Filter's Frontman Richard Patrick Talks Sobriety
The former Nine Inch Nails guitarist speaks to The Fix about drunk songs, atheism and staying sober on the road, in the midst of his Summerland tour.
Richard Patrick has been a fixture on the American rock scene for nearly 25 years. After touring as a guitarist in Trent Reznor’s live incarnation of Nine Inch Nails from 1989-1993, he formed the rock band Filter, whose biggest success came when 1995’s Short Bus and 1999’s Title of Record went platinum. Their top-10 Billboard hits include “Hey Man, Nice Shot” and “Take a Picture.” But at the peak of Filter’s success, Patrick’s longstanding alcohol and cocaine use spiraled out of control. The band’s 2002 album The Amalgamut was a critical and commercial flop, with Patrick canceling most of Filter’s tour to promote the album in order to attend rehab.
Having been clean and sober since September 2002, Patrick reformed Filter five years ago and the band released their latest album, The Sun Comes Out Tonight, this week. Their Summerland Tour 2013, with Everclear, Live and Sponge, began last week. In our exclusive interview, Patrick had plenty to say about staying sober on the road and why he’s a better performer than ever at the age of 45.
When we spoke with Art Alexakis (lead singer of Everclear) last year, he said it was difficult often being the only sober performer on tour. Will having that kind of camaraderie be helpful at all for you?
It’s definitely nice, but I’ve had a plan in place to keep myself sober on the road for years now. I surround myself with people who aren’t going to be problematic and keep my crew on the road to a minimum. When I reformed Filter, the rule was that you had to have at least a year of sobriety. Being in a band is like being in a marriage and everyone has to show up and work.
Did your own drug issues become worse after the success of Filter or did it simply facilitate what you were already doing?
For me, there was always something missing even as a kid. I struggled in school, had really bad anxiety and was constantly overwhelmed. When I first started doing shows, I’d get really nervous before them and someone finally said to have a beer and chill out. It helped at first, but then I’d start to use alcohol as liquid courage to talk to girls or whatever else and it got out of hand. When I was a touring guitarist for Nine Inch Nails, I’d travel the world on tour and come back with $500 in my pocket, wondering what I was going to do with my life. Even though Filter had all this success, eventually I’m 33 and bent over a coffee table, addicted to cocaine as well. My dreams were being put on hold just to handle this addiction and minimize my insecurities.
When I checked into rehab, the doctor told me my kidney was failing, my liver was damaged and I had a 74% capacity for breathing. Basically, I was dying
When did you get sober?
September 2002. When I checked into rehab, the doctor told me my kidney was failing, my liver was damaged and I had a 74% capacity for breathing. Basically, I was dying. I was scared to death. When I came back from my physical six months later, after having quit smoking, my lungs were at 95% and the doctor said it was the biggest turnaround he had ever seen. It was amazing. I honestly can’t believe my heart could withstand the amount of drugs that I did, especially since so many of my friends who were drug addicts are dead now.
You’ve said that you were dealing with mental health issues simultaneously as well.
I got sober in September 2002, but my mental health issues were only addressed three or four years ago. My wife finally confronted me about about them because even something as simple as writing a letter would become overwhelming. I was tested for ADHD and ended up off the charts for that. The doctor gave me Adderall for ADHD and then Klonopin for anxiety, which is what they gave me when I went to rehab. Obviously, there was a concern that I could get hooked on these and become a drug addict again. My wife doles out the medicine for me though, and it’s been a night-and-day improvement with my music, my business and my relationships. It was like everything fell into place.
As an atheist, how do you handle the spiritual aspects of 12-step meetings?
I just look at the world based on what we know. If a recovering alcoholic gets in a room with 20 alcoholics and stays sober, is that God or is that wisdom and knowledge we’re capable of learning? Whenever someone mentions God in a meeting, I immediately think G.O.D.—group of drunks. That’s all we are in there. What I get out of meetings is the fellowship. In the same way that someone may talk about Jesus Christ, I tell people that I’m an atheist in recovery and we’re all in this together.
A few years ago, you sold t-shirts on tour that said “Drink it, smoke it, snort it.” Did you find any conflict in selling those shirts while also talking openly about your sobriety?
Those were some of the lyrics to a song called “The Inevitable Relapse.” That was who I was and the way I thought. There’s no denying that. But to me, it’s always been an anti-drug song because what was fun at first became this horrendous thing that I couldn’t escape. The song came and went as did the t-shirts, but the phenomenon had to be examined. Sometimes you have turn over the dead body and look at it. That’s what we’ve been about as a band from day one, even with our earlier hits like “Hey Man, Nice Shot” [which was about politician Budd Dwyer, who shot himself on TV during a live press conference in 1987]. Even “Take a Picture” is about me getting drunk and naked on a plane. When you take a lot of drugs and alcohol, sometimes you black out and do some crazy stuff, so that’s what that song was looking at.
You’ve said that you’re a better performer now in your 40s than you were at 25. How much did getting sober contribute to that?
I’m physically better than at 25 because I’m more well-hydrated and obviously sleeping more. I can play several shows in a row now and that simply wasn’t possible at 25 because I was nursing a hangover for six hours a day. When you’re simply recovering after every show, there’s no way you can go out and be your best night after night. I obviously have more energy now, but there’s a clarity in my thinking as well. This new record is angrier than past records—it’s still political. I used to be so concerned about how the fans would respond to songs, but I have a clear vision these days of what I need to be doing musically.
McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix. His last interview was with NBA star Chris Herren.