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Overcoming Addiction and Making Albums with Joel RL Phelps

The former vocalist/guitarist of Silkworm talks about his new project, and the absolutely fucking stupid glamorization of addiction that’s so rampant in pop culture.

by Nick Laugher
Apr 24 2014, 2:34pm

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Klashorst

In today’s bloated and often cliché-ridden pop culture landscape, when we hear about addictions and drug problems in the realm of popular music, we’re apt to think about overprivileged rockstars throwing bullshit temper tantrums on stage and then being whisked away to plush, four-star rehab facilities to get clean.

The reality is that the people who are really suffering from substance abuse problems don’t fit that stereotypical, cartoonish image — their lives aren’t glamorous, and getting clean isn’t as easy as having your manager call up the most expensive detox centre money can buy. The real addicts are the ones you don’t hear about, because they’re not holding it together well enough to throw a hissy fit at a festival. These people often suffer for years without help, and stop only because they’ve just gone too far off of the deep end and finally need to get help, or in the worst case scenario, because their bodies just couldn’t take it anymore and they die.

Joel RL Phelps was a guitarist and vocalist in the much lauded and wildly influential indie rock band Silkworm until 1994, when mental health issues and the rigors of touring forced him to step away from the band. He regrouped, realized it was probably not a good idea for him to be involved in that demanding of a touring schedule, and things started to pick up a bit.

Phelps then started a solo project that eventually evolved into what’s now known as Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio, and for a while things seemed like they’d gotten a lot better for Phelps. Eventually though, the mental health issues resurfaced and Phelps turned to the bottle as a way to deal with it.

Photo courtesy of David Ewald

Playing in a band and hiding a drinking problem isn’t actually as difficult as you’d imagine it is – the entire culture of rock and roll is built around the myths of hard-drinking and constant partying, so it’s definitely not as obvious when someone has a substance abuse problem like it is when you’re an accountant or a nurse. But eventually it catches up to you, and the cracks in the foundation start to show.

After the release of the Downer Trio’s 2004 album Customs/Traditions, the sessions of which Phelps remarks he barely made it through, his alcohol abuse got the better of him and he spiraled into a full blown addiction. It got to a point where the only reason he’d wake up was to get wasted, and then pass out and go back to bed. When it got to its worst, the addiction left him barely able to walk and get around, let alone play the guitar.

However, a couple of years ago, Phelps hit the breaking point and sought help for his addiction. After becoming clean and sober, he set about repairing his relationship with the Downer Trio, starting to play music and write songs again and eventually penned a comeback record, the lush and beautiful Gala in 2013. With a renewed interest in music and a new lease on life, Joel sat down with us to talk about his experiences as an addict, the conception of his new album, Gala, the new projects he’s working on right now, and the absolutely fucking stupid glamorization of addiction that’s so rampant in pop culture.

Noisey: Gala is an extremely lush and deftly arranged album, but were you nervous about releasing an album after such a long absence?
Joel RL Phelps: No. Not a bit. In fact, it’s taken quite a while for it to sink just how long of a time it’s been for this to transpire, and how long it was that I was out of the game. I guess I had a different sense of time than most people do, but by the time we got around to making it just felt so natural and nice to be playing again and engaged in the process and dear friends. I’d spent so much time in my own little world that this felt like just another positive step to getting out of that, and re-immersing myself in the real world - that in and of itself was exciting and rewarding, really.

Where was this album recorded and how long did the sessions take?
It lasted a week, exactly seven days. It was recorded in a studio that was built into a 19th century private home in Kent, Washinton; “The Castle,” built into the home of the former guitarist for Heart, Howard Leithe. He lives there from time to time, so it’s still a residence, hasn’t been emptied and repurposed, it’s built in and around his living space. He commutes from time to time from what I think is a home in California and one in the pacific southwest. He was either on the road in that time, so we could squeeze it in. It’s a really neat old house, great place to be. The studio was just built and installed, so I think it was like the second or third full record made there. I might not be remembering that correctly, though [laughs].

