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Is This It? Mishka Shubaly Talks Substance Abuse, Suicide and Salvation
Jamie Ryder , July 10th, 2018 12:17

Several dates into Mishka Shubaly's latest gruelling solo tour (the last stop of which is titled "Die of fatigue and return home in a body bag") the musician and writer speaks to Jamie Ryder about his new album, the experience of getting clean, and missing out on extreme fame by a hair's breadth

“I was going to use the bathroom, and the door opens and out comes Nick Cave,” Mishka Shubaly tells me. “Out comes Nick Cave, and he’s drying his hands. I opened my mouth to say something and he just looked up at me like, 'Man… no.' And I shut my mouth and he walked by.”

I meet Shubaly, author and musician, on a scorching day outside the Rough Trade East in London. He’s here to talk to me about his latest record When We Were Animals, and its itinerant recording process. It’s a location I selected as a clumsy half-joke because I had decided I wanted to use its trendy-corporate supersaturation to “remind him of Williamsburg.” He is unimpressed, but does express satisfaction as we walk to a nearby park that he can still connect to all of the same wi-fi boxes as he did nine years ago.

Shubaly has not led a straightforward life. In 1992, as a student at the Massachusetts liberal arts school Bard College at Simon’s Rock, he survived a campus shooting. In 1999 his band Come On shared a bill with fellow unsigned group The Strokes. A producer named Gordon Raphael attended the show, vastly preferred Come On, but gave both bands his details. Come On ignored him, but Casablancas et al got in contact. Raphael went on to produce Is This It, and The Strokes happened. Shubaly became a successful writer and a toiling solo musician by way of prolonged, life-threatening addictions to drugs and alcohol. He was kicked off Doug Stanhope’s tour for drinking too hard. He got sober, eventually, through running ultramarathons, fifty mile-plus endurance exercises during which exhaustion often prompts hallucinations in participants. At some stage he survived a Caribbean tropical storm and shipwrecking. He teaches at Yale. Now forty-one, sober and touring relentlessly, Shubaly seems to have found some semblance of stability (albeit one based in the flux of unfaltering international travel and performance). I wanted to find out more. Where had the self-professed death wish gone? Did opportunity-dodging on a Strokes scale come with terminal regret? Could the triumph of getting clean overcome it?

“There’s no better feeling than getting high,” Shubaly tells me earnestly as a child dawdles past our bench. “And no worse feeling than coming down. It really is the alpha and omega.” The infant misses this qualifier. I don’t think her parents heard, and I relax again. Shubaly is discussing our collective, historically durable interest in art that deals with drug use, intoxication and their surrounding circumstances. I’ve cited the Homeric lotus eaters, Tennyson’s poem on the same topic, De Quincey and Burroughs. Shubaly laughs and calls me a nerd. It’s surreal to be given this designation by an Ivy League instructor, but Shubaly, with his volcanic Brooklyn growl, abundant tattoos and snazzy New Balances, does not really accord with the general image of an academic.

“Drugs are fuckin’ weird, man. They transform our reality. Drugs can make you feel incredibly powerful, and addiction makes you feel incredibly powerless.” He’s been sober now for over nine years. “Everybody in the recovery community will hammer me and say, you know, ‘What about love?’ I believe in love, I believe in family, I believe in dogs. Those are all powerfully good things. But they’re not so powerful that drugs and alcohol don’t have power over us.”

I’m wrestling with understanding what I see as a collective tendency to look at substance abuse and addiction with something of an ambulance-chasing leer. We’re fascinated intellectually by intoxication, true, but that interest can turn perverse. I think of the death of emo rapper Lil Peep, and his experience of fame characterised by media and fan rubbernecking exemplified by a GQ YouTube video entitled ‘LIL PEEP ON THE FACE TATTOOS HE WAS TOO FUCKED UP TO REMEMBER GETTING’ (after his overdose, it’s been changed to ‘Lil Peep On His Most Painful Tattoo’). We fetishise addiction, mental illness and self-medication. We are complicit in the glorification of particular lifestyles and are aghast or censorious when they result in death and injury. Shubaly is recovered, but I want to be cautious in my questioning.

“What the hell else would I write about?” He says. “There are definitely moments when I feel like singing the old songs that I wrote when I was still drinking. I feel like I run the risk of endorsing a product that I no longer use. It’s tricky, because I don’t want young people to think that you need to go out and get shitfaced every night or that there’s poetry in a dissolute life of alcoholism and over the counter drug abuse. But also, if you look at my life, the success I’ve had as a writer and musician has come directly out of mistakes that I’ve made.”

Do these mistakes, among which Shubaly counts his “alcoholism, substance issues, poor impulse control, poor financial planning”, include the grand missed opportunity that was Gordon Raphael? The Birthday Party devotee didn’t take the chance to high-five Cave, and the promising musician unknowingly squandered a shot at platinum-selling mainstream indie stardom. It could’ve been Shubaly gurgling through a vocoder on Daft Punk’s ‘Instant Crush.’

