July 09, 2005

Interview: Okay's Marty Anderson

Marty Anderson had been involved with two Bay Area bands, Dilute and Howard Hello, before being diagnosed with a serious form of Crohn's Disease. The disease, for those who don't know, is a seriously intense and incurable intestinal disorder that is an excruciatingly painful disorder that causes a lot of misery and discomfort. It has been an intense illness for Marty Anderson, a young man struck with this disorder and forced to rearrange his life. His life for a time involved much speculation as to whether he would be alive or dead by the next day. It's a tough way to live; very intense, and most of us cannot begin to imagine what his life must have been like. Thus, his life now conists of living to an IV machine, difficulty eating and a lot of pain.

Where it would be understandable for even the toughest person to give in to their pain and suffering, in the face of his illness, he decided to do what he does best: make music. He wrote songs to describe his pain. When he finished them, he formed a new project, entitled Okay. Earlier this year, he simultaneously released his debut albums
High Road and Low Road, two sonically similar but entirely different records. They're quite beautiful, and could easily be some of this year's best releases. It wouldn't be a surprise if they were. These records defy simple description, and simply overcome the listener with emotions, tears, and, ultimately, a newfound respect for this thing we call LIFE.

Wise beyond his 27 years, Anderson spoke to us a few months ago, and it was a pleasure. Seek out his records. You won't be disappointed.

Why the decision to make two albums and release them simultaneously? I know that there was some discussion that this was going to be a concept album, or that both albums were concept albums tenuously, but would you care to discuss the concept behind each one?

Well, at first, it wasn't going to be a "concept." It was just, I just kept recording songs and they eventually, I noticed that they were very, they came from two different places as I was writing them up with different mindsets, so basically it's just a different mindset behind each album, I have a different approach lyrically to the same subject.

Or, more specifically, each album is different thematically is different; though the theme might be same, there is a difference between the two, except on a much more levels.

They are the same sonically and dynamically, and that was on purpose. Low Road is more of a...I don't..I don't want to say "pessimistic," but it kind of became a more negative approach, or not a life-affirming approach whether it's a focus on the world or yourself. I wrote it more trying to face the punches and trying to make it about the attempts to overcome giving up.

So High Road is optimistic and Low Road is realistic?

Yeah. As I said, I have said that to my friends, who have difficulty with it not being optimistic, I say, "Well, it's not pessimistic, it's just truthful." I went through a lot of things, and I was kinda going back and forth like that, and when I was in one state I'd write a song one way, and when I was in another state I'd write it in another, and I just divided it up, I compiled them, all the "good" songs and all the "negative" ones. We were going to do a double album at first, and then we just decided to release them individually.

To me, I wouldn't necessarily say they're optimistic or pessimistic, I would say matter-of-fact. They're very honest, because when you're dealing with a serious health issue, you have to be realistic about it, but at the same time you don't want to be pessimistic, either.

Yeah, it's kind of like deciding, are you going to take steps to get better, or are you just going to say, "okay this is my life, and that's it?" I'm definitely taking a step forward with this. I feel a million miles away from those records, though, those were done years ago.

So, Okay is a major part of your therapy?

It is completely necessary, which has become apparent just in the last few months. The last time I went into the hospital a few months ago, it really, really bad, and I was in really bad shape. When I got out, I had this new idea, I told myself I was going to get a band together and I had this energy. Within a month, we played four shows, and then all of these people came out, all of these articles were written. Before that, I was bedridden for, like, a year. It's been a strange event, the last couple of months. The ten milligrams extra of whatever medication I'm taking, there's not enough to explain what has happened. What I think it is, is having all my friends around me. I have a nine piece band, and every single person in it is like one of my best friends, so I think having that in my life has kept me going.

The albums themseves, were they all you?

