Mental health is no laughing matter. You may be reading that previous sentence as stating the obvious but despite all of the social movements, awareness campaigns, and fundraisers, mental health remains a serious, and often ignored issue in both Canada and the United States. Individuals dealing with mental health-related problems are often left to fend for themselves in enduring and coping with their own situation.
Enter Matt Hitchens, the creator of one-man-band Diamond Shake. Hitchens moved from London to Los Angeles about seven years ago to further pursue his dreams of a career in music. A near lifelong lover of music, Hitchens began playing instruments at the age of eight and his interest in music only escalated as he got older. Upon moving to L.A., Hitchens began to take the bull by the horns and fully pursue his musical abilities when he started writing and creating his own music which led to the release of Diamond Shake’s debut album From Method To Madness. When we say one-man-band, we’re not lying; Hitchens wrote, performed, produced, engineered and mixed every note you hear on From Method To Madness. The album largely deals with Hitchens’ personal struggles with depression, anxiety, anger, and low-self-esteem which only became worse upon moving to Los Angeles. A significant reason as to why these issues became worse was as a result of Hitchens’ struggles with the U.S. immigration process and the stress that came from the many twists and turns that process took.
Mental health and the challenges presented by the unbearable procedures that come with emigrating suddenly became intertwined which only made things more difficult on Hitchens. With such an interesting story to share, Hitchens has shared with us a very special guest blog in which he discusses his own battles with mental health, his long and difficult journey towards gaining his U.S. visa and how this all contributed to the creation of From Method To Madness. We are also very pleased to couple the blog with the exclusive premiere of From Method To Madness in its entirety!
While you read along, listen to Diamond Shake’s brand new album From Method To Madness:
Diamond Shake’s Matt Hitchens shares his experiences with mental health, immigration and the debut album From Method To Madness:
I first came up with the idea to make an album when I was denied a visa to return to the U.S., and held in London for nine weeks. I had lived in Los Angeles for four years up until that point, having moved there with a friend in September 2012. I had decided to move as I had been in bands since I was fifteen, but nothing had ever really progressed. Every band I had been in had failed, mostly because the music wasn’t good enough and nobody had worked hard enough, but by that point everything had completely stalled. I hadn’t played a gig in a year, and I had pretty much stopped writing or playing at all. The idea to move to L.A. was a last ditch attempt to make something happen. I wasn’t getting any younger, and where better than L.A.? I thought to myself that if I don’t try, I’ll always regret it, and if I fail, at least I tried.
For the first year I slept on floors, sofas, in cars, and in shared bedrooms. I had to keep moving around every few weeks because at that time, I was staying on a temporary traveller’s visa. Under this type of visa, you don’t get issued a social security number, so you can’t qualify for leases, or even open a bank account. The only way to get money is by taking cash out of an ATM from a UK account, and the only housing option was to take up short term renting from friends of friends who were out of town. Thankfully this all changed when I qualified for the first of two, three year long ’musicians working visas,’ the O-1. To qualify for an O-1, or the “visa of extraordinary ability,” you must present a file of evidence to prove that:
• You have been a successful working musician in your home country
• You have signed and dated work contracts for the three-year duration of the visa
• You can supply numerous references from music industry heavyweights to support your claims
• You have a three-year contract with a sponsor or manager.
After all the evidence is organized and presented by a specialist immigration lawyer, the roughly five hundred page package is sent to the Department of U.S. Immigration, and in one to three months time, depending on delays, you will receive your decision. The cost of an O-1 is around 4,000 dollars, although I have heard prices mentioned up to 6,000 dollars before.
The visa application experience is a fucking nightmare mentally. It really took a toll on me because of my mental health problems, as even though there are the previously mentioned requirements, a huge amount of the decision-making is down to whether a random person in the immigration department deems your achievements good enough. So the difficulty isn’t even really the gathering documents part, it’s the waiting for a fairly broad amount of time, for a decision that might force you to leave your home. The waiting is awful. Every day I would think that it wouldn’t be accepted, and every day I would sink into a deep depression imagining that moment. It takes over everything, and every day I would check my email, and every day nothing. Until finally you get the thumbs up. You can stay.
