Lean in close; he’s got a confession
By Kevin Broughton
In one of the earliest issues of No Depression – I want to say 1998 or ’99 – Steve Earle remarked on how much he had missed in the world of music during his long, tragic descent into addiction. Rotted teeth, wrecked relationships, hocked guitars and finally, a six-month hitch in the Cold Creek Correctional Facility were what it took for Earle to bottom out, then rebound. When he emerged clear-headed a lot had changed. “By the time I had heard of Uncle Tupelo,” he said, “they had broken up.”
I hadn’t heard of Kasey Anderson till last week, and he’d been out of the federal pen for almost a year. An established fixture in the Pacific Northwest’s alt-country scene, Anderson – gifted songwriter, musician and producer – had seemingly limitless potential. Bright, articulate and affable, he’d been extraordinarily prolific in the music business by the time he turned 30. With much more, it seemed, to come.
His hellishly downward spiral to convicted-felon status had a definitive terminus: the clang of a cell door on his first night in the joint. When things started to go seriously south, however, is a little harder to pinpoint. It was probably around the time he got the big idea to do a concert and benefit album for the West Memphis Three, that trio of misfits wrongly convicted of murder in 1994, and a cause celebre among many show business types. (Including, um, the normally reclusive Eddie Vedder, who tends to shy away from fashionable social causes.)
There were two problems, though, with this big idea that became progressively more grandiose. First, absolutely nothing ever came of it. And, much more troublingly, Anderson raised nearly $600,000 from more than 30 investors – many of them friends – that he just…spent. It evaporated like it was never there.
There would be no star-studded lineup with the likes of Tom Petty, Pearl Jam or R.E.M. The Boss and Lady Gaga wouldn’t headline the album – some kind of duet that would’ve been -- that would never exist anywhere but Anderson’s mind. And when the Three were cut loose in 2011, the shot clock started on his freedom. He had created bogus email addresses and impersonated industry lawyers and tour managers along the way. “I told myself consistently that whatever was going on with me,” he wrote in a letter to the judge who accepted his guilty plea for wire fraud in 2013, “I could fix it on my own.” Turns out there was plenty wrong, and not just on the surface.
No objective person who hears Anderson’s story could conclude that he set out to run a grand criminal enterprise. But mental illness and addiction (“cocaine, whichever pills were around, and Maker’s & soda with bitters”) kept him from seeing the criminal in the mirror. To be clear, Anderson readily admits that being a bipolar addict/alcoholic is no excuse for his actions. He emphasized that all culpability is his and his alone, several times. But I think it can help make some sense of the situation.
When you run a con so widespread and for so much money, prison – as opposed to civil litigation and bankruptcy – is the inevitable conclusion, and it’s been a rough four or so years for the musician. I didn’t ask – and in retrospect he probably wouldn’t give it a thought – but I imagine one of the starkest ways the Internet can tell a musician he’s now irrelevant is the “years active” entry on his Wikipedia page.
To his credit, he’s emerged from the nightmare sober, very humble, and if not happy, then certainly in a place of relative personal peace.
We caught up with him after his shift at a friend’s Portland store, Animal Traffic (“Work wear,” quips Anderson, “for people who don’t work”), and chatted musical second acts, possible paths to redemption, and the wisdom of not running up prison debts.
You re-surfaced publicly a week or so ago at Saving Country Music, but you’ve been out of actual custody since last Halloween. What have you been doing the last 10 months?
I spent six months in a halfway house, which is where they help you transition back into the world. I’ve been on probation, and I work full time in a friend of mine’s shop here in Portland. And that’s pretty much it. I’m just trying to get my feet back underneath me and make some amends where I can, and get life back on track and try to be a human being.
I imagine the scheme that got you into trouble started to seriously unravel when the West Memphis Three got out of prison in 2011; have you had any contact with them since your release, and if so, did you offer an apology?
Not since my release, no. I saw Jason Baldwin when he got out; this is something I’m still proud of --though it was under somewhat spurious circumstances – the first rock show he ever saw was my band at the Sunset Tavern in Seattle. So that was a cool deal, but it was hard to reconcile with what I knew was going on at the time. So no, I haven’t been in contact, though I reached out a little bit to [Seattle producer] Danny Bland and offered an apology and tried to make amends, though I haven’t heard back.
