Clean at 17: Elia Einhorn builds a career and a purpose through sobriety

Elia Einhorn
Courtesy of Ebru Yildiz

It’s Feb. 24, 1997, and Elia Einhorn is running for his life through the Chicago snow.

The Ties That Bind UsHe’s 17 years old, and the bands with which he’ll make a name for himself — Scotland Yard Gospel Choir first, and then Fashion Brigade — are still several years down the road. It’ll be another year before he’s even old enough to vote; another four before he can even buy a legal drink, but in that moment, the drugs and alcohol that had consumed him for the past four years sent him screaming into the night, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I was in this hippie house with some friends of mine, and on that particular day, we were smoking pot, and my brain just flipped,” he said. “Still to this day, I don’t know exactly what happened — some combination of drugs and panic, but the synapses were firing every which way, and as I stared at the TV that was on in the room, it felt like there was a tunnel between myself and the TV, and I felt like I was deep in one of the heaviest acid trips I had ever taken.

“I was petrified. I thought I had become one of those acid burnouts that we’ve all seen, because I couldn’t put together a coherent thought. I made an excuse to leave, because I wasn’t comfortable talking about my feelings or my experiences, and I just ran. I was running through the snow, literally because I didn’t know what else to do, just running to get this cold air in my body, to try and get to a place of equilibrium. I eventually went to Walgreen’s and took a combination of pills I had heard would stop a trip, but it didn’t work.”

The next morning, he felt flayed down to the emotional bone, and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that something had to change. He approached his mother, telling her he needed to talk, and the weight of the heaviest four years of his young life came jettisoning to the surface, he added.

“I told her, that I was addicted, that I didn’t know what was happening to my brain, but I had to make it stop,” he said. “And I was in rehab the next day.”

Elia Einhorn and the wardrobe of rock 'n' roll

Einhorn (right) with Solange Knowles, sister of Beyonce, in September 2017 at MCA Chicago.

And everything that followed has been built on a foundation of the knowledge gained there, Einhorn added. Like a lot of recovering individuals who get clean and sober early in life, he’s experienced the raised eyebrows from individuals in recovery who like to brag about how they spilled more liquor than their younger peers ever drank.

Einhorn isn’t interested in swapping war stories in order to qualify, however. He knows he does, and he’s grateful he’s never surrendered his seat in the rooms of recovery, no matter the trials and tribulations that befell him in the years since.

“I was just so dysfunctional back then,” he said. “It amazes me when I meet high-functioning people who were addicts, because I couldn’t get anything right. All day long, I was fucked up, but the foundation of sobriety just opened everything for me. All the sudden the artistic part of my nature, the part I had been flirting with but not using at all, became central to my life. Sobriety gave me everything.”

Including the key to a world that, as a kid, seemed as fantastical as Narnia. Musicians, young Einhorn thought, were beings that existed outside the realm of mere mortals, and while he fell in love with the sounds and songs they gave, he couldn’t fathom a place for himself in their world, he said.

“I didn’t know anyone in the industry, so to me there were these magical people who were musicians, and then there was everybody else, like me,” he said. “I knew music would be with me for my whole life, but I didn’t know I would be a part of music.”

For his 10th birthday, his sister bought him a copy of “Violator,” by Depeche Mode, and he became obsessed. In high school, he found his lane as a beat boxer and became the go-to guy when battle rappers needed something over which to lay down some blistering rhymes. By that point, however, he was deep into a budding addiction that began when he was 13.

“I was out with my buddies, and we were at sort of like a city park that had these cool sculptures, these amazing car bumper animal sculptures, and we ran into some kids who were older,” he said. “We bought some weed off of one of them (ironically enough, Mark Yoshizumi, who would later become his bandmate in Scotland Yard Gospel Choir). I had smoked it once before, but it hadn’t really worked.

“But when I smoked it that day, it felt like I was in the most warm, comfortable, fuzzy dream I had ever been in. I remember lying face down in the park until my friends were like, ‘We gotta get the fuck out of here,’ and they had to help me out, because I was so intoxicated. It knocked me on my ass in the best way possible, and I just loved it.”

The end ... and a new beginning

elia einhorn

Einhorn (right) with singer-songwriter Shamir in the studio working on a collaboration for the Fashion Brigade album "Fvck the Heartache."

Since getting sober more than two decades ago, Einhorn has done a lot of work to improve his mental health, and looking back, it’s clear now that his younger self suffered from some serious anxiety. Weed, he added, became the medicine to calm his frenetic brain, and it also cracked open the door for a smorgasbord of complimentary chemicals that often accompanied it.

“There were times I should have known to stop but didn’t, and I think about it once in the morning and once at night, when I brush my teeth,” he said. “There was one time we were going to see The Specials play in Chicago, and I took these pills with codeine in them and a bunch of mushrooms, and because we were listening to a lot of reggae at the time and inspired by the rastas, we made this huge, Frankenstein spliff out of all these rolling papers.