Off of the music video, watch the music video for “Let It Die:”
Three years later came visa application number two. At this point, I had settled in L.A., it was home. I was desperate to stay, and two months after the application had been sent in, I received an email from my lawyer with the news that it had been accepted.
That was Thursday October 13th 2016. That weekend, my housemate and I had tickets to the Desert Trip festival in Indio, California. The lineup for the festival was:
• Friday: Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones
• Saturday: Neil Young and Paul McCartney
• Sunday: The Who and Roger Waters
Having received the good visa news, I was ready to celebrate. The whole weekend was perfect. Every band was incredible, and Roger Waters’ “Pink Floyd only” closing set was the greatest live show I have ever seen. It was an amazing way to end the year. Looking back on it, it also completely changed the type of music I was writing, and would entirely shape the style of the album that would come.
The only remaining step now was to leave my passport with the U.S. embassy in London on my next visit, so they could issue the visa. I flew back to London to spend Christmas with my family on Tuesday December 13th, and decided to get my embassy passport drop-off out of the way early. It would take them a week to process it, and my return flight was booked for the 29th, to coincide with a three week tour with my band at that time, due to begin on January 3rd.
It wasn’t long during my embassy visit before things started to go bad. I had taken my seat in the first waiting room, and watched the screen for my number to come up. There were around 100-150 people in the first room, all waiting to be seen by one of the dozens of identically dressed people, each sat behind a thick plastic window in their own cubicle. There was a circle of small holes to talk to the man or woman on the other side, every one of them wearing black trousers and a white shirt. There were two types of interviewer it seemed: those who liked their job, and those who fucking hated it and everyone involved in it.
My number was called and I made my way to the designated plastic window with my passport and folder of papers. I was already nervous, as even though the visa had been accepted, the U.S. embassy doesn’t fuck about. Despite the application being checked and examined for two months by people who work in the Department of Immigration, if, during the five minute chat at the plastic window, they think you’re lying or don’t qualify, they can still deny your visa then and there.
And this is the artwork for Diamond Shake's new album From Method To Madness:
While waiting for my number to be called, I watched this happen. It escalated my nerves to near panic attack level. A man applying for his visa had said that he was an actor, moving to L.A. to find film work. He listed his acting credentials, and included that he had worked in one of the Harry Potter films and a Bond film, amongst others. The woman behind the plastic window told him she was denying him the visa because he said he would be looking for work while in America, and that he should already have it lined up before leaving.
The man argued, but the woman had moved on. He walked away, every now and then turning back to look at her, knowing that a slip of the tongue had jeopardized his entire career.
“Please not her,” I thought. Then they called my number. It was for her plastic window.
I strode up with a smile, that probably failed to hide the fact that I was shitting myself, and handed the woman my papers. There was a brief questioning period: “What do you do? Tell me about your work? What’s your biggest success?” And then, “How would you consider any of that ‘extraordinary?”
That question threw me off a little. I explained to the woman that I had worked solidly for the last three years as a session bass player, been in three bands, landed auditions, and that I had made the music for a successful documentary. At this point, she asked me to sit back down and wait again. This didn’t feel right, and I immediately feared the worst while taking a seat in waiting room number two.
After around 20 minutes had passed, I was called back up to the same window and the same woman. The only difference was that this time, a man in the identical white shirt, black trousers uniform, was standing about ten metres behind her, almost like her own private security guard. He didn’t move throughout the conversation that followed, which was almost exactly the same as the last conversation we had had: “What do you do? Tell me about your work? What’s your biggest success?” And then again: “How would you consider any of that ‘extraordinary’?”
The second music video released from the new album, check out the eerie imagery of “Into The Fire:”
I tried explaining myself again, and immediately felt like the man I had just watched be denied his visa. I repeated my previous statement, although having had 20 minutes to think things through, had managed to remember some extra details to help get me over the finish line.
