Field Medic on Sobriety, Tattoos, Working with Chris Walla, and the Insatiable Creative Urge

Field Medic on Sobriety, Tattoos, Working with Chris Walla, and the Insatiable Creative Urge
Photo by Jason Lin

This is a free installment of Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers get two Baker's Dozen playlists per week as well as some music criticism around the music in those playlists.

Kevin Patrick Sullivan's work as Field Medic caught my ear around the time of 2020's Floral Prince, especially the song "I Want You So Bad It Hurts," which was one of my favorite songs from that year. His new album, Light Is Gone 2, is maybe his best record to date, and he even got Chris Walla behind the mixing boards as well. We hopped on the 'net last month to talk about how he got started, where he's been going as a person, and much more.

Tell me about where you grew up.
I was born in San Mateo, but most of my preteen and teenage years were in San Jose. I immediately moved to San Francisco as soon as I graduated high school, because I don't like San Jose.

What don't you like about San Jose specifically?
I'm 32, so when I was 15, I was what they'd call a "scene kid." I wore skinny jeans, I dressed in a funny way. San Jose was not very tolerant to alternative styles, so there were a lot of people yelling mean stuff at me out of their car or threatening to beat me up in real life—just based on how I dressed. There wasn't really a music scene that I connected with there. I never really felt like I fit in. When I moved to San Francisco, there was so many colorful characters out there that nobody batted an eye at what I was into or doing. I almost immediately fell into a scene that embraced what I was doing in a much greater capacity than before. It just felt right.

I am back in the suburbs now, which I like, but at the time I was really eager to get into a city, ride the bus all over the place, and see what that was about. There's definitely some bad childhood memories of San Jose that color my perception of it. I always felt like a weird alien there, but in San Francisco I felt very much accepted—or, at the least, ignored, which was preferable to being harassed.

Those early experiences of alienation can often shape who you become later on in life. How did your time in San Jose affect you when it comes to being in society in general?
I had a major renaissance in San Francisco as far as finally feeling comfortable with being myself. That came to a head when I started Field Medic. I used to play in a band with my brother for several years called Rin Tin Tiger, and when I started Field Medic it was like a second awakening where I was able to be in complete control of the music I was making. It was almost like being free from my own mental constructs of what music was supposed to be. That's when I got really interested in lo-fi recording and releasing an absurd amount of music at all times.

Some may say I have a reckless creative expression, where I'm like, "I just made up this song while I was recording it, and I'm gonna release it." And that's allowed, which wasn't the case with my old band, which was a very typical 2011 band. We write an album, we go to a studio, we record it. I never really liked working in a studio, so it was nice to have a tape machine in my bedroom. Every song has a certain value. There's always been a part of me that has this kind of shyness. Whatever wound there was from San Jose was salved by the creativity I was able to experience in San Francisco, and through Field Medic—embracing who I am and not being worried about how people think. It was the first time I had a group of people around me that weren't constantly questioning my choices.

When I first started listening to your music, I did observe that it almost sounds like songs just come out of you. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I do. The very first music I ever recorded was a rap parody cassette called Dolla Fitty Cent. I must've been nine years old. My dad had one of those double cassette decks you could record on. I don't even know if you could call it music, but I was compelled to make it. Later on, I got a keyboard you could plug into a computer, and I made some sort of album of weird sounds. The first real song I made was a song called "Strange Noises." I must've been a freshman in high school, and a couple of people were like, "This is a good song." That was when I first learned a few guitar chords. For a time, I was also recording under the name Westwood and Willow, which were the cross streets I lived at.

You mentioned to me earlier that you're recording right now, too.
The very first single I released from Songs From the Sunroom was a live recording where I say, "This song's called 'Do a Little Dope,' coming from the album Dope Girl Chronicles, coming out in 2023." At the time, that was just a bit. I would pick an arbitrary far-away date to say that this prophetic album was going to come out on. Because that recording wound up coming out on an album, there's been a question in Medic world about this mysterious record that I like to jokingly say had the longest press rollout of all time. So I'm recording Dope Girl Chronicles now because I have to fulfill the prophecy. I'm aiming to release it in November.

What's your creative regimen like?
I write and record pretty much every day. My "studio" is in my house. Probably more than any other aspect of being an artist, I enjoy the actual writing and recording of the music. I also have multiple side projects, so if I'm not into making folk music I'll make an emo-rap song just to pass the time. I just go in the stu' every day. Sometimes I only go in for 20 minutes if I'm not in the mood, but I tend to always move the needle forward a bit every day. If I'm traveling or if I'm not physically in the studio, I'm usually writing lyrics, or melodies will pop in my head that I'll record a Voicenote of. It's just in my natural state to write songs—it's what I like to do, and I'm always thinking about it, whether I want to or not. I might be addicted, to be honest with you.

