Music Heals: Lee Kiernan of IDLES on Seven Years of Sobriety

Music Heals
Kelsey Brannan
all photos by Jake Hanson (view set)

Bristol-based punk rockers IDLES are known for their abrasively cathartic songs and high octane performances that tout positive messages of self-love, noble fights for civil rights, and empowerment for all. Each member of the band pours their sweat and tears into every performance, often wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Ahead of Music Heals: Addiction & Recovery, KEXP spoke with IDLES guitarist Lee Kiernan, who celebrated seven years sober this April. In this exclusive interview, Lee shares his experience with addiction, and the role music has played in his journey to recovery.  

KEXP: I saw a post on IDLES' Instagram saying that you recently celebrated seven years sober. Congratulations on that! If you're comfortable, would you mind jumping in by sharing your personal experience with addiction and telling us what your story is? 

Lee Kiernan: The simplest way is to say that when I was young, I guess I was a bit lost. I was very young when I started drinking and taking drugs — roughly around twelve. I just got into it very, very early and then by the time I was 17, I started to become lost. But at the same time, I was still very much aware of my surroundings. I thought I was also having fun. I didn't think it was a problem, but my mind had already started to turn. And then by the time I was 21 or so, I was completely and utterly just gone. Completely lost in everything — in drugs, in drinking. I was waking up every morning and drinking a bottle of vodka or a bottle of whiskey or gin, or mostly every morning. And then in the evenings I continued drinking throughout and then [found] crack or cocaine or whatever I could get my hands on. Most of the time it was uppers because I like to feel happy. So I was masking my sadness through substance abuse because I wanted to feel happier. However, the alcohol would then bring me back down. But then I'd have to take more drugs and keep going and on and on and on in this vicious cycle. 

I got to a point where I was suicidal and I tried to end my life twice — [once] at the age of 21, and then later down the line when I was about 23. Neither were successful. I wanted to die. And I knew, because I had no one around, no one could stop me. The first time [was] by driving my car into whatever was in front of me. It was late at night, there was no one else on the road so I closed my eyes and I just put my foot down. I walked away completely unscathed, not a single scratch on me. My car looked like an absolute mess and I just couldn't believe it. So I think it gave me to this moment of 'Okay, I'm meant to keep living, so I'll keep living.' But the problem was I just couldn't live. I'd been given a second chance of sorts. I don't necessarily believe in God or a higher power or anything like that, but I do believe that sometimes things happen that you cannot explain. And that doesn't necessarily come from religion or or fate; it's that moment that causes you to question what's going on around you. I think it's important sometimes to take stock of that and re-evaluate what's going on around you. So I did, but I couldn't get help because I didn't want to admit it either. There was a part of me that was so ashamed that I'd let myself spiral out of control. That I had nothing to blame. That I had no one to blame, either. It was all me and all my doing. 

I'd lost partners and pushed close friends away from me. I was just very lucky I still had family around me but they were wearing very thin at this point. I just kept going, and then a couple more years down the line, nothing changed. I was even worse. Doctors were telling me that I was going to die way before the age of 30 if I wasn't careful. And this is at the age of 23. I was just like, 'You know what? Screw it. I'm gonna die, and I'll just die myself. Get rid of the pain and just stop everything.' So a friend and I were up on a cliff edge at Bristol. I was leaning over and I actually let go. And then all of a sudden, my friend came out of nowhere and just rugby tackled me back into the safety of the ground. And that was it. That was another moment of my life where I actually felt that was it. As I started to feel myself falling, I thought it was over. So I had to keep going again and again. It was about six months after that I had another five day mad trip — taking loads of drugs. Disappearing not speaking to anyone. Ending up in places I didn't know. I really can't explain it; I just woke up and I said, 'That's it.' I said, 'Enough, I'm done. I can't do this anymore.' And I found a way into rehab and spent three months in treatment. I think the reason why it worked for me is because I wanted it. 

