Of Mice & Men are on the rise – but they're facing their biggest challenge yet

Of Mice & Men 2016
Of Mice & Men, from left: Tino Arteaga, Aaron Pauley, Austin Carlile, Phil Manansala, Alan Ashby
(Image: © Justin Borucki)

Five days ago, Austin Carlile was lying in a hospital bed in Chicago. He had received an epidural three days before in Cincinnati, where doctors had injected steroids and an anaesthetic into his spine to numb the nerves and ease his back pain. But something had gone wrong, and he lost the feeling in his legs. It was a worry, not only for Austin’s health, but for the band’s prospects midway through one of the biggest tours of their career, supporting Marilyn Manson and Slipknot across North America and Canada.

“I was scared, and I didn’t know what to do,” he confesses. “I have a lot of nerve problems down there, and I have the back of a 70-year-old with arthritis, and he did something wrong. The pressure in my lower back was insane. So we went to the hospital, and they ended up keeping me overnight, and they found out I had a bludgeoned disc. That’s pretty metal! With Marfans, you have to treat every day as it comes.”

Austin was put on a further course of steroids, and four hours after he was discharged he was onstage at Chicago Open Air festival.

Today we are chatting in a windowless room in the bowls of the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto, a concrete enormo-dome that’s home to the Maple Leafs hockey team and the Raptors basketball team, three weeks into the run. Sipping on a fruit smoothie, he apologises for being shirtless; he has just taken his daily 30-minute hot shower to help his muscles stay mobile, and his body temperature is still raised. A long, pink surgical scar divides his tattooed torso. He is leaning forward in his chair, hugging himself, his tall frame folded inwards. It is a position that makes the 28-year-old rock star look vulnerable.

But then, Austin has been through a lot. He was born with the genetic condition Marfan Syndrome, which causes the body’s connective tissue to excessively grow and stretch, and puts a strain on the heart and lungs. When he was 17, his mum died from the illness, though doctors at the time didn’t realise she had it. Over the years, he has had multiple surgeries to alleviate his symptoms, and a question mark has lurked in the background over his ability to keep going and carry Orange County’s rising metalcore crew into the big leagues. Watching him perform, roaring into a microphone and violently headbanging, you can’t help but worry he’s putting a deadly strain on his body.

When we caught up with him at the end of 2015, he was still recuperating from serious operations on his heart, brain and ribs. This January, he went under the knife to correct a long-term problem with his right hip.

“When I was born, I had really bad club feet, and I had to wear Forrest Gump shoes with the metal things. I was supposed to get surgery on both of my feet to help my hips, but my parents didn’t want me to be in a double cast for three months, so they only did my left foot,” he remembers. “As I grew, I couldn’t sit in a car for over 30 minutes. I felt like an old man. I hated it.”

Austin mimes the action of his overgrown hip socket rubbing against his thigh bone, and explains how the doctor had to cut away some of the joint before removing three cysts that had developed in his leg due to the constant friction.

A period of convalescence followed. He slept in a hospital bed at home, used a compression machine to massage his legs, and did lots of physical therapy. It was under these conditions of recovery that Of Mice & Men would enter David Bendeth’s House Of Loud studio in March, to record their fourth album, Cold World. While Austin had already toughed out multiple hardships over nine excruciating months, nothing could have prepared him for what was to come.

Austin Carlile is determined to keep fighting the painful effects of Marfan Syndrome

Austin Carlile is determined to keep fighting the painful effects of Marfan Syndrome

Go down a series of subterranean corridors lined with portraits of hockey stars, squeeze past the trays and boxes that are being unloaded into catering, and make a right turn past the toilets, and you’ll find Of Mice & Men’s dressing room in the Air Canada Centre. They joke about being stashed at the back of the huge venues on these dates, but are quick to voice their appreciation at being invited along to the biggest tour of the summer. Austin chuckles as he tells us that Corey Taylor has sent him a text message, wondering why they haven’t seen each other in a month. “Having these artists that see my drive, and see my heart, and see how much I want this, it’s awesome,” he says.

