We Talked to Artists About How Sobering Up Changed Their Work
What happens when you finally stop drinking on stage?
Drew Thomson of Single Mothers. Photo by Stephen McGill
Many of my favourite artists were addicts. The serpentine dancing, Bruce Lee physique, and manic vocals of Iggy Pop were cultivated on speedballs. Hemingway and Bukowski, the unofficial figureheads of angry young male literates, both glamorized their alcoholism with constant references to booze in their books. Even the sidesplitting one liners of Hedberg were written on the nod. To my teenage brain correlation equaled causation. The addiction was the art and I wanted to emulate my idols.
I began writing seriously at the same time I began drinking brown liquor. In my heyday I could finish a half a litre of Canadian Club without much thought, though I couldn't tell you what that had to do with scribbling articles or stories, let alone getting them published. Booze did make it easier to get on stage first with my unlistenable band and later my ill-fated attempts at beat poetry. Unfortunately while on stage the the whisky also made me a slurring mess. Alcohol fed into feelings of worthlessness that permeated my day-to-day life. As the depression amped up my creative input slowed down but the drinking stayed. It got heavy for awhile. I don't think I ever had a problem but I also don't see anyone from that period of my life anymore, and when I look back for art from that time there is hardly anything to show.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between creative people, substances, and sobriety. On a recent episode of Marc Maron's WTF Podcast the comedian announced he had celebrated eighteen years sober. I decided to reach out and see what Maron thought was the main different between when performing sober compared to when he was using. His email response was short and to the point: " I'm not hiding." The correspondence with the Glow actor encouraged me to reach out to other artists and ask about how sobriety has changed their performance style and creation. You can read their responses below.
Drew Thomson, vocalist for Single Mothers
I think the relationship with people and booze/drugs is just—we're often unhappy with who we are in a given moment—and would often like to change that. The first time I drank was in Ireland with my older step brother and all of a sudden a whole new Drew Thomson seemed to come out. I was confident and a funny/older Irish girl made out with me behind a pub. I would have been like, eleven or twelve. I remember very clearly being so… impressed with myself. I guess I've never let that attachment go. Most of my accomplishments I've done while in a deep haze of booze. Drunk Drew. Drunk Drew started a band. Drunk Drew is on stage. It's Drunk Drew's band. I never gave sober Drew any credit. I was scared I couldn't do it sober.
When I drank I thought I was filling a prescription. It was the only way I had told myself I could get through being on stage. I needed it the way I needed water or food. That was all wrong, of course, but the band meant so much to me I wasn't about to take that chance, so I kept doing what seemed to be working—getting really drunk. It was also a lot of fun, but I thought I was doing a way better job than I was. Once in Belgium I got so tanked the festival tried kicking me out of the entire thing and then put security guards in my dressing room—I still thought I was filling the prescription.
The booze keeps you thinking you need it. It intensifies the anxiety and the depression that just comes with being on tour, or being in a band, or being alive. The hardest part was just believing in myself enough that I could do life on my own without getting drunk every goddamn day. Once I realized I could do it and you know…reacquainted the evening to just me…not passing out and actually falling asleep for the first time in years.
The last drink I think I had was from a box of wine. I was at the studio, we were recording Our Pleasure and I was just doing the normal—drink all day—routine. I was a slow burner, I didn't get really drunk then I just had a constant buzz—but I was also the only one doing it. I get anxiety, which I think the booze will cure, but it just makes me weird instead. Anyways—I think I put up a bunch of blankets or something in the vocal booth so no one could look at me, I'd trick myself into thinking bull shit would help. As I took the first sip of that glass of wine I just caught a look from Justis [Single Mother's guitar player] out of the corner of my eye…it was a sad look. Usually I'd get angry looks. I was really used to angry looks, but not sad looks. Whatever his face said hit me where I hadn't been hit before and I put that glass down and I haven't had a drink ever since. It sounds like a long fuse that just fizzled out—I had plenty of other bottoms that are much more interesting than 'a look'—but, that's what it was.
Oddly, I have almost zero stage fright now. I used to think, 'Oh no I haven't had enough to drink I don't want to go on,' but that's when I thought booze gave me some kind of superpower. I was under a spell. Now that the spell has lifted—I know I can play great sober or sick or tired—I don't really give a fuck now, just let me on the stage and I'll do my best. It's a personal choice. I have no problem at all being around people who are drinking, usually it just reminds me why I stopped.
Claire Burns, actress/director
Theatre people love drinking. It's how we socialize. After rehearsal. Days off. After shows, After opening. After closing. We're always getting drunk. It's a part of the culture. I never felt like I was going be ostracized if I didn't partake, I just never thought it could be any different. Bingeing on booze and drugs is just what I did, what we all did, And what most still do.
