Q&A w/ Mike Henneberger on his “mixtape memoir” about emo, NYC, and mental health
There’s something to be said for modern American literature that explores human shortcomings via stream-of-consciousness writing. The counterculture anti-hero had his heyday mid-century, leaving a trail of clever phrasings and drug addled confusion for children of the ‘70s and ‘80s to admire. In his recent release Rock Bottom at the Renaissance: An Emo Kid's Journey Through Falling In and Out of Love In and With New York City, music industry veteran Mike Henneberger steps into the role of Beat descendant, expunging his personal struggles amidst a world of success, as he documents his mental breakdown during a brief stay at The Renaissance hotel in Times Square. The book weaves through both flashback and current scenarios in the author’s life, with themes of loneliness and unrequited love often taking center stage. They're conveyed, however, with a level of strength and perseverance reminiscent of the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s "The Boxer." In Rock Bottom at the Renaissance, Henneberger intersperses his tales with song lyrics from bands such as Jimmy Eat World, Bayside, Alkaline Trio, Death Cab for Cutie and The Dangerous Summer (whose AJ Perdomo said the book "really is like High Fidelity meets Choke meets Catcher in the Rye"), turning the book into what he has termed a "mixtape memoir." The songs offer the author companionship in the darkness, while also serving as the driving force behind his writing. The forthcoming audiobook is narrated by Tyler Posey (MTV’s Teen Wolf, Jane the Virgin, etc), and features recordings by the aforementioned bands and more.
If you’re looking for story structure and clarity in the solitary ramblings of an individual excising his lifelong demons via pills, booze, and the comfort of music, look elsewhere. But if you’d like to dive into mental health awareness and experience a common bond with someone else trying to make sense of it all, Henneberger’s work should be required reading. His personal heartbreaks and fiascos are every-man journeys – moments that we can all recognize from our own misadventures. The author and I recently met up via talk box du jour Zoom to discuss the book, the power of music, returning from the realm of substance abuse with one’s faculties intact, and romanticizing New York City, as well as being an inspiration for others. The interview has been adapted to the written word.
BV: The first chapter, from what I noticed, reeks of imposter syndrome. As someone who’s accomplished a lot, can you talk a little bit about those feelings?
Mike: I’ll be 38 next month. I’ve never felt like I’m old because I accomplished a lot in my younger years. I booked my band’s first tour when I was 17, and then went on the road for two and a half months. We had some minor regional success, and I got to tour the country three times when I was a teenager. Then my brother and I launched a magazine. I don’t think it’s so much imposter syndrome as it is that I’m constantly trying to one up the last thing. It’s actually the opposite of imposter syndrome. I know how much potential I have; I just didn’t know how I would reach it. I’ve never been in a situation where success is spelled out for me. It’s always been me trying to figure it out for myself. I never feel like I know what I’m doing, but I’m very confident that I can learn how to do it because I always have. It’s a little bit of imposter syndrome for sure, but only when I’m in those situations where I’m working in a corporate place. Like when I worked at Rolling Stone, or when I worked at Comedy Central. I know I deserve to be there, but I always feel like I have to prove to other people that I deserve to be there.
Speaking of achieving things…You ended up at The Renaissance because of winning a contest. What was the contest?
It was a concert photography contest that Nikon and Live Nation put on. I’m pretty sure it was international. I don’t know how many entries they got, but it was basically a vote online contest. I took a picture of Set Your Goals at Warped Tour 2010. That won, and my prize was tickets to any Live Nation concert in the country, round trip airfare for 2, a stay at a hotel for like 3 nights, and car service to get you to and from the concert. It was the year of the ‘Watch the Throne’ tour with Jay Z and Kanye. And I was like, “Dope. I’m gonna go check that out.” And they’re like, “Anything except ‘Watch the Throne.’” I couldn’t go to that, but I saw that Portishead was in New York, and so I went to see Portishead. I write about that concert in the book.
Now, you were already living and working in New York when you chose this option at The Renaissance.
So, you didn’t take the airfare. The whole book revolves around being alone. The irony is that it was for two, and you picked a place near you. Was the intention to use this as a vehicle for pushing your writing forward?
No, no. Even if I had been at home in Texas, I would have flown to New York for something. Where I’m from in Texas, it’s so far away from the big cities that I’d have to travel for a concert anyway. And New York gets the best tours that don’t go everywhere. It was inevitable that I would have picked a show in New York. I was just here already. I got vouchers for the flights, so I got to use those later. Anyway, I think I knew that I was going to spend that weekend in the hotel writing. I had lived in LA from ’05-’07, so about 5 or 6 years before this book. I wrote a lot when I lived out there but was never as productive after that. I knew that’s what I want to do, so I just set off to do it. Also, I had never lived in New York before, and New York had always been this inspiring, romanticized thing for me. So, I felt that, if I couldn’t write here, then I just wasn’t a writer. I knew that I had to write while I was in New York. And, no excuse, but I was probably about 27 probably.
