In 2007, the Lonely Forest survived a year that would break most young bands. The band had recently won EMP's annual Sound Off! competition and released an impressive six-song
EP produced by Jack Endino. They were starting to win the hearts of fans and critics alike. But just as they were starting to take off, things took a hard turn. Guitarist Tony Ruland abruptly left the band and wound up in the hospital, while singer John Van Deusen checked into an outpatient rehab program for drug addiction and depression.
"I have a very addictive personality," admits Van Deusen. "My experience with drugs hasn't been anything too intense. But anybody who knows me knows when I like something, I do things in extremes."
While writing the band's debut full-length, 2007's Nuclear Winter—a concept album, set in the future, about a man in outer space watching Earth be destroyed—Van Deusen says he was "smoking a lot of weed" and he was feeling tempted to try other drugs.
"The temptation that someone would feel about a really seductive woman is what I felt about any drug," he says. "Like drugs I never even tried, which is one of the reasons why I was like, 'Holy shit, this is not good.' If it had gone on any longer, it would've destroyed me."
Van Deusen's close friends and family thought that his drug habit and depression were on the road to becoming a serious problem. So at their urging, he voluntarily started going to Skagit Recovery Center, a rehab center in Mount Vernon, four times a week.
Meanwhile, Ruland had entered the hospital. Van Deusen, along with bassist Eric Sturgeon and drummer Braydn Krueger, hadn't even known Ruland was ill—he'd been hiding it—until one night in October when the three of them were playing a show at Neumos and their former bandmate called them from his hospital bed.
"It was alarming, because the message was all broken up," says Sturgeon, recalling that night. "It said, 'Dude, I'm in the hospital,' and he said the doctors said he wasn't gonna get better."
"I almost died," says Ruland. "I had ulcers. I was throwing up a bunch of blood and was in the hospital for two weeks."
Ruland did recover and was released from the hospital on November 7, the same day his first nephew was born. The date is now tattooed on the inside of his left forearm.
"As much as it sucked, it was the best experience of my life," Ruland continues. "I learned so much about myself. My dad died from cancer when I was nine and a half, and I was in the same hospital he was in when he was really sick. It was a total mindfuck. But I had this really crazy moment where I realized that everything was gonna be okay. I was like, 'I just need an answer—either I'm gonna die or not.' And then immediately I felt this relief, this calm."
The following summer, Ruland rejoined the band, and the Lonely Forest began work on their sophomore album, the recently released We Sing the Body Electric!. It's a strong, passionate pop record, its songs as vulnerable and raw as they are laced with memorable hooks, and it's by far the band's best work to date.
Many of the album's lyrics were written while Van Deusen was making trips to Skagit Recovery, and addiction, drugs, and temptation are a constant theme throughout.
On "Tomato Soup," over a tinkering piano and sweeping orchestration, Van Deusen sings, "My hands are shaking at the possibility of using." On "Julia's Song," he croons, "I'm caught in addiction, Jules, together we are/Like lost battered ships sailing toward the same star." The brief album opener is just a choir repeating the line "I hear a voice/It's faint and weak/Two pink pills to fall asleep."
"The lyrics are about something else for John, but to me they feel very optimistic in a totally different way," says Ruland. "I was getting to play music with my band again, I was still breathing air, I have this new beautiful nephew, everything's new and great, and I couldn't be more excited about life."
"I think it was important that these things happened," Van Deusen says, referring to their year of adversities. "It felt like it was very detrimental, but we discovered something."
"Something clicked in all of us," says Ruland. "Now we know what we want, and we're bloodthirsty for it."