Then came Cheating Death…
Images by Gianna Haley
Cheating Death is Messenger Down’s latest release. What a simple phrase for such a complex idea. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, Cheating Death is one of those albums that, on the surface, is a good record. I kept the album on repeat leading up to the release show, letting it run through while I drove to work, did some editing for other pieces, and cleaned up my new apartment; my attention was divided but I enjoyed the record nonetheless. It wasn’t until I spoke with the man behind the Cheating Death that I truly understood the purpose of the album. 23 year old Garrett Foster has been part of Charlotte’s local scene for about four years, more or less, and has become one of the most popular alternative artists in the area.
I’m wary of using the term “alternative” to describe Messenger Down after the conversation we had we before his show this past Friday. Cheating Death’s release party took place at Missiongathering Church on the fifth of August and was, in a word, inspiring. However to fully understand this statement, it’s crucial to know the origin behind Cheating Death’s namesake and what this release party truly means to Foster.
Before his set, Foster and I sat on the worn, brick stoops of the church and set up for what I thought would be a quick interview. I brought along a dollar-store sketchbook with equally cheap colored pencils and handed them to Foster, encouraging him to doodle as we spoke.
As I turned on the voice recording app on my phone and began the conversation, Foster pointed out that the chatter of the crowd next to us might affect the recording. From here, we walked to the parking lot and ultimately decided that Foster’s jeep would have to do. This isn’t the first time we’ve had to find a random spot to talk about his music; last time we spoke, we were at The Evening Muse and must have stood in three different spots outside the venue to make the interview work. Check out my interview from March to see how Foster spoke of Cheating Death four months before it was released; you’ll find some some familiar themes.
Fast forward to August 5 and Cheating Death had been out for exactly one week. I handed over the floppy sketchbook and colored pencils, and set him loose as we settled into his jeep. He sifted through the 72-count off-brand colored pencil box I provided him as he told me how shocked he was that the album was receiving positive reviews. My response to his shock was a genuine, “Oh come on.”
“Well it is!” he said. “The thing is… What Should Have Been Said and The Gentleman’s Guide to Keeping Away from People Like You were promoted to people who were into that style of music, like Mayday Parade, old Fall Out Boy, early Panic! At The Disco, things that sounded like that; whereas now it’s… you know, Cheating Death doesn’t sound anything like that. Cheating Death sounds entirely different, except for maybe “If Two Witches Watch Two Watches,” that’s the only one that’s kind of like a throwback to the previous sound.”
To hear that Foster was shocked at such positive responses to his latest release was something I couldn’t wrap my head around, even as he explained his thought process. It wasn’t until he dug a little deeper that I more than understood the reasoning behind his doubts. Presenting something you made with your own two hands can be nerve-wracking in itself but, in Foster’s case, to disappear for about a year and release something so different than his previous works had him feeling vulnerable and bit unsure, while somehow remaining confident in his art.
“The change in sound in addition to it being just me… I really didn’t expect people to be that into it,” claimed Foster. The hand he was drawing with slowed down, almost to a halt, as he spoke about the project he’s been working on for over a year. In a soft voice, he finished his thought: “I thought it was going to set me up to.. y’know, fail.”
In July 2015, Messenger Down‘s demise seemed inevitable as tempers flared, leading to a split between Foster and his now-former band mates near the end of the month. The words “cheating death” came to life in his head as he took the stage in all black for the Charlotte Pride festival in August, which he described as “the funeral of everything Messenger Down had been and the birth of everything to come.”
Foster continuously reminded me how different this album was from his other work, which led me to wonder aloud why he would take such a risk, especially if he knew the end result might lead to the end of Messenger Down?
“The thing is…” Foster paused, taking a breath before he dove into the colored pencil box. “I didn’t want to play that style of music anymore. I had perfected what I thought Messenger Down should have sounded like during the EP and the full-length I scrapped. I didn’t want to try to make something that wasn’t genuine anymore by making a watered down version of it.”
Each word he spoke was carefully selected as he filled in a yellow flower behind his logo.
“Another thing I had to think about was ‘How am I going to play these songs live?’” Foster grabbed the colored pencil box, shoved the yellow one in an open slot and meticulously chose his next color. “I had one acoustic show in September and didn’t play a single other show until December, and at that point I had my current live drummer, Mason, with me and we played a bunch of shows as just the two of us. In doing that, I was like ‘Okay so these songs have to fit a specific mold.’
Not only do they have to push the direction I’m going, they need to not alienate old fans by being too different and, on top of that that, they need to be something that I could perform with just me and a drummer.”
According to Foster, Ohio-based duo twenty one pilots was a huge motivation for him to confidently pursue Cheating Death; he wanted to be able to do what they do: to put on a show that is cohesive, thought out, and is more of an experience than a concert with just two people. twenty one pilots does exactly this. If you saw them in Charlotte on June 28 at the Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheater, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, here’s a review of the show that is still being talked about today.
