Depression comes in many forms. Symptoms range from a feeling of worthlessness and not being able to get out of bed in the morning, to intense self-loathing, self-harm and even suicide. The charity Mind states that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, and almost one in 10 people suffer from mixed anxiety and depression. The topic is gradually becoming less of a taboo through government and celebrity campaigns, but also the most potent and powerful force of all – music.
The Amity Affliction frontman Joel Birch has suffered from depression since he was a teenager. Now 34 years old, he has been battling the demon for more than half his life. Such is the nature of the condition, people turn to different coping mechanisms, and for Joel it was the unhealthy crutch of heavy drinking. During the band’s stint on Warped Tour in 2013, it went so far that he had to be hospitalised.
“I nearly died from alcohol withdrawal, which I didn’t really tell anybody,” Joel admits today from the comfort of a sofa in the Hammer office. “We just said I had an ‘incident’ and I stopped drinking because the doctor said I nearly died and this is why.”
While some people would see this incident as a wake-up call and pledge to get help, Joel slipped back into bad habits.
It was only once his baby boy, Bowie, was born earlier this year that he realised he had to stop drinking or lose everything. He had grown up with an alcoholic mother, father and stepfather, and could see a future version of himself he didn’t like the look of. He had to make a decision: quit, or face losing everything.
“You get to a T-junction, and you either say ‘Fuck it’ and drink yourself to death, or you don’t,” he says, solemnly. “There’s no middle ground there. It’s one way or the other, and I chose not to say ‘Fuck it’. I’ve got a father who said ‘Fuck it’, and I’ve got a son. So I could say ‘Fuck it’ and do what my dad did, and have me v2.0, or not.”
Having only been sober for three months, and seeing a psychologist, a therapist and attending AA meetings for support, the wounds are still fresh. Onstage, Joel’s persona is one of big gestures and big attitude, rallying thousands of baying Amity fans to pandemonium. Today he appears sedate, as he often stops himself from going too deep into his personal life. But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to laugh.
Sitting next to Joel is his best friend and brother-in-arms, bassist and clean vocalist Ahren Stringer. The two men have formed the core of The Amity Affliction since 2004, and as the band’s reputation has grown, the pair’s bond has only become stronger. Today, they are constantly joking and ripping on each other as only two people who’ve toured together for 12 years can do. But even Ahren didn’t notice anything was wrong as Joel entered his latest downward spiral, which came to a head while they were writing their latest record, This Could Be Heartbreak.
“Everything seemed fine on the exterior,” admits Ahren. “Like most guys, myself included, he’s very closed. I never really show any true emotion, ha ha!”
“I was in full-on meltdown mode during recording,” Joel confesses. “Quietly, though. In the studio I was disconnected with what was going on in my head there, and just got the job done, and then I’d go back to the hotel and melt down.”
The album’s lyrics were written exclusively by Joel and focus, as with previous releases, on the darker side of life, because as he puts it, “You write about what you know.” There’s an overwhelming theme of death and ruin, not least in the title track and OMGIMY (an acronym of ‘Oh My God I’m Missing You’), which deal with the fear of losing those close to you.
“A lot of the lyrics are about dealing with anticipated loss, and where I was sending myself on a self-destructive course,” says Joel. “I was going through a time and I’ll hopefully help other people that are going through it. There’s another side – there’s something past the situation that you’re in, no matter how it feels at the time.”
And while the rest of the record is based around the cheerless topics of addiction in Fight My Regret and betrayal in Some Friends, sonically, Amity Affliction are as upbeat and bouncy as ever. Amid the harsh vocals and breakdowns are giant, poptastic hooks, and Ahren’s polished, clean vocals, giving a sensory juxtaposition to the music.
“When you’re stuck with nothing but depressive lyrics, it’s what you’ve got to deal with,” laughs Ahren, Amity’s main composer. “You can’t put the happy songs with the happy songs if you’ve just got a list of sad songs. But when you see bands like Alkaline Trio, who’ve done that for their entire career – happy songs with dark lyrics – it works
so well, and I think we’ve done it pretty well.”