“We got on the redline north to the Metro, and just before the train stopped, I started hallucinating these walls of color, and I couldn’t see through them. When the doors opened at our stop, I literally fell out, onto my face. I remember I woke up on the concrete, spitting out chunks of teeth … but I still went to the concert. I think the codeine helped with that.”

The next day, the pain and embarrassment of his jagged smile could only be assuaged by more substances, so he started drinking. A friend expressed concern, pointing out that his lifestyle clearly left something to be desired, but Einhorn’s reaction was one of disdain and offense.

“I told him that it wasn’t his business, that I was fine. I didn’t appreciate it, and I was annoyed by his insinuation that I was having trouble,” he said. “That wasn’t the only time. I went to jail tripping my face off on acid, and I spent the night there with a bunch of other punks for trespassing. I just kept having to use new things, new drugs, new combinations to get to where I wanted to get. I even found a bag of white powder one time and snorted it, and I had no idea what it was. I count that as one of my nine lives.”

Fast forward to Feb. 25, 1997, and his first day in rehab. The residual aftershocks of the night before had him shook, he said, and the fear of facing life sober paled in comparison to the fear of losing his mind, slowly and permanently, because of the chemicals with which he was punishing it.

“I was so afraid; desperately, desperately afraid, in a way I had only been a couple of times in my life,” he said. “I legitimately saw my life slipping away in front of my eyes, in a way I could never have imagined, in a way that always only happened to other people.”

He credits the therapists and counselors at the facility for helping break through not just his youthful recalcitrance, but his fear as well. One in particular, Pam Kost, had such a profound impact on Einhorn that he reaches out every year on his sobriety date to let her know he’s still on the right side of the grass.

“She was a central figure in those early months, and she taught me a number of things, but the two biggest ones were that I had to change people, places and things; and that I needed to have a sober community outside of rehab, because I needed other people to be able to do this,” he said. “She instilled that in me deeply.”

Elia Einhorn: The creation of a Choir

Einhorn performs at the 2009 Block Party hosted by The Hideout in Chicago with Scotland Yard Gospel Choir. (Courtesy of Darren Spitzer)

Once he left treatment, Einhorn knew two things: That he “didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a mental hospital,” he said, and that he needed a mental distraction from the white noise that came rushing back in after the drugs and alcohol were removed.

“My mind was in a state of continuous panic, and there were two things I could do to really calm it down,” he said. “One was to play video games, and the second was to play guitar and write songs. I went from playing almost not at all to being a very serious student of guitar and songwriting at the flick of a switch.

“And the thing is, I fucking needed it. I was desperate, and it gave me this deep relief. During conversations with other people, I would be playing guitar. Even at the dinner table, I wanted to play guitar. Thank God I don’t need it in the same way in my life today, but my mind has straightened out a lot since those early days.”

A year after he got sober, the indie pop band Belle and Sebastian released the album “The Boy With the Arab Strap,” and it had a profound effect on Einhorn. It’s not hyperbole to say that it blew his mind and inspired him to start taking his music to more people than just friends and family. In 2001, he and Matthew Kerstein put together Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, releasing a demo EP, “Do You Still Stick Out in the Crowd,” before expanding to a four-piece and landing plum opening slots for groups like Of Montreal, Fiery Furnaces, Spoon and Arcade Fire, among others. The band’s debut full-length, “I Bet You Say That to All the Boys,” was well-received, and Einhorn kept the group going after Kerstein left in 2005.

“During the golden years, about half the band was sober, and that really helped me, because there were other recovering people in the group,” he said. “Even then, sobriety was central to being able to be on the road as a professional musician and live that life.”

In 2007, the band released a self-titled follow-up on Bloodshot Records, an album that received rave reviews from PopMatters, among other outlets: “Lead singer/songwriter Elia finds his lyrical strength in the awkwardness that most people avoid, especially in a public setting. And it’s in that arena of bold vulnerability where this album lies and sparkles with a blue-tinted melancholy. It’s a mix of brutally candid and confessional storytelling filled with myriad moments of swelling strings and layers of keys that surgically open your heart, allowing the blood-soaked lyrics to pour right in.”

But then it came crashing down —literally. On Sept. 24, 2009, the band was en route to a gig in Cincinnati when the tour van blew a tire. The vehicle rolled multiple times, scattering gear, destroying equipment and barely avoiding a catastrophic tragedy.

Sobriety even through strife

Elia Einhorn

Einhorn (center) with musicians Andy Rourke (left) and Peter Hook (of Joy Division and New Order).

All six members were hospitalized, but Yoshizumi was the most badly injured and had to be choppered off of the interstate. Police reports, Einhorn said, estimate the van may have flipped up to a dozen times, and he suffered serious injuries himself, including cracked vertebrae in his neck and back and a gash on his head that he covers today with long hair.

Even the doctors weren’t sure he would pull through, he added.

