North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is currently hosting it’s fourth annual Wachinyeya Festival. Named for the Lakota word for hope, the event focuses on encouraging those that suffer from depression and addictions to choose life over loss. To deliver this message, they invite artists that are dedicated to a message of encouragement. One of those hand-picked musicians is Michigan newcomer Luke Dean, who, as an artist, is better known under the moniker of Vagabonds. It’s not his first gig advocating for self-help, and it seems very unlikely to be his last.
Dean recently released his first full-length album from Blood and Ink Records, and it has largely been met with positive reception. It is a product of a niche place in today’s emo scene, a sample of lo-fidelity production and a sound that dwells in the rough. These types of works don’t require any preface, but without prior exposure to the intentional DIY direction — in this case, Dean’s debut I Don’t Know What to Do Now — can come off as amateur and lackluster offerings. With lyrics that bleed intense honesty and pain, the intention can come across as reckless catharsis rather than a path to healing.
I know this because I was one such person.
Considering my initial response to the album, I was wont to discuss its nuances with its creator, Dean. After meeting the man behind the lament, he used reason and compassion to explain I Don’t Know, and the approach he took in its creation. “The songs are so raw that it can kind of be like reopening a wound,” he said. “But I’ll never let that wound stay open, is the thing. As in any song, that wound closes up by the end of the song. There’s resolution in everything.”
This sentiment seemed true of not only his music but our interaction as well. After we were done speaking, I walked away with a newfound appreciation for and understanding of his avant garde style. Dean is carefully articulate, and when I considered the background behind his approach to the work, I realized that what truly brings the album together is the unshakable empathy he has for his audience. You can’t always get that from a lo-fi recording. I learned that Dean has a strong sense of compassion and responsibility that he carries for all affected by his music. Not only does he care deeply for his listeners, but he is dedicated to using his position to be the light in a darkness that he once knew all too well himself.
HM: This is your debut album. You chose to take a very DIY approach. Why was it important to you to do that?
Luke Dean: I think one thing I wanted was to be able to do exactly what I wanted — for better or worse — without a lot of outside influence. This is the first record, so there wasn’t a whole lot at stake. It wasn’t like I made a niche album before this one that pigeonholed me. I could be as weird or unconventional or really do whatever I wanted with this release. Thankfully, Daniel (White, Blood and Ink Records owner) let me do that.
Also, I’m not super into the idea of going into a crazy amount of debt to the label that will never be paid off. I would rather spare them some money, because they were going to front it; that was part of the record contract. So I was like, Hey, how about I just give it a go myself? Let’s see what happens with this.
I loved what happened with it. It was definitely a frustrating experience a lot of the time, trying to figure out how to do everything and especially not having a studio. But I think that made it what it was. So there was a financial approach to it and a creative control approach to it.
When I started, I did have in mind that I was going to do this studio thing, that it was gonna be a full band album. And I just realized that’s not where my heart was, that’s not how I play. It was kind of inspired by bands like The Chariot, in a way, just the idea that an album doesn’t have to be perfect, kind of like we don’t have to be perfect. I didn’t want to project some sugar-coated image. I also didn’t want to sound like every other record that’s coming out in the emo genre right now. I just didn’t want to do that.
I think the record was so raw that I had a really visceral reaction to it. There’s so much emotion wrapped into it; the way you approach it is very realistic. Is what you wrote something you were experiencing in real time, or is it a retrospective, like the reading of a diary?
The writing process is always in the moment. Always. By the time it gets to record, struggles may or may not have subsided. I don’t like going back and changing lyrics or doing any of that. Pretty much whatever you hear on the record is the first draft of lyrics. When I sit down with my guitar or with pen and paper, whatever comes out is in the moment, and I don’t want to change that.
You know, it comes back to not wanting to sugar coat anything. First and foremost, it’s a form of therapy for me to exorcise my demons, if you will, and get the bad out. Put a positive outlook on it. That’s a part of making the album: You get to kind of look back and look at where you were at. I made the album when I was 20, I wrote the first song when I was 18, and wrote the last songs when I was 20. It’s a really cool experience getting to portray things in a more positive light, to take people through a journey.
The album feels like a collective story. It starts with you being young and falling in love, experiencing heartache, and it feels like you almost fall into this abyss. It takes us through how that feels, which is not something that’s easy to talk about, let alone expose it to the whole world. Was that something you felt vulnerable about?
