett for a Berklee Conservatory of Music class.)
Death and Redemption:
Bleeding Out with Casey Wickstrom
by Anthony Jewett
Multi-instrumentalist and looping artist Casey Wickstrom has been performing in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years and has released a remarkable discography. I got a chance to sit down with him recently to chat about his life as a performing artist and his recently-released fifth full-length album, “Bleed Out.” For links to his music, blog, and more, visit his website at caseywicktrom.com.
AJ: Your album, “Bleed Out,” is dark and heavy. There’s a lot of variety between tracks.
CW: It covers a lot of ground stylistically. There’s some Red Hot Chili Pepper influences, some people say there’s Nirvana in the tracks. It’s definitely a rock album. When I play solo acoustic and people ask about the CDs, I tell them that that “Bleed Out” is like a rock album and gets heavy, and “Volume One” is like what you’re hearing tonight. So, if people hear the mellow acoustic stuff, they opt for “Volume One.”
AJ: Some of the songs, like “Hollywood and Vine,” are fun, upbeat songs, but others, like “Evocation,” are fuzzy and heavy.
CW: Totally, the tone on [‘Evocation’] was like, when I was heard it coming back while it was getting mixed, I was like ‘Fffff…’ It’s definitely one of my favorite, but that’s as heavy as it gets. If it was on vinyl, side two would start with ‘Evocation,’ that is definitely the start of the other side. For ‘Hollywood and Vine,’ my M.O., so to speak, is really upbeat melodies with contrasting dark subject matter. ‘Hollywood and Vine’ is about drug addiction, toxic relationships, self-hatred, you know all that good stuff I draw so much material from, but if you don’t listen to the lyrics, the melody itself is very upbeat and catchy. I like that, you can get away with so much in a song if it just sounds happy, but if you read or focus on the lyrics you’re like ‘Fuck dude, I didn’t even know that was what this song was about.’ But ‘Evocation’ doesn’t pull any punches.”
AJ: Can you tell me about the story of “Bleed Out”?
CW: Some of those song started when I was twenty-one, and then the band I was in, The Shoes!, we split up. I moved to California, moved down to LA, then I got in a car crash with a drunk driver. I almost died; I broke my knee, my arm, my back, they had to take out my spleen, they had to fix my liver. That’s what almost killed me, the liver lacerations. My face was torn off, it was really, really intense. The recovery process of that was so intense that I immediately got hooked on prescription pain killers. Then it started to progress into other drugs and heavier drugs and for the next three years it was this downward spiral, and I was suicidally depressed.
All this time, I was writing and playing music, because I had this feeling that I wasn’t going to be here much longer, so I’ve got to write and record as much as I can. I recorded a three-track EP in LA, I recorded a live album, I recorded “Desperate Times,” which is my fourth album. I had to leave LA, just because shit was getting so crazy there; drugs and everything was just falling apart. Then I came up north and that’s where the climax happened. I overdosed, and I checked myself into Stanford [Hospital], I’m like ‘I’m going to die, this is the last option, and if it doesn’t work, at least I tried.’ Stanford was the turning point for me, the psychiatric ward, the suicide watch. I was there for a week. They were like ‘Man, you can not do drugs anymore. If you want to live, you can’t drink and do drugs anymore.’
So, I got back on medication, because I had stopped taking them. I started doing yoga, which I hadn’t done since high school and I love yoga, and I started meditation. I started turning my life around, and I thought ‘Alright, if I’m going to live, I need to start working on these songs again and start making some sort of cohesive project.’ I put together a recording studio in my house and I started working on these songs, playing all the instruments. I reached out to Austin Vidonn [drummer for the album] in Colorado, and I said ‘I’m thinking about working on an EP’ and he was so down. I thought it was going to be a five track EP, and the more I worked on the songs the more they opened up, and all of the sudden I’m looking at an eleven-track album. The landscape of these songs I hadn’t seen through all the way, I’m looking at this collage of sounds and memories and music, from a point of sobriety too. I’m looking back at these songs, many of which I wrote when I was not of a healthy mindset, and I think that’s what’s so cool about music and writing in general: you have documentation of your past, and it can act as a strong source of confirmation for where you were and where you are. The album from start to finish is very intense. It’s very violent. I mean, the album’s called ‘Bleed Out.’ The picture on the cover is my head busted open.
AJ: I was checking out your blog, and on there you have pictures of your recovery and the crash.
CW: Yeah, and those are even more intense than anything else. Yeah…that car crash was insane. If you live to a certain age, I think there’s certain parts of your life where you’re like ‘everything changed.’ I’ve had quite a few of those, but the car crash was definitely one of them. I mean, in my mind, I was twenty-four, and I died, and then everything after that is bonus time. I’m living on bonus time. I mean, I’m a yoga teacher, I’ve turned everything around.
AJ: How did you get into looping?
