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Illumination: A Conversation with BLACK PYRAMID's Andy Beresky and Clay Neely

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

Ten years of ‘Stormbringer’, ‘II’, and the journey leading to and from the scene.

Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):

Of all the gleaming stars in the evening sky, the one that burned the brightest before dimming for a long rest was that of sludge/doom metal outfit, Black Pyramid. For nearly six years, this three-piece ensemble captivated the hearts and minds of willing metalheads looking for the path forward, a progressive next step towards the successful coalescence of children of the psychedelic age, crafting riffs of the medieval variety. Dressed in the meter of folk songs, shanties, and the seductive flair of sound synesthesia that tells a story without ever uttering a syllable.

For Andy Beresky, Clay Neely, and Dave Gein, the formula of Black Pyramid was a shifting landscape that was wrought with limitless creativity, a thorough execution of talented songwriting, clever lyricism, and exceptional musicianship. From a career that brought them out of their habitat of Western Massachusetts, and into the European circuit of festivals, it couldn't be clearer that the sphere of the group's influence far transcended their small corner of the world. After a four year lineup shift that traded every member of the group like the tides, Black Pyramid would finally settle, leaving the group enriched by organic growth, ready to create for themselves a new sound with a decade of experience behind them.

The world of underground metal, though, was not prepared to let them rest. Diving headlong back into the local tour scene, Black Pyramid picked up right where they left off, writing an extended length split last year with the group Enhailer, their first new music in five years. It was the humble beginning of a glorious new future; the era of silence had come to a close, and the dawn of a new age had begun, ushering in throngs of new fans who had only heard the distant rumblings of the Black Pyramid of old.

It was on a quiet Sunday morning in late September that this lucky critic sat down for a long-winded chat with Andy Beresky, and Clay Neely, two of the co-founders of the group, to discuss the pandemic reality, the psychological cost of living, the lore of their chosen worlds, and the timeline of their group — past, present, and future.


Jake Sanders: Dudes, thank you very much for joining me here today!

Gentlemen, the musical chasm of COVID-19's worldwide slowdown has caused a lot of shortages, tour cancellations, vinyl has come to a halt, and it accidentally bred all types of productive new studio material, though. But for you two specifically, this far down the line, how has it affected you personally, for whoever would like to go first?

Clay Neely: Well, at this point, I'm really just kind of a steward. Andy is in-charge of creating new material, and stuff like that, but I know — and he'll tell you — it has obviously presented a great amount of challenges. It just kind of slowed everything down. It didn't really affect me too much, but it did up there a whole lot more.

Andy Beresky: Yeah, Jake, what had happened was... we were firing on all cylinders. We had just recorded a new track, ‘The Quantum Phoenix’, we had the new line-up, we were writing new material. We had another song, ‘Bile, Blame, and Blasphemy’ that we were doing live. We went to Europe that fall, of 2019, to really celebrate the tenth year anniversary of the first album, but also to debut some of this new material live, so we were doing a split of new material, and first album material. That European tour went really well; we came back, and did a pretty heavy tour schedule for the first part of the winter, for us, anyways. A lot of times, I don't like to play up around here in New England during the winter. Ya know, attendances are spotty with the weather, travel can be a pain. It's often just not worth it. Sometimes we just don't do a lot of shows in the winter. But, we did! We kept it going semi-locally. We did Albany, Boston, little regional runs. And the idea was — we would keep writing! We kept the momentum really going into the studio, and that all came to a standstill. Eric and I both work in human services, where if we had gotten COVID, it wouldn't just have affected us; it would've affected a lot of vulnerable people in the community, so we're not comfortable risking it. I was really trying to stay away from people *laughs*. By the spring, we were outside meeting with people, but the idea of us all being in a tight practice space together, and then potentially spreading it into some of the group homes that we work at — that didn't seem like a viable option. It was exactly what you said: it brought everything to a grinding halt.

JS: It definitely feels like, the more I talk to musicians, some of them who work in studio-only felt it was crippling, but maybe not intellectually crippling. They got some workout. But for their primary job, stuff they were handling outside of this, a lot of them were taking hits nonstop. Some of them were, of course, labeled ‘essential’. I was wondering if that was the same for you two gentlemen?

AB: Yes. Yeah, we were essential — both Eric and I.

JS: It feels almost like a hollow moniker now. I work at a big box furniture store, and every day now we're out-of-stock, so it's a lot of apologies to people. But even then, a lot of customers ask "how are you handling all of this? Where's your mental health?" and it's kind of weird to say, "it's been better."

AB: That's real.

JS: So, just to address the elephant in the room, your group has been back for a while now, albeit with a couple lineup changes in recent years. If I may, Clay: what is your current involvement with the group? And Andy, how has the dynamic changed for the better, since you've been back? That departure, the return, Adversarial's release, how has it changed for you personally?