Straight after recording, Joel made the decision to give up drink. He suffered from withdrawal symptoms, lying in bed, sweating, and not eating, working through the process with the support of his wife of six years. For the first time, he sought professional help, facing his problems head-on.
“It sucked. It was really shit. It was the shittest thing ever. Shit,” he remembers. “You don’t feel anything properly for probably your whole life, and then to actually start dealing with things, and then they all rush in at once, it’s very difficult. I’m still learning a lot about myself.”
“Joel quit by himself, which is very commendable,” asserts Ahren. “When anyone is faced with that decision, they take either the left or right path. Some people have it all and still choose the drink, and it takes a lot of conviction to change your life in general, which is easier said than done when you live a certain way for 10 to 15 years.
The Amity Affliction now play to 10,000 fans in their homeland of Australia, and increasingly larger venues each time they visit the UK. Crowds this size aren’t common for many metal bands, let alone such a young one, so Amity – completed by Ryan Burt on drums and Dan Brown on guitar – are using their popularity to help others. While moshpits can provide a testosterone-fuelled outlet for physical release, not everyone is strong emotionally.
“Depression in males is very common all over the world, and I think it’s because [men] have a hard time conveying emotion and confiding in people, so we keep it bottled up until it’s too late,” Ahren says matter-of-factly. “I think that’s why women aren’t such a statistic, because they can confide in their girlfriends without being called a ‘faggot’ or whatever. I think it’s a good thing that we’re doing for the male community – the emo male community, ha ha! We all laugh at that, but it’s true.”
That said, being figureheads for such a large number of fans can be a huge responsibility. The band’s song Don’t Lean On Me, from 2014’s Let The Ocean Take Me, has a serious message for those who need guidance.
“It became overwhelming to a point where kids were just hitting up Joel, like, ‘What do I do? I’m depressed. Can I talk to you?’” says Ahren. “Don’t Lean On Me is saying, ‘I’m not the guy with the answers, I’m literally the same as you looking for answers, so please don’t lean on me for help, because I’m in the exact same boat as the rest of us.’”
Joel is slowly getting his life back on track. Breaking loose from the mental prison he’d created for himself, and defying the demons that had sunk their teeth in so deep, the most important things in life are revealing themselves. With Amity Affliction’s fifth album about to drop and arenas calling their name, it’s his wife, two stepchildren and newborn son that have put everything into perspective.
“I’d say stuff about the future, but I didn’t really care if we didn’t make it to the next day or not,” he confesses, reflecting on his behaviour while he was battling addiction. ‘But I’m looking forward to my life now for the first time that I can remember. I never looked forward, ever – I didn’t give a fuck if the world ended or didn’t. And now I do.
This Could Be Heartbreak is out August 12 via Roadrunner. The Amity Affliction will tour the UK in December
When he’s not writing lyrics for The Amity Affliction, Joel Birch is painting them on walls and canvases as another form of therapy
Joel got into painting and illustration in the late 90s after seeing some graffiti in his hometown, and often turns lyrics into artwork. “When you listen to someone else’s lyrics, you put yourself there, and that song becomes about you,” he explains. It gives him another creative outlet, besides Amity. “It’s an escape from reality – you don’t think about anything,” he adds. “You think about the dots on the paper, and the lines, and the next line, and not fucking up, basically.”
We asked him to talk us through some of his work.
Modern Man’s Hustle
“This was a 10-year anniversary of one of his records, and [hip-hop label] Rhymesayers commissioned me to do three of those things, which ended up getting painted in their headquarters in Minneapolis, which is cool. Atmosphere is one of my favourite rappers.”
(The Amity Affliction, 2010)
“I wrote that for the people, in early 2010, for anyone out there that was feeling like I was at the time. I’d just gotten through a suicide attempt, so I felt too young to die. It was a hopeful kind of lyric.”
(Antagonist A.D., 2015)
“Well, I mean, that’s very very poignant for me, because I was pretty quiet growing up, and then I turned into a drug-taking, homeless, thieving young man. And I’ve done a lot of things I’m not super proud of, and that line is… I get
that feeling from that line, you know.”
For more, see www.joelfcbirch.com