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The First Step Toward Getting 'Fight Club Fit' Is Simple, but Incredibly Difficult

In the fourth installment of John Doran's column MEFF, he speaks to Turbonegro frontman Tony Sylvester about the most important thing anyone can do before getting into shape.

The author doing a reading of his book, 'Jolly Lad.' Photo by Natasha Bright

My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE's UK website thought it would be amusing to employ a 44-year-old who wants to get "Fight Club fit" before his 45th birthday.

In case you were wondering or simply too lazy to use urban dictionary, "meff" is Scouse/Woollyback slang for tramp (meff = meths = methylated spirits). It also means someone who looks odd; someone who doesn't fit in. As in, "Your Adidas Samba are boss la, look at that meff Doran, he can't even afford Dunlop Green Flash. Chin him and grab his wallet."



Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! [Pause] Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! [Pause] BOINGBOINGBOINGBOINGBOING!

"Daddy, why are you so boingy?"

Wait up… let's roll back 90 seconds.

My son roars into the room and launches himself through the air at me like a rocket-powered ninja in Minion socks.

"What's this?" KNOCK KNOCK

"It's my cranium… the top part of my skull."

"Cranium. Cranium. Cranium. What's this?" KERPOW

"Ouch. That's my jaw. Well, actually, strictly speaking it's my mandible because…"

"What's this?" BASH BASH

"Oooof. That's my sternum. It holds all of my ribs in place."

"Do your ribs protect your heart and your lungs?"


"And… WHAT'S THIS?!" Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing!

Maria is standing in the doorway laughing: "That is daddy's belly."

"BOINGBOINGBOINGBOING! Daddy, why are you so boingy?"

I try to muster up some manliness and say: "Well, son, the funny thing about daddy's belly is that it's a symbol for how much loves and respects the modern cultural landscape of the Netherlands."

A few days before this I am walking out of the "nothing to declare" exit from the security zone of Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam towards a high speed, double decker train bound for Utrecht. I walk past a massed choir of Miffy dolls standing behind the glass in a large shop dedicated solely to the cute little Dutch rabbit. There are two giant Miffys standing sentry either side of the door. From paws to ears they must be seven-foot-tall each.


I'm running late but I don't care. At Gatwick, takeoff was delayed when three stern-looking security guards came aboard and frog-marched a young man off the flight. This well-to-do bro had a box fresh red baseball cap with bib pointing backwards, massive wallet chain, an expensive tan, and one of those ear piercings that leaves a circular hole in your earlobe. His 12 or so mates, who had been whooping and braying at each other, immediately sank into sullen silence and everyone else on the plane was left to contemplate their aggressively dissonant miasma of expensive but violently clashing colognes. An agitated Dutch man leapt up and shouted: "Please take his suitcase as well!" One of the security guards came back onto the plane to collect his Samsonite metal hand luggage and I heard several people exhale audibly with relief. I sank back into my chair, feeling the throb of 180 creased foreheads pulsating with anxiety all around me and 180 pairs of lips silently mouthing the words: "Paris! Paris! Paris!" I reached for my strip of diazepam, took three out and popped them in my mouth; ah, you sweet little yellow tablets and the temporary but blissful holiday away from the idiocy of oneself that you afford.

I was fast asleep before the plane leveled out at altitude and the seatbelt light switched off with a ping.

And now I am flowing like an azure rivulet towards an azure sea. Seeking the path of least resistance all the way to my hotel room in Utrecht, flowing past a shop full of Miffys.


Utrecht may be the birthplace of the rabbit's creator Dick Bruna and home of the world's premier Miffy museum (aggravatingly closed for renovation this weekend), but I am here for different reasons. Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson of my favorite metal band SunnO))) have asked me to come and do a reading from my book Jolly Lad as part of their line up at the amazing Le Guess Who? festival. It's put me in the weird and humbling position of being on the same bill as the French prog rock titans Magma, the sui generis genius Annette Peacock, the amazing Circuit Des Yeux, and disturbing Odinic death metal band, Bolzer.

It is pretty much a decade since I first met O'Malley face to face in the foyer of a Holiday Inn on Camden Lock when I was interviewing him and Wata from Boris about the collaborative Altar LP. The intense American kicked my ass in the interview because I'd been drinking and hadn't really done much in the way of planning. Shamefully, it wasn't the last time I turned up drunk to conduct an interview (my sincerest apologies Gang of Four, my sincerest apologies White Denim). It was, however, the last time that I ever decided not to do any research and just "wing it" instead.

