When you have such a set goal of this elusive rock star status, and you think ‘if I don’t get that, I’ll never be happy,’ that’s setting yourself up for such a hard time.
The theme appears repeatedly in conversation with Casey Wickstrom: making it out of his twenties, settling down after his twenties, feeling at one time that he didn’t expect to make it through his twenties.
One could chalk it up to the wave of self-discovery that can accompany your third decade of existence. But in Wickstrom’s case, his words aren’t a playful dig at self-reflection. He almost faded from this world yet lived to tell about it, which likely makes the texture of existence feel that much more fragile.
Wickstrom’s music is informed by the rugged, metallic riffs of the Delta blues, the modern slide stylings set forth by guitarists like Ben Harper and Jack White, and the airy fingerpicking and detailed lyricism of his beloved Paul Simon. His words carry a remarkable honesty, with songs like “Orange Grove” and “Sleep” showcasing a bared soul that doesn’t emote at the expense of astute songcraft.
He recalls growing up listening to Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, and Chuck Berry. In particular, Wickstrom remembers Paul Simon’s Graceland, which his mother would play as she rocked him to sleep. He moved from the Bay Area to mountainous Durango, Colorado, at age three, where bluegrass made a large musical footprint.
This detail helps contextualize a defining feature of his live act—his use of lap slide guitar, which he picks away at, face up, while seated. The instrument was common in Colorado, since the twang of lap slide paired well with the rootsy sounds of the scene; here, it has stylistically set him apart from other Bay Area acts, as has another weapon in his musical arsenal: a three-string cigar box guitar that he coaxes into a fuzzy ferocity one would hardly expect to emerge from such a tiny contraption.
Well before striking it solo, Wickstrom started his first band, The Shoes!, out of high school with good friend and bassist Dustin Krupa and drummer Austin Vidonn, who the two met randomly after skipping school to jam in a nearby town. The group’s music occupied a “mellow groove, acoustic roots kind of vibe,” and they recorded their debut, It’s the Shoes!, in 2005. Vidonn was later replaced by Nick Angiono, and the group was renamed Strange New Shoes.
The new trio moved to Boulder to make a larger splash, but Wickstrom admits that the band may have been a bit too cocky for its own good. “When you have such a set goal of this elusive rock star status, and you think ‘if I don’t get that, I’ll never be happy,’ that’s setting yourself up for such a hard time,” he points out. “We were playing five shows a week sometimes, passing out flyers in the snow, and no one would come.”
The hard work and slim results burned them out, fueling the group’s rampant partying. After a year in Boulder, the band fell apart, and Wickstrom moved back to California to clean up and start over. Back in the Bay, he recorded his self-titled solo debut album in 2010 and started to develop a repertoire as a one-man band. After building a performance circuit that included gigs in LA, he made the decision to migrate south permanently. Then on August 21, 2011, two weeks after uprooting, disaster struck.
At around 9pm, while exiting a freeway off-ramp, he rounded a blind turn to encounter the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. He woke up at UCLA Medical Center with 28 staples in his stomach, no spleen, a liver that needed to be soldered back together, and a litany of broken bones. His severe blood loss required a transfusion. Wickstrom and his girlfriend were hit head-on by a drunk driver. Despite the crash, he was back to writing and playing guitar two weeks after his accident. His musical routine returned, but so did his drug indulgence. After two years of sobriety, he fell into opioid dependence.
“I was in a death spiral for four years,” he shares, noting that his dark state of mind spurred on his creativity in a very grim way: “I thought, ‘I need to record all the music I can, because this is all I’m going to have left to my name.’ ” Desperate Times, which came out in 2013, chronicles this
A year and a half after his move, and nursing a fresh breakup, he headed to Cupertino to straighten out once more. His choice, at least at first, backfired. “The drug use just escalated, and the depression got worse because I wasn’t in LA anymore,” he says. He still craved success, but his relocation took him hundreds of miles away from the land of stardom. It further ignited his self-hatred and hatched a lethal plan. He was going to overdose on painkillers after releasing his song “Surf Zombies!” Then he could join the “27 club,” a list of beloved musicians gone too soon. “I put the single online for all to hear…then, I took all the pills that I had saved and fell asleep, hoping that I would never wake up,” he shares in his blog post “The Making of Surf Zombies!”
He overdosed, but didn’t die. Four months and no pills later, suicide no longer felt like an option—it felt like the only option. As a last-ditch effort, he checked himself into the psychiatric ward at Stanford Hospital a week before his 28th birthday. Wickstrom latched onto meditation and yoga as therapeutic outlets during his stay, and the latter has stuck with him regularly ever since. Today, caffeine is the only drug he grants himself, and he was recently certified as a yoga instructor, now sharing with others a practice that delivered him immense peace in the immediate aftermath of his time at Stanford.
With a renewed outlook, Wickstrom started to revisit musical moments he was previously too scared to touch up. In that sense, his latest project is both progression and retrospection. He launched a Kickstarter to fund a new album, then successfully raised over $8,000 for the making of Bleed Out, due April 2018.
He reunited with Vidonn during the songwriting process and recorded the 12-track album in Durango this past August, reconnecting with the engineer who worked on the Strange New Shoes album. Both were aware of Wickstrom’s work ethic, so it was no surprise to either when they had to power through a four-day marathon recording session, logging takes for at least 12 hours each day. He says the album covers a ton of stylistic ground, touching everything from blues and punk to shades of funk and heavy metal. “There was a need to get this out,” he says. “It was like an exorcism of the past in a lot of ways.”
Having trudged through such darkness, there’s an air of prophecy to “Pasadena,” from his 2010 debut. Among his stark, tell-all takes, the chorus stands out as a rare sliver of hope:
“And I’m alone, but I’m not lonely / I’m not prepared, but I’m not scared / I’ve been lost, without direction / ever since I was a kid / but I know it’ll lead to something / yes I know I’ll be alright / ’cause I know that one day / I will see the light.”
With those lyrics in mind and everything he’s made it through, has he finally emerged from the darkness?
“I don’t feel like I’ve seen the light,” he says, “but now I’m getting glimpses of it.”
Written by Brandon Roos
Photography by Joey Pisacane
This article originally appeared in Issue 10.1 “Tech”