Blaenavon’s Ben Gregory: ‘I felt like I lost a year’ – how mental health struggles inspired majestic single ‘Catatonic Skinbag’

The band are preparing to return with their second album, 'Everything That Makes You Happy'

Even in an age when mental health is no longer a taboo topic, it isn’t always easy to talk about what’s going on inside your head. Props, then, to Blaenavon frontman Ben Gregory [pictured above, centre, with his bandmates], who last week shared a frank and honest letter with the band’s fans detailing the circumstances surrounding a stress-induced breakdown he’d suffered in 2017. It led to him being hospitalised for a month but his recovery took much longer than the time he was resident on a ward in Homerton hospital.

“I spent most of 2018 trying to come to terms with it and learning how to look after myself, doing what I needed to do for me and not spreading myself so thinly,” Ben says, sat on a sofa in the Transgressive Records office a few days after sharing his story online. He speaks slowly, considering every word, and the conversation is characterised by minute-long pauses but also sardonic comments and laughter.

Ben chose to speak about what happened to him because he’d realised his lifelong habit of bottling things up hadn’t helped him in the past. Blaenavon fans already knew he’d been in hospital – the trio cancelled their US tour supporting the Wombats in January 2018 because Ben wasn’t well enough to perform – but didn’t know why. “I think I relate to those young people so much and I feel like they relate to me,” he says of their fanbase. “We’ve attracted such a set of caring, devoted people that understood what the music’s about. It’s all about looking after each other – if it makes one other person more comfortable with what they’re dealing with then it’s a positive thing.”

It’s a pertinent point, not least because he cites one of the causes of the breakdown as being not reaching out for help sooner, as well as the stresses of maintaining the life of a touring musician and unhealthy relationships in his life. “Often people find it difficult to talk about these things when they’re musicians because we all understand we’re very lucky to be in these kinds of positions,” he explains. “It’s amazing – being able to make music all the time and play to lots of people who care so much. But it’s a job and it’s a passion that, if you’re not careful, can consume you in a negative way because you’re putting so much of yourself out there to so many people on a regular basis.”

Given that the ups and downs of being on and off tour contributed to what you’ve been through, how do you see yourself coping with being back on the road this year?

Ben: “We eased ourselves back into the music [last year]. We did a few little festivals, which were quite emotional to be back on stage for the first time. We did a small tour of the UK as well. I took it very easy and tried to be as open as possible about how I was finding it. I stopped drinking. It was a few weeks and it was really positive. It wasn’t difficult at all because it was seeing all these people that adored our music and cared about us so much as people, and were so excited that we were back and had been so worried about me, which was a strange feeling.”

You said in your letter you had to rebuild your life from scratch. What did that look like?

“I had to move home and not do music for a long time and not see people for quite a bit. It was a thing that everyone in my circle found out about – that was always going to happen. I sometimes found it a bit tricky seeing people cos I felt a bit like the vibe was, ‘We know but does he know we know, can we say anything about it?’ That’s fine – obviously, people are going to be delicate – but it meant I didn’t really know where I stood with people. So, for a while, I isolated myself and spent most of my time with my parents or my best friend Scott and then had to move forward step-by-step.

“If I’m really honest with you I was pretty scared of being on trains and walking around. When you’ve been in the safety of your own home for so long, coming back somewhere as busy as this can be quite intimidating.”

Did you find you were able to make music during this period?

“I wrote loads of music really quickly and then I found it difficult for a bit, which, to be honest, was devastating cos it’s how I’ve dealt with everything for years. I had to work out if I wanted to do music anymore, if it was healthy for me and if I could make it work. It became very clear that I did and I really needed to, and it was a really useful outlet. I felt like I lost all of last year. It makes me sad quite a lot – I was 21, 22 and I lost a lot of time. We managed to make a record, do the tour, do some shows. I did have some good times but it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, that year is supposed to be one of the best years of my life and I didn’t really get to have it.’”

“I had to work out if I wanted to do music anymore, if it was healthy for me and if I could make it work”
– Ben Gregory

How hard was making the record while you were still recovering?

