Sleeping With Sirens on new era: “It really feels like a rebirth in a way”
He walked downstairs blurry-minded to his 6-year-old daughter Copeland opening her presents, a sight that struck squarely into his heart and soul. The then-32-year-old Quinn had been on a self-destructive streak for a while by that point, and his reliance on alcohol was spiraling out of control. That was nothing new—the members of Sleeping With Sirens readily admit that they had, since their formation in Orlando, Florida, in 2009, become known as somewhat of a “party band.” But what had started as fun rock ’n’ roll indulgence morphed into a dependency, a way of life, a crutch to black out the depression that had been settling deep inside his bones.
“I got sober the day after Christmas,” he explains from a hotel room in Burbank, California. “And it’s not like I was super-fucked up on Christmas and acting crazy or anything like that. But when I saw my kid was opening up her presents, I just thought to myself, ‘I want to be here in my body, and I want to be present for these things.’ Because you’re never going to get these times back. You’ll never get that time back with your kid where she wants to play with you and have an imagination with you and do all these things—so I have to be here. I have to be in the present because I don’t want to miss that and go, ‘Fuck, I wish that I could do that still’ because I won’t be able to.”
It’s a heavy sentiment (and one that could easily be loaded with pathos), but the Kellin Quinn of 2019—some nine months after he had his last sip of alcohol—sounds anything but melancholy. In fact, he’s positively vibrant, full of an energetic lust for life, adoration for his family (his daughter, his wife, Katelynne, and her two sons which he calls his own) and a renewed energy for his band.
That’s something the other members are very aware of, too, not least because Quinn’s decision to quit alcohol came in between recording sessions for their new album, How It Feels To Be Lost. Writing for that record—the sixth full-length of their career—had begun when the band were midway through the cycle for its predecessor, 2017’s Gossip, and they recorded it in bursts between touring, some of which took place before Christmas, and in sessions which took place after. According to his bandmates, the difference in demeanor between sober Kellin and non-sober Kellin was absolutely vast.
“I don’t even know if I could put a percentage on it,” Nick Martin says, who became the band’s rhythm guitarist in 2013, and who stopped drinking a little before Quinn did. “But it was like a hundred million percent change. And that goes for both of us. I’m coming up now on a year-and-a-half of no alcohol, and we both really helped each other throughout this process. Seeing him the way he was in the studio, he was like a different person to me. I can honestly say that night-and-day difference doesn’t even do it justice: You can tell he’s in a completely different space now, which is also a positive space but also just an insanely creative space. I think that he really proved to himself that he didn’t need anything else to write, whether it was alcohol or whatever. He didn’t need an outside influence; he had everything there.”
“Sober or not sober,” lead guitarist Jack Fowler adds a little more guardedly, “Kellin’s my best friend in the entire world and the best person I know, so I stood by him though every good decision and every bad decision. I was there with him, but I was partying my ass off, too, so I couldn’t be like, ‘Hey, don’t do that!’ and then go and do the same thing. We were all in the same boat, but I wouldn’t take back any of it. It is what it is. But writing this record with him actually being sober was a completely different process. We were all sober during the entire process, so we were very happy, very coherent, very clear. We knew what we wanted to do, and we just went for it.”
Talking about it with hindsight, perspective and distance from a point of sobriety makes it sound easy, but, of course, beating addiction never is. Eight months in at the time of speaking, Quinn is completely candid about his path to recovery, as well as the newfound mental clarity that’s come along with it.
“It was tough,” he admits. “And I’m not saying that quitting drinking solves all [of] your problems. But one thing that stopping drinking does is it stops the excuses for you to not take hold of your life. I think we can all find things to occupy ourselves to where we don’t address the real situations at all, and drinking for me was a way to escape the shit. I realized that I wasn’t going to get better unless I quit, and so I did. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge—I’m in my 30s now, and I realized that I can choose the version of myself that I want to be.”
Yet while drinking had become a big issue for Quinn, his mental health, his family and his bandmates, it wasn’t a reckless alcoholism, the kind of hedonistic excess mythologized as a counterpart to rock ’n’ roll by bands such as, say, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses and Marilyn Manson. Rather, it was a dark and insidious alcoholism, one very much linked to his state of mind both mentally and emotionally, which took him down a road he had never been before and was unable to navigate back from. In other words, he was lost.