AB: It's been interesting. The original vision was, we wanted to do some shows with the original lineup, so Clay, Eric, and I were gonna do it on a permanent, but part-time basis. So we only did a run of four shows initially, just in the Northeast, and then we did the Maryland Doom Fest. And we did the ‘RPM festival’, which is a local festival around here. So, we only did six shows. We weren't really planning on getting to where we are now. What ended up happening, was we would get offers, but it'd involve flying Clay up, rehearsing, all that jazz. We were pretty picky about what we did, and didn't do. A lot of the time, I'd be like "naw, we're not gonna do that."
Sometimes, I'd float 'em by Clay, and be like "hey, do you wanna do this? it doesn't seem like it'd be worth it." What ended up happening was, we got a Halloween show offer — hold on, the poster's right here — *checks wall* Halloween of 2017. We were offered a show in Providence, with Elder. That's kind of historic, because Elder and us, we kind of came up through the ranks together. We were both on Meteor City, we were both New England. We played a lot of shows together early on, including some really good ones, in Providence. I was like, "Clay — I don't know about this. I know you've got kids. I know you'd have to come up. It's Halloween. Kids love Halloween. I don't know if this is viable. Do you think it's worth it?" He was like, "I can't, but maybe you should look at getting someone to fill in." I said, "Yeah, we could get Andy Kivela. He probably would be willing to do it. He shares a practice space with us. He does his own thing, and he's always practicing. He's a very accomplished drummer, who's a serious musician." Well, more serious than me, in that he has a much more serious work ethic.
*laughter* So I'm like — yeeeeah, he could pick it up quick. So I talk to Eric, and I'm like "Clay thinks we might want to get a sub for this," and he's like "I'm thinking Andy Kivela." I was like, "That's who we were thinking too!!" So then, right after that, Clay was like, "At this point, I think I might just be holding you guys back a little from these opportunities. Maybe you really should talk about Andy taking it over, permanently." That all happened pretty quick — I mean, Clay could speak more to that.

CN: The thing about it, to me personally, it's exactly how Andy says it. We could rejoin, and not miss a beat. We'd play the same set, and I don't think many people would really know the difference. To me, the impetus behind wanting to get the original lineup back together was to have something creative going forward. I knew that was going to be a Herculean task, with me where I am, and the thing about it is, there's probably no bigger fan of the band than myself; and if there's no real potential for creating new music, then that was something that needed to be looked into. Like Andy said, Andy Kivela is an extraordinary drummer. He's really, really good. He picked up everything like that *snaps*. It just seemed like the thing to do, in order to get the band back into this creative space that I was desperate to see it go to. I think the results are pretty clear *laughs* with that last release. I remember when Andy sent it up to me, it was a rough mix — or might've been a final mix — regardless, it blew me away. I was like, *slams desk* "This is EXACTLY what I'm talkin' about!" It hit all my buttons, it was great. So, absolutely. It's going good.

JS: It feels good, too. The first time I got to hear some new music, I was sitting in the middle of building an entertainment system, and it popped up on my newsfeed, and I've never dropped a customer faster. I was just like, "HOLD ON. I'LL BE RIGHT BACK." Went and listened to it, came back, and was like "let's continue." *big grin*

CN: Yep. It's solid. The production, the guitar tones, the lyrics — just every box checked, for me. I was super stoked to hear it. It was about as good of a validation as you can get. It was awesome.

AB: Yeah, it felt good. We did that quick and live in the studio. The vocals, and some of the overdubs weren't live, but we did the tracking mostly live, in the studio. I even wrote some of the lyrics in-studio. We had demoed it, but it came together quick, and I really liked how it came out. Both of my amps were in the shop too, at that point. I was using a Soundcity Madamp clone that Metz had built. I actually used a Laney, like an old supergroupy kind of thing, and I used a Voxhead for the solo.

It [Quantum Phoenix] was a lot different than anything we had every done, in terms of production. We did it quick. It was two days, with free studio time with Justin Pizzoferrato, and Sonelab. They were doing a workshop, so we were also work-shopping this song in front of a full group of students!


CN: *laughs* I forgot about that!!

AB: I won't get into it. We're mellow, but we're kind of nutty in the studio; We said some weird things, and did some weird things in there, for sure, and I think at some point they were a little freaked out until we could come into the control room and sit down with them, listen to it, and be real. Some of them had worked with Elder, it was a really cool experience all around, and I think the results speak for themselves. Clay and I were talking about this — that I'm rarely satisfied, and I was actually like "I'm satisfied with this."

The first person who reads this and emails will receive a deluxe edition copy of 'Stormbringer'! (Code still available as of 10/29, 11:30PM PST).

JS: That's a Bob Ross ‘happy accident’.

AB: Well, yeah, pretty much. Right on.

