“Fire in the disco, fire in the gates of hell…”
It could be argued that this exact lyric became all too real for Electric Six keyboard player, Chris Tait. The huge success of this very song – Danger! High Voltage! That catapulted the Michigan native and his bandmates onto British shores, would also act as a catalyst for some of the darkest moments in his addiction.
As new wave disco-punk filled the airwaves in 2003, teens, musos and music critics throughout Europe got to know his band very quickly. Quicker still, was Chris’s inability to stabilise his own path during his rapid career growth.
Quirky personas and masterful musicianship added up brilliantly and their live shows were in high demand.
An avid music fan himself, Chris always turned to his record collection in times of need, until that was, he sought a different kind of comfort. The aftermath of a car crash aged 15 had left him feeling both anxious and vulnerable in social situations, and it was alcohol that intervened.
“I started drinking at parties and on weekends and realised it left me feeling a lot more confident. I could talk to girls; I could make friends. It was a lot of fun. And I started to think, ‘why not do this before school, so that I can always have fun?’
“I sort of had this sense of impending doom when I was a kid, and I was relieved of that fear when I was drinking, which by 16, I was doing regularly. There was a moment in high school when I knew I was behaving strangely with alcohol. One morning I was picking a friend up to drive to school and I realised I’d left my ‘road pop’ [Sprite and vodka] on my bed at home. I remember swinging the car around really fast to get it. To this day I don’t know if I was more was worried about getting into trouble if someone at home found it, or more worried that I couldn’t handle school without it…
“It didn’t matter which; it only mattered that I could get the drink.”
Despite seeing family members struggle with addiction and suffer from health and financial problems – in some cases even dying young due to addiction – Chris convinced himself that nothing like that would ever happen to him. After all, he was a professional musician, he could control his own destiny, right?
“When I got into professional music in 2002, it was like someone had handed me the keys to the kingdom. Everything I’d ever wanted to happen, was happening. And I was really serious about my career; it’s all I wanted to do growing up. I really was that American kid who longed to play Glastonbury Festival and perform on Top of the Pops.”
His love of music was both eclectic – from Abba to Blondie – and heavily influenced by British musical heritage. The Cure and Joy Division for example, were creating worlds that, by his own admission, were “so much more interesting than my reality.”
“Getting to tour Europe was a dream come true, but my escapism was alcohol, and I was also using drugs at that point. When you go from being a garage band to being on TV, and radio playlists, no one prepares you for all the emotions you’ll have to deal with. It’s important for myself that I recognise my life changed very quickly when we got a record deal. We were a goofy band but we also had connections to some very cool things.”
Jack White, Michigan’s six-string siren appears on Danger! High Voltage, and also shot to fame with sudden intensity, further propelling Electric Six’s name in the media. “Then 2 Many DJs did a club mix and XL Records approached us… things like that didn’t happen to kids from Michigan! When Gay Bar hit the masses, it enabled us to have a sustainable career and we gained a cult following from it. We’re lucky that we still have fans that want to see us play, no matter what or where the venue is, but basically, within a year, my career went from 1-1000 and I couldn’t cope.
“That kind of meteoric rise wasn’t healthy,” he acknowledges. “I thought once I’d made it, it’d be that way all the time and that’s rarely the case with bands. We were still playing shows and earning a living some years later, but I seemed to think we were on that same level of success. My expectations weren’t met, and I partied through it. I was further distancing myself from the reality of that comedown.
“I think I took myself too seriously before. Everyone was interested in us, but not everyone loved us, and trust me, when you read your own reviews, it’ll keep you humble!
“While I know I certainly can’t blame music for my drinking habits, all of my addictions got worse being in an accelerated musical environment.
“Over the next few years, I really started to notice the consequences. I was hospitalised. I lost my driving licence, I lost relationships with family and friends.
I would even say that I centred my life around drugs and alcohol. When I wasn’t touring, I was working at a bar, and after I lost my licence for the second time, I moved into an apartment behind the bar so that I could walk to work. When I look back at that choice: to not get clean or try to get my licence back, and instead to move as close to my alcohol supply as possible, basically making the bar my home, it is quite astonishing. I thought I was in control, but I had no control at all.
“No one was partying like I was; the rest of the group were growing up, getting married etc. For me, every day was like going back to the high school prom, looking for fun, but there was no one else there and all the lights were off. All I really had left in the end was a familiarity in the darkness. Even if what was familiar was digging myself further into a black hole. Life is change, and because I wasn’t changing or growing, I felt comfort in blacking everything out and staying numb.”
2011 marked a turning point for Chris. “We were on tour in Nashville when I woke up on my own. I could see there was booze still left in a big bottle that was in the trash can. That was my first indicator that something was wrong, because I never, ever left booze in the bottle…
“Our singer found me and said I had to go home because he couldn’t watch me drink like that anymore. I didn’t remember, but it turns out I’d tried to fight everyone in the band the night before… and then drive the van away. Like a cornered animal, I was lashing out at whoever was left near me, which in this case, was everyone forced to be on tour with me.
