Steven Tyler, Julien Baker, Ben Harper, Jason Isbell, Joe Walsh, and other sober musicians on how to thrive creatively without drugs or booze.
This is a story about sober musicians—about the life that has led them here, and about the life that they live now—but there is no single story here.
Some drank, some used drugs, some did more or less everything, and they did so to very different degrees. Some found themselves at the edge of the precipice, or worse; others simply re-routed from a path or trajectory that they came to see as unwise. Some were clean before the end of their teenage years; some only surfaced into sobriety much later in their lives. Some created the work that made them ﬁrst or best known before they were sober; some have done so since. Some see signiﬁcant correlations here; some don’t.
In the modern pop-culture tradition, being a musician has often come with a series of default lifestyle expectations, ones of indulgence and recklessness, larger-than-life living, and a diligent pursuit of altered forms of consciousness. Some see these expectations as having played a part in what happened to them, though most ultimately see their decisions and actions as also—if not mainly—a matter of their own psychology and personality and predisposition.
Some delight in a dark humor about their earlier excesses; others talk in a way that suggests that to dwell on these too much, to give such memories too much oxygen, would be to take too lightly something they simply can’t risk taking lightly. That it would be foolhardy or perilous to risk returning, even in thought, to a place where for all kinds of reasons they’d rather not linger. A corollary is that some are reluctant in this context to offer much detail about the particular substances that they consumed, or that consumed them, or both. (Readers may be aware that at other times, in different situations or at different stages of their recovery, some of these interviewees may have detailed further speciﬁcs about how they used to alter their body chemistry, but GQ is respecting what they have chosen to share in this particular circumstance and setting.)
Some hew closely to the language of recovery programs; some don’t. (Readers may also notice that some in the former category prefer to honor rigorously the “…anonymous” code of such programs by not even specifying them.) Some have relapsed along the way; some have not—but to varying extents they all remain aware and watchful of the possibility. Some clearly think that everyone would be better in the long run to live the way they currently live; others consider where they are now a personal solution for their own individual predicament that should not necessarily be prescriptive for others.
What they have in common is that they are all, by their own account, for now, living sober. And quite evidently they all strongly believe—whatever their varying reasons and circumstances and perspectives and challenges—that sobriety has made life better.
This is not an article telling anyone how to live; this is not an article advocating the wisdom or foolishness of different paths. It is simply an article in which a diverse group of creative people articulate how their own lives veered off course, and about some of the ways they each found to correct that, and about what they believe they have learned about themselves and about living in the process.
Even for those interviewees who chose to pepper their accounts with wry humor and funny stories, these were not lighthearted interviews. Invariably these were intense and often painful discussions about something each clearly considered a hugely important and central part of who they now are; as they communicated their experiences, they were prepared to dig deeply, and often unsparingly.
And while the particulars they spoke of may be speciﬁc to each of them, the wider predicaments and decisions and quandaries and insecurities and dilemmas they spoke of are the same ones that confront us all. No matter which choices each one of us elects to make as we hack through the undergrowth into the future, no matter how like or unlike these lives here might seem to our own lives, I would be astonished—and perhaps a little worried, too—to discover anyone who could read the words these interviewees share without ﬁnding plenty to relate to or empathize with, and plenty more to think about.
GQ: In terms of sobriety, how would you describe yourself today?
Trey Anastasio (54, lead vocalist and guitarist of Phish): Well, I’m sober. I’ve been sober since January 5, 2007. Twelve years, if I keep going till January.
Zachary Cole Smith (34, frontman of the Brooklyn-based band DIIV): I’m not really sure how to answer that question. I guess I’m just a person who’s grateful to be alive, and grateful to continue to make music and be involved with the people that are in my life. My sobriety date is February 25, 2017, so I guess a couple months shy of two years.
Soko (33, French singer-songwriter): Very health-conscious, I guess, knowing that anything that has to do with addiction is very triggering for me, and that it’s so much better for me to know that sobriety and health is directly linked to my mental health. [Sober for] 14 years.
Jason Isbell (39, Nashville-based singer-songwriter): Well, I can’t really have anything stronger than a Tylenol. It’s been about six and a half years since I’ve had anything like a controlled substance or any alcohol.
Steven Tyler (70, lead vocalist of Aerosmith): I’m going on my fourth run. So I’ve got nine years in December. Which I’m very proud of.
Julien Baker (23, Memphis-bred singer-songwriter): At this point in my life, I don’t use any substances, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t use any drugs. I have not drank or used drugs for, let’s see, six years, maybe.
Ben Harper (49, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter): I would describe myself as 19 months in.
Joe Walsh (71, longtime guitarist for the Eagles): I would say I’m a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have 25 years of sobriety. But the important thing is, I haven’t had a drink today.
Tyler: I was a beautiful little boy that lived in the woods of New England, New Hampshire. So I grew up in the woods listening to the wind. It was just the silence and Mother Nature, no one around—it was an awful lot of magic there. When I started smoking weed, in ’65, ’66, it kind of enhanced those magic feelings.
Walsh: I was obsessive-compulsive, and I probably had a little splash of Asperger’s in there, but in those days, in 1953, you were just a difficult kid. Attention deficit didn’t even exist back then. I really had trouble completing tasks—I couldn’t sit still. In my teen years, I discovered alcohol, and that made me feel really good—I really relaxed and settled down and paid more attention to things. In my early 20s, I discovered cocaine, and that was it—my problem was solved. I could write and finish a song. I felt like Superman onstage, and I played that way. I thought cocaine and alcohol was the combination, and it was just a kid trying to feel better. And I chased that initial solution to my problems for 30 years or so.
“What happens with using is: It works in the beginning, but it doesn't work in the end.”
Baker: I started smoking cigarettes when I was 12 years old, because the older kids at my bus stop smoked cigarettes. They got older and I would drink with them and smoke weed with them. We would experiment with prescription drugs, and it got darker and darker until it wasn’t necessarily a social thing anymore.
Soko: I started going out to bars with my stepbrother when I was 13, living in a very small town in southwest of France, escaping the house every weekend. Then when I was 16, I started going out three, four times a week and then every night.
Baker: I feel like many people struggled with the abuse of substances when they were adults, and I think that lends a gravity to them that is easily dismissed or obscured when you use substances as a child. That sort of falls into the paradigm of a debaucherous adolescent, sort of an irresponsible teenager. It’s just portrayed as irresponsibility or recklessness, and it only starts to be labeled as a life-altering problem when you get into adulthood.… That cultural categorization of substance abuse as the taboo but expected misbehavior of children contributed to me having a warped sort of denial about the substances I was using and approaching them cavalierly.
What were your drugs of choice?
Anastasio: Well, in the year 2000, somebody gave me an OxyContin. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was at a club—I was about to go onstage. As I often did at that time, I did a shot of tequila, and then I did another shot of tequila, because I really liked tequila. And then somebody said, “Do you want to try this?” and I said, “Sure, bring it on.” I had never heard of that drug in 2000. This guy had a pill, and he crushed it up and gave me a little bit in the form of a line. And I did it, and I remember thinking afterwards, “All my problems just went away.” I didn’t feel high or anything, it was just “Eureka!” And I went down the rabbit hole. By 2004 my band was gone. I couldn’t get off these things. It was horrible. So when I was arrested, December 15, 2006, my car was full of various opiate substances—oxycodone, Percocets, heroin.
Walsh: Vodka was what worked for me. I would have to say that my higher power was vodka. Vodka and cocaine and Camel Light cigarettes was a great triangle for me, because the cocaine made it so you could drink more vodka, and of course the cocaine made it such that you had to have a cigarette, and of course with cigarettes you have to have a drink…and round and round you go. You see how that works?
Smith: I don’t know if I really want to talk about it, like, super-specific. It’s my personal story. I can’t change the past, but I definitely spend every day trying to live a different reality than that. I think people know the gist, or they can find out.
