Bryan Lewis Saunders is master of an outlandish universe of his own making. His album Near Death Experience takes his twisted world and jams it into a 40-minute mind fuck. He channels his disturbance into his creativity, using visual art and musical performance as alternative ways to deal with recurring demons and mental health issues such as anxiety and insomnia. The album seems a little ‘crazy’ at first, as its narrative creates a fog over its reality, its message, and even relatability. Where did this need to overcome and share those malicious thoughts come from?
“My past. My childhood. Various institutions. My current residence. I’m made of all of these different things. – The need to escape the 8”x11” page that I had confined myself to for over a decade. I need to let all of these bottled up feelings out. Also prison. In retrospect I see some of my behaviors in prison as rehearsing, only didn’t know it yet.”
Bryan’s performance comes from a very real place, covering many aspects of everyday life in Tennessee. Like ‘Hide and Play Dead’, a track that explores a childhood filled with fear and loneliness. He preaches about his terror of the ‘bad people’ coming to stab him, leading him to hide and play dead under his blue comfort blanket and plan his own funeral. Little did he know he’d become one of those ‘bad people’ later in life: “I’m not afraid of the bad people anymore… Because one Friday… I became one of them. I stabbed somebody.” During this part of his performance we see him repeatedly hitting his head with the palm of his hand. Does he still battle with that violence?
“I would say so. But because of art and performance, I can turn that aggressive energy into something positive. Into recordings or shows or works of art. It is much better than the alternative. I know this well from experience.”
Watching Bryan perform will take you on a journey, whether you like it or not. Listening to his traumatic past and current battles with good and evil through his art, you can’t help but feel sympathy towards him. His past may seem bizarre and somewhat self-inflicted but it’s like watching a man trying to make sense of the world around him, trying to figure out what went wrong. A sense of empathy definitely hits home. While Near Death Experience portrays such hatred and anger towards past events featuring death, violence, God and vulnerability, I can’t help but wonder, is this a part of his performance or a front?
“It’s always reality all the time but I may exaggerate my feelings or combine more than one story together for emotional impact. Only once I think the story was made up and I did it to reveal a truth.- [In] the past where I was a violent person or anti-social uncaring sociopathic type of person. Or the times I was a victim or felt like one. I really dislike those parts of me, to put it mildly, so performing is a great way to deal with it.”
This pain comes in other forms too, which he has also incorporated into his music: “Daku is the name of a psychosomatic pain. A pain in the stomach that could not be identified by any tissue damage, disease or malformations or injury in my body. The story is the evolution of my interpretation of pain throughout my entire life. Over the years that pain has come to mean different things to me. First, it was absurd and then I named it in an effort to control it and then I created a philosophy of trauma and pain before trying to treat it spiritually or religiously and sing and pray with it, embracing it.”
Can we see Bryan’s art as pain management, then? Even though he seems comfortable performing, it’s something he feels he has to do, rather than something he wants to do: “Performing is extremely stressful to me. I do not enjoy it. It is not fun. But if in my life the stress gets to be too much, say when drawing doesn’t make it go away, then I can perform and relieve myself of that like a pressure valve.” Some people may look at Bryan’s work and have mixed opinions, but ask yourself this: would you go to a therapist and heckle their patient? Probably not. Bryan is using his creativity to express and talk about subjects many would be too embarrassed or ashamed to share. It’s what makes his art so raw, so vital, because it may be a very real lifeline for him.
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