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The Day Room: Jon Wurster and Growing Up Without Growing Old

on July 26, 2013, 12:51pm

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So, we had a different kind of experience. But I don’t want to look down on anybody. A lot of when you encounter things in life is just circumstance – nobody picks when they were born. People like Iggy Pop and Woody Guthrie were doing this stuff long before we found out about it. Someone once told me that the only thing new is you finding out about something. Like nothing’s really new, but you reinvent it for yourself and find your inner voice. But saying, “Oh, if you’re not from a certain period, you’re jive,” that’s fucked up. That’s elitist. What’s funny is that I never thought of punk as a style of music. We saw the early Hollywood style, which was very diverse and wild and crazy, and more a state of mind than a type of music.” Mike Watt, 2003

So, this week, we’ve been fortunate readers, and in some cases the voluntary victims, of a wealth of reactions from Pitchfork Music Festival. We’ve seen R. Kelly raised up by the newest generation of young, talented writers, and we’ve seen admiration for R. Kelly mocked by older writers, and not enough that bridges the gap. Where young and old are concerned, I’ve personally seen a divide that often is tongue-in-cheek but can lead to a bigger chasm particularly because both erroneously think they understand each other.

Jon Wurster only has one Pitchfork Music Festival under his belt, a 2011 appearance with Superchunk, but a glance at his resume suggests he should have more. He also is now a member of The Mountain Goats, regularly tours and records with Bob Mould, and has spent time on the road or in the studio with The New Pornographers (plus both A.C. Newman and Neko Case solo), Ben Gibbard, Robert Pollard, Ryan Adams, and many others. His resume is as extensive and random as any you will see, including the unique distinction of having drummed for both R.E.M. and Katy Perry. And while part of his appeal is that he’s clearly a pro’s pro at keeping time, he’s also hilarious, and at least some of his work schedule as a session and touring percussionist derives from the improvement his presence brings to the music environment.

Recently, I saw his tweet commemorating his four years of sobriety, and having touched on this issue before with Wesley Eisold, I thought Wurster’s story might be interesting or insightful. And, it is, but not in the way the Cold Cave story was. Wurster isn’t someone who felt as tortured as Eisold did. They grew up in different times, in different places, and played very different music, but some of the DIY roots they have are very much the same. That said, Wurster’s story didn’t hinge on self-destruction, but rather the issue of maturity, and when applied broadly, sheds light on some of the gaps that result from life experience.

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“I’m not saying don’t drink,” Wurster says near the end of our interview when asked what advice he would give to a younger musician. “I’ve had some of the greatest experiences of my life drunk.”

Before he finishes the sentence, he starts laughing, heartily enough that the conclusion of the line is hard to make out. He stops laughing when he adds, “But those are just minor moments in the grand scheme of things.”

See, when Wurster made the decision to stop drinking at the age of 42, there was no one asking him to — not a court-mandated program nor a young child scared of his father. The decision was made by an adult acting like an adult.

“It’s easy to remember because my last time drunk,” Wuster says, “well, it wasn’t like out of control drunk, but the last time I was drunk was the day Michael Jackson died. It was unrelated to that. I was playing a show at Santos Party House in Lower Manhattan where Andrew W.K. is a co-owner. I was playing with A.C. Newman, and it was the last night I played with him. And my being drunk was unrelated to that also, but that was the night I realized I wanted to stop.

“I remember I was living in Brooklyn at the time and was living with my longtime girlfriend, now ex-girlfriend. I remember lugging my cymbals and my snare drum into the subway, and I remember feeling that thing when you are drunk but you are also kind of annoyed, too, and I just didn’t feel good about anything at that point. And she and I were in the process of breaking up, so I was staying with a friend in the city. Anyway, I had this book at the time, The Easy Way to Stop Drinking. The idea to stop drinking was in my mind, but I had yet to dive into this book. So, for the next day or two, I read this book and the idea, from this man named Allen Carr who I think is now dead, is that it reprograms the way that you think about drinking. He had a very successful book called The Easy Way to Stop Smoking.

