Monday, November 17, 2014

Downtown Struts

The Switchboard Sessions ended in 2013, but returned at the end of 2014 for a special run of sessions that showcased bands from the Chicagoland area. This is the first session of that series. Read the second and third session here.

In some ways, Dan Cooper was relieved to learn in 2013 that he was suffering from bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that explained twenty-six years of anxiety and depression. “I’ve had depression issues my whole life,” he says, “but I was always on the road or I didn’t have health insurance or something.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which mental health professionals use to diagnose their patients, identifies four basic types of bipolar disorder. Cooper was diagnosed with what the manual calls Biploar II Disorder. “I hover around super-depressed and normal,” he says. “I never get manic and get super-pumped and crazy. Instead, I always fall into a depression for six to eight months a year.” Discovering the source of this stress provided all sorts of answers and insights, especially on the strained relationships in his life. “During that time,” he explains, “I wouldn’t get along with my friends or family. Everyone just thought I was a dick.”

His band, Downtown Struts, may have suffered the most. After releasing Victoria!—a bottle rocket of a first full-length on Pirates Press Records in 2012—the band did a series of tours across the US and Europe. By the time they returned to the apartment they shared in Chicago, their friendship seemed fractured. “We just weren’t getting along and we were kind of tired of each other,” Cooper admits. “We had just been on the road so much over the last two years, you could just tell that some people were mentally checking out. It kind of felt like this may not happen anymore; we all kind of knew, just didn’t talk about it.” After a stretch of stagnation, Downtown Struts simply drifted apart both as a band and a brotherhood. First, guitarist and singer Ben Hjelmstad fled to California—“He was like, ‘If we’re not going to be doing this, I can’t be here anymore,’” Cooper remembers, “so he just left.” Shortly after, bassist Ryan Walsh moved out with drummer Zach Byrne, and later relocated to Arizona. 

Though his undiagnosed bipolar disorder probably contributed to this rift, Cooper says that the band’s unceremonious “break-up” was more about space, about spreading out and separating self from band. “Most of us had been playing in this band since we were in our teens,” he recalls. “I dropped out of high school, Zach and Ben dropped out of college, and Ryan didn’t go to college. We gave up everything to do this, and that’s all we did. We lost a lot of friends because we were so busy, and probably hurt a lot of girlfriends. I think we took it so much more seriously than a lot of people might at our age, and we started having individual identity issues.”

It was during this downtime that time that Cooper sought out his diagnosis.“I was like, ‘Something is really wrong with me, I need to find out what it is,’” he says. “I found a psychologist, who referred me to a psychiatrist, and we ran some tests and blood work and whatnot, and we found out a few things wrong with me, including she diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.” Up until that point, Cooper had been unmedicated his whole life, so both he and his girlfriend had become acquainted with and simply accepted his insidious mood swings. “We were super serious and had plans on spending the rest of our lives together,” Cooper says. “She was willing to put up with whatever was wrong with me, even though we didn’t know what was wrong at the time—even though, six months out of the year, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, including her.”

An unfortunate combination of factors (his recent diagnosis, a defective cocktail of medications, his defunct band and subsequent depression) encouraged Cooper to break up with his girlfriend. At the time, his decision made sense to him. “I couldn’t take care of her,” he explains. “I realized I was doing things wrong. Half the time, I wasn’t present mentally. I couldn’t actively be nice to her or care about her. It really hurt her because she was like, ‘I was okay. I knew something was wrong, but I was okay putting up with it.’ But at the time, I was just scared. I honestly felt like a failed human being. I felt like I didn’t deserve her.

After a while,” he continues, “I found some medications that worked. And then I wrote that song about her—saying that I messed up, I should have waited a little bit longer. But I didn’t know that there was going to be a happier ending.”

The aforementioned song, titled “Abused,” is one of five that Cooper wrote about his darkest, most desperate year. On it, Cooper sings about the struggle to manage his meds and his relationship. Yet, despite these lyrics, the song captures the serenity of Sunday morning in a small town—guitars jangling like church bells, Walsh’s bass scooting like a bus around the square, Byrne’s drums beating like the sun against the still-silver sky. The song’s peace reflects Cooper’s clarity after the fact, and seems to provide an apology. “That song ends with me saying ‘I’ll wait for you,’” he adds. “She tells me that she doesn’t want to be together, but we’re friends. She knows that song’s about her.”

Three other songs chronicle the moments and mindsets leading up to this critical decision. The plodding pulse of “American Animals” places Cooper back in the Europe, confronting the disintegration of Downtown Struts, as does “Italian Homes,” a smooth, spirited song that employs a sobering metaphor. “The reason why it’s called ‘Italian Homes,’” Cooper explains, “is because, when we were on tour in Italy, I noticed that we’d drive through these little towns and all the houses would be so small—these little, compact places, really cute and cool, but small. And so I ended up writing this song about how, as a band, we’re not as close as we used to be—how we’ve outgrown living together in this small Italian home.” 

“Bipolar,” which considers Cooper’s difficult diagnosis, might be the stormiest, most turbulent track of the bunch, though the song is built with precise, clean chords and a beat whose steady insistence seems as telling as its lyrics. “That song, I feel, is the heart of the record—the whole record surrounds what that song is about. It ties everything together, and I don’t think the next three songs after that make as much sense if you hadn’t heard ‘Bipolar.’”