The albums themselves, everything was me. I used to be in a band called Dilute, so I've been playing with those guys for about twelve years, maybe longer, maybe shorter, somewhere around there. It's bascially them at the core of this band. I basically took a break from Dilute, and the band kind of broke up, but it's just a break, and that's when my health was not great, and that's when I started to do the Okay songs by myself, because I couldn't do the band. Now that I can, I'm trying to recreate that sound, and I realize it misses something.

The albums it's beautifully complex, but they're downright simple in their approach, and that's what struck me. I guess when you're dealing with such a complex matter, it's the only way to approach it. When you wrote these songs, were you consciously writing about your health, or is it something that when you look back now, you say, "wow, the subject matter really came out and I wasn't even thinking about it when i wrote it?"

Oh no, never. I'm always very conscious about what I'm writing about...and..well, no, that's actually not true. It's more like I have a very specific critera before I call a song a song. It has to resonate with my truth, which is usually, like when I wrote those, it was about me being bad, sick and isolated--but it also has to resonate universally, with everybody. Everybody can't relate to being sick in a small apartment and not being able to go out, but they can relate to being in this country. To be honest, I think they're really similar; it's really easy, you just change "body" to "country," it's very easy. But for me, it has to be personal, and it has to be my truth for me to actually be able to play it live, for me to actually be able to do it for real.

They're definitely a very real set of records. Before you released them, were you concerned that maybe what you were releasing was too personal?

Yeah. Oh, yeah! I released a double record a few years ago and gave it to my friends, and that was more personal then, and that was just kinda to tell them where I was at. This, I took it a lot more seriously, I took it a lot farther, the way everybody reacted to it, they really thought I should put it out, I kinda thought I should put it out, but I hedged for a long time, because it was...it was...me out there. So I knew that if I put out a press release, it's gonna have to say I'm sick, or else I'll just have to lie to every interviewer. The other articles that have come out, we had a write-up the SF Weekly, it was so descriptive, about how I have to go and change my IV. That is a little bit hard for sixty thousand people to read, walking around the East Bay, but I'm getting used to it. It's easy for me, because if I don't tell the truth, I get anxious, and I feel like I don't know who I told what, so I just tell everybody.

It's that honesty that makes the records a lot more real and resonate with a lot more people.

It's been getting more press, and that was somewhat deliberate, too; I did try to make something much more accessable than anything I've done. The responses...have been crazy. People have really connected to it, but for me, it was just a lifeline, it was what I had to do to stay around.

Seeing all of this positive reaction is somewhat surreal.

It's very surreal. In just six months, it's all been happening really fast. I mean, I'm not complaining--it's different, different than laying in bed all week.

It's probably helped your health in ways you really can't appreciate just yet.

Yeah. I'm trying to appreciate it all that I can, because it's amazing..

It's one of those things where you can't feel the love, but when you look back later, you'll think, 'wow, all of these people around the world, they responded positively to my records and wished me well, even if I couldn't be around them to hear them say it directly." That would have a healing affect.

Yeah, it's a full circle with these records. When we played our CD release show, I never really thought I'd be able to sit, and I did that and I felt good. I told everybody, if I was to put them out, I wanted to get somebody to say that it changed their life and I wanted to get somebody angry. Really get angry. Like, "who the fuck does this guy think he is, this is the worst shit I've ever heard in my life!" And I got both! (Laughs) It was a great sensation. It was exactly what I wanted. It surpased what I thought it would be completely.

I did notice both spectrums, and the interesting thing about the negative reviews was that absolutely none of the reviews mentioned your illness and it's possible the reviewers didn't even know you were sick, or that what Okay was doing is autobiographical.

I think negative reviews are fine and completly necessary. I can't remember a Kubrick movie that didn't split the critics down the middle. The idea of press, I think it's a natural thing for any truth to be criticized. I mean, if it's true, it has to be criticized. But I wanted to prove it to myself, and that's what I got.

(At this point, the recording becomes difficult to understand, and static garbles a conversation about Howard Hello, Dilute and his previous bands)

How is your health right now? Has there been any improvement?