I really wasn’t necessarily incredibly comfortable, but I think there are certain things that are more important than personal comfort, (things like) a “greater good” scenario. And I also wanted to push a lot of limits with myself with this record, so I didn’t censor anything. I told things as they really happened. It’s interesting because I’ve seen, written in an article or two, that it is as a relationship album. (That’s) interesting to me, because, in my mind, it wasn’t really about that at all.
I think the bulk of it is more about friendship and much less romantic relationships. It was more so about falling out of friendships, which, lyrically, is sometimes hard to distinguish between romance. Like with HM. There is a Christian or spiritual association with the magazine. So probably a lot of people that are reading this have listened to songs and wondered, “Is this about a relationship, or is this about God?” Sometimes, there’s a little bit of an open-endedness of what exactly it’s about. To be frank, maybe in hindsight, it was less about what happened in real life completely, but kind of where depression and anxiety and panic attacks and things like that can take real life events.
Depression has a way of taking things to the worst extreme in your mind, whether or not it always happens. So much of the time, things were pretty f-cking awful, but, sometimes, it was just leftover hurt from the things in any area of life. While it’s completely autobiographical, it’s not necessarily everything that happened in real life as much as what happened in my mind during what was happening in real life.
“It’s really this way with most things I write. It can start with something really horrible, but, even in that moment of thinking about dying, it ends with, ‘I’ve been living half a lie. For half my life, I’ve been believing these lies.'”
Right, so it was all experiential.
I think the hardest thing for me to listen to on the entire album was “Ambulance.” I think it was because of the really descriptive suicidal ideation, since I have experienced someone in my life committing suicide. Looking back at it, are you concerned that’s something that could trigger people that are vulnerable, or do you feel it’s something that bonds people rather than separates or triggers them?
I guess there are two parts I want to address. One part of my explanation is really cornerstone to the purpose. To debrief on that: That song isn’t necessarily even about suicide. It definitely sounds that way, but it’s not; I didn’t write it that way. It’s about maybe thinking what would happen if I had an untimely death. Would anyone care? There is intense description of death but not suicide. I didn’t write that song about wanting to kill myself, but more so I was just feeling like no one. I wrote that in a moment of getting lost in my head and being like, this is what it might look like; would anyone care? Would it even be worth an obituary if I die?
So it’s about the depths of depression rather than suicide.
Yeah, so it wasn’t about that or pointing toward suicide or hoping for that. More simply, what if I died and it didn’t matter? I suppose the possible gore of it or the intensity of the song is a byproduct of depression and the lack of censorship in what I do. But I think the really cool thing about that song, though, is it was able to help me turn a moment around, if you listen to the whole thing. It’s really this way with the album or most things I write. It can start with something really horrible, but, even in that moment of thinking about dying, it ends with, “I’ve been living half a lie. For half my life I’ve been believing these lies.” It refutes everything. The last line refutes it all, and then there’s this more hopeful guitar outro.
As far as the effect on the audience, gosh that’s such a big part of what I do. Every time I play that song — or somewhere in the set — I will talk about how this was about a moment in my life where I didn’t want to stick around, but I’m really glad I did. So let’s sing this together as a song of victory about refuting lies that we believe in our heads.
I’ve never had anyone tell me about any song I’ve written that it bummed them out or made them feel worse. But at so many shows, before or after a set, there will be kids nearly every date coming up to me weeping saying, “This record, the songs you play, are what have kept me alive for the past week.” There have been different instances of playing a show out of state, and a kid will come up to me and say, “I was ready to kill myself, I attempted it, and, when it didn’t work, the first thing I listened to was a song of yours and that’s what kept me going.”
How do you respond to that?
It’s different every time. There’s a weight to it, and it’s one that I understand. Being someone who’s been in that position, I don’t take it lightly. It’s case by case, but sometimes it’s praying with someone (if that’s an appropriate situation) or simply talking about what’s going on in their life, usually talking about hope and the joy of being alive.
I come from a punk/emo underground subculture, and — “safe space” is an overused word these days — but the atmosphere of the culture is very much oriented that way. There’s a lot of people I know all over the country where the only place they feel OK is at a show, and that’s the only place that they open up.
I’ve seen that at a lot of shows I go to. There’s openness; there’s community. I’ve seen so many people connect, and you can tell it’s not something they would probably be comfortable doing elsewhere, but that’s their family in that moment. There’s something so special about shows and what you can find in them.