It was at this time that Foster and I spent about five minutes talking about the phenomenon that is twenty one pilots. This wasn’t the first time we had gotten off topic, but hey, that’s what happens two music-obsessed individuals have a conversation.
The topic of our exchange finally circled around to the original question: Why take such a risk in music? According to Foster, listening to new music and his desire to bridge the gap between the sound he was striving for in the past and who he wants to be in 2016 was the driving force behind his creative process this time around. Cheating Death is somewhat of a farewell to the last four years and is, in his own words, “welcoming a new sound, a new era, a new identity.”
But what exactly does the phrase “cheating death” mean? Sure, the final track is named as such and it’s all over his social media pages, but what is so significant about the phrase that Foster named what he claims to be his best work this phrase?
He struggled to answer this question, not because of a lack of words, but because there was an abundance of them. Where to start?
If there is any part of this piece you remember, it needs to be what’s next.
“[Cheating Death] was such… a perfect representation of where I was [at the time]” recalled Foster. Remember, the band was almost a goner when Foster was left to do the project alone last July. “A lot of people, when I announced that I was taking [Messenger Down] on myself… probably just threw in the towel and said ‘Okay, Messenger Down is done, I’m not gonna like it anymore.
I was cheating death… it’s not that it was a cool idea, it’s not that it was a song I wrote, it’s that I… you know, in keeping going, continuing to make music, I was cheating death. Because [Messenger Down] should have died! If I was anyone else, in any other position, it probably would have. When everyone that you have been working with walks out on you…” Foster paused a moment before saying, “Most people are going hang it up… but I started Messenger Down myself and I was going finish it myself if I needed to.”
It was at this moment that I truly understood what Cheating Death meant to Foster. This wasn’t just new music to put out, it was a victory lap. He survived. He cheated death. This album is proof that from the ashes of his past, he rose up and created something that will forever represent the battle he almost lost.
Many bands before him have fallen victim to the same fight: members leaving, fans deciding the band wasn’t worth their time, and music careers ending before they begun. However, there are a few that have risen the same way Messenger Down has and have released their best, or one of the best, pieces of work immediately after.
It’s not that his past releases aren’t worthy of a listen, but Cheating Death feels like something bigger. From the angry “Dead Weight (All Press Is Good Press)” to the final notes of “Cheating Death,” this album is more than just another reason to refresh your musical palate.
If Messenger Down was on the brink of the end, Cheating Death is the icy burst of air that rushes into your lungs after getting lost in the waves and nearing the bottom. Cheating Death is the first of many stable heartbeats after a threatening flatline. Cheating Death is the blinding sun, urging you to open your tired eyes and warming your skin as you reach the surface. It is the soundtrack to your victory and a reminder of what you are capable of.
“I really and genuinely think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Foster, as confidently as ever as he colored in the red flower he had been working on for a bit. “It’s definitely the most unique thing I’ve ever done in my life. Maybe other people won’t feel this way but I feel like I really created something that is just my own.”
The room of screaming people he performed for should have justified Foster’s belief that it truly is “the best thing” he’s ever created. For the majority of the set, Messenger Down gifted the audience with all seven songs from the new release, adding an oldie or two for the long-timers. Waving arms, group sing-alongs with old members, and tons of dancing should have provided Foster with the confidence to continue to claim Cheating Death as a turning point in his career.
Throughout the performance, Foster, along with live members Mason Shell and Alfred Williamson, demonstrated why Messenger Down won’t be Charlotte’s best kept secret for much longer. I swore the trio almost broke the stage on several occasions with their acrobatic leaps off of amps and chaotic energy. I spoke with several audience members after the show and was greeted with huge smiles and tears here and there. They raved about the show and told me how unreal it was to hear these new songs live; I heard from multiple people that they have adored watching Foster grow as a musician in front of them. The love in the Messenger Down family is real, my friends.
If you haven’t checked out Messenger Down or Cheating Death, please leave this page right now, go to your favorite music streaming service, and get to it. This album is just the beginning of something incredible. Come join the family and see why Cheating Death is an album you need to be adding to your playlists.
You can expect lots of shows and tons of new merch from Messenger Down, so keep an eye on social media for some exciting announcements! Trust me. You’re going to want to turn on your notifications. Find out what he’s got planned so far here.
List of things we talked about that had nothing to do with the interview:
Why twenty one pilots is super awesome
The mid-2000’s pop scene and how pop punk made a breakthrough in Top 40 radio
twenty one pilots
Panic! At The Disco after Ryan Ross and Jon Walker left, and how Brendon Urie is killin’ it these days
If John Feldmann really produced a Panic! album (by the way, he totally did; he produced Vices & Virtues with Butch Walker)
twenty one pilots
Enter Shikari and how they continuously redefine what a genre is
One Direction (FYI Garrett is totally on the Harry Styles-train), 5 Seconds of Summer, and State Champs touring together
How 1D and 5SOS helped pop punk, in a sense
twenty one pilots
- Did I mention we talked about twenty one pilots?