What’s the financial situation like for you at this point?
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I moved onto my friend’s couch and lived there for two years in between touring, just saving up money. I was finally able to move into a room in a house in 2018. Ever since, I’ve been lucky enough that streaming and tour…I don’t spend a lot of money. I don’t have a car, I don’t buy stuff. I’m extremely frugal, so I’m able to just survive for the time being off of Field Medic’s output, which I’m grateful for.

You mentioned this next record coming from lore-building in the Field Medic world. This new record itself acts as a sort of sequel to your debut LP. It sounds to me like you have a community of listeners you engage with through this lore-building.
Light Is Gone 2 is very electronic—it’s very different, sonically. When I came across the lyric in the last song and I say “Light is gone,” I realized that the way I felt making this album was how I felt making Light Is Gone. I was like, “Whoa, I can’t believe I made this whole album myself”—and in this case, with a computer and all this weird fuckin’ stuff I never had access to. I’d hoped that it would be interesting to tie this one back to the first record, because I wanted it to fit into the story even if it might come as a surprise to some listeners, sonically speaking. I wanted to lay myself into having it be a continuation of the first one.

As far as the listenership and the other album I’m recording, there was a part of me that was thinking that it’s kind of absurd to release a second album two months after this new album, which also came six months after the last one. But I have people messaging me and leaving comments, “It’s 2023—where is Dope Girl Chronicles?” I feel like it’s important to me to fulfill the prophecy, because it’s been a funny thing for so long that it’s not really worth not doing that.

Whatever reason it is for artists to wait so long in between albums, I thought it was important first and foremost to serve myself in terms of this thing I said I’d do—even though, at the time, I didn’t know if I was being serious. What’s always been most important to me is releasing music when I want, and that’s something that’s gotten trickier as the project’s grown. I want to get back to that pure creative explosion.

There's a line in "everything's been going so well" about quitting drinking. Is that something you did recently?
Yeah, I've been sober now for a year and two months.

Right on. I quit drinking a little over two years ago.
Dude, congrats. It's really difficult, but it's so worth it. What's interesting about that song is that I wrote it during a previous sober attempt, about eight months in. But now that it comes out, it still resonates. I don't think I'll ever drink again, unless something unforeseen happens—but I've reached that point where I'm like, "OK, I'm good."

That's exactly how I feel too. When I quit drinking, I had a period of mental rediscovery—realizing new things about myself, or things that were already there that I was previously neglecting. Did you have that experience during the early stages of sobriety?
Absolutely. That lyric was definitely written from my post-pink cloud phase. You have those first few months where the fast-gained things come—you're sleeping better, you're feeling better—and then you get past that point and you realize, "I'm still depressed, I'm still anxious, life is still challenging." It's hard to get past the post-pink cloud.

Now that I'm beyond a year, I'm in that baseline of understanding of what life is like in sobriety. I've gained some of those latter-stage sobriety benefits, which is the continuation of the early-stage stuff but also about being able to record music constantly without being hungover. I'm always getting good sleep and not worrying about the wacky mishaps that take place when one is hella drunk. That's one of the hardest phases to fight through, though, and I'm happy to say that I'm not there anymore. I still get dark, but I know how to handle it in a way that's healthy. Usually I just go to sleep, and then I feel better.

One reason why I took a while to quit was because I was still very productive when I was drinking. After I quit I was like, "Oh, so this is productivity." How did sobriety affect creativity for you?
What you mentioned about productivity rings true for me as well. When I was actively drinking—constantly, every day—I could always hang my hat on, "Well, I did get this record done and go on this tour." But the problem I ran into was that I realized that the only thing I could hang my hat on was my career achievements—and not even in the sense of them being big, just the things I did. But as a person, as Kevin, I was always suffering.

I started to notice it in the music too. My last album is so fucking depressing. Some of the songs on Light Is Gone 2 were written in the same time period too, so I'm just writing about crying in the backyard and everybody's laughing at me. I listen back to that and I'm like, "Dude, you were personally in a hella dark place." I was still doing stuff, but as a person I was continually in some amount of mental pain and anguish.

What I'm realizing now is that this is real productivity. I'm gonna record this second album in the next two months, and I'm confident I can actually do that, because every day I get up and am as good to go as I was the day before. I'm also able to spend more time nourishing my personal self. I can say, "I did what I need to do on social media, so I'm going to put my phone down, go in the other room, and read a book for several hours." That's very nourishing for the spirit—for the actual human that lives in this vessel for Field Medic, or whatever. I was really losing touch with myself as a person, and one of the most important things I've found in sobriety is being able to honor my actual personhood beyond what Field Music is doing, because those are two different things.

