Can you talk a little bit about the bullying incidents that you had in high school in New Zealand?
It’s funny, you and I were talking after our show at The Paramount about bullying, and “Love The Way You Hate Me,” (which is a song about having the strength to be yourself and embrace the things that make you unique). It got me to thinking about something that happened in high school that I haven’t thought about for a long time.
I went to the same school from the time that I was in Kindergarten right up until my high school graduation. I started high school in 9th grade, and I was basically with the same group of people that I had been in school with my entire life.
I had the same group of friends for a long time, and then when I got to 9th grade, all of these new kids came along, and the school reshuffled everyone into classes based on how well we had done in school. In hindsight, it wasn’t a great idea because it set people up to be picked on.
It’s easy to see how that could happen when they make it so easy to target people…
You know, we all grew up together in the same classes, and then all of a sudden, we were slotted into classes based solely on how well we did on tests and stuff.
I remember at the start of 9th grade being given a real hard time, both by people that I’d known my whole life, and then by all of these new people who had come into the school. It was the first time that people started to criticize other peoples’ differences.
I’m surprised that it took so long for that to happen. Usually, it starts at an even younger age…
I was never really aware of that growing up. It was like the first day of high school was the first day of this new universe where everyone’s differences were under the microscope.
I was never the most athletic guy (and I’m still not), so it wasn’t like I was going to go out there and be the star of the rugby team. All of a sudden, I was in class with the other kids who did really well in school, and that didn’t make me very popular.
It was only when I started playing in bands (as a drummer), that people started to understand that just because you do well in school, it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you. And if you’re not the most athletic, there’s nothing wrong with that either.
It sounds like music helped you to somewhat shed the “geek” label that you were being given…
Definitely! I just loved music so much. Once I started playing in bands, I became friends with some of the people who initially were giving me a hard time. Being different and not quite fitting into any mold that people expected, ended up becoming a positive thing in my later years of high school.
I guess people start to mature as they go through high school, but it seems like 9th grade was no picnic…
I still remember what a shock it was to be written off by people that I’d known my whole life because the school placed me into a different level of classes.
It sounds like the school created a kind of class warfare with their system…
Yeah, it was. In hindsight, it was a terrible system. Nobody wants to be labeled as a “geek” when they are 13-yrs old, but it came with the territory when you were put into the advanced classes. And, the system also seemed pretty insensitive to the kids who were separated out because they may have been having a hard time in school.
I’m not surprised that there were issues at school. I remember that being something that I hadn’t expected. It took me a while to wrap my head around it because I was the same person that I always was, but I was being treated differently by the people that I hung out with the year before.
When you were bullied in school, was it physical or just verbal?
It wasn’t really physical, mostly verbal, although there was a guy in my class who always wanted to fight me for some reason. I’d never done anything to him, and we’d never had any sort of altercation.
For the whole year, he thought that he was going to fight me, but I never made too much of it because I never thought that it was going to happen.
It must have been strange for you to be dealing with the abuse, given that you never had any issues until you got to high school…
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think for a second that I was the only one being given a hard time in high school. It’s just that up until then, I felt like everyone had got on pretty well.
For me, there was a gap between the start of high school and the time that I started playing in bands and doing shows. During that time, people didn’t really know quite where I fit in. I was doing well in school, so I guess that made me a geek, especially since I wasn’t athletic at all. I was terrible at every sport that I played, so I was always convinced that I was the most uncoordinated person on earth.
The turning point in my life came when I started playing drums. I can’t overstate the importance of music in my life because it gave me a sense of belonging. It also made me realize that I could do something physical (even if it wasn’t sports).
I think that it takes more coordination to play drums than it does to play a lot of sports…
Yeah, and it came pretty naturally for me. Being able to play the drums definitely gave me self-confidence in addition to a sense of belonging.
Once I started to gain self-confidence, it mattered less what other people thought about me. I think that people started to see that not everyone was either a geek or a jock, that there was something in between.
Was music an escape for you during the times when you were being picked on?
Yeah, absolutely! Music has always been an escape for me from the time that I started really getting into it when I was about 13. It’s basically become all-consuming. I think that it gave me a great sense of confidence and self-worth. It’s also just a great way to express how you’re feeling.
It’s no secret that a lot of creative people don’t necessarily have a feeling that they belong. I think that’s one of the great things about music, and one of the things that it’s certainly given me is a way to express myself in a constructive way.
Do you think that playing drums gave you a sort of cool factor and helped you to shed the “geek” label?
I guess it did, but more than that, I just felt that I was where I belonged. My friends and I would spend all weekend listening to records, going to concerts and jamming. Playing in bands helped me to find my place amidst the major social reshuffling that was going on when I got to high school.
Did you end up becoming friendly with the kids in your class who also had good grades, and maybe weren’t too athletic?
Yeah, I did, and that was one of the positives of the reshuffling that took place. Maybe the only positive of being sort of categorized, was that I did get to spend time getting to know people that maybe I wouldn’t have before. Not that I would have picked on them, I just wouldn’t have gotten to know them.
Because they weren’t in your circle of friends, right?
