Interview: James Dittrich (Artificial Consciousness Machines/Balefire) Talks About Music, Depression, and PTSD

Youngstown, Ohio was our first musical home. Trevor and I played in our first bands there, and that’s where we first started playing music together. Classic venues like Cedars and the (sadly, now long-defunct) Nyabinghi were where we learned the art and business of playing live music. Sound engineers like the renowned Pete Drivere showed us the importance of quality set-up/tear-down and that not all engineers are created equal. Many of our musical influences and musical friends are still there. It’s always great playing in Youngstown – Cedars (though now in a new location) is still a kind, comfortable friend.

So today we’re doing our first interview with someone outside of Pittsburgh, and it’s no surprise that he’s from Youngstown, OH (though, in truth, he has lived in Pittsburgh and visits Pittsburgh regularly – big IKEA fan). It’s also no surprise that he’s one of our dearest friends.

We’re very excited to present…

Of Music and Mind Interview: James Dittrich Talks About Music, Depression, and PTSD

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James Dittrich with Artificial Consciousness Machines at Federal Frenzy / Suzie’s (4/22/17). Photo by Trevor Richards.

James is – at heart – a computer geek. His band Artificial Consciousness Machines declares itself to be comprised of members who are “computer geeks and professionals that have a passion for tech and music.” What’s interesting is how his everyday work of web programming and his passion for music intersect. I learned a lot about this intersection through this interview.

That James’ two passions are computers and music isn’t a surprise to me, though. Trevor and James were roommates in Youngstown over a decade ago. They had become friends through a mutual interest in music, composition, and recording. When James wasn’t playing music, he was computing.

James is also a musicophile who loves gear, talking about music, and playing music. James’ writing and playing is defined by the quest for perfection, unique chord and note combinations, and interesting progressions. 

James (and his band ACM) are part of the Northeast Ohio Association for Computing Machinery (NEOACM) and they are hosting a really cool event: Synth Gods M.A.S.S. (Music. Automation. Synthesis. Symposium.) on 9/22/18 in Girard, Ohio. The First Annual Synth Gods M.A.S.S. is a one-day, all-day symposium for synthesis musicians, performers, educators, technology geeks, and enthusiasts. The symposium will feature speakers in the areas of digital music automation & creation, digital and analog synthesis, and a Synth God Competition.

And remember to keep an eye and ear out for material and show dates from James’ new post-rock/progressive metal band Balefire. They’re expecting to debut in September and we’re really excited!

James Talks about Being a Musician

We talked about James’ life as a musician.

How long have you been a musician?

31 years. Trumpet at 10, keys at 14, bass at 15, guitar at 16.

What bands do you play in now?

Artificial Consciousness Machines, Balefire

What were your old bands/projects?

Bottom Feeder (1995-1996) – industrial rock

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Bottom Feeder. James is the “mop of hair to the right.”

Luxure (1997-2003) – trip-hop/dance/EDM electric fusion

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Luxure at Phantasy Night Club in Cleveland, OH. James is rockin’ the bass.

NH3 (2002) – ambient

Contributions to Trevor Richards fun projects (2004-present). 

[Here’s an example below. This is the song “Memorial” from Trevor’s sophomore solo release, (((HUM))). For fans of drone, experimental, electronic, ambient, rock. James’ bass on this is intense!]

 

What instruments do you play?

Guitar, bass, keys/synths/samplers, trumpet (marginally, you lose your chops if you take a hiatus).

[I, too, have experienced trumpet-chop-loss.]

Which instrument do you consider to be your main instrument?

Presently, guitar.

What does music mean to you?

Comfort, release, a creative outlet.

Tell me the story of how you got into music. How’d you become a musician? What inspired you? What challenged you?

I heard Alice in Chains’ “Would?,” and my friend Dennis handed me a bass. Dennis had been playing and recording for a few years and sort of inspired me to just take a swing at it. Also, I was feeling pretty uncool and figured it wouldn’t hurt socially. That was my first foray into making completely original music and not just playing sheet music or figuring out covers.

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James stomping the boxes. Photo by Trevor Richards.

What are some of the challenges you experience as a musician?

The expense/opportunity cost. Other people take vacations, and have houses and other nice things…I have instruments and recording equipment.

Time management is a struggle. Planning and scheduling for 4+ people can be insanely difficult.

[Artificial Consciousness Machines is currently operating at 7 members!]

Sometimes partners don’t understand the level of dedication and time/resources and it brings conflict/drama into the relationship.

