This article is part of Guitar World's series of interviews and features with artists addressing and raising awareness around themes of mental health, particularly as they relate to musicians.
When wife-and-husband duo Satellite Citi – vocalist/drummer Anna Gevorkian and guitarist/vocalist Shaunt Sulahian – began writing for their new album, Fear Tactics, it soon became obvious to them that the project would have a theme: mental health.
It’s a topic they hold close, as both have been diagnosed with misunderstood and stereotyped conditions: Sulahian with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Gevorkian with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Additionally, as Armenian Americans, they understand the generational trauma often experienced by genocide survivors, and this topic also factors into their music.
Satellite Citi debuted in 2015 with the single Rock Bottom, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Three years, countless gigs, and a growing fanbase later, they released an EP, Negative Space. Slowly but surely, the band – rounded out by the Anonymous Spacewalkers, an unidentified cast of friends who join them onstage on bass and guitar – have made their imprint.
Fear Tactics, an exploration of fear and anxiety, was released on September 3. The album was produced by Brad Wood (Smashing Pumpkins, Placebo, Liz Phair, Touche Amore) and features Brandon Yeagley of Crobot on the first single, Antibody – a song dedicated to the people of Armenia and which brings awareness to the latest attacks on the country. The second single, Empath, released in an acoustic version, addresses the five stages of grief.
Much has been taking place in the world of Satellite Citi. They contributed to the score and are featured in the documentary Long Live Rock... Celebrate The Chaos, alongside Metallica, Korn, Slipknot, and Rob Zombie.
Their track Getaway can be heard in the animated series Freak Brothers. Currently, they are working on a science-fiction graphic novel, Spacewalker, with former DC editor Jim Higgins, to be published in four installments beginning next year, with accompanying original music.
Let’s begin with the theme of Fear Tactics.
Shaunt Sulahian: "It’s about facing your fears, which at times is harder than it seems – at least it was for us. I was diagnosed with OCD two months after Covid hit. It was a pretty big awakening that I needed to get this under control and spread the word about OCD and the misinformation out there. The narrative being pushed is that it’s about being clean and organized and washing your hands, but my subcategory of OCD was nothing like that.
"I felt the responsibility to educate people and educate our fans, and as a band, the best way to do that is through our music. From there, the themes of fear and anxiety came into play, and that’s where Empath came from.
"Because it’s a self-aware song, it tells our audience that under any circumstances, no matter how difficult, you need to be able to face your fears and not be afraid of getting help."
Anna Gevorkian: "We wanted the video for Empath to also touch on that subject. It goes through the five stages of grief, and the final stage is acceptance. That goes back to the theme of facing what you're going through and working on it, which is shown in the video as well."
What is the writing process for Satellite Citi? You began as an acoustic duo. Does that still factor into your songwriting? Of course we also want to know about your gear.
Gevorkian: "For this record, a lot of the songs started on acoustic guitar. The structure of the drums is usually based around the vocals and vocal melody, and I write fills around that.
"Live, I play a Ludwig maple kit with an Oyster finish, but on the album I did a Frankenstein thing where I combined two vintage Ludwig kits. I use Paiste cymbals and Regal Tip drumsticks."
Sulahian: "I wrote some of the tunes on a Taylor acoustic. We’ve always believed that a good song can be played start to finish on acoustic guitar, and then you can take it to electric. I used a Fender American Strat throughout the record. I got it in 2014, and it's been my main guitar ever since.
"I used a Peavey 3120 head with a 6505 cab, which I’ve also had since 2014. I don't think a lot of metal heads or musicians in our genre would use that combination. It’s not common, but I love the tones I get with that guitar through that amp.
"For effects I used a TC Electronic Hall of Fame reverb, Walrus Audio delay, an EarthQuaker Data Corrupter on a few tunes, and that's about it. I keep it as simple as possible. I don't like diving into a whole array of pedals, especially onstage."
Shaunt, you were diagnosed with OCD last year, but you’ve been battling it since 2016. Why did it take so long to seek a diagnosis and ask for help?
