"My brain was leaking into my spine." Austin Carlile's year of hell

When the legendary bluesman Albert King sang in 1967, ‘Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all,’ he had nothing on Austin Carlile. By even the most conservative estimates, 2015 was primed to be a monumental year for Austin’s band, Of Mice & Men. Since forming in 2009, they had slogged through the metalcore ranks, eventually breaking free of the pack with a pair of lethally heavy albums and an incendiary live show. Their third record, Restoring Force, augmented their bludgeoning rhythmic assault with bouncy nu metal shocks and catchy rock hooks, and when Linkin Park tapped the band to support their 2014 European arena tour and, later, their 2015 North American tour, the gilded doors into the halls of metal superstardom swung wide open.

In the pages of this very magazine back in March, frontman Austin revealed his excitement about the months ahead, noting, “I don’t see a ceiling for this band. I think we’re only just beginning to hit our stride.” But, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote in 1785, with Nostradamus-like prescience, “The best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.”

“Going into 2015, we had our new record under our belt, which gave us a lot of confidence,” Austin explains today, grinning wistfully as he recalls the camaraderie within the ranks as they looked to the future. “Going into the year, we knew it was going to be a ton of hard work, but knowing that we had all that support right from the beginning made everything feel more exciting.” It’s a typically perfect Southern California morning, and we’ve just caught Austin on his way to the studio to resume work on the band’s upcoming fourth album. He’s in effusively high spirits and particularly keen to pick up the new Batman And Robin comic being released today. In short, it’s a great day for Austin Carlile. But for the past few months, great days have been few and far between.

Back in mid-January 2015, there was little doubt that the US leg of the Linkin Park tour represented OM&M’s most critical campaign yet. If the rabid responses in Europe had offered a reliable augury, a successful run through the States could see the band joining the company of Avenged Sevenfold and Slipknot as metal’s 21st-century heavyweights. But a mere three days into the tour, the grotesque snap of a bone changed everything.

“Phil [Manansala], our guitar player, came on the bus and goes, ‘I was just playing basketball with the Linkin Park guys and I think I just broke Chester’s ankle,’” Austin explains. In a nasty freak accident, LP frontman Chester Bennington had indeed fallen and broken his ankle in a pick-up basketball game with Phil and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda. Although the show went on that evening, the tour was over. “That next day is when we got the call that we were going home,” says Austin. “We were bummed. Anybody would be for any tour, but especially with Linkin Park. I think it made us that much hungrier to get out and do it.”

Beyond this punishing professional setback, Austin’s year would be defined by an avalanche of incomprehensibly brutal medical issues that would push him dangerously beyond his physical limits. The prismatically tattooed frontman has Marfan syndrome, a gruelling genetic disorder that often leaves him in excruciating pain before his feet even hit the floor in the morning. “I hurt every day,” he explains, matter-of-factly. “Every day when I wake up, my bones hurt and my body hurts. It’s something that comes with Marfan syndrome. I do physical therapy, water therapy, acupuncture, cryotherapy, heat therapy and all that stuff, multiple times a week. It’s a daily struggle for me, and it’s something I’ve had to come to terms with because that’s who I am.” But when the band hit the road at the end of February, even Austin couldn’t have foreseen how bad things were about to get.

After hugely successful sets at Australia’s Soundwave festival (where Austin bro’ed-down with the likes of Corey Taylor and James Hetfield), followed by a European run in March, OM&M returned to the States in April for a two-month headlining tour that saw the band utterly destroy stages from one side of the continent to the other. And yet, like the ill-fated Linkin Park campaign, their own tour would meet an abrupt end. “Between the Linkin Park tour and our headlining tour in the States was when I started having problems with my rib and my head,” the singer reveals. “In the first few days of our headlining tour, I tore my dural sac, which is a sac membrane in your skull that holds all the fluid in your brain.”Essentially, the tear caused the fluids in his head to leak down his spinal cord, so any time he screamed or jumped – which are, admittedly, rather essential elements of his job description – waves of convulsive pain would shoot into his head. “People would see me grabbing my head and not understand why. That was why. I didn’t tell anybody about it during the tour, other than my band and the tour manager. The tour was too important to us.”

As if the daily struggles with Marfan and leaking brain fluids weren’t enough, Fate went in for the hat-trick in the guise of a dislocated rib on that very same tour. “For the whole tour, any time I would inhale, my rib would pop out of my muscle and re-tear it – and I’d have to pop it back in,” Austin says, wearily. In three different cities, the singer received epidural nerve blocks – needles into his spine and rib to block the pain from reaching his brain. “The whole tour I was going from spinal epidural to spinal epidural just so I could tour, on top of the dural sac tear, so the tour was rough! I couldn’t even masturbate or have sex with my girlfriend for months!” Inevitably, in June, Austin hit the proverbial wall, although it felt more like the wall had hit him – hard. After a show in Los Angeles, he collapsed in the green room backstage. Hisbody had finally shut down and the band made the decision he could not make himself. “The band was just, ‘Look dude, no more,’” he admits. “They saw that my body was just done and we cancelled the last two dates. Four days later, I was at Stanford University under anaesthesia and, in the same eight-hour surgery, I got four inches of my rib and my cartilage removed through my stomach, and I had the tear in my dural sac repaired.”

Austin also reveals the full implications of his surgery, adding, “We had another tour planned for the fall. We even had awesome bands on there and it sucked having to text and call those guys after they’d turned down tours with Meshuggah and Slipknot and Black Veil Brides to tour with us.” Despite these difficulties, Austin is quick to point out that 2015 included some of the biggest shows of the band’s seven-year career. Besides Soundwave, their sold-out gig at London’s Brixton Academy left the singer in total awe.

“When you do music, maybe once every four or five years, you get that one electric moment that keeps you craving more for the next few years. Brixton was like that for us. When you walk off stage at a place like Brixton, where we sold 5,000 tickets, and everyone’s there singing the songs, it’s unbelievable. There’s nothing in the world for me that touches that feeling.” Currently, Austin is on the mend and working on the next OM&M album, scheduled for release in 2016 – and he believes it will only benefit from the experiences he’s had during the last 12 months. “My body’s not ready to be back on the road, which is fine, because guess what I’m doing right now? Physical therapy and writing music, and this next album… I thought I had ammo for the last one, but on this one it’s tenfold! It’s awesome to have something like Of Mice & Men to pour these experiences into and to share my story with people that are dealing with that same stuff.”

In view of all he’s endured and the nagging uncertainties that inhabit each day, we ask if it’s even possible to look to the future. “Yes and no,” he says after a long pause. “I don’t even know if tomorrow’s going to come, to be honest. I know that sounds morbid, but the whole thing is you only have today – you only have right now and tomorrow is not promised. It’s just not. Whatever lyrics I write and whatever attitude I leave behind as the person that I am now, that’s the person who’s going to live in the future. It’s so easy to be an asshole with what I have to deal with, but it’s so much more rewarding to wake up and take advantage of this day and go to physical therapy until it hurts and go to the studio, even though I have to stop on the way there to pull over to the side of the road because my fucking back hurts…”

And here, for a moment, Austin’s voice wobbles and breaks, as it all catches up with him, and the commanding metal frontman suddenly becomes a fragile young man with a hard 12 months behind him. Then some determination creeps back in, and just like that, he’s Austin Carlile again. “I love today,” he finishes defiantly, “and the future’s looking great, and we’re gonna be there for it. Whether I’m here or not, I’m gonna be there for it. I’m not going to stop.”

Of Mice & Men play Slam Dunk Festival in May. A new album is expected in 2016

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.