Christopher Tait of Electric Six uses sobriety as a springboard to recovery activism
When Christopher Tait came to after an Electric Six show at Nashville’s Exit/In, the willingness to do something about a problem that was about to cost him his band lasted roughly three days.
Tait had joined the eclectic Detroit-based rock ensemble, which combines elements of disco, punk, metal and New Wave, in 2002. Adopting the moniker of Tait Nucleus?, he brought a hefty dose of danceable firepower to the band, which has enjoyed a small-but-loyal following across the country since its inception in 2001 and the guest appearance of Detroit son Jack White, before the White Stripes became famous, on the song “Danger! High Voltage” helped put Electric Six on the map.
Yet when the group rolled into the Exit/In in April 2011, Tait’s run was almost at an end.
“For the last year I was touring with the band, I was actively using, and that particular show, we’d just come from Memphis, and I had been on a three-day bender,” Tait told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I wouldn’t call anything I was doing at that time a passion. It was just the rest of the guys propping me up behind a keyboard. There was very little creative involvement by me, and a whole lot of tolerance by them, and the next morning, when I woke up, I didn’t know what was happening.
“There was nobody in the hotel room, and there was a still partially full, half-gallon plastic jug of Popov (vodka) in the trash can. That was the first indicator that something was wrong, because there was never booze left in the jug. So I sat down with the singer (Tyler “Dick Valentine” Spencer), and he explained to me that I had tried to drive the van off the lot even though I hadn’t had a license in eight years, that I had tried to start a fight, that I had ran over my laptop bag … and that it was time for me to leave the tour.”
Tait headed back to Michigan, full of fear and facing the prospect of permanent sobriety. He’d tried to get sober once before, seven years earlier, but the idea of losing his spot in Electric Six, to say nothing of the friendships with his fellow band members, terrified him. He called a female friend whom he knew had gotten sober, and she gave him the numbers of two guys in a 12 Step program. The first one to answer asked Tait to meet him the following Wednesday at a local church, where the program’s meetings were held.
By the time he got there, Tait said, the fear had faded, and that false sense of self-assuredness had settled back in.
“It was three days later, and I had convinced myself that I had it under control, so I told this guy — his name was Dave — ‘Dave, I really appreciate you meeting me here, but I think I know what’s going on, and I think I know how to fix this,’” Tait said. “He starts chuckling, and then of course the self-righteous indignation kicks in, and I ask him, ‘Did I miss something?’ And he said, ‘No! You biked here because you haven’t been able to drive in eight years, and you’re sitting in a church lobby with someone you’ve never met, and you think you’ve got everything under control?’
“Then he told me, ‘Look, man, nobody gets here because they’re super jazzed up to be here. You’ll get to that eventually, but for now, just give this thing a chance. Sit here and talk to me for an hour, and give this a shot.’”
Music + booze = escape
Looking back, Tait can see that the building blocks for his own alcoholism were laid before he was even born. His parents cautioned him against the “family problem,” and the toll it took on relatives.
“My mother used to warn us about it, about these guys in her family and how they worked on roofs and worked really hard and drank really hard, and a lot of them died young, from the chemicals involved and the ‘Mad Men’-era lifestyle,” Tait said. “She used to warn of us an aunt of hers who drank Aqua Velva to keep it under wraps. So we were warned about the history in the family very early, but me thinking I was smarter than everyone, I always knew that it wasn’t going to happen to me.”
Tait’s father and uncle ran a machine shop in Detroit, doing some indirect work for the Big Three automakers, but Tait fell in love with music early on. His parents were big country music fans, and he remembers listening to the Oak Ridge Boys, Juice Newton, Eddie Rabbit and Buddy Holly while he was growing up, but as he came into his own, he gravitated toward bands that seemed to create songs outside the box.
“ABBA, The Cure, Blondie — I started getting into bands and artists that were creating their own worlds, that had this otherworldly glitz and glamour and utopia,” he said. “I guess, as a result of that, music was a form of escapism before the booze and the coke became a form of escapism. Those two go hand in hand in my life.”
When he was 15 years old, his life was turned upside down. He moved schools, but the summer before, a horrible car wreck caused him severe facial injuries.
“It split my face basically in half, and they thought I might have internal head injuries,” he said. “It was an intense time for a 15-year-old kid, and showing up to a new school basically looking like Frankenstein didn’t help.”
As a result, Tait isolated, seeking refuge in music. He bought a drum kit and a guitar from a local pawn shop, and using the musicians who opened doors to other plains of existence as a blueprint, he became teaching himself to play, turning his parents’ basement into a fortress of solitude.
“In the coming years, I made a few friends, and that’s when I started drinking,” he said. “The first time I drank, it was that moment that everybody else has when it kicks in: It’s like (the movie) ‘Pleasantville.’ Everything went from black and white to full color, and suddenly I was talking to girls and socializing, and I felt 2 feet taller.”
