by Niklas Göransson
Losing grip of both reality and the self – Swedish musician Nephente, frontman and co-founder of Netherbird, gives a brutally honest account of his spiraling descent into the chasms of despair.
I had previously only taken cursory notice of NETHERBIRD – primarily due to my assumption that their name was some manner of humorous nod to weather forecasts and, consequently, another one of these black metal parody projects. I was fostered in a time and place where there was zero tolerance for any kind of jestering from underground metal bands, and this conviction remains upheld even through advancing age. ‘I don’t think you can be very funny about metal’, as the great Vim Fuego once stated.
– First things first: I come from the same place as you regarding band names and how I perceive music. I have not the slightest interest in making ’joyful’ or ’funny’ music, which is actually the very reason I didn’t even reflect over the fact that ‘netherbird’ sounds like the Swedish word ’nederbörd’, as in rainfall or downpour, when picking it. I wanted a name without connotations to either death or black metal, something neutral so that our art, over time, would fill the name with meaning; all depending on whatever direction we were moving in. Essentially, I wanted it to capture the sentiment of ’freedom in – and through – darkness’, so I combined the images of ’nether’ and ’bird’. It was never intended for amusement.
I happened to meet Nephente in a social setting a few months ago, following which I – after voicing my displeasure upon mention of the band name – learned that I’d been mistaken. Still, it boggles my mind how in damnation a native Swede with seemingly respectable linguistic capabilities could not have anticipated this.
– I really am that arrogant. Not for a second did I consider that it sounded like a Swedish word; not even when I decided we should use the meteorological symbol for severe thunder and rain as one of our sigils – I used it in reference to the majestic force of nature and because the image itself is so strong. I should also point out that this problem only exists in Scandinavia whereas most of our listeners are elsewhere, so the problem is really quite contained. Still, I’m glad you brought it up so I finally got to clarify the matter.
So, is NETHERBIRD meant to be black metal?
– We’ve always had many different labels put on our music, melodic black metal being the most common but melodeath gets mentioned a lot too. To me, we make extremely harsh metal; nothing more and certainly nothing less. When attempting to describe our music I’ll occasionally try the metaphorical route, with varying degrees of success. When we met with our previous label, Black Lodge, I said that ’NETHERBIRD is the natural result of a meeting between EMPEROR and Bob Dylan’. The silence in the room was deafening. Sometimes one has no choice but to accept the more common labels being tossed around because it’s the only way people can grasp something so complex as musical art. But, if you’ve read our lyrics, it should be obvious that we’re anything but a pure black or death metal act. Those strains of art certainly run in our veins, but NETHERBIRD is a somewhat different kind of entity – one that will have to keep evolving in order for us to remain satisfied.
Revising NETHERBIRD‘s timeline I noticed that, despite releasing two albums, they’ve only performed five shows since 2014. Furthermore, in early 2015 they declared a complete cessation of musical activity.
– We put the band on hiatus in late 2014 already but only bothered announcing it a few months later. I’ve never really spoken about this before but perhaps the time has come to grant some glimpses into the reason why. Truth of the matter is that I’ve long struggled with depression, brutal anxiety, and episodes of panic attacks. I’d reached the point where I could no longer go on and crashed badly during the summer of 2014. But, despite the severity of my situation, I wanted to end this era of the band with one final show – and so we did, in November of that year, a decade after the band’s conception. I was an utter wreck and barely made it through the set. This might’ve brought us some closure and dignity but for me it really did feel like our last-ever gig. As anyone close to the band in those days could attest to, I wasn’t the only one having a hard time; we were all in free-fall on multiple levels.
Little did he know that this would turn out to be a mere glimpse into how dire things would eventually become. At the time, Nephente and Bizmark – NETHERBIRD’s co-founder, guitarist, and keyboardist – had just written a new album.
