From the age of 10, Beartooth frontman Caleb Shomo has suffered from debilitating depression and anxiety. At first, he was misdiagnosed with ADHD since he had trouble concentrating. Doctors prescribed him large doses of Ritalin and Adderall, which were counterproductive and left him feeling lethargic and ill. Mostly, he kept to himself and sometimes went long periods without talking to anyone. At these times his only solace came from listening to music.
To nurture his interest in music, his parents signed him up for piano lessons, and while he took to the instrument, he really wanted to play guitar. So when he turned 12, he got a beginner's Fender Squire Strat. Pretty soon, it was clear that maintaining focus wasn't an issue for Shomo. He was obsessive about learning to play. At the same time, he picked up his brother's dusty drumsticks and started banging around on his neglected kit. It wasn't long before Shomo was competent enough on both instruments to record basement demos.
"The next year I got a bass and I wound up playing that as much as I was playing anything else," he says from his home in Columbus, Ohio, not far from where he grew up. "I lived in my basement just playing all three instruments and I had no real life outside of that."
While many of his peers spent their time riding bikes or playing soccer, Shomo put his energy — and emotions — into writing songs. In 2006, at age 14, he became the keyboardist of Westerville, Ohio, electro-metalcore band Attack Attack!, which signed a deal with Rise in 2008. The next year, he took over melodic vocals for the group and the band quickly became darlings of the scene. But for Shomo, who was grappling with severe anxiety, the pressure of being in a rising act at such a young age was crippling. In 2012, after Attack Attack! released their third album, This Means War, Shomo suffered a severe bout of depression and had to quit the group.
"We were on this tour and I was absolutely miserable," he recalls. "I didn't want to be in the band anymore, but I was scared to quit and I felt trapped. So I would just get plastered and absolutely stoned out of my gourd and then just lay in my bunk and have really bad thoughts."
Before he split with Attack Attack!, Shomo wrote some abrasive, hooky compositions that didn't work for that group. While he tried to figure out what to do next, he got together with some members of My Ticket Home and banged out the songs he had written for fun.
"I started Beartooth with the intent of not having a band," he says. "I just wanted something where we get together and write crazy songs and maybe do two weeks out of the year on the road, and just play local bars once a month or so for the hell of it. But when it started to take off, I just went with it."
Beartooth signed to Red Bull Records in 2003 and released their debut EP, Sick, that same year for free on their website. Less than a year later, Beartooth's first full-length came out. Disgusting was a chronicle of depression and desperation coupled with heavy, infectious metalcore riffs. Not only did Shomo write all the songs and play all the instruments, he also produced and engineered the album, which has been his MO for all three Beartooth full-lengths.
Like Disgusting, the group's new LP, Disease — the follow-up to 2016's Aggressive — is full of heavy, well-crafted tunes featuring lyrics about self-loathing, dejection and despair. For Shomo, writing songs like "Infection," "Used and Abused" and the title cut was both agonizing and therapeutic. And when he and his band play live, he's able to exorcize his fears, phobias and anxiety in a flurry of bellowed vocals and energetic headbanging.
A week before the release of Disease, Shomo discussed the suicidal anguish that motivated the album, the inability of people to grasp the severity of deep depression, why he avoid antidepressants and other drugs, and how Beartooth are fighting to keep the flame burning for rock music.
DISEASE FEATURES FORCEFUL AND EUPHORIC SONGS, BUT THE MESSAGES ARE PRETTY DISMAL.
CALEB SHOMO Yeah, I wanted to address the futility in my life in the songs instead of trying to hide it. I got really tired of making records and hoping that it'll make me feel better. I worked on the songs for the first record Disgusting for almost a year and I think it pretty much reflected where I was at in my life. Then the band gets all this attention and Aggression comes along and I was almost just trying to fake that I was happier and that I had somehow figured out the solution to my depression and my problems. But I hadn't and I felt like I was lying when I performed those songs. So this was just kind of me making the choice to dive back into my emotions and try to figure out why I feel the way I do and what I should do to start making better steps of my life to deal with it.