I wanted to change. For years, I just physically couldn't. I went to AA meetings, I went to NA meetings, and I went to "drink awareness" courses. You know, all of these groups and all these places where you talk about your feelings with other people. But I just used them as masks to keep jobs and to show that I was trying to do something, but I actually wasn't. It wasn't until that morning that I woke up and it all clicked in my mind that I need to do this, I need to do this for me. I can't keep being on the edge of death every day. So I did it. I went to rehab. I think it's important to know that it's no one else's choice. 

The amount of people that told me to sort my life out — sometimes angrily, but sometimes out of pure love. You see their face in agony because they're watching someone that they love destroying themselves, and [the words] just [don't] go in. And it's not your fault. You don't understand it because all you care about and all your mind wants is that escape. You want to just lose yourself and run away. And it's not fair to the people around you, but you don't necessarily know what you're doing. It's really tough for people on the outside to understand it. And the only reason I say this is because it's not for other people to understand. It's so that people who are in it understand. 

Do you know what was different about that one day that you decided to wake up and check yourself into rehab?

I actually felt like I was dying. My body was dying — I felt like I was rotting from the inside out. I was so gaunt, my face almost wasn't there. My body was weak and everything hurt. And for the first time in my life, I woke up actually wanting to live rather than wanting to die. I don't know why, and I can't explain it at all. I had no reason to go on, but my mind just finally turned on its head like, 'Do you want to give this one more go? Because you can. You can get out of this. You can do this. You just have to do it — no more excuses.'

This is like a parallel universe you live in: addiction is where one side of your brain says, 'Come on you can do this. You can live. You can do whatever you want to be!' And the other side of your brain is saying, 'You are pathetic. You're weak. You can't do anything. You need to just get absolutely messed up and just hide from everyone.' And it's finding your way out of the darkness, to just let a little bit of the other side in. It just gives you a bit of strength every day. For some reason, that morning it popped through. And then it just crept in more and more every day. Every day I was in rehab. The first batch was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my entire life. Lots of medication and therapy. That was the most beautiful thing in the world: being in a room with 11 men of all sorts, just crying together. When you see the hardest blokes you've ever seen all crying together, you have a reason to just feel like we're all crazy or not that strong, and we can't do this on our own. 

How has your relationship to your creative work changed over the course of your journey to recovery? 

When I was younger, I always played guitar. I loved music — it was a massive part of my life. When I was 18, I wanted to be Nikki Sixx, which is just bizarre. Music had this huge hold on me, which is probably one of the things that kept me going through all the drug taking because I had some way of directing my emotion and energy into playing and creativity. I thought that back when I was messed up, I was more creative. I thought that I could do these things, and I thought that all these guitar lines I had written came because I was off my face. But when I went to rehab, I met this guy who was an artist and he taught me that you don't need to be messed up to be creative. He started to show me all the stuff that he'd done when he was drinking and then show me the stuff he was doing when he wasn't. And it was better when he was [sober] because his mind had more clarity, and there was more reason behind [his work]. Now, I'm not saying you can't write when you're on drugs. I mean, look at the Beatles! Look at anything from the '60s, '70s, and '80s — pretty much everyone wrote while they were off their face. However, you can't just rest on these things. 

Since I've become sober, I've learned so much more about music about composition, about frequency usage, and where things belong in relation to each other. The fact that [IDLES guitarist Mark] Bowen and I are two guitarists in a band — we're not battling against each other, we're not enemies — we're brothers, we are like one guitarist. Everything we write, we write together in frequency harmony. We fill frequency voids and we don't play over each other, we play off each other. That isn't something I ever knew was possible when I was off my face. Becoming sober and learning more — it's been everything to me. 

photo by Jake Hanson

What impact has this band had on your sobriety? 

Testing [laughs]. It's a hard one to answer because I can easily say that it's been really hard, and I could also say it's been a really good thing for my sobriety. But I think the fact that I was doing something that I always loved was key. And what makes it even better is that these guys are all like family to me. I'll always have this now. It's always going to be with me. Even if IDLES breaks up tomorrow, I have all of this that we built together. That's the most important thing in the world to me. 

It seems like you have a good support system in that group. 

