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Interview: Chris Mclelland of Nominee on ‘Drag Me Out,’ coping with bipolar disorder

At the forefront of modern post-hardcore, Nominee stands undeterred. The Texas-based band incorporates bare-bones alternative grit with dark thematic sensibilities, both elements utilized in a surprisingly uplifting pace. Their most recent release is Drag Me Out, a conceptual EP centering around front man Chris Mclelland’s temerity amidst a crippling bipolar disorder. He was formally diagnosed sometime in his mid-to-late teens.

I caught up with Mclelland to not only discuss the making of the record, but the ways in which he has coped strongly amidst various health problems. At present, he thrives from the consistent, unconditional support of family, friends, and fans alike. A music video was created for Drag Me Out’s final track, “Retrospective,” its promotion via partnership with the non-profit, Hope for the Day. By doing so, Mclelland aims to reach out to at-risk youth, emphasizing a healthy means of dealing with mental illness.

ME: I’d like to start off talking about your transition from the band I Call Fives, who had quite a large following for awhile. What was it that sparked the move toward Nominee?

CM: With I Call Fives, I was a member of the band but always more of a gun-for-hire. Everybody wrote the songs together, and I honestly loved being in that band. I’d gotten to do a lot of cool stuff because of it; we did two different tours in Australia, the UK, and Canada a couple times, and a lot more in the US. I loved it mainly because of the touring opportunities.

But at the end of the day, I didn’t feel like I was largely involved in the writing process. I played guitar in I Call Fives and didn’t sing. I’ve done some backing vocals live, but I really wanted to sing and write lyrics for a band. That’s where I was most comfortable. Anything I’d write for I Call Fives, a lot of the time, they’d find something else and use that instead. I just wanted to step up and write.

[Forming Nominee] was more of a timing thing. I Call Fives broke up, and then about two months later, my friend who started Nominee with Steve [Flynn] messaged me over Facebook, after moving from New Jersey to Texas and was like, “Hey, my band needs a singer. Are you interested?” and I was like, “Alright, sure!” Then I was down here a couple months later.

ME: Essentially, Nominee provided you a clean stylistic slate to express yourself in the most direct way possible.

CM: Absolutely. It really was that—a clean slate. Texas in general was a way to start over for me, and a lot of our music conveys that directly. A lot of the lyrics are about running away from problems of your past, and what you simply don’t want to face.

ME: I notice right off the bat that Nominee’s overall schematics are newly rough-hewn, and crunchier in general. I’d sense this was more of a stylistic rebranding, while the triumphant elements are kept intact?

CM: Yeah. There were times where it would take a darker turn into a minor field, but a lot of our music is uplifting—more major than minor. We don’t really do that on purpose; that’s just how it comes out. If you hear something that’s somber sounding, that’s due to the band’s influences in metal and hardcore. You can tell that we hear that influence in parts of both of our records, 100 percent.

I write about things that affect me in a negative way more than positive, just because it’s so much more natural to me. And there’s never going to be an apology for that; it just feels more genuine, you know what I mean? If I were to try to write a positive song, it would be just that—trying. So, even though it may be weird to hear negative lyrics on a positive backdrop, they’re all positive songs. They’re about overcoming and getting through trying times. The positive sound of music with the, as you’d called it, triumphant sounding lyrics—those two go well together.

ME: As far as translating those qualities in your new EP, Drag Me Out, when would you say the process really began to solidify?

CM: At the end of the last record’s life—a record called I Woke Up, in 2014—we did as much as we possibly could. We did two tours on it, and during the second tour on the east coast, we recorded [Drag Me Out]. That was in 2016, and it all really started coming to life in the beginning of the year. We’d had some songs that we wanted to use from a while back, but when we were all in the room putting our ideas together, it was the beginning of 2016.

Then we did some pre-production with Joe Milligan from Anberlin. He helped us out with all the music we’d done thus far, to one degree or another, in spring. In the summer, we booked a tour around the time we had to do the record. We recorded it in August, and had been waiting impatiently to release it ever since (laughs).

ME: Throughout the EP, your coping with bipolar disorder is a central theme. Prior to, during, and after your diagnosis as a teenager, what were your concerns?

CM: My parents, instead of seeing the characteristics of someone with bipolar disorder, would talk it up to be me just being a teenager with angsty, hormonal issues. In retrospect, I could understand how they saw that. But I told them that after I had a couple episodes, it didn’t feel as if I was in control of [my emotions] at all. I had absolutely crazy mood swings. I’d wake up one day feeling great and go to sleep feeling fine, and then the next day I’d have to peel myself out of bed to go to school. The friends that I hung out with the previous day, who I normally felt great about, I didn’t feel like myself around. I would avoid all my friends, hide out in the school hallways, and just make an attempt not to speak to anyone that day, or any of the days or weeks that followed.