You’ve claimed that this record isn’t necessarily based on your experiences recovering as an alcoholic, but it’s very much a product of that. Could you expand on that?
Well, I mean, really, it’s both of those things. I guess what I’m getting at is that I didn’t intend, either in putting it together or forming the ideas, I didn’t consciously set out as it being a concept record. I mean, it definitely is a recovery record, and it is very much about my alcoholism - it is about doing that for years, and then bottoming out and recovering. But again, I was just trying to get past that, so obviously it’s going to factor in. It’s not like I set out to do a concept record about it or anything, but, you know, because it was the central pillar of my life for the past several years, it couldn’t help but be about it, really.

When do you think your condition started impacting your songwriting?
You can really get a sense of some of where I was at when you look back at the making of our 2004 album Customs; I mean there’s some video stuff documenting a lot of that recording. I started drinking on the way down for those sessions and I just … I didn’t stop, the whole time. I was drinking all day long, morning noon and night. I had been for a while, I guess, and it’s just like… even knowing that, even having that evidence in my face - it might surprise you how easily you can forget the disasters and total fuckups that you can land yourself in as a result of an addiction.

But sometimes when I look back, you know I’ve listened to that and said “that’s not a bad record, considering,” but if I look a bit further on, I wonder - could I play that better? I mean, the answer is yes, obviously, but, you know, that’s almost always the case, so it’s hard to get a sense of it by asking questions like that. What I do really remember though is after I was trying to get through these songs, and rewrite lyrics, and just hold myself together… eventually I just stopped, and I went outside the studio just broke down crying. Honestly, like, I know there’s nothing particularly special about that - people do that all the time, that doesn’t make me special - but I just remember it was so clear to me at that time that I was struggling with something. I mean, of course I kind of knew what it was but I just really didn’t want to have to make any choices or, you know, do a fucking thing about it really [laughs]. You know? But yeah, that was one of the really obvious signposts for me, that and there was a time slightly after that record came out, I remember we were playing SXSW. So we arrive in Austin in the evening, and because of the county laws that say liquor can’t be sold after a certain time in the early evening or whatever, I remember just being so horrified and about where I was going to get booze, or if I could. It was like “I can’t have this, this cannot happen right now.”

So is that when you realized you need to get help?
Unfortunately, no. You see, eventually the way things work is that one consciously crafts their life around the idea of ability to use, and to be able to use as unimpeded as possible. If we had played more shows or wrote more songs after that, I think I may have. If we’d been a band that plays a bunch, then there would have been a long terrible laundry list of consequences that would have communicated I wasn’t able to perform as well as folks probably would have liked, but because we had so much time between shows and because I had started to remold my life around use, it was easy for me to tune out those cues.

You’ve been opening up a lot lately about the last few years of your life and your addiction, do you feel like doing press about this album and talking about your addiction has helped or hurt your recovery?
To tell you the truth, I still get nervous doing interviews. I remember, I did one a while back on the telephone and it was the first time I’d done an interview… well…for many, many years, and it was terrifying. And, like, the first couple I did, I would just chatter on like an insane person, and I just didn’t know how to talk or what to say, it was really awful. But I’m slowly getting back into it, and now I’ve gotten to the point where I like to talk about it, and it’s good for me to talk.

What was it like contacting the rest of the Downer Trio after all this time to make this album?
Well, we had played a handful of times just in the year before this record… we’d played in the fall, and a couple of times in the summer, and the summer before… I think? I don’t know, my timeline’s a bit blurry, of course [laughs], it’s a bit hard for me to put it together. Anyway, it had come up in the nine or ten years since the last album, but obviously it didn’t have much chance to get much traction. It can be difficult for three get together and make a record, but even in the easiest of circumstances, my condition would be a roadblock. But, yeah, once we started playing again, it was simply a matter of reconnecting with them and once I started to wake up and reach out - not just for help, but actually trying to offer them something and ask as a friend, instead of just taking or shutting them out. After that, it just got kicked around as an exchange, and we started playing new songs and re-explored some of the songs that were older but had sat around for a while. Despite the fact it took so long to get around to, the process was pretty much exactly the same as with the other ones. For someone in my position, I can’t be grateful enough that I happened to luck out and find a situation like that. For people in any situation like that, I think it’s impossible not to be thankful, and feel lucky, but certainly for me, after I put so much time and effort into ruining it [laughs].