“The doctor asked me when I was on the table, ‘Do you want a priest?’” Einhorn recalled.

Throughout it all, however, he kept telling medical personnel that he was in recovery and didn’t want narcotics. He remembers none of this, though, and because his pain sent his blood pressure spiking into dangerous territory, he was given some anyway. What he does remember is waking up, seeing his brother at his bedside and vomiting.

“They prescribed me narcotics, and I didn’t want to take them, but I remember people telling me, ‘You need to take this. Your pain is out of control, and you’re driving us all crazy,’” he said. “I talked to my sponsor and took it as prescribed, and I switched very quickly to extra-strength Tylenol, and thank God I was able to do that.”

During his recuperation, his mind was never far from music. Unfortunately, the extent of injuries to the various members of Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, combined with the reluctance to get back in a tour van again, spelled the end of that project. Einhorn had started work on music for the band’s next record, and the label was pushing for another one. In figuring out a solution, he conceived of Fashion Brigade.

“The accident ruined the band, because none of us could go out for extended periods anymore, so if I couldn’t tour, I just decided that I was going to work with all these people I’ve toured with in the past or worked in the industry with, or that I’m friends with — people that I never could have worked with in Scotland Yard Gospel Choir,” he said. “The first person I thought of was Exene (Cervenka, singer for the seminal punk band X). We were on the same label, and I had been told she loved our band, and I love X, so I just thought, ‘I’m going to hit up Exene.’”

Cervenka became one of the first artists to sign on to what would become “Fvck the Heartache,” a 10-year labor of love that includes collaborations with Kid Hawk, Kelly Hogan, Shamir, Frankie Cosmos and Nimai Larson of Prince Rama. The album was released in 2019, and the blog JanglePopHub boasted that “effectively, give or take the mere matter of 58 songs, this is the modern day equivalent of The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs, albeit sonically weirder, mostly less fragile and always more fuzz-pop and C86.”

And there’s more Fashion Brigade on the horizon, Einhorn added: He’s working on completing a new EP he hopes to release by end of year or in early 2022, and while he doesn’t want to divulge too many details, he will say this: Shamir is one of the returning guests, and it’ll feature “cover art painted by one of Jamaica’s most brilliant living producers.”

Elia Einhorn: Keeping what he has by giving it away

Einhorn with a physical copy of the zine Sober 21.

In the meantime, he continues to parlay his lifetime love of rock ‘n’ roll into other creative outlets. He’s a show host for both Sonos Radio and Pitchfork Radio, and earlier this year launched Sober 21, an online zine that “brings together a group of musicians that varies in age, gender, race, sexual orientation, musical styles, amount of time sober, and years in the music industry. What they have in common is that they were actively addicted to alcohol and drugs, and that they share here that they are now free from that addiction. The contributors are all — save one, included intentionally — professionally active in music.”

Einhorn’s perspective is a unique one, in that he got sober before he began playing music professionally. Many of the artists who contribute interviews or personal essays to Sober 21 — from Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order to Hole’s Patty Schemel to Moby to Ties alums Emily Kempf and Tyler Pope — weren’t so lucky, but their perspectives of finding sobriety while navigating rock ‘n’ roll as a lifestyle and a way of earning a living will hopefully prove invaluable to other musicians looking to do the same, he said.

“I think there are a lot of industry pitfalls in music that people fall into that thankfully I didn’t,” he said. “I fell into some of the tropes, like record labels not paying, but the ones of drugs and alcohol sweeping the leg right before you make it, thankfully I was sober then. The common denominator is that every one of us came in (to recovery) with our lives crashing into a brick wall at 90mph.”

It's been a labor of love that’s taken years to put together, but he’s already thinking about another version for next year — Sober 22, perhaps. Some of those he asked to contribute were personal friends met along the way; others, like Kempf, became friends through their shared connection to music and sobriety.

“Emily gifted me this harmonium, and I have it in my office,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone and taken three minutes to pick it up and play it a little bit and reset my equilibrium.”

For Einhorn, recovery is about remaining teachable, no matter how long he’s been sober. Whether it’s picking up a new hobby like the harmonium or gleaning nuggets from the recovery advice written for Sober 21, there’s always new information that he can take and apply to his own journey, he said.

And of course, there are those bedrock principles that have been a part of it since day one, like keeping what he has by giving it away. In 12 Step parlance, it’s known as carrying the message, and no matter how busy his music and media careers get, he’ll always make time for it, he added.

“I’m deeply entrenched in a sober community, and within that community, I work with a lot of alcoholics and addicts, and especially a lot of people who are young in sobriety,” he said. “I work with a few who have a number of years, and also with a number who are counting days or months, and watching them go through things is a reminder of what I never want to go back through. There’s a level of dysfunction, of deep wounds in their personal lives, their family lives, their souls, and I don’t want that shit anymore. Helping them helps me so much, and it’s really central to my own sobriety.”