My M.O. when I got out was to try to do that part of the 12-step program, which is I’m going to make direct amends to those I can and to those whom it wouldn’t harm in some way. So I reached out to as many people as I could; if I heard back from some of them, great; if not, it’s understandable. Hopefully after a while they’ll see I’m living in such a way that’s conducive to making amends.
A casual yet cynical observer might see your 2012 diagnosis of Type 1 Bipolar Disorder as a way to dodge doing hard time, a close cousin of “Hey judge, I get it now and I’m going to rehab.” You alluded to your being “mentally ill” in a letter to the judge. Was there ever a time before the walls closed in that you thought, “Maybe there’s something seriously wrong with me mentally?”
There were times when other people close to me suggested that my problems weren’t just addiction but something else. But I had no real frame of reference because I spent my time in an industry where accountability is not the number one priority. And it wasn’t for me – and the folks around me – until the wheels started to seriously come off. But the diagnosis made sense, and I did try to use it as an excuse: “Don’t you see I wasn’t myself?”
But the more time I spent with myself and the more time I spent incarcerated, I came to the point where I am now, where I can look at my own life and see that addiction and mental illness certainly played a role in what I did. But that doesn’t help anybody who was victimized by me, either financially or personally in some other way to say, “Well you know I’m bipolar.” Because the response would be, “Well, best of luck with that, but where’s my money?”
In private conversations with those with whom I’ve made amends – because I haven’t talked much about this publicly – I’ve said, “The diagnosis is accurate but it doesn’t excuse what I did.”
Are you clinically medicated now for being bipolar, and is it reasonable to assume that the substance abuse up to the time it all fell apart was self-medication? Also, are you treating it with therapy?
Yeah. I’m medicated and have been since Oct. 24, 2012, which is the last time I had any sort of substance or alcohol. In November before I went away, I took a little break from it when I decided it was a good idea to go to Los Angeles and live with my girlfriend, which turned out not to be such a great idea in the eyes of the court.
But yeah, I’m still taking 900 milligrams of lithium and 100 milligrams of Zoloft; the lithium causes tremors, so I’m taking 60 milligrams of Propanolol – which isn’t any kind of anti-psychotic medication, it just helps with the tremors. And I also go to therapy, which is mandated by the terms of my probation.
In another life I was a criminal defense lawyer, so I’m curious about something. After your indictment but before plea negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s office began, what was your expectation as to doing time? Did your lawyer let you know early on that there was a strong likelihood of incarceration?
I had two attorneys [from the Federal Public Defender’s office] and in our first meetings when we were sort of fleshing things out, I was a frustrating client because I didn’t know how much money I’d taken or how much I’d spent. One put a couple pieces of paper in front of me and said, “These are the people who say they’ve lost this much money. Is this accurate?” I said, “I mean, probably. If someone says I took money from them I probably did.”
When we started getting closer to entering the plea, they said, “Let’s try for a year and a day. That would be best case, so let’s be prepared for at least a year and a day.” Well, as soon as I (long pause)… I guess “absconded” is the right word, because I wasn’t really on the run, but I went to my girlfriend’s in LA and didn’t tell anybody about it…
I’d say that’s absconding.
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah, I guess that’s absconding, but it’s not attempted escape. But as soon as they got wind of that, my lawyer called me and said, “You can either get on a plane and fly home and self-surrender, or they’re gonna kick your girlfriend’s door in because they absolutely know where you are right now.” So I flew home that night. From that point on, there was no shortage of expletives thrown my way by my attorneys. They said, “We’ll do the best we can; you had a shot and now you don’t have that shot anymore.”
So the prosecutor at first was asking for 87 months; he really had a pretty low opinion of me and rightfully so, given the information he was working with. And fortunately for me, he took another job.
Wow. That’s freaking lucky, dude.
Yeah, I know. He took a job in the private sector and another prosecutor picked it up and he was like, “I don’t know this kid from Adam, how about 46 months?” My lawyers said that was for sure the best we were gonna do; take the deal, we’ll go to sentencing with that.
There was no point in [my lawyers’ telling me], “We’ll get you off with some probation.” As soon I turned that corner and headed to Los Angeles my lawyer said, “You’re fucked.” That was pretty much it, she just said, “You’re fucked. You did this to yourself; we’ll do our job, but you had your chance and you blew it.”
There was never any thought to taking it to trial.