At the end of my allotted 45 minutes I asked the pair a nebulous question about doom metal existing in other, non-heavy metal forms. Wata answered that Dick Bruna was a doom cartoonist because he usually spent a full day drawing one single frame of the rabbit, spending hours deliberating over the exact shade of red to paint her dress.


The older you get, the more you realize that everything is connected but the less able you are to synthesize any advantage out of this realization.

My reading flows like a dream. It is somewhere in the region of my 60th show of 2015 and a great way to round off book activity for the year. I talk about alcoholism, hallucinating buses full of vampires, and watching the Red Arrows perform aerobatics when I was six years old, over some musique concrete that my pal Andy Votel has made for me. I'm supporting the hypnotically brilliant Marissa Nadler in a packed LE:EN venue on the edge of town. In an alternate—better—universe, Nic Pizzolatto went straight from True Detective season one to directing a film adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and used Nadler's music as the soundtrack, redolent as it is of grown-over ancient pathways, rusted boxcars on long since abandoned railway sidings, once futuristic looking water towers, and the American continent as haunted as it is vast.

It is a great evening but none of it is enough. There is a bottomless pit inside me that demands to be filled. Away from my family and heavy domestic work routine, old voices start making themselves heard once more.

After all the music has finished, I take to the streets and canal footpaths of Utrecht on my own and it takes me 20 minutes before I find what I'm looking for: a kebab shop with a poster that reads "KAPSALON" in the window.


The Dutch word kapsalon translates into English as hairdresser and is the name, for better or worse, of Rotterdam's only notable culinary innovation. It is either the absolute apex or the utter nadir of post-pub food, depending on several factors, which include self-respect and your desire to reach a ripe old age. According to the Dutch anthropologist Linda Roodenburg, one day in 2006 a hairdresser, born on the West African islands of Cape Verde but resident in the Netherlands, couldn't make up his mind what he wanted to order from his local kebab shop El Aviva, so simply asked for all of his favorite items from the menu to be combined into one berserk dish. Using a large aluminum tray, they piled in a thick bedrock of fries and then topped this with a healthy sedimentary layer of kebab meat, before adding generous amounts of thick, garlicky mayo and lashings of sambal (hot sauce). This was topped in turn by slabs of gouda, which were then melted under the grill, before a mixed salad was added on top of that.

Legend has it that the owner of El Aviva added "The Hairdresser" to the menu on the takeaway wall as a joke, but it quickly caught on, with customers realizing that they too could throw caution to the wind and have it all, just as that maverick hair stylist liked to. Other takeaways in Rotterdam realized that they were losing business by not selling the kapsalon, and before long it became the most popular fast food dish in the city. It spread like wildfire across the Netherlands and even out into the wider Benelux territories. (Could it catch on in the UK? I really think it could. It knocks Perfect Fried Chicken into a cocked hat and there are no ingredients—bar gouda—that any kebab shop doesn't already have. Like all the "best" ideas you can't quite believe that someone hadn't thought of it sooner. I mean, don't tell me you're not even slightly curious about the potential of a dish which is essentially a combination of a shish kebab, chilli sauce, salad, and cheesy fries.)


My kapsalon comes quickly but I count four other people asking for the same thing while I'm at the counter. There are several varieties now and I go for the chicken meat version—large, of course. The metal trough of superheated food madness is enough to stop my body and mind clamoring, and I can now contemplate going back to my hotel room at last. When I get into bed I very quickly slip into a food coma.

By the end of my stay in Utrecht I have eaten five kapsalons, each washed down with two cans of Coke. When I leave my hotel room for the train on the last day, I feel like Thom Yorke trapped in James Corden's body—my heavy heart is only matched by my fat fucking hands and big boingy bastard belly.

A few days after getting back home I have lunch in Hackney with my old pal Tony Sylvester, the singer from the Norwegian "deathpunk" band Turbonegro. I first met him 12 years ago when he was doing press for SunnO))). Subsequently, much drinking occurred, there was some enthusiastic shouting, and some furniture was upended. I haven't seen him for about a year—work keeps us both busy and he is getting ready for his wedding, which is in a few days time. Not only that, but his band is back with a new single, "Hot for Nietzsche."

He has come straight from some punishing-sounding exercise routine in the park, and within seconds of seeing him I realize that he has affected a big change in his physical appearance—and this, he informs me, has had incredible knock-on effects on his mental health as well.