Sulahian: "It’s been a confusing journey, because for years I didn’t know what was happening. I was 23 when it happened, and I’m 28 now. Growing up in an Armenian family, there’s a lot of pride and a bit of stigma there. Armenian parents might not necessarily want to admit, 'There’s something wrong with my son,' which is the wrong way of thinking about it.
"Eventually my parents were super-supportive, but at first they didn’t think there was anything wrong, and I don’t blame them for that. They thought I had anxiety, and for years that’s what I thought too. When Covid hit, I was like, 'This is not just anxiety. Something else is going on, and I don’t understand what’s happening.'
"That prompted me to get some help, which changed my life in a year. I’m so grateful for modern cognitive behavioral therapy."
Anna, when were you diagnosed with PMDD, and were you able to find a physician early on who took your symptoms seriously?
Gevorkian: "I was diagnosed three years ago. I saw a couple of doctors because, unfortunately, some just want to put a Band-Aid over the problem instead of doing anything helpful. I was going through waves of depression every month, every symptom was heightened, and it was intense.
"Talking to a doctor who could confirm the symptoms I was going through was really helpful. It’s interesting; I don’t remember learning anything about this in health classes when I was growing up. There's not a lot of information out there, and it’s not talked about often. I had to figure it out on my own, and then find someone who could give me a diagnosis."
Shaunt, people often use the term “OCD” carelessly: “Oh, I’m so OCD,” or, “You must have OCD.” Would you mind addressing that?
Sulahian: "I come across that at least once a week. Sometimes my friends say it. I get that they’re trying to be empathetic and lessen my experience with it, but they’re going about it in the wrong way, because at that point it's ignorant. I’d rather they ask, 'What does that entail? What kind of OCD are you going through? Tell me about it. I want to learn.' That's the reaction I hope for when I open up to someone.
"If you have OCD, you're afraid of something. Therapy helped me think about those fears, on purpose, multiple times a day, and allowed me to talk about those fears in a calm state of mind. It’s hard work, but I am now on the minimal scale of diagnosis. Unfortunately, OCD never goes away completely, but you can get to a point where you barely notice it, which is thankfully where I am now."
Anna mentioned the five stages of grief in Empath. Two of your songs, Antibody and Rock Bottom, bring awareness to the Armenian genocide. Do you both see this as tying in with mental health in terms of grief and trauma?
Sulahian: "Definitely. It’s hard to ignore all that's happened in the world during these past two years. We've been absorbing everything, and I think it naturally comes out in our music, almost in a subconscious way."
Gevorkian: "To go back to those two songs, just being Armenian in general, since we were old enough to comprehend things, we were taught about the genocide, our ancestors, and what they went through. So I definitely think grief is almost embedded in our DNA – the subject of genocide, being reminded of it every year and going into that head space. It’s a lot to handle."
Sulahian: "I agree with what Anna said about grief being embedded into us. Armenians use the term 'generational trauma'. And it's not just a term Armenians use; Jewish people also use this term when they talk about the Holocaust. It's hard for younger generations to fathom those atrocities, so again, it’s important to keep spreading awareness and teaching them about this dark history."
In closing, what is most important for people to understand about mental health challenges?
Gevorkian: "Be open to talking about it. I know that can be difficult, but find someone you're comfortable talking to. And don't be scared to ask for help. A lot of people try to keep everything in, and then people around them are shocked, like, 'How did this happen?'
"So just communicate and talk to people when you're going through stuff. You may be surprised to find that they're also going through something. Everyone is dealing with a personal struggle."
Sulahian: "It’s important for both the person who's suffering and their loved ones to practice patience. Understand that being proactive is what's going to help them feel better. I can’t stress that enough.
"It's hard to take the first step – trust me, I've been there. But being proactive is the only thing that's going to make you get better. Obviously, with a supportive spouse or friends and family, that can be easier. But the first step needs to come from within yourself.
"One more thing that I feel is so important: If anyone reads this and they're struggling, it's okay to find a therapist, and it's okay to change therapists until you find the right one. Ask for help. Find help. No one should ever be ashamed of that at all."
- Fear Tactics is available now.