Turning darkness into light
Oct 31, 2019 10:28AM
By J. Chambless
The Scott Seisler Band on stage in New York City.
Recovering from the weight of almost unimaginable loss, Scott Seisler did the only thing he could. He turned to music, and turned his pain into comfort for others.
In 2012, Seisler got the searing news that his younger brother Shawn, in the grip of a heroin addiction and lost in depression, took his own life. Then, both of his parents passed away from cancer within months of each other. The only way forward was to start putting his feelings into lyrics.
The Scott Seisler Band (with guitarist Bubby Jackson, bass player John Rehfuss and drummer Ben Bramhall) recorded enough material for a debut release, Missed the Last, which has solid rockers and a professional, polished sound. The heart of the album, the title track, zeroes in on Shawn’s death with unsparing openness. An accompanying video follows Seisler through empty homes and a cold warehouse as home movies of his brother flicker on the walls. It’s tough to watch, but ultimately hopeful.
Now on a campaign to spread the word about the opioid crisis and mental health issues, Seisler teamed with an organization called Bring Change to Mind, donating a portion of his album sales to help end the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Last month, Seisler talked about how Missed the Last came to be, and how funneling his anguish into art has eased his mind and profoundly affected people he will never know.
What’s your connection to Cecil County?
In the early 1950s, my grandfather built a summer home on Elk River. So my dad grew up down here on the water in the summertime and I was fortunate to have the same benefit of coming to Maryland on the weekends to the summer home. In the early 1980s, dad sold the place and wanted a home with a canal view. In 1990, we bought the home that we are currently living in on Courthouse Point Road. My mom and dad retired here full-time in 2006. After my mom passed away in 2014, and my dad five months later, my wife and I decided to live four days in Maryland and three days in New York City, where we had been based for the last 18 years. Finally, as of August 2018, I am now a full-time Cecil County resident. I have gone back to school, studying music at Cecil College in Elkton Station, thanks to professor Andrew Dickenson, Performing Arts Coordinator. He has been extremely encouraging in this music endeavor.
Growing up, was Shawn a troubled child? When did his opioid addiction begin?
No, Shawn was not a troubled child growing up. As a matter of fact, we were best friends! I believe that when things changed was in 1999 when I moved to New York City and did not see him on a regular basis. I am not 100 percent sure when his addiction began.
You and your parents obviously tried to help but probably felt overwhelmed. What advice could you offer to families in a similar situation now, with someone who needs help?
We had heard rumors, and people tried to tell us this might be happening. When we confronted Shawn, he had excuses and convinced us it was lies. Of course, us not wanting to believe this was true, we trusted him. Then the day came when I received the phone call from Shawn. He was obviously hallucinating or dreaming and telling me that I told him to “Go back.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about and just went along with it. As soon as that phone call was over, I called my mom and found out that he had some sort of drug episode. And this was the moment when we found out he was using drugs.
It’s truly very hard to know when someone has an addiction problem because they deny it and hide it so well. Unfortunately, I found out after Shawn had passed that he made comments to my mom about taking his own life, but she never told me that he said this until after he died. So, advice I would give to someone and a lesson I have learned at great cost is: Even if you think someone is joking or not serious about saying they want to take their life, you have to assume they are serious and in pain, no matter what.
Where you pursuing a music career in the years leading up to 2012?
No, I was not actually pursuing a music career, but music was always a part of my life. In elementary school I took up the trumpet and played it through high school and in the marching band, and dabbled playing the piano. In the early 1990s, after watching Nirvana “Unplugged” on MTV, I immediately was inspired and picked up the guitar and started playing.
After the shock of your brother’s death, did you return to Maryland to help your parents?
After the death of my brother, nothing really changed because we always came to Maryland on weekends and I spoke to my mother daily. I felt that my mom carried a tremendous burden of guilt that she never talked about. But I saw her slipping into a depression. We would always talk and I would always encourage her to live a healthier lifestyle because I was here for her. However, that was not enough. I believe that the tragedy of a parent losing a child is something that is very hard to overcome, and something I will never understand, since I am not a father.
The double tragedy of your parents’ deaths must have put you at a breaking point. Did you rely on faith to endure it? What pulled you through that time?
Right after my brother passed away, I immediately went into counseling for myself. I continued that right up until (and after) my parents had both passed away. When my mom got sick after my brother died, I went into survival mode, doing whatever was necessary for both of them. Then my mom passed away and my focus became my dad. Then he was diagnosed with cancer, too, and chose not to fight it and wanted to be home to live out his last days in Maryland and not in a hospital. I spent those four months, every minute I could, getting to know my dad again because I felt like I was cheated by losing my mom so quick. Those last four months with my father were amazing because I felt like I got to know him all over again. It was the greatest time of my life but also the most painful, knowing what the outcome would be. After that, I became numb and felt like my memories were lost. So, I created a huge photo collage from one end of our garage to the other end, with about 1,000 pictures of family and friends, spanning our lifetime. Every time I walk into the garage, I feel like I am with them again and find peace.