“I thought my mojo was gone, but you find a new kind of mojo.”
Tyler: Well, we would do cocaine to go up, quaaludes to come down. We would drink and then snort some coke until we thought we were straight. But that’s not true—you’re just drunk and coked out.
Harper: Alcohol. I would drink red wine, but I’d have to say my drink of choice was Johnnie Walker Blue.
Soko: I didn’t particularly like the taste of alcohol, so anything sweet, like cocktails, like vodka Red Bull, shots of vodka caramel, beer, martini, anything. I never did drugs.
Isbell: I was drinking a lot—that was my main problem. And yeah, I did some drugs, but usually that was just to keep drinking. I would do a little bit of cocaine or some painkillers to sober myself up so I could drink some more. But my main problem was whiskey. I would say probably a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day.
Baker: I don’t want to be defined by the sort of drugs that I used to do, and I also don’t want to roll out a litany of my past, like, escapades. More than the specific drugs, what is more significant for me to identify is that I never liked things that were stimulating. When I sought substances, I sought things that would put a blanket over my feelings. Numb them down, turn it all off. Things that would bring me down and things that would make me feel less.
Tyler: It was more or less the thing to do, back then as well. I don’t think there were any bands that even knew what sober was.
Walsh: How do you say it? “A huge ego with no self-esteem.”
Tyler: I was the kind of guy who would hate to be the guy who never came down because he never went up, if you can understand that. So I played with everything.
Walsh: I had friends who were pretty much the same way. Keith Moon was a very good friend, and it was so much fun hanging out with him—we just did whatever his alcoholic mind said was a good idea. For a long time.
Tyler: I couldn’t do enough. I couldn’t get high enough.
Walsh: Whatever my alcoholic mind said we were doing is what we were doing.
“For every hour of fun, I had a week of misery that I put on myself.”
Harper: The problem of alcohol is, it’s just too easy. It’s everywhere. At least hard drugs, you have to have a dealer. All I know is, I could feel its presence in an ominous, daunting way that was preventing me from being my higher self.
Soko: I think I’d seen Coyote Ugly, and I was like, “Oh yeah! I can dance on a bar on fire! I can do that!” Once I woke up in some throw-up that was all red—I thought, “I woke up in blood!” and was terrified. Then I realized I threw up wine.
Baker: I do have a little bit of trouble with candor around the things that I used to do. I think it’s probably just resultant of shame and embarrassment and not wanting to be defined by the life that I used to live.
Walsh: I used to throw stuff out of the window, and trash hotel rooms, and superglue all the drawers shut, and superglue the toilet seat down, and superglue the phone to the nightstand, and all kinds of stuff. I had a chain saw for a while. I didn’t really use it but once or twice. If you have a chain saw in a hotel, you don’t really need to use it. Just having it, usually you get your point across.
Tyler: Oh, hell yeah. Of course! You have a shot of Jack Daniel’s and you play Madison Square Garden and you get offstage and you go clubbing with Jimmy Page—come on! After two encores in Madison Square Garden, you don’t go and play shuffleboard. Or Yahtzee, you know? You go and rock the fuck out. You’ve done something that you never thought you could, and you actually think that you are a super-being.
Harper: You have fun until you’re not. You’re having fun until things take a turn for the worse, or possibly could.
Smith: I don’t know. Maybe I guess I thought I was. For a short window. But, you know, there’s absolutely nothing fun about any of that.
Baker: No, I was not having fun. I was very scared and uncomfortable and sad. But I didn’t know how to name any of those emotions. I was just doing it because that’s what you do. Or that’s what people around me were doing. It was more like a numbing agent, or an escape mechanism, I suppose.
Soko: I was definitely having fun, and I felt like I was living life. I felt like that’s what life was about.
Walsh: Everything points to that. At the time it was great fun.
Isbell: Sometimes. I’m not going to say that I didn’t have any fun. But I wasn’t stable, and I didn’t have a whole lot of joy. For every hour of fun, I had a week of misery that I put on myself.
Anastasio: Oh God, yeah. Tons of fun. Mountains of fun. Nothing but fun. But then it wasn’t fun.
Tyler: It absolutely works for a while. But then things go wrong. You become addicted, it’s something you do all the time, and suddenly it starts influencing your greatness.
Isbell: I was certainly dealing with a lot of busted relationships, my career wasn’t really going anywhere, and I wasn’t very happy.
Tyler: We believed that the road to wisdom was through excess. But it got really bad in the ’80s.
Walsh: Stupidly, naively, when I had an album that didn’t do as good as the one before it, my thinking was well, obviously I didn’t drink nearly enough: “Jeez, I need to do more—it’s wearing off.”
Baker: Now I know that’s a really obvious red flag—an unhealthy interaction with substances is when you’re looking to escape feeling or you’re looking to subdue reality.
Walsh: I just kind of crossed a line. I had seen my buddies crash and burn. Keith Moon died, and I always thought that was the way he wanted to go. John Belushi was a dear friend. A lot of the guys that I ran with were ending up dead, and I saw myself right on schedule to do that. I had some moments of clarity, once in a while. I would assess the situation, after a blackout or something, and think, “Oh boy, this is getting really scary and I’ve got to do something about it.” But when you’re that far gone, you don’t know how to get help. And I never really got to act on it and pick up the phone, because two or three hours later, I was starting my day and I was drinking and starting to feel better.
Anastasio: My primary band had stopped working, so I had essentially lost that band. My solo band was not working and not together. I had issues with my family. And I had been arrested. So I was in a complete tailspin, and I was addicted to opiate pills and drinking and the whole bit. It wasn’t a good picture. I couldn’t see at the time how much I had lost. Close to everything.
“I guess I'm just a person who's grateful to be alive.”
—Zachary Cole Smith
Smith: Before I got sober, I was just creating wreckage in my life and living unmanageably. And I was kind of soul-less.
Walsh: I ended up this godless, hateful thing.
Harper: Some people get sober once the wheels come off. Some people can get sober when there’s a couple of bolts left on. The wheels weren’t off, in other words, but they needed to be tightened up.
Walsh: I had burned a lot of bridges. I had done crazy things. I didn’t really have any friends—nobody in the music business could really count on me to do anything. I had forgot I was a musician. I forgot I play guitar—just didn’t do that anymore. I just kind of isolated and sat at home, and I had my own little universe that I was the head of. The only thing that mattered was not running out of vodka and cocaine. And that was a lot of work.
Harper: And my dad died of alcoholism. My dad stone-cold drank himself to oblivion. Cirrhosis of the liver. He died July 3, 1998. And that always hung over my head. I never took it lightly that that was in my sphere of influence.
Isbell: Most of the time, I just felt like shit. I felt like I had a serious illness when I wasn’t drunk. If I woke up one morning [now] feeling like I did ten years ago, every day, I would think I was dying and I would immediately go to the emergency room. But when it was a hangover, I thought I deserved it, so I just put up with it.
Tyler: What happens with using is: It works in the beginning, but it doesn’t work in the end. It takes you down. There’s nothing but jail, insanity, or death.
Making The Change
Smith: It wasn’t, like, a decision so much as my only option. You just can’t continue on like that and stay alive. Or you just gradually start losing everything, and I had lost enough in my life. It was a nightmare.
Harper: I don’t have that story to tell of just imploding. I got up in the morning. It just was taking a toll. I could feel it extracting a pound of flesh. I felt I was poisoning myself by degrees.
Anastasio: I had been trying to stop, oh man, for years. I had checked myself into a rapid detox hospital—it didn’t work. And I would go home and clean myself up. It was the kind of thing where every time I went back out on the road, it would just fire back up again. I would do yoga [laughs], go the gym, and all this stuff that I thought would address the problem. And I would start a tour, and by set break of the first show, there would be 30 people in my band room and it would all come back.
