EDM’s Ravenscoon peels back the layers to talk about sanity and sobriety

Ravenscoon

The EDM — electronic dance music — community isn’t that different from the hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll heyday of the 1960s and ’70s, Paul Conversano believes, but unless you were in that scene, it’s difficult to appreciate just how much drugs are a part of the culture.

The Ties That Bind UsFor Conversano — better known as the deejay and producer Ravenscoon — the stigma of EDM as a drug culture as much as it is a music genre has some merit. After all, he’s been in the thick of it and come out the other side, clean and sober these days. And from the very beginning, when he once followed various artists around the country, he’s had a ringside seat to just how prevalent drugs are in the community he loves so fervently.

“When I was getting into that culture, everybody was drinking and doing things like cocaine, acid, molly (also known as Ecstasy), ketamine — and that’s still a really difficult drug for a lot of my friends that’s not super common outside of electronic music,” Conversano told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “That’s just how it was. You would go for the weekend to a concert, or a two-day concert, and everybody was partying. That’s just what everybody was doing, and it just feels like part of it, like of course everybody’s going to be doing drugs.

“On this side of it, it almost feels weird for people who are sober, because then if you’re not doing it, people will question you — like, why aren’t you doing drugs?”

For Conversano, the answer is simple: Because they almost killed him. In sobriety, he’s faced a reckoning of sorts in dealing with depression and tackling his mental health, but he’s also embraced his recovery as an opportunity to be a better musician and human being. And while the siren song of substances still beckons, the ability to push through temptation and find release through his art is a freedom he appreciates in a way that’s difficult to put into words.

“I still think about it every day. Some days it’s less, but any time I’m feeling upset, it’s really difficult,” he said. “I wish it wasn’t that way, but the good thing is that around the time I got into producing music, I really got into channeling a lot of addict energy into something that’s creating rather than destroying.”

Ravenscoon: The early days

RavenscoonThese days, Conversano hangs his hat in Oakland, having recently moved to a one-bedroom apartment from a studio in San Francisco. The recent wildfire danger seems to have passed, although a week earlier, the orange skies over the Bay Area reminded him of scenes from the dystopian sci-fi film “Blade Runner.” Unable to head to the surrounding hills to hike, he and his girlfriend focused on turning their new place into a home, and Conversano turned to his muse. Looking out at orange skies was just another sign of how far he’s come from his days growing up in an Atlanta suburb.

“My dad is from Manhattan, and my mom is from Chicago, and I grew up in the middle of Roswell, John’s Creek and Alpharetta, some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the Southeast, if not the country,” he said. “I grew up around a lot of people who had similar world experiences as me, but then some were from the more traditional South, and there were lots of Hispanic people who lived in Roswell from the inner-city housing programs who went to my school.

“Plus, each of the schools I went to were magnet schools for special education, so I was exposed to a lot of different types of people. It was a melting pot in my high school, even though some of the high schools around me where I grew up were more affluent, more homogenous, more white and wealthy.”

His parents, he said, were financially comfortable, but they instilled in their son a work ethic that demanded he work for the things he wanted. An X-Box? Get a job and pay for it? A car? They bought him a $2,000 beater with a failing radiator that would smoke at red lights, he said, while a lot of his peers got sports cars as soon as they turned 16.

That work ethic, however, prepared him well for his career as a do-it-yourself EDM musician, as did the love of music his folks passed down. One of his earliest musical memories, he said, was his uncle’s wedding, when as a toddler he kept requesting that the reception deejay play songs by R.E.M. and Talking Heads, two of his parents’ favorite groups.

“My mom played the flute, and my grandma played the piano, but other than that, there weren’t many other people in my life wo made music, but my parents definitely loved it and were into live music,” he said. “I remember going to see James Taylor at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta when I was 5. I was luckily exposed to a lot of different types of music, and because my parents were older, they loved a lot of classic rock — Led Zeppelin, The Who, and I remember all of that being so captivating.

“They had a whole shelf full of CDs and this really old CD player that would hold multiple CDs and shuffle them, with these Bose speakers from the ’80s, and I remember when they would go out and leave me at home, I would pick my favorite CDs, put them on and dance to them in the family room.”

