Carper spent his teen years in Hawaii and became addicted to meth and crack when he was 14. That year his parents sent him to a rehab facility in Mexico for eight months. It was called the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), which dealt with teen behavior modification programs. The organization was founded by Robert Lichfield in the late ‘90s and known as one of the most prominent “troubled teen facilities” in the world, with locations in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Western Samoa.
However, several lawsuits have since been filed against them for physical and sexual abuse, as well as fraud and racketeering. According to the WWASP Survivors website, the investigations into the allegations of abuse and unhealthy living conditions have shut down 20 facilities since 2002.
“They treated us very poorly,” Carper recalls. “They would hit us if we were acting out. The fucked part was really the mind games. It was very psychological. They wouldn’t really feed us and hardly let us sleep.”
At 17, Carper tried to kill himself by running his car into a tree one night after a Shins concert. He was on Xanax and OxyContin and had drunk his weight in booze. “I felt like I was going to lose my mind. I remember the airbag going off after I hit the tree. My face got burned.”
When his car started up again, he drove to his drug dealer’s house, which he called “The Pub House,” and where he was living at the time. He describes it as a disgusting party pad where everyone used to do tons of drugs. Carper parked on the front lawn, leaving a trail of car parts in the driveway.
When the police knocked on the door later that night, they were holding his bumper in their hands. His friend talked the cops out of arresting him by promising to put Carper on an airplane to LA for rehab.
“It was fucked up, obviously, that I tried to commit suicide,” he says. “I was on a lot of drugs, I had problems with this girl, and it was a serious cry for help.” The next day his friend booked him that flight to Los Angeles so that he could leave Hawaii and get clean.
On the plane, Carper woke up, still strung out on drugs and bloody with scabs. He asked a college student sitting next to him where they were headed. He didn’t remember what had happened. He then moved into a trailer park with a skinhead friend whom he met in rehab for the second time a year earlier.
Carper’s recent sobriety has allowed him to reflect on the root of his troubles. He thinks his addiction problems stem from being molested by someone he knew when he was eight years old. He finds it very unsettling and difficult to talk about the events and only remembers bits and pieces. He hasn’t seen this person in a very long time, but through his sobriety, he now remembers more of the events that took place. He also feels that he used this experience as an excuse to keep using drugs.
“I don’t think I’ve been able to see that until I got sober,” he insists. “I always knew something was wrong, because I couldn’t remember anything before 10. It screwed me up. I was writing suicide notes. I kept it a secret for so long, because I didn’t want to get in any trouble. It’s shitty that it happened to me, because I just didn’t know what was going on.”
The singer and guitarist’s addiction and recovery process are documented vividly in the lyrics on Too. The band spent two weeks in Nashville working on the album with veteran producer Jay Joyce at the St. Charles recording studio. It is the first time the band ever worked with an outside producer.
“40oz. On Repeat”, the album’s first single, is a grungy anthem that’s superficially similar to their older material, but with the addition of subtle, Beatlesque production flourishes. The video for the song was directed by Ryan Baxley, Carper’s brother-in-law, who also helped write the song. “Because everybody’s got somebody, everybody but me,” Carper sings. “Why can’t anybody just tell me that I’m somebody’s?”
“West Coast”, a snotty sing-along originally on the band’s 2012 demo EP, Shit We Recorded in Our Bedroom, is revisited in a slightly cleaner but no less aggressive vein here. However, new material like “Bad Habits” takes a moodier approach, with fuzzy guitar, deliberate pacing, and even extended instrumental passages.
Carper wrote eight of the 12 songs on Too while he was sober, including one called “Stupid Decisions” about he and his girlfriend’s drug life together and her subsequent overdose. It’s also a reflection on how Carper made bad choices that he can’t take back and how those choices may end up driving people away from him.
“I don’t hang out with Zac that much outside of band stuff,” says Max. “He’s really insulated within his community of Alcoholics Anonymous. But we try not to be obnoxious about drinking and stuff when he is around. He hasn’t set any rules for us, but we try to be respectful and never pressure him or make him feel uncomfortable.”
Although Carper is still without a proper home, he knows that the music and the band are what keep him going. “Honestly, I can see myself doing FIDLAR for the rest of my life,” he says. “I will always write songs for this band. They say bands can’t last, but there are those couple of bands who do. I think that’s us. Fuck, man, we get on stage and all that drama is out the window. But sometimes it bums me out that we’re not a band of brothers like we used to be.”
Elvis and Max Kuehn maintain that they have come a long way over the years. For a band that started off just wanting to party, they have matured into better musicians and songwriters. “Even if some of us play sober now, it’s still an insane live show,” Elvis suggests. “The adrenaline is a drug itself.”
The self-destructive nature of their tunes was great when they were first starting out, but Elvis believes that change also stems from new material that is more grounded in the subjects of the songs. He feels the lyrics weren’t as important early on as they are now, because it’s not just about getting smashed and partying anymore. The entire band has been through tough situations over the years, and it was time to express that through their creative process.
“When we first started, we had never even toured before,” Elvis reminisces. “Everything was new to us. It’s crazy and exciting, and you go along for the ride. After a while, you start writing better songs and work harder on the music. You grow up, become responsible, and play better.”
Schwartzel feels that the progression of the band traveling the world and putting out their second full-length is unbelievable. “I never thought that FIDLAR was actually going to pay my rent,” he admits. “When you look back — and so many bands say this, but it’s true — it feels weird when it happens to you. Now we just have to keep going with this golden ticket. But most of all, I am happy that Zac is in a better place and got the help he needed.”
“Every day it’s a little less pain,” says Carper. “I’ll wake up in the morning, and I’ll still say, ‘I hate myself, and I want to die,’ but I’m learning how to deal with it. If we do it right, we will not succumb to fucking punk rock bullshit, and the possibilities are endless. As long as I keep sober and don’t kill myself, we have a long time to go.”
Our waitress cuts in to take his order. He decides on a veggie sandwich with balsamic heirloom tomato, avocado, red onion, and gruyère cheese on rustic wheat bread. He looks at me, seemingly nervous, but also somehow confident. He crosses his arms and puts them on the table, managing to knock a fork onto the floor.
“I still want to kill myself every day,” he admits. He reaches for the fork and continues, “But, you know, that’s part of life.”
Danielle Bacher is a columnist at Billboard. In the past, she has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ, Vice, Men’s Journal, Maxim, Playboy, and Nylon. She also tweets.
Photography by Philip Cosores. Titles by Steven Fiche.