As many of you know, my son was diagnosed with cancer last February. A few months after Oliver's diagnosis, I was talking with Nathan Price, who runs DiggUp Tapes with Brian Corum. We were talking about Oliver, his treatment and cancer in general. The conversation transitioned from my son to Lonnie Walker keyboardist Justin Flythe, who had been undergoing treatment for Lymphoma, which he had been diagnosed with the previous year.
We continued to share stories about those we loved going through chemotherapy in a dark corner of Kings Barcade and then Nathan says, "But man, Justin recorded an album in his hospital room. It's dark but it's amazing. He sampled chemo pumps and put a sign on his door that said 'Recording, Do Not Disturb'." Price continued to talk at length about how much he loved Flythe's new recording, which he referred to as Nieces and Nephews. I listened and knew that, considering the fact that my family had spent and would spend more months, inside of a hospital room, I had to get my hands on the album.
That was a year ago and to this day, I still can't put down the Nieces and Nephews album. Price sent the music files over to me and I was immediately hooked by the brooding electronic beats that Flythe had crafted in the confines of a hospital room. The chemo pumps were present, as was an intense layer of emotion that can only be understood by listening on repeat for months. The most beautiful of music is made from the heart and Nieces and Nephews digs deep within the chambers and pulls out song structures that are full of emotion. Hell, I even used one of his songs (with Justin's permission) as the pulse for one of my own animations about my son's cancer.
Justin originally conceptualized the Nieces and Nephews album as a cassette release and on Record Store Day, Price and DiggUp Tapes will release the album for the first time as envisioned, on cassette. But, you can listen to the album and download it now over at the Nieces and Nephews Bandcamp Page. Pick up tape and the 12" vinyl split with Cassis Orange at All Day Records in Chapel Hill, Bull City in Durham and Nice Price Books in Raleigh. Cassis Orange will also perform a solo-ish show at Nice Price on Saturday, April 20th (Record Store Day).
Photo by Todd Cook
Photographer Todd Cook has also documented Justin's journey over the past few years. Check out his photo series, What Makes a Home, which is a gorgeous collection of photos (one of which you can see above) that represent the highs and lows of this struggle. A book of all of the photos is also in the works.
Justin and I became long distance friends over this time period, me in a hospital, him in a house and/or a hospital. We exchanged multiple emails updating each other on our family struggles and connected over an unfortunate bond. Both, seeing a small amount of distance from treatments, I asked Justin what it means to have the album coming out this month.
New Raleigh: This is a long time coming for sure. How does it feel to see the N&N album appear in physical form?
Justin Flythe: It’s surreal. But then again, the whole world feels pretty surreal to me these days. When I started recording these songs, I had no idea they would end up coming together like this. I wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to make an album.” They were more like journal entries; I wasn’t even remotely trying to write pop songs. And I didn’t expect other people to be able to relate to the music. I just made it to document the weirdness of that time and place.
It was also a way of communicating things to a couple of really important people in my life… things I had trouble verbalizing. Different songs take me back to specific times and places and states of mind. They allow me to revisit feelings that were unique… and irreplaceable. I didn’t want to ever lose touch with those feelings. Those memories are so important to me, even though they were horribly painful in the making. I’m proud to have them.
NR: I know the doctors have restricted you from playing shows live alone or with Lonnie Walker. How has this been emotionally?
JF: It was heartbreaking to leave the band; I didn’t have a choice. It was actually one of the most emotional things about that entire experience. I felt like a part of me was just ripped out. But I dealt with it; now I’m just trying to figure out how to move forward.
I’m about a year out (which is great), but I still can’t live the way I did before I got sick. The life of a touring musician isn’t exactly what my doctors refer to as “risk aversion.” According to my doctors, guys like me are usually the ones that get themselves into trouble… post-transplant. But now that some of my restrictions are being lifted, I can play out in a band if I want. I’ve been traveling around a bit; I just have to use my head and be responsible.