Tyler: It was an intervention with the band: If I don’t go away to rehab, then the shit’s over. [laughs] And it was interesting that I was being told by a bunch of guys that were still getting fucked up. But I’m grateful that that happened. ’Cause I would have never seen the light.
Harper: I’ve got teenage kids, and they need to see a sober dad.
Isbell: The catalyst was Amanda Shires, who’s my wife now. I was trying to establish a long-term relationship with her, and it became pretty clear to me that she wasn’t going to be in a long-term relationship with a drunk. So that was my first real motivation to get sober. I don’t think I would have done it—I certainly wouldn’t have done it at that point—if it hadn’t been for her. I had told her once before, when she and I weren’t too far along, that I think I need to quit drinking and I didn’t think I could do it on my own, because I tried before and not had any luck. And I said, “I think I’m gonna need help doing this, go to rehab or something like that, because I don’t know how to do it on my own.” She said, “If you still feel that way 24 hours from now, you’re going into rehab,” and sure enough, the next day I told her the same thing. It was the middle of the night, and I was obviously really drunk. She called a bunch of people that were my friends and whose opinions I respected—it took a lot of courage and care on her part—and figured out how to get me into rehab.
Walsh: We were on top of the world with the Eagles, and we were wild and crazy. That was okay back then, in the late ’70s. And in 1980, we just ran out of steam. After about 15 years, Don Henley and Glenn Frey came to me and said: “We have been thinking of starting the Eagles back up again, and we can’t do it without you, and we can’t do it unless you’re sober.” I was just about homeless. If I got sober, the Eagles would be back together. And I said to myself, “Man, if I’m going to do this, this is my chance.”
“Don't try to tell yourself a story that only you would believe.”
Anastasio: When I got arrested, I was very sick and I was in the process of losing everything that was dear to me. I had not played a show for two years and was out of communication with the guys in Phish. I was very sick and skinny and crazy and mean. It hurts my head to talk about this stuff, but it’s true.
Harper: It was starting to extract a greater toll, energetically. I could tell it was preventing me from reaching as far as I could, creatively and physically.
Soko: I was hanging out with people a lot older than me, and I was looking at their lives, and so at 19 I was like, “I don’t want to be like you when I’m 30. I don’t want to be like any of you. I’m super-ambitious, I want to be working, and I want to do something meaningful with my life.”
Baker: I wish I could attribute it to a single rock-bottom moment. I know a lot of people who struggled with addiction had that. But for me things sort of came in waves of what I needed to eliminate from my life until I started to see a pattern. I feel like I’ve had bad nights or destructive nights or nights where I don’t remember anything or nights where I was seriously injured or seriously in danger. And I remained nihilistic and unconcerned because it felt like there was no alternative. It wasn’t until I started going to DIY punk shows at a house that was substance-free, and the community of musicians there was largely substance-free. When I saw people that said, “I just don’t need that in my life,” it started a chain reaction in my mind. And they were all very kind to me for no reason—like, they would make me dinner, come pick me up when I got stranded, never asked any uncomfortable questions or made me feel judged or condescended to me. I think it started a natural catalyst in me of thinking that there’s a better way to live.
Tyler: I’ve got a lot of great excuses. Don’t we all? “So what if I was 60 years late—I was busy getting ready.”
Anastasio: It all seemed to happen so fast. I had done work a few years back with the Vermont Youth Orchestra, which was something I was so proud of. And when I got arrested, my mug shot was on the cover of this local paper for something like six days in a row. All I could think about was all of these parents and all of these kids having to look at this, and it just filled me with so much shame. I just couldn’t figure out what had happened. Like: What happened?
What scared you most about getting sober?
Tyler: I thought they were trying to brainwash me. I thought I would lose my creativity.
Smith: Just the unknown. The absolute unknown. My whole life and identity and my daily cycle of being alive for five years, or whatever, was just wrapped up in drugs.
Harper: Well, the emotional edge that it does take off is real. So living with that, with life in its most raw form, is a bit daunting. Just taking life full on, without that influence, was one.
Walsh: Everything. I thought sober people were like a cult who sold books at the airport. And I thought I would never be funny again.
Baker: Alienation from my peers. Substances are often a social lubricant, and without that social lubricant, I have to deal with my social anxiety. Or I have to deal with any of my feelings at all, you know? When substances aren’t there and I’m in a group of people, it’s going to be awkward.
Isbell: Now I know what was really scaring me was just the thought of getting sober. At the time, I thought it was: “Am I going to be funny?...Are people going to be attracted to me anymore?...Am I going to be interesting?” What’s going to happen to this romantic sort of Hemingway idea I have of my life? Am I going to be tucking my shirt in and getting up at seven o’clock every morning and acting just like everybody else? But all those things were bullshit. That was the addiction wanting to continue and wanting to feed itself and keep itself alive. I look back on it and I realize that I was never interesting because I was drunk. That was not why people were hanging out with me. And I wasn’t fun because I was drunk. And I’m certainly more attractive than I was then in every conceivable way. But the addiction in your brain, that’s a tricky son of a bitch. It had me convinced for a long time that I wasn’t going to enjoy my life, that nobody was going to enjoy being around me if I wasn’t raising hell all the time.
Walsh: I would not be able to write music, I would not be able to play live in front of people—that was the big one. I didn’t know what sober was—I thought, “Well, I’m going to be boring and live in the suburbs and wear a tie and go to work every day and come home and go to sleep and get up and go to the office and, oh my God, this is going to be terrible.”
Smith: I spent a while talking to friends and family friends who were linked in to recovery, then went to a detox facility, and then lived in a sober-living facility for six months.
Tyler: I went away. And I couldn’t stand it. They allowed me to have a little cassette player with headphones, and I had Exile on Main Street, and I would wake up in the middle of the night, freaking out, and just put on “Rip This Joint.” That was the first place I went to. That wasn’t the time that got me sober.
Isbell: First I went into the hospital to detox. It was pretty painful. I hadn’t been drinking for as long as a lot of people I know, but I drank a lot, and it was definitely enough to cause some pretty serious withdrawal symptoms.
Harper: I was going in for surgery—I have a new disc between my L4 and L5. And I thought to myself, “I bet the surgery will go better if I give myself two weeks of no alcohol before I go into surgery.” Of course that ended up being three days before surgery. And I was even asking myself, “I wonder how soon I can get back to drinking…can I drink when I’m on antibiotics?” Asking these questions in a way that was really unhealthy. And after the surgery, I just felt I would be doing my body, my age, and my future a great disservice. What I said was “I’m going to wait till the incision heals,” “I’m not gonna drink until after I land my first post-operation skate move.” And that just transitioned into recognizing alcohol is just a bottomless pit. I felt like going back to alcohol would be taking so much for granted, whether it’s family, personal physical health. I just forced myself. It was a battle of will.
Isbell: There’s a place close to Nashville, called Cumberland Heights, that I went to. Twelve-step-based. It wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever been through—it’s not as hard as childhood, for example—but it’s harder than most things adults have to deal with. Probably more difficult than losing a job, but not as difficult as losing a parent. Harder than moving, but not harder than your house burning down.
Soko: It was very easy for me to stop. On top of being addicted to alcohol, I was also bulimic. I stopped food addiction and alcohol all at once—vegan, gluten-free, no processed food, no sugar, no alcohol, no caffeine, overnight. Just by being like: “I’m done. I’m ambitious, and I have things to do. And I want my life to have meaning.”
Walsh: I had to start all over, from the basics—I had to learn to get up and make my bed and not drink.
Smith: It was ego-shattering, for sure. I don’t really know how to describe it in a few sentences. It was wild, I would say. Absolute reversal of anything I’d ever done. It’s definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was tough, man. There were really dark moments, and counting literal seconds. It’s pretty indescribable. Every second you’re there, that’s a second you don’t have to live through again, so that’s kind of what got me through it. You know, it’s something people do all the time, if they’re lucky, so I’m not going to say it’s not possible or that I had some kind of unique experience or anything, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
“I think there's so much value in reminding people that they can change the trajectory of their lives.”