“So, the idea is you still drink while you are reading the book, and at the end of the book, you take one last drink. So, that was two days later, June 28th, and I took my last drink out of my friend’s bottle of Jack Daniels, and he still has the bottle. [Laughs] He doesn’t drink much, so every time I go visit him it is still there. And, the funny thing is I never had much of a desire to drink again. Like, it really worked and I feel way better.”

Now, if you are thinking what I usually think when someone talks about a self-help book, know that Jon Wurster isn’t trying to sell a book or preach or anything. As far as I know, he has no agenda, and the entire interview was not something suggested by him or Merge Records. If you look around, he’s been willing to talk about his sobriety, but it’s not a platform, and he doesn’t usually bring it up on his own accord. As he said, he wouldn’t tell anyone else not to drink, and neither would I..

As people get older, losing touch with the person they were when they were young is unfortunately common, and maybe more so with people in recovery, as there is a need to distance who they are with who they were. Wurster is not like this, and he’s also not self-congratulatory. Rather, he is honest and real about what not drinking means..

“Life is a little more boring,” he tells me, “but you realize how much you lean on alcohol in social situations. That’s probably the hardest thing is just to remember how easy it was to let your guard down and talk to people when you were drinking. But, you find new ways of doing that that are more honest now.

“I thought it would be way harder to keep doing it touring as much as I do,” he continues. “One of the ‘perks’ of touring is you get free drinks. [Laughs] And that’s another thing that caused me to stop; from ’08 to ’09 I was touring all the time with The Mountain Goats and Bob Mould and A.C. Newman, and I didn’t realize that by the end of the night, I’d have eight or nine drinks. Not in one shot, but from load in to load out. And that takes its toll after a while, and then I realized I’d probably had a drink every day for 10 years.”

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You hear 10 years when you’re 30 and it seems very possible that this could be you or your friends, drinking steadily since coming of age. But, if you’re 22 and reading this, it’s much harder to think about 10 years with the same kind of understanding. It’s half your life, essentially. At 20, you think 10 years from now will be so different; you might think about your possible children or your possible mortgage. But 10 years flashes by like nothing, and many end up making their life suit their habits and not vice versa. For Jon, that was impossible.

“Playing with Bob [Mould]. It’s like,” Wurster starts and trails off as he searches for a comparison and then laughs as he settles with “it’s like boxing or something. It’s so intense, I know I couldn’t do it at the level we do it at if I was drinking. I just wouldn’t be able to play.”

“I would drink for my Best Show calls up until I stopped in ’09,” Wurster adds, “but it’s funny, we did a call last night, and as we were doing it I realized how smooth it was all going. And I never had that feeling of effortlessness or safety back when I was doing those calls, so it’s sort of a different thing. In terms of drumming, I think not drinking has given me way more stamina. There was this weird buzz I would get when I first stopped, when I’d first get onstage completely sober, and that was a kind of high in a way. It was like a high of achievement. For Bob, when we opened up for Foo Fighters last summer at all these big outdoor venues and, like, hockey arenas up to 30,000 people, knowing you could do it all without having to get drunk just to get out there — it kind of builds your confidence.”

Like many, Wurster didn’t consider the option of drinking occasionally or lighter, as leaving yourself such emergency exits will eventually lead to them serving their purpose.

“That’s kind of the gist of this book,” he says. “You can’t think that some day I’ll be able to have one again. And I like not having that thought or notion floating around, because then you are sort of planning for it.”

“You realize what a crutch you used it as,” Wurster continues. “When things were bothering you or I was depressed or conflicted about something, I’ll have a couple beers, and things will even out. Now that’s not an option. It forces you to deal with it, and that’s a big issue for me lately. I’ve been seeing a therapist for a year or so, and it’s really cool for me to dig into issues and fears with me and really deal with it. I’m making slow but sure progress with that. And I know I would not have undertaken that if I was still drinking.

“It’s funny because when I was drinking, I felt like I wasn’t really…” he says tailing off, then comes back, “not living, but not living authentically. I always knew I would have to stop at some point to ‘get real.’”