I believe I lot of things pulled me through this time in my life. One was the amazing support of my dear friends who surrounded me with a tremendous amount of love. Yes, I relied on my faith and listened to a lot Joel Osteen! But, most importantly, the thing that held me together the most, was my wife, Christine. Her unshakable faith and unconditional love gave me strength and hope.
When did you write the material for the debut album?
After Shawn died, that is when the music and lyrics of Missed the Last came to me. Then I just started writing songs based on what I was feeling and what was happening, or had happened, in my life. I found it very therapeutic and couldn’t stop writing.
The title track must have been a catharsis to write, but how did you summon the courage to record it, and to perform it regularly?
“Missed the Last” came to me while I was sitting in my office in New York City and all of a sudden, a gush of emotion came to me and I frantically put it down on paper. It was so spontaneous. That’s how it started. It was my story of what had happened to my brother.
Recording it was probably harder than performing it live. In the recording studio, you are alone, and that’s the moment when you let the emotions flow. I found it much more difficult to get through the song in that setting. When I’m performing it live, I close my eyes, because if I make eye contact with the audience, I will cry.
How did you select Bring Change to Mind as an organization to work with?
One day while in New York City at a business meeting with some clients, somehow my brother’s tragedy came up and I started talking about the song “Missed the Last” and what I was doing. One of the colleagues I was with told me about one of his best friends who works with Bring Change to Mind and he thought we could be a good partnership. He made the introduction and BCTM was on board.
It’s important to remind people that the album is more than the heartbreaking title track. There’s also some other material that points to optimism. How have the live shows been received?
Yes, there are some fun songs on the album that tell other true stores! For example, “New Girl.” This is one of my favorites! This tells the story of how I fell in love with New York City and what it was like to live there. “Red Summer” is a song no one will ever figure out. I wrote it about my wife, who played Lady Macbeth in an Off-Off Broadway play, and this is about that character. “Curly Chris” is the funny story about how my wife and I met. Another interesting song is “I Don’t Mind.” I wrote this one after my parents passed away to say that I am going to be OK because -- and I’m going to quote the lyrics from the song -- “I don’t mind because the memories are mine and no one can take them away, no matter what you do, the ones that love you may still leave you, I can’t go on but I still try.” Other songs I wrote were just fun and dirty and about real-life experiences and having fun!
Our live shows have been amazing! The two that stand out in my mind were when we opened for Sister Hazel in New York City, and also when we recently opened for The Bacon Brothers. We were amazed at the engagement of the audience and how much fun they really had. It made us feel so good because they seemed to truly connect with the songs.
The video for “Missed the Last” is beautifully done. Were you actually in your childhood home, and the home of your parents in Maryland?
Ahhh, the magic of film and television! Yes, I am very proud of the video. We had some incredibly talented people working on it. Mark Russell of Iron Pixel Media was our director of photography and editor, and Bryan Santiago of Looker Lab was our creator and director. No, it was not shot in my childhood home. We did not have access to that. Mayor Joe Zang of Cecilton was able to secure the store front and the exterior location of the house. The home interior shot was at an abandoned house near Harbor North Marina. The warehouse shots took place at my aunt and uncle’s building in Pennsylvania.
What were those experiences like?
The experience was actually kind of fun, and also very difficult, as I had to relive it over and over. I am very grateful for Bryan Santiago who directed me, and knew how to get the emotion out and bring the video to life. Another interesting note about the video is at the last minute we had an actor cancel who was to play my brother’s part. So I called my bassist, John Rehfuss, and said, “Dude I need you to come over right away!” He said “No problem.” He showed up with his bass guitar. I said, “No John, go to hair and makeup because you are going to be in the video.” He did an amazing job. During the shoot, we realized that John actually had an uncanny resemblance to my brother. So much so we no longer worried about people making the connection between John and Shawn when mixing the new footage with the home videos of the past. Also, a couple months after shooting, we were talking about birthdays and guess when John’s birthday is? The exact same day as my brother’s – Feb. 3! Now tell me that’s a coincidence.
The opioid crisis is so large that people may feel overwhelmed by it, and at a loss over how to help. What can people do to combat this crisis?
Wow, isn’t that the million dollar question! I believe awareness is the key. Also, we need to try to create dialogue about mental illness and that it’s not taboo and that it really is OK to talk about it.
As you talk about Shawn, and perform the song over and over, does the pain decrease? Are you focused on the future?
Does the pain decrease? No, you just learn how to live with it and manage it. You have good days and bad days. Mostly my days are good now.
I have been overwhelmed by the reaction of “Missed the Last” on social media platforms and when performing it. The comments that people say to me in person and have been sending to me online are humbling, because I didn’t know that the words of the song related to so many other people’s lives and situations. This tells me that we are all not alone, and I believe that is the message that needs to be said. We are not alone, and it’s OK to talk about this crisis.
For information, and a link to the “Missed the Last” video, visit www.scottseisler.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.