For years, Daniel Wieten told himself he wouldn’t turn out like his mother.
Family relationships are always complicated, even more so when addiction hovers over every interaction like an invisible harbinger of doom. As a musician whose band The Omega Experiment has explored those nebulous concepts through a sonic barrage of progressive rock with psychedelic underpinnings, his own recovery has been a continuous examination of the ways in which he carried on that particular legacy unintended.
His mother’s side of the family, Wieten told The Ties That Bind Us recently, had a longstanding relationship with the disease, and his mother struggled with prescription medication as far back as he can remember. In recovery, he’s learned to accept the pain with the beauty, and remembers his mother as a person whose light shined brighter than the disease from which she suffered.
“When you separate the disease from the person, you know it wasn’t her,” he said. “When she was at her best, she was such a generous, loving person who cared for people on a deep level. She was extremely talented, a very artistic person — that’s where I got my artistic side, was mostly from her. She decorated cakes for a period of time, and she did these extravagant wedding cakes that were just insane.
“But I could see the pain her disease was inflicting on the people around her — my dad and the family dynamic, and when I would see her under the influence and checked out and how drugs took this wonderful woman away from us, I didn’t want to be like that. But guess what? I turned out to be exactly like her.”
Daniel Wieten: A rock 'n' roll baptism
As is always the case with addiction, it wasn’t as simple as the unconscious flip of a hereditary switch, although genetics almost certainly played a role. By the same token, as much as “The Omega Experiment,” the album, documents his relationship with drugs and his sober journey, the sum total of that album isn’t representative of the impact music has had on Wieten’s life.
He grew up in Muskegon, Michigan, on the other side of Lake Michigan from Milwaukee, and he was 5 years old when his Uncle Mark introduced him to the first band that would make a seminal impact: KISS.
“We’re talking like 1982, and they were just about to take off their makeup,” Wieten said. “By the time he was kind of getting me into it, they were already in that transition. He would show me ‘KISS Alive,’ with the bombs going off in the background, and I thought that was the coolest thing, but I’m more stuck on ’80s KISS than ’70s KISS. If you grew up in the mid-80s, hair metal was going to be what you listened to.”
And like a lot of young rock ‘n’ roll acolytes, Wieten could shred an air guitar like nobody’s business — so much so that when he turned 8, his parents bought him the real thing and signed him up for a few lessons. Afterward, he spent a lot of time playing in front of his mirror, until at age 11, he began to feel frustrated that this machine he loved was never going to take him places.
“I remember writing a few songs, but that was a really young age to be serious about anything, but I also remember feeling like I was never going to get better or do anything with this,” he said. “That’s when my dad was like, ‘Why don’t I sign you back up for lessons?’ So I got a new guitar and a new amp, and I started to take it more seriously.”
By 16, his musical tastes had become more complex: Dream Theater was in regular rotation, the intricacies of death metal intrigued him and the virtuosic playing of guitarists like Paul Gilbert, John Petrucci and Steve Vai fascinated him. He spent all of his spare time in his bedroom, practicing scales and playing guitar, and the rest of the world ceased to exist.
At the same time, however, he was wrestling with his sexuality, he said, and by the time he was 19, the determination to make it as a musician, combined with the anxiety over being a closeted gay man, led him to seize upon an elixir that, at the time, seemed like a curative.
“I was playing in cover bands at 19, and that’s when I discovered that alcohol can taste good,” he said. “Someone handed me a Captain (Morgan) and Coke, and I loved it. Before, I had hated beer, and I thought that was the only thing people drank. But then I was like, ‘If it can taste good, give me all of this!’ Because sudden, I could dance, and I could talk to people.”
Daniel Wieten: Down in a hole
Alcohol also gave him the courage to embrace his sexuality, but it was a troublesome journey at first: His friends accepted him without reservation and did what a lot of guys do, straight or gay: encouraged him to seek out casual intimacy in bars.