– This piece of music resonated deeply within me. Perhaps it was partly due to the mental chaos ripping me apart but those songs just felt so honest and alive, very unlike anything we’d ever written before. Both Bizmark and I were almost burnt out by then, I think we wrote the album just to cleanse our minds from all the ongoing havoc. We began recording in 2014 but soon realised we simply couldn’t do it – I had zero focus and energy and, I think, that was also true for most of the guys. In any case, this unfinished album became the reason why NETHERBIRD re-emerged from the abyss into which I’d fallen, dragging the band with me. I sincerely believed that the new material was of a magnitude dwarfing everything we’d written prior and I needed to hear it in a finished, fully recorded state. I also felt my brother Bizmark deserved to see the songs released. Perhaps I regarded these tunes as some glimmer of purpose, despite my life having become such a mess. So, in 2016, after a year of rest and plenty of medications, we decided to make the album happen. I was doing better, at least on a surface level, so we felt the time was right.
With then-MARDUK percussionist Fredrik Widigs as studio drummer, NETHERBIRD recorded “The Grander Voyage” – by far the band’s most popular album to date.
– “The Grander Voyage” received an exceptional response from fans and critics alike. We proceeded to recruit some of the old crew and a few new faces, then began rehearsing to revive the band. I maintained a pretty sane façade, upheld by an ever-increasing number of prescription drugs. Things were going really well, band-wise – after all those years, this new album suddenly propelled things ahead for us – yet I was doing worse than ever. Regardless, we performed a few shows and then began working on what became “Into the Vast Uncharted”, the album we just released. By then, neither Bizmark nor myself were doing too well but I was the one to truly fall apart. During the autumn of 2018, I became totally knocked down by severe depression and panic attacks; it escalated to a level where I could barely function at all and every day became a blur of pain and fear.
His mental turmoil grew so severe that NETHERBIRD had to no choice but to cancel a co-headline appearance in Romania, the band’s first-ever show not to have gone ahead as planned.
– Just thinking about this still bothers me but there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d be able to pull it off. It’s not exactly easy to go out and own a stage when you can barely leave your own apartment. Still, we managed to put together material for another full-length. As always, it was written by Bizmark and myself – music by the former, words by the latter, and then arranged by the two of us together. The lyrics were penned in the pale candlelight of depression; one tends to word things a bit differently when life has lost its certainty. There’s simply no room for dishonesty because there might not be time to revise what’s been put on paper. Perspectives change in such a situation. Needless to say, this descent into darkness is heavily reflected in the lyrics which illustrate my journey through the worst realms of my own universe.
Nepehente adds that it was only with the aid of heavy sedatives that he, a few months later, could leave home to record his contributions to the new album. Seeking some kind of temporary peace of mind, all vocals were tracked using an impromptu studio set-up in a remote countryside cabin.
– The secluded setting was out of sheer necessity, I simply couldn’t be around people. I recorded all vocals over the course of three days, in some sort of chaotic blur. The only true interruption to the sessions was a woodpecker hunting for food on the roof, just above my head. That sounds ridiculous in hindsight but it was far from amusing at the time. Besides the drum recording, for which I managed to muster willpower enough to attend, everything else was done without me. Regardless, seeing it all come together – albeit from a distance – gave me feelings of pure pride.
Just a month or so after finishing the recording session, it all came to a crashing halt. In January 2019 Nephente hit what he describes as the proverbial rock bottom.
– I could no longer sleep. I wasn’t able to concentrate for more than a few minutes, couldn’t even keep in touch with close friends. Everything was a vortex of agony, anxiety, and stress and I felt my body slowly shutting down. Medication took the edge off some of my symptoms but couldn’t fix me. I’d fallen deep, not in any kind of cool rock-star fashion but to depths where life was a daily active – and painful – choice I had to first make and then fight for. I’ve now started the arduous journey of ridding myself of prescription drugs, as well as avoiding the self-medication I indulged in on tours and at home and am really trying to find my way to a place where I, hopefully, can reap some enjoyment from existence. I don’t want any pity, but this might explain a few things and lend some perspective to a time that for me was rather rough.
Besides common serotonin-targeting antidepressants called SSRIs, plus several other anxiety-inhibiting psychotropics, Nephente was prescribed the heavy artillery – benzodiazepines. Whilst having an established efficacy for short-term treatment, benzos are also associated with a number of perils such as their high potency for addiction and abuse.
