“Depth almost always comes from adversity”—Mat Devine on his advice compendium ‘Weird War One’
For those uninitiated, we introduce you to the Raccoon Society—an extraordinary community of openness and empathy forged within an archaic fuse.tv comment box on what was, a decade ago, a Kill Hannah tour blog run by the group’s frontman Mat Devine.
“It wasn’t until around 2008 that it turned into an advice column,” Devine explains, setting up the “Dear Abby”-style advice pieces compiled in his book Weird War One: The Antihero’s Guide To Surviving Everday Life, which features the wisdom of guest advisors like My Chemical Romance’s Mikey Way, Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden, Thirty Seconds To Mars’ Tomo Miličević and Amanda Palmer. “I found myself suddenly at the center of these really deep conversations from kids all around the world. They were going through similar things—things I certainly have been through myself.”
We caught up with Devine to relive the era when he went from rock star to internet counselor, talk about the universality of pain for those following their own paths in life, tackle the “does music save lives?” debate and more.
So this is the second edition, right? When was it originally released?
Well, the original came out about a year ago in e-book form. It was through a publishing company called Thought Catalog, which is also a site I regularly blog for. I was blogging for Fuse, and then when I went to Thought Catalog. They had the idea—since they were big fans of the advice column—that we just pull the best of the best and turn it into an e-book. E-books are cool, but everybody was asking for a physical edition. This is something that's been in the works for a long time. We figured, while we were making a new edition, why don't we also make some changes and improvements? So, for people that already have the e-book, this is still worth getting.
How long did your Fuse blog run? When were all of these letters compiled?
It was just a tour blog, at first. There were a bunch of bands on [the Fuse website] that had tour blogs, and I wrote the one for Kill Hannah. That was 2004, actually, the very first time I ever started touring. It wasn't until around 2008 that it turned into an advice column. The community around the blog was so cool. The comments were as interesting as anything I was writing. The fans really found a home on there, and they started to reach out to one another. It's funny because it just predated the social network stuff that's always embedded into it now. Back then, really all it was was a single comment box. People were writing long messages to each other, so the comment section was just endless. It turned into me saying, "What do you want me to talk about? What do you want me to blog about? When we're not on the road, what can I help you with?" It started with stuff you'd expect, like tips for forming a band. Then it shifted to stuff that became a reflection of the real issues that people out there are facing. I hesitate to say “kids” or “fans” because although the average age was probably around 19, it expanded beyond that, and you had people of all ages, parents and everything. The tone of it was definitely set by the 19-year-olds, though. The issues they were struggling with that they wanted advice on got pretty heavy. I found myself suddenly at the center of these really deep conversations from kids all around the world. They were all going through a similar thing, things I certainly have been through myself. There was just too much to handle; there were so many. I handled as many as I could; I tried to do like 10 per week. Each one required research.
Yeah, you had quotes, you were consulting people—you were really researching.
It was like a crash course in a lot of instances. For example, a girl writes in saying, "I have a crush on my female best friend. I'm gay but she's straight, and I have a crippling crush on her. What do I do?" Certainly I'm not a female, nor am I gay. Then I would think to myself, “Who to me is the greatest example out there of someone who has been through something similar, whom I admire in my life?” I'd call that person, and really try to learn as much as I could and empathize as much as I could. It is amazing how helpful everybody is when they know that it's for a greater good, because they're really generous with their time. I'm not calling them to pimp out a show or an album; I'm calling with a genuine concern for someone else. I called professionals. I called my sisters a lot. People started to get used to their phones ringing around 2 a.m.
There was one part where you asked author Stephen Chbosky to respond to a girl who wanted to read The Perks Of Being A Wallflower but she couldn't get it [because her parents wouldn't let her], and he said that he couldn't answer her directly because he takes too much of it in. When you're dealing with things that are that dark and deep, did you feel pressure or responsibility? How did you disconnect from that?