“They started going to gay bars with me, and that really fueled everything,” he said. “I wanted to be able to dance and to talk to people, and how was I going to do that? I was going to drink, more and more and more, until eventually Fridays and Saturdays started to include Thursdays, and then Wednesdays, and eventually it was, ‘What do we do on Tuesdays? We drink!’”
Once he got sober and started working on himself, however, he began to see just how tangled the web of self-deception was tied to his alcohol consumption. His first sexual encounter, he said, was traumatizing, and that left him even more confused. On top of that, he found himself trying to act “less gay” around his straight friends, using pejoratives about himself and finding an odd sense of gratitude when they would say, “You’re the only cool gay guy we know, because you don’t act like a girl!,” he said.
“I had to be so hard on myself to be accepted,” he said. “That all led to more using, and when my parents got divorced right out of high school, I realized my world wasn’t nearly as functional as I thought it was.”
By the time his partying started in earnest, he was working in a factory, making decent money and holding down good benefits, and two years later, he caught his first charges for driving on a suspended license. Although it wasn’t directly related to alcohol and drugs, it was “an example of my declining moral compass,” he said.
“I was not trying to do the right thing at all. I didn’t care if I had a suspended license — I was going to drive,” he said.
He was eventually fired and found himself living back home with his father, borrowing his dad’s car and feeling trapped, he added.
“I couldn’t make it on my own. I tried to, and I just partied my way back into his basement, and when I got there, guess what I did?” he said. “I partied my way through that time with him until I went to rehab. Through all of that, I started using narcotics. I knew I was an addict, and I had known it was possible because I had seen my mom, and I knew I had her genes.
“I kept telling myself that I was not going to be like that, that I had to do everything I possibly could not to be like that — and it didn’t work.”
The Omega Experiment is born
By 2005, after some years of opioid abuse and a lifetime of partying under his belt, he realized he needed to do something different. He went to drug and alcohol rehab for the first time, where he learned a great deal about the disease concept and the 12 Steps of recovery, but when he coined out, he opted to do what a great many newcomers attempt: a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style of addiction recovery, he said.
“I wasn’t ready to do the work I had to do to change anything,” he said. “I wanted to go to the meetings with the white people, to be blunt about it. I was very ignorant, and wasn’t willing to do what it took. I got a sponsor in the rooms who was a lawyer and had a suit on, and I remember opening the phone book and showing my dad a picture of him, because I wanted to impress my father. I didn’t realize I needed a sponsor I connected with and had something I want.”
That peace of mind proved elusive until May 27, 2008, when he returned to rehab. Humbled and chastened, he found the willingness to put in the work that had so well served his peers in recovery. Through the suggestions handed forth in rooms where recovering addicts and alcoholics gathered to drink coffee and pour out their hearts, Wieten found a path that worked — and returned him to music.
To be fair, he had never completely left it behind. Even in the darkest days of his addiction, he played in bands around town, and in 2002, when software like ProTools became more accessible to musicians, he began recording his own material. Alcohol and drugs, however, kept him from ever completing anything, he said.
“All I cared about was the next one,” he said. “I had a vision, and I wanted to execute something, but I was never able to stick to it, and by the end, my band kicked me out, because I was such a piece of shit.”
The memories of those times are painful — having to bum rides to band practice and borrowing $2 from his guitar player for a cheap bottle of Popov vodka, “anything to put in my black fucking hole of a spiritual void,” he said. After his second time in rehab, he thought that part of his life was done for good.
“I thought, ‘How can I make music without using?’” he said. “I couldn’t even make music without cigarettes.”
However, he found a clean and sober comrade in Ryan Aldridge, with whom he formed The Omega Experiment. Together, they conceived of a vision for a band, and over the course of the next four years, they painstakingly pieced together a loose concept album based on the addict’s journey from active addiction to recovery.