“It was really hard for all of us. It’s a really strange one for me cos a lot of the songs were written before that happened to me but a lot of them were – sometimes deliberately, sometimes sub-consciously – hinting at the kind of situation I worry this life is leading me to. So then to come out of hospital and reflect on the music I was making before, it was a bit shocking. But I’m very, very proud of the songs and the songwriting and, even being less than myself at the time, I never had any doubt about the songs.”

Was ‘Catatonic Skinbag’ one that you wrote before or after being in hospital?

“[laughs] God, it’s just a funny name for a song and we’ve all got used to it and lived with it. Now hearing everyone say it is… fair enough. I wrote that midway through 2017. I guess that’s trying to make light of that type of situation. It’s a fun song – I think “I’m the last man I’d ever date” is quite a funny lyric. I don’t really think about that until I have to write out the lyrics for things and then I’m like… ‘Legend.’ [laughs]”

Catatonic Skinbag

Catatonic Skinbag, a song by Blaenavon on Spotify

 

It seems like there’s a dark humour to the album, e.g. in ‘Catatonic Skinbag’ and ‘Fucking Up My Friends’, which starts: “Here I go again/Fucking up my friends”.

“Yeah, that’s always been my vibe. I take everything I do really seriously but also not seriously at all. There’s stuff on the first album [‘That’s Your Lot’] that I thought was funny that people didn’t really point out. Writing a song about not being able to get out of bed, drinking red wine, and watching Gossip Girl over and over until you know every word of it just to have some consistency and keep your life as basic as possible is quite funny.”

Do you think there’s an element to your songwriting, perhaps sub-consciously, of you hoping someone will ask if you’re OK when they hear the songs?

“Absolutely, that’s something I’ve been doing my entire life. I actually wrote a song about that particular feeling, but it’s not on the record. Unfortunately, sometimes these things can be cries for help and people are often quick to make jokes out of these things. It’s much easier than dealing with it and talking about it. People handle it quite differently – I write songs about it and I’m lucky enough that people are like, ‘Right, are you OK? Is this something we need to talk about?’”

The assumption when you hear someone’s written an album about something like a breakdown is that it’s going to be quite slow and sad.  Your second album, ‘Everything That Makes You Happy’, seems quite the opposite though.

“I thought about that when I published the letter – I thought people are probably expecting something that’s super down. But the main thing is overcoming this stuff and looking out for each other. I just want to make cool songs and make people happy. I also make some songs that make people sad but I hope it’s a melancholy sadness that’s about self-reflection. I never want to sound pitiful.”

One song, ‘The Song’s Never Gonna Be The Same’, is this big, grand, string-laden track, which is something new for you.

“It was important for all of us and Catherine [Marks, producer] that nothing sounded less accomplished than it should. I’m really proud of that song and for me, it was either going to be an acoustic song or try and make it huge. The lyric of the chorus is particularly poignant because it’s ‘Sanity’s calling, he knows I’m sitting proud on the edge.’ That’s one of the things that shocked me a bit – when I wrote that song I was very in love and very positive about the future, but maybe slightly manic. I get very overwhelmed by emotion quite easily, which is a bit what that song is about. I’m a very emotional person and sometimes I feel quite fragile and like I might fall over the edge, but it’s OK. Upon reflection, it was maybe the way the prelude to my situation was highlighted most succinctly.”

You also said in your letter you think talking therapy could benefit a lot of people – what did it do for you?

“I’ve had it on and off and I think in these situations when you’re feeling like this, it can be easy to unload a lot of stuff on people who also have their own stuff to deal with. When they’re devoted and loving friends, they obviously do everything they can for you and I was really lucky to have a lot of people who really looked out for me. But it’s a difficult job for them and it’s not what they are experienced in doing and it’s not what they’re there for exclusively. I suppose I started to lean on people a bit too much, maybe. If everyone had the time and it was a perfect world we would all have the opportunity to talk to someone about what’s going on and seek advice on it. It’s just a really great thing to be able to talk.”

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