We’re all part of a living story and because of this we’re all a constant work in progress. Depending on how you take it, that’s either terrifying or somewhat comforting. Cleveland emo-punk band Dead Leaves released their debut full-length record Vultures this August, and through ten tracks that dive in to his innermost thoughts, lead singer / guitarist and primary songwriter Elliott Blair takes the listener on an intense emotional journey. The album title is a reference to the hunter / prey dynamic and focus on vulnerability throughout the record, but Vultures is not a record of hopelessness. By opening himself up, Blair leaves himself open to criticism but also creates a possibility that someone might connect with what he has to say and relate to what he’s been through.
When I meet up with Blair outside the Asbury Park Brewery in Asbury Park, New Jersey, the sun is beginning to set. His bandmates- bassist Alex Tucker, drummer Gene Bernardo, and guitarist Pat Farmer- are off getting dinner but he’s ready to talk, and I suggest we sit down at one of the picnic tables so we can face each other. We chat as I pull out my notebook with a few pages of scrawled notes, and before I realize it we’re deep in discussion and I hit record.
Our conversation begins by reflecting on interviews. This is Blair’s first in-person interview, though he had done several over the phone and via email, and we discuss how weird it can be to talk to a complete stranger, answering their questions without seeing their body language or immediate response; we agree that we prefer when these conversations happen in-person. “You have instant feedback- instant conversation,” Blair notes, and you avoid a poor phone connection that can interfere with the ability to dig deeper. “I had an iPhone like a month ago and the speaker was broken on it, so on the phone I would be like, ‘Uh, can you say that again? What, can you say that again, what, what?'”
All potential hiccups considered, Blair feels at ease in interviews since he’s able to step back from the personal aspect of answering questions. “It almost feels like I’m just talking about the songs. Um- and so it goes back to writing the songs and why I wrote them. I feel more comfortable with that than just bringing my situations up with someone in a normal conversation. I feel a little more open when I’m in an interview and someone asks me about the song- like that’s cool, I will talk about the song. I will say what I have to say about it.” But a lot of interviews don’t dig deep, and when there’s so much time and emotional energy invested in to something, it can be difficult to condense a response in to a soundbite. He acknowledges that it’s weird to be asked surface-level questions “because I’ve personally put so much emotional energy into this record and our other songs…. How do you boil down everything- all those feelings- into a sentence, you know, or two sentences? It’s hard to boil stuff down, like ‘Why are you depressed?’ [Laughs.] Uh- I don’t know.”
When you’ve spent more than a decade of your life working on something, it begins to define you whether or not it’s what pays your bills. Blair currently has a day job fixing computers, but he’s been writing and playing music for twelve years. Dead Leaves formed in 2013 following the break-up of his and Tucker’s previous band, Call it Fiction. With so much time invested in music, it’s hard for him to imagine his life without it. “They say that you have to have ten thousand hours of work in to something to become a ‘professional’- but yeah, I don’t know what I would be doing with myself right now. I feel like a lot of people have their own little thing, and I know some people that don’t have their own thing and they’re trying to figure out what it is.” And sometimes that “thing”- that passion that drives them to do everything else- isn’t their career or main source of income, but that doesn’t take away from how important it is. “You know, I have a desk job- [but] whatever I’m doing I know that I can go home and write a song about my shitty day. Or whatever. And- I don’t know- it gives you something to look forward to and something that you can work on. I think that it’s an identifier for a lot of people. Music has taught me so much about everything else.”
When I ask Blair what music has taught him, he pauses for a moment before reflecting, “It’s taught me how to be creative, and not to be afraid to show people how I feel. When I was a kid I was a very introverted kid. I never told people how I felt. I’m still somewhat like that, not only about my feelings but just talking to people and making friends- I was very shy.” And while he wasn’t always so open with what he was writing, he tells me that writing songs has taught him to open up. “Whenever I’m writing songs, I have learned that I have to be as open as possible- and it’s scary, obviously, it’s always scary, cuz you don’t like being that vulnerable. You don’t like writing down all of your hardcore feelings.”
From the first line of “Death And Taxes,” to the last note of “Deteriorate”, Vultures is a record of pure emotional release, where Blair opens up about his experiences with depression and anxiety. The record sees him sharing more of himself in the songs than on previous releases, but by opening himself up he’s also opening himself to criticism. That can be hard to come to terms with, but he has grown a thicker skin and decided that the catharsis of putting himself out there is worth it. “At first it hurts when you release something and people don’t like it, but I feel like [if] you’re honest about it- first of all people are a lot less likely to say negative things about what you’re actually writing about- but when they do say negative things, I feel like I’ve gotten thicker skin about my music over the course of the past twelve years.” It ties right in to “Hunting You Down”, in which Blair sings, “Your skin gets stronger every time they take a stab.” I bring this up and he agrees. “That song’s about bullying and that is definitely one thing that- I always kinda go back to that when I am writing songs. I always think to myself, ‘What will people think of this?’- but it always ends up okay.”
