Photo by Michael Bezjian/Getty Images for Rock to Recovery
Tommy Vext Dives Deep Into "Sober," Covering The Cranberries' "Zombie” & More
Rock singer Tommy Vext has not had the easiest time getting to where he is today. But the frontman of supergroup the Bad Wolves and former vocalist of alt-metal act Snot will tell you that he had to dive into the darkness to truly heal and grow. The straight-talking artist doesn't want you to waste any time feeling sorry for the difficult moments of his past, and instead hopes that being real about overcoming addiction and a suicide attempt will help others see hope in their own lives.
Back in 2009, Vext decided the only way up was to get clean. He began his first stays of sobriety while living on his former Snot bandmate's couch, eventually seeking assistance from MusiCares to stay in a sober living home. As Vext attests, the home—and the grant that got him there—was pivotal in helping him piece his life back together in a sustainable way.
Fast forward to 2016 and Vext has formed the hard-hitting, label-resistant Bad Wolves with fellow rock heavyweights John Boecklin, Doc Coyle, Kyle Konkiel and Chris Cain. On January 18, 2018, a few months ahead of their debut album Disobey, the band released their third single, an electrified cover of The Cranberries haunting song, "Zombie."
The song came just three days after The Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan's untimely death—sadly, she was supposed to record its vocals before she passed away. Since she liked their version of the track and wanted to be a part of it, the band decided to honor her by releasing it and donating the money to her children. With "Zombie," the Bad Wolves saw their visibility and acclaim rise, and have used this platform to promote their messages of hope and perseverance, as well as starting conversations around mental health, substance abuse and suicide.
Read on to hear Vext's story in his own words.
The Bad Wolves released N.A.T.I.O.N. just a year and a half after the band's debut album. This album, both lyrically and sonically, covers a lot of ground—where did you guys start and what was the creative process like?
I think it's important to note we did about 200 shows in 2018, so that left us with a week off before the next tour; then two, three weeks off, then another tour. I went into the studio and I started writing and recording in September after the European run. We got back and I got a hotel room because I was homeless in 2018. I went into the studio that week and recorded four songs, three of which made the album.
Then we went back on tour with Five Finger Death Punch in the States, and then we did a Canadian tour with Three Days Grace. John went to a studio in Las Vegas and started writing those songs and demo ideas that we had thrown around while we were on the road. By January, right after NAMM, he had already had about 12 songs. So I just went right back into the studio and we spent a couple of weeks in February recording. Then we had to take a break to go on tour in Australia with Nickelback, so we finished up the record in March.
Having so many different creative people in the band, there's a lot to choose from. Everyone breaks off into their own groups or their own studios and writes their material. We throw everything in a pile and make it sound like Bad Wolves. We're a genre-less band. We like all kinds of music and we're fans of bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains. But we also are fans of bands like Pantera, Meshuggah, Animals as Leaders or Tool.
And also influences from The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. All that stuff kind of makes its way into what we do; even artists like Fiona Apple and The Cranberries, Lana Del Rey or Tori Amos. That stuff finds its way into our songwriting because we listen to a lot of music and everyone gets influenced by their different favorite artists. We're just a weird band. We don't like to take one thing and stick to it.
That's really cool. So, did you guys all work in one studio together eventually?
Yeah, we went to Joseph McQueen's studio, Cold Sparrow Sound in Burbank. That is kind of the home base where everything gets funneled in, and where I cut all my vocals. During the process of that, that's where we figure out what's going where, what songs are going on the album, how many songs we have, what the flow of the record is. I wrote too many songs. They were all good, so they're going to be on the next album. So the third record already has material that's ready.
You guys are very productive.
Well, I think a lot of it we're all very seasoned musicians. The iron is hot, so this is the time to get it out. We like to work.
I recently read a quote from a producer saying it's not until you're about 10 years into your career that you really get into your groove and get really good. Even if you have success right away, it takes time to really get in the flow, right?
Yeah, I mean, it's been 20 years. I've been writing songs for 23 years. So, it just takes what it takes. And we're always so hypercritical. I was going over demo songs last night, and my girlfriend is really good about reminding me that I'm doing a lot better than I think I am.
Because as artists, we're so self-critical because it's like a piece of us is in [the art]. Are we good enough? Do we deserve this? You question all those things. You want to convey a message and you also want to connect. And you want to be of service through your art. Sometimes we don't give ourselves a break, so it's good that we have each other in the band, and other people in our lives to remind of us that we're doing fine.
That's so important. I want to talk about a specific track from the album, "Sober," which speaks to your recovery. I'd love to hear more about its message—whatever you want to share. And, perhaps, what it meant to you while you were working on it, and then when you were able to share it with other people.