YOU START OUT WITH "GREATNESS OR DEATH," WHICH IS THE MOST UPBEAT SONG ON THE RECORD.
"Greatness or Death" is kind of tongue in cheek — at least the chorus. It's me telling myself that I'm OK and no, it's not always like this. I have my good days. But in reality, during that period I was not having any good days. I just felt that was the way the record needed to start because the record, lyrically, is just one giant downhill collapse. It's not a hopeful album. It's not. It's honestly a pretty sad record and that's kind of the point.
WHY DID THIS RECORD WIND OUT BEING PRIMARILY ABOUT MISERY? WAS THERE SOMETHING IN PARTICULAR THAT YOU WERE BATTLING WITH OR THAT WAS BRINGING YOU DOWN?
The pivotal moment was when we went to tour Europe in December 2016. We had been on the road for the Aggressive tour for about a month and a half straight and then we went right to Europe. It suddenly hit me that I had gone three weeks from even seeing the sun. And I really need to see the sun to feel any kind of hope. It all just really got to me and I had the first bad attack bad attack in a long time.
WHEN DID THAT HIT YOU AND WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE?
It was in the middle of the night and it was after the show. I was just sitting there and I felt really overwhelmed. It was just like all this stuff I felt back when I was a kid. I had these thoughts of suicide and the overwhelming emotions of sadness and darkness. That was specifically when I decided what the record would be about. I wrote down the word "Disease" and then shortly after we finished the tour I wrote the song "Disease." It was the first thing I did for the album and that was in January or February of 2017. That's where the whole idea for the album came from.
IT'S BRAVE OF YOU TO CANDIDLY ADDRESS YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS BECAUSE IT'S A SUBJECT THAT'S SO OFTEN SWEPT UNDER THE RUG. RECENTLY, IT SEEMS LIKE IT'S A SUBJECT PEOPLE ARE DISCUSSING, BUT IT TOOK THE DEATHS OF FAMOUS PEOPLE LIKE CHRIS CORNELL, CHESTER BENNINGTON, ANTHONY BOURDAIN AND KATE SPADE. AND THAT'S JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG. EVERYONE LEARNS ABOUT CELEBRITY DEATHS, BUT THERE ARE COUNTLESS OTHER REGULAR PEOPLE WHOSE OVERDOSES AND SUICIDES GO UNREPORTED.
That's so true. I mean, day one of this tour we played Michigan and that's where We Came as Romans is from. And their singer Kyle [Pavone] passed [on August 25, 2018] from depression-based illness. [Pavone's official cause of death was an accidental drug overdose.] It was really weighing heavy on me. I talked about it onstage. And after that, I just kept talking about it at the shows. What's so hard for people to wrap their head around is they only hear about the celebrities and then sometimes they're like, "Oh, that's so selfish."
IT'S HARD FOR SOME PEOPLE TO WRAP THEIR HEAD AROUND THE IDEA OF CELEBRITIES THAT SEEM TO HAVE EVERY LUXURY IN THE WORLD, YET THEY FIND LIVE TOO PAINFUL TO ENDURE.
That's a huge issue for so many people and they find it really hard to empathize. I've had conversations with some of my best friends and they legitimately don't have that chemical makeup in their brain [to be clinically depressed]. They just don't ever feel that way. So how can they know what it's like? They just don't understand it. And that's what the song "You Never Know" is about. It's just time people start talking about it in a constructive way and not just bring it up when someone famous dies. So I'm going to intentionally keep talking about it.
HOPEFULLY, THAT WILL HELP PEOPLE WHO ARE FEELING SUICIDAL AND DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT. SOMETIMES THEY'RE EMBARRASSED OR FIND IT DIFFICULT TO FIND A SUPPORTIVE LISTENER.
I've tried to explain what it's like to feel that way. I really have and a lot of people go, "Well, that's just fucked up. They ruin so many people's lives by killing themselves." What people don't realize is that, for me, when I'm in that space and I'm really thinking about doing something, I'm genuinely, like, rationalizing in my head how much better it will make everybody's lives. And I truly believe in that moment — I 100 percent believe — my family and friends will be better off without me. I'm like, "Well, they'll be bummed for a year, but then they'll realize how I'm not dragging everybody down and no one will have to deal with me anymore. So it really is for the best." That's when it's the fucking darkest and people just can't understand that emotion and that true feeling in your gut that it is the right thing for you to do.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT ANTIDEPRESSANTS AND ANTIANXIETY MEDICATION?
