Expat musician Geoff Tyson turns adversity into new song, album

Geoff Tyson, photo: archive of Geoff Tyson

Prague-based musician Geoff Tyson released his first music video in four years last month. “Spotlight” pays tribute to a handful of high-profile musicians who have recently taken their own lives. According to Tyson, it was also borne out of the musician’s own depressive episode.

Geoff Tyson,  photo: archive of Geoff Tyson
Tyson, a native of California, settled in Prague at the end of a three-month trip across Europe. Under the neon-green glow of the light in his home studio, the musician told me about the circumstances that brought him to the Czech Republic nine years ago.

“The music industry has evolved considerably over the years, and I've always found myself in a place where I wind up learning new skills or going to the place where opportunity is. And after the year 2000, I felt like in the United States, the media consolidated and opportunities were fading away. And I wanted to go somewhere where it was a comfortable place to live. And all the music deliverables, all the things that I do are over the internet. So it doesn't really matter if I'm on a beach in Alexandria or I'm in central Europe. So actually I traveled quite a bit. I came to Europe and I took my acoustic guitar and I got on the train, and for three and a half months I played on every street corner and hotel lobby and pub through Western Europe. And the idea was that I wanted to find a culture and a music environment that I felt comfortable with.

“But by the end of the travels it started to become cold. But I was completely unprepared for it, so by the time it was Christmas, I said, 'I better just stay somewhere now.' And I ended up staying in Prague at that time. I'm happy with the choice, but if it was up to me I would still be traveling like that.

“A lot of expats I know tell me stories about how they really had troubles making friends and finding their place. I think an American dude with a guitar, that's kind of the best possible way to find a social circle. There was a tiny little pub on Dlouha [Street] many years ago, and I think capacity was maybe 20 people. We used to do an open mic there, just sort of a jam, all different musicians would come with their instruments, and we would stuff 40 people into that smoke-filled little shack every night, because at the time there was nothing like it. So yeah, you're meeting all those people, and then you're the center of attention, so everyone is interested to know who you are. So I found it really, really easy to make friends, find a sort of purpose here.

Tyson’s new single appears on his latest album, “Smooshface,” which is already available for partial download on Bandcamp and which will be released in full in early 2019. I asked the artist how he chose “Spotlight” to translate into a music video.

“It was a lot of factors that all sort of came together. I lost a girlfriend that I really liked, the band broke up, I was having some family troubles, and I ended up hitchhiking—I was in Kishinev, in Moldova—and I ended up hitchhiking to Odessa in Ukraine. I didn't have any agenda at all. I remember just being completely wasted in a pub, and I wrote to the director, Kryštof Kalina, who's a good friend of mine, and he had showed me this story that he wanted to do for a different one of my songs. And I said, "No, let's do it to 'Spotlight.' Because the theme fits perfectly with the story. And then you can just do whatever you want." So I just said, 'Okay, go for it,' and came back, and we shot the video I think maybe a month after we came back. And I can see in the video this miserable, puffy, white, depressed alcoholic, which, I've gotten past that. But everything was just really fitting. You know what I mean? For once it was like everything kind of came together.

“That song is really about being a performer. It's about being under the spotlight and wearing a fake smile. That's a theme, any musician can understand that. But when it came to applying it to Kryštof 's story, that was the inspiration. And I went, "Oh my god, that's fascinating. The two things would totally work together."

Depression, I feel, is a word that has sort of clinical connotation. Were you thinking of it in those terms?

Geoff Tyson,  photo: archive of Geoff Tyson
“I don't know. It's a good question. I mean, depression in my experience is this thing that happens to you, sort of like getting the flu. Where your life might be completely normal and nothing has ever changed about it, suddenly you're depressed and then suddenly everything that was completely normal is now a tragedy and miserable. And in that context, I felt like, 'Okay, yeah, sometimes it's difficult to be onstage when you feel like [expletive] and pretending to be a performer, but it doesn't depress me, it doesn't make me feel bad.' But then suddenly we had this theme, Kryštof's story, and then the two things together, and I said 'Yeah, it could be, in retrospect, it could be a very depressing thing for a lot of people.' Just from it being shared on the Internet, I'm getting emails from all over the world from musicians who can completely relate: 'Oh my god, nobody's really said it in that way before, but I'm right there with you.' And in that way, I wouldn't try to overly define what the emotion is, but we definitely triggered some people.

“It was conceived after the death of Chris Cornell and then Chester Bennington and then more recently Avicii. I was just sort of reflecting on these fantastic performers that killed themselves, but that in an unintentional way became the ultimate performance. Their death became part of the entertainment. The talking about depression, it became a theme. But it struck me like, this person, who's giving so much on the stage, giving so much energy to so many people, who couldn't control his own demons, and he could have written a song about it, he could've made a documentary, he could have done anything artistic, but instead, he killed himself. But the people, the fans, still looked at it as part of the entertainment. It was just a sad and tragic entertainment. But it still was, you know.”

On the wall in Tyson’s studio, I notice the words “can you imagine” are scrawled on a white piece of printer paper and tucked into a guitar.

Is there a story here?

“Yeah, I wrote that after coming back from Ukraine. If you look at the handwriting, I was so completely [expletive] up that I could barely write, and what I was thinking to myself was, 'Can you imagine what it would be like if you actually got your [expletive] together?' And so I put that there to remind me of where I had been. Make sense?”

Do you think you did?

“Oh yeah. I feel great now.”

Has this been a sort of theme in your life, these ups and downs and peaks and valleys?

“I don't know. I mean, when I look back at it, I think yeah. But depression is this thing, like I've said, in my opinion it's something that happens to you, like pneumonia or something. But if you happen to get that at the same time that there's actually [expletive] things happening in your life, then those things become magnified. And this last year was just this perfect storm and so where as a phase probably, yeah, it's always been that way, but then the life stuff getting in the way as well, I think that was unusual, that was new. At the worst part I just said, I'm going to stop eating flour. I'm going to stop drinking beer. And just that one little thing, I got a tiny bit more energy, and then I was walking more, and then the exercise started, and then that was a positive trigger, and then that triggered this thing, and then I kind of crawled out of the hole because I'm stubborn.”

Does the flour thing work?

“It does. For me it does. I love food, and I'd have this ritual: my breakfast is always this very elaborate thing. And I just removed any of the bread stuff, and it made this huge difference. I know that sounds cliche.”

Not very rock-and-roll, but yeah.

“I know, isn't that funny? [Laughs]”