No, not really. The only way we could’ve done that was with the mental health defense…but for most of that time, I paid rent, I had a car, I played shows, I made records. You’re not gonna prove someone was intermittently insane over the course of several years. A trial wouldn’t have been fun for anybody. I didn’t want my folks or anybody to have to go through that.
I want to back up for just a second. I’m guessing this wasn’t, in your mind, a criminal enterprise from the get-go. You didn’t set out and say, “I bet I can bilk a bunch of people by talking about the West Memphis Three.” As I understand it, one of the tendencies or characteristics of someone who’s Bipolar Type 1 is delusions of grandeur…
…and you get these grandiose impulses from time to time. Did you think, “I can do this”? Did it start out that way, and then maybe “Well, I’ve gotta have expenses to live on,” and you end up shuffling money around? Was that how this think evolved?
Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. It’s one of those things that’s a real point of contention for me, but it doesn’t do anyone else any good because the outcome is the same.
I met with Danny Bland at South By Southwest in 2009 and we talked about it in earnest. We had a conference call with Lori Davis, Damien Echols’ wife not long after and talked about it with her in earnest. So it started out for me as a very real thing. But that ended – that’s as far as it went for Danny, that conversation with Lori. And I said I was going to raise the money. And once I had the money, yeah, you’re right. I was living in Europe at the time and I thought, “If I go to Italy for a couple days and spend a thousand bucks, I’ll just put it back in there; I’ll just play a couple shows and put it back.” Then all of a sudden a thousand bucks is a hundred thousand bucks, then it’s $400,000, and I’m neck deep in it. And there’s nothing true about it anymore.
And all you can do is lie, and keep lying.
Yeah, exactly. Although it’s been brought to my attention by more than one person that if at some point I had just said, “Hey, guys, I spent that money, it’s gone and you’re not gonna get it back,” the outcome would not have been good, but it wouldn’t have been what it was.
You wouldn’t have been in the federal joint, I guess.
Probably wouldn’t have. Would have been more of a civil deal, bankruptcy, etc.
Did you have to do the elocution --verbal confirmation that you had done those bad acts – before you were sentenced?
Yep, sure did.
Were any of your victims in the courtroom at your plea or your sentencing? Did that have any additional impact, seeing those folks in person?
Nobody was there that I saw. I think – and I hesitate to speak for any of them because I haven’t been in contact with them – but once it became public that I was probably going to prison and it involved federal charges, I think a lot of them figured, “Okay, he’s probably going to get what’s coming to him and I can go back to living my life.” I have to imagine that a lot of them were pretty consumed with it until I cut off all conversation with them. Because no matter what sum of money was involved for each individual, they’re trying to get their money back. And there was probably no small amount of relief in knowing that the government had it.
Asking you “How was life in prison?” would be offensively stupid. But I’m curious (a) whether there was one particular moment when the reality of incarceration sank in on you; and (b) whether a Kasey Anderson jail song may ever be in the works?
That’s a thing, you know, jail songs?
Yeah, oh yeah. They do jail songs.
I would say the reality I was in prison was Night One, because I came in kinda late after being in court all day and they put me in a cell in the corner. I was at SeaTac, which is a holding facility for people of all different custody levels. You don’t really go outside, you don’t see the sun, the rec yard is in the unit. I had never been in trouble before. I went right to sleep, spent from the last 72 hours. I woke up the next morning and stuck my head out of my cell, and there’s a bunch of black guys watching TV. So I started watching, and this white guy grabbed me and threw me back in my cell and said, “The white TV is over here!”
Oh, wow. So this wasn’t Club Fed. I know it wasn’t Supermax in Colorado, but…
Well, the second year was pretty much like a community college, and more or less Club Fed. But that first year at SeaTac was…not like Supermax, but a high-security facility where you’re locked down a good part of the day, or mingling with people that have seriously harmed other people.
So that first day was, “Okay. I’m in prison now and this is how it’s gonna be.”
Do you have any Aryan Brotherhood tats, since you had to watch the white people’s TV?
I actually ended up not having to watch the white TV. I told the guy, “Look, I don’t want any trouble but I do like basketball, and it doesn’t seem like you guys have basketball on. So I’m just gonna go watch with the black guys.” He told me fine, but nobody would have my back if anything happened. And that was the end of it.
It’s probably a lot harder-edged in the higher-security facilities. But when you’re stuck in the unit with everyone all day, there’s going to be some intermingling. And that was good for me, being able to sort of bounce back and forth. So, no, I didn’t pledge any sort of allegiance to anyone.
