Accessibility Page Navigation
Style sheets must be enabled to view this page as it was intended.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Peyton Pinkerton


Peyton Pinkerton'I didn't know it was part of an illness.  All I knew was that I felt great...  before crashing and getting subsequently depressed.'

Peyton Pinkerton is an American rock guitarist, songwriter and producer. Throughout his rich and varied career, he has played in several bands, including celebrated indie acts Pernice Brothers and Silver Jews. His technically brilliant yet understated guitar style added texture and layers to often otherwise sparse arrangements characteristic of the genre. His own band, New Radiant Storm King, which split up in 2009, was known for its “math-rock grandeur, textured arrangements and serious intensity”.

Throughout his adult life, Peyton struggled with periods of depression. It was not until later in his career that he was diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder. He currently lives with his wife Anne in Easthampton, Massachussetts.


This year he released his eponymously titled debut solo album. The album features several songs with direct reference to mental health issues, most strikingly the feistily inventive ‘The Three of Me’, which offers a wry and unsentimental account of the variability in mood experienced by those with Bipolar Disorder. He spoke to me about the challenges he faced in coping with mental illness as a touring musician and the peaks and troughs of his musical journey.

 JT: You've played in several bands, and toured all over the world. Any particular highlights? What was the greatest gig you played?


PP: I'd have to say that perhaps the most memorable gig for me was a Pernice Brothers show in Galway at the Roisin Dubh in 1999.  It was our first tour in Ireland and we'd no idea of what to expect as far as crowds, attendance and general enthusiasm for the band.  The small club was packed and from the moment we started playing most people were singing along.  I thought "holy shit, they know all of the words!"  I didn't even know all of the words. We all played our hearts out and it was a great show.


When the gig was over it was still too crowded for us to make it over to the bar.  Realizing our predicament a group of men grabbed us off the stage and carried us above the crowd and over to the bar where rounds of Guinness and whisky awaited each band member.  


I was fortunate to have the presence of mind to realize at the time that it might not ever get any better than that.  I've had other wonderful shows and experiences playing live in Australia, Israel and even Carnegie Hall but that show in Galway will always remind me to be humble and appreciate the fact that the size of a crowd in no way bears any correlation to the greatness of any particular show. 



You have Bipolar Disorder, which has been shown to be diagnosed at a disproportionately high rate among creative individuals.  How has this affected your life as a musician? Did it for example affect your ability to tour and perform over the years?


I probably let it affect those around me more than actually letting it get in my way.  I definitely self-medicated with alcohol, wellbutrin (bupropion) and valium (diazepam) when necessary.  For the most part, that masked my symptoms but I guess I still had ‘bipolar traits’ that couldn't be squashed, namely "people seeking" and a heightened state of irritability.  


In retrospect, I was always hypomanic on tours. I should say that I'd been misdiagnosed for twenty-plus years as simply "depressive" and was never on the proper medication for Bipolar Disorder until after I stopped touring.  So, I never experienced a tour as a self-aware individual with Bipolar Disorder on appropriate treatment. Even still, I don't believe it ever affected my stage performance in a negative way.



What about effects on your song writing? Did you gain any particular insights and inspirations from periods of elated mood?


As a musician I believe my condition has at times given me a confidence that goes anywhere from deeply enthused to full-blown grandiosity and arrogance.  I am by nature a pretty insecure person, especially when it comes to my playing and writing.  So a hypomanic episode was a welcome visitor.  I didn't know it was part of an illness.  All I knew was that I felt great, needed little or no sleep, and could write and record five or six good songs in as many days before crashing and getting subsequently depressed. 


During these incredibly creative and productive "blooms", I believe I wrote valid and legitimate material. It's not like those times when a person writes down some ideas while they are high/drunk only to realize the next day that the scribblings are rubbish. So yes, I do believe the condition was helpful to me in that context.  Though perhaps "helpful" isn't the best word.  It's taken me quite a while to accept that my elevated states are not good for me on the whole. 



Your debut solo album features a song about Arshile Gorky, an American-Armenian artist who hanged himself after a series of tragic events in his life. Yet the song retains a sense of hope and resolution. Why did you choose to write about this man?


I once saw a painting of Gorky's which has forever scared and intrigued me.  For me the painting was about suicide - painted from the perspective of one watching oneself kill oneself.  It was a very abstract piece - but that was the overwhelming impression I walked away with.  I was always fascinated by his life and its vicissitudes. I think I just wrote about him and that painting to veil my own suicidal ideation at the time if I'm to be honest.



Can you tell us a little about your main inspirations and if there have been any artists or groups you have repeatedly turned to in difficult times?


I can't really cite any main inspiration. It constantly changes.  I'll sometimes listen to John Cales's "Paris 1919" when I need a lift - or anything by the Minutemen, or the Meat Puppets' album "Up on the Sun" or Roberta Flacks'  "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."  


Can you select a track for us that has special meaning for you as a musician with mental health difficulties?


Since I'm bipolar I'm picking two songs.  For the manic side I pick "From Her To Eternity"  by Mr Cave and the Bad Seeds and for the depressive side I will chose Mark Kozelek's version of ACDC's "If You Want Blood".


Dr John Tully will be speaking on Minds in Music at the West Midlands Division Winter meeting on Friday 13 December


Subscribe to this post's comments using RSS


Add a Comment
  • Security Verification:
    Type the numbers you see in the picture below.
    Type the numbers you see in this picture.
Login - Members Area

If you don't have an account please Click here to Register

Make a Donation

Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.