They’d sent me to the doctor, but I didn’t think it was anything like that. More than anything, to fix this problem, I just wanted advice from my parents, and they took me to a doctor. I started seeing a therapist, and eventually I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t believe there was anything in my life that I couldn’t control. It just seemed so fishy to me—made up. As naïve and ignorant as I was, that’s what I believed. I was just like, “Okay, the doctor is telling me that I can’t control how I feel; that seems wrong to me.”

I didn’t tell any of my friends that I was going through this for the months following the episodes. I was just embarrassed by it. It’s silly looking back, you know? I was 16-17 years old, had a girlfriend, was in bands with friends, but was so concerned what people thought about me. I didn’t want to give all that away, because I was worried people would think differently of me. I didn’t want anybody to walk on egg shells, or think I couldn’t handle a joke. And I didn’t want what was so seemingly important—my social life as a kid—to change.

So, I was prescribed a bunch of medication. I took it for a little bit and it made me feel strange, like a zombie. It was a mood stabilizer, and I wouldn’t feel happy or sad; just right on the border of bummed out, and really over nothing. But I think, more than anything, it was the idea of taking the medication that scared me. What I would do every morning, when I was supposed to take my medication, was take it out of the bottles and put it in a Tupperware container that I had under my bed; that way it’d look like I took it. I didn’t take it for probably a year, and then my mom found that Tupperware container and was like, “What is this?” I told her I had it under control, and she completely disagreed, but she knew that she wasn’t going to make me take the medication.

I’d stopped taking the medication, going to a therapist—I stopped everything altogether once I’d turned 18. I just buried [my symptoms] for the longest time. All my close friends knew that something was up because they wouldn’t see me for days at a time. I would call them in the middle of the night sobbing, and asking to hang out with somebody because I felt alone. I’d never simply told them, “I have bipolar disorder”; that never happened. The majority of the time, I was embarrassed to tell them I had this thing, that I felt like nobody else around me had. I didn’t see anyone in high school saying they had bipolar disorder. Maybe they’d been swept under the rug too; I don’t really know.

I was hiding it, and I hid it pretty poorly until recently. I told a couple of my close friends, in my mid-20s, that I’d been diagnosed bipolar as a kid. Then when I moved down [to Texas], I was like, “I’m not going to tell anybody about this.” Like you’d said, it was a clean slate, and I didn’t want to ruin that. I just came down here, cool as a cucumber and didn’t tell anybody about it. Then, things got really serious with the girl I’m still dating now. We started living together. You know, you get comfortable with somebody, and you start letting things that you might feel a little uncomfortable about show. She started to notice something was truly wrong with me, and I really, really care about her, so I didn’t want to just push her away and bail. When I [eventually] told her about it, she reacted genuinely and was so supportive, like, “Okay; we’ll get it figured out.”

With my bipolar, I get frustrated and angry really easily. She’d brought a stack of plates from the goodwill store for me to break when I feel bummed or upset about something, and was crazy supportive. So, by having her support, I was like, “Okay. It’s not so bad. I can probably get away with telling my friends now.” I told the band about it and they didn’t bat their eyes. It was like, “What the hell? This whole time I was burying it, I could’ve just came out and told anybody without difficulty.”

ME: The song “Stay” represents the test whether your loved ones would consistently offer their support despite your struggles. Were you under the notion of feeling obligated to fight your battles independently, for fear of dragging everyone down?

CM: Absolutely. My main concern in telling people was, for instance, if I was having a really bad day, like a bad day at work, and I blew a tire or whatever, I didn’t want people to think, “Oh my God, he’s feeling bad; this time it’s bipolar disorder!” I just wanted people to give me the benefit of the doubt, to trust me, and to know that if I need someone, I’ll reach out, you know what I mean? I hate guilting people; it’s the worst feeling in the world. There were certain things that I would go through, and I felt like if I told people I was having an episode, I’d just gain their sympathy. I never wanted that.

As long as the people you’re surrounded by understand your disorder, and how to go about dealing with it once you have an episode, they won’t walk on eggshells. My girlfriend, now, bless her heart, she’s so supportive. If I wake up in the morning feeling down, like I need to be alone, she’ll be like, “Alright. I’ll bring you coffee in a little bit.” Then she’ll just go about her day, you know? And that’s honestly all I’d need. I don’t want her to sit there and rub my back, telling me, “It’s gonna be okay.” I mean, sometimes it’s good to do that, but other times, you just need time for yourself. Unfortunately, when you’re so low down in the spectrum, a pat on the back just doesn’t help. It’s great to know that someone’s there to support you. But in that moment, they can do anything—show any act of support, and you’ll still feel alone. There’s nothing to change the way that you feel. And I never wanted anybody to feel like a crutch; that’s a huge part of the reason I buried it for so long.