It’s a major deal for the band, who suffered a blow last year when their tour with Linkin Park ended early after Chester broke his ankle. They had turned down a slot with Slipknot to take it.

Slipknot and Manson are nowhere to be seen this afternoon, even when we make the journey through another labyrinthine series of corridors to a meet-and-greet session. Of Mice & Men are in high spirits, bouncing off each other with easy energy. Guitarist Alan Ashby is the hyperactive class clown, who wishes they’d invited Toronto native Drake to the gig. As we walk past an intriguingly locked door, drummer Tino Arteaga jokes that the rapper is behind it. Bassist/clean vocalist Aaron Pauley and guitarist Phil Manansala are quieter, laughing along with the group.

Yet despite describing themselves as a family, and spending hours in close proximity, OM&M had never lived together before making Cold World. In New Jersey, 2,700 miles away from home, they spent six days a week in the studio and lived crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. The band saw the effects of Austin’s gruelling regime up close, as he endured physical therapy four times a week, doing weights, stretches and ice therapy. Only his twice-weekly aquatherapy sessions offered a window of respite.

“You know the movie Cake, with Jennifer Aniston? That’s me in the water. It’s my favourite place to be. It’s the only spot where it doesn’t hurt just to be alive. It’s anti-gravity. I would do all these exercises with weights, and I would practice my stage moves and standing. I use the riser for a reason – to balance myself. It helps my back and hips. I’d do my exercises underwater with the box, jumping up and down, and for the last 10 minutes of every session I’d sit at the deep end on a noodle and just let my body…” he exhales deeply, shoulders relaxing, no explanation needed. “It was crucial for me.”

But Austin wasn’t just enduring post-surgery discomfort, or the effects of Marfans – he was also suffering from chemical withdrawal. After a decade taking numerous pills to help manage his condition, he had decided to go cold turkey.

“For the past 10 years, I’d been on some kind of pain medication for Marfans,” he explains, his voice cracking. “I was a walking pharmacy. It’s a normal thing, and once you get to that point, you don’t take the stuff to feel good or to get high. You take it because your body burns and it hurts, and you take it just to level out. But in the studio, I stopped everything, from my depression medicine, to all my opioid painkillers, to even my blood pressure medicine, because it makes me feel lethargic. I stopped taking it all.”

And if the days were hard, as his body tried to continue healing and adjust to the effects of his altered chemistry, the nights were even harder.

“Six nights out of seven, I would be in agony,” Austin winces. “I’d be going through withdrawals. I’d be shaking, and throwing up, and shivering, and my body contorting, and crying, and it was a very, very hard experience.”

Aaron was Austin’s roommate during the ordeal, sitting up with him and keeping him going. Constantly shifting in his chair, he admits he is restless and struggles with anxiety. The only way to cope with the situation was to roll with it.

“I told myself to treat it like a wave,” he explains. “And I’m sitting in an inner tube. And when the wave gets big, I gotta stick on the tube. I can’t bail. Because best case scenario, if I jump off, I’m going to get smashed by the wave. But if you stick on the tube, you might be able to ride it out. At times I emotionally removed myself, because I would get too upset. A lot of it was just being there to give him a hug or rub his back.”

Level-headed Tino remembers collecting Austin from therapy on a day when he was in too much pain to drive, and forcing him to rest rather than return to the studio.

“It was terrible to see,” he recalls. “Because we know that he hurts on a daily basis, but having the outward visual of vomiting and feeling sick out of nowhere, it was insane. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone ever. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, and it probably made him feel like death. Your body goes into shock when it doesn’t get that stuff anymore.”

The band detailed his struggles by recording The Lie, a nu metal rager where Austin rails against pharmaceutical companies ‘Force-feeding chemicals into the mouths of all our youth’. He acknowledges that some people with serious illnesses can’t function without drugs, but thinks their use is more widespread than necessary.

“You can’t make money off a healthy person,” he states. “They want to keep you on the health system, when a really healthy diet and doing the right kind of things with your body is a lot better than taking medicine and just covering it up.”

