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CMU@TGE 2017: Tackling Addiction In The Music Community – Simon Mason

By | Published on Wednesday 24 May 2017

Simon Mason

Look out for reports on all the key sessions at the CMU Insights conferences at The Great Escape over the next few weeks. Plus, from next Monday, we’ll be publishing a series of CMU Trends reports providing more in depth versions of the insight presentations CMU Insights delivered during TGE this year – go premium to access CMU Trends. Today, we look at the first of a series of sessions on addiction in the music community, and our interview with musician and writer Simon Mason.

Mason is the author of ‘Too High, Too Far, Too Soon’, a book about his experiences within the 1990s Britpop scene. Already addicted to drugs by the time he entered that world, Mason soon became a drug dealer to several bands within it, finding himself on tour with them in order to procure supplies. Now clean, more recently he has toured with bands, including The Libertines on their reunion tour, to help keep them off the drugs.

Speaking during the CMU Insights Drugs Conference, Mason began by describing how he became involved in the Britpop scene in the first place. “I became immersed in that cultural phenomenon as someone who thought they were a musician, who wanted to be a musician, but was actually a drug addict”, he said.

“My entry into the world of backstage, and that kind of stuff, was via Glastonbury and other festivals”, he continued. “Prior to Britpop I’d managed to get a job for an organisation that I’d better not mention. It involved having an access all areas pass and joining the dots between what people were looking for backstage but were unable or effectively too scared to go looking for outside the confines of the backstage”.

He routinely found himself being asked to find drugs, and as a drug user himself he knew where to get them. “I became the guy that knew the guy”, he said. “And then I became the guy”.

Of his view of that time, and whether he felt he was doing harm by providing the drugs, he explained: “I was a drug dealer and a drug addict, and I didn’t choose to see any damage. I saw and heard incredible music being made, incredible performances. I saw a lot of people having a really good time. Part of that was staying awake for a long time, sitting around in fields, or at festivals, or at gigs. And at the time generally feeling like we were a tribe, a disparate tribe. Electronic music and indie music – it didn’t matter anymore. It became this big melting pot, and part of what was melting in the pot was a lot of drugs”.

“There was a darker underbelly to that though”, he admits. “No one had previously taken drugs on the scale of what we were taking at that point. What happened in the late 80s and 90s was unprecedented and probably still is. It happened on an industrial scale. It became really easy to hide in that industry”.

As he became ever more involved, he missed the warning signs. “I remember coming back off tour with a band that I’d been ‘helping’ for three weeks and I got home and I collapsed”, he recalled. His GP advised him to rest. “I said: ‘Why would I want to do that when I’ve got another tour to go on?’ It didn’t occur to me that how I was living my life was damaging. It just seemed like what everyone was doing”.

Eventually Mason became addicted to heroin, which he discovered was frowned upon even by many in the music scene at the time. “I was at Knebworth for that legendary Oasis gig”, he said. “I arrived there and I soon discovered that I had left my stash of heroin back in London. So, I needed to trawl through the backstage area trying to find someone that I knew that had a heroin habit. Instead, I was met with this sea of disgust from people”.

“I had all these people with cocaine falling out of their nose at Knebworth talking absolute shit to each other, calling me a junkie”, he went on. “And I’m thinking ‘hang on’, even in my own drug-addled state, I knew there was a discrepancy there, there was some sort of duality, hypocrisy. But of course I paid no attention to it”.

Nonetheless, his position as a celebrity drug dealer quickly started to slip. “By 1997, I was homeless, I was living on the street. The phone had stopped ringing. All those wonderful people that I’d always known weren’t really my mates but used to come and visit my house a lot because they wanted drugs – guess what? – they weren’t there anymore”.

It took time, and a number of attempts, to overcome his own addiction challenges, but Mason has now been clean for more than ten years, and in 2013 published the memoir about his experiences in the music industry.

“People say ‘it must have been really cathartic [to write the book]'”, he said. “The honest truth is that I don’t think it was cathartic. I’d sat in enough self-help groups and been to rehab seven times. I’d been through that process. The truth was that, it’s a good story. Someone had read some of the ramblings that went on to become this book and they said, ‘You’ve got a voice and this needs to be heard because ultimately it’s a story of hope'”.

“Sadly the perception of addiction and musicians is quite warped”, he continued. “There’s a lot of disinformation flying about. The public perception of alcoholics and drug addicts is that you’re always going to be one and you’re never going to sort it out. I don’t know how but I survived and there’s a message of hope at the end [of my story]. I’d like to think it’s not prescriptive. I don’t tell people how to recover, I just talk about my experience”.

After it had been published, Mason said he began to start receiving messages from people who told him the book had helped them. “The best one I got was: ‘You don’t know who I am, you’ll never meet me, I just wanna let you know that if someone as fucked up as you can get clean then anyone can, thanks!'”

Soon, he began getting requests to work with musicians who were struggling with addiction, in something a turnaround from his former involvement in the music community. This, he believes, was partly the result of music industry veterans reading the book because they were worried that they might be mentioned in it.

“Everyone’s fear was that this was some sort of shabby kiss and tell footballer’s wives book”, he said. “And it’s nothing of the sort. So I think a lot of people read it out of curiosity. Some of those people are still in management and they’re still managing artists that have problems. So I got asked to go and meet some musicians, fairly high profile ones, to see if I could help them”.

Of his approach to this work, he explained: “For me personally, I’ve always found the most potent source of help is to be shown how to live differently, rather than just being told how to live differently. By living differently, I mean living with some sobriety, or not smoking crack all day, or drinking. That’s kind of what happened”.

“I’ve got varying degrees of success with the people I helped who were already at a point where they were ready to change some of their behaviour”, he added. “Not so much success with the people that felt that I’d been imposed upon them by their management and who couldn’t wait for me to just piss off and leave them alone”.

Still, his experiences give him a better insight to offer that help when someone is ready for it, he said. “If there’s a better example of poacher turned gamekeeper, I’d like to hear it. Because I understand. I understand the music industry from top to bottom. I understand addiction from top to bottom. I was a using addict for 20 years. At the end of this month I’ll be eleven years clean and sober. I get it. And I like helping people”.

The other result of his recovery is that Mason has returned to music, and begun to find some success with it. Initially he formed a band called The Should Be Deads with a number of other people he was in a twelve-step programme with, performing covers at charity shows.

“We rolled that for about seven years, and it was great, fantastic”, he said. “But I realised that it wasn’t quite scratching the itch for me creatively. I came off a job with a band I was on tour with, The Libertines, last year, and Peter [Doherty] very kindly said: ‘Look, why don’t you open the show for me on this solo tour, read some of your book, play some of your songs?'”

That resulted in Mason gaining a record deal and forming his new band The Hightown Pirates. “That sort of fairy tale stuff that I thought I wanted back in my days of being a drug addict never happened back then”, he said. “And if it had happened [and the money had flowed in] I’d have been dead. I did a pretty good job of killing myself on the giro. So thank the universe that it didn’t happen then”.

“I was one of those people who believed that creativity only came from being under the influence of something”, he went on. “But my experience is that, with the album we’ve just made, and the shows that we’ve just started doing, they just could not have happened when I was taking drugs. It’s kind of like ‘Si And The Family Unstoned’. We’ve made this album and from the early reviews – people have said it sounds full of joy. We’ve got a horn section, it’s this massive sounding thing, and it’s the sound of redemption. It’s the sound of hope”.

Check out all the reports and resources CMU has published around this year’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape conferences here. The Hightown Pirates’ debut album ‘Dry And High’ is released on 16 Jun. Find out more about the band here.