I've never really tried antidepressants. That is one thing that kind of scares me just because I've learned what the whole process would be like, and what really makes me avoid antidepressants is they really do dull your creativity. That's just one side effect for the majority of people. So for me, I'm not sure that's the right thing for me yet. I try to find alternative ways to cope — things like breathing exercises and meditation. Also, eating right and sleeping well helps me a lot. And it really helps being on the road because I get the exercise of just running around like a chicken with my head cut off at the show and that's a huge endorphin release. It's when I get home and I stop that stuff and I'm sitting on my couch for weeks, that's when it starts to get bad again.
HOW DO YOU BEHAVE WHEN YOU HAVE A BAD DEPRESSIVE EPISODE?
I completely close down and shut myself off from the world. I don't talk. I don't go out at all. I just kind of sit alone. The worst it's ever been was during the entirety of making Aggressive. I was a total mess that whole time, just shut off in my basement in January in Ohio. It was snowing, dark and I was working all night for a few months straight. That was really rough. Plus, I have seasonal depression and in the winter I'm sometimes not in such a good place.
DOES IT EVER FEEL BAD TO DWELL ON THIS NEGATIVITY AND ADDRESS IT EVERY NIGHT IN THESE SONGS?
It all depends on the night and it depends on the song. Sometimes it's the biggest relief in the world and I'm so glad that I was able to get it off my chest and sometimes I just don't want to sing. But when it comes right down to it I guess I usually realize that this is an important thing for me to do.
IS IT THERAPEUTIC FOR YOU TO WRITE AND RECORD?
Honestly, writing is one of the hardest things for me to do emotionally and it completely takes everything out of me. I'm trying to be so blunt and I'm also being so fucking hard on myself because I have such high expectations. I'm producing myself and it's like I'm producing another band. I'm constantly fighting with myself to do everything better. I beat the shit out of myself and I'm very self-deprecating. But then at the end of it, I just feel relieved and I really, really feel refreshed. It's like I've gone through this whole battle and come out the other side stronger.
YOU MOVE AROUND A LOT ONSTAGE. HAVE YOU EVER LOST YOURSELF IN THE MOMENT AND GOTTEN INJURED IN THE PROCESS?
We were playing a show in Baltimore that was being livestreamed and I was just totally lost in the energy. We all were. Thankfully, we were on the last song. I got cracked over the head with a guitar headstock. My head was bleeding all over the place. But I mean, that's not gonna stop me from flying around up there.
WHAT'S BEEN YOUR FAVORITE "WHAT THE FUCK" MOMENT FROM BEARTOOTH'S RISE SO FAR?
When I was working with Nick Raskulinecz on some of the songs we went to a Stone Sour show because we played some shows with them and Nick has worked with them. We were in Nashville and it was like I was in a movie. We were all hanging out in the green room and I'm just looking around. I was like, "Holy shit!" Corey's over in the corner. The rest of the band's over there getting ready. Jay Weinberg, Slipknot's drummer, is there and so is Head from Korn. Everyone's in this room shooting the shit. I stepped back for a second and looked around and I was like, "If I'd told myself when I was 18 years old that this is what was going to happen, I would have accused myself of being a fucking liar."
DO YOU THINK BEARTOOTH ARE HOLDING THE TORCH ALOFT FOR ROCK & ROLL IN AN ERA WHEN ROCK AND METAL BANDS SOMETIMES SEEM LIKE ENDANGERED SPECIES?
There are so many bands out there fighting the good fight and trying to keep rock alive. I just hope people see us as one of them. For me, I have no idea where I'd be without it. So I mean, it's an honor for me to be in that camp with some of the other bands that are doing it. I don't know if we're necessarily carrying the torch, but hopefully, we maybe have a finger on it.