“There are some people,” Quinn begins, “who were like, ‘I didn’t even know you had a huge drinking problem.’ I wasn’t doing shady or fucked-up shit. I wasn’t getting myself in situations where I was in danger or anything: I just noticed that I was more and more depressed and more and more agitated and irritated with people. When you’re drinking and you wake up hungover, it’s harder to fake your day and go out and do the things that should be naturally easy for you. I didn’t want to show up early to meet our fans and people that really rely on our music and believe in us and who we are.”
He pauses, clearly thinking about the initial reasons that led to his decision to quit drinking alcohol and the subsequent reasons for maintaining his sobriety. It’s a subject that’s clearly close to the bone and one it seems he’s still navigating in his mind.
“I didn’t want my kids to grow up in a household where…” he says before changing track. “I grew up in a household where drinking was OK. I just saw my parents doing it, and I feel like it’s important for me as a father too to put it into perspective, because I don’t want my kids to grow up seeing their dad drinking all the time. I want them to see their dad doing good father things for them versus not doing that.”
While Quinn’s children might have been the most immediate and important motivation for his sobriety, there were numerous other factors at work, too—not least the well-being and longevity of the band. While Sleeping With Sirens have always undulated between heaviness and poppiness, Gossip—the band’s one record to be released on a major label—leaned heavily toward the latter. It was the sound of a band trying to be themselves but unsure quite how to do so. That was because, as they readily admit, none of them were on the same page when they were making it, and issues in their personal lives were seeping into both the band dynamic and, subsequently, the creative process.
“We were in a weird headspace at that time compared to the headspace we’re in now,” Fowler admits. “There was a lot going on. We’d been a band at that point for eight years, and when everyone’s partying and doing whatever they do, emotions are different and headspaces are different. Now, everyone’s more clear, and it makes way more sense. The direction of the band, the style of music—if you’re on different pages, you’re going to make different decisions, and no one’s going to agree on anything.”
Those creative and personal difficulties later led Quinn to publicly declare that, instead of making Gossip, he wished the band had taken a break instead. In fact, there were calls with their previous management about doing so, but in the end, and for better or worse, the members decided to keep going. As difficult as it may have been to continue without taking a break, Quinn says he’s glad that they didn’t in the end, even if it was the machinations of a streaming-dominated music industry that ultimately played a large part in that decision to persevere.
“There are always ‘what ifs,’” he says, “but we can only focus on the now, on the present, especially because of the way art and music is right now. You tour to make a living because that’s how bands survive. I was definitely tired and stuff, but I really think it’s important to hold on to the value of real life, because you can get real fucked up in your brain if you don’t.”
Interestingly, it’s Martin who’s most forthcoming about that pivotal moment. Whereas Quinn speaks in hypotheticals, Martin is much more point-of fact. He admits that, if somebody had asked whether the band were all on the same page during the Gossip cycle, he’d have said yes, but that it wouldn’t necessarily have been the truth.
“It’s not like I felt we were bullshitting each other,” he says, “and I’m always trying to be the most positive, optimistic human being, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have moments of doubt or denial as to the state of the band or where certain people were at. I’ve always felt it was my duty to be the glue of this band and to try to push people forward in positive ways, even if I’m personally struggling with something.
“There was a point where we had a phone call with management, and we were considering taking a break or a long hiatus—and I think at that point, we definitely weren’t bullshitting ourselves. We were at a point where we were like, ‘Maybe it’s time to hang it up or chill out for a while.’ Because we weren’t on the same page. And I think that moment helped open the doors as far as communication and definitely facilitated the band getting to the same page.”
You can hear that sense of cohesion in the 11 songs that make up How It Feels To Be Lost, but, more than that, you can also hear the journey the band (completed by bassist Justin Hills, who doesn’t take part in the interviews) took to get there. It’s been a decade since they formed and nine years since they released their debut album, With Ears To See And Eyes To Hear. It was that record’s opening track, “If I’m James Dean, You’re Audrey Hepburn,” that helped attract a devout following that has stayed with the band ever since, through thick and thin, through the band’s heavier moments as well as their poppier ones.