The fifth track, titled “Battle of Britain,” reveals the story’s fifth and final chapter. Melodically, stings of glimmering, sweeping guitar chords swing from beat to lolling beat; only Cooper’s cryptic lyrics hint of the turmoil beneath the surface: “Today has left me so empty / When I heard the bombs across the seas / Have you ever fought them on your own? / Have you ever been to Chicago?” “There was a time where, before I was getting on good meds, I started losing hope and thinking that it wasn’t going to work,” he explains. “I felt like I couldn’t stand to live the rest of my life like this. So I was going to kill myself. I even went to the store and bought supplies.

“The Battle of Britain is the first battle of World War II that Hitler lost,” he veers suddenly, almost mid-sentence. “And Britain did it on its own. That’s kind of how I felt. In the end, I did win—I didn’t kill myself—and I had to win it alone.”

The song’s second chorus climbs into something dramatic and desperate; the drums start to thump and panic, and Cooper’s guitar tangles into Hjelmstad’s, and the whole band seems to belt, “I head a voice underground / Over noise, can you hear the sound?” in a harmony that seems celestial if not divine. “What that is is this weird part of me deep down that’s metaphorically underground,” Cooper explains, “a part of you that you don’t listen to you very often especially when you’re depressed. It’s a part of you that makes you feel like maybe you have a fighting chance. At the end of the song, I ask, ‘Can you hear it now?’ and this guitar lead comes up and it’s very harmonic and pretty sounding, and that’s the musical representation of that spirit awakening.” 

Ultimately, it was something so enormous and so minuscule that allowed him to hear the sound—his meowing cats, whom he loved and couldn’t have cared for if he had committed suicide. “I didn’t decide I wasn’t going to do it,” he recalls, “but I decided that that day wasn’t it.” Soon after, he admitted the episode to his doctor and was placed on suicide watch, which gave him enough time to reconsider his decision—and find a more effective combination of medication.

Cooper doesn’t remember writing these five songs—“If I’m totally honest,” he says, “I was so depressed, in such a down period, that I don’t remember much of 2013”—but remembers returning to a healthier, more normal state of mind. He found himself connecting more frequently with his former bandmates. “Everyone was like, ‘You seem a lot better,” and I was like, ‘Yeah, I feel a lot better,’” he says. “Ryan, living in Arizona, was like, ‘Man, I really miss hanging out with you guys,’ and I was like, ‘Woah, really?’ We hadn’t said anything like to each other in a long time.” Meanwhile, Bryne had moved two doors down from Cooper—“I could just walk down the street to his house,” he says. “It would literally take seven seconds”—which inspired Walsh to return from the southwest. When they agreed to start playing music together again, Hjelmstad expressed his interest from California.

“When they started saying, ‘Yeah, let’s make a record,’ I was like, ‘Fuck, what have I been doing the last few years?’” Cooper recalls. “So I went and listened to my iTunes playlist of demos for 2013 and found those five songs. I was like, ‘Woah, I don’t know where these five songs came from, but I really like them.’”

These five songs became Hope You’re Dope, an EP that tells Cooper’s story. Though recorded by Matt Allison and Justin Yates at Atlas Studios in Chicago, where the band recorded Victoria! a few years before, Hope Your Dope has a decidedly different sound—clean, brisk, vibrant, less aggressive and more atmospheric. “I told Matt, ‘Make this record super weird,’” Cooper says. “‘Don’t think of us as Downtown Struts; just think of us as a new band that has these new, different songs. I want a lot of reverb and a lot of crazy echoes and loops.’

“I think he did a really cool job,” he concludes, adding, “It didn’t come out like a punk record at all.” Still, Hope You’re Dope is an energetic and genuine Downtown Struts record from start to finish.

Maybe it seems strange that Downtown Struts would reunite to construct such a contrary and unexpected record, but that’s part of the point; circumstances necessitated these songs—this story—and in this style. The reverb and vitality, the lustrous thrum, the guitar chords that glint against a sturdy rhythm section—it sets the mood that Cooper’s coded lyrics cannot, captures memories that cannot be put to words.

Or maybe it seems strange Hope You’re Dope concludes with a song about suicide; even if it hints at some brightness to come, it doesn’t state it explicitly. But it’s the record itself that represents the outcome. “It’s almost like the record ends on a dark note, but it’s positive, I didn’t do it—that’s why this guitar lead exists.”

It’s also why this record exists: To capture not only Cooper’s rock bottom, but also his survival. “I step away from this whole experience feeling like a better human being,” he says. “Now I have this document that’ll be there forever.” For Cooper, the reminder might be painful, but it’s important—and it’s his to own, to explore, and to share.

Cooper recorded these songs in Chicago from his boss’s house on a Friday night in late autumn. The recording comes after some crazy weeks for Cooper, who wrestled with mid-terms and his demanding work schedule to find time to record.

“Bipolar" appears on Downtown Struts's 2014 EP titled Hope You’re Dope. “Hard to Explain" is a Stroke cover; the song originally appeared on the 2001 album Is This it.

This is the second session that Cooper recorded for the Switchboard Sessions. Read and listen to the first one here.

Visit the band's Facebook page for more music.

To download these tracks, click on the song titles and download them from the player at

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