I was never drunk for a show or anything, but I've been hungover as fuck. We'd party after a show one night and then the party effects would just incapacitate me the next day. The worst were afternoon matinees after doing coke and drinking tequila shots. I would get the worst anxiety and feel like I was going to freak out on stage. I could barely keep it together, but the show must go on.
Things started being a problem. I was getting wasted around people who were older, more professional, and more experienced than me. I was a hot mess at parties, slurring my words and out of control. I broke my ankle wasted after a show. Another time I broke my toe. I broke the door at my apartment falling down the stairs. I got a black eye from falling off my bike right before my sister's wedding shower. I lost partners. I was fired from jobs and at some point it all stopped being cute.
The last time I was getting patched up I asked for help from my doctor and they gave me a referral. I went through an eight week program then started with LGBT group in treatment. It was small steps. At first my goal was to get through a week without blacking out. After that I started to actually count how much I was drinking. That really put it things in perspective. Healthy drinking is 7-12 drinks a week. Before I got sober I was drinking 50-65 drinks a week.
It was actually an acting gig that took me from focusing on harm reduction to focusing on getting clean. I was in one show where I was so fucking hungover. I felt like ass and reeked of booze. I thought: I am just so tired of myself. So I decided, OK, tomorrow I won't drink. And then the next day. And then the next week. Then I got cast in a really challenging role. I knew if I was hung over for it I'd feel like I was fucking everything up. Today I'm one year ten months sober. I still go to therapy once a week with other addicts, so that's really helpful in terms of coping strategies and sharing experiences. Being sober I'm much more focused. I am rarely tired. I get enough rest and take care of myself. I used to think that to be an artist I had to be tortured and drunk. Now I'm just freaky and hard working. To be honest it's basically the same thing.
Chris Farren, singer/songwriter, ex Fake Problems
When I quit drinking I didn't really want anyone to know, so I would order non-alcoholic beer at bars and scratch off the labels so I didn't have to talk about it. I had noticed before other times I had taken a break from drinking, some people took it as some sort of affront to their personality. There is this bizarre fascination with being drunk/bar lifestyle, especially in the punk community. So many band T-shirts and merch items that are parodies of Budweiser shirts or whatever. Songs about whiskey. Craft Beer Enthusiasts. I don't know. I don't want to be a judgmental sober guy, but even when I drank that kind of art struck me as painfully unimaginative. I could not possibly care less if anyone drinks or does not drink. I just don't want it to be a part of my life anymore.
The decision wasn't because of one big moment. I was just incredibly depressed and uninspired. I wasn't really getting crazy drunk every night but I would definitely have two-three drinks a night just to make myself feel SOMETHING. I was pretty quick to realize that if I was relying on alcohol to not feel sad, that's probably not the healthiest thing.
"It's like when there's a food you know you don't like, you just don't order it. Like if you hate mustard and you go to a mustard factory you're not like OH GOD I NEED MUSTARD."
So I said, 'OK, I'm going to quit drinking until I finish writing this Fake Problems record'—then a few months later I finished writing the record, and thought, 'Hmm, OK, maybe I'll start drinking again once we RECORD the record.' When we were finally done, I decided to wait until the record was released to start drinking again. That was 2013 and the record still hasn't come out. It never will. Since I stopped drinking I have been ten times more productive and have written way more than I ever did while I was drinking. Songwriting is such an incredibly frustrating process, and it's already so easy to get sidetracked, adding alcohol into that mix just crushed my output.
I would always have a drink before going on stage to dull that nervous edge. Now my performances are almost entirely controlled and directed by my nervous edge and it rocks. One of the main reasons I quit drinking was seeing how much it could dull a musician's career. I have toured with a lot of people who don't seem to really care about their own band anymore, who have kind of lost the ambition or the fire for it, but use alcohol to keep the wheels turning. That always really bummed me out. I knew if I kept drinking I was in danger of surrendering to that kind of apathy.
I don't even think about drinking anymore. It never even crosses my mind. It's like when there's a food you know you don't like, you just don't order it. Like if you hate mustard and you go to a mustard factory you're not like OH GOD I NEED MUSTARD. And that's a good analogy, and you can make it very big in the article. The pull quote—the lead pull quote.