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James Dittrich with Artificial Consciousness Machines at Federal Frenzy / Suzie’s (4/22/17). Photo by Trevor Richards.

What inspires you to keep playing music and performing?

I inexplicably keep writing songs and want to share them. I suppose that’s a function of having the instruments around and just in arm’s reach. It uses a different part of my brain than my “real job” and helps me let go of work stress/gives me something else to think about.

In my “professional” life (I struggle to even imagine myself a quote-unquote professional), I am a Web Programmer for a nearby public University, and a part-time/adjunct faculty teaching the same in the Computer Science department. It’s just something I found out that I was good at, and it allows me to live like a relatively stable human being. As with most Musicians, being an adjunct is challenging, and more often than not, underappreciated in the financial sense, so I welcomed the full-time role (and accompanying benefits). It’s kind of funny, because both of my “selves” are unified in the demand for a certain sort of precision, whether it’s code correctness or playing the perfect notes precisely in time. I was recently asked whether I “cut loose” or “have any fun” performing – and my honest answer is that it’s really stressful, but for some reason I keep doing it!

James Talks about Depression and PTSD

We talked about James’ experience with depression, PTSD, and the role that music plays.

Do you have depression? If so, how long have you been experiencing it?

Yes. On and off for 26 years.

What is your experience of depression like?

It’s existential, sort of like throwing your hands up and saying, “why bother?” … the meaninglessness of many basic activities, even those that are sort of baseline activities (bathing, shaving, wearing something other than pajamas, etc.). You just don’t have the will to do much of anything. You become passive. I went through a phase of renting 11 VHS tapes at a time, for the sake of “film literacy,” but really I just wanted to lay around and be distracted from my life, which I considered shitty. Or maybe I just wanted to experience things vicariously that I couldn’t have myself or in my own life.

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James Dittrich. Photo by Trevor Richards.

Do you have any theories or ideas about why you experience depression?

At least partially, the way people are valued in our society, or at least the things that define whether you can be deemed a “success.” Sometimes (mostly, the worst times), you reflect: here I am, by all metrics intelligent, by some accounts good-looking/physically attractive, kind and caring – a decent human being accumulating boatloads of good karma, all attributes you are supposed to strive for, with no recognition and/or prospects with many facets of life (job/career, money, meaningful relationships, etc. – things people value) … it’s demoralizing to the point of self-doubt, questioning your own worth as a human being, and so on. It is de-motivational and you can fall into patterns of people taking advantage of the sorry state. You’re vulnerable and desperate, and the world is a savage place at times. Sometimes, even the people around you that should care about you the most, well, sometimes they can fail you in surprising ways.

Right now things are going pretty well, and I don’t have much to be too down about, but sometimes things go sideways and you find yourself back at rock bottom. I can sympathize with those who turn to self-medication, but drug and alcohol problems don’t really help you back out of the hole. That’s a classic trap for musicians that many seem to fall into. It seems like you have to lay a lot of groundwork, just to feel as though you have a solid foundation. I think my best advice is to always try to help people, even if it’s you that needs helping, because you never know who’s going to throw you a rope.

Sadly, you’ve experienced a traumatic experience and the PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) that ensued. Can you talk a little about that?

[Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder often occurs after experiencing or witnessing a situation that threatens your life or the life of a loved one. It is a serious condition with symptoms that can affect all areas of your life. If you are experiencing PTSD, there is help for you. Please reach out for help. See our resources page for ideas.]

Acknowledging that bad things happen to good people, that’s a tough one. You’re told the old adage that if you do everything right, make the right choices, etc. then you’ll have a better/easier time in life.

In 2013, I had quite a harrowing experience that, while it could have gone much worse, left me with PTSD and ultimately destroyed an otherwise healthy relationship and budding career. You always think of something this awful as only happening to “other people” – and then, one day, you are other people. It took a long time to recover, but I (eventually) sought the help I desperately needed and reinvented myself. I think it’s important to recognize that it’s normal to have problems that are bigger than what you can cope with yourself, it gave me an appreciation for the severity of Anxiety Disorders, Panic Attacks, and in general why there’s so much suicide in the Veteran community. Anxiety on top of Depression is a terrible one-two punch, and while pharmaceuticals can help short-term, they only really mask the symptoms instead of providing a long-term solution. Having someone to talk to about it is a tremendous help.

[This account of James’ traumatic experience is hard to watch. Please note that there are graphic images and details.]

What role – if any – has music and being a musician played in creating or strengthening your depression?

