Mommy Memorialize Casualties of Mental Health System
Mommy, the Brooklyn noise-punk trio featuring Ian Graye on drums, Tye Miller on bass and Mike Caiazzo on vocals, don’t shy away from mental illness, nor do they forget any of the measures that society has taken to mask its presence. While Graye and Miller ground the band in lurching throbs and pummeling rhythms, Caiazzo summons the most harrowing episodes from his four-year tenure in an assortment of mental health clinics, “units” and wards, each song focusing on real people or real experiences.
Mommy have put an uncomfortable topic on display, but even scarier is the question they ask, one that haunted the pages of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, a book that traces the trajectory of the “asylum” from its birth in leper colonies to the Middle Ages and the nascent stages of psychopharmacology. I’m not sure if anyone’s compared Caiazzo to Foucault yet — and frankly, I’m pleased to be the first if not — but both figures find themselves asking two things: Do the methods we have work? Do those in charge care if they do?
The band’s new LP, Songs About Children, is a testament to both remembrance and survival in the face of an indifferent system of power. Emotionally raw and observationally compelling, Songs About Children is a moving listen, essential for anyone who’s dared to develop empathy.
How did you guys decide to start playing together?
Mike Caiazzo: I have no idea!
Tye Miller: I know exactly why. It’s because Mike would always be complaining about how he wasn’t involved in anything for a long time. And I thought he had a story to tell. He’s punching me in the arm right now — he’s really upset.
MC: What the fuck?!
TM: And it worked out great, so ...
MC: I remember you approaching me, actually.
TM: Yeah, okay.
Okay, so, Mike, I’m curious about your lyrics. Remembrance is a bit of a cornerstone to your words. Do people ever contact you that are mentioned in the lyrics?
MC: I was contacted the other day by this kid Clint from one of the same treatment facilities as me. Reaching out makes me feel weird. My stomach hurts when I talk to people from that placement, specifically. I found out that the amount of people from Unit 5, the very last unit I was in, are almost cut in half. Half of them are dead. Clint just messaged me out of the blue, saying, “They’re dead, so and so is dead, he died,” and it makes me kind of want to stop talking to him … especially since I hated him when we were both in there. It’s unnerving to hear those things casually and think, “That was my friend for a year and a half and now they’re gone.” It is hard coming to reconcile, but on most days I feel so detached that I don't bat an eye. Kind of what the song “How to Act at Funerals” is about.
Do you ever think that your lyrics are a testament to them having been alive?
MC: Yes, totally. I'm glad you got it. The most extreme example of this is this song called “N.Y Presbyterian” about a very young kid who was on the unit with me. He must have been like 11, but he was born with AIDS and his life ended too fast. We spoke a fair amount of times, but I can’t remember his name. I remember his face, his clothes and his voice. I might be the only one who does. I needed to write a song about him alone.
How do you decide which parts of your time in these facilities to talk about?
MC: If someone deeply affected me, I’ll find a way to include them in a song. In “I Remember Them,” I talk about a kid with fetal alcohol syndrome — his name was Brian Tyrone Fields. He had a twin who didn’t have his ailment, so his parents just dumped him off and kept the “good” kid. Anyway, all these kids used to steal my socks at the unit, and he would always give me his. I would have, like, trench foot at some points because I’d be on my last pair. That act of kindness is unique for a person whose life has been tampered with against his will. Another instance is the song “Jade,” on our demo tape. We met while in the eating disorder wing at hospital. She was so malnourished that she had to use a wheelchair. We gravitated toward each other and had this intense, intimate relationship that ended just as fast because she was shipped off to another placement.
When you’re in there, does time feel different?
MC: It’s weird being detached from everything. You become a passive flower where anyone could do anything to you and you wouldn’t feel any effect. Weird shit happens there, but usually they put you on a lot of medicine, so you can sleep your life away on a high Seroquel dose. They give you stuff that makes you more docile and accepting. Sometimes you snap out of it and realize how long it’s been. You’re going crazy because you want to go outside and be young, but you’re giving your youth to whatever placement they feel is best for you that year, and then that feeling dissipates and you go back to being passive.
Do you ever go back to those places?
MC: I went back to New York Presbyterian, which was close. That’s where the cover of the 7” is from. We had to run up there. My friend Henry drove me. It’s illegal to take a picture on those grounds once you’re past the parking lot, so we had to drive up and take the picture before security got to us [imitates photo-taking sounds]. We just hopped out of the van with the “mommy” sign, took a bunch of pictures and got back in the van. I also had to go back there for the LP so I could get my medical files disclosed. The poster in the LP is from that — it’s the file from the preliminary questioning they did. It’s an outline of my body with notes about my body and quotes from my admission interview
Do you think being in those situations has given you a sense of distrust to authority?
MC: I guess. I don’t like sleeping. I had escorts take me to certain placements while I was sleeping. I would be [shaken] up and taken from my bed. They would put me in a car and drive me somewhere else. That happened twice, so I have trust issues from that, but yeah [imitates photo-taking sounds again]. I mostly just feel helpless looking back on it. I don't know why I had to be in the hospital system for that many years. They just kept telling me I was sick, but I still wonder if they truly believed that.
Do you like it when people take your picture?
MC: Oh, I really do love attention. It’s compulsive almost. But with pictures, it’s like someone’s proud of you. They’re documenting you at some point, which means you're worthy of remembering. It’s such a nice feeling.
How about feeling pretty? How do you make yourself feel pretty?
MC: Damn. My mom’s gonna probably read this. [Laughs] You should read the Nuts! interview for that, but it’s nice to feel pretty, and I think everyone wants to. And whatever steps you need to take to do it, self-destructive or not — ugh, it sounds like I’m advocating for something bad, but I understand why people would go to certain lengths to feel that way. Feeling attractive used to be the most important thing to me. My idea of beauty is still warped, but I think I might have it under more control than before.
Yeah, definitely. Do you think that being in this band and talking about the things you talk about has made you more empathetic? Has it helped you or made you feel any better?
MC: It makes me feel more exposed. It’s good to be hyper-aware of it. I like that people come up to me and say, “I’ve had similar things happen to me, and it’s nice that someone’s talking about it.” A lot of people think it’s attention-seeking to bring up mental health, substance abuse or self-destructive behavior. People think you’re glorifying it or looking for attention. Those are always the two accusations, and I think that is so unfair — a garbage view. Even if someone who partakes in self-injurious behavior is looking for glory or attention, you should try to understand why they would go to such extremes. This stuff needs to be discussed. On the other end, though, it puts me back in the past, in this place I haven’t worked through. It messes with me, but I think putting mental health issues on blast is way more important than my discomfort.
You include your lyrics written out in the LP and EP. Do you think people read them and understand?
MC: Maybe. Hopefully. I mean, Tye, do you?
TM: Yeah, it definitely helps, especially when he’s driving me absolutely insane. It’s nice to remember that he can’t help it, and even though I’m angry at him for a little bit, it passes, and then he stops being mad at me, too. We both apologize and go through explanations.
MC: It doesn’t take much for me to shut down completely, so hopefully at the very least my band understands, but as far as friends — I don’t think any of them have really read the lyrics. [Laughs]
Cool, well that’s basically all I’ve got. Do you guys have anything you’d like to say?
MC: Um … we should end on a high note or something. We should have thought about this. Fuck! No. Wait. Hold on. Oh, sorry, Ian! I forgot to tell you about this interview. Yeah. Totally just didn’t tell him. Do you think he’ll be mad?