Spitting at Mortality with Jus Oborn

Electric Wizard frontman talks anxiety management.

Posted Jul 23, 2018

“The dying world gasps its last breath as we turn off our minds

All hope is lost

There’ll be no new dawn

And all of your dreams will die, die”

From “See You in Hell” by Electric Wizard

From an early age, Jus Oborn of Electric Wizard knew that he felt a bit “off.”

Oborn has struggled with anxiety throughout his life – particularly when he was a child and young man. What he soon learned was that his anxious feelings were often about mortality.  Specifically, Oborn was not afraid of the act of dying per se, but of the impermanence of existence in which he may ultimately fade into nothingness and nonexistence.  

Photo provided by Spinefarm Records
Source: Photo provided by Spinefarm Records

“I’m worried about mortality more than death itself – that it’s just over, consciousness – that I’m not going to be able to be anymore. Dying or being killed – I know that’s going to be horrible. But I’m not scared of that. I’m not here anymore,” Oborn told me. “I think about people that have died that I’ve known. And it’s gone.  It’s over. It just feels like everything they did, everything they were doesn’t mean shit anymore.”

Oborn took little comfort in religious beliefs regarding the existence of an afterlife, simply because he had no discernable proof from which to draw comfort. “Maybe they’ve moved on to something else,” he said. “I don’t believe in it because I don’t know. I’m pragmatic like that. If you can’t prove it I don’t believe it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just feel like it’s over.”

Anxiety not only results in significant emotional suffering, but also, it can make us feel that we are disconnected from others. As we watch people go through their lives in apparent bliss, we feel that we cannot relate to their experience, and perhaps more importantly, others will not empathize with our anxiety. 

“I think the fears and the anxieties make me an outsider. And then being an outsider creates the situation where you can’t integrate with society,” he said.

In looking for an empathic ear, Oborn soon found heavy metal music – particularly the doom metal genre that descended from the founders of metal. Oborn described how the music explored the very themes of mortality that made him anxious, which was comforting to him.

“It’s a type of metal derived mainly from Black Sabbath … very heavy, slower type of metal. But I always think of it as being quite uplifting – not depressing. A lot of metal – and doom in particular – the morality is there at the core, whatever tangent the lyrics go off on. The darker stuff is there to embrace people and say you’re not alone,” Oborn explained. “I guess the lyrical themes dwell on more darker subject matter … People are trying to play with these ideas and not be afraid of them.”

Unfortunately, Oborn found that in his hometown of Dorset, England, not only did he still feel disconnected to others because of his anxiety, but also, he felt rejected because of his love of metal or the aesthetic that accompanied being a heavy metal fan. “I changed high schools… I was a metalhead with long hair. It was a preppy, square place and I was the dirty hippie. You were definitely an outcast. It was pretty much perceived that you wouldn’t get a job. I used to get spat on – the dipshit kids at school would spit on the back of my hair and shit,” Oborn recalled. “The authority figures were very afraid of you. The police came over to warn my parents that I was involved in blasphemous acts. The older generation didn’t understand at all. They really thought you were in league with the devil.”

As a method of coping, Oborn embraced this persona – and soon found that there were other metalheads with whom he could bond. “It started in my teenage years, where just being different was a way to antagonize people that didn’t like me. So that was always important. You develop a persona over a period of time. That’s the shield or armor. They used to call me The Omen at school. I used to stare at people like I could burst them into flames or some shit. I was like, ‘I’m a Satanist, I worship the devil. You don’t want to f*ck with me,’” he described. “There were a few of us. We had denim jackets and had the same Hawkwind patch on the back. So we were called the Evil Gang. And that emboldened us to a certain extent.”

But neither his love of metal nor his connection with his metalhead friends protected him from suicidal and even homicidal thoughts. Oborn described how when he heard about the mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, he empathized with the feelings of hopelessness and isolation that he felt may have characterized the shooters.

“I was a teenage suicide freak – black haired kid. I was into it. I wanted to kill myself and everyone else. These school shootings – for me I thought about that. When Columbine happened, I was like f*ck – that could have been me. A bunch of us were like we could have done that. We could have gone that far at one point,” Oborn explained. “I don’t know these people but I think they’re hopeless … They thought about what they were doing. It wasn’t that they just woke up one morning and said, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m going to kill everybody.’ They planned it and they rationalized their rebellion and their outcastness to make it morally acceptable for what they were going to do in their own minds. We’ve been shit on, we hate you, this is what we’re going to do. We don’t feel any compassion. I think excessive isolationism – literally getting to the point where you have no outside contact, no one you can relate to or talk about anything to – that internalization leads to the point where you do something as f*cked up as that.”

