Darkness, then light
Singer-songwriter Hans Eberbach on how he returned from the brink of depression and got his groove back
Watching Hans Eberbach perform—be it with his eight-piece soul band Joy and Madness or the rock-dance hybrid Hans! and the Hot Mess—it’s hard to picture him mired in depression. Yet, between 2004 and 2009, the singer says he found himself living through the darkest time of his life.
It started after a near brush with fame. His rock band Sweet Vine had signed to Columbia Records, but broke up shortly thereafter in 1999. Eberbach continued to play music, but never achieved quite the same level of success. Then in 2004, he became a father and decided to take a full-time clerical position with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Long work hours coupled with parenthood made for tough times.
“I was exhausted all the time and felt like a complete asshole because I had this beautiful family, a nice house and a solid job, but I hated my life,” Eberbach remembers. “I gained weight, smoked a lot of pot and started drinking. … I felt like the light and magic in me had been snuffed out. I began breaking down periodically.”
Music, however, didn’t completely disappear from his life. During that period, Eberbach says he worked in solitude for hours on end, writing and recording the songs that ended up on his first solo album, 2010’s Up Is the Only Way Out.
“As much as I had given up on a lot of my dreams [when] I was writing and recording this record, it was also my lifeline,” Eberbach says.
The final result is a well-recorded, cohesive batch of songs that sound like a cross between Maroon 5 and Jamiroquai, neatly balancing heartfelt expression, cerebral ponderings and groove.
The release of the album wouldn’t have been possible were it not for two key things that happened in 2009. Both would change the singer’s life. First, a friend told him how he’d been able to quit his day job by playing regular paid acoustic gigs, covers mostly—an idea he found intriguing. Then, the Nibblers, a local soul cover band, asked Eberbach to join as the lead singer.
Eberbach hesitated to accept.
“I honestly felt a bit queasy about being in a cover band because I considered myself an ’artist,’ but at that point, I was barely playing out live, I had no real band and I had grown so tired of endlessly working out this record in solitude,” Eberbach says.
Eventually, he says, he realized the band did the songs justice—and not in a gimmicky fashion.
“[When] it became obvious we were not going to be learning ’Brick House’ and donning Afro wigs, I began to release myself into it, and performances started getting bigger and wilder,” he says.
Still, he didn’t give up the singer-songwriter ghost. After releasing Up Is the Only Way Out, he tried playing solo shows by building prerecorded loops on his guitar and using keys and drum machines to back him. This approach, however, proved challenging, so he formed Hans! and the Hot Mess.
“I was sick of chasing the rabbit down the hole for yet another solitary, highly technical experience,” Eberbach says.
In 2012, however, disagreements among key members of the Nibblers resulted in the band firing Eberbach. In return, he, along with a significant portion of the original Nibblers’ lineup, reformed as Joy and Madness, which, like its predecessor, plays originals and soul covers.
The change, Eberbach says, suits him well. He’s quit his day job, and these days, in addition to playing numerous gigs, he’s also recording a new batch of songs with local producer David Houston.
“In one lifetime I can’t cover enough ground in music,” he says. “There is so much out there, I just want to gorge myself. … I need fresh stimulus.”