I actually worked on that song during the break I was talking about. The vocals on the album were from the demo. It was a very emotional session for me. I went to re-record it, but whatever got captured during the demo cut was so pure that we left it. The song is about multiple perspectives. A lot of the artists that I grew up listening to struggled with addiction; artists like Pantera, Soundgarden and Nirvana to Linkin Park and even Korn. A lot of times their songs and messages are the artist kind of lamenting and expressing their first-person experience with addiction and suffering.
I've been sober for 10 and a half years. At this point, there is an untold story across the board, and it's the story of the family afterward. Alcoholism and drug addiction is a family disease. It's the only disease that everyone is mad and hurt if you have it; people don't get upset at you if you get cancer. It's because with addiction, it affects everyone whose life touches the sufferer.
It caused a lot of chaos and confusion [in my life], so this song attacks the issue from both sides. The first verse is from the perspective of the loved one, and the second verse is from the first-person trying to explain that they don't actually understand. In the early part of recovery, a lot of people don't understand why they are the way they are. They don't understand they have different brain chemistry, or that they have an allergic reaction to chemical substances that other people don't have.
And then as the song moves through, it's a message of hope. We put a key change in the chorus because we wanted to take the tone of the song from being solemn and honest to being rejoiceful. It's about how people can recover when they lean on each other. My experience has been moving into the solution of these things, of family trauma, of alcohol and drug addiction. And it was important to highlight it. It was important to take a song and say if there's a million people who are addicts in the world, there has to be five to ten times as many who are affected by those people—to tell everyone involved that they're not alone.
Have you been performing "Sober" live on tour?
Yeah. We've been doing an acoustic version on the headlining shows. We only have 40 minutes [as the opening act] on the big arena tours. We booked a couple of headline gigs where we play for an hour and 20 minutes or so. Towards the third quarter act, Doc and I will come out and play a couple songs acoustically and that's one of them. It's gone over really well. You can tell that people are connecting with it.
It feels good whenever you're able to take something from the studio, transform it into a live setting and have it touch people.
Is it an emotional song for you to perform?
Yeah. I think "Remember When" [from 2018's Disobey] is always going to be an emotional song for me to perform. [Also] "Sober," even "Zombie." It's a 50/50 chance if I'm going to break out in tears after we play this set because we always end with "Zombie" and it's hard to not go through an emotional roller coaster every night. My mom always told me to sing from my soul.
"We never know who's going to see us or hear it, and how much that means to them. So I'm just very aware that if we have a platform, we have to use it to say something real."
Do you feel like music is sort of a cathartic release for you, or a healthy way to move your emotions?
It absolutely is. And there's a lot that goes on in our lives in between songs. I've taken the platform of the band to really put a stake into suicide awareness. I've been through a lot of things in my life, and one is I'm an attempted suicide survivor. And I don't have a problem telling a room full of 10 or 20,000 people my experience.
When I was going through that, I felt a sense of terminal uniqueness and that no one would be able to reach me. As a result of surviving that, I feel compelled to let other people know it's okay to feel that way. They don't have to be ashamed, but they do have to talk to people and get it off their chest. We're only as sick as our secrets. I think the band as a whole, musically, has the instrumental integrity of what my bandmates are conveying. And on top of it, it's kind of married with this message that's something I lived.
Before the band blew up I was working in recovery; I used to manage a sober living home and then I worked as a sober companion, which is like a personal drug and alcohol counselor. You travel and live with them and help them get through their first 60 to 90 days of recovery. Those experiences really change you, and I don't take for granted the position that the band has. And I don't take for granted the opportunity that even just talking to you today. You never know who's going to read this.
We never know who's going to see us or hear it, and how much that means to them. So I'm just very aware that if we have a platform, we have to use it to say something real.
I really appreciate that, and I think conversations around mental health and suicide are so important. Even if you just encourage one person that what they're going through is going to get better, that's huge.
That's all we can do. Other people stepped up for me, now it's my turn to do the same thing.
I want to return to the band's version of "Zombie." Why did you choose to cover it and why you think that the message still feels so relevant today? And after Dolores O'Riordan passed, what did it mean to the band to share that song?
The initial reason why I wanted to cover the song was—well, to understand why is to understand the original meaning of the song. Dolores was writing about an IRA bombing at a factory in Warrington, England.
At this point the IRA had been considered a terrorist organization. They pulled off this terrorist attack and two little boys got killed. There was a very big social awareness issue in Ireland and England and the song really carried this serious message and tone that humanity needs to do better.