Tyler: You know, it took us down. I found out that after I stopped abusing myself, that underneath all that abuse, my thinking wasn’t right.
Walsh: I was that scared little kid again. And I managed to get some consecutive days of sobriety, and I went to some AA meetings, and I realized, “I can’t say my life got better, but it stopped getting worse.” And that was huge. So I stuck around. And I realized that I’m not one of a kind and unique and different from everybody else. I’m an alcoholic. And a big light went off, and I didn’t feel alone anymore.
Anastasio: I had a sort of different situation than most people, in that I was facing felony charges, based on what was in my car when I was pulled over. So I did end up going to a felony-drug-treatment court, which was the greatest thing that ever could’ve happened to me. I had to move within half an hour of the jail, which was in Fort Edward, New York, because they call you in for random urine tests and stuff. So I basically had to stop my life for 14 months. I did 250 or something hours of community service—cleaning the bathrooms and toilets at the Washington County fairgrounds, putting up fences, parking cars, breaking rocks—and court-ordered outpatient [treatment], and drug-court meetings. I just had to move up there and spent 14 months just getting sober and complying with the rules. They’re very strict. If you miss a meeting, they put you in jail for 48 hours. Which happened to me—I had to go to jail a couple of times. This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.
Isbell: After you start the first steps, and you start working your way towards being a more functional person, and a sober person, a clear-headed person, you start seeing the results, and then it becomes about you, it becomes something that you’re doing for yourself. Which I think is something that has to happen. If you’re just getting sober for somebody else, even if it’s someone you’re in love with, I don’t think it’ll last.
Anastasio: It was horrifying and scary at the time, the concept of life without this stuff. My entire perspective shifted 180 degrees. Everything I thought was bad was good, basically. I think I was so disgusted with myself, so disgusted with what I had become, that I was willing to give up, and that was kind of the key. Even when the guy arrested me, I remember thanking him. While my head was on the cop car. It was so much shame involved. So what I did was I just did whatever everybody told me. My mind-set at the time was “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do whatever you tell me, as long as I don’t have to feel this way again.”
Baker: The other fear is that when substances aren’t there and I’m alone, I’m going to have confront something even scarier, which is myself and my own consciousness. Now I have to sit there and be with myself, and that is most terrifying of all. However, as hard as it is, it’s an extremely necessary skill—the ability to be alone and to confront yourself. You can’t hide behind substances all the time. But yeah, it’s scary.
Anastasio: When I first got sober, they had me do all this writing. You have to start journaling like crazy. I was asked to sit down and write this list of everything that I lost to drugs and alcohol. And I remember with shock the first thing that came out of my pen, I wrote “sense of humor.” And it made me so sad. It’s making me sad right now, like I’m gonna cry. Because I laughed with the three guys from Phish from the day we met. Our chemistry together was so funny and so edgy, and they’re such smart guys, and the humor was like seven layers deep. And as soon as those drugs came into it, that was what went away.
Isbell: I wrote my way through it. I think part of the process for me of sobering up, and I don’t know that I’ve ever put it this way before or really thought about it this way before, was using my work to connect with the world that I had always felt so isolated from. And I think probably my survival instinct kicked in and said, “Well, what you do is you use these songs to connect with people in a way that you’ve not connected with them before.” And after that, I sort of felt like I belonged in the world.
Anastasio: I think the trickiest part was that I didn’t understand how deep in it I had gone. You’re kind of a crazy person at that point in time. You are. And I was almost like an alien in my own landscape. It’s taken years—and it will probably be a lifetime—of unravelling how far I had strayed from my inner compass.
Tyler: The confusion goes away. Your friends come back. You can keep a little money in the bank. You can plan things and make them work. You get physically healthy.
Smith: In terms of personal relationships or creativity, it’s night and day. The kind of psychic change, the way I look at the world, it’s like a complete 180. Looking back, I just feel like a completely different person.
Tyler: Once you start getting high, and you stay high, you’re in a different reality. And if you live in that reality long enough, that altered reality becomes your reality. And then when you’re sober, you find out that was a false reality.
Soko: I started making music. I started booking more films. Work became easy. I never had a hangover again, which was awesome.
Harper: If you have the slightest amount of self-loathing, when you stop using alcohol, it rears its head a bit higher.
Baker: A difficulty of mine, and I think this is true for many addicts, is not transmuting your addiction to something else. When you have an addictive personality, you fixate upon things easily. Routines and behaviors, and ritual, becomes very important. When I quit substances, I started chain-smoking all the time. Then I quit smoking and I started running, but I would run constantly. Every time I wanted a cigarette…which was all the time. And I would sustain joint and tendon injuries.
Smith: A typical day [before sobriety]: There’s one thing in your life. You wake up, and there’s one thing. People talk to you, and you try to act like a human, but there’s really just one thing. My girlfriend would ask me, “What are you thinking about right now?” and I’d be kind of quiet and I could never answer that question, because there was only one thing I was thinking about. Obtaining, or using, or whatever it was. So I feel like for the first time in five years, six years, I’m like a functional human, on the same plane of reality as everyone else.
Do you worry about remaining sober?
Walsh: No, I really don’t. I can just see it, clearer than anything: If I get going again, I won’t make it back. And I don’t want to do that. Life is too good.
Smith: Sure. You can’t take it as just a given in your life. I wouldn’t say it’s worry, per se, but it’s something you have to continue to work at for the rest of your life. I’m an addict, and I will always be one.
Isbell: No—I worry about a lot of shit, but I don’t worry about staying sober. What used to be a craving for alcohol is now more of a romanticized memory. I let the tape play out, watch the movie until the end and see what it would really do and what would really happen, rather than just remember the buzz.
Tyler: I don’t worry. I know it’s possible. But I keep myself surrounded by the people that are, and I rely on them for things in my life.
Baker: Not all the time. There’s times…I think there’s seasons of life. It oscillates. I’ll feel very healthy and very well-rounded and like I’m being very productive, and I don’t feel like I’m in danger of not being sober anymore. And there are other times where it’ll be a particularly dark week, or things in my personal life will be difficult or challenging and it feels like the negative and destructive behaviors or impulses begin to sort of creep back up through the lizard brain. But I don’t necessarily fear that part of myself anymore.
Harper: I think it’s my responsibility to worry about remaining sober. I think, “Well, maybe when I’m 75 and I’ve retired to Barcelona, I’ll pour myself a drink.” But then I’m also competitive as hell—I don’t want to lose my streak. The days and the months and the years are very important to me. I’m taking incredible pride in this journey that is sobriety, and I don’t want to let it go. It means too much to me.
Anastasio: Not really, no, but I’m respectful of the power that I’m up against. And it saddens me deeply when I see situations happen…other people in my ﬁeld, for example, musicians who for some reason forgot what they were up against and ended up dead. Which just happened about four times in the last year. And in all of those cases, I knew it was happening. It’s a small community. People were talking about stuff before Tom Petty died. It’s devastating. And the only reason I said that about him is because I adore him and I wish he was alive until he was 90. He’s an American treasure. He’s the kind of musician who could’ve been like Doc Watson or Johnny Cash—old, sitting on a chair, singing those songs.
Smith: I guess technically my ﬁrst shot at it, around the last record, was an extended period of relapse. And that’s part of my story. But since really turning my life over to the program, et cetera, I have not.
Baker: When I was first trying to get sober, right out of school and into college, I would go months being sober and then feel like I’m going to fall back into this behavior. A common thing I’ve read about with other people who are trying to get sober or trying to overcome any impulsive behavior is that when you relapse, or when you break a habit that you’re trying to form, you feel this sense of loss for the accrued accomplishment that came before that. And if you’re going to have one drink, then you might as well have five, because you’ve gone and ruined it now. And that is the worst way to deal with that situation. It’s sort of the opposite—you have to allow yourself enough grace to understand that you’re tapering off something that is very deeply ingrained into your psyche. You can’t jump straight to healthiness. You’re going to have weak moments, moments when you mess up. You have to work up to it, provide yourself with grace and be merciful with yourself when you aren’t able to achieve your goal.
