As It Is have been through the lot since the release of their last album back in 2018. Chart success, members lost and a global pandemic – their new album ‘I Went To Hell And Back’ is a record of change and revolution, if only because of what they’ve experienced along the way.
Words: Jack Press.
A lot can happen in half a decade. You can go to university, travel the world, and chase a career. Maybe you can get married, start a family, and settle down. Or you could write a record, crash the Top 40, and watch your world go up in flames; that’s the way the cookie crumbled for As It Is.
2018’s ‘The Great Depression’ sent the band skyrocketing into the UK Top 40. Armed with an album about the five stages of grief, they toured their messages to the masses with a singular mission: break the taboo and deglamorise depression.
They hopped on the rollercoaster and went for a ride, until the wheels fell off and the safety locks disengaged. Members left, a global pandemic arrived, and the depression they were singing about settled into their bones. So how did it feel when they finally got off?
“[‘The Great Depression’] is that vehicle you take off the lot, all shiny and new, and everybody is in the vehicle and happy to be there,” enthuses guitarist Ronnie Ish, who joined during this time, from his front room in Indianapolis before quickly changing tune. “By the end of that cycle, the car was in flames. It came to a screeching halt, and we’re looking around the vehicle, and we’re screaming, ‘everybody get the fuck out, the car is on fire’. We look around, and it’s just me, Patty and Ali.”
Ronnie’s baptism of fire wasn’t over when the fearless five became a terrified trio. As 2019 came to a close, they were picking up the pieces and putting themselves back together. Studio sessions and label meetings were in full swing. And then Covid-19 came calling, hellbent on conquering Ronnie, vocalist Patty Walters, and bassist Alistair Testo. Suddenly, they found themselves on different sides of the Atlantic.
“I think emotionally I undersell the toll that played on me during the pandemic. Not being around my brothers and my friends and the people that I’ve built a life with, that I’ve focused my entire life on – that was tough,” he exclaims, burnt out and bogged down by the memories. “As much as I love FaceTime, fuck FaceTime, I want to hug my friend. Covid has given birth to some of the best records to ever exist, so we’re definitely privileged, but I would rather hug someone than speak to them on FaceTime forever.”
That desperate desire for the comfort blanket of touring life drove the band forward. While the world went on without them, they found themselves hurling towards a black hole. Where once they’d win wars together, they were now fighting their battles apart – with no idea when, or if, they’d be reunited.
“The persisting uncertainty of it all was really weird to navigate,” expresses Patty in the glow of his home studio in Brighton. “However, writing this record was the true salvation of it all. It was about not letting the landscape of the pandemic, and the departures of band members, blindside us. We had a record to write, we had things to say, and we had life to give.”
The record in question is the aptly titled ‘I Went To Hell And Back’. Written almost entirely over Zoom calls, it’s a testament to the sheer tenacity As It Is possess. Of course, there was still the small matter of a black hole suddenly swallowing them up to deal with. Not only did it threaten to derail their plans, but it also took them on a near-death experience.
“The uncertainty was always there; it was always looming,” Patty shares. “It wasn’t always about ‘do we want to continue doing this?’ – it was much more existential. I was asking myself, ‘do I want to continue doing this, which is being alive and being a participant of Earth?’ The ominous, looming of shit just weighed heavy on you. ‘Do I want to wake up and get out of my bed?’ Most days, the answer was no in the Lord’s year of 2020.”
At the end of a touring cycle that had taken its toll, and driven apart by the pandemic, As It Is were a broken band. No amount of bandages could stop the bleeding, but they persisted through the pain, finding peace in the panic and thriving under pressure. In many ways, it was déjà vu.
“All you can do when you have those thoughts floating around in your skull is to put them onto paper, in front of a microphone, and turn them into really cool art,” Patty admits. “If you don’t, they’re going to eat you alive, and I’ve experienced that.”
“There were points when we thought ‘The Great Depression’ was going to be our last record too,” he continues. “It’s that finality and that desperation that births something really special. You just have all these emotions, and they’re really loud, they’re really acute, and there’s nowhere to put those things, so you channel them into art. The thoughts were always there, some days louder than others, but that’s being a band in 2020/21.”
‘I Went To Hell And Back’ pulls no punches with its subject matter. It’s a diary of depression, a living, breathing microcosm of the physical and emotional suffering many have felt. While so much of it is Patty’s experiences deep in the trenches of his mental health, its nuances and layers come from Ali and Ronnie’s perspectives as outsiders looking in.
“There were moments where Patty disappeared off the face of the fucking Earth and suddenly came back, like he just came out of the fucking trenches,” says Ronnie. “Just imagine a guy that’s in torn and tattered clothing, and he’s filthy, hasn’t showered in a month, and we’re all like, ‘where the fuck have you been? You know there’s a missing report out on you, right?'” Patty looks on smiling, the pair able to find the funny side of it all looking back.