In 2017, I was living in Las Vegas at the time of the [music festival] shooting, which a friend of mine was a survivor of. I had toured Europe between the terrorist bombing [in Brussels], the shooting at the Bataclan in France and the bombing outside the Ariana Grande concert in the U.K. These things are happening in the world and they seem so close to us in entertainment, in rock, it's starting to affect how we live our lives. We couldn't ignore it.
So, there was this really impending need to put that song out. Initially, we had no intention of putting the song on the record, I didn't feel confident in it. We asked Dan Lee, who works at our label in the U.K. and is a family friend of Dolores to send her the song. And that if she had approved of it, then I would have felt comfortable putting it on the record.
She loved the song so much she actually came back and asked if she could sing on it. She flew to London, stayed in a hotel for a couple days and was scheduled to go over to the studio and record her vocals over our rendition. And on the 7th, the evening before she was supposed to go into the studio I believe, she passed away in her sleep in her hotel room.
We were really charged with this task of what to do. Everyone's first response was that we need to just cut this, drop the song and leave it. This was the last thing she was supposed to work on and is something that she approved. We were like, how should we memorialize this?
I didn't want any money from this song. So we talked with the label and I said the only way I'm going to be comfortable with this is if we donate the money to her children. Everyone agreed, we contacted the family and they graciously accepted, so we moved forward with it.
Now when we play that song, we ask everyone in the audience to think about someone they loved that they lost. We use Dolores' message and her voice in the song every single night to remind people that life is fragile and fleeting. Along with it, we share the anti-suicide message that all we have is today, and all we have is each other. Money and success go away. Hard times come and go, as do good times. Everything has impermanence. It's important to remember what's good and live in the moment when you can because life is hard, unfortunately.
Dolores gave us a pretty everlasting gift to all of us, for our career, for the rest of the time that we'll be playing it.
I also want to talk about your journey to sobriety. If you don't mind sharing, I'm wondering what was going through your mind back in 2009, when you received a MusiCares grant? How do you feel the experience of living in a recovery home helped the process to healing?
My sobriety day is May 18, 2009. By the time I'd given up on drinking and using and trying to manage it, I was homeless. I was very sick, very thin. My ex-bandmate Sonny Mayo, he was the guitar player of Snot and played in Seven Doves. And he's the co-founder of a non-profit organization called Rock To Recovery. He's been sober for 17 years. He actually took me in, so I started my sobriety journey on a couch.
I had to get a job. His ex-wife got me a job working at a dog kennel. I was making about eight dollars an hour. I was riding the bus everywhere and sleeping on a couch for about four months while I tried to scrape some time together. And then I'd gotten another job, but I was afraid to get an apartment because I didn't trust myself not to drink. I didn't know what to do, and I couldn't really afford an apartment. A buddy of mine received help from MusiCares and suggested that I go down to the offices.
About two weeks later, I got approved for a grant for sober living. I moved into a men's sober living house built for musicians, called Genesis House, in Los Angeles. There was a couple of other famous artists who went through there. The place had a studio in the garage. It was a very structured, safe environment for me to continue my journey. I spent the next three months there. By the time I had accumulated about seven or eight months of sobriety, I felt good about moving out of my element. It was really like a little safety nest for me. I met a lot of people early on in my first month to recovery that relapsed, so that was terrifying. I knew guys who got loaded and rode their motorcycle and killed themselves accidentally. I'd see people overdose, so I had a healthy fear of relapse and I wasn't playing games.
I was really serious about getting my life together, and that's just my personal story. There are hundreds if not thousands of other people who have so greatly benefited from MusiCares. What they do is amazing because a lot of people don't realize many musicians and recording artists don't have health insurance. You're an independent contractor for the most part, and 99.9 percent of the gigs aren't paying well.
It's a miracle if you can actually do this job and make money. Like people say, first you get famous, then you get rich. Because the music industry, the way that it works is like a bank loan. If you become successful everybody has to get paid back on their investments first. In 2018 I was still homeless for a year. Because A) we were touring so much, and B) we'd made no money. So I was not able to maintain an apartment and I had to selectively become homeless again.
It's just really an amazing thing what MusiCares provides because I don't know what would have happened to me if I didn't get that grant. I have no idea. It took every one who helped me in my early sobriety to get me to the point today, where I can stand on stage and carry a message to let other people know they're not alone.
Because I can only speak about my experience. I'm not out here preaching to people. I think that's what resonates with people. I think we need more support for foundations like MusiCares and Rock to Recovery so that they can continue to exist and more people can be aware of them, and get the support that they need.
"It's just really an amazing thing what MusiCares provides because I don't know what would have happened to me if I didn't get that grant."