Jon Wurster grew up with the specter of drinking hanging over his family. “My dad was an alcoholic, and there were a few really trying times around when I was between 12 and 15.” Things changed.

“My dad is a great success story,” Wurster says with pride. “He went to treatment and did the whole nine yards, but he’s been sober since ‘87 or something. But that was always part of the story. And I think I knew on some level that it could be my story eventually, and I guess in a way it was. But I was lucky that I was able to follow his lead by dealing with it.”

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Photo by Jason Arthurs

Wurster agreed to not really focus on music over the course of the interview, and though the majority of our conversation hinges on his drinking, often what we are really talking about is growing up. So much of the way we act or what we consume is the product of where we are in our life and who we are around. No one wants to look back and be the same person they were a decade ago. Trying to improve is part of growing up, and even that is applicable to music.

Of course, not talking about music is asking a lot of someone who has an album coming out with his alpha gig, Superchunk, in less than a month. Even though he now performs stand-up comedy, has long been on The Best Show with Tom Scharpling, and has been a writer for MTV, music always manages to creep into the conversation. A music writer and a musician will always talk about music. It’s how we come to terms with anything that life presents us. Unless you’re Gene Simmons.

“I was just always into music,” he says. “Someone like Gene Simmons would say, ‘There isn’t any reason anyone gets into rock and roll other than for girls.’ I had never had any thought of that. I loved music and it just seemed like such a fun thing to do. I never thought about drinking or any of that. I was always baffled by people who would get into drugs or anything like that, like heroin. When I hear that someone is into heroin, I think, ‘How can you be that dumb?’ It’s turned out okay for like one person: Keith Richards. And he can afford to do pharmaceutical grade heroin. Or maybe Shane McGowan. He can afford to be what he has become. And I think my dad being very honest about what he went through, that was a very cautionary tale for me. So, that was there. I always knew I didn’t want to become an alcoholic. And then I did in a small way. I was never out of control or violent or crazy, but it was enough that I definitely relied on it.”

And while it grows harder in some senses to kick a habit as the years go on, Wurster’s story highlights just how important your environment is. If you were Scott Weiland’s touring drummer, it would probably be harder to stay sober than if you were Ben Gibbard’s, who quit drinking in 2008 and publicly spoke about it years later to some regrettable public ridicule. But, for Wurster, being around people who had moved past their more carefree youth into the next phase makes who he is now possible.

“The reason I probably started drinking more than I would like was early ’96,” he recalls. “I was on a bus tour of Europe with Superchunk, and I would just drink to get through the day. And you always hear of people doing drugs because they were bored, which I thought was crazy. I couldn’t imagine just doing drugs because you were bored. Like, read a book or something. But, I fell into that, and I kind of needed to have four or five beers to just pass the time, and I was very disappointed in myself that I succumbed to that.

“But no one really ever talked to one another about drinking problems,” he continues, “because no one really had one. There was never ‘so and so couldn’t get through the show because they can’t stand up.’ I’ve never played in a situation like that. Even Robert Pollard, who would be the first to admit that he [laughs] can tie one on. He’s remarkable, though, because he would pound beer and tequila on stage during a show, and I never heard him miss a line. He’d be slurring it, but it would all be there somehow. And that is super impressive. But Bob Mould has been sober since ’86, I think. John and Peter of The Mountain Goats don’t really drink. What I’m super appreciative of at this point is that everyone had come out the other end. And everyone realizes what they can and cannot get away with.”

“They’re all grown-ups now,” I respond.

“Yeah,” he says, “and I’m really lucky that we’re all on the same page now.”

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And it’s at this point that I can’t hold back, having to geek out about the songwriters that he plays with; they’re some of the all-time best, even if a lot of people don’t realize that yet. But I also said something that now, in light of his response, I no longer agree with: essentially that the artists coming up now just aren’t the same as John Darnielle or A.C. Newman. They lack a certain unquantifiable special-ness.