ME: At what point did you become especially aware of how your susceptibility to the disorder affects not only you, but those around you?

CM: That’s a really good question. One night, I was just not okay with being up and about, and having people around me, but I hadn’t told my girlfriend. And I don’t know if she knew that this was the problem that night, but it was during South by Southwest. I was having bad social anxiety, and her friend was hosting this event downtown here in Austin. She was like, “Hey, we should go to this!” and I didn’t want to say, “No, I’m not feeling good,” because then she’d have to go alone, and I’d feel terrible about that.

So, I went, and then we had every excuse we could come up with. When we got there, there was a line, and I was like, “Alright! Well, we might as well call it.” I tried talking then, and we kept finding roadblocks. Every time I found one, I’d say, “We should just go home then; let’s just go home.” Then we ended up getting into this huge fight. I didn’t tell her everything about that night, and we were still very new into our relationship. But I told her, “You’re just not gonna get me! You’re not gonna understand me!” and she felt so sad that I’d said that. Here she was thinking she knew me so well, that she could read me like a book, yet there was still this thing I was hiding from her. She got so upset. She cried and got really emotional. I didn’t tell her I was bipolar yet, but that she didn’t know who I was. That night, I was like, “Damn, I can’t get stuck in that situation again where I have to lie to her, just because I don’t feel well enough to go out.” Shortly after that, I let her know.

There were moments when I lived back in New Jersey and didn’t want to tell anyone about it. I wish I had, but it seemed like having everyone think I was a weirdo was better than having this disorder that holds me down. Thinking back to this one time, I remember when I was on tour with I Call Fives. When I was feeling bummed out, I would drive. That way, I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody—just drive, put on music, and focus on the road.

We stopped at a rest stop, and I had a pair of sunglasses that I put on the back of the stall where you hang your jacket. It was so stupid. They were really nice sunglasses. I’d hung them up, and totally forgot they were there. I walked out of the restroom and I was like “Oh, man, almost forgot,” walked right back in, and they were already gone. I freaked out. I was screaming at the rest of the members of my band and throwing this huge temper tantrum—just hitting this new low. The way that I felt was so exhausted. But I didn’t tell them what was wrong with me then. They’re like, “Damn, he’s freaking out over sunglasses!” you know what I mean? Little things like that obviously show through.

And now with the people down here who know me well, they kind of just know when something’s up, leave me be, and ask if I’m okay. Then if I say yes, that’s just it. It took a couple of nasty arguments to come out and tell everybody that that’s the problem. Again, I’m sure the people up north would’ve been just as supportive, but the people down here are so great; it’s just so relieving.

ME: I get a sense that there are times where, amidst the disorder, many people were dipping their toes into your situation without getting knee deep.

CM: Absolutely. I would hide it so people wouldn’t think there’s anything wrong. Instead of pitying me, they would simply be turned off by my presence, and just not want to be around me. Luckily, I’ve started telling people. I’m still not going to go to a bar a say, “Hey! Didja know I have bipolar disorder?” But now that the record’s about it, and if somebody asks, I’ll gladly talk about it. But there’s been no surface level conversation about it. Everyone’s genuinely concerned and interested in what it actually is and the problems it causes. And I can’t tell you how many people have told me they deal with the same thing—that it’s nice to know somebody else feels comfortable talking about it.

We played a show earlier this week. It was a Wednesday night and this woman came up to me. She was with her son, and was just like “You know, it’s great to know that bands can write about this and feel okay. I have five kids and suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and bipolar disorder. My kids have it too, but it’s great to be able to show them this music and other people who deal with it.” If I’d heard something like that when I was 16 or 17, I’d be like, “Oh, I can talk about this; it’s okay!”

Anybody who’d like to talk about it, but doesn’t know how to talk about it, they’d kind of just leave it alone. And I think that’s probably for the best. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, I’m all for educating people about what it is. But I see a lot of posts on the internet saying, “Mental illness isn’t real! Just go to the gym and work out and you’ll get endorphins!” and I’m like, “Oh my God. What is this person even talking about?” I see that stuff all the time, but luckily, I haven’t dealt with it in person. I honestly don’t know how I’d react.

ME: Eventually, you recognize that your mindset is not only down to the various stimuli—whether it be people or medication—but your adeptness in controlling these emotions. In what ways do you feel you’ve improved, perhaps even conquered, your symptoms?

