Interview: Chris Hathcock of The Reticent
Interviewed by Paul Hutchings
The Reticent is a musical project led and performed by American multi-instrumentalist and award-winning music teacher Chris Hathcock. A quick search on the internet finds that his work is widely regarded and with good reason. ‘The Oubliette’ (meaning dungeon or cell) is the fourth album by The Reticent and faced several delays in the recording due to a severe right arm injury. When doctors told him he may be endangering his arm’s functionality if he didn’t take an extended break from playing, Hathcock began lining up musicians to fill in for him but luckily, rest allowed him to recuperate enough to complete the record. Having tackled a deeply personal topic on his previous release ‘On The Eve of A Goodbye’, Hathcock’s latest concept piece charts the story of Henry, a character based on a relative of Hathcock’s who progresses through the stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I was able to speak to Chris recently for another publication, but the feature was criminally short due to space restrictions. Chris has a lot to say, so with Chris’s blessing, and the approval of The Razor’s Edge, I’ve been able to reproduce more of the interview. As someone whose mother is in the early stages of dementia, this was an emotional and thought-provoking interview for me. I hope it makes you think as well.
Chris’s background was in blackened death metal outfits Wehrwolfe and Torture Cell, before forming The Reticent in 2002, He is a remarkable person. Coming from a musical background, he is a multi-instrumentalist and teaches music for a living.
We started off the interview by discussing the impact of the pandemic on both him and the band.
Chris: My is I'm a teacher at a high school and it’s been really, really difficult dealing with things such as such as remote learning and stuff. I'm technically one of the one of the vulnerable groups. I've got a pulmonary problem with my lungs. Yeah, so you know, it’s a scary time. From the band standpoint, we had a tour set up. Not anything huge. We were gonna do an East Coast run right away for the original date when ‘Oubliette’ was supposed to come out. And all that got cancelled and we were really psyched about it. We were going to be opening for Insomnium and some other great progressive death metal bands and everything and it just unfortunate, we've come to a standstill.
I'm just trying to stay afloat, and I've been doing what I can to try to reach out to people. There's an organization I train for and volunteer with called the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and I've been reaching out to folks over social media like people that follow my personal one. I've just said, like hey, I hope you're okay, hope you're doing alright If you're not let me know. I've was speaking to one guy and he had tried talking to a lot of strangers and I was just hearing him out and trying to help him help him through it. You know the disconnection is and the uncertainty is certainly wreaking havoc on people's mental health.
The Razor’s Edge: I understand that completely because I volunteer for a charity in the UK called the Samaritans provide emotional support through an anonymous phone line, and I've been doing shifts for that for the last six months or so, and certainly the number of people that you are dealing with who are becoming increasingly hopeless and desperate is frightening, so I understand exactly where you're coming from there.
Chris: Yeah and thank you for doing that. I wish more people would try to try to help each other these days.
The Razor’s Edge: Thank you, let's move on to what is a superb album. I must be honest; I didn't know a lot about your band before I got the album to review last month. That has changed now, and I've listened to the most of your back catalogue and I'm very much enjoying it. It’s not something you can listen to when you're doing the washing up. I think you really need to sit down and spend some time with it, so and the new one. I understand that the new album was incredibly challenging because of the arm injury that you had. So how is the arm now, what happened?
Chris: At one-point thought that ‘The Oubliette’ was cursed. There were four total delays to the recording and Jamie King, my producer engineer, was remarkable in terms of how accommodating he was, how understanding he was. And I mean this guy, he's booked a year in advance. I mean he's got Grammy winning or Grammy nominated bands like between the Buried and me to work with, so you know it was amazing of him too. When I called him and said, man, I'm hurt, he was “Oh no problem. Let's move this to here, move that to there”. He was just super cool about it so that that was that was amazing because he didn't have to.
I still don't exactly know what happened, but I'd started trying to workout and I've always been kind of an out of shape guy and I was trying to get in shape lifting weights and all this kind of stuff. I took some boxing classes, which I hadn't done in in years. I’ve just always been working, and my buddy convinced me to do it so. So I’m lifting weights and I go to this boxing class and we're just beating the hell out of these bags and all this kind of stuff and I'm noticing my right arm is just really hurting and I think at first that I've just overdid it with something. I'm just sore, it's delayed onset muscle soreness. Yes, that's all it is, and it'll go away but it doesn't go away, and it keeps getting worse and it starts to hurt to move my arm in certain ways. I’m also at the time a band director at a high school, so I mean I'm doing this (motions conducting) every day, multiple times a day. I spend, most of my day in front of students with a baton or at least my hands up and I'm constantly conducting. It got to a point where I was just really hurting, and I eventually bought a sling.