JS: I have heard that you are very unsatisfied with results. I have gone through a few interviews you've done, and I believe the word is ‘verbose’ for you, Andy. You very much do not speak in small sentences, which I love, because it allows me to dig back through and find out so much, all at once.

*laughter all around*

JS: I never knew there would be such contention behind ‘II's’ release, but when you go through it track-by-track, I was able to see precisely how much detail you went into, about how little you were satisfied with it. To me, that album is benchmarkable. It's something I catalogue other bands in the ‘sludge’ category to try and compare to. But for you to be like, "Nah, there's some secondhand stuff on there," it's almost like "What am I missing? What could have been there instead?!"

AB: Here's the thing. I think some of that is emotional. Clay and I were talking about this. At the end of it, I said to him, "I never want to have to make a record in this manner again." We won't get into all of that, but some of it IS that. It's the way that connects to me emotionally. There were a lot of things that didn't feel good about it. That's some of it. There's little details that I'm not particularly happy about, but looking back at it — I like the album, don't get me wrong. But I always want something to be the next level.
I've heard the same thing with Dave Wyndorf. I really like Monster Magnet, and Dave, and he seems to be the same way, where he's never satisfied with anything he does. *laughs* Don't take that [perspective] too much. I think in ten years, my relationship to the record has changed a lot. I listen to it fairly fondly. I'll put it on, and be like, "this was a real high-water mark for us at the time." I'm not gonna deny that. If you let me, yeah — I'll go through and tell you every little thing I would've liked to do better. But I'll do that for the first album, too. "WHY DIDN'T WE GET ECHO ON THIS?!" and "THIS SHOULD'VE BEEN THIS," and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. That's just how my mind worked a lot, back then. I was never satisfied about things. I think now, I'm a different person than that. I can kind of let things go, a little more. *laughs*

JS: That's fair.

AB: When I finish a record, I'll hyper-focus on what could have been better, and not really the strengths of it. Over time, I think the songwriting is really there on ‘II’. It really showcased this real love of classic metal, and epic metal, and classic doom. It had a style. Here's the thing — I think we were going for something, and we like ninety-five percent nailed it. A lot of it is just letting go of that other five percent, and being like "Look, we couldn't have done it. This is where we were, and it couldn't have been any different or we would've done it that way. Let it go. The past is the past. Move forward."
That was a hard lesson for me, and that's what led to some of the breakup. It was me not being able to let things go, and just letting them fester. Not being able to express them. My relationship with music is totally different, now. My relationship with myself is totally different now.

CN: I think at the bottom, it was an all-or-nothing sort of thing.

AB: Yeeeeeah.

CN: It was one of those things where we had created something that we were ultimately very proud of. One hundred percent with it. But there was this thing in the back of your head, that it wasn't completely real. There were certain things that we knew we... might not have been able to duplicate live. Not really wanting to get into that sort of thing, but, we were extremely proud of it. At the same time, what went on behind it to make it happen, I think, is what kind of made everything a little bitter-sweet, and ultimately ‘whatever,’ You know?

AB: Yeah. I think there's other factors too. I don't think I even talked about this at the time, because I didn't WANT to talk about it. *laughs* A big part of it was the success of the first record. I really felt we had to top that. Everyone talks about the Sophomore slump with bands. I was really driven, and felt a lot of pressure — most of it, probably internal — to really top it. The first record got so many accolades, and I couldn't believe some of the things people were saying about it, and how much they loved it. I was like, "how do we top THIS?" A lot of it was that. This real pressure I was putting on myself to make a record that was gonna top the first one.

JS: Brett from Pallbearer said roughly the same thing, once upon a time. When people throw around the word ‘meteoric’, such as ‘Sorrow & Extinction’. It's so hard to get over that word, because people have expectations for you, and many of them are unfair, too.

AB: Right, and I think that's the thing; I have a lot of expectations of myself. *laughs*

JS: It's easier said than done. You think, "but I'm better than this," even though you don't recognize at the time —and in retrospect — I was just listening to ‘II’ earlier, and there's an emotional, physical response that I get from hearing the bridge on ‘Mercy's Bane’, that people don't understand that. *inhales hard, fists gripped in front of face* It's there, and people have to respect that, and you don't get that without something being chemically, so GOOD. It feels right when I hear it.

AB: Around the expectations, you said, "you know you shouldn't be doing this, but you do it anyways." Here's the thing — I didn't know I shouldn't. Back then, I didn't know that this was a bad thing. I hadn't reached a point of emotional maturity where I realized, "No, this is not a good way to be in the world." It took a lot of introspection, and work on myself to really change some of those things about myself, that were not pretty. It's hard. You don't really know where that comes from, and you don't see it until you start to develop ways to look at yourself.