I have an ulterior motive for wanting to see him. In short, I'm hoping that a pep talk will sort me out. My new plan to get "Fight Club fit" before my 45th birthday has been—at best—stumbling along in fits and starts. Sure enough the exercise is clearly doing something to me: my joints ache at night and I am aware of muscles I didn't even know I had. I can walk up the escalators on the underground without breaking into a sweat and I no longer get stabbing pains in my chest when I run for the bus. But still, any signs of actual physical change are hidden from view by an intransigent layer of subcutaneous fat that is as stubborn as fuck and shows no signs of going anywhere. But my pal is obviously transformed… it's incredible. With his bewilderingly massive array of tattoos and newly ripped and buff as fuck body, he looks like some dastardly and immaculately dressed Edwardian circus strong man with a glint in his eye and a terrible secret. And it is this kind of transformation that I'm desperate for.

The author and Sylvester. Photo by Michael Gray

He says that his role fronting Turbonegro was the catalyst for this change, but that it went further back, to five years ago and the realization that he wasn't happy and how this was causing him to behave very selfishly and self-destructively: "I was still managing to hold onto the things I had, like a job and relationship, but only just about… God knows how."

The relationship (with another friend of mine) fell apart, causing "everything else to unravel." He adds: "But then six weeks after that, out of the blue, I got the job in Turbonegro [after former vocalist Hank von Helvete's departure]…"


The gregarious and self-confessed show off suddenly had a "healthier" outlet for his personality other than just being the center of attention at whatever rock pub or punk venue or metal bar we happened to be in at the time. This drastic change allowed him to leave the job he'd been in—working with legendary but struggling punk/DIY label Southern and sister distro company SRD—and gave him the freedom to contemplate some real change.

"The last stage of this was getting in physical shape, and this manifested itself through me not being able to do my new job, which was fronting a band. Every band I'd been in before—hardcore bands like Fabric and Dukes Of Nothing—had been a case of pounding it out for 20 minutes via sheer adrenaline, but they didn't call for me to be fit. And also, when you're in bands like that who are underground or emerging, you always have a 'fuck you' attitude towards gigs. It's different when you join a band who have a following and are the main draw. It wasn't until joining Turbo that I really appreciated that the two most physical roles in music are being the drummer or being the singer. The others may have 'flourishes' of physicality, but they don't fundamentally rely on this force of power like the drummer and the singer do.

"So, not only was I having to coach my voice and take training in that area, but I had to train physically as well."

Tony (in the tie) pre-training. Photo by Steven Thomas

Tony post-training

It was through hitting the gym that Tony came to a realization: the Cartesian divide—once you're out of your twenties, at least—is just so much fucking bullshit. He says: "I hadn't realized how much your physical fitness is tied into your mental health. I hadn't done anything physical for 20 years… it was absurd.


"The worst thing was, I used to laugh at people who exercised."

I nod exaggeratedly in agreement.

"I used to think it was office work-y and bourgeois."

I nod emphatically again.

"I didn't want to play five-a-side! I wanted to go to the Cro-Bar and do some racket! That seemed like a much more eminently worthwhile way to spend a Wednesday night."

Brother, you're preaching to the choir.

He adds: "None of this is 'woe is me,' by the way… I'm not going to whine that 'being a singer is hard' because it's not, but I do think you have to put in the same amount of effort into doing the job as you'd put into being a sportsperson or athlete."

He adds: "I went from smoking full time to stopping. I was drinking a lot and eating a lot and I was 25 kilos [55 lbs] heavier than I am now. I was pretty damn big… I was living the good life, you know. The first thing I had to tackle was my diet. You can't train your way to losing weight. So I did six weeks of dieting before starting properly."

He laughs: "I tried running while I was dieting. I got 50 fucking yards before…" mimes falling on the floor. "I was like, 'What the fuck is this?!'"

He continues: "So I realized that there were three things that I needed to do and I needed to do all of them and not cheat any of them. And they were: eat less, eat better, and exercise. It's so fucking simple. It's just that it doesn't feel simple. But if you do all three things it will work."


He started training in May of 2013 when he was 128 kilos [282 lbs], and by the last training session before Christmas of that year he had hit 100k [200 lbs]. He says he still hasn't learned to run and terms it "bullshit," but he became obsessed with lifting weights: "I am built for two things: taking punches and lifting weights." He started trying to get his dead weights really high, considering a day he could bench press 100k a success. But then he says he stopped caring about the high numbers: "The fact that I could do 40 or 50 bench presses at 70k started to mean more to me. It doesn't feel impressive in terms of figures but it's better in terms of stamina." He adds that he can single deadlift well over 300 lbs regularly.