My health is confusing, as usual. I'm still on the IV, but I'm working to get off of it. I'm trying to eat more. My basic problem is..it's much more painful to eat...I'm working hard to get to the point where I'm eating enough so they can say, "Okay, you can get off of it." So that's what I'm working on, I'm trying to find the right food, trying to lower my stress level. Like, another thing, I'll have an argument with somebody, and then, in like three hours, I'll throw up. That's not normal. That's not how normal people handle things. And yeah, that makes me sensitive in every way and that's a drag, but I've been getting a lot better, I've been meditiating every day.

Do you think Okay has played a large part in your health getting better?

Definitely. Absolutely! If I didn't have this support and this love in this tangible way, I don't know what would have happened for me.

Are you currently working on new Okay material?

Oh, we've got a whole record ready! (Laughs) It didn't take long.

Was this more of a collaborative effort, or you by yourself again?

I pretty much wrote of the songs. We changed a few of them up, some friends had different ideas and we changed them up, but I pretty much wrote them. I got excited just to play a G Chord when Jay (Pelucci) was in the same room and he hit the drums and I started laughing! (giggles) I was so excited. But I brought up the whole record and everybody learned it.

How different is it from Low Road/High Road, or is it the same thematically and sonically?

Thematically, I think it's...I've been a lot more positive lately. The last ones were, to play the devil's advocate, like "ohhhh my god, it's all over, it's all shit, blah blah blah," but I just want to have a balance with a record. For this, I'm hitting for a non-duel philosophy on life and that's what I'm talking about now. I'm not interested in the duality of illness. I mean, how could I not be, with all the positivity around me?

One thing I realized from Low Road & High Road, even though they are depressing at times and very bleak, there's also a glimmer of humanity and of hope; you've got this moment NOW to record the song NOW, so let's appreciate the time that you have NOW.

Exactly. The new songs are exactly talking about that: "You're going to die, but how? You're still alive right now, you're still alive right NOW." I mean, enjoy it, because this show might be our last show, because you don't know. I don't know. I'm just happy that people are coming over to play music with me for twenty minutes, then being able to go out in the sunshine.

Looking back now to you at seventeen, when you started making music, do you think your illness has changed your appreciation for life?

Oh, absolutely. I can't imagine my life without it. It affects your relationships, it affects your activities, it affects my family life and career, it affects everything. It's who I am. But I was writing music then, and I don't know...(puzzled) I don't know where I would be, if I'd be playing music, because I wouldn't know of the places it's taken me and to help me see it as more thanfun ...I don't even know if I'd be alive without music.

If it's the thing that saved your life, you can't turn your back on it.

I tried, I tried therapy and didn't have music and I wasn't getting healthy, and I realized I needed it to get healthy.

Your muse wouldn't let you go down that easily.


I tell people about your records, about how they moved me beyond...I just can't put into words how I've been moved by them. I mean, it's sad, because it's very pessimistic, and yet it's optimistic, and it's a reaffirmation of life in the face of death and disease and illness and tragedy.

Yeah, but I look at it like this. I wasn't trying to find an answer. You're at a crossroads. You can go forward or move backwards or stay where you are. It's not about saying "this is the answer." Like on High Road. It's not like I'm trying to say this is the journey, because I'm still going there.

Noticing that there was a time when you didn't know if there was going to be tomorrow, and to me that's what comes through, about being at that point, that peak, and wondering if this is it and you are looking back, or hoping that you have another chance. It just seems like, "am I gonna die tomorrow and, if I do, what was life about?" It's about the realization of the beauty of life in the face of death.

It's like, all of a sudden, so many of the things that bother you, they don't. And forgiveness, it's not difficult, it doesn't have the the hardness to do as it did before. And you look back and you say, "wow, that's what life is about. Kindness is what life is about. Forgiveness is what life is about. It's so obvious!" And when you make decisions based on that, that is what love is, and it's the most miraculous thing.

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