“I went home and spoke to an old friend who had gotten sober. She gave me two numbers. She said to call them, and that whoever answered first would be my (AA) sponsor. This guy Dave answered the phone and asked me to meet him at a church with an hour free to talk.
“When I got there, I tried to convince him that this wasn’t for me, I didn’t need it, that I could control my using… He sort of laughed and said, “You know what? You biked over here because you haven’t had your licence in eight years, you’re now sat in a church with a complete stranger, telling him all these personal details about your life, and you think you’ve got everything under control. Really, Chris?”
Navigating sobriety involved taking a conscious six months off, including missing an Electric Six residency in Las Vegas, despite really wanting to be there. “I’m so lucky I have the guys in the band. They were like “This won’t be good for you, stay home and we’ll check in on you.”
“When I did go back out again, talk about anxiety; I felt like a kid at a piano recital, with a spotlight in my face. I’m glad I can laugh about it now. I shouldn’t have been so worked up – as if the keyboard player from Electric Six was the centre of the universe… nobody is paying that much attention! Over the years I learned to love music again without any chemical assistance, and to truly appreciate the humour this band brings to people.”
“This wasn’t the first, but the third stint in rehab for Chris – the first two times were ‘suggested’ by the State of Michigan. “It didn’t work before because I didn’t want it to. I think anyone who works in music is a free spirit to a certain extent; we don’t want to take orders. Although, if I didn’t make some of the dipshit moves I made when I was younger, I’d have been in a much better place for a lot of my career.
“There has to be a certain amount of ego involved in songwriting and creation, but it’s a dangerous place for me to go nowadays without recognising there’s a rabbit hole I can fall down. I’m simultaneously self-obsessed and self-loathing; I’m an egomaniac because I’m terrified. Digging into my head to create something is good, but if I stay there too long these cycles of insanity start to appear. My years in recovery have taught me a lot about balance, and the difference between creative flow and isolation.”
Over nine years in recovery has led Chris here, as Music Support’s first-ever American volunteer and founder of his own community space, Passenger Recovery, a sober green room and studio at his home in Detroit.
“I remember vividly being on tour in Saskatoon, Canada, and literally nothing was open; no coffee shops, record stores, no Ubers, nothing. We’d been on the road for three weeks and it was freezing cold. I had two choices before the gig: sit in the bar at the venue or sit in the freezing cold van two blocks away. Thank God I had my sponsor and some materials to read because I didn’t even have data on my phone to find a meeting.
“When I got back to Michigan, I thought the least I can do is set up a midpoint for these long, Midwest drives where anyone is welcome to come for a quiet chat, coffee, some respite or support. It’s been really beneficial; friends of mine who aren’t sober stop though just because it’s a good spot to have some time to yourself, away from your touring party.”
Another key part of Passenger’s notoriety has been its meeting finder – called Compass – which is available in the US and the UK. It’s specifically designed for the weary traveller and aims to make the connection to a nearby fellowship as easy as possible.
“By 2015 I’d been sober for a few years and felt ready to launch something to help other people who were in my position. Last year I connected with Joanne [Croxford, Services Manager] at Music Support and we talked about 12 Step help at gigs in the UK, and the possibility of online meetings for those on tour or working in remote areas. Simply finding a meeting when I was on tour was a huge task sometimes, which added an extra layer of anxiety. When you’re looking for an AA or NA meeting on the road, there’s a lot of time spent researching availabilities, and you’ll often find out of date info when people are in a critical state. Our hope was to offer 12 Step meetings for the industry that would be easy, online and consistent.”
Since Passenger Recovery began, touring brethren have valued the initiative. Songwriter and poet Patti Smith and ex-The Cure member, artist Lol Tolhurst have shown support; Smith contributed to Passenger’s recent Compass campaign, and Tolhurst spoke about sobriety at a book signing. “I had Lol’s Lovecats poster on my wall growing up, and there he was in front of me, speaking about sobriety… I couldn’t believe it.”
The connections and lifelong commitments that come with Chris’s sobriety are evidently meaningful.
Despite being years into successful choices at this point, Chris knows that 2020 has been testing for the industry as a whole and is keen to motivate and reinforce that there is help out there for anyone struggling.
“I’m used to a lot of activity generally, so in this pandemic, where I’ve been forced to be still for a lot of my time, has given me a different perspective on addiction and what can cause a relapse. It makes total sense that more and more people are diving to the bottom of a bottle, even if they weren’t doing that before Covid hit. There’s just so much confusion out there, so much ‘what’s the point?’ If I wasn’t bugging my sponsor every day for some perspective, that could be me. Sobriety has given me a lot of hope and resilience and allowed me to find joy in any situation if I’m willing to look for it.
“It’s a journey, and I’ll still be on it when we’re back out playing shows.”