JS: If I may, to segue from that; There are many ways that groups learn to do a lot of things wrong, but it only takes once to learn how to do it right. After a few road bumps early in what I would call your meteoric career, how has that hardened you to the realties of an album's production, the label relations, and even worldwide touring? To expound on that — one of my favorite examples of that, I hear about a lot of early bands who try to break into the label scene because they've always heard it's a record deal that sets you up, but they're pure creators, and they're not prepared for the small business aspects of trying to take on a band. They just want to make things, but not have to sustain themselves financially.

AB: Clay handled most of the business, and financial aspects of the band, back then. He still does some, today. Mind clarifying the ask?

JS: Absolutely. More directly... when you started, what were your expectations — as opposed to what actually ended up happening? What was the projection of where it would wind up, versus when you landed on the other side? Did come out the way you expected it to, or did you have to learn some hard lessons to get there?

AB: Clay, you wanna start or should I? *laughs* Cause I can tell you all about my end. This goes into some of the bitter sweetness of this album, and I think some people don't know some of this, either.

CN: Do you mean from the start? Or the expectations from the second album?

JS: It's very broad. I'd say from when you first started the band, back in what, 2008?

AB: Actually, we were off in 2007!

JS: Even earlier than I thought!

CN: The whole idea behind it was basically to find someone who shared the same sort of musical vision. I don't think we had any grand schemes, of becoming this grand, huge, fill-in-the-genre, whatever you think. We just wanted to get together and play the same music that we had goin' in our heads, creatively. We were listening to the same stuff, and had the same goal. Our only real goal was to play some shows. I think Andy mentioned — was it Dan that said we should "have a label?" We had put our demo online, and from that point someone had mentioned it to us.

AB: We put that demo up on MySpace, and we started getting label offers the next day. Clay's right, I remember. We were applying to play in other bands. We were responding to ads, and we found ourselves responding to the same ad, so we reached out to one another. I was like, "dude, where are you at?" He said "I'm in Williamsburg." That's right up the street from me. So, we went to a local bar. I drank Guiness. He drank Screwdrivers. We talked about music, and what we could do. I remember asking him, "What's your favorite band going right now?" He was like "High on Fire," and I was like, "Yeah, this'll work."

So he's right, that was it. We were jamming in my garage at first. I had some songs written, but we didn't have ANY expectations, and that was probably good... but they came in later. *laughs* Particularly from me; I don't know what his were! But, we started getting label offers the next day. We had the guys from Sourvein writing us, going "we love your stuff!" I played in obscurity for a long time, so I was not used to this. Clay had played in some bands that were semi-successful, so he knew a little more about the business aspect, and he ran a studio. I was incompetent around that part of the band — I had no business sense. But I had sense of how to network.
So we had talked to Electric Earth, who wanted to a seven-inch. That seemed like the most reasonable thing out of the initial offers we got. We were like "Okay, this guy gets it. We can work with him." So then we did the seven-inch. Once we recorded the album, we shopped it, and ended up with Meteor City — which was a real dream come true, considering they had so many legendary releases. For me, that was a shot in the dark, and I couldn't believe it when they said ‘yes’. These are the folks who put out all these things that had a big impact on me. That's kind of the honeymoon phase of the band. *laughs*

CN: I think you nailed it right. I think the reason we were also really excited about Meteor City was the amount of distribution possibilities. We knew the avenues that would open up, in terms of playing outside our region, maybe going to Europe. It wasn't something we dreamed of doing, but once things got rolling we were like "Yeah, why couldn't we go to Europe?" That was just a stepping stone, so we were extremely happy to get signed with them.

JS: Absolutely. To springboard off that — and I've heard this continually — Is touring the U.S., domestically, a financially-draining endeavor? And is it financially viable for a small band? Because I've heard so many bands that come back and say "I have no money anymore."

CN: I'll take this one, and then Andy can jump in. Andy booked our only real U.S. tour, which I think was about ten dates, or something like that. We managed to — I believe — come home with a little bit.
Ultimately your goal, if you're touring the United States, is to break even, I think. Again, it's been — my gosh — ten years since we did that. I can't think of much that's changed. You rely on merchandise. I mean, the door is the door. You get it — great! That's maybe an extra meal, or gas in your tank. But your bread and butter is coming from the merch table, and if you're good, people will buy stuff. Luckily, we delivered live consistently. I think, there by the grace of God, we managed a domestic tour. But... manage your expectations, if you're touring domestically, is all I can really say. *laughs*

AB: We did really well, actually! This is something I was amazed by. We did smaller tours before that. The one I think you're referring to is the Northeast, and Midwest; what we did with LET THE NIGHT ROAR. But we've done some others. We never lost money. I think some of that was Clay's fiscal savvy. He always knew, "let's get this printed, let's put our name on things, and have it ready to go." So we did a small tour for the demo even, which was like four or five dates. We didn't lose money on that, and I saw that as a good sign cause we were selling three-dollar demos, and a ten dollar t-shirt. We weren't buying private jets.

CN: We didn't have to explain where the money went either! Heh.