Walsh: Never. I was done. It helps a lot if you’re done.
Soko: No. I smoked weed for the very ﬁrst time when I was 28. And I smoke weed occasionally. But it’s really not an issue. It’s like something I would do like once a month if I’m making music or if I’m in the studio or it’s around. But it’s really not a thing in my life. I’m not addicted to it, I don’t buy it. I don’t have it around. And also it’s natural, and it has so many healing properties. I did drink red wine once, about four years ago—a one-night thing for Halloween, for my best friend’s birthday, and it was awful. I got allergic to it—I couldn’t even open my eyes for a week. It’s the last time I drank.
Harper: No. This is my first foray into absolute sobriety, and so, no, I have not.
Anastasio: No. Let’s thank God I have not. This is sobriety number one for me. But I’m active enough in sobriety that I hear these stories every day. You know, I look to my heroes to be reminded that really good, really smart, really talented people can fall into this trap pretty easily, far down the road, if they’re not careful.
Tyler: Oh, sure I have, yeah. I had some operations, and I had my own medication, I kept it by the bed, I broke up with my girlfriend…and there’s the recipe. Booyah.
Smith: I stay sober through my personal relationships. Through gratitude. Through fellowship with other addicts. I have a lot of tools that I’ve learned that are a huge part of my ability to stay sober. You know, one day at a time—that’s kind of the whole thing. And gratitude lists—I literally write down things that I’m grateful for. That’s a strong tool.
Baker: A couple of years ago, I couldn’t hang out in a bar—it would make me nervous and uncomfortable. Now I hang out in bars all the time because I’m more self-confident and more self-assured in my identity and I feel like I don’t need those things, so I don’t mind if they’re around. But initially that scared me, not having that social element.
Anastasio: Your friend group changes when you get sober. The first thing that happens is your real friends emerge. All the people who loved you, who you were probably hurting when you were drinking, and who had disappeared and were infuriating you and fighting with you, it turns out they were fighting with you because they loved you and they were worried. My wife, Sue, my parents, the three band members in Phish, and my band members in my solo band, and a couple of friends from high school were right there. Ninety percent of the people I was hanging out with just vanished. Boom—they were gone. The party moved on.
Tyler: When you get sober, you start working your program and you find out why you got so fucked up to begin with. That’s when the fun begins. It’s like, “How do you quantify a rock star’s algorithm? How deep do I go into that?”
Isbell: It was a major change, and it was terrifying, but the farther you get into the woods, the less scary the woods appear. And the more time I spent working on what had caused me to be a drunk in the first place, the less afraid I was of that particular ghost returning. And as time went on, it went from being a frightening experience to being an enlightening experience. So now I look back on it with nothing but fond memories, and I see it as sort of this beautiful renaissance in my life that made everything that’s happened possible. But, you know, at the time it was like losing a friend.
Tyler: I continue to partake in the 12-step program. I can be in Afghanistan, I can be in Japan, and go to a meeting and the room is full of alcoholics and people that did drugs like I did. Only nobody’s high. And, believe me, the stuff they say is phenomenal. They’re still crazy, they’re just not under the influence.
What's the best advice you've received along the way?
Walsh: Number one: Don’t drink drunk.
Harper: Don’t try to tell yourself a story that only you would believe.
Baker: One of my friends was honest enough to tell me: You will never not think with your addict brain. It will never go all the way away. And you can learn how to interact with it, and you can make peace with it, and you can identify it and control it.
Anastasio: Surrender, and ask for help.
Isbell: Keep your head and your ass in the same place. I think that means: Be in the present, don’t focus too much on the past or the future. Just try to live your life as it happens. I like that one a whole lot.
Tyler: Don’t pick that—it’ll get infected.
Harper: I can’t tell you how much better my life is without that shit. My clarity and dynamics and directness with my friends, with my physical self and endeavors, with my creative process in the studio and live.
Tyler: I was just an angry fuck when I got high. And holding on to anger is like grabbing on to a hot coal with the intent of throwing it to someone else. You’re the one that gets burned.
Baker: What I see in so many people that recover successfully, they become passionate about something. Like writing music, or painting, or hiking, or, like, building ships in bottles. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it’s, like, a highly specified thing, and it either gives you a respite from the world or it gives you a creative outlet and it occupies your mind in a productive way. Because the addict’s brain is scurrying to be gratified and scurrying to be occupied.
Soko: I can totally party. If I decide to go out, I can be out till 6 a.m. and be sober and be completely fine. But it needs to be the right time and the right place and the right people.
Walsh: Most of my buddies are dead. And for some reason, I am not.
Do you miss anything about how you used to be?
Smith: [laughs wryly] No.
Tyler: There are times. But, you know what, I play it through. Once you see what happened to you when you went too far, you don’t want to go back again to all that shit.
Harper: Hey, listen, I miss it all. I miss a fine bottle of red wine, I miss my Johnnie Walker Blue Label, I miss being obnoxious and loose-lipped with close friends. But I don’t miss anything about the way I used to be, because I’m too satisfied with how I feel without it. I do miss certain components, but it’s completely outbalanced by the benefits.
Isbell: Definitely. I don’t miss things about how I used to be, but I miss things about how the world used to be when I was drunk. It was kind of nice to not feel like everybody was moving in slow motion. I mean, some nights you just get really drunk and you get onstage and you rock out and it’s fun. It’s probably not nearly as much fun for the audience as you—I’m sure if I went back and watched my shows then, it’s horrifyingly bad—but man, at the time, in the moment, it felt like I was on top of the world. I do miss certain things. But the minuses are a lot more than the pluses of ever going back to that life. If I were to relapse and stay that way, then I would miss everything about the life that I have now. Not just two or three moments that I probably remember very differently from how they actually happened.
“When I was full of vodka, I'd have thoughts and—boom!—I would be doing it.”
Baker: No. [laughs] No, I don’t. I’m sorry—it’s not funny. It’s darkly funny. There’s a part of me that wishes, when I go out to a nice dinner with my friends or my partner, that I could also enjoy trying wine or whatever. Because I guess I’m particular about my coffee and how it tastes and where it comes from and how it’s made. People are like that with beer and wine and it seems to be fun. But in truth, that was never my relationship to it, since I never, ever thought what alcohol tasted like, or even cared. It was just a catalyst for a feeling. And so I wish I could enjoy things in that healthy and natural way, and sometimes I think of the sort of media image of how a person is supposed to be in their 20s, and I think of a bar scene and people going out and drinking a little too much and being funny at karaoke, and I wonder what my life would be like if I could have those sort of silly and innocuous and quite pure interactions with alcohol. But it’s not enough for me to forfeit what I believe is an immense accomplishment of being able to live a much healthier life. And as far as the very person I was, not the activities, I don’t miss that person at all. That person was very selfish and hurt a lot of people. I’m able to say that I like myself so much more now.
Walsh: I have some fond memories—a couple of the nights on the town with Keith that were just magic. A couple of songs I wrote when I was messed up that I’m sure wouldn’t have come out of me unless I was messed up. It’s kind of happy sad about those days—I could do anything I wanted to. I did. And now I don’t want to do any of that.
Anastasio: Not anymore, but there was a period of adjustment. There was a time, three or four years in, where I thought I had lost my mojo. I had lived my life with reckless abandon to great effect—just pushing every boundary that was in front of me. If there was a fence, I’m gonna step over it. And then to be in this thing where if you jump over the fence, you wake up in a blue suit. In a cell. It kind of turned me into a cautious person. I was really nervous and scared about everything for a while. I would drive the car at 49 miles an hour, with nothing in the car, and still think I was going to get pulled over and yanked out of my life by some authority ﬁgure. Sober people around me kept reminding me “More will be revealed” and “Just keep going,” “Don’t quit till the miracle happens,” and all those sayings they have. And lo and behold, they were right. I thought my mojo was gone, but you ﬁnd a new kind of mojo.