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Klashorst

Do you feel like there’s an unhealthy glamorization of addiction and drugs in music, and the media?
I think it can be difficult and extra difficult for people who are struggling with the growing knowledge that using is beginning to play a larger and more pronounced role in their life when there are so many messages from the outside and their own culture that suggest that it is inevitable, or enviable or just … that it’s a necessary component of the experience. You know, when it starts to become a way of like, “paying your dues,” you know? It’s like, you hit the bottle or you do this drug, or that drug, and it’s all that “it’s a long way to top if you wanna rock and roll” bullshit – I think it is a little striking how taken for granted so much consumption and use and outright addiction is in music, or in pop culture. Like, it’s not only tolerated but actually in some ways celebrated or engrained in the culture, people have this idea that it’s so unavoidable, which is bullshit - there’s so much you can do. There’s so much pain and suffering that’s not necessary or required, but, I don’t know, it’s easy to just slip into a sort of moralist stance on it, and I don’t want to do that. I‘ve made some choices, some terrible choices, but you know when you’re using, these choices, they become less and less free until eventually it becomes almost impossible to make choices about use. I hate to see people in pain, and if they’re in pain because they think it’s cool or whatever, well then that seems just supremely fucking dumb to me, because it sure as hell doesn’t feel cool when you’re in it. Part of that is the process, you know? Addicts famously resist help. They resist the knowledge that they’re fucked, and they resist an accurate view of their circumstances. So much of the time people with these problems, even the simple act of wanting to get help highlights how badly they feel. I mean, as if it wasn’t negative enough, it feels so shameful and judgemental and there’s so much labelling from the outside or from inside their head. It’s like, if think I broke my arm I would just go to the doctor - you don’t feel bad, you just go to get some fucking help. I wish addiction or mental health was more like that, but there’s still that huge stigma.

Well you’ve come a really long way man, are you looking forward to stuff you’ve got lined up for the future?
Definitely! Like, I’d like to do some touring, but it’s difficult. I mean, we’re doing the Vancouver, Seattle, Portland thing soon, and then Europe for ten days or so. But yeah, if I can discover a way to play a bit as a solo act, that’d be cool, I’d like to do that. It can be tough to coordinate this stuff as people get older. In the mean time, though, I’ve had this really rewarding volunteer position facilitating and helping people recover from addiction in Vancouver. It’s moving it’s rewarding it’s engaging and it’s allowed me to really to honestly to grow as a person, and to do it in a way that I would have never predicted, which for me is no small matter. If some clerical things get taken care of I’ll start school in an addictions counselling in the near future.

Oh wow, that’s great! Is that something you’re thinking of pursuing full time?
Yeah, I mean, at the moment it’s been almost my sole pursuit – my involvement is as a volunteer right now, so, I guess it’s not professional. But, yeah, it’s related to work of that kind, and so the schooling is to help me function as an effective facilitator in my role in a volunteer. It would involve me getting some more professional qualifications for working in the field as an addictions counsellor, but it’s definitely something I want to do. It’s still early days for me in recovery and a lot of new things are happening, I can’t or haven’t really tried too hard to predict anything, you know, I just wanna…

Just take it as it comes…
Exactly, like, I’m interested in it, and anxious about it to unfold - I’d like to work in that field, set my mind to it, so I can’t think of why not. But as to what will happen with music? I dunno, I expect I’ll be putting out some more records; there are more songs so I imagine we’ll get to that eventually. It’s a matter of seeing how it unfolds, but most importantly being present in how it unfolds, not getting lost in what did or didn’t happen, I just want to stay here, you know? I want to just stay here and just… enjoy this as much as possible.

Nick Laugher is a writer living in Montreal.


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Joel RL Phelps