I went to this urgent care centre and they said, well, you might have done this. You might have done that. So, I'm coming to work in a sling trying to do stuff with my left hand. And then as I'm doing that because I'm not used to using this arm that way that starts to develop pain and problems 'cause I'm over using it, yeah, so I finally go see the orthopaedic doctor and they tell me that I've severely hurt my deltoid Bursa. They explained that's your deltoids up here (in the shoulder) and then it connects to all this other stuff. So basically, there's this little cluster of nerves and muscle and all this kind of stuff that kind of converges at this one point, and I had really inflamed it, and we explored steroids and possible surgery. Eventually with a change of job, sling, ice packs and real determination and more help I finally got back to playing but at one point it was touch and go.
The Razor’s Edge: What made you decide that you wanted to look at this topic for the album?
Chris: I switched my PhD to focus on psychology because I wanted to do research on the connections between things like depression and music, especially in adolescence. I've been able to do a lot of stuff in music. I mean, I’ve presented papers and sessions at music educator conferences. I've composed music that's been played at some universities. And you know, obviously I teach and everything. And I do this stuff as well.
I tell my students all the time. Music saves lives. I tell them I would always tell them when they come into the programme. They may not recognise it but in a small way we are triaging. We are in in the trenches helping people through their darkest times. I would not be alive right now if it weren't for music in more ways than one. Imagine the immense power that music has. Think about the toughest times in your life. If you had to endure it in silence, think about the biggest budget mute movie. You know The Avengers, Infinity War. Whatever you know, there's just this huge spectacle of sight and sound. But imagine there's no score. Imagine Lord of the rings with no score. It's just fantastic visuals. It helps us understand how music is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. We don't appreciate that it's magic. I mean, that's sort of where I came from is just being able to look at music that way.
The Razor’s Edge: That's really interesting. Given the times that we're in with music actually being, I'm sure it's the same over with you, but over here in particular, most of our small venues in particular, well, all of all the music venues and all the arts, all the theatres and everything are just absolutely crippled at the moment, and there doesn't seem to be any kind of value placed on what is actually not just a massive industry, but as you say, a massive benefit to millions of people. I watched a little bit of the Alive Inside documentary and that really emphasises what you've just said, because it's quite astonishing just from the ten minutes or so that I watched the impact of music. You obviously have taken the Alzheimer's disease into the into the new album. And I know that there's a bit of personal experience that you've taken some of the themes from the you know, the Henry character and everything else. I know that the previous album ‘On The Eve of Goodbye’ you focused on suicide and again very powerful stuff. Where did the inspiration for the Alzheimer's theme come from?
Chris: I don't know if want is the right word. I don't know that I even wanted to do ‘Eve’. I sincerely hope it does not sound as pretentious as it sounds in my head, but each of these things I've made because I needed to. I made ‘Eve’ because when Eve died, I couldn't find any music that captured what I was going through, and the multiple facets of it. The fact I was suicidal and lost my friend who I did not know was suicidal. And there was this very conflicting series of emotions, anger, sorrow, then the other thing and I and when I looked for music that dealt with suicide at that time you had music that either glorified it, which I mean their entire genres out there that do that, like suicidal black metal. I'm not saying that's a bad thing or a good thing, it just is what it is. Or there were songs that just talked about it in a kind of what I considered a soft shoe with a poetic way. Just, “oh I miss you” or isn’t that sad. I just couldn't find anything at the time that that reflected that. I wanted to get all these emotions out.
And with Alzheimer's, you know, I watched my great uncle Cyrus Burnett get taken from this and this was a guy who was the toughest guy. Yeah and he was reduced to nothing. He didn't know who anyone was, and he was also an illiterate person. Imagine you get Alzheimer’s; we don't know where you are. You don't know that your wife is dead. You don't understand what's happening to you even as you look around. If you're not great at reading., you can't even really tell what is happening. You don't really recognize anything and that would envelope you. You may start to believe that you you're in some sort of purgatory, some sort of hell or something.
It was a traumatizing thing to see someone go through that. And yeah, you know if you if you look at someone that you recognize and when you see them look back at you vacantly. I know I know based on how you're looking at me, I'm supposed to know who you are, but I don't know who you are. It’s extremely hard to put into words. I always had an interest in this kind of stuff and as I started to study Alzheimer's, especially with the brain, believe it or not, my research into connections with music in the brain and stuff like ‘Alive Inside’ is what led me really to studying Alzheimer's more academically.