They also made their harrowing single, Pain, which opens with a creepy electronic siren sound, before breaking into a grinding, bass-heavy rhythm. The video flashes between a screaming Austin and a girl contorting her body, while the lyrics veer from his experience with Marfans to the hurt experienced by the entire human race (‘Have some empathy / We are all in pain’).

Against this backdrop – the sickness, the sleepless nights, the tormented existence that became the subject matter of their songs – all three admit there were times they thought the album wouldn’t get made. On one particularly hard day in the first month, Austin threw his hands up in despair and cried out for help.

“I said, ‘Look God, I can’t do this. I don’t wanna do this, I can’t write this record, I can’t deal with this health stuff.’ I was ready to give up on everything – on myself, on the band, on my life. I said, ‘I want you to use me – to use my body, to use my voice, to use who I am – for whatever you want. Just do it, because I’m done. I quit.’ And I did, I gave up. And I feel like that’s the moment when he really took me and said, ‘OK, are you ready for this? Let’s go.’”

It’s a Sunday in June, and the Calfornian sun is beating down on Pirate’s Cove, a picturesque swimming spot in Orange County. As a small group of friends watch from the beach, Austin is plunged into the 20-degree water. Fresh from a holiday in the even warmer climes of Costa Rica, the temperature is a shock to his system. Time seems to stand still. When he emerges, a feeling of stillness washes over his body.

“When I came back up to the shore, Tino and everybody were clapping, like, ‘Who’s that guy? I don’t recognise him!’” Austin laughs today. “A dove didn’t come down from the sky, the sun was already there – it didn’t crack down. I felt at peace. And it was kind of nerve-wracking at the same time, because when you open yourself up, the world sees. I’ve gotten so many awesome reactions, and at the same time there’s, ‘I’m never listening to your band again.’ Why?”

Many people were surprised to hear Austin had been baptised, but perhaps they shouldn’t have been. In 2008, his previous band Attack Attack! mentioned Christ on their debut album, Someday Came Suddenly. The song Stick Stickly pleads, ‘Lord, pick me off the ground’. Later, there were online rumours that he parted ways with the band because his rock star behaviour didn’t match his convictions. Of Mice & Men’s 2010 self-titled debut contains multiple references to God, while the band’s later lyrics are open to interpretation.

His connection with Christianity goes back to childhood, when his parents were active in the church, and he would watch his dad baptise people in Colorado’s Arkansas river. Having a belief is one thing, but his commitment to the faith was shaken aged 15 when his parents divorced, and shattered entirely when his mum passed away two years later.

“I’ll never forget the night she died,” he begins. “The doctors were like, ‘You need to come in and see her’, and that happened, and I started crying. It reminds me of Guardians Of The Galaxy, because I ran out of the hospital, threw my middle fingers in the air, and was like, ‘Fuck you, fuck you, how could you do this?’ Before that moment, I had never smoked a cigarette, never touched a boob, I had a very clean mouth – I was a great kid. My mom was my best friend. She was all I had. So when that happened, I turned my back on God.”

Did you ever get an answer from God, about how he could do that?

“I mean… it didn’t come that night. A pack of Camel Lights cigarettes and finally losing my virginity came.”

Instead, the explanation unfolded itself to him over the years, as Of Mice & Men grew. Speaking firmly in the language of modern Christians, he talks about God having a ‘plan’ for him, that runs through life’s testing times.

“I think it came as the band has become what it is. And to see the effect that our band has had on people’s lives… it’s immense. I do believe there’s a bigger purpose and God has a plan. When a person makes gold, it’s all dirty and nasty, and they have to put it into the fire. And they beat it, and beat it, and beat it. The gold isn’t ready until the person pulls it out of the fire and can see their reflection in it. God had to put me in the fire and get out the impurities until he saw himself in me. With everything that happened in the band from day one, it all falls back to that moment.”

New album track Like A Ghost deals with Austin returning to the arms of his redeemer. The lyrics run, ‘Fists turn to hands / Stretched in the air / I realise I can’t do this alone! / Something supernatural take ahold of me / Give my last breath / Lungs for you to breathe.’”

