Profile: Old Game (2019)

Brenda Leeds knows about the feeling.

The vocalist and rhythm guitarist of Pittsburgh underground rock band, Old Game, has felt it sneak unsuspectingly, like a disconnected whisper, into the deepest crevices of her ear. When she’s not paying attention, it sometimes can knock the wind out of her.

She first encountered that gray, sinking sensation as a teenager in Somerset County and it followed her westward when she came to Pittsburgh, first to study, 10 years ago.

For her, making music has been the antidote to this depression.

“Sometimes our hands, if you will, tell us things we’re not ready to say,” said Leeds, 29, of Verona. “I really like taking that approach to healing – letting our bodies tell us what’s going on.”

Leeds and her band⁠⁠⁠—she is joined by vocalist and lead guitarist Thom Hunter, bassist Josh Hovanec and drummer Erik Pitluga⁠—will encourage others to “talk with their hands” Saturday, June 22, when they headline a live show in Lawrenceville to mark the release of the group’s new EP, “Lunatics.” The event also will feature an art exhibit, where 18 artists – some professionals, some amateurs – will present work ruminating on the word “lunatics.” The doors at Cattivo for the 21+ show open at 6:30 p.m.  

Jess Klein & The Good Times, the Dayton, Ohio hip-hop artist TINO, and Sikes and The New Violence also are set to perform live. A $10 admission fee gets those attending a free physical or digital copy of Old Game’s new record, which is a punchier and, at times, punkier outing than the group’s debut, 2016’s “Flower Moon.”

About one in every five adults in the U.S. – nearly 47 million people in all – experience a mental health issue in a given year. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, mental health treatment accounted for $89 million in spending in the U.S. in the most recent survey year, almost twice the amount Americans spent on pregnancy and childbirth.

Leeds also has a front-row seat to the world of mental health treatment; a former clinician, she now supervises 11 mental health therapists in an outpatient setting in the Pittsburgh area.  

“Mental health and wanting to be a counselor in general are things I’ve been thinking about since high school,” Leeds said. “I think this is one of the purposes the music serves, to process it all in a safe way so I don’t have to quote-unquote ‘bring it home with me.’ It’s about understanding. And it’s definitely a way of catharsis.”

Though the new record’s title might owe more to Old Game’s allegiance to the moon than it does the nature of the medical term “lunatic,” Leeds and Hunter – the songwriting duo at the core of the quartet – admit a mental-health theme runs through the new EP. It’s hard to argue against that point when one of the four tracks is explicitly titled “WPIC,” short-hand for Pittsburgh’s Western Psychiatric Inpatient Clinic. Leeds worked there for a spell and was influenced profoundly by the experience.

“It’s hard to see people trapped and really hard to feel helpless, like you can’t help them,” she said. “I don’t think I was seeing myself. I think it was more seeing the hole in the system of treatment.”

But will people who attend the show and accompanying art exhibit June 22 be triggered to dwell in a space where they feel liberated to speak about their own mental health, instead of trapped?

“For me, as a person, I’m excited about the dialogues it might spark [and] if people come up to me at the show and want to talk with me about things, I can be a resource,” Leeds said.

Stephen Lin will be one the artists exhibiting his work at the release show at Cattivo.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Lin was nearing the end of his time at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill when the death of an uncle hit him unexpectedly. Then, a month into his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, his father died from liver cancer.

He spiraled downward quickly and says the resin-casted food trash in his art piece reflect the filth in which he felt he was living at the time. He started using drugs heavily. Halfway through his sophomore year, he dropped out of Pitt.

Today, though, things are improving. He returned to Pitt after a tough hiatus and graduated, eventually finding work Downtown as a technical writer for an immigration services firm.

“For the most part, the depression is not as severe as it was – and being sober definitely helps,” said Lin, 25, of Greenfield. “I’m managing without self-medication, which is fortunate.”

Lin’s mixed-media piece — which he is considering titling “What Is Strength?” – also will feature pieces of a resin-casted picture frame and some sort of poetry or text, possibly “No one will plant flowers over your grave.” He admits the work is still very much a work-in-progress but sounds excited by the prospect of sharing it publicly.

“A lot of it is really exploration for myself – a lot,” he laughed.

Then, at the center of it all, stands Leeds. She hopes, in some small way, the event leads people to consider just how many of us are touched by mental health issues or, specifically, depression. It is, in her words, an increasingly pervasive diagnosis in American society, and Old Game is far from immune to it, just like any group of people in their late 20s and early 30s.

“Some days, we need to reschedule band practice because someone’s not feeling well. But being in a band, in general, keeps us motivated – that, in itself, is very hopeful and very healing,” Leeds said. “[For this event] I just reached out to as many artists as I could. I wanted to bring people together to have an open space to connect.” – Justin Vellucci, Pittsburgh Current, June 11, 2019

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