Yeah, we've always tried to share with each other because we've had problems in our lives. We've learned to share our feelings, which is one of the hardest things to do. And it's harder to share with your partner or your your best friends because you start to feel ashamed, or you don't want to burden them, or you might upset them with what you're about to say. And so the key isn't to upset people, but it is to tell them what's going on in your life and why. If I feel down one day, I will turn to [IDLES frontman Joe] Talbot and say I feel down. And then he will turn me and ask why. We'll talk about it. It's one of the most amazing things you can have every day when you're on tour. 

The music we make has come because we've learned to be open and honest with each other. It's not necessarily the other way round. Sometimes the reason why the music's being made is because we support each other. And sometimes the emotions that you need to share come from the music. If I'm playing, that's like my therapy. I lose everything. I go crazy and I get all of my frustrations out, or all of my happiness comes out, or all my sadness comes out. I put it all on the stage and then when I get off I feel free again. That's how I deal with my demons. Now, it doesn't mean I need to play live every night to do that. It just means that moment when I do get to play again, I have a place to put it. It's like people that box or play football or anything like that. They have a reason and a purpose to release their frustrations or make themselves happy, but in a professional way. In an absolutely ballistic, crazy way. It's just one of those places for me that works. 

I've read a lot of articles in the last year or so that talk about how recent IDLES tours have been a lot different than they were in the past. That they are a lot more health-focused — everything from trying to stay sober on the road to asking for more water and vegetables on your riders. Have you noticed that that difference? 

Oh absolutely. We haven't noticed it, it was a purposeful change in our lives. We're quite lucky. Now, we get the rider that we ask for. It takes a long time for any band to get to that point. Most of the time, you turn up [to a venue] and it's just a crate of beer, and that's it. Maybe there's some water. The problem with that is it's just feeding that mentality that musicians want to get fucked up. You turn up to a venue and it's full of beer. There's a crate of beer, and at a point in your career, that's your payment! That's what you get paid. You get paid in beer! What are you going to do with that? When you're young, there might be a bit of a laugh at a time. But, we're all in our thirties — we don't want to drink beer every single night. If you're on tour for three months, what are you gonna do with a crate of beer every night? It doesn't make any sense why this mentality is still upheld. 

What sort of resources and what sort of support can those in the music industry — whether it's venues or managers or bookers — do to support a healthy lifestyle on the road? What can people do to help get rid of this rock and roll mentality that has held up for decades and decades?

It's so difficult. Like, our lives have changed because we've asked them to be. We have a different green vegetables smoothie every day now. We make it from fresh produce, every day. That's key for variance in our diet, and to to have this one thing each day that's really good for you. That'll help you not put on loads of weight and it will help you feel like you have energy for the show, natural energy. We've also started to take electrolytes before and after each show because when you sweat as much as we do, you lose a lot of goodness out of your sweat, which then makes you feel really lethargic and tired. We've noticed by doing this every night on this tour for the last two and a half weeks, we feel like we're ready for every single night and we give everything we have every night. We never hold back: if I've got 100 percent, I will give all of that 100 percent. If I've got 50 percent because I've got a really bad back that day, I still give every single bit of that 50 percent. Every time, I give more than that — I want to do that — and I can't do that if I'm only consuming beer and crisps and hummus. 

photo by Jake Hanson


It sounds like it's taken IDLES some time to come around to this system that you have now that is very healthy and sustainable on the road. What advice do you have for other musicians who might be new at touring, to keep healthy on the road? 

If touring is new to you, then you probably aren't getting the support at the shows that we get now. But that doesn't mean you can't take stuff with you. If you know you're going to be on tour, take some good food and get yourself ready for the tour easily. It's just a consciousness of yourself. Ask for water over beer if you don't want to drink. You can ask for that. You don't have to have 24 beers, you could have 24 waters instead. 

