Finding Sober Resources On the Road

Photo by Laura Buron/Unsplash
July 24, 2019
Expert tips to help you through the challenges of touring sober.

Awesome as touring is, no artist will deny that it blows your daily schedule to pieces. That can be particularly challenging when you're working toward sobriety, as Christopher Tait (aka Tait Nucleus?) of Electric Six found out during a 2012 tour. "We were in Canada," he recalls. "We'd driven from Calgary to Saskatoon. We were playing this place, we get there late, and the coffee shops are closed. There are no [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings in sight. At the time, I didn't have any data on Canada. And there's no green room. So my two choices are to either sit in a bar or sit in a freezing van and listen to AA speakers on iTunes, and thank God I had that.

"But that was the point that I remember going, 'There has to be an easier way to do this.'"

Tait went back to his home in Detroit and took jobs at treatment centers in between tours, which led to him creating Passenger Recovery, a nonprofit that helps sober musicians navigate the road a bit more easily using online and real-world resources. "I think people that are in the program that are touring sober instantly look at it and see the value," he says.

Passenger's resources include a "clean green room" initiative, which began in a house near Detroit and has since expanded to music festivals in the area. "It's a very simple concept," he says. "It's what people want on the road. It's comfort, it's peace and quiet, it's respite, it's quick internet, coffee, and reading materials." The concept has spread to other cities like Minneapolis, where the nonprofit Dissonance—which includes musicians and the Hazelden treatment center—operates one.

Here are some tips on staying sober on the road from Tait and Mishka Shubaly, an author and musician who recently reached the 10-year mark in his sobriety.

1. Look at touring as your job.

"When I first left," recalls Tait, "my sponsor said, 'For a while, you cannot look at this as your passion or your art. You have to look at this as a job. Your job is to go in there, perform a function, and then get out instantly. You don't hang around in a gig, you don't go near the bar. That's none of your business anymore. You go in there, soundcheck, perform, and then go find someplace else.' And that helped, because it drew lines for me that I wouldn't have drawn myself. As an addict, I definitely would've convinced myself that I could handle it. So I just did what I had to do and got out of there, and I found coffee or something else."

2. Be honest and direct about your sobriety with people you encounter.

"My actions are my responsibility," says Shubaly. "That said, I do try to let everybody know that I’m sober just so I don’t wind up in situations where fans are sending drinks up to the stage or people are wanting to do shots with me after the show."

3. Look out for meetings on the road.

Passenger maintains Compass, an up-to-date list of recovery meetings (including AA, NA, and the Buddhist program Refuge Recovery) in the Detroit area and beyond. "It's harder to keep the communication lines open if you're bouncing from town to town every day," he says. "Our goal is for people to get what they need—whether it's a mental-health meeting or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—when they're here, or even just to sit in peace and quiet, and get some time away from potentially toxic gig environments." Passenger's list is generally reliable because it’s kept current by the organization's staff. But tour managers and people who work at venues can also be resources for information on meetings in far-flung cities and towns.

"Nowadays, I love going on the road and hitting different meetings, because they're different all over the country," says Tait. “It just blows my mind every time that I can sit down in a roomful of strangers, and walk away, and the weight's lifted, and I can relate to at least something that somebody has said. It's a universal connection."

Passenger Recovery Compass Screenshot

Passenger Recovery Compass Screenshot

4. Work with people who are on your side.

"It is absolutely important to have sober allies while you’re on tour," says Shubaly. "I usually tour totally solo… [but] when I do go out on the road with other people, I’m conscious about picking other sober acts or at least drunks with a conscience who will not let their fun put me in a bad or uncomfortable position."

5. Give yourself space.

"I would suggest to anybody who's really white-knuckling it to do your best to give yourself some space away from [the bar], if it's possible,” Tait says. “That's why Passenger exists in the first place, as there are definitely some times when that's not going to be possible. That's why we put the links to reading materials and speaker meetings and stuff on the website—to give people an alternative, so they can at least plug headphones in, or read something motivational or positive."

6. Be mindful.

"Don’t set your drink down next to someone else’s where you may confuse it with theirs. In fact, don’t set your drink down at all," says Shubaly. "Request bottled water and make sure you always have one in hand. Avoid staying with anyone who’s going to be trashed; don’t go home with anyone who’s trashed. Ask for a dry green room—the rest of your band can drink at the bar. Or make the van your dry green room. Don’t allow yourself to be left alone with alcohol. Sleep as much as you can—without artificial assistance—and make sure you always have snacks on you."

7. Know that there are people—and organizations—available to help.

Passenger is one of many organizations that help musicians with addiction issues. MusiCares, run by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, offers financial and practical assistance to musicians, as well as an addiction recovery program. Organizations like Passenger and Dissonance have been growing as well, while the Anders Osborne-led initiative Send Me a Friend is putting together a network of people who can physically show up at shows and support musicians in their sobriety efforts.

—Maura Johnston

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July 24, 2019
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