AB: Yeah, we weren't making big bucks. But over time, we never really had to worry too much about stuff like that, with stuff like going into debt, which was lucky.

JS: Too cool. It's strange — you hear about a bunch of bands who just survive doing the European circuit, and they're so trepidant to come over to the U.S., because they say it's just a sinkhole of money to come over here.

AB: It's different, too. In Europe, they really believe in taking care of you.
Here, there's no guarantee that you have a place to stay. There's no guarantee that you have food, or beer or water, or any necessities. That's kind of all on you to figure out. That's what eats a lot of the money, on the road. Whereas in Europe, every show, all that stuff is taken care of. Your hospitality is setup in advance. Your food is taken care of.


AB: Yeah — promotion. All that stuff. It's a different ballgame, and they've really nailed down the administrative aspects of shows, too. Here, a lot of times you're loading in, and they're like "put the stuff over there," and you're like "what's the order?" and they're like, "I dunno, we'll figure it out. Blahblahblah."
There — they've got it all planned in advance. Every date the tour manager has a thing that tells you who your contact is, who this is, where to do this. It's all printed out. It's a different level, and it's hard to explain, but they've nailed it down a lot more. They believe in taking care of bands. And people COME OUT. I think the first time we were over there, we flew to Wirsberg, and played a show, and it was a festival. I remember — I was shocked that there were people there early, for the openers. I was like "What are they all doing here out in the parking lot?" and they were like "they're here for the show," but I'm like "but it hasn't started yet! They're gonna be here for the first bands? I don't understand!"
*laughs* People over there go out to things, and they spend money. They have a higher standing of living than we do, too. More of this spirit of support in things, and this mentality that we're "all in it together." That was a real culture shock for me.
You grow up hearing that the United States is the best place in the world, all your life. Part of you knows that it can't be true, that there's gotta be other countries that are pretty awesome. But then when you really see it, particularly as a musician, and what it looks like... honestly it was kind of mind-blowing. I had trouble wrapping my head around it. I had difficulties on that tour, for sure, and that was one of the reasons. I couldn't believe how much we have been lied to all our lives, living in America. That was one of the things I was just constantly saying to myself. They are so far ahead of us, it's unreal. Socially, and culturally, and just their appreciation of the arts. Stepping off a plane onto Finland — it was like stepping onto the Island of Atlantis. They were the most prosperous nation in the world, at the time. The amount of merch they would buy, and just the way they took care of us was unreal. I don't really know how to explain it, other than that.

CN: It's like a fantasy camp, honestly! This was my first tour to Europe too, with Andy. We both played the same clubs, we kind of did the same circuit. Knew the same kind of people running the same soundboards. Pretty much any band, you could fill in the blanks. It's all the same.
So, when you do go over there, and you see those people queuing up at two in the afternoon, and you're up there — I remember exactly what he's talking about — they're just saluting you. From where we're at up there, we're just like "OH HEY!" *waves, smiling*, and they're like *flashes devil horns* "ROCK!"
The whole tour, it's just this tightly-run... yeah. Fantasy camp is basically the dumb version of my entire experience with that. Like Andy said, it was really illuminating to see how things work over there.

JS: It's sobering. I have friends who give me shit to this day because A) I bring my own little per diem to the show so I can buy merch, so I can tip. And they're like "why do you bring so much?" and it's like, "It's important. If you don't want this to die, you continue to support." They do not understand. It's an alien concept.

When I get there an hour before the show starts, just so I can be at the rail, just so I can see it up close. Get the good photos. Be able to experience this, and they don't have the same reactions that I do, which is inherent in the culture. So — I would kill to see that. That's the dream. I'm glad you guys got to experience that, because, to be appreciated for what you are, as artists: America is not there yet.

CN: I can't speak for Andy on this, but we're both HUGE music fans. We've been going to shows for years, so we understand that level of dedication to getting there early. All that stuff that you're talking about, so it's something we took extremely seriously.
It would've just been the height of arrogance to be like, "it'll be a show. They'll get what they get." You wanna do your best to deliver, every single time you're up there. That's just from years of shows, and paying it forward, I guess.

AB: *Nodding* Yeah.

JS: So Clay — you sir, are an integral part of your NTH staff. I have spent a few days shamelessly combing through your work for the past few days. You're a contributing writer who has written well over 1300 SUBMISSIONS. Has your career in journalism brought you an appreciation, and caution, for how you approach people in the spotlight? People going through a rough time? Or do you chase truth at any cost?