I can only imagine how exciting, but really tiring life as a touring artist can be. I'm sure it can make regular routines and self-care habits hard to maintain at times. What are some of the challenges you've faced while touring, being a sober musician?
Well, initially when the band blew up seemingly overnight and I started to become a recognized person it was a very uncomfortable. Especially because I had spent the better part of the last nine years being an anonymous person. It was a lot of emotions. It's actually pretty weird, I went back into therapy because I kind of re-developed this ego that I had previously kind of dealt with and deconstructed. From a psychological standpoint, there's a component of feeling exposed.
People do some strange things. They take photos of you when you're not looking, and tag you and post photos, and just strange stuff that takes a while to get used to. I found myself actually feeling resentments come up about the success because of the timing that it happened.
I had a full-time job that made a lot of money and I was still doing music. Then I had to give up my company, which was my financial security, to be in this band. And it was a real roll of the dice because I had no idea if we were ever going to make money. So my first experience was dealing with those resentments and the risk, along with the fear that's associated with it. I'd been a musician for 20 years and about five years ago I decided I would never be broke again. Having the humility and the faith to be broke again was a huge challenge.
This year, it's been a lot easier. I'm a big cheerleader for therapy. I do therapy once a week. Even on the road, I do Skype or FaceTime sessions with my therapist. It's really is good to have a sounding board. I think it's also really important for people who are sober and in recovery to participate in their recovery. Sometimes I call random people who are either in early sobriety or just might be going through stuff, and seeing what's going on with them.
I found the biggest way to get out of my head and out of my ego is to ask people how they're doing and to find out what's going on with them. It's the same thing when I was going through suicidal depression. The thing that saved me was actually was helping other people get sober. I felt like I was at a point where I didn't have anything to live for.
I think altruism is a spiritually rewarding thing that isn't popularized in American culture. You don't only have to go down to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving. The holidays are the worst times to volunteer for something like that because everybody thinks that's the time to do it. Any day of the year will do. And it's more appreciated when people feel most forgotten, which is the other 363 days of the year. So those were some of the solutions that really helped me stay in place.
And it's also frequent contact through social media and through meet and greets with fans. I get messages every day of people who thank me because they were going to commit suicide. This summer we were on tour with Papa Roach and one of the crew guys came up to me after I got off stage and he was like, hey, this guy and his daughter are over here, and they need to talk to you. Normally that's a very strange thing, but this is one of the crew guys that I worked out with on the tour. They escorted them back stage and I sat with this Dad and his daughter for about 45 minutes. She still had her hospital bracelets on, she was just a little girl.
She was like 13 years old and she had tried to commit suicide two days before. Her dad was this big, tattooed tough guy, but he was just quiet. He didn't know what to do for his little girl. She talked to me about how she was feeling. And I gave her some exercises and some things that she can do when she's having those feelings to begin to turn them around. That was the most important conversation that I had on that tour. I started to experience those feelings when I was 13 years old. These are the interactions and these are the things that keep all of us understanding that what we're doing is important.
Wow. If you could go back 10 years and give yourself a message what would it be?
I wouldn't. If I had a time machine I wouldn't go back and tell myself it was going to be all right. Because you can't be in fear and in faith at the same time. I had to build a spiritual life because my life was filled with such uncertainty. I had to learn to build a practice of putting more of the future on the universe so that I could live in the moment. And if I didn't spend all those years doing that, I would not be able to enjoy where I am in right now because I would still be thinking of the next thing, or that it's not enough. And then I wouldn't be able to be of service to anyone, I wouldn't be any good.
I'd just be another dude on stage just trying to get as much attention as possible for his ego, not dealing with his childhood issues. Carrying on and throwing a tantrum, which I've seen so many "rock stars" do. It's just old, it's not interesting anymore.
It can be so hard to stay focused and not keep look to the next thing. Meditation and therapy, for example, have changed my life.
It's amazing. When you learn how to quiet the mind and all that loud noise stops making noise, it's the little voice inside us. Everyone, we all have it. I almost think we might all have the same little voice, all living things. I think people feel disconnected because of what our brains are taking in. We put thoughts into words and words become feelings and ideas. Because of consumerism, we're constantly told we're not enough; that we're different, we're separate.
There are so many different factors in modern society that create this kind of split between ourselves and everything else that's a lie. The most archaic of religions all fundamentally have faith in the same principle that we are all connected. It's even in "The Lion King." That spiritual concept, you don't actually have to do anything to understand how to believe it other than quiet your mind. How is it possible that so many different people from so many different walks of life can stand in the same arena and all agree with the same premise that life is worth living?
Because it's a spiritual truth. And it's a gift. We are given the gift of life. I just don't believe there are any mistakes anymore, everyone has a purpose.