Stacey Dee, Bad Cop/Bad Cop
Drugs have been a constant in my life. I was a pretty hard partier in my teens. I took acid and ecstasy every week. At 18 I got introduced to meth and cocaine. I went on a runner with that for two years. I barely slept and ended up on crack. After that low I cleaned up my life and dedicated all my attention to music. That kept me out of trouble for a cool decade but everything changed when my older brother died. At the same time really bad stuff was going down in my marriage. I found a doctor here in LA that prescribed me Xanax to deal with the stress. I wasted away and hid in my house. I started doing blow again. I was drinking and taking pain meds... the mix made me into a fucking monster.
At the time I thought I was just rock starring and having a ball, but in retrospect my life was a series of very dark moments shrouded in negativity. One night on the Fat Wreck 25 year tour I had a very public bottoming out. I was drunk and on coke. Mixing Xanax and Klonopin as well. From what I've heard, I fought with every band on the bill, got kicked out of the venue, and then blacked out. When I came to I was lying on my back in a puddle. I had a ruptured ACL and broken kneecap. Jack and Miles from Toy Guitar picked me up off the ground. They seemed to be the only people I didn't want to fight. Later that evening I decided I wanted to die. I took handfuls of pills and started slicing at my wrists. I called my parents and told them I was done with life. The ambulance came and picked me up and took me away.
After that my band didn't want me around. I left them in Minnesota, where they had to drive home without any shows or way to make money. The whole time I kept using and I was the most miserable I had ever been. Eventually I was offered an ultimatum: I needed to go to rehab or else the band was over with me in it.
Music had been my entire life. Without it I was a nobody drug addict with no future. I was afraid of losing everything. Our label Fat Wreck jumped in and saved my life by paying for me to go through a medical detox. I knew I didn't need rehab. I needed a way to get off of everything safely.
The hardest part was coming back after the Xanax. The drug destroys the brain. It did mine anyway. I was sober and the walls were melting and turning into super evil alien heads. I was hearing things that weren't there. It was a real-life horror movie and I was the star. I had to relearn to do EVERYTHING again. I forgot all of my songs. I lost my strong singing voice. My fingers didn't work. Fuck, I had to learn to smell a rose again. The self-discovery that went on in the two or three weeks after detox have completely formed who I am today.
I still smoke weed. I want that to be known. I would rather smoke weed or eat edibles for any pain, discomfort, or anxiety than take anything prescribed in a pill. Now that I'm not drinking/using hard drugs every single thing is different. I sing better. I play guitar better. We're a stronger unit on stage as a band. I'm a way better performer. I was always a pretty good performer, but now it comes from an honest place where I can truly connect with the audience. Life is so much better now.
Kristee Ono, standup
In my first year of stand up I threw up at every open mic I went to. It just was how I drank: cash money motto, drink till you throw up. I was a total lightweight. Usually I had puked by like 9 PM. Even when I was given opportunities I was a liability on shows. Getting too drunk to perform. One time I was pulled from hosting in the middle of a show. I was barely able to stand let alone introduce comics. Another time I did coke in a multi stall bathroom once and the booker came out of the stall next to me. I was real reckless. But I was drinking for free a lot and I had connections to get drugs and a place to do them. At the time I thought I had made it. A friend once said to me, I thought you got famous first and then developed the drug problem.
I thought being drunk and high gave me a pass to be as shitty as I liked. I'd be mean and as fucked up as possible. Just pushing buttons for no reason. There are things I said I would never say now. I want to give you an example but I cannot think of one that does not bring up intense shame. I thought I was really letting loose and being me but the truth is that I didn't know who I was. Nothing I said had integrity or substance. Nothing I was saying was new or creative. It wasn't even how I really felt a lot of the times.
There are people who do not talk to me because of horrifying things I said trying to pass them off as jokes. I completely respect people not wanting to associate with me because of that. This is where it's like too dark for just text, you have to see that I'm like grimace smiling and not crying when I get into this part. But buck up, I get sober. And everyone loves a turnaround story. I have a lot more fun performing now. I am not so consumed with looking like a badass, I getting real comfortable being the dork I really am. It's so freeing not being obsessed with making people think I am cool and have my shit together, while also trying to hide a drug and alcohol problem.
Matt Saincome, The Champ/founder The Hard Times
For me, straight edge is about picking a fight with father time. Because time always proves our relationships to both people and ideals to be a fluid thing; everything and everyone you love is temporary. But straight edge is a hill you can plant your flag on and say, "not this. This is permanent." Everyone will doubt you. Deep down—while not being interviewed for European fanzines or whatever—you even doubt yourself. But you charge ahead anyways. That's what it's about: Charging head on into an overwhelming societal force with your friends, and youth, and desire to be different by your side.