Down the rabbit hole he goes
If booze made life that much more tolerable and fun on the weekends, he eventually thought, what could it do to those midweek blahs? His drinking slowly progressed through high school, Tait said, and there are still snapshots stored in his memory bank of times when the warning lights went off.
“I remember, I used to drive a buddy of mine to school, and I remember once being halfway to his house, and my 20oz. of vodka and soda wasn’t with me,” he said. “I started the day off with that, and I realized on my way to his house that I had left it on the bed in the basement. And something inside me just gripped me, and before I knew what was going on, the car was headed in the other direction, and I was headed back to the house.
“Now, I don’t know if that was because I didn’t want to get caught, or the liquor store was closed, or what, but I remember that I acknowledged inside that what I was doing was weird. That it had its clutches on me. And by the time I was 19, I couldn’t sleep without having a drink.”
Like so many young adults with addiction problems, however, Tait didn’t see it as one. Even as the tabs began to accumulate — health problems, DUI arrests, “all the usual boxes being check,” he added — he never truly placed the blame for his predicament at the feet of the person solely responsible. Even his first exposure to 12 Step recovery was an experiment in mining for differences rather than acknowledgement of similarities.
“I remember sitting in a meeting, which the court had suggested I attend based on recent behavior, and I was in my mid 20s when this guy who was 45 at the time started talking about how even though he was living in his parents’ house again, things were going good, and he was doing his best,” Tait said. “I remember thinking, ‘What a loser. That’s never going to happen to me.’ But by my mid-30s, I was doing the same thing.
“The delusion is pretty wild when it comes to the things we can convince ourselves of. I remember one speaker named Adam T., and he talks about how, at the end of his active use, it was like being at the high school dance, only it’s 20 years later. The lights are off and the gym is empty, but we’re still standing there going, ‘Where’s the party?’ And that’s exactly how I felt. When I first heard that, it gave me chills.”
The one saving grace during that time period, he added, was joining Electric Six. The band was catching fire in Detroit and needed a keyboard player; Tait was managing a brewery and was friends with the members, so when they asked, he didn’t give it a lot of thought.
“I figured it would be fun for a couple of years, but I had no idea what I was into,” he said. “But I cannot blame rock ‘n’ roll for my addiction issues, because by that time, I had gotten thrown out of school, and I couldn’t go to sleep without having a drink.”
Electric Six catches 'Fire'
In the early 2000s, Detroit — and to a larger extent, the rest of the country — was coming back around to a love of garage rock, an aesthetic that seemed apropos to the urban chaos of a city that’s often yo-yoed back and forth between financial feast and famine. The White Stripes would bust out nationally around the time that White lent his vocals to “High Voltage,” and suddenly the rock ‘n’ roll masses were reminded that Detroit had a lengthy history with dirty, funky rock ‘n’ roll.
Electric Six, Tait said, caught some of those headwinds, and the band’s 2003 album, “Fire,” wound up on a number of year-end best-of lists and produced two popular singles, “Voltage” and “Gay Bar.”
“That kind of meteoric rise to attention obviously didn’t do me any favors,” Tait said. “People got it in their heads that it was going to be that way forever, and six years later, we were still a functioning band, but not on the level that I thought it was on. The expectations had skyrocketed, and as the success tapered off, so did the delusions. It was almost like I was compensating for the reality of what was going on and further distancing myself from the reality of the situation.
“We still toured, and we still had this crazy cult of fans and followers, and people would still come to the shows and go crazy and buy stuff. We did a lot of cool things, like play Glastonbury, things that people would give their eye teeth to do. We worked very hard, but the balance between my creativity and actual output and the party lifestyle got more and more skewed as the years went by. And once cocaine came to the party, that was it. I had never talked about so much and done so little. I don’t think I even picked up an instrument until it was time to do a show or go on tour.”
Up until he got clean and sober in 2011, Tait tried his hand at sobriety on occasion. He event went to drug and alcohol treatment once, at the Brighton Center for Recovery, a place he would return to as an employee 15 years later. He was mandated on occasion, by the courts, to attend 12 Step meetings. He always left, however, feeling as if he had a better grasp of the answers to his own problem than others.
“I had no idea what I needed, and no idea what I wanted; I just thought that I was better than those people, or that I knew what I was doing,” he said.
After meeting with Dave in that church lobby after his final bender, however, Tait managed to surrender.
“I finally had been beaten into becoming willing to establish a new train of thought and to listen to other people,” he said. “Miraculously, that was the first tiny change that led to a much bigger change.”
The nonprofit organization MusiCares placed him into a treatment facility called The Retreat in Minnesota, and a regimen of daily structure and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous became guides toward a new way of life. In the meantime, his bandmates in Electric Six cheered him on from the sidelines, he added.
