[BASEMENT MIXTAPE] In the fall of 2009, Matt Drenik, then the frontman for Austin-based band Lions, was about to head to the United Kingdom for the biggest tour of his career. Two weeks before leaving, he lost sight in his left eye.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going blind, I’m going blind. What am I going to fucking do?’” Drenik says.
Utterly freaked out and distracted, he trudged through the chain of shows with blackness encroaching on his vision. But the tour marked a turning point in the 33-year-old’s life and, subsequently, the beginning of his current project, Battleme.
Written in 2010 and released last April, Battleme’s self-titled debut encapsulates a time of rebirth, transition and introspection. “I had all these things to say, and I wanted to get everything out because I thought that maybe this would be my last chance,” Drenik says. Fearing the permanent loss of his sight, he composed a genreless mixtape of everything he felt driven to record, taking hold of his longtime passion for pure and simplistic songwriting.
Originally from Ohio, Drenik spent his late teenage years poking around various colleges and penning acoustic-guitar tunes alone in his dorm-room closet. After dropping out of schools in Florida and Boston, he moved to Austin on his 21st birthday and shyly played open-mic nights and solo sets, often performing Elliott Smith covers. Eventually forming Lions in 2005, Drenik quickly found himself immersed in complicated, guitar-driven rock music. “I was an angry 23-year-old kid,” he says. “I had a Big Muff [distortion pedal] sitting around, and I just turned it on because I was wanting to get after it and play aggressive.”
Always resisting the urge to settle on one style of music, Drenik continued writing his own songs on the side, which were often mellower and more eclectic. “My dad was into the Temptations, my brother was into punk rock and the Grateful Dead at the same time, and my other brother was a New Order dude,” he says. “It was all cool to me. It was all just there for the taking.”
When Lions returned from its U.K. tour, Drenik was diagnosed with uveitis, a condition that causes eye inflammation. He quit the band, moved to Portland to be with his then-girlfriend—now his wife—and began a long ordeal of tests and treatments with an ophthalmologist. That summer was both physically grueling and creatively explosive for Drenik. “I just sat in the basement writing weird songs,” he says. “Holed up day after day with minimal recording gear and his eyes at their worst, he tracked about 40 songs that were later whittled down to Battleme’s first full-length.
With production help from Thomas Turner (of Ghostland Observatory) and support from Drenik’s label, Trashy Moped, Battleme’s LP plays like a time capsule filled with moments of hardship, questioning and discovery. Musically, between the slow acoustic ease of “Trouble,” the droning distortion in “Woman, I’m a Lost Cause,” and the electro-pop vibe of “Touch,” there isn’t one cohesive narrative. And that’s the point.
“I look at it like albums are my voice,” says Drenik, whose eyesight has since improved. “That was the trip I was on at that time.”
SEE IT: Battleme plays Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Ave., with Bike Thief, on Saturday, March 2. 9 pm. $7. 21+.