After I had finished talking, I was handed a piece of paper: “VISA DENIED.” The woman then explained that while only temporarily denied, it would mean that my visa application would be re-investigated, and that I would not be allowed to leave the country until a decision was made. The piece of paper helpfully clarified that a decision could take between six weeks, 60 days and six months. When I asked the woman behind the plastic window about my tour, she replied, “I guess you won’t be there.”
That evening I think I had my first panic attack. I don’t remember much of the journey home from the embassy due to shock, but the thought of not being allowed to return to L.A., where I had lived and worked for four years, engulfed me. It felt like something had been thrown over my entire body and was compressing me tighter and tighter. Everything I had was in LA: a house, friends, bills, and it was all gone. The depression that I had felt while waiting for the initial decision came rushing right back, but this time only much stronger because it was actually happening. I wouldn’t be able to go home. After some frantic emailing to my lawyer, I was not at all consoled to be informed that “it should be ok” and that “this can happen.”
The next nine weeks were some of the darkest times of my life mentally. It was Groundhog Day. I would just try and fill time while waiting for an email that could take between sixty days, six weeks and six months to arrive, that would tell me whether I could return to America or not.
The level of depression that I went through during that time was far worse than I had ever experienced before. As well as the uncertainty of whether I would ever be able to return, there was also huge guilt over missing the tour that had been booked for months with my band. I was ashamed. I was letting them down.
Shame, embarrassment and low self-esteem had always been the causes of my depression. These were mainly due to childhood bullying as well as my long-term insecurities about work, and in my own mind, never having achieved anything of any real substance, but this just ramped everything up to a level I hadn’t experience before. I had had a really good upbringing and family life, had it pretty easy in the scheme of things, and I had failed again. I had never achieved the goals I aspired to in pursuing a music career, and I had wasted the time I had spent in America drinking too much and not working hard enough. I was a fucking mess. I broke down on more than one occasion. Christmas was shit. So was New Years.
Just released this week, watch a live acoustic cover of Hitchens doing the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down:”
I would wake up every morning having hardly slept, and feel this weight pushing harder and harder on my chest. I would struggle to be able to take full breaths, and constantly find myself gasping for air. I would sit and re-run every failure that I had experienced in my mind over and over again. I think this was to punish myself by showing me that it was my own fault that I was in this position, and that I ultimately deserved it.
For the first week I did nothing but email lawyers and check the U.S. immigration website six or seven times a day. I knew that I would receive an email when a decision was made, but I checked it anyway. Every time I would log onto the website, I would feel an enormous pang of panic in my chest, and then when nothing had changed, back to depression. After that week, I tried to set myself a routine to be able to get through the days. It started out including walking, listening to podcasts, writing music etc, but as time went on, it would turn into ways to kill time before I could drink. Mostly by watching TV.
I had begun having suicidal thoughts from the age of around 16 or 17, but during this time, those really escalated as well. I have never had the compulsion to actually see it through, and I never would, but I would see myself do it in a variety of different ways, and then almost like a movie, watch the aftermath play out. For years I didn’t really know that this was strange. The one time that I actually sought out professional help, I was turned away by my doctor, so I just assumed everyone had these thoughts and never mentioned it. It took 17 years for me to attempt to find medical help again.
By around the seven-week mark, I had begun bargaining, saying to myself that if the visa did get accepted, I would not stop working day or night until I got something going. I didn’t know what, but I just thought that if I get through this, I would just work all the time, and something would happen.
January crept by painfully slowly in the same fog of darkness and drinking, and then on February 7th, I received an automatic email from the Department of Immigration that said to send my passport to the embassy for the new visa to be issued. And that was it. Just like that it was over. Two days later I was back in L.A. I almost cried on landing, on getting through passport control, and exiting the airport. I was still a fucking mess.
I started working the day I landed back in L.A., and after almost exactly two years of writing and recording, I finished making From Method To Madness, an album all about the experiences of those few months.