Kick out the drams: the musicians who went sober during the pandemic

Music and hedonism have always gone hand in hand but a year without gigs has forced many artists to question their unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Mark Beaumont speaks to bands and insiders about lockdown life on the wagon and why they’ve abandoned the booze

Thursday 17 June 2021 14:17 BST
The grape escape: Fiona Burgess, Mike Kerr from Royal Blood (centre) and Francis Lung
The grape escape: Fiona Burgess, Mike Kerr from Royal Blood (centre) and Francis Lung (Lillie Eiger/Alamy/Coralie Monnet)

The entertainments of abandon, music and alcohol have been faithful bedfellows ever since mead tankard first clinked along to Viking war song. Throughout history, wine and music have flowed in bacchanalian brotherhood and, in recent decades, superhuman intoxication has become a fundamental strut of the myth, mischief and rebellion of the rock’n’roll era. From the bourbon-soaked laments of the 1950s bluesmen through “Whiskey in the Jar”, “Cigarettes and Alcohol” and much shouting of “lager, lager, lager” in the techno age, music has invariably failed the breathalyser test; when singing songs that remind you of the good times, it’s become customary to drink a whiskey drink, chased with a vodka drink, then a lager drink and, since you’re at it, a cider drink for the road.

But Covid, to some degree, appears to have put a cork in it. In February 2021, Mike Kerr of Royal Blood posted an Instagram photo of his sobriety coin, marking two years since his last drink. The No 1 album that followed, Typhoons, detailed the paranoia, shame and self-loathing that forced him onto the wagon. “I spent so long in this fuzz, in this washing machine of negativity,” he told The Independent a few months later, “lost in depression and lost in my own head….” His biggest wake-up call was acknowledging that, unless he got dry, he could lose everything: “My songwriting ability was slipping through my fingertips.”

Little could Kerr have known that his social media statement was something of a rallying cry for legions of musicians using lockdown to get sober. If the pandemic gave the general public an insight into touring life minus the hour onstage – ie, drinking earlier and earlier in the day to alleviate the tedium of being stuck in cramped, largely identical rooms with the same three or four people for months on end – for many musicians it had the opposite effect. By removing the social gigging element of their lives and careers, lockdown starkly exposed dependencies they’d previously been able to disguise as a typical rock’n’roll lifestyle.

“It’s a job where you[r addictions] can go very undetected,” Kerr said – something Dan Pare, manager of south London post-punks Deadletter and currently five months into a 12-step recovery programme, knows only too well. “The social and work aspects of the music industry can provide quite a good cloak,” he says. “If you’re out every night going to a gig, seeing mates, the lines between socialising and work becomes so blurred. Once all of that is stripped away and you’re basically just sat alone in your bedroom for the 90th day in a row, living exactly the same existence, it’s like ‘OK, so I was just hiding in plain sight’.”

For many, simply continuing pre-lockdown habits was enough to alert them to their issues. “In lockdown, when there was a lack of gigs, I became very aware of the fact that I was drinking a lot before we went on stage and then drinking more when we were on stage,” says Deadletter’s similarly lockdown-sober frontman Zac Woolley. “The majority of that time I was spending on my own I was drunk. When you’re sat in your own bedroom, whether it be doing a bit of writing, playing a guitar or just watching a film, and you’re hammered and not able to string a sentence together, I think that’s when it really hits hard that there is an issue. One morning I woke up and I was going to go to work and I was hungover and I just thought, ‘Why am I hungover on a Tuesday morning, having been on my own?’ And so I just decided to nip it in the bud. I was 60 days sober yesterday.”

“It felt like a bit of a groundhog day,” says You Me At Six drummer Dan Flint, who quit alcohol for a more active, health-first lifestyle last year. He’d been feeling the creeping effects of late-night drinking sessions in his home studio begin to drain his energy and creativity. “Every day feeling a bit rough and then by the afternoon having a drink. I was listening back to the [music] that I made and thinking, ‘You know what, I can do better than this’. I went and saw one of my friends who’s a great personal trainer, because I was looking at myself in the mirror and thinking, ‘I’m not happy, I’m not proud of how I look’, and I wanted to do something about it.”

And it’s not just Royal Blood who’ve been making new music about the darkness at the bottom of the bottle.Francis Lung, ex-WU LYF bassist, released a single about his relentless hangovers called “Bad Hair Day” in February, several months after his own music kicked him out of his alcohol stupor. “I’d just finished making a record,” he says, “and when we were mastering it I remember listening to it and going, ‘This is so dark, why am I talking about death so much? Why does it feel like there’s no way out all the time?’ A lot of it was written about drinking and I knew that I did drink too much and I knew I relied on it too much, but I needed to see how much I was writing about alcohol and dependence to realise that I even had some sort of problem. I had to go through that process to realise I was telling myself something, almost. Like a lot of people, I struggle with anxiety, depression, and it came to a head to a point where I thought, ‘I think I might be doing this to myself’, and stopping drinking was a more extreme measure that I took to see if it could alleviate some of these problems.”

