"MY ANXIETY was challenging me," says Chris Gunn. "It was challenging every core belief I held dear. It was saying: 'I don't believe you are who you think you are.'
"But in that challenge was the truth," Gunn continues. "I knew what I had to do. Take the dark path. Leave the wonderful life in San Francisco and go back to fucking rainy, dreary Portland."
Gunn called up his old friend, Justin Higgins, and rented a room his house-cum-studio, Old Standard Sound. The two had collaborated before—Higgins engineered the last album Gunn worked on, the Hunches' Exit Dreams. It was the band's masterpiece. Conceived as the long-running Portland garage group's final LP, it buried them with exquisite finality. It also revealed the Hunches as more than violent, frighteningly electrifying performers and shrewd songwriters. It showed a softer side. They were capable of conveying multitudes.
After Exit Dreams was released in 2009, Gunn let it all go—the scene, the drugs, the parties, the fraying relationships, years of baggage and expectations that the band had built. "I was thoroughly done with making my own music at that point," he says. "I think I had really exhausted all my energy and I was happy to just move to San Francisco and play the music of the Hospitals that was already written."
But despite joining a new band in a supporting role, the change of scenery didn't alleviate Gunn's anxiety. Another nervous breakdown followed—the worst one yet. He saw a therapist but got nowhere. He obsessed, gnawed, and silently waged an existential war.
"The one shelter that always got me through was music, and it was time to go back." Gunn began experimenting with writing again in San Francisco, and when he returned to Portland, the dam broke.
"An idea for a song suddenly appeared in my brain," Gunn says. "The first in years. I knew that to achieve this song I had to learn how to record myself... it would come out on a 7-inch."
Gunn explored a studio's worth of equipment with the expert help of Higgins, and began filling cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes. In bands since high school, Gunn had held dominant but narrow roles: guitarist and songwriter. Though he wrote lyrics for the Hunches, his best friend, Hart Gledhill, sang them. It took a while for Gunn to learn to accept his own voice.
"I didn't want to rely on how I had written songs before," Gunn says. "I wanted to grow. Find a new way to make music."
A concept—one that essentially deconstructed the recording process—revealed itself. Gunn wrote songs and recorded them with different players, in different arrangements and styles, then stitched together the disparate takes and vibes into what is now his new band the Lavender Flu's first album, Heavy Air.
"If you really listen to Heavy Air, you'll start to realize that the whole thing is one song scattered across a universe," Gunn says. "Like the Big Bang—it started as one piece of matter and then that piece of matter exploded and disguised itself as many different things."
Similarly, Gunn's universe expanded exponentially. What began as an idea for a 7-inch swelled to some 80 songs. While his auteur-like control and pointed, cyclical guitar riffs remained at the forefront, Gunn collaborated with a large stable, including Higgins, Gledhill, Scott Simmons, his brother Lucas Gunn, and many others—many of whom are in the live four-piece (including Simmons, Chris and Lucas Gunn, and the Hunches' Ben Spencer).
Simmons, the owner of Exiled Records and bass player for the now-defunct Eat Skull, contributed more than just the low end on the recording. "Scott got me out of the house by giving me a job at Exiled Records," says Gunn. "Then he gave me the confidence I so desperately needed when he listened to the first Lavender Flu recordings and said how much he liked them. I would probably never have done anything with them without that vote of confidence."
In addition to the record store, Simmons also runs a label, Meds. He offered to release the Lavender Flu on vinyl. Picking songs that adhered to a theme and mood, Gunn ended up with 30—a double album's worth. While Simmons was cool with the sprawl, Gunn was apprehensive.
"I argued with Scott many times, saying that this was commercial suicide and we should compromise and make it a single LP, but he insisted," says Gunn. "That's when I realized this dude had some insane artistic integrity. Who the fuck wants to open up with a double LP in this day and age? Much less pay for it?"
On the resulting Heavy Air, anxiety is not only the subject, but also the sound. Its numerous instrumental sections evoke the aural equivalent of a nervous breakdown. What on first listen may seem convoluted eventually reveals a dense, deeply referential, literary cosmology. And it's more than just confused, spiraling bummer jams—Heavy Air captures a full spectrum: a terrifying, hallucinogenic nadir of antipathy and destructive self-medication, then noticing cracks in the clouds, getting out of bed and, finally, becoming present, peaceful, and warm. (Heavy Air also includes a handful of covers that fit the theme, and a few slyly compact, perfect pop nuggets.) It's a double-edged sword.
"Some of my biggest breakthroughs—as well as some of my biggest failures—are because of the shit anxiety causes me to worry about," says Gunn. "Anxiety allows me to obsess about a song until I make it better or sometimes ruin it. It is a prison as well as a key."