“I wanted the success that The Strokes had and got. I wanted to come out of nowhere and then be massive and then fuckin’ die in a grimy hotel room with a bottle in my hand.”

So, before the bullet of mainstream success lodged squarely in the brain of The Strokes it grazed past Shubaly’s midsection. Did he become hooked on the fleeting taste of his own blood? Apparently not.

“Thank God I didn’t get that. If I had a castle with a Taco Bell instead of a kitchen? That’s a lot of cleaning to do. I’ve had to work way harder and it makes the little things that happen that much better. That much more rewarding.”

Like what?

“I was back in New York recently and I went to get my teeth cleaned. The doctor was like “Yeah, you have no cavities.” I walked outside and, checking my phone, I’d gotten a quote from Mark Lanegan for the record. Fuckin’ A, man! No cavities and Mark Lanegan! What a wonderful day this is!”

Clean teeth and endorsements from grunge luminaries notwithstanding, Shubaly’s ease regarding any evasion of musical stardom seems based in a relief that his alcohol and drug use wasn’t fortified by famous-guy status. A destitute addict has a harder time accessing lethal doses than a turbo-affluent twenty-three-year-old who spends all his time in hotel rooms and at shows. Although there was another danger, he tells me.

“I really think the most toxic substance on the planet is not Uranium-238 or crystal meth. It’s attention. We’ve had this rash of celebrity suicides — David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Chris Cornell, Anthony Bourdain — and this is my half-assed, uninformed take on it, but I think they were feeling the pain of the ending of youth and diminishing attention. Getting attention is such a high, and when somebody takes that away I think we often find out that we pushed other shit out of ourselves to make room… you find out there’s nothing left.” I recall Jonathan Franzen talking about Wallace’s fear that he would be unable to produce anything grander than Infinite Jest. Once you’ve reached your apex, made your conclusive statement, finished your sublime work, where do you go?

“You fuckin’ go waterskiing. Or try something else, you know? Like when Michael Jordan went and played baseball. And as we’re finding out with DFW, with the revelations from Mary Karr about how abusive he was… have you read Mary Karr? She’s fucking amazing. I’ve been going toe-to-toe with people on Twitter to say Mary Karr’s a fuckin’ better writer. After you create your masterpiece, if you’re fortunate enough to be David Foster Wallace and write Infinite Jest — which I haven’t read and never will read, because fuck fourteen-hundred pages, nobody has time — then you enjoy the rest of your life. You were lucky enough to have that gift, to create that thing… there’s a lot of shit to do in this world beyond writing. You could live. You could just live.”

I don’t ask Shubaly if he thinks he’s reached his creative peak, but I do get the impression he’s in a “just living” phase of his own, a fatigued yet beatific stage reached after tremendous interpersonal turmoil. Life’s challenges don’t end with getting clean, but he seems enthused about his present situation and the new album. I ask him about the recording.

“I made this with my oldest friend James Sparber. He was the singer in Come On. Often times when you’re in your twenties you have this need to prove yourself, or you have the insecurity of ‘No, I need to control this.’ I just chose musicians who did the things I wanted them to do naturally and a producer I trusted. It’s the result of a twenty-five year friendship.” Shubaly is clearly pleased with both the process and the result. “It was an incredibly redemptive record to make. Allison Langerak was the singer on How To Make a Bad Situation Worse, and I still have a tattoo with her name on me,” he says, pulling down the neck of his t-shirt to reveal a collarbone. “And she and I didn’t talk for a long time after we broke up. But she came back and sang on this. You may be lucky enough to live long enough to outlast your mistakes. James forgave me, Allison forgave me, and I feel incredibly lucky.”

One of the lines on Shubaly’s latest goes “I need someone to comb my hair and then crush my skull.” He laughs as I read his lyrics back to him, and grimaces in mock agony as I ask if he’s afraid of intimacy.

“Why would you think that!? Yeah, intimacy is fuckin’ terrifying.” Another train groans past and somebody lights a joint behind us.

“I recently had this breakup. I was living in Atlanta. Moved there to be with her because I fell in love with her. I absolutely adored her and still do. But I got to a point where I realised that it was more important for me to be on the road, and that I couldn’t live this life and also have a real relationship. So I ended it. The last thing she said to me was ‘Please don’t go,’ and I fuckin’ turned around and got in my van and drove away.”