CN: No, I think there's obviously an appreciation for what each individual person's own truth is. As lame as it sounds, there's your story, his story, and the story in the middle — that sort of thing.
Honestly, the best thing I've learned is having empathy for every single situation, for every single person you're dealing with. Because they're dealing with something that you really have no idea of. In terms of seeking the truth, you've got that accountability on the local government level, police, things like that. Just like with anything, you come at it with earnestness, and without an agenda, and you do your best. Just like with anything that you do. That's basically my take on it. It has definitely fostered an appreciation.
Approaching people... I just treat people like people. Stupid story; it was 1995, I was back stage trying to get tickets for Sonic Youth, or something. There's this gaggle of people, and they're just like "Oh my gosh, here's Kim Gordon, just calling her like MISS GORDON!" Just acting really odd, and I went up and just started talking to Steve Shelley. I'm like, "So, what's goin' on with SST records?" and he's like "Ooooh." You just... I don't know. You figure out ways to talk to people. He invited me to tacos, and I was like "all right." I don't know if that's helpful. I just try to talk to everyone the same way.

JS: As a second part of that question; being a journalist these days, especially now, is a little bit dangerous, in that respect. How has dangerous rhetoric in the real world affected the way that people treat you, and your profession, recently? Is there any way to fight back, or do you just kill it with kindness?

CN: Since I'm in the south, I kill everything with kindness. It's one of the funner parts of my job, to be honest.
If I get a hot phone call from somebody who is upset about something I've written, immediately, it's kind of a fun thing I do — I try to empathize as much as I can — just, "you're right, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Mhm." Nine times out of ten, people just wanna bend your ear for about ten, fifteen minutes, By the end of the discussion, it's just like *thumbs up* "we're good." They're just hot, and you've gotta listen. There's people that wanna listen, and there's people that don't. And the ones that don't? You don't waste your time with, cause you're not gonna change their mind, and just like anything, you've just gotta listen to folks, and they've just gotta blow off some steam.
It's a little bit of a different animal to me, being in a smaller town for a newspaper. Yeah, you're covering this, or that. Police, or city council, or that sort of thing. You're still in a relatively small community, where you've gotta run into each other at the grocery story, or wherever, so you just can't drop some shit, and head on back to Atlanta. *laughs*
There's some accountability that needs to be adhered to, so you can't be too fast and loose with how you tell your story, or the story. That's kind of my approach. I just try to treat people as cooly, with as much respect as possible, and if they don't reciprocate then you know — "sayonara!" I'm not gonna engage. You just move on.

JS: That's something I'm learning very slowly. When I first got started, I was like "I'm gonna make waves." *cracks knuckles*

CN: Ooooh, it comes with age. I'm tellin' ya. Ten years ago it would've been a whole different thing. I'd have been like "KILL IT WITH FIRE! BURN IT ALL!"

JS: *laughter* it's a childhood fantasy.

CN: Oh man, the whole thing. Facebook. Anyway. Yada-yada.

JS: Very much, Facebook. It's a nightmare. When people see your tagline, they see where you work, and there's a presupposition about who you are, what you want, what you're expected to like, and dislike, and it's unrealistic. I feel talking to people positively always creates a much better result. Even if you disagree, you start off positively, and people sort of come over to you eventually. It's chemically organic to growth.

CN: And that's something I wish I knew years ago. It took me a while. It's a fact of life. If you just meet people head-on with that same level of respect and positivity, you sleep better, that's for sure.

JS: Very much so. Andy — for you: For a few years now, you've been involved with the ‘Afiya House’, a peer respite up in Western Massachusetts. I really love the work you do. Especially considering the fact I myself have had mental health issues in the past; here recently, I was experiencing four panic attacks day at the start of the pandemic and I was becoming a hypochondriac, and I was hiding from the world, quite literally. So for your work, and your mission at Afiya House — if you were to explain to someone who has nobody who has no idea what it is... what's your mission? What do you do?

AB: In full disclosure, I don't work as much at Afiya anymore. I'm only emergency per diem there.
I think the first thing is, they're still open. The director now is a very good friend of mine. We were two of the first people who worked in the house. I literally worked the first shift there when they opened in 2012.
The mission is taking what's commonly referred to as a "crisis," and transforming it into a learning, and growth opportunity. It's really invested in a non-medical way of helping people navigate difficult times. By helping — I mean that very loosely. Really, we're trying NOT to be the fixer of anything, and let people be the experts of their own experiences.
To go back to something Clay said, "let them have their own truth." And recognize that there are multiple truths. That was a big part of our work, was being able to hold all these multiple truths, particularly when you're working with some people who experience extreme states, emotional distress, or have trauma histories. We're really trying to give them space, like Clay said, to "get that out there."
A lot of times, venting is cathartic to folks. I wouldn't necessarily say therapeutic. We weren't doing therapy. If you look, Afiya was just actually named by the World Health Organizations as one of the best practices in the world.

JS: I did see that, congratulations to all them, of course.