“He just goes, ‘hey, I had to go get this song, but here it is’. I’m like, ‘are you for real? If you didn’t bring this banger, I would be so upset with you’. When someone hands you a song like ‘I’d Rather Die’, you don’t scold them for ghosting you for a month; you just hug them and love them. In many ways, it’s like you went to war, and you came back, and that song is the letter you had to deliver.”
Despite claiming his ‘analogies are so stupid,’ Ronnie is right about one thing: Patty went to war with his mind, and As It Is went to hell and back to make this record. They dug their nails so deep into their own skin, every song is written with their own blood.
You can hear it in the post-hardcore angst of ‘Sick And Tired,’ the synth-pop cynicism of ‘I’d Rather Die’ and the anthemic electro-emo of ‘ILY, How Are You?’ – the latter of which explores the brotherhood between Ronnie and Patty, and how hard it can be when you’re watching those you love get lost in their own heads. It’s why ‘I Went To Hell And Back’ is so special.
“‘ILY, How Are You?’ is really special to me,” Ronnie explains. “That was one of the moments Patty was really down, and we had these deep lyrics dressed up and decorated in really pretty sonics. All I could think about was this beautiful bright blue sky day, but you’ve got Patty walking around town with a black umbrella, and there’s a storm underneath, and it’s only happening to him. That’s the only thing I could feel that day.”
‘ILY, How Are You?’ is a lesson we can all learn from. It’s a song about checking in on your friends checking out. In the age of doom-scrolling and picture-perfect social media, we could all do with taking a leaf out of the As It Is playbook.
It’s a playbook they ripped up and rewrote during the digital and physical sessions for ‘I Went To Hell And Back’. They beat themselves black and blue to not only survive but to tell their story and shape their sound in a way that meant something to them. And it wasn’t easy.
“I don’t like to celebrate my victories; I like to be really hard on myself; you can compare it to sports – or maybe you can’t, I don’t know anything about sports,” Patty exclaims to roars of laughter from Ronnie.
“Some days you’re in the studio, and when it’s halftime, and you go to the locker room, you walk outside of the studio, and we’re like, ‘we’re losing this one, do we even bring it up? Do we talk about how today feels like a waste of everybody’s time?’ We’re super burned out, we’re here in body, but we’re not here in mind, and we’re going to go back on the field and get fucking crushed some more – is that a good use of our time?”
It’s a good question, does anyone like being beaten to a pulp by imposter syndrome? Can As It Is call it a comeback, or were they stuck in the mud?
“Sometimes you drive home from the studio having lost the game, and all you need to do is make a better plan for tomorrow. Then you write ‘I Hate Me Too’ and there are just forces at play, and everything is right, and you leave the room, and the adrenaline is sky high, and you celebrate that good feeling for a while. When it’s something tangible like a song, you can just relive that over and over – it’s like watching a playback of your own highlight reel.”
‘I Went To Hell And Back’ is a highlight reel of As It Is 2.0. It never stays in the same lane long enough to be boxed in. Patty, Ronnie and Alistair shift gears quicker than Lewis Hamilton can say “Verstappen”. While some of ‘The Great Depression’ remains – mid-noughties emo, post-hardcore grit – it’s a technicolour dream coat of genres.
Imagine Waterparks trashed a house party and hung out with De’Wayne listening to post-hardcore, pop-punk and emo before making an album. Throw in some synths and digital drum loops, and you’ve got ‘I Went To Hell And Back’. Rome wasn’t built in a day, though, and the band almost broke their backs turning a 2019 EP into a full-length album.
“We had some really amazing sessions with some amazing creatives,” explains Ronnie, “but all I can remember is being in the car with Patty, getting in late, waking up early. We’re both quiet, and we get our coffee, and we just look at each other and collectively, we’re like, ‘something’s wrong’. We’re not communicating what we need to accomplish because all of this is cool, but it’s not saying what we want to say. It’s not sounding how we want to sound.”
With deadlines putting them under pressure, and imposter syndrome slicing them open, they had to think fast. Throwing themselves into sessions with Mike Pepe (Taking Back Sunday, Bayside), and later Zach Jones (Fever 333, Lil Lotus, We Came As Romans) – “he’s pretty much the fourth member of this band” – they suddenly struck gold with ‘IDGAF.’
“Suddenly we wrote this song, and that’s the moment we said ‘okay, we’re on to something’,” smiles Patty, still pleased with themselves for persevering. “It’s the greatest, loudest representation of what this record represents lyrically and sonically in equal measure. It was something so special; it was this out of body experience where it felt like none of us were driving the vehicle, none of us were writing this song, we were just this vessel for something else happening that single-handedly shaped the rest of our record.”
