Just Say No

Foreign Fields spent the better part of seven years trying to be the successful band of their childhood dreams, but when sudden mental health issues put that pursuit in a new perspective, they found their way to a different path—one that’s taking them where they really want to go

The room was dark, and the clock read 4:30 a.m. when Brian Holl awoke to the feeling that something was wrong. Seized by a flood of panic, he put on shoes and went for a walk around the motel where he and his band were staying in Austin, Texas. As hours crept by, the dark sky slowly began to lighten. He tried to force himself to eat breakfast, but it was no use. His brain was unable to focus on anything but fear.

“I thought I’d lost it,” he remembers. “I thought I’d gone crazy.”

It was March 21, 2015. The night before, Holl and his bandmate, Eric Hillman, who make gorgeous and contemplative music together as Foreign Fields, had performed possibly the most important show of their career. Following the 2012 release of their debut album and a couple of subsequent EPs, the duo had ridden an unexpected wave of success and found themselves in a coveted slot between Laura Marling and Leon Bridges for South by Southwest 2015. Every late-night-show booker was watching, as were multiple labels and publishers. The pressure was on.

“It [was] time to step up to the next level and see if we could hang with the big boys,” says Hillman, slouched backward in a dark grey tank and black hat. “That was our time to really do it, and it didn’t happen.”

A year and a half later, seated comfortably in their minimal recording studio behind the house where Hillman lives with his wife and two children, the duo still struggles to talk about the weeks following that night in Austin. Sipping whiskey and chartreuse and soundtracked by the calming tunes of Sufjan Stevens and Nils Frahm, they speak excitedly about the early years of the band, laughing and reminiscing about their spontaneous decision to leave their native Wisconsin and “slum” it in East Nashville in pursuit of the dream. But when the conversation reaches that night in the motel room, their voices drop and the pace slows. Their words, unbridled and light before, are suddenly measured and heavy.

“It was bad. It was bad. I can hardly remember that first week,” says Holl, hunched forward and staring at a spot on the rug. “And I’m still going through it now, to be completely honest.”

Four and a half years after their debut, Foreign Fields are finally readying the release of their sophomore album, Take Cover, due out October 28. It’s a sprawling achievement for the band, as dynamic sonically as it is paralyzing lyrically. The record was inspired largely by Holl’s difficult battle with anxiety and depression, which began suddenly that night in the motel room and has haunted him consistently ever since.

“The only way I can explain what I’ve been through is that there’s two brains working,” he says, making a cohesive brain with his two fists. “Maybe they were like this my entire life, and then that night just made it go like that,” he says, as his fists violently split apart.

For Holl, the week after the disappointing show was spent in and out of hospitals, looking for an answer to a question he didn’t even know how to ask. Over the next few months, as Hillman attempted to support his childhood friend and bandmate, he was also coming to terms with grief of his own. From comforting a distraught fan who’d lost their best friend to suicide (Hillman remained in contact with the fan while recording Take Cover) to facing the reality of a stagnating career, the high of the band’s initial success had completely worn off, and both men found themselves surrounded by a cloud of suffering.

“It’s like when you read a good Kerouac book . . . and you realize, ‘Yeah, those [good] times all ended,’” says Hillman, his reddish curls on display for a brief second as he turns his cap backward. “Everyone kind of got fucked eventually, and the good times don’t roll forever.”

From neighboring towns outside Milwaukee, Hillman and Holl first met in early high school as a part of the same worship band at church. Hillman, a slender guy who comes from a family of career musicians, asked Holl to be in a band over MSN chat, and the two formed Suntory, a piano rock band they hoped would become the next Coldplay. The pair then split when it came time for college, with Hillman studying film scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston and Holl at Columbia in Chicago. They reunited a few years later in Chicago with the hope of finally finishing an album, but carrying amps up three flights of stairs every day made that goal more difficult than they had imagined. So one night when Holl was over playing Super Nintendo with Hillman and his wife, Janelle, he offered up another option. He had spent some time in Nashville during college touring with another band and remembered that the housing market was supposed to be extremely affordable. The three had been drinking and were feeling slightly impulsive, so they got on Craigslist to see if East Nashville was really as cheap as they’d heard. Three weeks later, they were gone.

“We got down here, and we were like, ‘What the fuck are we going to do?’” Hillman remembers. “We were so broke.”

In January 2012, seven months after their move to Music City, Foreign Fields released their debut album, Anywhere But Where I Am, which was written and recorded for the most part in an abandoned and heatless office building during a brutal winter in West Bend, Wisconsin. Though they say just about no one listened to it during the first month, the album slowly began attracting more listeners as the weeks wore on. One of those early listeners was Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, who liked what he heard so much that he posted about it on his Facebook page and got in touch with the guys, sparking a friendship that still exists today. A couple of months later, Holl and Hillman were playing their first live show ever—at South by Southwest 2012.