At some points, it’s like you lean on the music to help you experience what you’re going through and make it through to the other side. I feel like sharing that sort of thing the most, because I believe that it can help people get through those bad times themselves. But you have to sometimes overthink/fixate on the emotions in order to squeeze them all out onto a recording. It’s sort of like dipping into the well of sadness until it runs dry – you have nothing left. You can feel emotionally drained from the creative act, and also performing. The other thing that sometimes happens is that you’re waiting for the little shot of dopamine that people’s approval/praise can give you…and it’s sometimes a very long wait.

How do you cope with your depression? What keeps you going despite this challenge?

I know (now) that it passes in time. I try to focus on the things that I can change rather than the things I cannot. I try to affirm my self-worth more often, which sounds cheesy like that Stuart Smalley SNL character, but actually helps. When people give me “tough love” statements, I really listen, even if it isn’t what I want to hear. Having a therapist that’s going to give it to you straight is invaluable.

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Stuart Smalley, Saturday Night Live. (Or maybe James?)

[Seriously, though: I 100% agree about the affirmations. I have a post coming up about those soon.]

What role – if any – has music and being a musician played in fighting or alleviating your depression?

It does provide something else to think about, some different problem space where the problems aren’t really things that can hurt you, a distraction of sorts. When people appreciate what you’re doing, it gives you a big boost (the aforementioned double-edge sword applies…but it’s nice to know that what you’re doing is valued).

What advice do you have for other people – musicians in particular – who suffer from depression or PTSD?

Life can get tough, but just latch onto some goal to focus on (a song, a performance, an album) and enjoy the journey. The creative process can be healing, and – especially collaborating with others – bring the joy of bringing something new and unique to life. It’s especially true when the sum is greater than the parts; to have someone else bring something profound out of you can be euphoric and exhilarating to the point of disbelief.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that nobody can bring you out of it from the outside. Of course, it helps to have people who love and care about you, to have your closest friends try to cheer you up, and to have people that understand you to talk with that really listen. But ultimately, you have to be ready to pick yourself up and persevere through it.

What songs from other artists/bands best sum up the experience of depression for you?

The Cure – “Pictures of You”

Mastodon – “Oblivion”

God Lives Underwater – “Empty”

I can relate to the sense of loss in all of them.

What songs of yours best sum up the experience of depression for you? Why?

Luxure – “Another Drink” – is roughly about having someone give you permission to regain lost confidence, and hit the “reset” button.

 

Balefire – “Lower”

“Lower” lyric excerpt:

The love that has turned to hate for me takes me…lower / The things that you do and say to me make me…lower / The hope that you ripped away from me takes me…lower / And I stay down.

There’s nothing worse than living with regret / That’s what I think, when I think about you / There’s nothing left but living with regret / That’s all I feel when I think about you.

These are both (bad) breakup songs. When other humans let you down, you can’t help but sort of scrub through your memories and wonder where things all went wrong. I feel that people tend to beat themselves up for things that were never under their control to begin with.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your experience of depression and PTSD or the connection between music and depression?

I think that many extremely sensitive, empathic people wind up expressing themselves through music because it provides a layer of insulation between you and some really difficult feelings. Being that type of person definitely makes you predisposed to depression, in my honest opinion.

[I agree. Read part 1 of my series on the link between creativity and depression here.]

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James Dittrich. Photo by Trevor Richards.

James Talks about More Stuff

Here’s some other interesting stuff that James talked about in the interview. These are interesting topics and things we’ll be exploring in Of Music and Mind.

What are you curious about related to the connection between music and depression?

Whether the depression drives you to making music, or vice-versa.

[Good question.]

What topics related to music and the mind are you interested in learning more about?

How I can bust writing ruts/plateaus, developing higher-order skills like advanced theory and improving improvisational motifs. I always feel like I’m behind the curve of where I “ought to be” as a somewhat serious musician.

[Ooh, good ideas. In the (near) future, we’ll have some tips for busting writing ruts (and more).]

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James Dittrich with Artificial Consciousness Machines at Federal Frenzy / Suzie’s (4/21/18). Photo by Trevor Richards.

Thanks so much to James for spending time talking with us about these important, poignant issues! We hope that after reading this you feel encouraged to seek help for yourself, too, if you need it. Do you relate to what he shared? What are your thoughts? 

Check out more interviews here. Keep an eye out for a new weekly series we’ll be debuting this week: MicroMusicMind! Be well!

 

 

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