Yeah, and a transplant. As someone who grew up just outside of the city, it did still sort of have a romantic vibe to it, but you and I will definitely see it differently.
And as you can tell from the book, my emotional maturity was very stunted. That’s the excuse... so...
It can also be all the substances, which is something I want to touch upon. The weekend that takes place in the book was orchestrated. I guess this is where the topic might get a little abstract. Would you really consider that “rock bottom?” If your plan was to lock yourself up, pop a bunch of bills, and drink a bunch of Johnny Walker to be able to write, is that really your rock bottom?
Here’s the thing. That title “Rock Bottom” came about long after it was done. I think the rock bottom applies to the whole mental side of the book. When I first put it out, the pitch line was that it’s about a slow mental breakdown that takes place over a weekend.
It’s really true.
But the more that I thought about it, it’s actually about a slow mental breakdown that I was experiencing throughout my entire life. The flashbacks in the book are so related to what is going on in that moment. Like when I talk about my parents’ divorce, and the role my dad played in my life. And all the other flashbacks to music and my past are so related to what’s going on in the present time of the book. It wasn’t the rock bottom in the sense that, after that weekend, there’s never been a worse time. Or that’s the weekend that changed my life and made me realize I had to get my head straight. It wasn’t a rock bottom in that sense but looking back at that part of my life and everything before that – realizing all those things are what contributed to my mental stature – THAT’S my rock bottom. Being conscious of that stuff is what made me work towards being healthier about it.
There is a section of the book where I felt that you, or the character, was totally spiraling. It’s when you had gone into Times Square. After so much excess, so much crap in your system, and so many thoughts piling on, the writing became a hopped kind of spiral with all the talk about loneliness. It reminds me of that time in peoples’ lives when you’re in your late 20s, early 30s and you’re mentally done with the crap mentally and ready to chill out, but your habits and the world are just not letting you do it. It just amplifies those feelings of loneliness. I feel like that is a point that you really hit in that Times Square sequence.
That’s also exacerbated by me being alone in this city; not just being alone because I don’t have the girl that I want to be with, but being alone in this new city that I’ve never lived in before and didn’t really know anybody in. I really do like that chapter so much. All of the present-day chapters in that book were written that weekend, and a couple of the flashback parts were. But I didn’t finish it that weekend, and then I put it away for over a year because it was such a dark headspace that I didn’t want to go back to. It’s always been as important to me as it is today, and I knew that I needed to finish it. Within the next two years, I went back and added flashbacks that supported the headspace I was in. That’s why I say that it’s a memoir of the first three years that I was here. It’s not a memoir of that weekend.
So, it’s a “mixtape memoir.” I’m gathering you’ve called it that because each chapter revolves around a song complete with quotes, essentially making it a mix tape. Obviously, you’re a fan of those bands, but how did you go about picking the bands and lyrics that you chose? That’s a lot to sift through.
It’s pretty much just like the book. The answer is the same as the answer to when people ask me what made me want to write this. I didn’t want to write it. I didn’t sift through those lyrics. That’s just what came out. When people read the book, they’ll see that the first chapter is "23" by Jimmy Eat World. That’s because, as it says in the book, that song came on my headphones when that scene in the book really happened. I wasn’t writing it in the middle of the sidewalk. I wrote it at the hotel. Then there are chapters like the Two Door Cinema Club chapter, which takes place at a Two Door Cinema Club concert, and so I just put one of their songs to that. And then, the last chapter, which I won’t go into detail about... but I remember writing that chapter feeling exactly that way.
Which is pretty bad. Not a bad chapter, but a bad feeling.
I remember thinking those thoughts, and in fact, I wrote that while I was feeling that way. I didn’t write it remembering that. There wasn’t a song to that, but then I listened to The Wonder Years’ "I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral," and it was the perfect song to finish that book. The themes of that song are similar to the themes of the book. Then there are Bayside and The Dangerous Summer, who are the bands I always listen to when I’m in these down situations. So, they were definitely playing in the background in that hotel room while I was writing. When I did a couple of video interviews with AJ from The Dangerous Summer about the book, I told him that I didn’t realize this until then, but all of The Dangerous Summer songs in the books, there are three, are all present day chapters while I’m in the hotel. They’re not flashback chapters. And that’s because The Dangerous Summer is my number one band that I listen to when I’m feeling down.
Moving on to mental health and substance abuse. I know from our brief conversations as civilians that writing and putting this out there for you was, and correct me if I’m wrong, important to shine a light on people’s mental health.
That’s the only reason it’s out. Like I said, I put it away for a year because I didn’t want to go back to that headspace, but even when I finished it, it sat on my shelf for years for a few reasons. In the beginning, it was because I was still dealing with that to that extent, and I didn’t want people who knew me to know that. I’ll always deal with depression and anxiety for the rest of my life, but I’m okay now with people reading it and thinking, “Holy shit. Mike USED to be that way.” Because that’s great. It’s great that I’m not anymore. But back then, I didn’t want people to know Mike IS this way NOW.