Exactly! You would get to know people on a much deeper level than just seeing them outside on the playground or whatever. It certainly gave me a lot more empathy for the kids who had been getting a hard time throughout our school years after being on the receiving end of it.
Things obviously got better for you because of music. Did your friends get hassled less by associating with you?
One of the things that I think was cool about our high school is that, as time went on, those cliques and those categories kind of crumbled away and people were much more accepting of one another. That was a huge positive.
It’s kind of like the start of high school was like the movie “Mean Girls,” or something similar, but by the end of it, people were much cooler to each other. I think that it became obvious that you can’t just tag someone with one of two labels and expect them to really fit.
Your brothers went through school before you. Did they have any issues with bullying during their high school years?
I think that we all kind of had the same thing. There’s a weird irony in school. The things that people value about us now (being musicians, being creative, being a bit different and not really fitting into the mold), are the things that people made fun of back then.
I know that Kent and Chris had similar issues, and so did a lot of my musician friends. I suppose that when you’re in those dog-eat-dog formative years, there’s not always a lot of tolerance for people who are outside the mainstream.
One of the things about being a creative person is that you don’t necessarily fit in (or want to for that matter). That can definitely create some tension with people who have an idea of what they think you should be.
That’s something that I spoke about with Andy from Black Veil Brides. We talked about embracing your individuality and not trying to conform to what everyone else wants you to be.
That’s exactly right! You know, I always thought that one of the craziest things about the group mentality is that the group is made up of individuals, and every single person in the group is just hoping like hell that no one else finds out that they’re different. It reminds me of the saying that goes “a person is smart, but people are stupid.”
I always thought that it was strange in high school that groups of kids picked on other kids for being a little bit different, because every kid in the group was a little bit different in their own way.
I think that part of why people pick on others to start with is because they’re just glad that it’s not being done to them.
We’ve discussed that “Love The Way You Hate Me” isn’t about childhood bullying, but the song was inspired by a different type of bullying, right?
Yeah, the song was inspired by a specific event. It was something that we’d been feeling for a while because, unfortunately, there are a lot of haters out there.
I think that the second that you stick your head above the trenches, someone is going to take a shot at you. That’s certainly how it’s been for us. You make fans when you start releasing music, which is amazing, but there are people out there who will criticize you just for the sake of doing it.
I believe the word for them is trolls, at least when it comes to the Internet!
Exactly! Although “Love The Way You Hate Me” was actually inspired by something that happened face-to-face.
We had an incident when we were on tour down in the south. Now, we have a lot of fans and friends in the south, so this is certainly not a criticism of the south as a whole. We were at a truck stop in a really small town. It was the kind of place that when you walk through the door, the record player stops. That is literally what happened. It was like they had never seen anyone that looked like us in their lives.
This guy came up to Kent, who is a pretty tall guy with black and red spikey hair, and called him a “freak” to his face, and then just walked off. We were kind of stunned initially, because we had never come across anyone like that before.
It got us thinking about how we’ve felt for a while. There are people who will cut you down no matter what you do, so you’re much better off being who you are, and doing what you want to do, because you’re not going to please those people anyway. They’re going to give you a hard time no matter what.
“Love The Way You Hate Me” actually started as a song that Kent had, but when we start working on it together, it became a group thing. The three of us were just talking about the feeling of people criticizing you for being exactly who you are, and we came up with the line “you say I’m a freak, I say I am free.”
I love that line!
Thanks man! To us, that was really what we had been talking about. Someone who hates you is going to go after the things that make you the most unique. Those are the things that define you and make you an individual. That was really the central idea of the song.
I’m kind of glad that some idiot called Kent a “freak” because a great song came out of it, and it kind of helped launch your career.
Well thank you, dude! You know, I wouldn’t change any of it now. It’s funny because once you really don’t care about what the haters think, it’s actually pretty entertaining (especially the online trolls). There’s nothing more empowering than looking at what someone wrote (which is supposed to ruin your life) and just laughing at it.
It’s happened to me a number of times. I even showed the comments to my kids, and they asked me why I wasn’t writing back. I told them that if you fight back, you’re giving the trolls exactly what they want, but if you ignore them, it makes them angry because they didn’t get to you.
Exactly! The Internet has given a soapbox to a lot of angry people. You definitely can’t please everybody, and if you tried to please those people, they wouldn’t like you anyway. The best thing to do is to be true to yourself, and ignore the noise.
So true! I almost feel that the person that criticized Kent to his face deserves some credit, because at least he had the balls to not hide behind a computer screen. It’s easy to be confrontational online, not so much when you’re in front of the person…
Absolutely! (LOL) The person who said that to Kent should actually get some sort of award. I guess to those people, we must have looked like we came from Mars. We have these weird accents and play in a rock and roll band. It was probably like something from the “X-Files” for those people.
I have to say that being in a band is just fascinating in the way that people react to you. You see the absolute best and the worst of humanity. People are so nice and generous and come and support you and tell you what your music means to them. On the flip side, a very small percentage of people feel like they have the right to say the most insulting and inappropriate things to you.
You and your brothers are living proof that things get better when you believe in yourself and ignore the ignorant people that you come across in life. Thanks for sharing your story, Matt. I’m sure that it will help others who find themselves in trying situations.