AB: I'm not really that involved anymore. I only do per diem.
But that did come directly out of some of the things in the mental health system that didn't work for me. It led to my work at Afiya. Clay and I were talking about this. He was like, "How did you resolve some of these things?" and I was like, "I walked out of the psychiatrist's office."
So on the heels of "II," actually, I had a lot of healing, and exploring to do with my life, and where I ended up was Afiya. I ended up out of the mental health system, and at Afiya, working when they opened. Now, actually — I work for a traditional organization. I'm actually the Director of Recovery Supports, so I work with a lot of people who are working in peer roles. I work with recovery coaches, and peer support specialists. I oversee the program for that, at a large traditional agency.
So, I'm back in the mental health system, but on the other side, and really trying to be ‘in but not of’ the system, meaning what I do is I try to go in there and change things, and act as a change agent and say, "hey, this didn't work for me, and this is why. Let me explain to you my perspective. I've been there, I've been through what the people were working with. I've been through it, so let me tell you why what you're doing is not working, and how you can do it differently, and more effectively."
If you had told me ten years ago that I'd be a program director in an "adult mental health program," I would've told you you were crazy. That's where my life has brought me. It's really been healing for me just to do this work to give back, and I feel like I do have a lot to make up for, to the world. When I was younger, I wasn't a very great person, and a lot of that was a result of what I'd been through, and what I'd experienced. I'd had a tough life, and a lot of trauma — but that's not an excuse. I hit a point in my life where I was like "that's NOT an excuse, and I've acted kind of shitty in the past, and I have a lot to make up to the world." This is something that I feel allows me to do that.

JS: As a segue, I think there's a strange schism where we do understand, or people refuse to try and grasp that... most people are anti-suicide, of course. Most people don't want suicide as an end result, but that's the depth of where people try to approach mental health from. They just don't want to "lose somebody." Why is mental health overall important before we ever get to that point?

I phrased that very broadly; to expound, why is it important to try and approach mental health as a sliding scale of degradation? Why should you be checking on people? Why is it important to keep one's mental health at full capacity so that there's no burnout. No eventual sliding scale to the bottom, which is what people are mainly concerned with.

CN: You mean self-preservation?

JS: YES. *snaps*

AB: Well — I don't think we SHOULD be checking in on people, to be honest. *laughs*

JS: That's fair!

AB: This is a tough one. You're describing a model that I don't necessarily buy into.

JS: And I'm a layman, so absolutely. If I'm asking to be educated on something like this, it's because I don't have the experience, and I am a person who is afraid to approach this system. I have not had any sort of firsthand account of it. But you have, Andy. If I were to try and go down the spiral, where should I start to get a positive result?

AB: Well, I think it starts with a real understanding that "help isn't help, if it's not helpful."
A lot of people can be very well-meaning, and do a lot more harm than good, if they don't know what they don't know. A lot of it is learning to listen, and to ask good questions. Build trust, and rapport.
What you're talking about, is like safety, and liability. And that's a big issue in the mental health world. But what I'll tell you is — where safety is really created is through natural, organic, human connections, and forming trust with people. If somebody says to you, "hey, I'm having these thoughts, or I'm experiencing these things, or hearing voices," and your reaction is to be like, "we've gotta lock this down. You've gotta go away somewhere, into a hospital" or wherever, they're never gonna trust you again. You're putting them at more harm, because the next time they're ready to open up and feel vulnerable about those things... they won't.
What we really need to do is build a system where that's understood. That we can't be pushing the panic button. That we have to respond with curiosity, and not fear. If somebody comes to us and says they're feeling this way, we have to be able to say, "How long have you felt this way? Have you felt this way before? What's been helpful in the past? What do you wanna do right now? How can I partner with you?" That's the big one.
Our mental health system is really custodial. It's like, "I'm having this distress. I'm having this extreme experience. Someone take care of me," or the system is like "I need to take care of you so that nothing happens." It needs to be more of a partnership. It needs to be like, "what's going to work for YOU? What can you and I do together right now, to get through this? Tell me what's going on, and how can I work with you? I'm not gonna do anything you don't consent to. I'm not gonna do anything that I don't think is a good idea." It's a real rights-based approach, where we're saying "What's gonna work for you, in this moment? What do you need, and how can we get you there, together?" This is your life. You're in the driver's seat. I'm kind of co-piloting with you right now, but eventually, I'm gonna get out, and you're gonna go on with your life. Our system doesn't do that.
People get really stuck in it, and they get really institutionalized, even when they're living in the community. Our local department of mental health doesn't even use the term "be institutionalized" anymore, even though they shut down the state institutions. Because people in services end up institutionalized, in the community.
What we need is what the W.H.O is saying. If you look back to 2018, the UN did an investigation on mental health system, and they said we need ‘rights-based reform’. That's what we really need right now, in this country. We have one of the worst mental health systems on the planet. Our outcomes are terrible. If you're in rural India and have no access to mental health services, your chance of recovery is better than if you get involved with the U.S. system. Your chances go down, and that should tell you something.
We should be looking at Finland's ‘open-dialogue program’, where they have eighty-seven percent recovery rates. They're doing a lot of the things I'm talking about. They don't rush to diagnose. They don't rush to use medication. They don't believe in mental illness.
They say, "that is something that arises in the space between people."
It's a social thing, and "let's look at what's really going on here, and not to jump to any conclusions, or drastic measures. Let's hear this person, and be in the room with them, and have them involved in every conversation." And guess what — it works! I think one of the most amazing things, is last time I looked at those numbers; they've only had two new diagnoses of Schizophrenia in the area where they were doing open-dialogue, because technically, what's going on has to persist for more than six months, and when they got in there quick and they did these things — things resolved. People got better. People went on with their lives.
That doesn't happen in the U.S. Just like we were talking about before with music. We're not where they are. *laughs* We've got to get out of our own ways and stop thinking that we've got it all figured out in America, because we don't. Sorry to go on a bit of a soapbox, but there's my answer!