Did you ever get physically hurt by anybody?
No. I saw things happen, ah, mostly at SeaTac I saw things happen that weren’t pleasant. My experience in prison was if you just kinda cruise along and work your own program and don’t lie to people or rack up a bunch of debt, you’re more or less gonna get left alone.
“Rack up a bunch of debt?”
Well, like card games or betting on football; you can’t bet with money, so it’s like food at the commissary, chips…pretty much anything you can think of. And I didn’t do any of that to begin with. But that’s where you see people get into trouble: Where they give people their word and break it, or they owe somebody a six pack of Pepsi and don’t pay it. That’s when there’s trouble.
Did you lift weights and get all buff?
Uh, I worked out. I played basketball. I didn’t hit the weight pile because I’m not a strong dude and didn’t have any desire to put weight on that way. I did get in pretty good shape by doing cardio. Pushups, crunches, stuff like that. I didn’t go crazy
At SeaTac I played a lot of basketball. At Sheridan – the second year -- they had a music program so I played a lot of guitar. We actually put a little band together. And on all federal holidays we’d do a concert. That was cool to get plugged back into music in some way or another…there were some songs I had written and never heard how they sounded with a band, so that was a cool way to test them out. And these were good enough players; probably not the guys I would use in a studio, but they were capable dudes I could bounce songs off of.
How much writing did you do? Prose, I mean. Is there a book inside of you as a result of this experience?
You’re not the first to suggest that. I did a lot of writing when I first got in, and looked at it when I got out and didn’t think there was a whole lot I can use. I actually have been working on some prose and think I’m about a third of the way done with it and I’m not sure where it’s gonna go yet. I mean, it’s good to be clear-headed enough to actually be sidetracked by life stuff. So I told my girlfriend the other day that I need to take an hour or two and just sit down and write, whether it’s prose or songs or whatever.
And you’re legit sober?
Yeah, I am, since that date of Oct. 24, 2012.
How do you feel, physically and mentally these days?
Physically I feel pretty good. I keep coming up with a clean bill of health; my girlfriend and my mother are furious because I still eat like a teenager. I still have that addict’s diet of a lot of sugar. They tell me I’m gonna kill myself, and I keep coming back with clean blood tests, so I’m gonna keep eating Sour Patch Kids till a doctor tells me otherwise. (Laughs) I’m not in as good shape as I was when I got out and I should probably get back into the gym. I probably feel as good as I have…but it’s so hard to tell. Looking back, I felt like shit when I was using, but you still think you feel good. So I feel like I’m healthier than I ever was, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is just the subtraction of narcotics, versus any kind of healthy regimen.
The mania…I’m guessing it made for some really prolific songwriting. Has getting sober tamped that down any?
It definitely made for some productive long nights that stretched into long days of working on something. So I’ve definitely lost something – with the lack of narcotics – the desire to stay up all night until a song is finished, or write three songs at the same time and finish them all.
Now it’s more, “Okay, this is a good idea; let’s get down what I have and we’ll go from here.” So I finish them when I finish them. It’s changed my focus. I was talking to a friend who had tried lithium but he gave it up because he felt like it really deadened his senses. He’s a painter, and it really affected him artistically. It hasn’t really affected me that way, I think, because I had a lot of really good teachers along the way who taught me to look at [songwriting] as a trade, and not some crazy, muse-inspired impulse. If you know how to rebuild an engine, you know how to rebuild an engine. It might take longer depending on the model or the circumstances, but you know how to do it.
And that’s really what I’ve tried to lean on; I guess I won’t know how well I’m doing at it until people actually hear the songs. But what I’ve leaned on in terms of satisfying my own creativity is, “I know how to do this.”
Based on some of the thoughts you shared with Trigger the other day, you seem resigned to pariah status, at least initially. Do you see any path to redemption, generally, and if so, what is it?
My path to redemption – such as it is – is what I mentioned to you earlier, and that’s making living amends. That’s far more important to me than being someone people come out and see or someone whose records get reviewed. And I think for right now, it keeps me a lot more grounded if right now, I don’t think about what my relationship with music or the music industry is going to be.
Obviously, if someone says, “Do you want to do an interview?” I’ll do it if it feels right. I’m not actively seeking publicity. I have a website and a Facebook page that I think has 150 fans. For me, that stuff will come if it comes. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve already had a lot of fun playing music. And I’m not old, but there’s still time that if something’s gonna happen, it’ll happen. But I need to start thinking about what the rest of my life is gonna look like.