Lung stopped drinking on 1 January, just as the second full lockdown was about to kick in. Did it prove to be the perfect opportunity to quit? “Absolutely not. It’s probably the worst time,” he says. “Really I should’ve given myself every break and gone, ‘it’s tough enough, just chill and do whatever you need to’. But mentally I was in a place where I just couldn’t take it anymore … What I found was I still suffered from anxiety and depression but when the symptoms came on I could manage them so much better since I stopped. So I realised I wasn’t giving myself mental health issues but I was really aggravating them and that was really freeing to know that I had at least some control.”

Francis Lung: ‘I realised I was aggravating my mental health issues'
Francis Lung: ‘I realised I was aggravating my mental health issues' (Coralie Monnet)

Other musicians found lockdown, for all its frustrations, to be a sobriety lifeline too. South London singer-songwriter and Ghetts collaborator Jessica Wilde was in a Sony Studios in Amsterdam when the first lockdown hit, facing down her demons: the sort of “self-sabotage” levels of drinking that had earned her her stage name but also countless bad decisions, an operation on her vocal cords and a major productivity slump. “It was like the universe kept saying to me, ‘you have to stop drinking and doing drugs if you really want to do something with this life’,” she says, so she got dry and clean early in 2020 and, three weeks later, recorded a jubilant rap-reggae song in Amsterdam called “F*ck U I’m Sober Now”. On it, she sings: “Reckless weekends keep descending into nightmares with no ending, not any more…f*** you I’m sober now, turning my life around”.

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Released in February alongside the regretful “Wasted” (“about the wasted times”), the tracks preface a diary-style full album tracing Wilde’s route to sobriety, “coming from really heavy drug-taking and drinking and all the toxic relationships that came off the back of that to then over the past couple of years going on a spiritual health journey. It just so happened to align with lockdown that I was finally like, ‘I can do this [project]’. It gave me the headspace to use this time to reflect on life and get focused on what I want to do, rather than drink my worries away and making them worse. It helped me with staying sober during lockdown as well. I can’t f****** drink because everyone would say, ‘I thought you said your album’s about being sober’ and the album’s not coming out until next February! I’ve had a few people message me asking for tips about how to go sober and saying they put on my song when they wanted to have a drink and they’d dance in their front room going ‘f*** you, I’m sober now!’ That was amazing to hear.”

Likewise, lockdown came along just in time for Fiona Burgess, ex-singer with London indie-pop band Woman’s Hour, now beginning a solo career. For years she’d played along with the popular image of the singer as the perma-swigging life and soul of any party, even as she realised she could no longer control her drinking and became increasingly anxious about her intake ahead of social events. “It still felt like such a big part of my identity,” she says, “and also I felt a responsibility, I didn’t want to be the person not drinking, bringing the mood down. I felt like I had this reputation of bringing something with my energy when I was drinking and I’d always be the last to leave …There was that feeling of powerlessness and regret and feeling out of control.”

Following one too many midweek hangovers in December 2019, Burgess vowed to ditch the sauce and turned instead to books and podcasts about getting dry. “I just needed to hear other people’s stories. One of the descriptions in [Annie Grace’s The Alcohol Experiment] book was of a field: if you’re in a field and there’s no pathway but you keep walking down the same path eventually that trampled path will become a pathway, and that’s what your brain is like with these habits that you form. It’s about finding a new pathway and slowly that old pathway becomes overgrown and it won’t even be recognisable as a pathway eventually because you’ll have found a new one.”

By the time lockdown arrived, Burgess had trampled herself a new, sober route. “Perhaps, if the lockdown had begun and I had not already implemented those changes I maybe would have gone completely the other way,” she considers. “If I had not started that journey before I would’ve hit it hard, even though I was at home. So that was a real blessing for me.”

No two roads to sobriety are identical and the musicians I speak to all have differing experiences of lockdown life on the wagon. No longer the readily available go-to drinking partner for midweek afternoon sessions (as is often the role of more successful musicians with time on their hands), Flint threw himself into his carb-free, zero-sugar health kick and found himself “bouncing off the walls” with new-found energy to the point where many of his friends signed up for similar training courses, after some of whatever he was on. Woolley, who quit just weeks before pubs reopened in the UK in April, struggled with the reopening “looming around the corner” and found boozy band rehearsals frustrating until he’d had enough dry nights out to conquer his discomfort.