As deeply personal as Vultures is, Blair explains that sharing pieces of himself through a song is easier than bringing them up in conversation with his friends because “It’s a lot more cathartic to me to actually write a song.” We talk about how important it is to take care of mental health and how we each work to get past our own issues, agreeing that sometimes, depression and anxiety can be so overpowering they cloud out any sense of self. “It’s definitely hard to tell sometimes if you’re being yourself, or not- you gotta keep yourself in check,” Blair stresses. Keeping himself in check didn’t come easily, however. “It took a long time to be able to talk myself in to checking myself. When I was younger and I had a lot of anxiety issues I wasn’t able to do that.” And when he couldn’t do that, his problems continued to build up, and when things got to a “pretty bad point” a few years ago, he went to a doctor in search of help.
It wasn’t his first time seeking help for mental health issues, but Blair says that this time, the medication he was prescribed didn’t work out as hoped. “It was messing with me a lot. That was one particular time I didn’t feel like myself. This was after a long period of not being able to tell myself that everything was okay, and then it just kinda builds up and then because of that, your self-esteem is low, or- not your self-esteem but your self-awareness, almost, is low.” Medication often comes with side effects and after taking any prescription for an extended period of time, coming off can mean a big adjustment back to normalcy. “I think that’s something that needs to be talked about more,” he acknowledges. “Some people, medication helps them tremendously. And that’s amazing. Whatever works- for me, I was able to start telling myself that everything was fine. And even though I felt like it wasn’t fine at the time, I was like, ‘Calm down, everything’s okay.'”
For some, depression and anxiety can be so consuming that pulling yourself out and getting help and talking about what’s on your mind seems impossible. Blair chose not to see a therapist and when discussing this choice, he shares, “The way that I was feeling at the time was like, ‘Well, I don’t really have a reason’- that’s always what it is when you’re in that state of mind. ‘Oh, I don’t have a reason why I’m feeling depressed or feeling like this’ and then you don’t do it.” Though looking back, he believes talking to a counselor may have been a good choice. “In retrospect, it probably would’ve helped me a lot if I would’ve just done it, but it’s so hard to say yes to something like that when you’re in that state of mind. Yeah- that’s probably something that I should’ve went down that path and it would’ve been a little easier for me.”
“I’m still not very good at talking to people about my emotions,” Blair admits at one point in our conversation. He’s been candid in answering my questions but asks a few times if his answers make sense (I assure him they do) and has a tendency to talk slowly, taking his time to get his answers out and repeating and rephrasing things as necessary. He tells me he has a habit of overthinking, ruminating over even the most casual moments. “I feel like if I say something, then it might sound ingenuine, or something- I don’t know if ‘ingenuine’ is the word- and that’s a very anxious way to think about it, right? And my other thought is like, ‘You know, I don’t want to bother people with my problems.'” It’s a self-consciousness that’s evident but not overpowering; even when talking about some of the darkest moments on the record, he smiles and laughs a lot.
Blair has known Tucker since 2008, when they were in college, and has known Bernardo for almost as long. While such a longstanding friendship doesn’t prevent overthinking or social anxiety, his band mates are his closest friends and tend to know what’s going on his life even before he brings a song to the table. “I think that since I am so close with my band mates, they know all my personal situations,” he says. “They know what what’s going on in my life, I know what’s going on in their life, and we talk about stuff.” That’s a benefit for the writing process, since it allows a crucial outside perspective on the life experiences he’s writing about: “when I’m writing stuff and I send them stuff, I actually want them to let me know what they think about that- cuz a lot of times I’ll send them a song and it’ll be about something that’s happening, and I want them to tell me if I’ve done a good job.” But even with that level of comfort, he has to talk himself down from his anxieties. “You constantly have to remind yourself that you’re overthinking, over-analyzing the situation…. A lot of times my friends do a lot of stuff for me and I’m like, ‘What do I do for them?’- I start questioning myself, and that’s always something you have to remind yourself of too- you just have to think, they’re your friends. They’re your friends for a reason.”
While Blair has always talked about his personal experiences in his songs, Vultures is Dead Leaves’ most introspective effort to date and this time, his band members may have learned something new about him as he shared his inner thoughts in his songs. He expands that, “A lot of the songs on the record are more about internal struggles, which you don’t really talk as much about- or I don’t talk as much about- and so they may have learned something from that about me. Our split [with PINE] was like- I had lost my dad a few years ago and that was very much about that, the two songs that we had on there- and they were very aware of that situation so I don’t think that that was any surprise to them, but like I said the new record was more introspective so maybe they knew a little less of what was going on.”