– Around the time I was at my worst, my doctor prescribed benzodiazepines as a way for me to simply cope with everyday existence. I’ll never forget taking them for the first time; all the tension just ‘melted’ away and my muscles relaxed for the first time in ages. The relief was so profound I felt as if I’d just woken up from a long nightmare. Exhausted, I went to bed and slept for twelve hours straight and – again, for the first time in years – without any nightmares, just pure oblivion. But when I woke up, I already had that gnawing tingle of fear. ‘What if all of it comes back?’ It did, of course, gradually. Because my problems still weren’t dealt with and, I presume, the benzo lost its ‘bite’ after a while.
What kind of dosages are we talking here, and for how long?
– I ended up taking them daily, up to three times a day, for seven months. The effects grew less and less noticeable over time and my anxiety kept mounting up worse than ever. So, in truth, all it did was provide temporary relief which helped me avoid facing my problems. I can totally understand why people get hooked on this type of medication, but for me it was just a way to postpone my problems. I really have no idea what effect they’d have on me if I wasn’t already anxiety-ridden but wouldn’t recommend for anyone to try them without medical reasons. It’s potent stuff, but with a rather short span of effectiveness if used daily.
Alcohol and benzos are a spectacularly inappropriate combination. Out of the many horror stories I’m aware of, I think the one featuring members of Sweden’s OFDRYKKJA takes the cake. Västerås black metal has a longstanding tradition of advanced self-mutilation but – judging from the police and hospital reports, especially the photos – these gentlemen appear to have put even their forebears to shame. ‘Beer and pills and knives, it went to hell’ as one member would later up summarise the debacle.
– I didn’t drink a single drop of alcohol while using benzos; I made that promise to myself when I started taking them. This was also a factor which kept that stage temporary, I was so looking forward to getting off my meds so I could have a glass of wine with good friends. I’ve had that wine now but, basically, I didn’t drink at all for two years, not wanting to aggravate an already precarious situation.
Is there any way to put in words how you felt by this stage?
– I think what one experiences during severe anxiety, depression, and panic attacks tends to differ from person to person. In a way, it appears tailormade for your own mind to inflict as much suffering as possible, so for me it escalated step by step. As soon as I learnt how to cope with one set of problems, new ones came along – worse and tougher than before. In the very beginning I was just dealing with severe nervousness and horrible nightmares, but over time it deteriorated into daily anxiety attacks: racing heartbeats, sweating, and a fear so pure and unfiltered I was literally shaking. It’s not just a feeling; it’s as if the entire fabric of your being is hurled into a state of chaos. Like a cold stream, endless thoughts come rushing, paralysing you completely and making it impossible to focus on anything outside your own body.
At the peak of his struggles Nephente was, most unwillingly, introduced to the state of derealisation – a temporary form of psychosis which is as terrifying as it is, long afterwards, fascinating. Derealisation can be triggered both by psychiatric disorders and hallucinogenic agents; see related discussions with MALTHUSIAN, ACRIMONIOUS, and OLD TOWER. The condition instils upon those afflicted the impenetrable conviction that everyday reality is not real, but rather some kind of deeply immersive digital illusion; like a computerised life simulation game such as The Sims.
– I started feeling as if the world had slipped out of phase and I was in some sort of limbo where everything felt, looked, and sounded peculiar. Derealisation came along with the anxiety attacks and racing heartbeat, but this was even tougher because it made me feel as if I was truly going insane. It is perhaps the most frightening state I’ve ever been in, and that’s saying something. And this wasn’t just a one-time occurrence, it happened up to ten times per day. I began keeping track of my derealisation attacks since they left me so fucked up afterwards; I could barely remember a thing. In a way, it felt as if my day restarted after each such attack – as if I kept dying and then respawning in some computer game, over and over again. Hell, the impact is so profound it’s difficult to explain. But you feel as if you’re no longer fully there, mentally, like a stranger in your own life and even in your own body. And with that comes the fear of never being able to return to what you were before.
Nephente adds that whilst ailments of the mind tend to be different for everyone, for him, losing track of his self appears to be the ultimate horror. Consequently, this was exactly what he was served.