One thing that certainly helped them stand out from the crowded, baying scene they became a part of is Quinn’s distinctive, high-pitched vocals. In a world of copycats and tailcoat riders, he is quite literally a unique voice, one that elevated the band above their peers and, with 2013’s Feel, to the No. 3 spot on the Billboard 200. At the time of writing, that’s been their most commercially successful album to date, but it’s also clear that chart positions don’t hold the same allure they once did for the band.
Rather, as How It Feels To Be Lost overwhelmingly demonstrates, Sleeping With Sirens have learned what truly matters is their well-being and the well-being of their friends and loved ones. That means, were they confronted with a similar situation now that they faced a few years ago, none of them would hesitate in taking a break if they felt they needed it.
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“We all make a living off this, so I think it’s tough to sometimes go home and not be working,” Quinn says. “But everyone in my band has looked to other avenues to stay busy while we are home. I have my Dreamer Development company, so I’m working with artists and doing that. Jack is opening up a restaurant business and is in the process of finding a building. Nick is always networking and has stuff that he’s working on, and Justin does, too. So we’re finding out that we can be busy at home, and we can still work so we’re not just sitting around doing nothing.
“Ultimately, these guys understand that if I’m not in a good place as a singer—and the dude that writes the lyrics and the melodies and all that stuff—and I’m not able to perform, then nobody can. They can’t do it without me, and I can’t do it without them. If Jack was like, ‘I need to take a break because I’m not in the mood to write guitar,’ I can’t force him to do that because we’re not going to make good music. I think that Gossip is a perfect example of that. That was us not in a good creative space and trying to force a record. So I think we understand that we all have to be mentally prepared, and we have to be in a good place.”
Yet while most reports of the near-break center on Quinn’s desire to have one, it’s something both Fowler and Martin actually wholeheartedly agreed with him about. In fact, Fowler says he felt exactly the same way.
“I was 100% on the same page as him,” he says. “We talked, and we were like, ‘Dude, is it time to just have some breathing room?’ Because it’s really good to do that for yourself. But we didn’t do that for ourselves, and sometimes when you don’t, different decisions are made in the process. But we fought through it. That’s all you can really do.”
“All those decisions, big or small, were like the butterfly effect,” Martin adds, “and if we had taken a break, I don’t know if this band would still be together. That break could have broken up the band. I sincerely don’t know. But at the end of the day, I’ve told Kellin if he ever needs to take a break, then by all means, take a break, because his well-being and everybody’s health comes first and foremost.
“I was always supportive of him and whatever breaks he needed or any time off that he needed away from us from making music. I love him like a brother, so I could never be so selfish as to say, ‘You need to do this or do that.’ If he wanted to truly do that, he could have, and he would have had my full support.”
Ironically, of course, as Martin points out, had Sleeping With Sirens taken that hiatus, they neither would have made this record nor be the people or the band they are today.
“I know it’s a cliché,” Martin says, “but this album is definitely the culmination of the six years I’ve been with the band—whether that’s the different sounds we’ve tried or becoming closer and closer as a family and realizing what we do and don’t want to do. I feel insanely grateful and humbled. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel so appreciative of being able to do what we do, but specifically what this album turned into. It came at the perfect time for us, and the stars aligned so perfectly in terms of where Kellin was at, where Justin was at, where I was at.
"There wasn’t any pressure. It was just a lot of fun, and I think getting back to the basics of just having fun was the ultimate goal. I think that was achieved, and you can hear that throughout the record and in Kellin’s lyrical content. I actually think what was ‘fun’ for him was being able to get everything off his chest. Everything was therapeutic for him, and he feels so great now because of that process.”
“I think this is the best record and the best band we could possibly be,” Fowler chimes in. “Morale is so high. Energy is so good. The response to the new songs has been incredible. It really feels like a rebirth in a way, and that’s a very exciting thing.”
For while its title may be How It Feels To Be Lost, the band, both on record and in person, come off as anything but. That duality—the convergence of the past and the present, the battle being negativity and positivity, the recollection of being lost told with the confidence that comes from being found—is key to the story of this band and this album.