That’s also where his love of sci-fi came from: When mom would leave to attend her book club group, dad would sit his son down and put on classics like “The Road Warrior” and “Alien.” Needless to say, monsters bursting out of chests made a serious impression on a kindergartener, as did a screening of The Who’s “Quadrophenia.”

It was in fifth grade, however, that his world opened up. Access to the internet in his classroom, along with the now-defunct streaming service Grooveshark, introduced him to EDM for the first time.

“I started listening to popular stuff and found trance music — Armin van Buuren and ATB and other trance artists from Europe,” he said. “I had never heard anything that sounded like that before, and I just fell instantly in love.”

Music becomes the lifeline

Throughout middle school and high school, he continued spelunking down the rabbit hole of EDM, guided in part by friends whose older siblings had made the pilgrimage to the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. As his obsession grew, so too did his understanding of the genre’s complexities, and the foundation stones were laid for what would become the Ravenscoon sound, which he describes as “beautiful chaos” — a maelstrom of melody and beats that draw inspiration from his childhood love of rock and metal, his later-in-life embrace of trance and his worldview that darkness and light must exist in equal measure for balance to be achieved.

“I was drawn to it because it was emotional,” he said. “Even though there are all of these synthetic, synthesizer-driven sounds, it didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before. Trance music is very emotional music, and it captivated me. I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride through feelings and emotions. Over the years, as certain genres have become more popular, I feel like there’s been a loss of melody and emotion, especially in dubstep and the harder bass-centric genres I’m into, but what I try to do is fuse elements of trance and emotion back into it.”

For a directed study course in high school, he pursued music production, but even though he loved electronic music, he didn’t do much more than learn about it. But during a study-abroad course in South America, he met a guy who appreciated his taste in EDM who asked if he had any interest in deejaying.

“For the longest time, I felt like I wouldn’t be good enough to do it, but I wanted to, so I downloaded some software, and he taught me the basics, and then I was like completely obsessed,” he said. “That’s when I started teaching myself how to deejay and found my own style.”

Music, he said, became an outlet that eased his worried mind, because Conversano has struggled with depression for most of his life. Although it was never officially diagnosed, he remembers vividly telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to kill himself, but the first time he tried drugs and alcohol, it felt as if he was finally able to let out a deep breath he had been holding since birth.

“Fromm then on, every time, I got completely wasted,” he said. “It didn’t start out that way — like a lot of kids, I stole liquor from my parents when I was 12, and my parents let me have a small glass of wine or two with dinner, because we’re Italian, and that’s normal in our culture. But I remember we were on vacation, and they said I could have one little vodka cranberry — maybe a quarter of a shot — but I did it, and then I made five more.

“I liked the feeling, and that continued. I ended up buying marijuana from some kid in middle school who put it in a Call of Duty video game case and traded it to me in class so nobody knew, but I didn’t know what to smoke it out of, because I had no access to bongs or pipes! I remember Googling homemade pipes, and trying to make bowls out of Gatorade bottles and wire mesh.”

Getting wasted, however, came almost as easy as making music did, and every time he got high, he added, it felt like he was as close to “normal” as he could get.

“I would talk to myself and be like, ‘I’m back. I’m back in my zone,’” he said. “I felt like a different person, that I didn’t have to worry about any of that negative energy or any of my depression or any social anxiety. It really was like being able to finally exhale.

“I started smoking when I was 13, and I still think about that feeling. I think a lot of it was me self-medicating for mental illness that I never really faced, and there’s probably some childhood trauma wrapped up in that, too. And now that I’m sober, I have to face those feelings without that crutch.”

A man without an off switch

Ravenscoon (foreground, on the right) and the crowd at Atlanta's Terminal West.

Throughout high school, he mostly stuck to alcohol, but his reputation as a top-tier partier earned him the nickname “Taaka C.,” because he could polish off a fifth of Taaka vodka by himself.

“I would drink so much that I would black out and pass out on the floor,” he said. “That started happening at 16 or 17, and from there, I started making friends who had access to Xanax and stuff, so I started taking anything I could get my hands on, really. I never thought it was a problem; I just thought I liked the feeling, that I was just this crazy party animal.