“Aaron wrote it metaphorically, and I took it as the holy ghost, as in the holy spirit,” Austin explains. “Once you feel the love of the holy spirit, there’s nothing else in the world that can touch it. And as soon as you take a step away from it, you always find yourself wanting that relationship again. True sacrifice is giving your life for someone, whether it be metaphorically or physically.”

After work in the studio was complete, and his desperate prayer answered, Austin made that public declaration to God. He felt like he was finally able to “walk the walk”.

“To me, baptism doesn’t save you, it doesn’t send you to Heaven, but it’s a public affirmation of look – here I am, this is what I believe, I’ve been washed clean in the water,” he says. “I always had the opportunity to do it, but I had to wait until my heart and path were correct, because I don’t want to be a bad example. I don’t wanna be one of those lukewarm Christians, or one of those Christians that you see doing debauched things.

“If I had come on this tour without having gone through these experiences, it would have been a crap show,” he adds. “Oh, there’s four chicks waiting outside the green room that can’t get in. Oh, you wanna come in? Let’s do this. Or so-and-so’s on the tour, they do drugs every day. Oh, I can do drugs too. There’s always an opportunity to make the wrong decisions. Now it’s something that I don’t even desire, and that blows my mind.”

Being on this high-profile Slipknot and Manson tour means a lot to Of Mice & Men, but it means even more to Austin personally. Besides winning people over to their music, he hopes to connect with fans and be a figurehead for a new way of life, Christian or otherwise. It’s no coincidence that he held his baptism the day before they hit the road.

“There’s a lot of people that listen to Marilyn Manson and Slipknot that are lost, and hurt, and in pain. That’s why we relate to this music. That’s why I still love Slipknot,” he enthuses, without a hint of judgement about their lyrics or fans. “And it’s a dark place to be there – especially if you don’t have any hope. The light shines brightest in the dark. And I knew if there was any place I needed to set an example and to be a light, it was on a tour like this.”

To get a sense of what the band have endured in the last year, listen to Cold World. Tapping the vein of heroes like Linkin Park and Korn, it offers polished choruses and electronics alongside emotionally heavy lyrics, thankfully with some glimmers of hope. Austin of all people understands that life can deal a cruel hand, and that’s exactly what strengthens his mission.

“I hate having Marfans,” he says, his eyes filling with tears of frustration. “I hate waking up every day and hurting so much. But I’d rather I feel it than somebody else. And there’s so many people that have it so much worse.”

While Austin explains that Of Mice & Men aren’t a Christian band, and their music remains unchanged – “this album was written before I was baptised”, he stresses – it’s evident he’s a young man who has been on a journey where he’s finally founda sense of inner peace.

Though he’s successfully come off the heavy-duty prescriptions, he continues to have regular shots in his back, and takes arthritis medicine, Tramadol and Ibuprofen. After screaming down the house later tonight and doing the forceful “full body bangs” doctors have warned him against, he will limp offstage, still struggling with that numb right leg. Medical professionals have told him he shouldn’t even be in a band. There is a danger he could die onstage. But Austin remains fearless, and determined to fight until his time comes.

“Neither my cardiologist nor my Marfans specialist think I should be doing this. That’s really hard. How dare you say I can’t do the one thing that I love, and feel I was put here for?” he says. “It feels very Kurt Cobain of me, but I’d rather go out on fire than just in a bed somewhere. If I’m meant to lose my life tonight at the show, then that’s gonna happen. I don’t think that’s what God has planned for me. Life is gonna knock you down every day. It’s not about how many times it knocks you down, it’s about how many times you get up.”

Cold World is out on September 9 via Rise

KINDRED SPIRITS: Outreach worker Ryan Ries, co-founder of punk rock Christian movement The Whosoevers, explains what it was like to perform Austin’s baptism

What is The Whosoevers?

“It’s a movement that was started in 2009 with the lead singer from POD, Sonny Sandoval, and [Korn guitarist] Brian ‘Head’ Welch. I had a history managing a professional skateboard team and working in the music industry doing festivals. Right before the movement started, I OD’d in a hotel room on cocaine and Xanax on a skateboard tour in Panama City. Head came out of drug addiction. We were all facing different circumstances in our life. We tour high schools, and we do free concerts, and we tell people our story.”