“[It] was like a movie, like Almost Famous,” says Holl. “It was the closest I’ve ever felt to my boyhood dream coming true.”

Though their whirlwind of newfound success was intoxicating, Holl and Hillman say it was also destabilizing. As they started spending more time on the road, they had less time at home with their families. New to playing live, they also began unwittingly tailoring their shows to sound more like the bands for whom they were opening instead of playing their music the way they’d been inspired to create it. Then, there was the pressure they felt from managers and labels to write new material that was catchier and more likely to get them a hit on radio. Music had become less of an art form and more of a job. But all of that changed that night in the motel room.

Though the guys say the Austin show went “fine,” they had hoped it would go a lot better. After years of trying to be a successful band by music industry standards, the pressure and disappointment of the night made them come to terms with the fact that it just wasn’t going to happen—at least not in the way they had previously imagined success to look. And the stress from that sobering realization activated a latent anxiety in Holl that was far more complex and comprehensive than a simple letdown after an unsatisfactory show. The weeks passed, and the initial disappointment faded, but this new dark part of his brain refused to lighten. As the reality of a chronic mental struggle began to set in, the dream of Foreign Fields as it existed was dead.

“Everything that we had been through for the last three years—trying to do the whole band thing—none of that made any sense anymore,” says Hillman. “It was clear to me that we were through unless we changed everything.”

A couple of months after his first panic attack, Holl was still learning to deal with the onset of his mental health issues, but he was also feeling the need to make something of his distress. In May last year, he and Hillman got back into the studio to try and put a sound to their suffering. Unlike the music they’d been making the past couple of years, this time, they decided that they were not going to play the songs for anyone during the process—not their wives, not their friends, and not even their manager. For six weeks, they holed up in the studio with the hope that they could surface with something meaningful.

“After that whole three-year period of not knowing what we were doing, I think all of a sudden, we had such a pure feeling of, ‘This is it,’” says Hillman.

What they came up with was Take Cover, a record that is as deeply personal as it is sweepingly beautiful. More tightly recorded and intricately produced than its predecessor, it’s the kind of album that reveals more rewards with each listen. Devastating lines like, “Since that day that I tore off my wings . . . I let gravity do what it does and correct me,” are wrapped in lush string arrangements, piano, saxophones, electronic pulses, and driving drum beats. Some tracks, like the single “I,” throb with an almost pop-like energy, while others, like the entrancing “Weeping Red Devil,” tremble with the desperation of a tired heartbeat. It’s an undeniably sad record in every way, but what’s impressive is how alive it feels at the same time. It’s not the sound of numbness. It’s the sound of a sorrow that is every bit as active and emotive as moments of pure happiness and joy, and that’s what makes it all the more devastating.

“I don’t want to glorify [what I’ve gone through] at all. I would give up my entire musical career to not feel the way that I do,” Holl says, putting his pain in perspective. “But if the album can be a part of helping someone who’s going through something similar, which I think it can, I’d be so proud of it.”

As much as that night in Austin was a catalyst for Take Cover, it’s also sparked a significant shift in the way Holl and Hillman want to live their lives. After the unexpected reception of the first album, they found themselves feeling the need to say yes to everything in order to achieve the success they wanted. What they’ve realized is that saying yes to all of those opportunities didn’t really take them where they wanted to go. Sure, it got their music in front of more people and probably helped sell more records, but at this point, they can say with confidence that their idea of success isn’t necessarily the same as others’—specifically those in the music industry.

“We don’t want to be just another cool Nashville band,” says Holl. “And it’s not that we don’t like that kind of band, because we do. But we’ve realized these past few years that we’re not that. And you have to say no to something to say yes to something else.”

So what is Foreign Fields saying yes to? Right now, that answer is very simple. They just want to focus on making each day in front of them a good day. They want to get exercise. They want to spend more time with family and less time on the road. And when it comes to their music, they don’t care about selling records or playing sold-out shows anymore. They just want to create work that’s honest and about the real joys and sufferings of life and hope that it can connect with those that need it.

“If we’re not really rolling into some sort of emotional, psychological content, we’re just wasting everyone’s time,” Hillman says. “We’re wasting our own time.”

When the band releases Take Cover later this month, it will have been a year and a half since Holl woke up in that Austin motel room in a state of panic. Though he still struggles with depression and anxiety, he says he also experiences moments of overwhelming gratitude, and those are the times he lives for. Sometimes it happens when he’s on a hike with his wife, sometimes when he’s having a morning cup of coffee and reading a great article. And sometimes, it happens when he’s outside doing yoga—a peaceful album on in the background, the sun hitting a tree just right.

“It’s this one moment where it all aligns, and I’m like, ‘Holy shit, how do I get back to that moment, because I’m just so grateful,’” he says with a contented smile on his face. “That’s the kind of music we want to put in the world. The kind that gives people more moments like that.”

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