The only point at which I did disconnect was acknowledging that you can't address everybody. That was a hard thing. Just to help organize, I went old-school and would print everything out. It was helpful for me to see all these questions printed on paper, then I'd have stacks and go through them. I had to edit because there were many questions on the same topic and each one was just as heartfelt, and I had to choose which ones to address. The part of it that just sucks is that you can't necessarily respond to everybody logistically. I didn't mind going down the wormhole with them because when I was writing the advice column, I was thankfully on the other side. I was now older—and still weird as hell—but relatively stable. [Laughs.] For me to go back to walk in those shoes was rewarding and cool. It's cool to remember where you come from; it's cool to remember the experiences that shaped who you are. And it's also cool to see that a lot of these things you fight through, you survive them. And you're so grateful for them later on. Some days you realize, even as a much older adult, there's still no escape from some of these things. Bullying was a hot topic. And you know, adults still bully each other. [Laughs.]
Was there anything that seemed to be the most universal in the messages you got? Was there a common thread, or something that a lot of people go through that they feel alone in?
Definitely heartbreak was the biggest one. I put aside enough to make an entirely new book simply just about relationship problems and heartbreak. It's just so universal. It became so evident to me that a lot of these are lessons you have to learn the hard way. Every one of us has that toxic relationship that we're all in—some of us longer than others—and you survive it and look back and vow never to make that mistake again. None of us can avoid the shrapnel of a horrible experience, but there are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope. Thankfully, for me, I have an older sister that helped me. I had friends or people that I admire. But there's a lot of people that are just floating out there alone. If anything, I wanted this to be an outstretched hand for them.
Another universal thing that struck me through the experience of writing this that I'm so disturbed by is the fact that the one person who is doing something remotely right or remotely interesting, or has an original identity, is the one person that gets targeted. I just want to fly in with a helicopter and pick that one person up and take them to New York. You're doing the right thing, you know? You have the courage to stand out and you have a strong sense of identity and the inner strength not to conform to what you don't agree with. You look interesting and you listen to rad music, and you're the one that is on the verge of a breakdown? Why? The injustice of that strikes me.
“Us vs. them” was a pretty common theme in the book. It wasn't necessarily combative, but you often pointed out to people who were going through something due to their unique interests, that their unique interests were ultimately going to serve them well.
Those are then the experiences that shape who they are. With the people I'm meeting now [while living in LA], you know right away who has depth and who doesn't. Depth almost always comes from some sort of adversity in their past that they've had to overcome. If someone just follows the herd and is never really challenged, they reach adulthood with a shallow, uninteresting persona.
When you're living it, and people are frowning on you for it, it's hard to see that it's going to get better.
Sometimes it's that one friend you find, or that one album or that one book that gives you that perspective. For me, growing up, it was the Cure. There was, like, one other person at school that I could relate to, and one other person in another town. My entire social life was pretty much, for a couple years, just going to Denny's with the three weirdos from that entire side of the state.
Around the time you were writing this blog, there was a big movement where people were openly talking about music saving their lives. Recently, some artists have been pushing back against that notion. You just mentioned that music gave you perspective. Do you think it can save lives?
I think there's always a backlash whenever a topic catches on. I remember the same thing happening with bullying. You're saying that now artists are feeling the pressure when they're writing songs that they must have some sort of social agenda?
I think it's that when their fans tell them that, they don't know how to react because it's a lot of pressure for a person.
Kill Hannah had a song called "The Songs That Saved My Life." I wrote it from a very personal place. There's an album by Peter Gabriel called So, and there's a song on there called "Don't Give Up." As cheesy as that sounds, sometimes you need to know that you're not the only one. The minute you learn someone else—especially someone who's successful on a world stage—faces the same things that you're facing, it's a huge consolation. It could be a book, it could be a movie. I think that's why Stephen Chbosky’s Perks Of Being A Wallflower resonated. It's coming-of-age, sexual identity, and major issues that a lot of people face. They have no one to relate to, and they think they're absolute aliens. A single book, a single movie, a single song can save someone's life. Coming at that as an artist, I don't think there's any greater compliment. So that artists would complain? I can't imagine. Is the backlash that artists don't want to be thought of as helpful? Is that the backlash? That's not nice! [Laughs.]
Coming from another perspective, ultimately you're the one that decides to take your life into your hands and make that decision to get better. But like you said, something can spark it.
