Take a deep breath before you listen to The Romance Of Affliction. You’re going to need it. The second full-length by San Diego’s SeeYouSpaceCowboy, it’s a brutal musical and emotional assault on the senses. It’s the sound of total collapse, of darkness closing in, of trying to escape – through drugs, through death, through whatever means necessary – from the horrors of existence. Not just metaphorically, either. Two weeks after the band finished recording it, frontwoman Connie Sgarbossa nearly died from a drug overdose. It was, she admits, a kind of physical manifestation of everything the album’s 13 songs are about.
“Writing music is cathartic to me,” she says. “Getting things on paper is the only way I know how to deal with stuff. So to have that happen two weeks later almost backed up why I wrote the album – it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a line on this album that goes ‘I think I took too much/Stop breathing’, and that’s literally what happened to me. It reinforced that I wrote the album that I needed to write.”
The song she’s talking about is “…And My Faded Reflection In Your Eyes”, a coruscating battle of brutal breakdowns, soaring melodies and angular riffs. It lasts for just over three minutes, but in that time lives are lost and saved, and galaxies formed through the prism of the lyrics’ internal anguish. It’s not just on that song that Connie is so blunt, but on all of them. Yet while her words are as cerebral and intelligent as ever – full of poetic imagery, literary conceits and philosophical concepts – she made the conscious effort to differentiate her approach compared to past efforts.
“Old SpaceCowboy was so masturbatory and flowery,” smirks Connie. “It was like ‘Look how clever I can be’ and no-one really got what the fuck I was saying. I wanted to find a sweet spot in the middle where they were expressing my feelings, but also kind of clever at the same time. I wanted to challenge myself.”
This time, then, Connie poured more of herself, her emotions, her feelings, into these songs than she ever had since the band – completed, on this record, by Connie’s brother Ethan (guitar/vocals), Taylor Allen (bass/vocals) and AJ Tartol (drums) – first formed in 2016. Initially, the idea was for this record to be a response to the band’s 2019 debut, The Correlation Between Entrance And Exit Wounds, a record heavily inspired by the suicide of Connie’s then-partner Natalie Margaret Garrett, but Connie soon realized that wasn’t the record she needed to make.
“I wanted Correlations to be the entrance wounds, because that was a really dark time in my life,” she explains. “And then this record would be the exit wounds, and would be about healing. But when I sat down to think about it, I realized that I haven’t really gotten that much better. So I decided I wanted to write an album about what stuff’s really like – what it means to use people, to use sex and connections and drugs to fill voids in your life, what it means to be 25 and be diagnosed as bipolar, what it means to be an addict in love with an addict. Because it’s not some romantic bohemian thing like it is in the movies. It’s gnarly. I’m not writing about razorblades and roses and this is my nicely-lit suicide attempt – this is me taking too many drugs and hoping I’d stop breathing.”
In facing those stark realities, Connie decided she didn’t want to write songs that glossed over the truth. Because even though she admits to being more stable than before, things still weren’t right.
“I didn’t want to write an album that was like ‘Hey, everything’s okay!’” she continues. “A big theme is what it means to be in love while also dealing with all these terrible things. But I got home and after two weeks I almost died of an overdose. And I felt like it was important to let people know that yeah, I’m writing this record, but that this shit’s also very real. This is my life. It’s not just the album I’m going to write about things that seem gnarly but that I don’t really experience. This is actually what happened – I was an asshole, I did use these people, I did use sex to fill voids in my life. I was doing anything I could to run away from my feelings, doing all the drugs I could, using all the people I could. I wanted to be as honest as possible and write about things I feel metalcore bands don’t write about.”
That brutal, unflinching honesty isn’t just conveyed with Connie’s intensely personal lyrics, but through the intensely visceral songs that bring those raw emotions to life. Indeed, the music is a physical manifestation of the existential tug of war played out in these songs – the push and pull between existence and non-existence, the torment of loss, the rush and exhilaration and self-destructive devastation of addiction – and everything in-between. Whether the blisteringly erratic tumult of opener “Life As A Soap Opera Plot, 26 Years Running” – which features Every Time I Die’s Keith Buckley – or the confused duality of “With Arms That Bind And Lips That Lock”, the wild, craven and careening existential torment of “Ouroboros As An Overused Metaphor” or the desperate, suppurating urgency of “Melodrama Between Two Entirely Bored Individuals”, each song its own unpredictable, chaotic journey through darkness and pain, all linked together by the universe they’re part of.
Previously, SeeYouSpaceCowboy had only written material in the short breaks between tours. This time, the band were able to spend much more time on these songs, to really shape the music into embodiment and physical manifestation of their subject matter.
“The amount of preparation we did for this record was crazy compared to all the other stuff we’ve done,” says Ethan. “We spent a year and some change just writing and writing and writing. I did a lot of it initially. I wrote a lot of songs and I would bring them to the band and we’d change them and mix them up, make revisions. We demoed out all the vocals, did revisions and then went into pre-production. It was a much more collaborative process than we’ve ever done before, but that’s what needed to happen. It makes it much more interesting than if it was just one person writing it.”
Produced by Knocked Loose guitarist Isaac Hale, The Romance Of Affliction stands as the quintessential SeeYouSpaceCowboy record. It’s violent and vicious, harrowing but oddly comforting, bleak yet beautiful. It’s a complex and compelling mix of genres that defies categorization and which truly places the band in a world of their own. And – despite the sorrowful despair that flows through it from beginning to end – it’s also got that trademark sass that has defined the band from the start.
“With Correlations,” says Connie, “we lost a lot of the weirdness and the sassiness and the chaotic aspect of everything, but I feel that was what made SpaceCowboy SpaceCowboy. When we were writing this album, we said that we wanted to bring that back, because it’s something that should never have been lost. That is SpaceCowboy. We do weird shit and we should never have done away with that.”
“It’s definitely an album of experimentation,” adds Ethan. “The idea behind it was really to just throw everything we want to do in a blender and make it work.”
That’s something borne out in the eclectic guests who appear on the record. In addition to Keith Buckley, hip-hop artist Shaolin G (who also fronts rap/metal crossover act UnityTX) features on “Sharpen What You Can”, Underøath’s Aaron Gillespie on “Intersecting Storylines To The Same Tragedy” and – following a brief, beautiful, piano-based interlude written by former bassist Tim Moreno (who rejoined the band after this album was finished) – If I Die First appear on title and closing track. A beautiful, portentous tune, it’s a song that encapsulates the emotions of the entire record and the events that both preceded and followed it.
“It’s a song we wrote entirely with Isaac,” says Ethan. “I just remember getting to the fade out part of it and being like, ‘This is how I want the album to end. This is how it needs to end.’”
“On most somber, sad part of the record,” adds Connie with a wry smile. “But that mirrors perfectly that shit’s not better. That song is the title track because it’s literally about what it’s like to be an addict in love with an addict. It mirrors life perfectly because my girlfriend’s the one who found me on the couch dying. It’s a song that addresses my current situation but also talks about my past, and it pulled everything together into perspective as I was writing it. I listen to it now and it ties into part of the reason why I became an addict, which was dealing with Natalie’s death, as well as my current situation, and that’s how I wanted this journey to end. It’s not a good resolution and it’s not a happy ending, but it’s also not just saying ‘Yeah, I fucking blew my brains out the next day.’”