I've been learning so much, and I definitely couldn't have made Light Is Gone 2 without sobriety because I never had the patience to learn how computers worked until I was sober and could just sit down with the session and think, "I want to make this sound like this," watch a bunch of YouTube videos on how to do it, and be patient with the process. I've learned so much more about production, which is really exciting for me right now and has breathed new life into my creative process. There's new possibilities that I didn't have the mental bandwidth to learn about when I was drinking and hungover constantly.

When it comes to expressing yourself personally in your music—being vulnerable in a way that others consume—what are the risks and rewards?
For some reason, I'm compelled to always be super raw in my music. It's a feeling that always gives me this anxiety, but I can't help but do it. I don't even really know why. Sometimes, it's hard for me to communicate exactly how I feel to someone in real life, so I pour it all into the music. It wouldn't feel as vindicating to me if I didn't just speak on it 100%. I think that the reward there is that—I don't hope anyone feels this way, but sometimes I hear a particular lyric in music that's touched me and I think to myself, "Fuck, this dude really knows what's going on with me."

The risk is always that, sometimes, I think it can be a little off-putting for listeners. Specifically with the last record I made, all my defenses were down. I was just a broken man. I couldn't help myself from making the most bummed-out album. I could see someone being like, "This is too brutal, I can't listen to this." There's that risk of being so intense that people might not want to listen to it. Because listening to music should be at least somewhat enjoyable, and sometimes it's so raw that it's just strictly cathartic. But as the creator of the music, it's really helpful to just say it. Once it's out, I feel so much better. I feel like I have this desire to make the most true music of all time, whether or not that's a good or bad thing. I can't help but say a lyric that's real and maybe wouldn't be shared publicly by someone else.

Tell me about having Chris Walla quite literally in the mix on this record.
I'd just met the person who manages me now for the first time to see if we wanted to work together, and I was jokingly referring to my album as sounding like a MySpace record. There's digital elements in there that I have not heard and certainly have not created myself in a long time. He said, "Honestly, it kind of reminds me of the Postal Service." I was like, "Wow, that's really nice to hear." He knew Chris Walla, because he worked with a few bands that had been mixed by him before, and he said, "I'll send it to him and see if he wants to work on it, because he mixed the Postal Service record." I said, "That would be super lit." To my surprise, Chris was really interested in the album and down to mix it, which was good to know.

We all like the things we make, but when you have someone else whose ear you trust say they also like it, you think, "Maybe this is sick." Him and I talked on the phone, and it was really cool, because he knew all the songs by name and had all these ideas. It was really cool to have him be interested in the project because he's worked on such amazing stuff. He did such a great job keeping the spirit of the album. It still sounds home-recorded, but it's a little shinier. Interacting with him throughout the mix process, he's a very creative thinker, so the way we communicated was in very abstract terms, which I found very comforting. He did a wonderful job, and he's still really supportive of the album, which was really cool. I never really worked with a "name" before. I don't know why, maybe because I'm frugal. So it was cool to have such a GOAT in the field make the album sound so cool while keeping the spirit alive.

The record sounds like something that would've come out on Barsuk in the 2000s, and I say that as a compliment. Like, say, early Death Cab! Is that a band you had a relationship with as a younger listener?
Secretly? No. Not that I disliked Death Cab, but I never had a Death Cab moment. I definitely loved the Postal Service record, but when I was into it I didn't even know about Death Cab. Someone was like, "You know this guy is in this band, right?" I was like, "Whoa, that's crazy," but the ship had sailed for me at that point. I was really into Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, and Bob Dylan, and on the other end I was obsessed with 2Pac and Future. I never had an indie rock phase. It's either super-acoustic, rap, or deathcore.

Photo by Madalyn Schaller

Last question: How many tattoos do you currently have?
Let me see. [Counts tattoos] I think, like, 16?

What's the most important tattoo you have at this point?
It's the very first one—a haiku that says, "The barking of dogs is deepening the yellow of the sunflowers." It was written by Richard Wright, and I found his book of haikus back at the library in San Francisco. That book triggered my obsession with the form. I worked at a Peet's Coffee at that point, and I'd get off work, sit outside the coffee shop, and force myself to write ten haikus throughout the day. That's how I wrote a lot of my lyrics back in the day. I'd always have this endless store of little poems.

When you get tattoos, you start off really thinking about what it means, and slowly it becomes, "I'll just get this giant grim reaper head over here." I also have a tattoo that says "Better days," which is one of 2Pac's records that I really like. The script is really funny and really big, but really meaningful because I love that record. I also have my mom's initials. I'm realizing that the tattoos that are text are the most meaningful to me, because I love words—but, sometimes you gotta get a fuckin' cherub with horns and a scythe on you, just because it's cool.

Subscribe to Last Donut of the Night

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson