Being told you’re cancer-free should be cause for joyous celebration. But Gates vocalist/guitarist Kevin Dye was also struck by a more negative reaction when told an operation to remove a cancerous growth on his lungs was completely successful. It sent him into a deep spiral of existential depression.
He’d first noticed something was wrong in April and May 2018, when he noticed he was repeatedly getting pneumonia. After numerous trips to the doctor, tests determined he had cancer. About a month later, it had been completely removed with an operation. Dye was obviously relieved, but there was a lingering darkness inside him — a sense of despair and despondency he just couldn’t shake. Much as he tried, much as he knew he should be elated, he wasn’t.
“I’m the kind of person who thinks about these big picture ideas on a regular basis,” he explains over Zoom. “All leading up to it, I was exceedingly positive about it. When you’re in a position like that and there’s nothing you can do except hope that it works out, you just hope it works out. They did surgery on me and the cancer was basically all gone. But while the physical recovery was fast, mentally I was just fucked up.”
Dye’s condition led to what he terms a “very harsh rewiring” in his brain. It was something that had a profound look on his mood, his overall outlook and his day-to-day life. Despite the operation’s success, he couldn’t prevent an abyss of abject darkness from opening up deep inside him.
“You just don’t think about life the same,” he says. “It’s just completely different. And it’s really hard to convince yourself that it’s worth going on. I felt like I’d experienced what death was, or what being near death was, and it was shocking to me.”
One of the few upshots, however, was that Dye started writing for Gates again.
Formed in 2011, the band — based between northern New Jersey and Brooklyn, and rounded out by guitarists Dan King and Ethan Koozer, bassist Mike Maroney and drummer Daniel Crapanzano — released their acclaimed second record, Parallel Lives, in 2016. They toured that album, but when Dye’s work as an engineer/producer got busy, things on the Gates front slowed down. He was also focusing more on solo work, and playing guitar in Dead Swords, the shoegaze outfit fronted by Gaslight Anthem guitarist Alex Rosamilia. But in the wake of everything that happened — including his depressive state — it was time for Gates to re-emerge from hibernation. The problem was that everything Dye was writing was too dark and morbid.
“I couldn’t write anything,” he admits. “The notebook of lyrics I have from that time is not stuff I want to put out into the world. It was just for me to grapple with. I enjoy art that’s intense and sad and has those feelings in it, but it was even too dark for me. A lot of people have told me they get messages of hope from our music, and that’s become a really important part of being a lyricist and being in Gates, so I wasn’t going to put out songs that were not going to give people that feeling. They were going to give people the feeling I had then, which was that there is no hope. People would ask me how I was doing and I’d be like, ‘Life doesn’t matter. It has no meaning.’”
To say that sense of despair has vanished wouldn’t be accurate, but Dye has it more under control now thanks to therapy, friends and loved ones. During the pandemic, he moved from Brooklyn to Nashville with his wife. That helped his head a bit, as did the realization that he really missed playing with his friends in the band. They never said that they were going to call it a day, but he knew that’s what would likely happen. And he couldn’t let it.
“It had definitely felt like it was going to be over, and I remember being really upset about it,” he says.
“Like, here was this huge part of all of our lives that we’ve been doing this non-stop for like 10 years, so to have it disappear…” The singer pauses for a second, deep in thought.
“My own predisposition is to wallow in my thoughts,” he continues. “But when something this extreme happens, you literally can’t do that because it’s going to be a danger to my own life. You don’t want to survive this horrible event only to watch your life waste away afterwards. So I had to create a reason for myself, and a big one was that I have this band that I love. It gives me something to actively work on. So we started doing it again and it just came together.”
The result is Gates’ first new music in five years. Recorded over a period of time that spanned both pre- and post-pandemic existences, Here and Now is an album (not an EP, Dye insists) that channels all of those experiences into six beautiful and dark – but not too dark – songs. As Gates’ tracks always have, they span time and space, offering solace in the midst of an emotional lacuna. But this time, they also reasserted the purpose of Gates making music in the first place. It’s a lifeline, an act of defiance and rebellion, a call to persevere no matter what life throws at you. As Dye sings on the scorching crescendo of the final track “If I Could,” “If I could do it all again, then I would.”
“Making it really did help me process everything,” he says. “It really helped me overcome it just by simply writing, by completing these songs. And that final line is the whole fucking album. We knew we could stop right there, because that lyric was enough of a summary of everything, like ‘We’re starting over, we’re coming out of nothing. We can’t really figure out what the fuck we’re doing, and we’re grappling with shit that we dealt with in the past, but it’s all good.’ And everything is fucking great because we’re here right now and able to fucking make this record.”