I've always been around drunk people, since I grew up in a big Catholic family, then in the punk scene, and now in the comedy and journalism industries. It never bothers me unless they are the kind of drunks that want to fight random people. I've never thrown the first punch in a fight, but I've been in quite a few with the kind of drunk people that just roam the streets/shows looking for fights. Those people suck—at life, but also at fighting.
While fronting my straight edge hardcore band Zero Progress I was always surrounded by drugs/drinking. That made the interactions I had with people as my Andy Kaufman-inspired, bad guy pro wrestling character The Champ a lot more interesting. The character was my attempt to transfer Kaufman's self-sabotaging commitment to provocative characters into the punk scene, becoming a bad guy frontman, taunting crowds and attacking every value and ideal punks hold dear. I'd cut Ric Flair- and Scott Steiner-inspired promos on bands we toured with as if we were feuding. We showed up to a show in the worst part of the Bay Area in a limousine. Straight edge is a naturally heel attribute anyways (I guess, based on how people react when you say you don't drink) so it worked really well.
In my personal life, I don't care at all if people around me partake. For me, I feel like facing life's toughest challenges without obscuring the pain—to realize, accept, and then overcome your pain or hardship without drugs or alcohol—has allowed me to hone myself and build my self-confidence to the point where I can focus everything I have on managing large scale creative projects and pursuing my goals. The Champ, on the other hand, was pretty much the straight edge equivalent of a drunk instigator. I'd throw as many verbal jabs at the crowd as I could, brag about how expensive my clothes were, ripped up money on stage, etc. I would tell them my custom shoes (annoyingly colored Adidas that said "The Champ" on them) cost more than a month's rent in their shitty apartments, then throw a bag of chains into the audience and challenge anyone to chain fight me. So yea, lots of trouble making—but we liked it that way. You don't need booze to act a little crazy and let loose from time to time.
Dave Hause, singer songwriter
I was raised in a Christian Evangelical house. It relaxed as I got into my 20s and my parents had more kids but it was the era of Michael W. Smith and that kind of contemporary Christian world. It was a real mark of rebellion to indulge in substances. I was drawn to them as a kid because I was hoping to buck a society that I was pushed into. Using went hand in glove with punk rock. It went hand in glove with rock and roll and playing in bands. Rock and roll sounds great after a couple of beers. As you get further into that a couple of beers feel great with a shot of cocaine. It begets itself. It can turn into an arms race that you didn't bargain for.
There were many points where I thought it might be a problem. I was just laughingly telling a story about waking up in a rock star's lower loft. I was glued to the leather couch, waking up at eleven in the morning, not knowing where I was. I only pieced it together when I heard everyone from upstairs. They were still going from the night before…and I had to ask myself: can I keep up with this pace? Can my body? Can my relationships? My writing? There was the question of whether or not my adult life could navigate of how fast I was going.
For a couple of years there it became about getting to the show and playing the show. But part of the show was the carrying on and getting into whatever trouble I could find. And sure that could be a problem when getting on stage but it was really when it came out in the daytime that I thought about it. I was living a life that was so different from my friends at home. I could sort of make the excuse that I live a rock and roll lifestyle. They decided to be soccer coaches and have teaching jobs. I decided to play songs and go around the world playing those songs. By nature of that that I drink like I do. It was an excuse for a lot of behavior.
When I was thinking about getting sober I remember getting to Chicago and Brendan Kelly from The Lawrence Arms said to me that he didn't get it. I didn't seem like a guy who had a problem. I'd never seemed like I had a problem. He said that I could always keep up. What he didn't take into consideration was that when he and I met I had a construction business that did well. I had a band that toured internationally and had a record deal. I was married. And none of those things are going on anymore. There are other things that went well for me, sure, but when I think of it…it was like parts of my life were already on fire and I had poured booze on them to torch them the rest of the way.
Eventually I did an eight-week tour with Rocky Votolato and Chris Farren where I decided I wasn't going to drink. The tour was a chance to see if I could get better at playing my songs, music in general, and interacting with a crowd. I wanted to know if I could be a better person if I wasn't constantly rigid fingers going towards the bar as soon as I was finished playing. Farren was really helpful with all of it. There were points where I was really wavering. I knew I'd be going to a new city and he'd just encourage me to keep the streak going. Focus on getting through the day. It wasn't anything world changing. Just practical advice. It worked for me. Getting rid of the booze took some things off my plate. All of the sudden there was this room in my mind that wasn't consumed by a whole bottle of Jameson. Now I'm able to interact with the crowd better. I'm slower to make judgments or say things I can regret. I sing better. I'm better at the job. When it comes down to it I'm better at everything not wasted.
Interviews have been edited for length.
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @presgang.
Drew Thomson/Single Mothers shots by Stephen McGill Photography.