As for Lonnie Walker… I’m still really close with those guys! I LOVE THEM WITH ALL OF MY HEART!!! But somehow, it doesn’t feel exactly right to just jump back into that band. I think I’ve been irreparably changed by the last two years, and musically I’m in a very different place now.
Who knows? Maybe one of these days I’ll get back on stage with the Lonnies. They’re working on some really cool things right now. I guess they were just on East Bound and Down?!?
How has creating an album in a hospital room affected your idea of music creation?
Well, I didn’t actually make 100% of the album in a hospital room. Some of it was recorded at my parents’ house, between rounds of chemo. Some was recorded while I was an in-patient, doing chemotherapy at Pitt Memorial. And some was recorded while I was an in-patient at UNC, on the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. Just wanted to clarify…
But to answer the question --- That experience had a massive effect on my idea of music creation. It was obviously an unusual and lonely environment for recording; I was so used to being in a studio with the rest of my band. But I’d always been into a lot of DIY bedroom pop stuff. I just never thought I’d become a part of that whole thing in such a drastic and traumatizing way.
I think that making music in a hospital room… …was a really good way to forget that I was trapped in a hospital room. It was either “make music in a hospital bed” or “don’t make music at all”… And it’s not like I had anything better to do with my time. If I wasn’t making music, I was listening to music. Or I was sleeping. Or I was trying to refrain from yacking my brains out.
There were pretty obvious limitations, but ultimately it was liberating. I think the hospital staff thought it was pretty strange. Nurses would always ask me if they could listen to what I was working on. Things always sound extra-bad coming out of laptop speakers though.
How are you feeling these days? What's the latest in your future treatment plan?
I feel great right now. *Knock on wood*
I have check-ups every few months. Blood-work… scans… etc… *double knock on wood*
It feels amazing to be in the world again. My doc just cleared me to get in the ocean! That’s been a goal of mine. I doubt I’ll be getting a tan any time soon though.
Cancer not only affects the person diagnosed, but the surrounding family and friends. How has your friends and family held up over the course of your treatment?
My family has been absolutely incredible through this whole thing! MOM! DAD! LEE! TODD! I LOVE YOU!!! THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH!
And my friends… they really came through for me! I feel so fortunate to be a part of such a supportive community! Several different groups of friends organized several different benefits for my family and I; it was a tremendous help. I honestly don’t even know how to express my gratitude. I couldn’t believe how much effort they all put into helping out. I’m talking “renewed my faith in humanity” level of dedication and selflessness! *smiling like crazy*
Is there anyone you met along the way that was instrumental and helpful (either emotionally or physically) in your recovery?
YES! I’m eternally grateful to two primary physicians: Dr. Paul Armistead, MD and Dr. Darla Liles, MD. I owe them my life. They are both highly intelligent and compassionate people!
And also Autumn Ehinger (Cassis Orange)… She came out of the blue and saved my life a thousand times over. She probably has no idea, but it’s absolutely true. It’s an honor to be releasing a split with her. She is without a doubt my favorite songwriter! And she is an amazing person to know; I owe her so much!
What's next for Nieces and Nephews or was this a one time deal?
I’m trying to figure out what’s next. I doubt I’d call it a one time deal; I’m still writing music, but (thank God) it’s coming from a different place. Honestly, I’d like to release an EP in the next few months. There are more songs.
People keep saying, “start a band”… but I think they usually underestimate how much goes into doing that. I’ve been talking to a few different musicians about joining forces, but I don’t want to jinx anything by mentioning it. So, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I can’t wait to find out for myself, but honestly, I’m just glad to be alive.
Download the Nieces and Nephews album over at Bandcamp and pick up tape and the 12" vinyl split with Cassis Orange at All Day Records in Chapel Hill, Bull City in Durham and Nice Price Books in Raleigh. Cassis Orange will also perform a solo-ish show at Nice Price on Saturday, April 20th (Record Store Day).