CW: I moved down to LA when I was twenty-four and everyone was looping, like everywhere I went, people were looping. I’m like, ‘Well fuck, I guess I’ve got to start looping then.’ By that point, I had been playing guitar for fourteen years so looping wasn’t that challenging to get into. But then I started looping lap slide, because I didn’t see that going on much, and I thought ‘what else do I want to loop so I can be different?’ So, then I started doing cigar box guitar, and then I would add bass into the same mix, so I was playing two instruments in a single song and composing like that.
AJ: How did the cigar box guitar happen?
CW: I came back up north and started looping the lap slide and thought ‘This is cool, I’m not seeing a lot of this. I want to keep looping slide instruments.’ I was looking at different options for slide. One of my favorite bands is Morphine; it’s a trio out of Boston. It’s drums, baritone sax, sometimes the guy plays two baritone saxes at once, so he’s got a double sax, and then a two-string slide electric bass. They have this super dark, deep drone, because he’s playing this two-string slide bass and so it’s super bluesy and dark and also jazzy, because you’ve got the sax. That was a huge influence on that really open drone.
I thought ‘I want to check out a cigar box guitar.’ I ordered a really shitty one off Amazon, a three-string. I think it was under thirty dollars. I started looping it and wanted to make a music video for it, so I had my friends come over. Before they came over, I was looping and thinking ‘Eh, I don’t like the sound, I want to add bass to it.’ All of the sudden, I was looping two instruments in a song, so it just happened like that; a spur of the moment thing. Then I thought ‘Well this is cool, but this guitar is a piece of shit, and it’s as good as it’s going to sound ever.’ I reached out to my friend Teddy Randazzo who makes guitar pickups and I have his pickups in all my guitars. I asked him, ‘Have you made a cigar box guitar before?’ He’s like ‘I don’t even think I know what that is.’ I said ‘Well, alright, let me figure something out and I’ll talk to you later.’ I called the Los Gatos Cigar Shop, said ‘Do you have any cigar boxes I can borrow?’ They said, ‘Come over before we throw them away and see which ones you want.’ I got this one, it’s a Nicaraguan cigar box, and I’m Nicaraguan, and I thought that was kind of cool, like ‘we’re the same blood’ or something.
I took the neck from the crappy Amazon one, because it was actually a good neck, it had the tuning pegs and everything. We used that, and I went to Teddy’s studio and we just figured it out. I think it took us three or four hours to figure it out, then he put a pickup in it. Now everywhere I go, people ask ‘what is that?’ ‘Oh, I made it!’ It’s really cool, it’s an attention thing. It’s cool, because I can cover The Who songs, like I do a version of ‘Eminence Front,’ which is rad because people don’t know what it is until I start singing it. That’s essentially what I like most about playing lap slide and cigar box guitar; I can play any song and it’s guaranteed not to sound like the original because it’s a totally different instrument. I feel like I have more liberty with certain songs and covering certain artists because it’s automatically my own take because I’m playing it on a different instrument.
AJ: You play a lot of slide. There’s slide all over the album, you play slide when you perform, but there’s also music videos where you just play acoustic guitar.
CW: Sure, which I love, but that’s the thing. I’ll play for three hours just on acoustic guitar, and people are like ‘Yeah, he’s good, sounds good,’ but the second I sit down and start playing lap slide, or the second I take out that cigar box, everyone turns around and is like ‘What is he doing, that’s crazy!’ That’s what you want. People need that, it’s like your calling card.
AJ: You write a lot of cool entries in your blog. How do you approach your blog?
CW: The blog on my website is awesome to me because I’m able to touch upon anything I want. I’m on Facebook and Instagram, but I approach those as business. I use those for promotional tactics, for shows, and for keeping in contact with friends and fans. My website is much more personal, and that’s why I chose that as a platform to blog about really whatever I want. I write all the time, that’s why I’m getting a degree in English Literature. I’d like to teach creative writing, which would be cool because then sometime this decade I could teach creative writing, yoga, guitar, and play live shows, and that sounds like a pretty sweet existence. I write every day, and I always have since I could hold a pencil. It’s poetry, memories, or just journal entries of everyday things, I’m always writing. For the blog, I just look over past entries and get an idea. I’ll blog about some of my favorite albums, or I’ll blog about an overdose, or yoga, or I’ll do a research paper on meditation. It’s really anything and everything I like. The ghost story I published [Jolene: A Ghost Story] was originally put on my website and people liked it so much it eventually got published. I wrote a short story of a Tinder date I went on, and hundreds of hundreds of people read that. It really resonated with people, I think because of the age we are in, but so many people connected to that blog post. It’s called “Tinder Casualty.” There’s no set thing to blog about, whatever I feel is important. I’m a writer above all else, I don’t really see a distinction between writing and music; it’s just a continuation of the same thing for me.
AJ: One of your deep cuts is “Surf Zombies.” I looked at the credits and realized you’re into Horror/Gore. Do you pull inspiration from that?