Oh yeah, I think it looks so much like a true church or a spiritual body. I think it is a spiritual body. It’s also hard to divorce the physical from the spiritual, or the music from the spiritual. I think it’s kind of inherently spiritual in nature. When there’s that many people in a room, however many, all singing something in unison, there’s something I would say spiritual about it and probably irrefutably, deeply emotional about it.
“Teeth” was a totally different experience. I watched some clips of you performing it, and it was kind of a surreal moment. The audience can feel exactly what you’re feeling and you can sense it. You can tell that song means a lot to you. It seems to be about your experience with God. Is that something you want to talk about in relation to the album?
I don’t ever market myself as a Christian artist and haven’t always been too keen on that word, necessarily. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, I would say, with faith. I think if something is really there at the core of your humanity and your beliefs and whatever system or ethical code you live by — whatever resonates in your spirit — it’s pretty impossible to totally divorce that from what you do. “Teeth” was just written out of moments of worship between me and my creator. I play it like that for me; in my soul, that’s what it is.
But I make it clear when I play that live: If you don’t adhere to a faith of any sort or if you adhere to a different faith or if you don’t believe in God, there’s that hymn that everybody almost always sings together at the top of their lungs: “Soon, and very soon, we are going to see the King.” I make it clear if you are not someone who adheres to that, you are still welcome to sing that. With that song, I never really set out with a goal to write other than to sit down and let whatever was in my soul come out, and that’s just what was in my soul.
There are so many questions on the album — and I can’t possibly answer all of those — but I can point to an answer that I found, personally. At the very least, I can point to the fact that there is hope, even if you don’t believe that. I have friends that are atheists and Wiccans that will sing that song and will sing it at the top of their lungs at shows. Faith is something that’s really impossible for me to divorce between my personal, professional, musical, and everything I do. Even in the midst of the more depressing songs, there’s a searching in my soul that longs for redemption. Even in the depressing moments, it’s like psalms. There are so many depressing songs, like, “I wish I’d never been born,” “I wish God would kill someone else,” but there’s still a longing in the midst of all that for redemption. My faith no doubt informs my work. It’s such a personal journal, it would be impossible to not mention in some aspect or another.
I was glad for the opportunity to speak with you about all this, because I felt like I may have missed something in the intention of the album.
The point of this record was to go against the grain. It was supposed to push people. It was supposed to push me and push people and make people look at everything like their lives, their spiritual walk, or the way they view music. Like, what is going on, why are these vocals lo-fi? It’s an inherent characteristic of the genre that is distorted, low fidelity, lower quality.
To understand it more, listen to something like early Teen Suicide, very early Bright Eyes recordings, or early stuff by a band called Mansions, things of that nature, to understand what the production is. Because it’s so not anything you would hear on, like, an Underoath record. I love all that stuff too; I’m playing with Circa Survive next month. I totally vibe with that side of things, too. But if you listen to what this album’s niche is or where it falls, it’s a super-intentional move.
It wasn’t supposed to be something you could digest in a listen. Even the fact that it came out on a Christian label and there’s the f-bomb a couple times. I’ve cursed in songs before, but I would censor it before I got to the microphone when I did do studio stuff. I took all that stuff offline because, in a way, it’s kind of like lying.
By censoring yourself?
Yeah, like if you go back and are like, “Yeah, I said something wrong. Is that sinful?” Maybe, but that’s where I was at the time, and I’m not going to sugar coat it like I wasn’t. I’m still going to sing hallelujah at the end of this and come before the Creator in that regard. I can’t be like, in that moment I wasn’t angry or upset or whatever.
What’s your next step? Are you staying in this niche, or are you planning on trying new things for each album?
I’ll say on the stylistic note, I like leaving that a secret. I do know what I’m doing next, sonically and content wise. I’m constantly writing, so there’s a lot written.
As far as steps that I can say, the hope right now is to not break out of DIY, but not have every tour be like two months of self-booked shows. The goal is by the end of the year or the first half of next year be on more mid-level tours as an opening artist. I like to think I know where I’m at; I’m in no way a headliner at a club show. But the album has done enough to where those doors are already opening, and I’m being approached more for opening on bigger tours. A lot of that’s due to the nature of the album being so different. A lot of industry heads on the management end have come up to me and been like, “This is weird and people are latching onto this. I think we should put you on some tours.” So that’s the next step for me, working out how all that works, and, I suppose, how to make the leap from being a 100% DIY artist to being an artist that still operates with that ethos — but there’s only so much I do can do on my own.
Vagabonds was posted on July 29, 2017 for HM Magazine and authored by Danielle Martin.