For the most part, I’ll say that the people who were my friends when I went in were my friends when I came out, whether they’re involved in the music industry or not. But, who knows what would happen if I said to Isbell, “Hey, why don’t you take me back out on tour?” I imagine the tone of the conversation might change a good bit.
You toured with Jason?
Yeah, Jason and I toured in late 2011, maybe early 2012 and built up a pretty good friendship. And he’s been cool to me. I mean, we don’t talk every day…
So, you didn’t stick him in this deal…
No. And he’s been like – and this is the way most people have been – he said, “You never did anything to me, dude, and the rest of it is not my business.”
Seems like he’d be a guy who’d give you a shot. He’s a pretty sweet guy.
Oh, yeah, and he’s definitely been encouraging. And I was in when his record went to number one. And I called him from prison and he didn’t pick up, and I thought, “Well, I probably wouldn’t have either.” And when I got out he said, “Look man, I didn’t know how to accept a prison call; I didn’t know it was you and I’m so sorry.” He doesn’t have to be that way, but again, I haven’t asked him or anybody, “Hey, let’s do a show or go out on tour,” because I want them to know that my relationship with them is based on friendship and not some “social climber” thing.
And I don’t think I’m in position to ask people for slots on bills, or to listen to songs. If they want to hear them, they’ll find them. That’s the way music has always been.
Your talent is self-evident, and I feel cheated that I’ve only recently become acquainted with your work. Do you have any general plan for a second act in music, or are you just doing the one day at a time thing?
Right now I’m doing one day at a time. Eventually I want to make a record for a lot of reasons, one because I wrote songs while I was in there, and I’ve written songs since I’ve been out that I think are really good songs. I think the world needs as many really good songs as it can get. I also really like being in the studio and working with [producer Eric] Roscoe [Ambel] and my other friends – some folks I had talked about recording with before I went in and wasn’t able to.
In terms of any sort of career, right now I don’t have any expectations; I’m not at a point where I can count on music to pay my bills or pay my restitution. I don’t know if I ever was, because it’s hard to know how well the records or tours would’ve been received if I hadn’t been using resources that didn’t belong to me. Right now this is just a way for me to practice gratitude; to be grateful playing music. I’m not drawing up a five-year plan in a notebook, though.
I downloaded Let the Bloody Moon Rise from your website today. Quite the bargain at five bucks. I feel like I’m stealing from you, frankly. But my email confirmation/receipt said it was order number 00009. Is that a true indicator of the current lack of interest?
Yeah, I think that’s about where we’re at.
Well I’ll just say this: With prices like these, you can’t afford not to buy.
(Laughs) That’s right! Yeah, that’s one that got released in some fashion in 2014, after I was already in. And that’s a deal where I did just such a disservice to that record and that band; I’ll go on record and say, “That’s a good fucking rock ‘n’ roll record.” That’s the sort of record I would have wanted to hear if I was a rock music fan in 2014. But, that’s another situation where I let those guys down, and everybody’s moved on and doing their own thing, so you can’t do too much looking back.
And what’s the one thing you most want people to understand about you, right this minute? And I’ll add a caveat: I didn’t factor into that question the – whatever step it is of the 12 about making amends – so what do you think is most important right now?
Two things I said over the weekend…I was playing a show at a winery, and it was a really fun time. And I was talking to John, my friend who owns the place, and he asked me sorta the same thing.
I said, “I do want to make amends wherever I can, and it’s important to me to live that out.” The other thing is: I haven’t forfeited the right to write songs and to be good at writing songs, and I’m going to do it. I was without my freedom for a couple of years, and I’ll probably be paying restitution for as long as I live, and that’s well deserved. And if you think I’m an asshole or don’t like the songs, that’s fine. But I’m gonna keep writing and playing, whether it’s in my basement or in front of a bunch of people on stage. So the degree to which anybody is cognizant of the fact that I’m doing it, get comfortable with it.
Kasey Anderson is a man who’s has been down and kicked plenty, with more likely to come. We don’t ask for much here at FTM. But his music can be found at his site’s store, and I’m asking you – as a personal favor – to go there and download a digital album for five bucks. Five bucks, people! And oh by the way, it’s freaking quality music. I’m serious. So thanks. -- Kevin
Photos from Wikipedia and Kasey Anderson's Facebook page