I found out all sorts of things as I really began an earnest look into it, such as I didn't know that eventually it takes your ability to swallow, takes your ability to function at all. It does completely cripple you. It takes everything from you. So, like in the song ‘Nightmare’ where I say “we will take everything” when the disease is in his mind is sentient and talking to him. That's really like when you when you look at those late stages at what can happen. That's a level of suffering that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
So, when I saw ‘Alive Inside’ I showed it to several students of mine during my class. I think it's an amazing documentary. I have the link to www.aliveinside.org in the in the fold out of the of the CD. I'm not affiliated with them or anything, but we had solicited being a pilot school for them when they were going to send out iPods to two schools to have kids make. You know, we go to a nursing home or a retirement community and go talk to folks. Find out you know where they are from and we'd build iPod playlists for them and give them to them so they would have music from their lives.
The Alive Inside foundation got hit financially, but I'm still a big supporter of that idea. And obviously, like you know, Doctor Oliver Sachs who talked about the neurology of how music connects us to two parts of our memory. Parts of our lives and it is the last thing to go as Alzheimer's eats through us. Music can open these pathways we don't know. We're in there amongst the synapses. There's one little accent somewhere between these neurons that music can ignite.
As a neurologist he was such a big advocate of the idea that that music can, as he even said in the documentary, it quickens people. It quickens their mind. It can bring them back to life. And yeah, so I I called the main character of ‘The Oubliette’ Henry. My great uncle's name was not one that was, I'm gonna use the term common. I don't know the statistics on how common Henry is, but Henry seemed a little bit more, I guess straightforward if I could say that hopefully that's not a bad thing.
The man featured in many of the viral clips from ‘Alive Inside’, Henry, the man confined to the wheelchair who's slumped down and almost, you know, nonverbal and as they give him the headphones, his eyes are wide open. He's animated, and he's talking about all these things he remembers and all this stuff, and it brings tears to your eyes because you see this guy quite literally come back to life. Henry is a very inspirational person to me. Just because I I look at him and I say you could just tell like this was a really nice guy.
And this this disease is pitiless. It doesn't care who you are it. It has no rhyme or reason. It is just taking you. This is not a guy who deserved it. You know very clearly. Just by the interviews with his daughter, by the interviews with him, he wants the world to find love. He’s just wonderful and kind. And I was thinking that is what I want when people think of Alzheimer's, I would like them to think of Henry. So, if I can even through this progressive metal stuff, if I can get that name in your head. Henry is repeated more than any other word in the album. Keep saying his name. Characters say his name. We use samples from the documentary it says name we keep, you know, the first track is stage one. ‘His name is Henry’.
And I'm hoping maybe just to subtly give people that clue, maybe as that clip comes by in their YouTube suggestions, or if they see it, maybe they go watch it. Maybe the fact that I've got the links somewhere there. Maybe the fact I'm talking about Alzheimer's and they don't really know, but they go investigate it and they see that, but I want them to think about him. I want them to see him by himself in that room where nobody's talking to him. He's just got his head down in his wheelchair just sitting in the activities room doing nothing. But also think about how he came back to life just by just by somebody giving him some music.
We did a show and we closed the show with ‘Oubliette’ and I I'm screaming let me out and all that kind of stuff and then we just have the heart monitor thing going over the PA and a bunch of facts are showing up on the screen and I said, You know, the tragedy of Alzheimer's is first, they forget. But then they're forgotten. And that became something within the band. Like you know what? That's our slogan. That's our way of looking at this. The reason we're advocating for this is because if you go to any of these places, you will see that many of these people are just left to be forgotten. I can't deal with you, it's too hard. It's too much and we just we put him somewhere to forget him.
Yeah, put him in an oubliette. We put him in a prison. They're never gonna get out of there, they are already in a prison. They're never gonna get out of and it just keeps going like their mind is a prison they can't get out of. Their body becomes a prison. It's this perpetual imprisonment and it was that idea that that that kind of fostered this idea of the of ‘The Oubliette ‘as a concept.