Everything in life is about balance. The problem with that is that it's very easy to lose the balance. It's not something that all of us can do. I think venues need to maybe be a bit more forthright with [asking] whether the people playing want the beer. I know what it's like — if you're running a small venue, it's just not that easy. You can't pay a lot of money. You can't just get all this healthy food that [performers] want, because you're nowhere near the Whole Foods. Maybe you've only got three members of staff for the whole night. I get that these things happen, but everything is booked in advance and an email can be sent [that asks], 'Do you want a crate of beer? Do you want a crate of water?' And then it's down to the people themselves to make a decision, not the venue pushing it. I'm not anti-drinking. I'm just not. But then again, I don't think it's healthy to just assume that every musician wants to get completely fucked up every night they play a show. That's just not right. 

IDLES has had an incredible impact on so many people who are struggling with a wide variety of issues. There's a whole online community around IDLES and the self love that you guys message in your music...

They built themselves. That's nothing to do with us. They did that all on their own. They shared things with each other, they help each other through things. But we didn't ask them to do that. 

But they came together through a shared love of your music, and I think that you do have a huge impact on them because of that. How does that feel?

Beyond words. There's no way my mind can comprehend that we have anything to do with that. We're just people who have our own our own problems and try to deal with our own problems. [We try to] be mindful about the world around us and the people around us. We just love what we do and we believe in what we do. We're just so fortunate to have people feel the same as us. It's amazing. 

Are there any other thoughts that you want to share that would go along with [KEXP's] Music Heals programming — either about addiction or recovery or are that the role that music plays in either of those?

I know this is what you are doing, but I just want it to be positive. I want to start talking about [addiction] so it can help people. Not any other reason. I don't want fame. I don't personally like doing interviews or I feel comfortable doing [them]. But this is something that I can help people with, and I really want to try and start doing it. 

I really appreciate that. Thank you so much. On that that note, one more question: when you are in times of struggle, what are some of the things that give you hope that things will get better?

You know, it's funny. I've just gone through the biggest life transition in my sobriety, and I didn't want to think about drinking. I didn't want to think about taking drugs. And I think the reason that that happened is because I have my band, I have my brothers. During the hard times I was going through, I was able to talk to them. I have my own personal therapy space with them. And it's not that your friends should be your therapy, but the thing that's always got me through any hard time is a good support network. And that's that's really key to life in any form. And it must be reciprocated the other way, as well. If any of your friends are in a bad place, then you should be there for them. That's the whole point of life is that we we are here for each other. We're not here for ourselves. We are here to help each other, and to have the best life that we can have for ourselves. The only way you can have the best life you can have for yourself is by having people around. That means something to you. It makes it makes living worthwhile. It makes it makes you happy. I can never tell anyone else how to live their life, but I can share how I live mine and hope it helps. 

Outside of the band, what are some other support systems that you've leaned on? 

A rehab in Bristol — the one that I went to was sadly shut down because funding disintegrated. As with a lot of these things at the moment, political nature is destroying a lot of support for people in need. We tried, as a band, to raise some money to keep it open, but it just wasn't enough. It needed a lot more than we could give. It needed government support. So, sadly that's no longer around. 

For me, I don't go to AA and I don't go to meetings. I never really did. It's up to you whether you use this. Personally, I'm not against them. I know they've helped a lot people. They just didn't work for me. And the point about life is you need to find what works for you. You don't have to do everything the way other people do. You don't have to do things the way that people tell you. People in AA told me that if I didn't go to AA I would fail. Well, I'm seven years clean and sober without going to AA. And I'm not in a position to even think about taking drugs or drink. And it's not because I don't go to AA, it's because I found what was right for me. It's because I love working. I love working hard. I like doing things I love doing. Walking around the city and looking at architecture — that's what makes me so happy. I like hanging out with my friends and I like writing music and playing with my brothers. All these little things in my life. I want to be sober. 

That's amazing and I'm glad that you have found that. Again, congratulations on seven years sober!

IDLES are performing live in the KEXP Gathering Space on Wednesday, May 29 at 1:30 PM, free and all ages. Not in Seattle? You can listen to the broadcast in real time at 90.3 FM Seattle and KEXP.ORG worldwide. (They play a sold out show at Neumos the night before.) Their most recent LP Joy as an Act of Resistance is out now via Partisan Records. 

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