CM: My biggest thing is that I’m a movie guy. I love movies. I’d spent like 12 years working in a movie theater when I was really young. Once I turned 15, I started working at this movie theater in my hometown. And I’d started working in theaters down here, once I got here. When I’m feeling low, I can’t be around people. It’s one thing if I’m on tour and in the van with my best friends, and we’re all just sitting there. I can be around them, but I can’t go to a bar or restaurant. I can’t do, like I’d said, surface level conversation.

But fairly recently, within the last two years, I’ve found that seeing a movie, in the theater, by myself, helps me. It gives me time to become self-aware and realize what’s happening, and get immersed in something else. I stop thinking about my life and my problems. It doesn’t always work; if I’m really down, I’m not going to leave the house. I’m just going to wait until it blows over, because that’s what for the best. But when going to see the movie, I don’t even necessarily care about the movie—I can go see anything. Just sitting there for two hours in the dark, I come out normally feeling a little bit better. I feel like that can be similar for a lot of people, and it doesn’t require any stress. As long as you have something that makes you feel better, it doesn’t matter what it is.

ME: Speaking of movies, you have a video out for the EP’s final track, “Retrospect.” That’s what I see the theme centering on. Instead of unhealthily blocking out those hardships of the past, you simply move forward from them, more so viewing them as a contributor to long-term strength.

CM: Absolutely. I, for one, spend so much time dwelling on the past. Every now and then, if I’m feeling anxious at night, I’ll spend like four hours thinking about things I’ve done in the past that don’t necessarily mean anything now. You know, my dad told me when I was a kid, “If it doesn’t matter in 10 years, it doesn’t matter right now.” That resonated with me, but it was an “easier said than done” sort of thing. I still want to believe in that, though.

With “Retrospect,” I wrote an entire record about a really dark period in my life. Our first record, I Woke Up, is about when I got diagnosed with diabetes. It was a couple weeks after I moved down to Austin. I was having bad health problems, and I went to the ER and got diagnosed. On my way to the ER, my car broke down. Then when I was in the ER, I couldn’t get in touch with my girlfriend at the time, who was still living in New Jersey. She finally ended up texting me back saying, “Oh, sorry about that…” After I got diagnosed, she was like a ghost—just gone. I couldn’t get in touch with her, and didn’t hear back for weeks. When I finally heard back from her, she’s like, “Your life is just too dramatic. You have too many issues, and I can’t make those problems mine anymore.” That crushed me. I was in a new city, with no real friends, an unfamiliar area, a new job, and this new disease I knew nothing about. The one person I needed to be there just wasn’t there. And already having bipolar disorder, this was a dark time. So, I wrote that entire record as it was happening—pretty much in real time.

Then, I was trying to find material to write our new record about. I was like, “Man, it’s a lot harder to write about stuff when you’re feeling okay.” In comparison to when I wrote [I Woke Up], my life is so much better. I have a girl who cares about me, a job that lets me tour—I’m finally comfortable here in Austin. My life now is just so much better than it was two years ago, when I was writing those songs. If you can look back at the things you’d gotten through in life, it makes it that much better.

ME: To promote “Retrospect,” you’d partnered with the non-profit, Hope for the Day. What are your goals for spreading truth about bipolar disorder, and enlightening those who are struggling in general?

CM: My biggest goal, and what would be the coolest for me, is for the outreach to go to really young kids. Like, if you were in grade school and just starting high school. Ideally, I’d show them, “Hey, your parents are bringing you to the hospital because they think there’s something wrong, but there’s no shame in that. Even if you don’t feel that there’s anything wrong, we can still talk about it.” That would be the coolest thing in the world. If Hope for a Day could go into high schools and explain this to people.

You think of high school assemblies that you’d had when you were a kid, and none of the kids would be brave enough to stand up and say, “Yeah, I sometimes feel that way.” It’s difficult to get the point across for sure. But Hope for the Day is incredible. I’ve known they’d existed for so long, and I’d like to eventually do some volunteer work for them, whether it be writing messages to young kids or what have you. It would just be the coolest to get the word out about that organization. That way, if a 15-year-old kid in high school feels completely alone, he can have someone to talk to. He can fit himself into this community where people feel the exact same way he does.

ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?

CM: If the lyrical content of the record hits home with you in any way, shape, or form, whoever’s listening, you’re not alone. No matter what you’re going through, there’s someone else out there dealing with that same exact problem. Even if you can’t get in contact with that person, that’s someone feeling the same way you do. The overall theme of our record is that no one has to do everything alone. Reach out. We stay on top of our Facebook messages and our emails.

Nominee Socials:


For more info on Hope for the Day, visit www.htfd.org

About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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