If Mike Pepe was the gateway drug, Zach Jones was the Class A addiction. Although his roots are in metalcore with the band’s Fearless Record labelmates My Enemies & I, his work as a producer goes far beyond that.
Acting as an alchemist, he helped Ronnie, Patty and Ali experiment with pop sensibilities and instrumentation they’d never thought of throwing in their cauldron. And he hopped on a ride in a car they thought was destined to crash, which meant everything to them.
“Jones bought something so unique to the table, something so fresh. It’s like having a fourth member take on this project like it’s their own, and really live, breathe, eat, shit, sleep, bleed and fucking fight this project with us,” exclaims Ronnie, surprise stirring in his voice still that Zach put so much effort into this album. “He added so much flavour and so much life to this record; it’s crazy.”
One such flavour he helped Ronnie and co. cook up acts as a huge leap into new territory for the band. Whereas previously they penned songs that simmered in the same feelings both musically and lyrically, on ‘I Went To Hell And Back’, they’ve begun juxtaposing blue sky sounds with umbrella-grey lyrics. It’s something the sessions gave them, that Zach helped get out.
“When we were all on Zoom, you really didn’t know what you were going to get from all of us that day. I think the songs that you hear are those unique moments of life when we all come together at the beach with our boards, and we’re like, ‘that’s the wave we’re catching today’, and we all paddle out together and catch that fucking wave.
“It’s like a box of chocolates; you just never knew what the fuck you were going to get with us on any given day. One day I would be really up, and Patty would be so down, and some days I’d be really down, and Patty would be up, and Zach was that thing in the centre of our core just balancing it.”
If Ronnie’s experiences with riding the songwriting wave fed into their shapeshifting sound, the same experiences lent themselves to Patty’s lyrics as he dealt with balancing both an album and his struggles with depression.
“I think the funniest sort of juxtaposition of all is sometimes I was just so inconsolably unwell and introverted, I would remove myself from writing sessions, and the guys would carry on. We’d be writing two songs at the same time,” explains Patty, unafraid to open up about just how out of touch his struggles took him. But it gave birth to the living, breathing world that ‘I Went To Hell And Back’ is.
“When you’re looking down the barrel of this unsilencable sadness, how do you use that as a vehicle? Do you want to communicate that as this bleak hopelessness? Do you write a ballad, do you make it sad, or do you turn that into fire and aggression and some unrelentingly heavy track? Sometimes it’s just how the mood speaks to you; sometimes it’s whatever the unanimous vote is.”
No matter what shape the songs took, what stories the lyrics told, or what the world threw at them, ‘I Went To Hell And Back’ is As It Is kicking and screaming their way back. It’s an album they’re so proud of, partly because they spent more time worrying it wouldn’t see the light of day then actually writing it.
“The truly special moments are ultimately how we were able to actually pull it off. There were so many times we’d be on calls, and we’re like, ‘man, it’s fucking over, it’s done, we’re not doing this, no one’s gonna hear this shit,” sighs Ronnie, sad at the sheer stubbornness their shoulders carried for so long. “Some days, it felt like our fucking bodies physically had actual weight on top of us, but I couldn’t be any more excited because at one point nobody thought it would?”
Of course, as science shows us, what goes up must come down. While they’re sure to reap the rewards for their experiments, they’re wary of the risk of alienating their fanbase. Although they’re not letting that dampen their spirits, ‘The Great Depression’ had its place and so too does ‘I Went To Hell And Back.’
“The people who wrote ‘The Great Depression’ are not the people who wrote ‘I Went To Hell And Back’,” asserts Patty. “I don’t mean that in terms of line-up, I mean in terms of who we are, and I think the people listening to this record aren’t the same people that listened to ‘The Great Depression’ four years ago.
“This is a record to reintroduce ourselves; it’s reigniting a friendship with long lost friends and family and people that we love. It’s like, we’ve not seen you guys for a long time, you haven’t heard from us, and this is where we’ve been, this is who we are now, and if you don’t vibe with that, then that’s okay. Because we vibed for a while when we were right for each other.”
‘I Went To Hell And Back’ is a departure from ‘The Great Depression’, but it’s also their version of the moon landing. In fourteen songs, Patty, Ronnie and Alistair take one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. And if you do feel like you fit in on their rocket ship, you’re more than welcome to hitch a ride.
“This is unapologetically, unashamedly where we’ve been, what we went through and who we are on the other side of it. And if this record is for you, then we’ve got all the fucking time in the world for you, because we have a lot to say and a lot of noise to make.”
As It Is’s album ‘I Went To Hell And Back’ is out 4th February.