“Unsigned and unstoppable.” Never has a motto rang truer than for alternative metal band Prison. Formed in 2014, the group honed their craft over time before self-releasing their debut EP N.G.R.I. in 2017. Peaking at #74 on the iTunes Rock Chart, the band garnered praise for their unique fusion of late ‘90s nu-metal and modern metalcore. Vocalist Johnny Crowder bears his soul with Prison’s lyrics, viciously shouting and screaming his messages on often stigmatized subjects such as coping with mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and sexual abuse.
Between November 2017 and August 2018, Prison toured North America opening for acts such as Suicide Silence, Combichrist, Wednesday 13, and For The Fallen Dreams. A massive accomplishment for any unsigned act in this day and age, the band instantly gained new fans with their explosive live performance. Crowder would always make it a point to engage the audience at every show, to not just connect to them as an energetic frontman of a metal outfit, but also as a human being looking to always help others overcome whatever they may be going through in their lives.
Self-releasing music and logging the miles on tour would be enough for most people. For Crowder, it was just one of many avenues to share his story of struggles in the hopes of helping and empowering others. In 2018, the singer launched the mental wellness app Cope Notes, which uses daily text messages to help people develop healthier mental and emotional habits. I sat with Crowder over a call, going in-depth on Prison’s experiences on the aforementioned tours, as well as what new music the band has been writing. We also talk about what it takes to start and maintain a company like Cope Notes, and the unique experiences and insights it’s given him.
The “Wear Your Skin” music video showcases the band’s electric live show, chronicling their tour with Suicide Silence across North America.
I’m here with Johnny Crowder, vocalist of alternative metal band Prison, and Founder & CEO of mental wellness app Cope Notes. How are you doing today?
Johnny Crowder: I’m so good, and I’m excited because I have good news for you about Cope Notes that we’ll get into.
I’m really excited to hear that. So, 2018 has been a big year for you, and I want to take a look back through your steps, your vision, and your journey for our readers and listeners. I’m going to start with Prison, coming out of 2017 you self-released your EP N.G.R.I. and had done your first major national tour with Suicide Silence in the U.S. and some spots in Canada. Going into 2018, what was the band feeling like? What did you guys want to do with this new year and 2018?
Crowder: We were definitely thankful that the release had gone well, and that Suicide Silence tour had gone well. We really wanted to follow it up… our actual goal was not do the same tour twice. No matter what 2018 looked like, we decided as a band we want our next tour to be a curveball, and we wound up doing that Combichrist and Wednesday 13 tour and that really was even more of a curveball than we were planning on. We just wanted to keep things interesting for fans and not get locked into that sort of predictable cycle that a lot of bands get stuck in.
I was definitely going to ask you about that Combichrist and Wednesday 13 tour. Like you said it was a curveball, it was so important for you not to get pigeonholed into these predictable metal tours. For that tour in general, how was it for you being distinctively different sounding than all these other bands (on the lineup)?
Crowder: When we got that tour, we looked into the lineup and we were pretty aware that it was different music and that we would stick out. We had joked about, you know cyber-goth kind of stuff where they have the glow sticks and big boots and stuff, and we’re like yeah it’s probably going to look like that. I think we were joking, we were just speculating what it would look like, and on the first day we were like, “Wow, it really is that!”
To us, that’s the jackpot. To have an opportunity to play in front of people who genuinely are not familiar with metal, it was such a privilege. People would come up to the merch table and say, “What are some other hard-edge bands like you guys?” and I was like “What is that?” And they were like “You know, hard-edge, like Disturbed.” And I’m like “Holy crap!” They are so from a different world that our set was the heaviest thing they’d ever heard. I think every heavy band should have an opportunity to really step outside their comfort zone and appreciate what it was like before they knew metal because that’s how it was.
Cope Notes was founded on March 1st, 2018.
You got responses like that on that tour, and after that tour did you see a growth in your fan base? Or more interesting conversations like that?
Crowder: Yeah definitely. I think before that tour… A lot of our fans are really into nu-metal and alternative metal, and that’s been true from the get-go, but definitely, after that tour we saw an influx of like… When we did that For the Fallen Dreams tour shortly after that, we saw people come out in Rob Zombie shirts, and we were like, “Ok, so these are people who saw us on Combichrist.” It was cool to watch… I think that really diversified our fanbase by bringing people who aren’t really in the metal world into the Prison world, and introducing them to bands like The Last Ten Seconds of Life, or Cane Hill, or other bands that they might have not heard of, that now they’re discovering this whole new genre.