He adds cryptically: "Henry Rollins said that, 'A weight is a weight is a weight.' That's the appeal of it. It doesn't change. If you come from a creative background—especially if it's a creative background that is punk rock-esque or outsider-ish—there's always a compromise on the way you perform and get tasks done. You can release a record, but you won't have enough money for promotion or you won't be able to get it done on time or you won't be able to find the money to record it exactly as you want it; so everything's about working with what you've got and doing the best job you can.

"You're probably the same, John. You probably don't have enough time to write something as well as you could. I bet you look at your stuff after the fact and go, 'I could have done that differently. I could have written it better.'"


Ouch. But he is 100 percent correct.

He continues: "So with creative things there's always the room for improvement, but the whole thing with training is it's completely finite. It's such a holiday from those regrets about not being able to do something better."

When I explain that I want to get fit enough that I can fight—and fight properly—he seems slightly nonplussed: "I'm very lucky. When I was young I spent a lot of my time 'round very violent people and in very physically violent scenes because of testosterone and things like that. But maybe because of my size and temperament I've always managed to tread lightly, relatively speaking. I got the shit beaten out of me by six guys when I was 15, but other than that I've been fairly lucky. I haven't started many fights. In fact, the last person I punched was [NAME REDACTED] ten years ago during [THE TERRIBLE INCIDENT] in [THE PLACE WHERE WE USED TO DRINK]. My problem with fighting is that it's not satisfactory. There's never a natural end to it, you can just keep on going and going. That thing you said to me about never kicking a man on the floor unless you mean to kill him? It's true, but when does a fight actually end naturally? You feel weird and impotent walking away from a fight at any stage after one has started. It's best just not to have a fight in the first place."

I mention that I took a serious leathering when I was 13 and wonder out loud if it was those couple of years that made the difference. I tell him that I don't mean I became an alcoholic with mental health issues solely because of it, but the damage done to me physically and mentally by that beating felt like a shadow falling across my childhood—hand on heart.

He replies: "I'm happy that my kicking wasn't so bad. There weren't any repercussions. I know from reading your book that you ended up with long term physical and psychological after effects. I didn't. A few chipped teeth was the worst that happened. What happened with me was more that it cemented this idea of me being at the edge of things… as much as a straight, middle class, able-bodied white guy can be, at least. Because it was a gang of townies who did it, it made me think, 'Oh right… I actually am different to them.' It polarized me from the mainstream and that hasn't been detrimental to me at all. I'm happy about it, in fact. And then, after that, the violence in the straight edge scene was always a bit more keystone cops-esque… a bit more Bash Street Kids."

While we're finishing up I ask him if it's possible to get into all this stuff—taking care of one's health, getting muscular, being aware of one's mental health, looking seriously at what it means to be a man—without ending up one of these men's rights whoppers; a rights for fathers idiot dressed as Batman, half way up the Houses of Parliament; or some bearded helmet in sandals in a drum circle weeping about his childhood and his relationship with his father.

He laughs: "Look, I'm not necessarily endorsing what Jack Donovan [author on masculinity and tribalism] says in The Way of Men, but one thing that has stuck with me is this: 'There are plenty of books about being a man, but no books on how to be good at being a man.' And that means very old fashioned values of strength, courage, and honesty. Things that people don't really talk much about any more. A lot of it is about self-confidence. But I'm split between the idea of being a good man and being good at being a man."

I thank him and suggest that we meet in a year's time when I'm fully sorted out so he can talk me through buying a suit—Sylvester is London's best dressed man—and he brightens immediately: "Is that the next step? If so, that's great. The idea of getting fit so you can fight… I don't have any empathy for that. Getting in shape so you can have a suit fitted… I'm down with that."

And it has been exactly the pep talk I needed. I make a pact with myself on the walk home. I'm not actually sure why it can seem like an insurmountable task to deal with your diet. If, like me, you've (hopefully) broken the back of several drug habits, successfully (crosses fingers) stopped drinking, weaned yourself off anti-depressants and painkillers, it's hard to see why stopping eating junk food and drinking sugary pop should be such a massive deal. But it is—for me, at least—because it represents the last really obvious (and easy way) I have of manipulating my mood if I'm anxious, angry, or depressed. But it's time to throw the kapsalon into the dust bin and pour the Coke down the sink.

Stream or download Turbonegro's Hot for Nietzsche here.

John Doran's MENK column for VICE was reworked into the acclaimed memoir, Jolly Lad, which was published this year by Strange Attractor.

Previously—How to Get Properly Fit: A Realistic Guide for Lazy People