'I didn't know it was part of an
illness. All I knew was that I felt great...
before crashing and getting subsequently
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
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
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
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
Can you select a track for us that has
special meaning for you as a musician with mental health
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
You Want Blood".
Dr John Tully will be speaking on Minds in Music at the West Midlands Division Winter
meeting on Friday 13 December
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