Because you were able to be a functional depressive; a functional substance abuser. I mean, obviously you had a decent career at the time.
That was part of it, and then the other part of it was after that, I met my wife, well, the woman who’s now my wife. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I didn’t want her to know in detail. She’s always been aware of the book, but when we first started dating, she made it clear that she didn’t want to know about my past – girls I dated, my sexual history and all that. This book has a lot of that in it. She always knew what it was, and she always knew that I was going to put it out – that it was important to me, but I wasn’t ready to handle what she would think of me if she ended up reading it, or if someone else read it and was like, “Oh my god, did you know this about Mike?”. That hasn’t happened, and she’s read some of it. And I understand her not reading it all.
I wouldn’t want to.
A couple of her friends bought it. They’ve read it, and they’ve told me right in front of her how great they think it is, but it’s because they know who I am now. That’s what I needed to happen. I needed to be okay with who I am now, so if anybody judged me for who I used to be, I could say, "That’s fine. I’m okay with who I am now. I know that was a problem back then. And I’m not that anymore."
It’s part of your own healing process, really.
That’s what I needed. I got to a place probably in like 2016 where I read it, and I was just so disconnected from it. It felt like reading a novel. I just remember thinking, "Man. This guy’s fucked up." But it was me. As soon as I thought that, I also thought, "Wait. That’s me." I’m reading it as objectively as I could. And as someone with depression and anxiety, this book is helping me see how bad that was, and what a good space I’m in now.
In the book, you talk about how people in crowds singing along together become like family because you all feel the same things. I wanted to relate it to what the world is going through now because there are no crowds of singing. How do you feel about not having that? What do you see in the world of post Covid show going?
I think it’s gonna be tough because whenever that happens, it’s initially going to start off half capacity and socially distanced, so you’re not going to feel that closeness. But I also think that, for the people who love going to shows, it’s not going to matter. You’re there and seeing it live. I think the first year or whatever of that we’re all going to feel the exact same way we used to. I don’t know if I’ll be personally going to shows for probably another 2 years.
I’m only going if I’m in a photo pit up front separated from people.
I don’t know what it’s going to take, and that sucks. I was actually just thinking about this earlier today because, the day after Trump got elected, Yellowcard played their farewell tour at PlayStation Theater. I went to that show, and it was so fucking sad. I mean, it’s already an emo band, you know. Of course, they addressed it from the stage. It’s probably safe to say that a majority of emo and punk listeners aren’t into...
Right. Conservatism. And Trump. Without them even mentioning it, you could just feel it there. It was a sold out show too, so you feel the energy of people when you’re shoulder to shoulder. I just remember tearing up when they talked about it. I hate to say it, but the reason I thought about it today is because I think he could win again, and we’re not going to have a show to go to the next day. That was my exact thought. At least the next day I wasn’t just fucking depressed and drinking. I went to a show and felt like I was in a community. And it felt like the world wasn’t going to end because I still had this.
Yeah, and now we don’t. I went to see Ezra Furman at MHOW the next day, so I know that feeling.
One more thing to add to that. I’m in a bunch of pop punk and emo Facebook groups. Completely random strangers will have posted stuff about my book in these groups. I’ve run a couple of Facebook ads, and some guy posted a link and said, "Have any of you guys seen this? This ad just showed up in my Facebook." My last count when I got out of the conversation was 35 people that I never knew were talking about the book. They had ordered it. They’d already read it. They were ordering it. It made me feel like being at a show because people were bonding over this thing that revolves around this music. I think there will be other things where we can find that community. We just have to let it happen. So many people are still fighting things changing. So many people are still like, "We need shows back!" Of course, we need to save our venues, but there are other ways right now to connect, and we can’t just wait until we get an opportunity to. That’s really going to hurt our mental health. There are other ways to do it, and we just need to find those for now.
I think this is an example. Talking to people within your scene. The way I viewed the summary of the book before I read it, was as it having a "music as savior" kind of theme. Do you agree with that, or do you think that maybe I’m totally off?
That’s how I described it to people too. I hesitate a little bit to make that a big part of the description only because it’s not blatantly about the music saving me. But the fact that the music is there in every chapter and popping up in the middle of paragraphs, I hope gets the message across that this is what’s keeping me going. It’s what’s helping me finish a chapter. It’s what’s helping me finish the book. And it’s what’s helping me keep going through life. In the book, the music is always there no matter how shitty things are. I hope that that message is translated enough through that without me having to say, "this song saved my life."
Stay tuned for more on the Tyler Posey-narrated audiobook, which also features “23” by Jimmy Eat World, “I Want to Sell Out My Funeral” by The Wonder Years, “Another Travelin’ Song” by Bright Eyes, and other songs. More info, previews of the audiobook, excerpts of the book, and purchase options at rockbottombook.com.