In one's formative years, the album that they connect to that pulls them from that emotional quicksand will stay with them for their life. You have a real hardcore connection with that fan. That's not the sort of fan that's gonna outgrow you when you're not cool anymore. I still will cite those albums for me I had on cassette when I was 14 as the most important records in the world. I don't think there should be a backlash; I think bands should really embrace that.
Going back to the book, since this was written many years ago, is there anything you wrote that you look back on that makes you cringe?
[Laughs.] I think it's a little bit irreverent. Like in one case, there was a girl being bullied by another girl in her school, and I suggested that she send a dead bird in a box to her address. [Laughs.] I don't cringe when I read it—I just kind of laugh because it's kind of ballsy for a singer of a band to allow himself to be elevated to some sort of authority. It's like, Dr. Phil is not really a doctor, you know? So when I read it, I do laugh at the balls. I had a laugh when I wonder if that girl ever did send that dead bird.
Did you ever get updates from people?
Periodically. What's cool is that they'd respond to each other, and turn into a society, kind of. You had people posting their phone numbers on there, and you had people reaching out to each other. It was really thriving, and I was really proud that the tone of this thing was just so authentic and generous. I don't know if people—especially of that age around 18 or 19 —consider it cool to reach out and be thoughtful, or be vulnerable.
Speaking as someone who was 18 or 19 at the time you were doing this: No.
But the fact is, there's nothing cooler! There's nothing cooler than showing your vulnerability and wanting to be there for other people. These are strangers too, in different countries. When I see someone who wants to share the most vulnerable side of themselves in a public forum, I don't think there's anything cooler than that.
You were also a part of the It Gets Better Project. What do you think compels you to help people?
I think it's how much I've grown. It's just a matter of... I don't know. Humanity, I guess. If you could've seen me when I was 13, and you could've seen...I was just a super-skinny, pimply, pale skater. There's a real theme that I've learned from talking to other musicians, and that's why it's really cool to feature people like Benji Madden and Mikey Way and Amanda Palmer. You realize that these are people are now onstage commanding large audiences, but more often than not, they all have a shared background of dorkiness and teenage misfit-ness. I was talking to Gerard Way about it, too. He's a comic book geek, you know? If we were cool and hot and great with girls when we were 15, we would not be in our rooms learning how to play guitar. We'd be out on dates. But we weren't, so we're obsessing over bands and trying to write music and practicing scales and doing these things that require a sense of isolation. Years later, you just always relate to that inner loner. You kinda wanna have a conversation with your high school self sometimes.
Someone I met recently has anxiety, and I have anxiety. And I told my therapist, "But around this person, I stand up straighter and I talk more clearly, because I see myself in that." I want to alleviate it. And he's like, "Number one, that's confidence," and I'm like "What the hell is confidence?" [Laughs.] He's like, "What you have now, through learning more about yourself and living your life, is wisdom, and what you can do with that is impart it on others. That's your gift." I think that's kind of what you're saying: You learn from living and you identify with others, and you want to give back what you learned to the universe.
That's exactly right. Anxiety, huh? That's interesting because that came up in this book, too. When I was writing for Fuse and had Mikey Way talk about anxiety, or had Benji Madden talk about weight issues, or Amanda Palmer talk about gender identity, it's like why wasn't that home page of Rolling Stone-type stuff? It was just happening in the little bubble of this blog. I think it's fascinating when people in the spotlight reveal truths about their flaws and the struggles that they've had to overcome.
What's your next musical plan?
The next thing that's gonna come out for me is a feature with Kris Trindl, who just split off from Krewella. We wrote a song together that I'm featured on. We went to the desert and we shot a video where we set a huge palm tree on fire. The next thing that's coming out for me musically is that. So it's going to be Rain Man—that's his moniker, Rain Man—featuring Mat Devine. It's a song called "Earthquake." It's gonna be coming out at the end of the summer.
Is there anything else you want people to know about your book?
I just have this wish that this is the kind of book that ends up really tattered up and passed from friend to friend, brother to sister or to whomever. I'd like it to have a place on dorm room shelves next to those other books and albums that we really identify with—the ones that really shape us.
A well-loved book to be passed down, to guide the future generations of weirdos.
Yeah, from one weirdo to another. I wanna see it completely tattered and messed up. I don't want it to look pristine. I want to know that it's been passed from one weirdo to another. Many times. ALT