Like you said, you went into the next tour after that in August, which was the For The Fallen Dreams ten-year anniversary tour for Changes. I got to see you guys at the Toronto date, it was amazing, your performance was just so intense and electric. How was that tour, doing that tour more in the vein of bands that have your heaviness and that heavy sound?
Crowder: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that about our show, glad you enjoyed it! It was interesting because I think so far every tour that we’ve done, Prison as a band has had expectations of what it would look like, and then we are proven wrong almost out the gate. We’re like “Wow! This is not at all what we’d thought.”
With For The Fallen Dreams, we were under the impression we would blend right in and fit in seamlessly. Being on that tour really showed us that we are more alternative and nu-metal friendly than we think we are because on those tours kids weren’t coming up and saying, “You guys remind me of Traitors or Spite.” They were saying “You guys remind me of Ill Niño or Switched.” I was like “Holy crap, it’s really true!”
There were moments on that tour where we thought, “The pits gonna be huge, and all these people are gonna be going crazy” but really it was more like, during us there would be push pits, and kids jumping and stuff. It looked a lot more like a festival metal type show when we played, and it sort of woke us up to that we’re really not a beatdown kind of band because the way people respond to our music just is not the way that they respond to other core bands. I think it reminded us that we really are building what we’ve been trying to build this whole time.
“Dead Meat” is the lead track off of the band’s debut EP N.G.R.I., which you can stream below.
Those were the two major tours you’ve done this year. Most bands in this industry go out ten months out of the year, or 300 days out of the year. Is it a collective choice in your band to do these (shorter tours) and not burn yourself out on the road and keep that energy?
Crowder: The members in Prison, we have members that used to be in… I was in Dark Sermon, our guitarist and drummer were in Adaliah, our bassist was in ABACABB and In Alcatraz 1962 and a couple of other bands. All of us individually have been touring for like ten years in our other projects, so we all learned that when you tour too much, the band suffers for it. Your performance isn’t as good, your music isn’t as original, you don’t care as much to be on stage, you don’t give fans the appropriate attention or appreciation. It really just devalues what you offer when you play, so we’re taking a quality over quantity approach.
It’s weird for us too, because this year (2018) we toured only toured three months, but if you include Suicide Silence (from 2017) we had toured five months within an eight-month span, so it’s an incredible amount of touring in a very short amount of time. As an unsigned band, that is a huge feat, but we also came home because we were gonna be touring now, but we swapped our schedules so that we could finish this record, so a big reason why we’re not on the road right now is because we’re working on new music, but our goal is not to be out eight months a year, our goal is four to six, because people do get tired of seeing the same band over and over again, it’s real.
It works for some bands, but like you said it does burn some people out and it does devalue the live setting. Before we talk about your new material, I noticed in October Prison set up a homeless merch drive through your merch store. You guys were matching every item bought with a donation from a band member’s personal clothing to their respective local homeless communities. How important was that for you to set it up?
Crowder: Last year was our first year doing it, and it was unreal. At that time our living situations were a little different, and it was just before tour so we all were actually able to get together and pool all of our clothing and go out and hand out to people, and there’s a video on our Facebook if anyone wants to watch that. It really showed us that spending a night going to downtown Tampa and just hanging out with the homeless community, and asking, “What shirt size are you? What pants size are you? Do you need a blanket? Do you need clean socks?”
Going through, literally out of huge bags and the trunk of my car, it showed us how valuable clean clothing is to people who don’t have it. This year we wanted to do the same thing but a little different because we all live in different cities, so we wanted to spread the impact. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I haven’t posted an update from that yet but I was really touched to see how many people wanted to participate this year.
The album N.G.R.I. dropped on June 9, 2017. It’s hella-heavy!
My follow-up question to that is how much did you end up donating? Could you count that in bags or numbers of clothing?
Crowder: I think this year was 89 items of clothing. It is just… When you really think about 89… Think about it, you buy socks in packs of three pairs, or six pairs, or when you buy a t-shirt at a show, that’s one item of clothing. Think of 89… and we have shoes and jackets. It’s one of those things we get to do as a band that really makes me think that isn’t music where the buck stops. Music is where it starts, and there’s so much beauty that can roll out of that if bands choose to leverage their platform that way.
Every band and every person can make a difference. It’s really heartwarming to see you guys set up something like that. So back to, you said you were working on new material more recently, around this time. Is there anything you can tell us about it, without giving away too much?
Crowder: I wish I could just send it to everybody for free. It’s not even done yet, but I will definitely say that it’s the type of music that we really want to make. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to make the type of music that got me into rock music in the first place, and I think the fans of ours that really like nu-metal and alternative metal, that are into Deftones, Korn, Slipknot, and System of a Down, they will definitely appreciate the new stuff.
