Jes Skolnik (Split Feet) Talks Overcoming Trauma By Playing Music

On the power of performance and finally feeling comfortable in your own skin.

I feel in my body the way most people feel operating a car — like I am housed in a clumsy bubble that moves awkwardly, easy to pitch too quickly or too slowly, possibly heading for a bloody collision every time I move. Sometimes I am hyper-aware of its shape, and I am flooded with a sense of sharp wrongness. Other times I blot out how it feels to be piloting this thing, stumbling along numbly for self-preservation’s sake. Neither of these states is wholly consciously controlled.

This is what it’s like living in a body when you have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or at least my experience thereof. I’ve written extensively about the conditions that brought me here — multiple sexual assaults and physically and emotionally abusive situations, substance abuse, cycles I had to work every day to break and I have to fight every day to make sure stay broken. This is not about feeling sorry for myself, but acknowledging reality.

Trauma lives in your muscles. I am always ready to run. The reason that I am so singularly obsessive about music is that when I am inside music, making it, moving to it, I am able to let myself go, I am able to heal. Dancing is the only physical action in which I feel free, in which I don’t feel cocooned in an alien flesh prison. I used to dance to choreography, which makes me think that I am not terrible at how I move my body to music, but I really don’t know or care. I just relish being present in my body while I’m dancing, onstage or off, relish being awake and aware and alive and not, for a minute, terrified or in pain. I can’t move around on stage much these days because I’m tethered to both guitar and microphone, not the way I’ve been able to move fronting previous bands without an instrument, where I could jump and prowl and prostrate myself and hang over monitors. Even relatively stable, anchored by instruments, my hips move first and my ungainly body becomes a thing that thrums and howls and is, in the moment of making sound, not painfully conscious of itself.

I was raised by two musicians, and there were instruments all over the place in my house when I was growing up. I started piano (also my mother’s first instrument) early in elementary school; there was the upright acoustic piano, of course, but I was always drawn to the sparkly suitcase Rhodes my mom had given to my uncle, and the muted, peculiar hum-and-ping of the other electric piano, the brand of which I do not remember, though I do remember trying to figure out what happened when I flipped the toggle to “honky tonk” and never quite being able to describe it.

I may have started playing an instrument just because that’s what you did in my family, but I kept on through the fits of frustration and anger over not being able to replicate a piece perfectly from the get-go (in my worst moment, I slammed a tiny fist down on the piano’s middle G and broke it, and forever after the hammer thumped ineffectively) because as I moved through it my anger — at myself and at the world, at my circumstance — began to ebb. I can translate to you in notes what I cannot explain to you in words — and here I find myself struggling to translate back.

I am a small, nervous person, a worrier, with a genetic predisposition to depression reinforced by the distorted relationships of my childhood through my early twenties. Performance is terrifying. I regularly throw up before shows, and I don’t generally play shows to too many people. I’ve been in punk bands for about 15 years (different from classical performance — I started classical piano when I was very small and played classical keyboard instruments, piano and harpsichord and organ, through college. With classical performance, you can keep your head down and your eyes focused on the score), and the first few years I was doing it, I would dissociate so badly that it would take days — and considerable therapy — to refocus myself.

Then something happened. I can’t tell you when or why, but, even though I’d still feel the same grip of terror before a show, I started to feel powerful on stage. Ten feet tall instead of four foot ten. Slinky, graceful, sexy: not performing those aspects of myself for other people, but being able to embody them for myself. These days I put so much of myself into any show we play that my legs shake for nearly an hour afterward and my whole body is completely wiped of energy. It is big and real, and I feel grateful to be able to do it. I’m a pretty terrible guitarist — I still have to write on piano first and then figure it out later on guitar — but I provide texture and noise and I sing with my whole heart, a big, thick voice that sounds a little bit too deep to come out of my body, and I enjoy it very much. I like being able to look up at my bandmates during a song and feel us move together, share a secret smile, a shoulder bump. I like being able to look out at an audience and see people moving along with me. In all of this, in making music with other people, in performing for other people, I feel a sense of connection, of shared joy, that I have in few other communal experiences.

Not every song I write is about my life, but some of them are: not to be didactic, not to be “political,” but because it helps me survive. My band, Split Feet, has been around for a couple of years, but we’re not incredibly active. We didn’t go into playing with one another attempting a specific sound or a set of references, though some may become evident when you scratch in the dirt of what we do. Writing music with them is easy, and it always has been; we don’t need to translate for one another. I bounce lyrics and themes off of my bandmates, and I often write for them as well as for me. As everything we do is collaborative, from tones and patterns and parts to visual aesthetic, I would never want to write something that they aren’t on board with. Even the songs that are incredibly personal to my life — “It’s Your Funeral,” for example — are meant to contain larger truths and connections to others. Much like my essays, they are personal and vulnerable and raw in an attempt to make sense of a fucked world and fucked experiences. Is anyone else out there who’s been through similar hells? Let’s talk. Let’s be there for one another, because no-one else will be there for us.

I still really prize listening to music as a solo endeavor. While I don’t lie on my bed and listen to a whole side of a record and just cry and cry and cry the way I did as a teen, to me, listening to music is meditative and elliptical. There are few people I trust enough to love going to shows with. While I enjoy watching an artist create in real time, particularly loving the way band members communicate with one another, I am usually in my own head with it. The moment I knew that my partner had broken through with me, we were watching Peter Brötzmann play in a very small room, and it was mesmerizing, as his performances always are. We turned our heads at the same time and looked at one another, stunned by the beauty of the whole thing, because we’d both experienced the same jumping in our chests at a run of notes that seemed impenetrable. I looked at them and thought “I’m totally going to marry this person.”

Connection. The only thing that is real and beautiful. The only thing that heals.

Music is safety to me, the only safe place in this broken/breaking world, even as the songs I love roar, unsettle, shift, scratch, and wail. I tend toward the noisy and harsh and uncomfortable, because that is what I understand. I have crawled inside of it and made a home. I will go wherever it takes me.

Jes Skolnik has been playing in punk bands for a large part of their life and is currently making solo noise as National Tattler. They are the managing editor at Bandcamp Daily, and a contributing writer at Pitchfork and other places around the Internet and in print. They’re currently working on a book about the ongoing dialogues between DIY and mainstream rock cultures. They split time between Chicago and New York. You can follow them on Twitter here.