The establishment of Passenger
“I was really, really fortunate, in that the guys in the band had seen me at my absolute best and absolute worst, and they loved me enough and had seen me at my best to tolerate me at my worst,” he said. “I took six months off, and they did a residency in Vegas and a tour without me, but they booked less shows, because they wanted me to be okay and be better. Once I got out on road, there was no booze in the green room for quite a while.
“Of course, I realized later that the problem is not the booze at all; the problem was what was going on in my head, and what matters first and foremost is my level of self-awareness. But they were very supportive, and I’m really, really lucky to have these guys as part of my life, along with my wife, who’s also incredibly supportive.”
And when he couldn’t find support on the road, he decided to create his own. Passenger Recovery, a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that bears some similarities to the Send Me a Friend organization established by singer-songwriter Anders Osborne, was born on a cold winter night in Saskatoon, Canada, while Electric Six was on tour. Tait had a couple of years sober but found himself in frustrating circumstances, he said.
“We had driven all day to get there from Calgary, and it was dark and freezing out, and everything was closed — even the coffee shops,” he said. “There was no meeting in sight, I had no data on my phone, and Uber and Lyft were not options. So my choice was to sit in a bar with no green room, or sit in a freezing cold van parked a couple of blocks away. Thank God I had some (12 Step) speaker tapes a buddy had given me on a hard drive, because without somebody up there looking out for me, it could have gone the other way.
“And I remember thinking, ‘There’s got to be an easier way to do this. So I thought, why not start a small organization in Detroit, where if musicians in recovery are coming through, they can hit us up ahead of time, and we’ll do what it takes to get them what they need: information, a ride to a meeting, or just a place to sit in peace and quiet for a couple of hours.”
When he returned to Michigan, enthusiastic about the idea, close friends cautioned him to slow down. Once again, they had to get past that self-righteous indignation, he said with a laugh, but on the other side of their suggestion to wait, he found the necessary determination to do it, and do it right. And so he went back to Brighton Center for Recovery, this time as an employee. Working with patients who were once in the same place he had been years earlier gave him time, he said, to strengthen his own program, and to get the bearing he needed to launch Passenger.
“They asked me to work with them for a couple of years, beyond going to meetings, so I could see if was a doable thing that I could make happen, and I was super grateful for it in the long run,” he said. “It really reinforced my program, and it gave me the courage to step out and get it going. Passenger is still a small organization, but we’ve seen some amazing things, and now, there are guys that I have known for years who are musicians and still drink, but they’ll come to the ‘sober’ green room, just to get away, because they’re tired.
“I think everybody needs a break from that lifestyle, just to clear your head and regain some sanity,” he added. “And when you’re in recovery and you hit the road, it can be hard to find those lifelines, especially in areas where you don’t know someone.”
Keeping what he has by giving it away
In the Detroit area, Passenger Recovery has been an oasis for clean and sober musicians who need the certainty of a recovering community. As a traveling musician in the program, Tait knows full well that meeting schedules can change and meeting locations can come and go. He remembers seeking out a meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, only to have the address lead him to an abandoned building; in Asbury Park, New Jersey, another outdated meeting schedule took him to a bar that was part of a bowling alley complex.
When that happens, however, he has to laugh. The universe has a wicked sense of humor sometimes, but because of the foundation he laid in his own program, none of it is a threat to his sobriety. With Passenger Recovery, all of the guesswork is removed for those who need that stability, however.
“If someone gets a hold of us, we’ll get them to a meeting and schedule everything ahead of time between sound check and show time to eliminate the anxiety and stress that pretty often comes with being on tour,” he said. “We’re a very small organization, but what I love about us is that we’re trying to help people who have expressed concern in their own lives, people who are trying to get better but have to promote things and pursue their passions. They shouldn’t have to compromise that because of the environment in which they’re promoting those things, and that’s where Passenger comes in.”
With time, he knows through personal experience, the uncertainty of early recovery is replaced by the certainty that they can stay clean and sober, no matter what … if they choose to do so. Nowhere is that more evident in his own life than when Electric Six, which is still eking out a living as the living embodiment of electro-party rock, passes back through Nashville, and the guys pull up to the Exit/In.
“We went back there many years, and because we’re a lot of times on this ‘Groundhog Day’ tour schedule, it was often on the same day as the last time I drank,” he said. “I sort of used that as a measuring stick. I would call my sponsor and assess where my life was at compared to then, and it’s usually good. It’s healthy for me, thanks to a program and Steps and listening to people who knew more than I did.
“I was allowed to not regret the past, nor did I wish to shut the door on it, to quote from the Big Book. I got to go back there and see how things had changed, and then look forward to more change. In the beginning, that might have seemed daunting, if I had not been told to take it one day at a time.”