Brent Mills got the fateful phone call from his family doctor on his 23rd birthday. The singer's band — Louisville, Kentucky, progressive metalcore outfit Greyhaven — had just begun feverishly writing the songs that would eventually make up its ADD-addled new album Empty Black, but music was about to be put on the backburner.
"My family is plagued with a heart murmur," Mills says. "They called me on my 23rd birthday and were like, 'Yo, you've got to have heart surgery. Your valve is leaking back into itself.'"
It's been two years since Mills underwent open-heart surgery, and he's recovered enough to get back onstage. Last summer, Greyhaven recorded Empty Black with producer Will Putney at his Graphic Nature Audio facility in New Jersey and they have big plans to tour throughout 2018 in support of the record. But even after getting back to business with his band, Mills still has his health in the back of his mind.
"Not to get morbid, but I don't know how well this thing works," he says of the blood-pumping organ in his chest. "I'm young, and I like to play loud music at shows, and I drink with my friends — I'm not exactly the most careful person on the planet. Maybe I scream too hard one night, and they're going to take me to the hospital because I get fucked up. It scares me a little bit."
Mills confronts such fears on Empty Black, which careens and grooves with the same reckless youthful abandon the singer describes in himself, popping off devil-horned salutes to Every Time I Die, Norma Jean and the Dillinger Escape Plan along its vertiginous route. Mills notes how his heart surgery is referenced on the LP via "subtle, sarcastic jabs" — above the brutally bounced beats and pinch squeals of "Mortality Rate," for instance, the singer smarmily muses on "a hole in my chest where great sorrow was born." He also points out the "literal big heart on the cover of the record."
Empty Black is a big album — likely not in terms of sales, but definitely in that it marks Greyhaven as one of the most exciting young bands to emerge from the same Midwest scene that birthed Knocked Loose, and also in terms of its thematic scope. Mills' heart defect isn't the only ticking threat that hangs over the record; Empty Black also addresses such societal ills as gun violence, oil dependency and, striking a more personal note, the opioid crisis that has swept the nation at large but struck Kentucky particularly hard.
This past January, the U.S. DEA opened a new division in Louisville to focus on the epidemic, but Mills has been well aware of these problems since his youth. "I grew up in an environment where drugs and addiction were always present. Not directly in my face, but I always knew about it," he confides, recalling how he learnt streets terms like "Reds" and "Yellows" while overhearing his stepfather's coded phone calls at the age of six.
Growing up 20 miles outside of downtown Louisville, Mills describes his hometown of Valley Station as a desolate, struggling spot full of "high schools, fast food and Walmarts." His parents brought him up on the sounds of the early Nineties alt-rock boom — he cites Nirvana, Sebadoh and Louisville cult faves Slint as formative influences — which steered him towards playing guitar and forming his first band in middle school. Greyhaven rose from the ashes of a later moshy-yet-melodic outfit called Aesthetics vs. Architecture, and made their name by gigging around Louisville pizza joints and basements, before releasing their debut LP, Cult America, in 2014.
The band toured nationally behind the album, but then drummer Jared Barron and guitarist Isaac Hale both split — the latter to focus on Knocked Loose, of which he is currently a member — leaving Mills and founding bassist Johnny Muench to pick up the pieces. For a time, they contemplated abandoning their noisy ways for a gentler indie-rock approach ("that would have been a disaster," Mills laughs in retrospect); ultimately, they drafted two friends — guitarist Nick Spencer and drummer Ethan Spray — into the lineup. Greyhaven were re-stabilized, and good thing, too: If it weren't for music, Mills wonders where he would be, whether he would've succumbed to the small-town boredom that pushed many of his peers into often lethal drug problems.
"I hear about it every other week on Facebook that someone else has overdosed," the singer says sadly. "I went to school with these people. Shit, in Valley Station, they're dropping like flies."
"My mom was never shy about talking about these things," he continues. "She would tell me about different people in my family [and] when I got older, she told me, 'I struggled with pain pill addiction myself while you were growing up. I hid it. You didn't know.'" He proudly reveals that his mom has been clean for 15 years.
Mills hints at the issue of addiction on Empty Black's "White Lighters," a piece that finds the rest of Greyhaven taking a reprieve from high-voltage guitar acrobatics and savage breakdowns to explore inkier rock textures. Eschewing screams for a contemplative croon, the vocalist questions in the chorus, "why you poking holes in yourself?" — a reference to an ex-girlfriend who spiraled from casual partying into heroin abuse. "I got phone calls on three separate occasions that she had overdosed," he recalls. "I thought she was dead at three different points in my life."
While Mills has avoided the path of self-destruction himself, he tries to address such stories in his music without judgement. "Art's supposed to be abstract, nuanced [and] able to take multiple perspectives," explains the vocalist, who keeps his lyrics cryptic and open-ended. For instance, a line like "I think I've had enough, watching the world implode," which Mills delivers on "Sweet Machine," can read as nihilistic or like he's making a case for positive change. The singer isn't looking for easy answers on Empty Black, but his personal journey so far suggests he's committed to the latter. "You can look into the void and pull out something good if you're looking for that, you know," he says. "It's all about your perspective."