“The drives between shows are so much longer in the US than they are here. I had two back-to-back seven hour drives the first two days. And four hours into the second seven-hour drive I looked at my phone, because that’s what you should do when you’re driving eighty miles an hour down the highway. I wonder if the Germans have a word for this specific sadness, that fishhook in your heart when you see a picture of your ex on social media and she looks so beautiful and happy without you…” It might be Sehnsucht. “And I just started crying as hard as I’ve ever cried in my life. Not the dignified Obama style, out of the corner…” The single poetic tear? “Yeah. Just weeping. And I took my foot off the accelerator for a minute, not because I didn’t wanna die but because I didn’t wanna die in an unsexy way like a traffic accident. A car behind me honked, and without thinking about it I said ‘Fuck you! I’m crying as fast as I can!’ Which is a long way of saying yes, I’m terrified of intimacy.” How did Mark Lanegan feel about it? “Even Mark Lanegan was like ‘Oh man, I’m so sorry!’ And he’s the baddest motherfucker in the world. Heartbreak is universal.”

Shubaly, however, doesn’t shy away from intimacy when it comes to his art. He tells me he likes thinking about artistic influences (advising his Yale writing students to choose a “literary family”; Bukowski is regularly the creepy uncle), but doesn’t consider himself as part of a lineage of “confessional” songwriters. Whatever the case, Shubaly is a prolific divulger. He talks about the necessity of depicting reality in art, however gritty or banal. That’s how we get onto Cave. “That’s one of those banal details! Nick Cave, the great Nick Cave, drying his hands after using the bathroom. We know Nick Cave washes his hands. The banal fact of your hero in the bathroom.” I offer that I once urinated next to the vocalist from Iceage and didn’t attempt a conversation either. “Urinal politics trump rock star fandom,” he nods. “If you’re a fan and I have my dick in my hand, don’t try to talk to me.”

He is grateful for his supporters, though. And it seems clear to me that Mishka Shubaly fans see some valour in confession, even if, for the man himself, unmasking has become rote.

“I was in Barcelona recently. There was a young trans woman at my show and she was crying when I played this one song. I didn’t catch this, but my friend did, and he knew her, so he was like ‘I’m gonna introduce you to my friend Mishka,’ and I was like ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’ She said ‘I’m so happy to meet you. One night I’d made up my mind to kill myself, and I listened to your song ‘Gideon’s Bible’, and I decided not to do it.’”

How do you respond to that? At all? I ask Shubaly straight out. You can’t plan for that as an artist. What happens to your self-perception after receiving news of that type? Do you immediately undergo extensive psychic remodelling, now that you’ve learned of your perceived involvement in the prevention of a suicide? Nobody writes music with such a goal in mind. You shoot for connection, sure, but talking somebody down via proxy? Via your work? I’m racing to think of other songs I know that have functioned in this way, that have ‘intervened’ at the crucial moment. Which artist is the most prolific in this hyper-specialised, uncharted arena? What’s the weirdest song anybody’s ever found a reason to live in? My head is spinning.

“Dude, I have no idea. My song didn’t 'save' her, she saved her. My song was the vehicle she used.”

I conclude that however perplexing, it must be an extraordinary feeling to play such a role in another person’s life, indirectly or otherwise. Shubaly assents.

“Fuckin’ A, man. I’m not gonna lie, this has been a hard tour. I’ve had a lot of shit go wrong on this run. Got ripped off by a couple of people, some bad shit. And just to have that woman come and… I’m not young. I’m not Spanish. I’m not a woman. There’s so many barriers for my music to reach her, and resonate, but I got through! And that song got through, and reached her, and somehow it was able to help her.”

“For me, that’s like… when the fuckin’ wheels are coming off my suitcase and shit’s falling apart, that is the strand of spider’s silk in Hell, where you’re like ‘Nah. There’s one. I reached one person.’”

We talk about intervention for a while. Shubaly tells me about the student drinking enclave he got familiar with whilst living in Massachusetts, and the shock of leaving it. “I went out into the world and people were like ‘Holy shit, man!’ And I was like ‘Oh, fuck. Not everybody does this?’” Does he remember the moment he realised he was drinking harder than the average person? “I remember having that moment again and again and again throughout my life from seventeen to… I remember a friend pulling me aside and being like ‘Man, I’m worried! I feel like I need to have a drink every single night, and then once I have a drink I can’t stop! I need to have, like, three or five. I’m starting to worry that I might be an alcoholic.’” I was like ‘Yeah, you’re probably an alcoholic. Do you want a hug? Fuckin’ have a drink, man. It is what it is.’”

And what about Shubaly’s own clandestine moments of confession to friends? Did he ever get “Duh,” when he took someone aside to admit he had a problem?

“I remember talking to another writer. He’d been a crack addict and all this shit. I was like ‘Yeah, I’ve had issues with drinking in the past, and I quit drinking for a year, and I don’t really think I’m an alcoholic…’ And he replied, ‘You’re a fuckin’ alcoholic, man. People who aren’t alcoholics don’t ‘quit drinking for a year.' If you weren’t an alcoholic you wouldn’t have to do something like that. This is a stunt to prove to everybody that you’re not an alcoholic. And that’s the best way to prove you are.’” He smiles. “I fuckin’ hate it when people drop insightful shit like that.”

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