– That was the final straw for me – I felt as if I was running the risk of actually losing myself. I’m still unsure if this was caused by all the medication, my general condition, or a combination thereof but I couldn’t take it any longer and had to try something drastic. I’d reached the end of the pharmaceutical road, there were no more medications available; I was already on the maximum dosage of four out of five meds and my problems were worse than ever. So, I decided it was time to find another avenue of coping. My psychiatrist – who I regularly consult with to avoid making any drastic changes that might accidentally kill me – supported my decision to kick everything besides a basic SSRI, which he thought I should keep for the time being. So, it hasn’t been entirely unassisted but I’m the only one who can, and must, endure the process.
Benzos are highly addictive and exceptionally difficult to wean oneself off of. I’ve read several accounts of recreational users who soon end up struggling to even scale down their doses due to the brutal withdrawals of both mental and physical nature. As such, it must’ve been exquisitely hellish to quit them whilst simultaneously dealing with a myriad of other issues.
– To be honest, I was already so extremely miserable that quitting benzos didn’t really make much of a difference; it was dimmed by my general state of constant anxiety and panic attacks. At least in my case, there appears to be a limit to what the body can produce in terms of discomfort and I’d already been redlining for quite some time. I gave myself one last week with a very small dose of benzodiazepine before bed, then no more. I also made sure to work out hard every day, which at least gave me about an hour or two of respite afterwards.
In parallel to this, he started working with non-medicative alternatives such as cognitive behavioural therapy, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and very basic meditation.
– Such efforts are slow compared to benzo but, for me, they’ve finally started paying off. In combination with cutting down my meds, one after the other, I’ve been focusing on these new routines and – as a matter of fact – I’m doing better now than I have in the last five years. I’ve rid myself of four out of five medicines. The last one, the SSRI, I’ll keep for a while as to not stress my body more than it can handle. 2019 has, without a doubt, been the toughest year of my existence and I fully understand people who are unable to rid themselves of these substances. It’s been a truly nightmarish journey but there really was no other option. I’ve mustered focus and discipline I didn’t think myself capable of and, to be honest, it ended up saving my life. But I also see this suffering as an investment and will make every effort to keep progressing; taking care of myself and channelling energy into more meaningful matters. I think acceptance therapy and working with my coping mechanisms has made me much better equipped to tackle this than all the meds I’ve tried so far. I’d been running from my demons for years but facing them sober was, in fact, less painful and more productive than I initially thought.
Nephente adds that while he still suffers from minor bouts of derealisation, they are lessening in strength and intensity. At the time of this September 2019 conversation – the same month as German label Eisenwald released “Into the Vast Uncharted” – he’s had no real attacks for the last fifteen days.
– I’m a very proud person so, until now, I’ve told very few people about this. But fuck it, it is what it is, and I think the context lends some perspective to what the album is all about. The realisation is a painful one as I look back at this period of my life; I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone but the harsh truth is that it’s so common now and I have nothing to lose by being honest. I’ve already been at the shores of hell, so how could the truth possibly put me in a worse place? Perhaps that’s the only gift I can take with me after all these years of suffering – a slightly less dramatic view of what I have to prove and, more specifically, whom I need to impress.
Any other valuable lessons to be drawn from this?
– In a way, extreme suffering will purge you from a lot of expectations; at some point, you no longer care and then you’re free to pursue art in a way that’s meaningful only to yourself. The recording of “Into the Vast Uncharted” was a catharsis where all that pain was transformed into something resembling meaning. When the basic drive to endure life can no longer be taken for granted, perspectives change and so does your view on what you create in the world. I often go back to the words of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: ’Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.’ So, I actually find some comfort in the fact that the rough patch I’ve been in – and still am in – will turn out to be the fire from which I rise as a bolder and more honest artist. This is what gives me the energy I need to endure, even on the harshest of days. I’ve been mistaken so many times when it comes to my perceived recovery from this condition that I have no idea how long it’ll take until I can function somewhat normally again, but I do believe I’m finally starting to come to grips with the situation and will be able to battle my way back to a worthy life.