“When you walked in that door tonight, we all became family. Instead of tearing down the person next to you, lift them up.”
— Matty Mullins, Feb. 23, 2014
In a wave, Matty Mullins is hit with something he’s never felt before. The guttural punch and uncontrollable surge flows over him rapidly, but for some reason, he can immediately remember feeling every cell in his skin light up. He was eating potato soup, might have been in New Jersey, but probably just on the East coast somewhere. It feels like someone is digging behind his sternum with a pitchfork. His sight wavers.
The panic is awful. It gets worse, building exponentially, and Mullins is particularly freaking because he can’t pinpoint what’s wrong.
I have a great marriage, my band is doing well, today’s a day just like any other, and boom, out of nowhere…
It starts to get so bad, he thinks he’s having a heart attack. The band’s bassist, Cory Elder, and a runner speed him to the hospital. He is stabilized, but even after the initial earthquake subsides, the aftershocks riddle him for a week, like a live-in hangover. Worse, he still can’t get a handle on why.
It was almost like all of the joy and all of the happiness and everything that everybody was enjoying was completely stripped from me, and it felt like such a spiritual thing.
I was raised in a Christian household and my dad’s a pastor and everything, but none of that really ever meant anything to me. I knew what I was supposed to do, I knew so much about the Bible and everything from growing up, but none of it was real to me.
There in the hospital, it became very real to him. Painfully real.
The dressing room smells like bowls of baked-in weed and kegs of evaporated beer. It’s fitting, though. It is, after all, dressing room to the rock stars. Memphis May Fire, the archetypal melodic metalcore quintet, is performing here — well, not here in the dressing room unless you count the twerking performance from guitarist Anthony Sepe, but on the stage — at Warehouse Live tonight, a mildly famous venue in the developing East side of downtown Houston. (The venue gets a shoutout from Drake on his latest record: “Backstage at Warehouse in ’09 like ‘Is Bun coming?’”) I’m waiting for the band to be ushered in, and though they’re not long, it’s definitely long enough to pinpoint the ingredients of the smell and need some type of distraction.
I’ve never met any of the members of Memphis May Fire, so while I’m waiting, I started to think about what HM’s photographer said to me about their demeanor when she shot them for this cover in Nashville. Julie — not an active listener of metalcore — came back raving. She said she couldn’t take a bad shot. The band was so in sync, no one blinked at the wrong time, moved awkwardly or otherwise bombed the picture. She said it almost never happens. A result of good chemistry, she said.
It seems Memphis May Fire has been excelling at creating good chemistry, especially if their measurables are accurate. They have a rabid fan base, spanning both critical male and female demographics, in large part due to their legitimate talent and songwriting, but also in part because they’re so damn cute.
Any band could have cute, though, but there is an even smaller club of bands that successfully navigate legitimacy, attraction and songwriting talent.
I speculate Memphis May Fire’s success isn’t just because they’re cute. ‘Cute’ can be any band. They’re special because they’re not afraid to be cute. They’re not afraid to be who they want to be, from the inside out, a skill you have to actively work on. Not afraid to wear Big Face tees to a magazine photo shoot and channel their inner superhero. There isn’t a ton of proselytizing posturing. There’s a lot less chest-beating. Performing live, frontman and heartthrob Mullins seems to reach up more and look down less. He has taken to smiling consistently on stage in the reflection of the audience, a newfound appreciation for just one more thing he is learning not to take for granted.
I tell the band — who have settled in and are now reclining in front me, my phone in the middle of the circle recording our conversation — that the name of their new album, Unconditional, is an open invitation for talking faith. I direct my gaze to Mullins, a walking tattoo with beautiful ink spanning almost every visible part of him, noting he wrote all the lyrics and most likely chose the album name.
He knows those questions will come, but it still feels like he hasn’t been asked about it enough. “I was starting to come up with concepts of what I wanted to write about right after we put out Challenger because I know Kellen starts writing pretty much right after that,” Mullins says. “We were on a stretch of touring that was wild. We were doing two American tours, an Australian and Southeast Asian run all without going home hardly at all. It was like back to back to back to back.”