“All these people, and this is going to sound super ‘back in my day-ish,’” he responds, “but they all came from punk rock in some way. We all made our own records at first, for nobody really, and now all these people, Carl [A.C. Newman], Mac [McCaughan of Superchunk], John [Darnielle], Bob [Mould], Neko [Case], or whoever, they’ve all reached this level of success now, but they’ve all come from nothing in a way. So, I like that a lot.”

“I can be really judgmental,” he continues, “and I’m working on it, but if you’ve ever seen my Twitter, this ukelele whistling stuff maddens me. I see that through the eyes of a kid that was seeing Minor Threat in a hall in 1984. There’s this great Mike Watt quote that says you can’t judge someone for how old they are, or you can’t get down on someone because they were born at a certain time. And that’s something I always try to remember.”

And this conclusion to the interview ended up being the part that stuck most with me, and actually got to the heart of Wurster’s sobriety tale. Because, to a twentysomething fan of Wolf Eyes or Pharmakon, they don’t listen to a New Pornographers’ song and think of Newman in early Canadian indie bands Superconductor and Zumpano, the latter of which were signed to Sub Pop in the same year Kurt Cobain died, putting in perspective how atypical his aesthetic was as a young man. In the ’80s, John Darnielle wasn’t even close to being who he is now and was happier shooting speed into his arm than telling stories with an acoustic guitar, some of which still contain the details of the metal he identified with in his youth and the substances he used.

Bob Mould was actually in a band that you can directly hear the punk and hardcore debt in, and Hüsker Dü  was torn apart by Mould’s drinking and Grant Hart’s heroin addiction, the pair’s tumultuous relationship playing a likely part in the suicide of their friend and manager David Savoy. Case played drums in the Vancouver punk scene throughout her time in art school, recording a few songs with Newman before she moved back to America, probably not thinking her life would change forever because of them.

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And then there’s Wurster. Superchunk have long been the epitome of DIY. It just so happened that their DIY became Merge Records, got on MTV, and now approaches 25 years of making music on their own terms. These punk rock roots that Wurster mentions are not the literal punk genre that we call the bleached blonde, Hot Topic-lifestyle that is sold to kids. It might have looked like that in the ’80s, but in the ’90s it looked like Superchunk and Pavement, and since then it has looked like The Murder City Devils and like Conor Oberst and like J Dilla and like Ryan Adams and like Merrill Garbus.

That’s why events like Pitchfork and FYF have such eclectic bills. Unlike larger, more commercial attractions, these smaller festivals focus strictly on the experience and the art. The acts they book embody a similar spirit, and searching for that in the music and finding a way to engage the challenging artists that we don’t immediately “get,” well, that is better for readers, for artists, and for writers. Anyone can pull a loose thread until they see something fall apart, but very few can turn that thread into a sweater, or at least recognize the sweater in the thread . Most struggle with this, but when you think about it, doesn’t this seem like the grown-up way to approach music?

We need to remember that music won’t look the same when your kids are into it. It might be a tiny fashion model crying onstage or a psych-folk band with a guy whose only job is to burn incense and make weird noise with tapes. And you’re better off trying to appreciate it or at least learn why others appreciated it, because you never forget what it felt like to be young — when you could drink every day and you had plenty off time to mellow out. You had your whole life.

By quitting drinking before it had gone too far, Jon Wurster is able to still look back at those days and remember them as they were, and maintain his connection to his younger self. It’s a tough balancing act, to manage the passion and emotion of youth while also demonstrating the wisdom that comes from age. But if we can, we’ll not only relate to music better, we’ll relate to one another better.

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Philip Cosores is Director of Aux.Out. and a  freelance writer and photographer working in Orange County and L.A. He contributes to The Orange County RegisterPaste Magazine, Vice/NoiseyDiffuser.fmMySpaceEast Bay Express and many others. Follow him on Twitter.

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Jon Wurster has a new album due on August 20th with Superchunk called I Hate Music on Merge Records. He is half of the comedy duo Scharpling and Wurster, a Mountain Goat, and yes, he is on Twitter.

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Previously on The Day Room: Mr. Biggest Music Fan