JS: No, not at all. I love that. I've been enlightened today. I think America is much more concerned with being results-oriented, and I don't think we can approach it that way.

AB: I think we can.
I think we can look at outcomes and such, and that's what we have to do. Too often what we're looking at in terms of results is this model of maintaining people. "Can we keep them safe? Can we keep them stable?" That's wrong.
I think we should be saying, "How can we get them to move forward with their life?
This person had hopes, dreams, and goals, in life. Something got interrupted here. How can we get them to move through it and get back on track?" That's the way I see it.
So, I don't think it's wrong to look at results and outcomes; I just think we're looking for the wrong outcome. We're not looking to move people forward. We're looking to keep them at this steady thing. People have ups and downs, and we have to be ready to roll with those punches, and ultimately try to move them forward with their life. Get them connected back to what they're passionate about, and what gives them meaning in their lives. What gives them hope, and joy, and all those things?
It's a much longer, and richer conversation. *laughs* It's a Sunday, and I don't think I can give it the best justice.

JS: I've learned so much today, and I wasn't expecting it. Thank you.

To lighten this up a bit, I was digging through "II" last night, and it the songwriting experience, there's an art and a talent to being able to approach tone, and a synesthetic story that can be told. When you come through "II," there's something that's hopeful, and triumphant, and at the same time melancholy.

When you approach your songwriting, you can go from one emotion to the next in a visible spectrum. Does Black Pyramid take an emotional roadmap to writing songs? Or is that just the tone that comes out from the experience? Do you write on a sliding scale of emotion?

AB: Absolutely. I'm a pretty moody guy, as Clay can tell you. I'm pretty moody. *long pause*

CN: *Grinning* Okay. *laughs*

AB: Yeeeeah, I really see that as cathartic. It's weird. At work, a lot of them don't know I do this. When they see a video of me screaming my brains out, it's shocking to them, but it's one of the things that gives me an outlet. It allows me to resolve some of my internal conflict. I don't know if you're familiar with Bruce Lee?

JS: Of course.

AB: Ever seen ‘Enter The Dragon’? He talks about ‘emotional content’ as the key to his martial arts. He's teaching a young student, and he says, "Not anger — emotional content." That's where the power from the strikes, and his martial arts comes from.
For me, it's the same. It's all about emotional content. How do you get that when you play? How do you get that into the words? How do you get that to permeate the entire song, and the performance? I think that's what really resonates with people.
What you were talking about earlier — Jake — kind of, when you hear a certain part and *inhales hard, fists gripped in front of face* That's what I'm talking about. It's the emotional content. That's what I'm trying to channel into these songs, is that emotional content. You nailed it. They're an emotional roller-coaster, but it's intended that way.

JS: That Bruce Lee quote? That's one of my favorite. When he's teaching that young student — he's like "don't watch the finger, otherwise you'll miss all that heavenly glory." That lesson, there's some sort of emotional context to it.

When I listen to ‘Dreams of the Dead’, I almost feel pre-determined to try and mentally prepare my friends to get them to respect it, but I have to learn to tell myself to "shut up," because they have to experience it for themselves. You get that nice little winding bridge that's in there (5:03), and it just builds to something that feels like the end of The Two Towers, with Gandalf coming over the mountain, with the sun, and I love that.

To try and get that from so many songs; so many bands miss that marker. ‘Stormbringer’ begins so epically in proportion, and transitions to such a somber, melancholy tone. To try and harness that every time is difficult, but you manage.

AB: Right — ‘Stormbringer’ was actually a collaborative effort. Clay wrote that first riff that you're talking about, and he had to show it to me. I had trouble playing it, at first. It's interesting.
There's slight little things we all have. He was trying to get me to hit the open E after a chord I had never done it with before, and it was counter-intuitive to me. He was like, "Dude, just HIT THE ‘E’," and I couldn't do it until he literally showed me. Gein wrote a lot of that song, too.