He picks up the pace of his speech, getting visibly animated, a smile starting to stretch across his face.
“The pieces of the puzzled started to fit together two days before I had first panic attack. We played in Raleigh, N.C., and a girl who has a terminal heart condition gave me a letter and said, ‘I’m going to die, but all I wanted before I die was to come and see you guys play, and I just want you to know that your music was one of the only things I lived for.’”
“In the back of my mind — always knowing God is in control — when you start to think you have a grasp on these things and that you really are in control and you really are saving these kids’ lives… Think about what it’s like going into the writing process,” Mullins says. “Dude, if I don’t write the right song, these kids are going to kill themselves. They’re going to keep cutting their wrists.”
That’s the weight you were carrying?
“Yeah. I had all this weight, and I had no idea I was holding it because it hadn’t registered mentally. But when all this started to happen, I felt such a disconnection from everybody. From fans because it’s not something you want to talk about. Not only do you not want to admit it to everybody else around you, but you don’t want to admit it to yourself.
“At every moment — every waking moment — you’re feeling like panic could happen at that time. ‘I’m crazy. I’m losing my mind.’ I see these people walking around in Seattle, these homeless people, who are hitting themselves in the back for no reason. You’re like, ‘Holy crap. That’s what I’m on my way to.’
“The first time we went to Europe while I was experiencing all this panic was one of the worst experiences of my life. I would lay in my bunk and I would shake and I would call my wife and I’d have all these thoughts about her getting in accidents and just the worst things you could possibly imagine.
“I felt myself truly starting to give everything away to God, really letting him take the way and ultimately realizing it’s not only my duty to write the best music I can for these kids, but to be totally honest with them about how much of a human I am. And to let them know, ‘Man, not only do I make the same mistakes as you guys, but I’m only here by the grace of God, in this position. It could be any of you. At the same time, I experience the exact same things that you guys are going through, the anxiety, the depression.’
At every moment — every waking moment — you’re feeling like panic could happen at that time. ‘I’m crazy. I’m losing my mind.’ I see these people walking around in Seattle, these homeless people, who are hitting themselves in the back for no reason. You’re like, ‘Holy crap. That’s what I’m on my way to.’
“I think God allowed these things to happen to me so that I could sympathize. … I’ve said in some interviews that I don’t think I’m man enough to ever say, ‘Anxiety and depression was totally worth it, and if I could go do it all over again, I would definitely do it,’ because I couldn’t. But I do know that in my darkest hours, when I was crying out for God and wondering why He wasn’t there, He was right there, holding my hand through all of it.”
Mullins is on a roll now, sitting up straighter, eyes a little brighter. “There was so much ego, so much ‘me, me, me’ I had to really let go of to realize my actual purpose in this band and my actual purpose on earth.”
What you’re doing on stage every night, what your goal is.
“That’s when the amount of influence you have starts to be less scary and starts to be more fun. You really just realized, ‘Dude, I’m going to get up there and I’m going to do my best tonight. I don’t know how this is going to honor God, but God, steal my show. This is yours.’ That’s what I pray every night before I go on stage, and I’ve been having so much fun ever since. Anxiety and depression has completely left my life.
“I feel like a lot of people spend their entire lives reaching for (some level of) success, never getting there and then finally, they’re laying on their deathbed and they’re like, ‘What was that all for? I’m about to die. What did I leave here?’ I feel like for the first four years in this band, I was reaching for that same thing.
At that point, I started to question everything in my life. ‘What is all this for’ Am I really making an impact? Is this all about me? Nothing good is coming from this.’
“We had essentially gotten to the level that I always wanted to be at — touring in a bus, playing big shows, making decent money — but it all felt so empty and a lot of people don’t ever get to experience that. So I feel so blessed to have reached this level of success, but, ultimately, not feeling anything substantial come from it because, at that point, I started to question everything in my life. ‘What is all this for’ Am I really making an impact? Is this all about me? Nothing good is coming from this.’”