Lung plugged his brief alcoholic urges with other comforts – sugary drinks and ice cream – until the cravings stopped. “Developing healthy habits is incredibly hard during a pandemic,” he says. “Learning to meditate or exercise when you feel like you have an attack coming on is so hard. But the one thing that’s helped me when I’ve felt really desperate is knowing that it’s not just me that’s doing it and it’s really great to know that it’s becoming almost cool to say no to alcohol and be sober and clear. I like that there’s another way of looking at things and it’s more acceptable.”

Indeed, with new generations taking a more responsible approach to drinking, non-alcoholic brands on the rise and laddish hedonism looking increasingly boorish and old hat, rock sobriety – once the remit of straight-edge emo punks and road-beaten rehab rockers – is beginning to look like an increasingly credible new normal. Everyone I speak to hails the benefits of making music sober: the productivity, self-awareness and focus. Flint has taught himself production techniques, Wilde credits her improved mental health for giving her the clarity to “do some really great stuff that I probably wouldn’t have been able to have done if lockdown wasn’t around,” adding that “being sober has given me something to feel elevated and proud of”. Any fears that alcohol was a driving force or motivational factor intertwined with their songwriting process, that the booze was the muse, quickly dissipated. “There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘what can I write about now?’,” says Burgess. “There’s not necessarily the same drama in my life that there was when there was this cyclical self-loathing thing going on. But by not numbing my emotions and exploring in way more depth my inner psyche, it feels like a very rich and even more honest account of the human experience.”

Fiona Burgess: ‘There’s not necessarily the same drama in my life that there was when there was this cyclical self-loathing thing going on’
Fiona Burgess: ‘There’s not necessarily the same drama in my life that there was when there was this cyclical self-loathing thing going on’ (Fiona Burgess)

“I was really scared that the only reason I wrote music was to feel better from being hungover,” says Lung. “I thought it was all part of a linked process. Since I’ve stopped I’ve been writing another record – I was so happy that I could still do it and to know that it wasn’t alcohol that was giving me some sort of impetus to create. It was already there. If anything it was making it harder to express myself clearly.”

“I’m realising things about myself that I maybe hadn’t brought to the front before because I was clouding it over with a drink,” says Woolley. “I’m certainly going in with less anxiety with what I’m comfortable saying. We had our first gig the other night and I came offstage, the first time I’ve ever come offstage sober, and I felt better than I ever have done being drunk.”

If anything, alcohol was making it harder to express myself clearly

Zac Woolley

The modern touring industry, with its fridges of lager at every turn, its crate-of-beer payments and its brand-sponsored aftershows, is virtually an industrial production line for alcoholics, and bands face an intense unspoken pressure to play the jovial, semi-sloshed hosts at all times, to surrender to excess, to live the cliche. Wilde argues that the industry is making strides in providing coaches to help acts deal with addiction issues (alongside social media backlashes, mental health and general wellness), but as gigs and tours begin to return, do they pose the biggest challenge yet for 2021’s freshly sober musicians?

“I used to drink all the time before I went onstage and there were times I fell over onstage, it wasn’t cool,” says Wilde. “But I used to think I had to drink or I didn’t have confidence. Then when I stopped drinking my performances were so much better … This has been really good for me and has transformed my life. If I can stick with it I can help other people if they want it.”

“I learnt to drink when I was in WU LYF,” says Lung. “I learnt to drink on the road. You drink after the show because you want to get rid of those aftershow nerves, because they’re just as bad. And then you feel horrible in the van and then someone starts to drink at 12pm and then it just gets earlier and earlier and before you know it you’re drinking every day. It’s the aftershow beers that will be hardest to say no to. It’s really hard to stay in tune when you’ve been drinking but after the show, whether it goes good or bad, you’ve got so much energy and you want to tranquillise yourself. So staying present after the show is gonna be really strange.”

“If you can get through the first few shows, the first week of touring, I think I’ll be OK and I’ll find a routine,” says Flint. “It’s difficult with playing late, getting excited for shows, staying excited after the show’s been great, that’s the hardest part of it. But the most important part is that we’re not gonna do this job forever, so I want to enjoy the shows that I do play. There’s no point looking back on my life and thinking, ‘I didn’t enjoy half of that because I was hungover’.”

Lung, indeed, looks forward to a post-lockdown music world less obsessed with swilling your way into legend. “I think it’s the lamest thing,” he says. “I can’t think of anything less rock’n’roll than being a f****** drunk. That’s so lame. I think rock’n’roll’s about art – the excess should come from the excess of art rather than all these things that you’re doing to yourself.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol addiction, you can confidentially call the national alcohol helpline Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 or visit the NHS website here for information about the programmes available to you

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