For a while there, it looked like Sleeping With Sirens were poised for some great things. They got themselves new management and were able to ascend to major-label status with a deal with Warner Records. And then everything went to hell.
From the recording of the ill-fated LP Gossip to the aftermath of taking it on the road, everything about the situation was working against the band. Charismatic frontman Kellin Quinn was becoming estranged from the rest of his band, having conspired with outside songwriters instead of his buddies, guitarists Jack Fowler and Nick Martin, bassist Justin Hills and drummer Gabe Barham. On top of that, Quinn had recognized that he became a full-blown alcoholic and needed to take his life back.
Those moments of being dropped, cleaning up and getting back to work have all culminated in How It Feels To Be Lost, SWS’ new album and first for Sumerian Records. Produced by the team of Zakk Cervini and Matt Good (From First To Last), the album is the boldest record the group have made, crafting heavier guitars against inspired soundscapes and sound design while Quinn’s vocal prowess heads 90 mph on the on-ramp to the stratosphere. It’s easily SWS’ most daring record, with Quinn describing the writing and recording process as “honest.”
The singer spoke with Jason Pettigrew about the misery of major labels; his dalliances with liquor and how his sense of self-awareness rescued both his band and himself from the most opaque darkness imaginable.
The new record isn’t an angry record as much as it is a fighting record. In terms of classic conflicts, it sounds like you vs. yourself.
KELLIN QUINN: Absolutely! I think you nailed it. The name of the record says it all: The last two years of my life was a fight for me to figure out who I was and what I was struggling with. I tried to numb pain from my past, stay afloat and try to deal with stress with alcoholism. I would keep my issues at bay for a moment, and then they would all surface to the point where I either had to figure my life out or I was going to throw everything away and not be able to do what I love.
I think all those things go hand in hand with music: Everything is available to you, and it’s supposed to be “Oh, it’s fun to do these things” or “Everyone does this.” But you get to the point where you see people in the industry that are around you, turning 40 and still partying. I looked in the mirror at myself and said, “OK. I’m a dad. I’m a husband. I’m dealing with all this stress and anxiety and adding to it by trying to act in this childish behavior.”
What kind of things were you facing? There’s a lot of forward motion being made regarding the awareness of mental health initiatives. But then there’s that ignorant sentiment that people still carry: “What’s Kellin got to be depressed about? His band’s successful. He has a beautiful wife and great kids. He’s got it made.” There’s an exasperating naivete about exactly what it takes to have a successful band.
I think where this stems from is I’ve always been a kid who’s had to struggle with depression and anxiety. I’ve always been good at masking it. When I was younger, I would find a way to be as obnoxious as possible to be the life of the party. I felt it’d take away from my anxiety and feeling like an outcast or not belonging in a certain group. I was the class clown, and I would do stupid things to make people laugh and be accepted.
As music began to take a hold in my life, I realized that I had a gift for singing, and it became my mask. As people were accepting me and I was being a part of this group as a whole, I started noticing that people who never gave a shit about me [were] wanting me to take pictures with their nieces and nephews—the same people that talked shit about me when I was a kid.
And a lot of this has to do with the pressure of the music industry in general. I don’t think a lot of people realize how hard the work all of these artists do for little to no money. Even some of the more successful artists the kids are thinking are making a shit-ton of money aren’t. For me, I have the pressure of my family relying on me; and I have four other dudes in my band who need to provide for their families based on what we do in music. That’s a lot of pressure that lies on my shoulders because I’m the main songwriter. It’s a lot for me to go in there and take all that weight.
Really, the weight of the last two years had finally broken me. And in the midst of Gossip and being on a major label and everybody who signed us at the major label getting fired and me feeling left helpless, I had a full-on panic attack. Just dealing with those things and shining the light through it.
On Gossip, I felt that you were playing it too safe. I think you were amplifying things that weren’t necessary as opposed to doubling down on the things you were good at. This new album is probably the boldest record you’ve ever made.