After so many years of friendship, the members of Dead Leaves feel comfortable around each other and when they’re on tour, “We’re just silly.” Blair continues, “I feel like when we’re traveling, we don’t really argue that much, we kind of build up the inside jokes, and it’s all just good friends hanging out. [Laughs.] Which is awesome- but I definitely think if you do have even a small connection [it] can open up deeper conversations which is awesome.” He certainly wasn’t afraid to dig deep for Vultures, and that was important for his own personal progress. “That’s why I need to write, because that’s the only time that I get to do that, it’s the only time that I feel comfortable doing that.”
In June, Dead Leaves released “Bloodshot” as the first single from Vultures. On the surface, the song is about smoking marijuana, but listening to it in the context of the record gives it more meaning; alongside tracks like “Hopeless Dweller” and “Die Young”, it’s understood to be a song about wanting to hang on to those last moments of youth. Dead Leaves aimed to make Vultures a complete record, rather than a collection of singles; the record sees Blair getting his deepest and at times darkest feelings off his chest, but on the final track, “Deteriorate”, he shouts, “You’ll be alright.” That bit of hope was essential to making the record feel whole, adding a moment of acceptance and optimism after an intense release. “We wanted it to be a complete piece instead of it being songs that were made for singles,” Blair explains. “Obviously we released singles but we wrote ‘Deteriorate’ and I wanted it to wrap up everything and just say, ‘Everything will be alright.’ And that, I think, was intentional and definitely necessary for the record because it does go a little- you know it is a little dark sometimes.”
It took over a year for Vultures to be written, and taking that time allowed Blair to focus on getting better and becoming more self-aware of his own issues. “Alive in the Spring”, which dives in to his recent experience taking medication for depression and anxiety, “was a big one for me because that was the low point.” I share that it’s my favorite song on the record and he says, “It’s a really simple song, and it has this happy sound to it almost.” And while it’s not a happy song per se, “it was a turning point for me, literally while I was writing it.” He mentions that the first verse of “Deteriorate” had been written early on but the song wasn’t completed till after the rest of the record had been finished and explains, “From the place that I was at and what I was going through, it almost wouldn’t have made sense to finish that song during writing the rest of the record. Does that make sense? So by the time [‘Deteriorate’] was written, I was at a place mentally where I felt like I had more control…. I was at a point where I was feeling more okay with myself, where I felt a little more in control of myself, and so I think that was one of the advantages of writing this record over such a long period of time.”
Throughout the writing process, Blair chose to not work so he could focus his time on writing. “I was literally working on songs every day, for at least three hours a day- sometimes up to ten hours. I have a little home studio and I was literally in that room, I locked myself in there for hours a day every single day. Weekdays, weekends, it didn’t matter, I was in there every single day. We ended up having, I don’t know, probably close to 50 songs.” When it came time to narrow down the tracks that would become the record, “We just chose the ones that felt right, that felt like they needed to be on the record. We ended up with ten songs- we could’ve put more songs on there but it didn’t feel right to put more songs on it. You know we actually had two extra songs that we had recorded in studio but we didn’t put on the record.” He laments that some people don’t consider the ten-track album a full-length but ultimately decides, “It honestly doesn’t matter to me, whether it’s a full-length or not…. All of the songs mean something to me, which is what is important.”
“When I was writing the record I was in a bad place,” Blair admits. “So I was kind of figuring out how to deal with my situations and my mental health.” The writing process proved to be therapeutic, giving him “more control over myself… more control over my anxiety, being more self-aware of my stuff that I personally have been through.” But Vultures was about more than his own self-expression. “At the same time I wanted to write songs that were relatable to people- you know, like ‘Hunting You Down’- it’s about bullying- which is still a huge problem, and I wanted to deal with those problems through the songs…. What I want people to get out of it is I think what any songwriter wants people to get out of their songs which is to hope that someone can connect and relate to their songs, and help them in some way to deal with those situations. And that’s really all I want- [for] people to be able to connect to that and relate to it.”
Maybe if other people listen to Vultures and are able to connect with the songs, they’ll learn to be okay with their own issues. And if they’re able to be okay maybe that’s evidence that Blair can be, too. Things might not be okay just yet, but he knows that soon they will be, if he just keeps reminding himself. “If you eventually just keep doing that, it ends up working.”
Vultures is available for purchase through Take This To Heart Records, as well as streaming on Spotify. Dead Leaves have several tour dates this fall, including The Fest in Gainesville, Florida, and Snowed In in Cleveland. For all updates and a full list of upcoming shows, keep up with Dead Leaves on Facebook and Twitter.