Music

6 myths about drug taking in the music community

A 20-minute phone interview with Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson was the catalyst for a new book about drug use in the music industry. It’s called Talking Smack, and features candid conversations with 14 artists from all corners of the Australian music world – from Paul Kelly to Urthboy, Gotye to Tina Arena. “Phil Jamieson was instrumental in moving the book from theory into reality,” says the book’s author Andrew McMillen. “He was the first to agree to be involved, and helped immensely by humouring me with a short phone interview in September 2012 … That casual, 20-minute chat with Phil certainly set the tone for the next year of my life, which was spent talking, writing and thinking about drugs. It was fantastic.”

McMillen – a 26-year-old Brisbane journalist who’s written for Rolling Stone, The Australian, Buzzfeed, The Vine and FL – says he wanted to start an “honest, clear-headed discussion” about drugs that goes beyond the sensational way these stories are usually dealt with in the media. He was inspired by his own experiences – from trying pot at 19 to buying MDMA five years later on Silk Road. “Every substance is worthy of honest, clear-headed discussion, free of the judgment, sensationalism and demonisation that tends to control such stories,” he says. “Talking Smack has its roots in this open-minded approach to what is usually a divisive, taboo topic.”

Ahead of the book’s release on July 23 through University of Queensland Press, Andrew shares some of his insights into drug taking in the music community – and his findings might surprise you. You can also watch a trailer for the book below.

1. Very few artists actually want to talk about drugs

“I drew up a list of 100-plus notable Australian musicians and approached them (or their management) with my request for a face-to-face interview on the topic of their drug use. I got plenty of rejections, for a range of reasons. (If you’re wondering why a particular artist didn’t participate, chances are that I asked them and they said no.) Ultimately, it was the individual’s decision whether or not to expose themselves in this way, by entrusting their story with a journalist. I’m honoured that these 14 artists agreed to an interview that most publicists or managers would describe as a thorny prospect.”

2. Not everyone who dabbles becomes an addict

“I heard plenty of highs and lows during my interviews, but those that stick out are the stories of artists like Tim Levinson (Urthboy), Ian Haug (Powderfinger) and Holly Throsby, all of whom dabbled with various substances during their musical careers without experiencing any particular or long-lasting adverse effects. These stories are quite mundane, in a sense, but that’s why they stick out to me: these types of stories are by far the most common among the wider Australian community of drug users.

“No one ever hears about close friends who bonded over a few lines of cocaine after a lovely dinner party, in order to enhance an already great night just that little bit further. We only ever hear about drugs being associated with extremes; with crime, assault, injury, overdose and/or death. All the negatives and none of the positives. In the face of such biased reporting, it’s easy to forget that people wouldn’t decide to use drugs if they didn’t see a potential benefit. Tim, Ian and Holly all saw benefits at some point, yet they were able to avoid ruining their lives. I thought it was worth exploring the mechanics of that decision-making process.”

3. Some musicians can actually say “no”

“Wally de Backer [aka Gotye’s] story is unique, as he says he doesn’t feel that anything in his life is lacking to the point where he needs to desperately seek out the experiences that illicit drug use may offer. This is a perfectly valid viewpoint, and it would be remiss of me to exclude it from a project whose goal is to explore this topic with openness and honesty. Most of my interviewees would likely have held this view at some point in their lives; I certainly did. The point is that abstaining from drugs and choosing to abuse them are at both ends of a spectrum. I’m glad that Wally – and, to a slightly lesser extent, Tina Arena – were able to represent the position of artists who have chosen to shrug off the type of lifestyle that outsiders tend to expect of them: hedonistic global pop stars.”

4. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll is a cliché for a reason

“I suppose Talking Smack reinforces the cliché, since nearly every artist who appears in the book has partaken in drugs – and, presumably, sex, though this line of questioning was beyond my remit – with varying degrees of enthusiasm. It’s an empty and meaningless phrase in 2014, though, and I think many modern artists would sadly agree that it signifies a dead – or dying – era.”

5. If you don’t respect drugs, they won’t respect you

“Paul Kelly told me that. I believe him. It seems that those of my interviewees who experienced addiction were unable – or unwilling – to separate their leisure from their work. When those lines start blurring, alarm bells should start ringing.”

6. You don’t need to smoke weed to write a good hip-hop track

“Rare is an artist who functions at their peak while under the influence on a consistent basis. Altered states can help with sending the mind down previously inaccessible pathways, but a large part of being an artist is showing up on time and putting in the necessary work. If you’re spending too much time in your head and not putting your ideas down on paper, or on record, there’s a high risk of becoming a “gonna” rather than a doer.

“I’ll let Urthboy have the final word on this, because I found his response enlightening. There’s a lyric from ‘Keep It Relevant’, a song on his debut album: ‘All day with the biro/With or without hydro/Filling up the rhyme book.’ When I asked him whether smoking pot helped him write, he replied: ‘When people say ‘I need weed to be creative’ or ‘Weed’s really good for creativity’, I’ve never really had any clear proof of that. You can’t say that’s a fact when you write really good stuff without smoking. To ever suggest that weed is an essential ingredient in that process is almost to give up on your own abilities.’”

Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs is published on 23 July 2014 by UQP. Click here for more details.