What’s cool is it’s definitely not N.G.R.I., but you can tell that Prison wrote it, and I think kids who love heavy stuff will be able to find and enjoy the heavy parts, and people who love more nu-metal and alternative metal and more mainstream rock will be able to find those parts and really cling to them. We’ve always wanted to make crossover music, like active rock but super punishingly heavy at the same time and that after a long time of working on these songs I think we finally struck that balance.
“The Knife and the Dying Dream,” the band’s first music video off N.G.R.I., touches on the issues of mental illness and suicide.
Will you be doing a full-length or another EP? You guys are an unsigned band now, are you happy staying that way, or are you looking to shop for labels and see what opportunities you’d be able to get with this new material?
Crowder: As for EP vs. LP, we’re not even positive. We’re waiting until all the songs are finishing being mixed so we can compare them and make different little mixtape versions to see which songs pair well together. We have 20 songs written, so we can for sure make an LP if we want. But we’re just trying to focus on what’s better for the listener, like whether it’s better to dump twelve songs on someone, or maybe seven or nine or something.
As for labels, I always think this question is really like when a friend is single and you’re like, “So are you looking for a relationship or just doing your thing and waiting for the right thing to come along and be open to it?” I think Prison is more in that camp. We’re really proud of how much DIY stuff we’ve done, but also we’re not closed off to labels. I think that a lot of people think that we’re “eff labels and eff the industry!” A big part of our MO is not that labels are worthless and they don’t do anything, it’s more like, “No, we want to encourage other bands not to wait around for a label to tell them their idea is good.” We want people to just… if they believe in something, and value it and want to pursue it, then they should, and they shouldn’t have to wait for permission from someone.
As far as labels go, I think the odds of us signing to a major label or an indie label or no label are all equal right now because we’re really trying to do what’s right for the band and what’s right for the listeners before anything else. So we’re just trying to be open and not get… this new music is coming out no matter what label we’re on or if we’re on a label, and we’re still gonna tour, we’re still gonna be us. I think we’re open, but we’re sure as heck not waiting for anyone to give us a piece of paper. We haven’t needed that and we sure as heck won’t.
So definitely 2019, that new music is gonna come out whether there’s a label or not, and I can’t wait to hear it, I’m sure other people can’t wait. I’m gonna switch gears now to Cope Notes, which is your mental wellness app. How would you describe Cope Notes to someone who’s never heard of it before?
Crowder: This kid messaged me yesterday on Instagram and was like “Hey, I read through your website. Can you tell me what Cope Notes is?” And I was like, “Oh man, if you read through the website…” I’m actually gonna read exactly what I said to him because that was one of the first times I’ve had to put it in plain terms to someone who had already read the website. It was actually pretty straightforward. Cope Notes sends you one positive psychology-based text per day at a random time, and you can respond as many times as you want or not respond at all. Over time, it trains your brain to be healthier. It’s basically the most simple form of mental and emotional hygiene that exists.
Johnny Crowder opens up on his struggles with mental illness, and why he advocates for better mental health and his vision for Cope Notes.
What made you want to set something like Cope Notes up?
Crowder: I would really encourage anyone who’s (reading this) to read through the website, I have some bio information on there. I grew up with a lot of mental health issues and spent a majority of my life battling them, and trying to work through them and overcome them. Over the course of my whole life fighting these, I’ve looked at all these different resources and bought so many stupid things, and taken so many stupid medicines, and attended so many stupid webinars, and taken so many stupid classes. Really, I had stretched myself so thin looking at all these resources.
I was like, “Man, I want to make something that keeps people from having to spend…” I don’t want people’s full-time job to be getting better, even though I wish that was a thing, I wish people would devote that much time to being healthy, but the truth is a lot of people don’t have that kind of time. So, I wanted to create a tool that saved people from that GIGANTIC barrier to entry. I will read, and spend three hours flipping through a psych textbook to send you a 160 character text that summarizes what I read so that you don’t have to spend three hours doing it because most people don’t have that patience.
I feel like, in today’s world, there’s a lot more awareness of going through mental illnesses and depression. We’re just so much more vulnerable these days to these kinds of things. With an app like Cope Notes coming in to help people, have you seen the impact of so far that it’s had on people today?
Crowder: Yeah, I’m pretty taken aback at some of the emails that I’ve gotten. Some of the responses that people have sent just remind me… I will say, launching a startup is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, if not THE most difficult. There are days when I’m like, “Man… What did I do?” This is my full-time job. Morning to night, every weekday, I’m working on this stuff, and it really takes a lot (out) of you, and there are moments when people respond and say, “This text saved my marriage” or “This text helped me go to treatment for bulimia.” Just really touching, like literally, “This text kept me from jumping off a bridge” type-stuff. It’s those little messages and reminders that help me keep my head in the game and stay focused when I get overwhelmed by the workload.