I said, you know, I've talked to people who don't even know how bad Alzheimer's gets. Once they become difficult to work with and I would grant you 100%, it is incredibly difficult to help a person with Alzheimer's disease to care for them, especially if you had to do it alone. There's a documentary, another documentary cited in the in the album; Love's Farewell which is just heart-breaking because it follows the wife as her husband is deteriorating and you see him get confrontational, you see him get angry. You see him get desperate. You see all these kinds of things and she many times says I can't take this. I can't keep going so it’s a thing where just like Eve like you know we want to see from different perspectives. She breaks down in the interview and he says, “what do you want to happen to now?” And she said, I just want to be over as quickly as possible and she said with the least pain for him as possible
It's just like suicide. It's a multifaceted thing that is not seen in its entirety. It's not seen as this monolithic horror show that it really is, and it deserves more attention, but these are people you know, cancer survivors and even suicide survivors like myself we can advocate for ourselves. We can advocate for our loved ones.
Alzheimer's patients can’t advocate for themselves. And we put him in these places to forget about him and they become enfeeble. They can't think. So, there's fewer and fewer people fighting for them. You know or trying to even raise any awareness for them? And the statistics suggest that this is going to get worse as life expectancy continues to get longer. Once you pass 65, your risk of getting Alzheimer's just rises exponentially. It doesn't stop, it just keeps getting higher. As we look at the rates that are already climbing at a really surprising rate. What would it mean to have 300 million people with Alzheimer's disease by 2099? That’s something we can’t fathom. One of those things where you're presenting people with a number that is beyond our capability to really comprehend and think about. But it's just what if the population of the United States almost had Alzheimer's disease somewhere between stages one and seven?
You talk about something that could be crippling to world economies, to to all sorts of things. And it's something that's creeping up on us. Without our memories you will die before your body does and that's one lines in ‘The Oubliette’. “My body died and left me behind”.
The Razor’s Edge: That's really honest of you, and it's really interesting. I'm conscious of it because my mother has early onset dementia. I know the road is going to get challenging and of course the frustration for all of us, I think who have any understanding or insight into this terrible illness is the fact that the last eight months have just exacerbated everything massively because of the lockdowns and the inability of people to be able to visit loved ones or see them through windows and things like that.
Chris: The impact is massive, so it it's something that really does need to have awareness raised.
The Razor’s Edge: The video that you made for ‘Captive’ is astonishingly powerful. I don't know if you know the Scottish musician Fish. He’s just released his final solo album and there's a track on there called ‘Garden of Remembrance’. He lost his father to Alzheimer's a couple of years ago, and there's a video for this track, and that is another astonishingly powerful video, but similar too in some ways to the emotions that ‘Captive’ provokes. It hits you right in the feels.
Chris: Well, I'm glad to hear that. I had a different concept and I said to Justin (who helped make the film) here's what I'm seeing in my mind. I've been living with this material for a couple of years, so here's what I what I think, and we had all sorts of things. I've even got permission to film at at a nursing home. And then lockdown came so we put it on hold. And then I decided, what if we can leave the audience with the question of which reality is the actual real one? What if we make it more from Henry's perspective? So maybe we're not so literal. Maybe? Maybe we don't make this thing literal. Maybe we could make this thing much more symbolic and surreal. We do like a David Lynch kind of thing where there's just odd set pieces and it’s very disjointed because even though we're looking at Henry, we're seeing it from his perspective. We're seeing reality as he sees it or experiences it. I suggested, what if we have picture frames in lots of places and many times the picture frames are empty, and we came up with the playing card thing. And what if as he's playing cards, they eventually start going blank? You know, yeah, it's kind of represents memory, a photo album where the photos just disappear.
What's kind of interesting is the people that that have known folks or worked with folks with Alzheimer's disease. How they've really resonated with the video. There have been plenty of people who said they really liked the video and think it's cool or just anything, but I've known people that are that are working in inpatient care at a retirement community or something like that, or have had a parent or something like that or a relative that is experienced it and they they see in it. While this really captures the disorientation or confusion or whatever that they must feel and just in his family has also been touched by, you know, dementia and stuff like that.
The Razor’s Edge: What’s important is that when I’m listening to your album I need to be in a place where I can absorb and try and understand what's going on and get the message. So, the album’s been out a week or so [at time of the interview]. How has the reception been?
Chris: My anxiety level is just always through the roof when an album is coming out. Because I have all these lofty hopes of, I want this to help people. I want this to do this. I mean, I don't even know if it's fair to say it's more ambitious than maybe the average person. I don't just want to make something that entertains. I want to affect people. I want them to be impacted by this. I took it as a point of pride when the label, when they first heard the album said, “man that's a lot to take”. I had to just kind of sit there quietly for a little while after it was over and I said, but see, that’s what I want. He said, you know the fact that it punches you a little bit, and if you're open to it, you have to sort of absorb it and it's not going to be the kind of thing where like man, let's wind that back in here that riff again. This is awesome.