I think for me, it was like I should be excited that I’m on a major label. I was switching gears to a new management company. When we started working on Gossip, we worked with producers—it was the first time I had ever written with other songwriters. I could see my band were upset because I was placed from a distance away from my band, and we usually write our records together in a room. That record was more of me going off on my own and being in songwriting sessions. I could tell that they were bummed out. I ended up in the middle of that record cycle letting go of the wheel and co-piloting my life with it. It’s a safe record: I’m not mad about it. It’s not real and honest: I just felt like I was playing a part.
What I will say is that if we didn’t make Gossip, we couldn’t have made this record. It was either quit music or go in and give a shit again. We were at the point of, “Do we really want to even do this anymore? What’s the point? What is it about? It was about music and having it mean something and having it say something.” When Jack and I started writing those songs, it ignited something, like we did have something to say. I just started saying what I felt, and that’s what the record turned into.
This record isn’t a make-up for lost time or a “return to form” as much as it is a line in the sand. You worked with two producers, Zakk Cervini—who knows his way around a pop hook—and Matt Good, who knows something about bringing the superior rock domination, if you will. The record feels like an IMAX version of Sleeping With Sirens.
There’s a fine line between giving a nod to where we came from, but not completely being like, “You’re right. We give up: We’re going to make that record like that one we made four years ago.” I think it was more important for us to evolve. I thought that if the music was darker and heavier, it would give it that energy and that aggression without me having to scream on everything. I think the screaming is there where it needs to be, where you have to explain that emotion like, “This is me at my darkest,” or “This is me at my lowest point.” That’s where I want to scream things, not just for the sake of screaming.
I went to AA. I still go if I think I need to go. But in AA, you’ll meet people who are still constantly fighting that urge to pick up the bottle and drink. It’s not like anybody suddenly recovers: They’re in recovery for the rest of their life. It’s not like there’s a cure for it. I feel like the music is that way: Life is a fight, and it’s constantly going to feel that way. It’s not going to give up or give in for you. You have to be willing to stand up for yourself, be strong and go through it. And that’s what I’m trying to get across in this music.
Read more: Kellin Quinn uses unreleased Sleeping With Sirens lyrics in self-harm awareness bracelet collab
It runs in my family, and it’s always something that’s been around me. For the last couple [of] years, I’ve noticed that it changed me. It was like, “Oh, Kellin’s funny when he drinks.” In the last couple [of] years, I’d be mean and irritable and say mean things that would be hurtful to people I loved and cared about whether it would be my band members or my family. When the guys in the band who party and drink tell you that they think that you should slow down…
What was your intake like at the height of it? A drink and dinner and then nonstop raging at night?
When we’d fly on tour, I’d be doing double screwdrivers on tour just so I could sleep on the plane. I’d wake up and be hungover from that, and then I’d have another drink or just getting into soundcheck. Then you have a couple [of] drinks onstage. After you’re done drinking and performing onstage, you go to the hotel, and before sleeping you have three more drinks. It was pretty bad, dude. It was a repetitive cycle.
Did you have a complete rock-bottom moment?
There wasn’t a rock-bottom point where I drove my car into a hole or did something outrageous and crazy. I was at my mom’s: We were hanging out drinking. I looked around, and there was all my family, and my kids were hanging out, playing with each other. I just thought to myself, “I don’t want to be this dude. I don’t want my kids to say, ‘Oh, my dad has drinks on holidays‘“ when it’s supposed to be about them. I woke up the next morning, Christmas Day, and I quit.
One of the parts of the job is for you to do interviews to get people psyched up for your new music. When you have a song called “Medicine,” how are you going to feel having to answer questions about your sobriety with frequency? Are you totally comfortable to face these reminders of yourself?
It makes it very easy to believe the words that I sing. It is my life: What I wrote down is very transparent. I don’t want to hide away from it. I want to be honest about it because I know there are other people out there who struggle with the same thing, whether it’s depression or anxiety, or whether they’re trying to numb that pain with alcohol or substance abuse. I am so happy with my life now and so content with who I am because I filled that void in my life with music again.
Sleeping With Sirens’ first single “Leave It All Behind” is available now. The track appears on the band’s upcoming full-length, How It Feels To Be Lost, which drops Sept. 6 via Sumerian. Preorders are available here now, and you can check out the new song below.