“I finally realized that, whether it feels right in the moment or not, giving glory to God for everything and redirecting the focus to him and redirecting the weight to him, is the only thing that brings pure, real, natural joy to my heart and to my soul and to my life and to my being. Everything else falls into place, and it starts to make sense.
“Now when I get a letter and I read about anxiety and depression, it breaks my heart in a whole new way. But I feel like, ‘OK, now I can write a song about something real, not some broken heart or something gone wrong in a relationship.’ Dude, I have a great marriage, I don’t know what that’s like, but (I do know I’ve) experienced these other things, and now I can offer hope. If it wasn’t for redirecting all of my focus and all of my being to Jesus and what He did, and fully understanding the love of Christ for humanity, I think I would still be in that deep, dark place I was in a year ago. I’m so thankful for that experience and for God giving me the boldness to put all of that reality into one record so all these kids could really get the truth.”
For you as a singer, when you’re front and center every night, a lot of people are going to tell you you’re the best, you’re awesome, you’re attractive, you can do no wrong — it starts to build up. God always finds a way to humble that, and it can be scary how he does it.
“Oh my gosh, dude, you don’t know.”
I don’t (laughs)!
“You’re totally right. You’re totally right and you don’t even know the extent of it. It got to a point with anxiety and depression where I didn’t even feel like getting on Twitter and saying anything inspirational. I didn’t even care about influencing other people’s days because I was just like, ‘Man, if these kids are feeling what I’m feeling, I understand suicide. I understand why people want to give up.’
I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but I need Jesus in my life, every single day. I need the one-on-one conversation with him. I need to rely on him for answers, for substance, for reality. That is all I can count on, and that’s where the name Unconditional came from.
“When I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, feel so horrible from the inside out, can’t even enjoy my perfect marriage, can’t enjoy my band that’s doing well, can’t enjoy whatever’s on this TV right now — I can’t enjoy anything, I’m just racketing inside my own head — and when it comes down to it, I don’t know if I would be alive. I don’t know how people that don’t find Jesus in their darkest places get past it. I don’t even know.”
“I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but I need Jesus in my life, every single day. I need the one-on-one conversation with him. I need to rely on him for answers, for substance, for reality. That is all I can count on, and that’s where the name Unconditional came from.”
Guitarist Anthony Sepe, the Twerker, is also plagued with anxiety. When he brings it up, I hope to myself he’s talked to Mullins about it. Anxious people want to talk to people, but you don’t want to burden them. Instead, you start talking to yourself. The negative Self-Talk heats up, and the spiral starts downward. “When I first joined the band,” Sepe says, “I went through anxiety really bad. When we were doing Challenger, these were the guys that stayed at my house.” In that weird way God has of working, it solidified the band, one with a history of roster changes, but at that moment, everyone knew they could count on each other.
“Did you guys know that about each other?” I ask Sepe, nodding in Mullins’s direction. “That’s actually a part of what really helped me get through it,” Sepe says. “Being around these guys, because we were so new (as a band), and I remember going through (the panic) super bad.”
A bit later, after Mullins finishes up a statement about the negative effects of addiction on anxiety when he swiftly changes subjects. As he’s speaking, I watch his face light up because his brain knows what he’s about to say. What he’s about to say turns out to be a wonderful summation of his new outlook — the band’s new outlook, really — on moving forward through this life.
“That’s the beauty of it, though,” Mullins says, “waking up and being like, ‘What’s the mystery of the day?’ I’m not just here to be an optimist, but I do believe that God has a plan for today. He’s got awesome things in store, and when I feel like just relaxing on the bus at the end of the night, I’m going to go outside. I’m going to take pictures with these kids. I’m going to listen to what they have to say. I’m going to realize that it’s not about me.
“So much anxiety about being around large crowds and people pushing me up against buses and everybody reaching and everything… Man, when you realize these kids are just looking for something — anything — to take that weight off, that same weight you and I hold, I want to tell them, ‘Come to me. I’m going to give you whatever answer I have, and if you don’t want an answer, I’m going to give you a hug.’
“Sometimes that’s all they need.”
Memphis May Fire was posted on March 4, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by David Stagg.