Hopefully there's some moments like that where people dig the music and everything equally, but the overall goal is if it feels like you just watched a movie or it feels like you're emotionally exhausted by the time it's over. I think that means that that I reached you, yeah, and that’s the goal. That's what I'm hoping and with the response to ‘Eve’, which was so generous. A couple of small metal magazines had it on their top 10 of 2016 or whatever which is nice. And you know people gave it all this praise that I was just sitting there like well there's no way I can live up to that.
I was I was worried about how people would respond. People that liked the last one. How would how they would respond. Are people going to be open to this kind of things that I'm doing? Because you know, The Reticent started as an acoustic side project while I was in a band called Wherewolfe and I'm touring with this extreme metal band and I just had all these soft ideas that I was just doing on the side. Yeah but after I after I left all these other bands the rest of it became my own focus. You could listen through my discography and it gets heavier as it goes. So, all my energy went to this, but I was nervous about how people would take it as I always was. I called the label and said I don't think we should release it one month before ‘Eve’ came out. And he was like no, no, no. We need to put this out, but I'm so glad I had the same kind of fears.
And then the first reviews start coming back and people were generous with scores of like 4 out of 5. Rock magazine gave us 10 out of 10, Prog Space gave us five out of five people calling it a masterpiece and then places like Metal Storm and Angry Metal Guy, Metal Temple and some other publications all reviewed it. The people that reviewed ‘Eve’ specifically requested to review this one, and some of them liked ‘Oubliette’ better. I was relieved when I saw Angry Metal Guy which can be notorious for being blunt. The guy who reviewed it said like you know this this met and exceeded my expectations. Metal Storm gave me a superlative. “Prog's most emotionally gut-wrenching one-man band returns” or something like that and the label is like, “yeah there you go”.
The Razor’s Edge: Any last thoughts?
Chris: I don't have any illusion that everybody in the world would like The Reticent or ‘The Oubliette’ or anything like that. I would sure love to think that it would have an audience like if it were, if we were able to get out to people, you know, I would love to think like fans of Opeth would like this or fans of Between the Buried and Me would like this or anything. But there are probably plenty of that wouldn't and that's totally fine, Yeah, but I hope on a larger scale that, I don't know, I'm gonna continue to fight for the idea of the of the album. Of the experience of the whole picture versus the you know the small thing and people argue that it's attention spans or shorter. They can't do it. And you know what? I I, I respond to that by saying fuck you because people binge watch stuff now more than they ever have. People used to say, “Oh man two-hour movie” and yet they watch 12 hours of a series at once in this binge.
We're being conditioned to consume things in different ways. The streaming services for films and TV have conditioned us to where we can now just watch endlessly and get involved in the story and I think that's fine. I think that's great you know if you're involved in the story just like reading a good book, you don't want to stop, keep going. Hey, I'm with you. I just want to remind people you can have the exact same experience of streaming an incredibly compelling drama or series on Netflix. You can have that same experience just by listening to music, because music may want to tell a multifaceted story. You can't fit everything from that series into one episode. Can't fit everything from a story into one song. You know, the album still has value.
I was just reading this advice that I did not take. That was just like man, you shouldn't do albums, just do singles. Just put out one at a time. You'll get more streams and this idea that I said I don't give a damn about streams. I don't know how many we have. I don't know how many we had last year.
I don't publish that or brag about it. I am sure that keeps us from getting booked on whatever festival or this show but that's not why I do this and I call your artistic integrity into question if your goal is, hey, we need to get this many streams or this many people listening to what we're doing.
Now you're looking at formulas. Now you're doing paint by numbers. Now you're doing something specifically to get some sort of, you know, financial or popularity reward.
This is supposed to be like you expressing yourself. Why did you start playing music in the 1st place? Why did you write? When you were at your worst moment, music was there for you.
Would it make you feel better or worse if you knew the guy that wrote that song that saved your life did it so that he could get more streams? And you know, maybe that's a moot point if it saved your life. Maybe you know, I could very well be wrong. I freely admit that, but I get opinionated about a lot of stuff.
The Razor’s Edge: I think you are preaching to the converted with me, but I endorse your sentiments there completely, Chris. It's been a real privilege to have a chat with you and it's been really nice to have an interview where we're talking about real stuff and I don't mean that in derogatory terms to anyone that I've interviewed over the last few years, but it's been really enjoyable.
Chris: Thank you for your time.