“I had to not really do anything else but this band in order to finish our album, but I finally finished something,” he said. “And I really do think there were greater forces at work, in taking that journey through recovery and the composition of this record at the same time. The arrangement of the album, the way the songs flow into each other, a lot of that wasn’t planned. Or there were specific noises that were picked up when we were recording that wasn’t planned, but were perfect for the context of that song or part or whatever.
“It wasn’t perfect, and a lot of it was painstaking, but for the most part, it was stuff that I couldn’t believe we were doing. There were artists that we had listened to for years and years before that, and we were producing this thing that was up to par with that, thanks to advanced in technology and cheaper recording software and hard work.”
'Lost dreams awaken and new possibilities arise'
In recovery, he found, inspiration came easy, and the reception for “The Omega Experiment” was nothing short of electrifying. Although mounting a touring version of the band to recreate those songs live was a complex operation, they managed to do a five-date set of shows across the Midwest before being signed to the independent metal label Listenable Records, out of France. That landed them an opening slot on a European tour with the prog metal band Fates Warning, which began in the Netherlands and ended in Germany.
That show in Cologne, back in 2013, was the last time Wieten was on stage.
“I miss it a great deal, but it’s unfathomable to think about fitting a band in my life right now, even though I would love to,” he said. “I’ve kind of settled into this very comfortable sit-in-front-of-my-studio-speakers-and-laptop-when-I-have-the-time routine, but I miss that camaraderie. I’ve become an adult, doing adult things, which for recovering addicts, happens very late in life sometimes.
“I was living with my dad, under his roof, until I was five years in to my recovery, and I’m still slowly learning how to be an adult. I would love to do that again some day — taking this band out again when something else is finally finished — but that takes a lot of planning.”
Another record, however, is something he can do on his own. It’s been almost a decade since the self-titled album by The Omega Experiment was released, and he’s working diligently an album No. 2. Although he gets some assistance on bass from his friend, Matt Ryan, The Omega Experiment is mostly Wieten’s project these days. Last year he released the song “Radar,” the proceeds of which were donated to the MusiCares Coronavirus Relief Fund, and the 10-year difference in recordings by The Omega Experiment is striking. Some of the earliest 15-plus minute instrumental recordings put up on Bandcamp in 2010 hewed closer to the minimalism of contemporary classical, whereas “Radar” is full-throated, fist-pumping indie rock with prog flourishes: Minus the Bear covering Queen, for example, or Rush adding a half-dozen tracks to “New World Man” and speeding it up to double time.
“It’s been an extremely long journey of trying to finish a second album that was started in 2012, and ‘Radar’ was one of the songs that was going to be part of that album,” Wieten said. “When COVID happened, I had a little more time on my hands. It had been so long since we’d released anything, and there was one song that was going to have to not be on the album or else it would be too long, so I extracted that one and finished it.
“But there is a new album. I can’t give a percentage on how much is finished, but everything has been written for a long time, and now I’m just mixing and filling in the blanks. There are some parts I’d like to change, like keyboard parts and stuff, because I have a better sense of how it should sound now, but all of the material is there. Most of the tracks are there, and I’m just getting it pieced together.”
This month, he and his partner are moving to Texas, and that in and of itself will mean another delay, since most of the new music will be on computers that have to be disassembled, packed up and then reassembled. As a solo endeavor, the new Omega Experiment record is painstaking, Wieten acknowledged, but the end result will be worth it.
And in that sense, his music is still mirroring his recovery, he added.
“I would just tell anyone not to give up — to don’t quit before the miracle,” he said. “That was one of my first sponsors favorite phrases. Those bumper stickers are annoying because they’re the truth! But I stuck around, and my life is simple today.
“I have a partner, and we have a dog, and we’re moving to a great place with no snow. I work from home, and I work on music when I can. I still go to meetings — some of them are on Zoom, and some are finally in person now. Like I said — simple. I complicate the shit out of it, and I make it difficult on myself a lot, but it really is simple.”