CW: After the car accident, something happened. I don’t know, I sometimes joke that when I got a blood transfusion, I think they gave me the blood of a very disturbed person. I was never really into violence or gore or horror before the crash, and afterwards there was a switch that was flipped in my head. I think it was a way of processing through the violence that had almost taken me away. I really got into Italian grindhouse horror films, with an emphasis on cannibal exploitation films. It was funny, my good friend Marcus, he lives in LA, he’s in the film industry there, he’s like a horror aficionado. He loves the horror genre with a passion. We were working together in a kitchen, and we were talking about horror films and ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ came up. He showed me the poster, and it’s some girl getting skewered through her body coming out her mouth, and I’m like ‘Wow, something about that seems so hardcore and intense and tasteless and violent and twisted.’ He came over and we watched ‘Cannibal Holocaust,’ and I just fell down the rabbit hole with that. Cannibal whatever, I’ll take it.
My songwriting has always been dark and violent, and I think that helped it. The song was originally called ‘Surf’s Up,’ which is a Beach Boys tune as well, and it has that Dick Dale, Ventures vibe. The day before I recorded it, I said ‘Fuck this, I’m calling it ‘Surf Zombies.’’ It totally changed the whole feel of the song. I started producing my own music videos, and I wanted to make a zombie video to that, but it’s got to be beach themed, so I searched for a free domain Italian horror film and found one. I think it’s called ‘The Ghost Galleon,’ and that’s where I took the scenes from. It was my first music video ever, I think it shows, but it’s still pretty funny. You’re like ‘Man, these girls are stupid, how are you going to fall down the stairs that many times?
AJ: What’s in the future?
CW: Content. More video content, more singles, I’m in the studio now working on some stuff. Promotion for the album, the album’s been out for two months now, which is great because we raised a bunch of money from the Kickstarter. Playing more live shows. The local music scene is so cool, it’s such an honor to be part of that. It’s really cool to see your friends come up, like damn dude, I love it. The San Jose music scene is amazing because people aren’t trying to tear each other down. That’s so refreshing, because so many people see other people’s successes as their failures, but the music scene here isn’t like that. It’s very inclusive. It’s different down there [LA], I’m much happier up here. There’s a deeper appreciation for art up here, just because Silicon Valley is not…it’s saturated with tech, but it’s not saturated with music and art and entertainment the way LA is. Anywhere you go, there’s five bands playing on ten band bills on a Monday night in LA, like god damn how am I going to do anything with this? Don’t get me wrong, I love LA, I had a fun time. I would love to go back, but up here I’ve found a very comfortable niche of playing, where people are very appreciative of what I do. I’m trying to take full advantage of that.
AJ: How did the Kickstarter happen?
CW: My friend Courtney, she works on the website with me. She helps me with social media. She’s an angel, a god send, I love her. I told her I’m thinking of putting this album together, and she says, ‘Oh cool, we’ll Kickstart it.’ And I said ‘Alright, great…how much do you think?’ ‘Oh, about eight grand.’ I’d never done it before, but she had helped my cousin Kickstart before because he’s an amazing singer too. It was such a rush, doing that. A little bit, then a little bit, then a snowball effect, and once I shared the story, like ‘Here’s what the album’s about: accident, car crash, pictures, drugs, overdose, redemption.’ Redemption was a big thing there. People I didn’t even know were reaching out. We raised eight grand for the Kickstarter, and then I raised two grand outside the Kickstarter, so I raised ten grand for this album. Now that the album’s out and everyone’s happy with it, I’m happy with it, I’m going to start PR for that with music videos and promos and things like that.
AJ: What was the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
CW: I have a magnet of Hunter S. Thompson in my medicine cabinet. So, I open it up every morning, I get my toothpaste, it’s up there, and it says, ‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.’ That was probably the best advice I got until about four years ago. You know, Ari Herstand, do you know Ari? I speak as if I know him on a very personal level, which I kind of do, like we’ve Skyped and stuff. He’s an author and a blogger, but he’s a do-it-yourself musician. He wrote a book, ‘How to Make It in the New Music Business.’ It’s a total game changer. I did a course with him and his advice is so amazing. It really changed the way I felt about music. I’ll paraphrase a couple of his words, like for one, there’s no expiration date on making it. Like you don’t have to be under a certain age, or have a certain look, you just have to keep doing it and don’t stop. Ari promotes work ethic, networking, being real, being genuine, he just really wants people to succeed. Luck has very little to do with it, and what does ‘making it’ mean? One of the best pieces of advice I took away personally was ‘What do you want to happen? Write it down, be specific, because being a rock star is too ambiguous and you’re never going to get that because what does that even mean?’ For so long, I was like ‘aww, I just want to be famous, I don’t even know what that means but I know that I’m not happy now because I don’t have this ambiguous sort of rock start thing because I don’t even know what that means,’ It’s a horrible way to live, and I know because I lived it.