Tyler: I got a band that’s still together, the guys are still alive, everyone’s healthy. We play better than we did 50 years ago. I mean, there was a certain rawness when we played clubs and we were all fucked up. Sure, I get it. But the band is still together and still sought-after. People still want us for a million-plus dollars a night. And that’s what’s at risk if I use again. And my kids. My cats. My dogs. My beautiful fucking house in Maui. My girlfriend. Everything is at risk.
Harper: God, I had some great times, but those great times don’t measure up to the times that I’m having now, sober. Alcohol-induced great times are a bit fleeting, where sober great times have a stronger sense of permanence to them, for me. The memories are clearer, they’re more sincere.
Anastasio: It’s a “we” thing and not a “me” thing. It’s not all about me. This is what I learned in sobriety, that kind of thinking. I think about my other band members, I think about the men and women on the crew, and I think about the people who work in the building, and I try to walk onstage in that mind-set. It’s a very different kind of mind-set: Is it more important to walk into a venue and say hi to the guy who works in the garage, or is it more important to be good? Because being good got me into jail. It was a whole lot of nothing.
Tyler: Do I have a bucket list? Yes, I do. There’s a few things I’d like to do. There’s a few planets I’d like to go back to. And it would work, it would last for a little while. But then I’m sure my whole fucking world would come crashing down.
Baker: A thing that makes me feel vulnerable is when I isolate. I have a tendency to isolate, and so when I recognize myself doing that and getting vulnerable and getting to a weird place in my head, I call one of my friends, just say, “Can we hang out?...Can we just sit in a coffee shop so I’m around another person?” I think what all these things have in common is they are little examples, little reminders, of the fulfillment of my life that exists outside substances that I would have to sacrifice were I to depend on them again.
How has being sober affected what you can and can't create?
Tyler: When you’re high and you create something out of thin air, and the whole world is singing your fucking song that you wrote stoned, it’s hard to think that getting high wasn’t the reason that all that happened.
Walsh: I tried for maybe two years to sit down and write a song—I had never written sober. And this little voice in my head would say, “Well, you know what works…just get a little buzz.” That was always my justiﬁcation: Could Hendrix have played like that if he wasn’t in outer space? I don’t think he could have. Could Hemingway have written those amazing stories if he wasn’t an alcoholic? And that was not an option, so I would have to put down the guitar and walk away. If I never wrote anything again, that was going to have to be okay. Once I decided that, I had this big sigh of relief. And about four months later, I wrote a song.
Smith: When your brain is hyper-focused on one thing, creativity just goes out of the window. Now I think about music a lot, I listen to music a lot. I enjoy music, I enjoy making music. And that was something I had lost sight of.
Tyler: Believe it or not, I wrote “Dream On” as high as can be. And if I’d have only just listened to the lyrics in that song:
I know nobody knows Where it comes, where it goes I know it's everyone's sin
You got to lose to know how to win….
The voice that wrote that song was a little bit smarter than the guy that broke the pencil.
Harper: I retain ideas longer and clearer. I wake up with ideas the way I used to.
Tyler: All the magic that you thought worked when you were high comes out when you get sober. You realize it was always there, and your fear goes away.… We all got sober, I guess, over ’88, ’89, and those albums were all off the charts. Finally had a No. 1 single.
Anastasio: I’ve gone through ebbs and ﬂows in answering that question. There are stages of life that I went through, and I wouldn’t trade any of it. There was some music that was written after staying up all night on a beach in Greece, tripping on acid with a bunch of friends and writing two of the biggest Phish songs of the repertoire when the sun came up. And there was other stuff that happened in the last ten years that’s been equally great.
Isbell: I’ve always answered that question with: It gave me more time to work, and more focus. And that’s most certainly true. But that’s not the whole answer. I think sobering up gave me a story to tell. And the story was still happening. I was still in the middle of it. So the fact that I just dove headﬁrst into my work gave me an opportunity to actually document, in real time, the changes that I was going through. And luckily I had the technical ability as a songwriter to do that in a way that sort of let everybody in on what I was dealing with, the questions that I was trying to answer. And, you know, it made my career happen. It gave me everything, really, that I have now. The songs aren’t all about sobriety. Most of them aren’t at all about sobriety. But in a way, they are all about that. Because to get sober and stay that way, I think you have to understand what part that plays in your life. It’s all so very closely intertwined, that if I’m writing about driving to the grocery store, I’m writing about sobriety. If I’m writing about my relationship with my wife, I’m writing about sobriety. If I’m writing about something that happened in the 1860s in Texas, I’m writing about my sobriety.
Do you have dreams about what you used to do?
Smith: Of course, yeah. I think that’s a part of a lot of people’s stories, these kind of night-terror dreams where you relapse in your dream. It’s definitely something I’ve experienced. It does subside, but it’s a really anxious experience. I don’t wake up and think, “Oh, nice, I got a little freebie in my dream” or something—it’s nothing like that. There’s a lot of guilt and a lot of terror. When it does happen, I talk to someone about it immediately.
Harper: It’s wild, the dreams. I’ve had dreams where I’ve woken up in a cold sweat, thinking I’m drinking. They seem so lucid, that I’m actually breaking sobriety, that when I wake up, I’m shocked that that wasn’t reality. They just felt so damn real.
Isbell: Sometimes, yes. I did the first couple of years, pretty frequently. The alcohol dreams go away after a while, or at least they slow down.
Walsh: Yeah. They’re situational dreams, and they’re brief. Maybe that I’m at a party and there’s a big plate of cocaine at the table and I’m looking at it. And you’re just, “Oh boy, look at that…” Just fleeting moments, and an emotional anxiety that went along with it.
Tyler: No, I don’t think they’ve invented that color yet.
Walsh: I realized that that big, hateful, empty godless thing that I had become wasn’t me. I had enabled that. I realized that I—Joe—was inside there, too. I had just given all my power away to the alcoholic mind, which was pretty much a dictator.
Baker: I think that faith and sobriety coincided for me because of how I saw the principles of faith performed; the people who were around in my life when I was at my very worst were not manipulating me with guilt, or throwing punitive scripture at me, they were showing me gentleness, patience, and mercy that I hadn’t really done anything to deserve, at least in my mind.… In its most ideal form, faith values and acknowledges the manifold differences of individuals, but prizes the community in a way that decentralizes the focus from the self in a really healthy way that teaches empathy. Connection to a community is a deep human need, one that I think becomes even more important when in recovery. People find that in a lot of ways, in AA or support groups or music scenes or friend groups. To me, I think of all of these as what Christianity would call the body: people with different strengths and weaknesses that shoulder each other’s burdens and give a little of themselves in service to one another so that they can reap the shared benefit and comfort.
When you see colleagues or peers who still get loaded, what do you think?
Smith: I just think that they’re living their life. That’s their story and their thing. If they have a problem, the best thing I can do is just live by example. I can’t change what anybody else does.
Tyler: It’s none of my business, you know? If someone can handle it, then God bless ’em. Who am I to tell someone what to do? It’s a waste of time. When I was getting high, I had a lot of people tell me, “Would you fucking sober up?” Did I listen to them? No. You’re down the rabbit hole, and suddenly in comes your fucking high school teacher, starts ripping you another asshole about why you’re dancing with the Red Queen? Or “Why are you talking to the rabbit?” You don’t want to listen to anybody when you’re on your own little journey.
“I feel like self-care is now finally a cool thing.”