Mr. Johnny Crowder. Metalhead and mental health advocate. A rad dude.
To follow that up, I’ve seen you post messages and talk about working with government health sectors, or maybe schools and companies to provide Cope Notes as a health benefit. How have those talks been with people who are maybe more kind of traditional focused? (What did you have to say) to convince them this app is worth a try?
Crowder: Probably the way I’ve been most blessed in this journey so far is that the organizations that have reached out, I mean like school districts and colleges and rehab centers and employers, like major brands who want to purchase this for their employee wellness programs. The major blessing that I’ve received so far is that all of these places are relieved that there is a cheap solution, because comparatively the cost is so much lower than the other things these places have available to them, and they’re also relieved that the work is outsourced.
A lot of employee wellness programs will either purchase something super expensive or super cheap, and they will have to do all of the groundwork when they’re not really educated in the mental health area. So that can get really dangerous. I think what these larger organizations have been thankful for it’s like “a set it and forget it” thing on their end to where they can just leave all of the hard stuff to us, and they don’t have to pay an arm and a leg. The cost is a fraction of these places’ budgets for employee wellness.
Earlier, you said you were doing this full time. I noticed in your social media, in July you had left your full-time job in advertising to focus on Cope Notes 100 percent. Looking back at the decision now at the end of (2018), with all the more extra time you’ve had to be able to invest in Cope Notes, is it what you feel like you needed to do for Cope Notes?
Crowder: I will reiterate that it has been very difficult, so I don’t want to downplay that. You can see… we have metrics that we get reports on every month on our texts sent and delivered, and all our users, and you can see, even if none of the months are labelled, you can point and be like, “Oh, that must be where he quit his job and started focusing full time.” It sort of goes steady, steady, up, and then there’s a huge spike.
Before I really started taking it on full time, I wasn’t having the type of calls that I’m having now. I wasn’t building the functionality that I get to build now. If I stayed at that job, I personally would have been more financially secure, because it’s always safer to have someone else pay you then to have you have to try to pay yourself. The main benefit has been the amount of growth. It took about six months to get the first 10,000 texts sent, and then it only took one month to get to 20,000 texts after that. The spike is just unreal. It’s sure as heck as a result of advertising or marketing or anything like that, because I’m only doing word of mouth right now, and it’s not of a result of press, or pumping money into it. It’s just a result of putting in the hours.
Prison tackle some serious shit on their “Rape Me” lyric video.
I’ve definitely noticed that growth. I’ve seen you doing interviews and more press, and we’re doing this now. To wrap things up, what were the high moments for you in 2018 with both Prison and Cope Notes?
Crowder: With Prison, I think one of the high notes was just last week, when I was in the studio and actually hearing the new songs come to life I was just like, “Wow, this is real life.” We had been talking about making this kind of music, and now I can’t wait for people to hear it because even hearing unmixed, raw vocal takes, and unmixed guitar, just hearing that nu-metal/alt-metal dream that I’ve had come to life is just surreal. I can’t wait for people to hear it.
With Cope Notes, my favorite moment is probably going to be in a week or so, because we are switching… (it depends on when this interview is published but it might actually be active by the time this interview is published) (note: Cope Notes is now available internationally) we are doing international testing right now, so hopefully by the end of this week, and if not hopefully by the end of next week, we will have complete international capability. So far, if you’re (reading) and thinking, “What the heck?,” there are a lot of text-based regulations regarding texting internationally, so we’ve been building a program that complies the SMS law of Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, all these other countries, and we’re testing it right now. My favorite of the whole year is going to be when I finally send that first international text and it’s live because that’s been such a huge hurdle this year.
I remember asking you about that when you came to Toronto, so I’m really happy to see and hear that it’s going global. I will definitely test that out and let some friends know too. Just to end the interview, are there any last things you want to say or shout outs, or things to leave our listeners with?
Crowder: I would encourage anyone who’s listening to definitely go to the Cope Notes website, it’s just CopeNotes.com. If you’ve really (read) this long to this interview, I just want to thank you for spending time with us and investing your time in this way. The one thing I want to leave you with is if you have an idea, don’t wait for someone to tell you it’s good. People didn’t tell me Prison was good, and people didn’t tell me Cope Notes was good, and I still quit my job and still, you know… You just have to run at that stuff, if you wait for someone else to tell you that you should, you’ll miss your opportunities. So please, if you believe in something and you’re passionate, just do it today, please!