Oborn was honest about his original reason for not killing himself – he both could not find an acceptable method, and could not hurt the people in his life. “I didn’t want to hang myself and I didn’t know which pills to take. And guns weren’t easily available,” he said. “You latch onto things that life’s worth living for. And there were certain people in my life – they’re going to be real upset. Why make my mother upset? Just deal with it – at least for a bit.”

Viktor Frankl posited that in the face of fears of mortality – and inevitable death, we can search for meaning as a way of combatting the existential anxiety that comes from pondering the end of our existence. While Oborn had been a metalhead for most of his young life, he did not necessarily immediately find a deeper meaning to metal and the metal community.

Things changed for Oborn when he discovered the underground heavy metal world of audio cassette tape trading. In the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s, metal fans who met at concerts would audio tape a local band’s album or live concert, and mail their tapes to other fans throughout the world, creating an elaborate worldwide network of metalheads. This was when Oborn realized that he had a greater purpose.

“I was listening to rock music from an early age – I could be AC/DC, I could be Sabbath. But I still had a thing like, but it ain’t really gonna happen. But then when the tape trading, which meant you had pen pals all over the world and would exchange cassettes from their local music scene,” Oborn explained. “Then I got a sense that there was more to the world. I think the tape trading gave me a sense of it being real. There was more than my f*cking town and ending up working in a store and putting up with assholes who I’ve known since school giving me shit still.

“There’s a bigger world out there.”

Soon Oborn realized that he could even have a prominent place in the metal world – as one of the musicians that he emulated. “These bands were just like me. They’re kids in small little towns. And then it was like – here is my energy point,” he described. “There was something I could do, that I could be involved in. Maybe if I tried f*cking hard I could excel at it. And it wasn’t based on where the f*ck I lived in town, or what the f*ck I wore to school. Nobody could f*ck with me anymore – I’m doing this. I could be Guns N Roses. I could be Metallica.

“F*ck you.”

As time went on, Oborn found that while he connected with the music of others, being able to write and play his own music was an even stronger antidote against his anxieties about mortality. He found that he could freely explore the darker themes of anxiety and what happens after we die in a way that he feels moved him away from thoughts of hurting himself or others.

“And the band is another persona, like, I don’t care, f*ck that shit. If we get out there and do it, we’ll win. We’ll face death head on. And we’ll be victorious. That’s the kind of attitude I take,” he said. “There’s a lot of fantasy – we just go off into different themes of horror and darkness and the world being f*cked and stuff.  The music is stronger. It will keep you going. That’s why I see if I didn’t have the band, I could have done something stupid.”

Oborn likes that he is able to connect with other kids who may feel just like he did early on. He describes how Electric Wizard’s form of doom metal is designed to resonate on a visceral level first – meeting young fans where they may be emotionally – and then hoping that they can think about the lyrics.

“I think heavy music has that power. That rock and roll power. It’s not something I do consciously, but I’ve analyzed the way we work. And we like to hit the gut first. We’re not progressive jazz – it’s bang, bang, for kids to head bang,” Oborn explained. “But then their minds are open – they’re ready to hear lyrics. And I’m not into indoctrinating – I just want to open their minds.”

While Oborn has found meaning and purpose in the metal community by playing, he encourages anyone who is interested that they can find purpose through a variety of avenues.

“There is a community there. There a people making t-shirts, making patches, doing interviews.  And that helps everyone – it is important. It isn’t just a little fantasy for yourself. In the metal world, a kid can design a t-shirt and send it to his favorite band, and the band would say that’s f*cking cool – we’re going to do it,” Oborn described. “The bands love that shit. That’s what helps – everyone wants word of mouth – not big adverts in Rolling Stone. The word of mouth is way better. And everyone is involved with it on some level.

“A whole community is there to be involved in.”

Oborn feels that his anxiety has vastly improved, but he is realistic that his fear of mortality will not just disappear, but rather, needs to be continually managed. “I don’t think there’s a time when you learn to conquer your fears. You have to deal with them,” he said. “You have to deal with crossing the road. Do you think you’re going to be able to stop looking left and right? You’ll always have to look left and right.”

With 25 years under its belt, Electric Wizard’s most recent album is the 2017 Wizard Bloody Wizard.  In reviewing the album, Pitchfork compared them to the very band that started it all for Oborn: “Their music, thick with effect pedals and pot smoke, has long been the high-water mark for old-school Sabbath worship in the 21st century … It’s almost intimidating just how naturally this comes to them.”

And Oborn has discovered that one way of dealing with fears of mortality is to have your music live on forever.

“The music for me is my attempt at immortality. I’d like to think we did it just enough to get on the footnotes of rock history. I hope the band will reach a level where 100 years from now there’d be an Electric Wizard,” Oborn proposed. “And then I’d be like, ‘Yeah I did it.’

“I don’t need the tombstone.”

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