“There was a time in my life when I felt very lost and didn’t really understand who I was and was trying to figure that out,” Quinn admits, who was 23 when he formed Sleeping With Sirens. “I think that there’s a big gap between being a teenager and being 20 and between being 20 and being 30. You change a lot in that time period, and I was going through a lot of physical and mental changes as a person, but also musically, as well. And I think we finally found our place with this record.
“So How It Feels To Be Lost is me just wading through all the shit that I went through and finding myself. And that’s exactly what we did, because I think we were lost musically, too. We lost touch with who we were. And I think that you can tell. I mean, honestly, your fans know you the best in the way that they can tell when you’re faking it, and they can tell when it’s not honest. I felt depressed and upset, and I wanted to scream, and I wanted to play music that resembled that. So that’s what we did with this record.”
Much of the band’s rebirth—to use Martin’s own word—is centered around the love and respect the band have for each other and those doors of communication being fully open. Had Sleeping With Sirens regarded and treated each other merely as fellow members of their band, it’s very likely they wouldn’t have survived. As it turns out, the bond between the four remaining members and their collective inspiration is as strong as it’s ever been. You can hear the warmth in their voices when they talk about each other. With Martin in particular, there’s one word that keeps coming up: family.
“Kellin always tells me that he appreciates [that] I was there to step in while he checked out for a bit, but that’s what family does,” Martin says earnestly. “I couldn’t think of a different scenario or road to go down. It wasn’t that I wanted the weight of everyone’s problems or the band to be on my shoulders, but that’s just what family does. We wanted to lift each other up, and it was hard for some and harder for others. It’s hard to not have those moments where you’re like, ‘What the fuck are we doing?’”
To say that the band found their way out of the dark and into the light might be cliché, but it’s also the truth. And now that they’ve succeeded in becoming who they want to be again—as people, as friends, as a band—they’re hoping they can pass the lesson of their story onto the fans that, despite shifts in their sound and periods of uncertainty, have more or less grown up with them and stuck by them. That was never the plan when Sleeping With Sirens first started, but now they have a dedicated fanbase and a platform from which to talk to that following, they feel it would be remiss not to use it. Especially when they’ve seen—and lived through—those benefits of their new outlook themselves, particularly with the making of How It Feels To Be Lost.
“And there is the irony that the title is How It Feels To Be Lost, but we’ve never felt more put together or more on the best path of our lives,” Martin confides. “And I think that’s something everyone in this world can relate to—we all experience dark times in our lives where we’re alone and lost, but then you find out that you’re not alone, that other people experience these things too. And that’s the beautiful thing about Kellin—he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he’s brutally honest, but no matter how dark something is, and despite everything he’s gone through, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
For Quinn specifically, that light clearly comes from his family and the realization that he wants to be there to experience life with them. It’s as simple as that, but it’s a decision that has had knock-on consequences for every other aspect of his life.
“Being a father has shown me not to take anything for granted,” he says, “and to follow your dreams, because I want my kids to be able to have that for themselves. I want my daughter and my sons to grow up and have something that they really want to do. I think it’s hard to go through life and feel like you’ve got to work a job that you hate. I get to play music for a living, and I want my kids to be able to have that, too. For as much stress that comes along with being in a band, I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I just want to be a positive example for them.”
This new album is steadfast proof of that. In much the same way that the band’s bad experiences and headspaces bled into the making of Gossip, so their renewed energy and enthusiasm permeates How It Feels To Be Lost. What’s more, you can hear the power of their friendship—that family bond—in each and every one of its songs. And, it seems, the band’s fans can hear it, too.
“For a time, it was really hard to be that band,” Martin agrees, “because everyone was on a different page, and it was extremely difficult to get anything through to one another. But we got through that barrier.” He pauses, adding an unintentional dramatic effect. “We’re back, baby!”
Not surprisingly, Quinn is visibly enthralled at that sentiment and exclamation.
“The one thing that I can’t stress enough for me and the other guys in the band is that this is our life,” he says. “This is all we wanted to do. It’s our dream, and it’s more important that we do this than anything else.”
This feature originally appeared in AP #374 with cover stars Sleeping With Sirens, which is available here or below.