Harper: It’s hard to not want people to feel this, because it is a real feeling. When you have a six-month-clean liver, it’s kind of like a superpower. I mean, even if you have 5 percent more energy, 5 percent is a lot. But I don’t. Listen, I don’t want to be the guy that’s judgmental, because I’m not. They’ve got to find it on their own time in their own way, if they want to. You don’t have to live like me. I got friends from the left, I got friends from the right, I got friends who are sober, friends who have real issues. But this is my way right now, and I plan on keeping it this way.
Baker: I don’t think it makes me angry or feel threatened or uncomfortable like it used to. I just think it makes me feel sort of gross, because that’s not a good look, dude. It just makes me feel sort of sad, because it’s not the kind of life that I want to live or the kind of thing I think is fun or attractive, so I just excuse myself from those situations and, unless it becomes a serious problem, I never really say anything to the person. I’m just: That’s not a musician I want to hang out with.
Walsh: I don’t really have a judgment, you know? If that’s their path, that’s their path. I hope that if they need help, they know I’m there to talk about it. But if they’re comfortable in their skin…I mean, very often I like their music.
Soko: I’m just not really around it. I just naturally don’t gravitate towards it. Because I think there’s something that most people find quite charismatic about people that are like carefree and live that way, but I see so past that. I’m like, “I’m really sorry that you’re in pain, and I’m really sorry that you need a crutch, and I’m really sorry that this is your way to tune out from the world.”
Anastasio: I know one guy right now who’s in trouble, who’s going to come crashing down soon, and everyone’s talking about it. I think sobriety had given me the lens to able to see that person—I can see the actual person in there. I don’t do anything—there’s nothing you can do. But I feel for them. I don’t demonize people, I sympathize. [laughs] But I also don’t want to work with them.
Soko: I guess the closest to feeling really uncomfortable in places is going to Coachella, for instance, and being the only sober person at Coachella. That’s rough. That causes me major anxiety, and each time I leave Coachella crying, and I leave a day before, and I leave by myself. And I make it this whole like dramatic thing of being “Get me the fuck out of here—I don’t want to be around that energy at all.” It’s so draining for me. Everyone being on to having the time of their life, and getting fucked up, and coming there to do drugs or to get wasted or whatever. To me it’s like, I just came here because Radiohead was headlining, you know? I’m just here for the music, and I end up being around a lot of people that are just getting wild. I need intimacy in everything I do—I need things to feel vulnerable and connected. I’m just like, “Let’s hang out back in L.A. when we can just make tea at my house and hang out on the patio.”
Anastasio: When I first got sober, someone said, “Is this going to be hard for you to go back, without the rock ’n’ roll excess?” And I said, “No, because for the first 15 years, there was none of that.” We played chess a lot, and Tetris.
Baker: I run. I really do believe in the connection of your bodily health to your mental health, so staying healthy and taking time to do a stress-relieving activity every day…it doesn’t even have to be running. Like, taking time to sit and play guitar if I need to escape into something and I feel overwhelmed. That sounds so wholesome—“Oh, when I get stressed out, I just sing a song”— but it’s not always that Snow White–ish. Sometimes it’s truly like I’ve been having a panic attack every day all week. So I just put on my running shorts and run eight miles, or go on a drive, or sing.
Soko: I think I thought red wine was like the least offensive because I’m from Bordeaux, so it’s like that’s literally what I’d been raised on. My parents came over to meet my baby, and they still offer me alcohol! They drink every day, and every day they do aperitifs, and every single day they would be like, “What do you want to drink?” And I’m like, “I don’t drink at all.” “Oh yeah, I forgot.” And it’s been 14 years! Also, I just gave birth and I’m nursing! What the fuck are you even talking about? They just have no idea. That, to them it’s just like, “Eh, what’s the big deal?” And then they would offer alcohol to all my friends, and none of my friends that were around me that day drink at all. They’re like, “Oh really? But it’s to celebrate Indigo’s birth.” “No, I don’t drink.” And they were offended. That’s very French.
What did you do back then that you now can’t believe that you did?
Walsh: When I was full of vodka, I’d have thoughts and—boom!—I would be doing it. I woke up one time coming out of a blackout, and I was on an airplane, descending to land in Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. And all I can think is: I must have decided it was a good idea to go to France, and got my passport, and got on a plane. I don’t remember any of that, but I remember waking up, going, “What the hell happened?” I went to a hotel and slept for a day and a half and flew home. [laughs] I didn’t want to be in France!
Smith: There’s nothing I can’t believe. There’s just a general pattern of behavior that I’m grateful to be out of.
Tyler: Oh, I went to Anguilla and I got thrown off the island by the police. And, you know, riding down the street on the windshield of a car. Stuff.
Soko: Dancing on bars on fire. If there was like, like a podium anywhere, I was dancing on that podium. I was like, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! I can dance! I can be wild!” [Now] I dance at home with my baby and my cat, to Jonathan Richman.
Baker: Just a general sort of disregard for my own safety and my own life, as well as my friends’ feelings, and really anyone’s feelings. I just can’t believe how narcissistic I was.
Isbell: Oh, there’s a lot. I’ll tell you, when I was staying in hotels, sometimes I would wake up in the morning and would have to piss. And I would be so hungover that I would just piss right there in the bed. I feel bad for a lot of house cleaners at hotels—definitely those were the people that bore the brunt of my alcoholism. Yeah, and there were a couple of times when I’d rip the TV out of the wall and stuff. This is a good one I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody in public before: I was in Austria, in the Alps. We were on tour, and I woke up one morning after going out really late drinking some kind of European form of Jägermeister, as if Jägermeister isn’t already bad enough, some kind of licorice-tasting strange liquor. And I woke up and I thought that I was bleeding out of my ass. And what had actually happened was I had shat myself in my sleep. And another member of our touring party had also shit himself in his sleep in the course of the night, and I didn’t know this yet. All I knew was that I had shit myself, it was all over my underwear and the bed, everywhere. So I just took my underwear off and I threw them out the window. We were at one of those old-fashioned Alpine ski-resort hotels. I took a shower, put some clothes on, I went down to get in the van. And as I was walking up to the van, the other member of our touring party, who I won’t identify, who had just shat himself the night before, was like really sad, and his head in his hands, he looked like he was about to start crying, he was so embarrassed that he had shit himself. And I walked up behind him, not knowing that he was telling everybody else in the band, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I did this.” And I was just proud. I just threw my arms up and said: “Gentlemen, I shit myself last night.” Well, everybody starts laughing and they’re, like, “Oh, my God, he did, too.” About this time, a Saint Bernard runs around the side of the hotel with my underwear in his mouth. To me, it looked like: “Oh, my God, this dog thinks that somebody needs to be rescued and is trying to find him.” We jumped in the van and rode off up the hill to the next town, and the Saint Bernard was following along behind us, with the little medicine thing around his neck, trying to find me and rescue me. Yeah, there are things like that. That I can’t believe I did. But I did ’em.
Walsh: When I stopped doing cocaine, it was amazing to me that I didn’t need to carry a gun anymore. I just didn’t need one!
What do you think would have happened if you’d carried on as you were?
Smith: I’d be dead, certainly.
Isbell: Well, I didn’t have any liver damage yet, so if I hadn’t have been in a car accident, I probably could have maintained for quite a few years. And I would probably have been a struggling songwriter and touring musician, and probably would have thought that my music was just going over everybody’s head. Or I was born too late: all these excuses that people give when your work is not quite strong enough or when they don’t work hard enough or aren’t able to focus. And I would have just kept on drinking and kept on ruining relationships. I don’t think I would have my wife and my daughter, and I certainly wouldn’t have a big pile of Grammys and all that kind of shit.
Tyler: Well, I’d be dead by now.
Harper: The darkest corner of that would have been my senses lowering and lowering until the point where I didn’t even know I was becoming my father.