How did you meet Austin?

“We started talking, we saw each other backstage at concerts, and we have mutual friends with the Korn guys. It was a three-year process of us hanging out that led us to the point where basically he said he needed to get baptised. He was in a place in his life where he was having surgeries, and there was more to life than what he had, and he felt like he was running from it. And next thing you know, he was at Pirate’s Cove.”

What does baptism mean?

“Baptism is symbolic. When you get baptised, the water represents the grave. So we’re going to go under the water and baptise him, and we’re going to leave the old Austin, the old life, the guy that hooked up with a bunch of chicks, the guy that’s using drugs, the guy that depends on himself, he’s going to leave that old life behind and then he’s going to come out of the water in ‘the new life’.”

How did it feel to baptise him?

“I felt humbled. It goes for me baptising anyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a high-profile person or not. It’s not who it is, it’s what’s going on in people’s life that makes it powerful. So for me, to be able to do this is humbling. It’s insane, it’s awesome.”

Visit www.thewhosoevers.com and www.ryan-ries.com for more info

Holy water: Ryan baptises Austin

Holy water: Ryan baptises Austin
(Image: © Austin Carlile/Instagram)

SPECIAL LIVE REVIEW!

Slipknot/Marilyn Manson/Of Mice & Men Air Canada Centre, Toronto

The metal circus crashes into town…

Slipknot. Marilyn Manson. Rampaging across Canada. Surely there’s some insane backstage behaviour going on here? We’ve spent all day in the Air Canada Centre and haven’t even glimpsed a mask, though there is a sign for the distinctly un-metal ‘Slipknot Management & Accounting’ office. In catering, we talk to one of their crew. “I’ve been doing it for 13 years. I’d be out now if I was serving a life sentence!” he jokes. Do you ever see them? “I try not to…”

OF MICE & MEN’s [9] slot rolls around. Gathered in a pre-show huddle, they yell: “1, 2, 3, rock’n’roll!” and run onstage, where Austin transforms into a showman. Earlier he revealed that he uses the risers to help him balance, and tonight he often kneels on them, though he doesn’t hold back. During the breakdown of Bones Exposed, he doubles over three times in a violent form of headbanging, while the scream at the end of You Make Me Sick sounds like an offcut from The Exorcist. Live, heavy new song Pain comes across like the younger brother of Psychosocial. It is an astonishing display from a band who are intent on earning the same status as the headliners.

It was announced only today that MARILYN MANSON [7] will release an album called Say10 next Valentine’s Day, but already there’s a young fan with the title Sharpied on his cheek. Tonight the Double M runs his show like an arty metal pantomime where no-one gives a fuck. He fires an anticlimactic confetti gun. He plays a shitty metal sax solo. He pulls a load of crap out of his nose and wipes it on his burning Bible during Antichrist Superstar. Before anyone’s really clocked it, he’s all the way back at the sound desk, frittering a load of Manson dollars everywhere. Priceless.

As SLIPKNOT [8] finally launch into The Negative One, any fears that their spectacle will be diminished by Corey’s recent neck surgery are put to rest. “I’m a little wrecked, but that is not gonna stop me giving everything I’ve fucking got,” he yells. As he’s unable to headbang, his mask makes a bigger impression, eyes staring creepily out. There’s still a load of onstage craziness, too. Jim Root rarely stays in one place for more than 30 seconds, and Chris Fehn adds menacing backing vocals while whacking his kit. Towards the end of the set, Corey ups the drama by having someone thrown out. “You ain’t shoving shit, little pussy. Sayonara, motherfucker,” he says. They’re still Slipknot, still angry – and still who rising metal bands aspire to be.

Tonight OM&M have taken another step on that long, hard road to global success. As the crowd filter out, we chat to 22-year-old Slipknot fan Aaron, who saw them for the first time tonight. “They blew me away,” he enthuses. “They were a lot heavier than I heard they were.” Would he see them again? “Hell yeah. They’ve got a new fan.” It’s a conversion that’s likely to be replicated across the continent.

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