Baker: I’m going to say it was either 50/50 I would have died, or I would have just continued to live in a very self-serving cycle of abusing substances, not confronting my feelings, not ever pushing past this superficial level of gratification, and I would have continued to feel just extremely lost, unfulfilled, and depressed. I probably would not have done anything with music—I would have picked up my guitar for 15 minutes a week and then got bored and reoccupied myself with using substances instead.
Anastasio: Probably something very bad would have happened. I don’t know if I would have survived, and that scares me about a hundredth as much as.… The worst thing of all.… It’s hard for me to talk about this, especially in a magazine.… But I did get arrested in a car, which is horrible to think about. If anything gives me nightmares, it’s that I could have hit somebody. And the jails are full of people who did, and they’re just like me. They’re not bad people. People who made a horrible mistake and can’t take it back. I just got lucky.
Anastasio: I walk onstage thinking, “I wonder if somebody’s out there trying to be sober tonight.” And I would never say anything, but it makes me feel good to think somebody’s out there in the same boat I’m in. We’re at this event that is high energy, and there’s people smoking pot all over the place, and they’re having fun smoking their pot, and we’re having fun not smoking our pot. You walk onstage thinking, “Oh, my God, I wonder if somebody in the back row’s at their first sober show?” And then I kind of wink in my mind to them. I’m like, “Hey, man, I’m not gonna take that stuff either today.”
Isbell: I’m just a much more joyful, aware person than I was then. I’m more conﬁdent, and I don’t have so many things to be ashamed of or afraid of. And I’m surrounded by people who I genuinely feel care about me. Plus, you know, I can go for a walk with my wife and not be sweaty and out of breath after 15 minutes, so that’s nice, too.
Walsh: My life has turned around. I found the other half of me, which was my wife. I reconnected with my children, who wouldn’t come near me. I said sorry to everybody I could find—some of them said, “Okay”; some of them said, “Go away.”
Harper: I love to skateboard, and I take skateboarding very seriously. I’ve been going for one trick for almost three years, and I ﬁnally, a year-plus into sobriety, just landed the trick three days ago. It’s called a fakie laser ﬂip. You’re rolling backwards, and you pop-shove the board 360 while throwing a heel ﬂip, going backwards. When you work that hard for a move and you land it, you really do, for a moment, feel some semblance of perfection that is indescribable. I ﬁlmed it, and I’ve probably watched it on my iPhone more times than fans have watched a YouTube video. If I was still drinking—even a couple of drinks before bed—I wouldn’t have landed it.
Soko: I feel like getting healthy and vegan and sober when I was 19 was the best decision I’ve made in my life. And I’m so glad it happened so early on, and that it got me to be where I’m at today. I’ve accomplished all my dreams now, because I write my dreams down. And my last thing if I were to die tomorrow I would regret not having done was being a mom. So I’m holding this in my arms right now [Soko conducted this interview with her newborn baby sleeping on her chest], and everything that was on my dream list since I’m a kid, I’ve done.
Tyler: The experiences I had, and that learning process, was something I cherish forever. It’s like looking for Alice and chasing the rabbit down the hole. Your thinking is around everything that you witnessed in Wonderland. It’s not a bad thing—if you can write about it and make sense about it with music, then you’re golden. But that got taken away from me. I’d get so high that I couldn’t be creative anymore. But these moments, I don’t regret them. It was the greatest time. I’m just happy I survived, crawled out of the hole.
Smith: I’m grateful. One of the ﬁrst things I think about when I wake up is: I’m alive. I’m under a roof.
Anastasio: I’m grateful that I didn’t die, and I’m grateful that I didn’t hit someone in a car. I think about it every day.
Isbell: I went trick-or-treating with my daughter in a neighborhood close to our house. She was a ghost, and she wanted me to be a spider and her mom to be a skeleton. So I was dressed up in this big huge fuzzy goofy spider costume. And I made it a point, rather than stay at the street—we had my mother-in-law’s golf cart we were all riding around in—I went up to the door with her and rang the doorbell or knocked on the door. Her mom would go up, too, but her mom’s good at those kinds of things. I’m not. I’m not good at meeting strangers, even on Halloween night when you’re trick-or-treating with a toddler. But I did it. I got out of the golf cart at every house, and I walked up to the door with my daughter. Those kinds of things keep me sober. Making decisions on a daily basis to do things that I’m not comfortable with, and to allow myself to feel the discomfort of connecting with strangers. Because I think a lot of where my addiction came from was feeling like most everybody was a stranger to me.
Baker: Sometimes I think we hear trite adages like “You can be anything you want to be” and “Every day is the first day of the rest of your life” and we dismiss them as something meant to placate us—a cheesy catchphrase masking the reality that life is hard and will continue to be hard. But simply being reminded of your own agency can be a powerful thing.
Soko: I feel like self-care is now ﬁnally a cool thing. When before, it was like you’re a freak.
Anastasio: I was addicted to opiates, just like so many people are in this country now. And if I’m going to talk about sobriety, I just want to add that there is a solution. It isn’t hopeless. And the solution is just asking for help. Which I did, and it came.
Baker: When I went to a punk show and saw a bunch of un-famous people singing into a microphone, it made me believe that I could do that, too. When those people told me they were sober in a culture where casual binge drinking and drug use [is common], it became a viable reality. I think there’s so much value in reminding people that they can change the trajectory of their lives.
Walsh: My life has got better beyond my wildest imagination.
Anastasio: The important thing is to know that there is a way out. And the life at the other end of that is a beautiful life. Everything bad turns into an incredible gift. If people can ﬁnd the way out. But I sympathize with how hard it is and how hopeless it seems.
Walsh: I can’t say this to you in ink. I can pencil it in: I know I’m good today.
Another Perspective on Sobriety
Vince Staples on why he's always avoided drugs and alcohol.
All sober lives are different, but perhaps some more than others. Vince Staples already represents another facet of the sober life, in that he has never drunk, never taken drugs. “It's not something that I honestly ever think about,” he says. “I just never wanted to. I'm not the kind of person that will do something that I don't want to do.” And in some ways, he would prefer to just leave it there.
Partly that may be because, in Staples's mind, these simple words represent the central truth of his unbroken sobriety. Partly, too, he seems wary of a narrative he finds clichéd and patronizing. “They don't expect this from a young black musician my age from where I come from,” he says. “Like, how could you end up being in the ghetto, went through this, went through that, and not experienced drugs, not experienced alcohol?”
It is only with some reluctance, when it is pointed out that within his music there is a far more nuanced narrative about these issues and how they inhabited the world in which he grew up, that Staples agrees to elaborate further:
“I am very sure that I'm gonna think different answers than Steven Tyler or anyone involved in this piece. I've lived a completely different life. What I'm saying is: The drug usage was the last thing on my mind. When you're surrounded with death and dismay and poverty and all these things that happen every day, I didn't have time to worry about using or partaking in certain things. People where I come from don't use drugs in a recreational sense. We're not at a party, or at the rock show, or at the rap show, doing lines in the bathroom. Where I come from, life comes day after day after day, and people use these things to cope. People use drugs as a coping mechanism, and I've always held that reality. Reality hurts, but so does addiction—it's just which pain you choose. That's the reality of my situation. I don't know if my father doing or selling drugs affected me not doing drugs. I don't know if the dozens of friends I lost in middle or high school affected me not doing drugs. I don't necessarily know. All I know is that it's not just one thing. Life isn't one-sided. We all have different things that we go through, and different things that we see, and these things collectively go together to make us the people that we are today. I'm a hundred percent sure it played some part, but I never had time to think about whether my father's addiction issues led to me not doing drugs, because I was too busy trying to cope with the reality of people dying and people trying to kill me every day. That was really where my focus was. When you have to think about your next 15 minutes—you have to think about the walk to the store, you have to think about how you're getting to school, you have to think about the bus ride home, you have to think about how you're going to sneak a gun into the football game—the last thing I was thinking about was getting high.”
Chris Heath is a GQ correspondent.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue with the title "Clean."