“But there was not a single party that I went to that I wasn’t so drunk I wasn’t vomiting everywhere. I was always known as the guy who would do whatever, and I definitely liked the attention — and once that started, it almost became an obsession. I had to drink more, and I just didn’t have an off switch. There was no time in the night that I wanted to stop until I was completely incapable of taking anything else.”

And once he got drunk, he added, every other substance became fair game. He became adept at hiding just how much he drank and used, however, so no red flags were raised — at least until he got into college.

“I was rushing a fraternity at the time, but your freshman year of college at an SEC school, drinking is very normal — but I was getting blackout drunk as many times as I could a week,” he said. “I realized that the people I was going out with every single night had problems, and that’s when I started thinking a little more about my behavior.”

The memories of those days are hazy, almost like remembering stories told about a complete stranger: getting arrested for drinking at a college baseball game, trying to bring three girls back to his dorm and losing his temper at the resident advisor who wouldn’t allow it, pulling the fire alarm, passing out and waking up to police and fire at his dorm door — and still being so drunk that, when asked for his ID, he gave them a fake one.

“I think that was the first time I was like, ‘I’m starting to do things that are completely out of character, and I’m not remembering doing any of it,’” he said. “That started to concern me, and it just kept getting worse.”

To make matters worse, the relationship he was in throughout college turned toxic and abusive. His girlfriend introduced him to cocaine, which at first felt like a godsend, because it allowed him to drink more, but he quickly began to burn through money to keep himself in blow.

“I was driving my car down to (empty) as much as I could to save money to buy more cocaine, and that’s when I feel like things started to spiral downward,” he said. “It’s all fun and games when you’re the life of the party, but what happens when you go home and you keep drinking by yourself? I was so broke I was trying to drink drops of liquor out of old bottles on the shelves, going into withdrawal and shaking so bad I thought I had MS.

“I didn’t realize the shaking and the vomiting were from alcohol withdrawal. I got multiple stomach ulcers and had to go get an endoscopy, and at the time I thought I had cancer. I couldn’t figure out why I was having these severe stomach issues and bleeding, and it was from all the liquor I was drinking.”

Sobriety and the birth of Ravenscoon

RavenscoonAfter college, life in the Southeast came to a hard end for Conversano. That toxic relationship had ended, but the effects lingered; he lost his scholarship during his final year, during which he spent as much time in bed, drinking and recuperating, as he did in class. After graduation, however, a friend in the EDM community hooked him up with a job at CBS, and he sold everything to move to San Francisco with two suitcases and a backpack, as much to get away from his ex as he did to make a new start.

“Once I got out there, I found that I stopped drinking as much, but any time I felt sad or get this other feeling — I don’t know how to describe it other than something close to manic — the only think I new that would help would be to get messed up so I felt like I could exhale,” he said. “Any time I felt like that, I would get super wasted in my apartment, by myself, and eventually I missed work a couple of times. The place I was working was no joke, and I couldn’t be doing that, so that’s when I started to really make an effort to get better.”

At the time, he’d begun a new relationship, albeit a long-distance one, and when they were together, it made him want to be better. Apart, however, he used the distance as an excuse to drink more. It didn’t take long for her to express concern over Conversano’s penchant for getting high and disappearing all night.

“She really kept me honest with myself,” he said. “She was one of the people who was like, ‘You’re an addict. You don’t just like to drink. It’s way more than that.’ I still did it because she wasn’t around, but that’s when I really started to look at it seriously and have these realizations.”

Once she moved in, it became harder to maintain a habit behind her back. At the same time, repressed memories from his childhood came flooding back, and he found himself caught between the yin of numbness through chemicals and the yang of perseverance through clarity.

“I think I was just tired of it, tired of having a crutch, and every time I got that way, I just ended up feeling way worse,” he said. “It helped temporarily, but overall, it made me so much more unhappy. When you’re dealing with really bad depression and wanting to kill yourself, alcohol does not make that better.”

The end of the road came during a trip to Mexico for an electronic music festival, roughly 20 months ago. The entire weekend, Conversano threw back one drink after another,, to the point that he doesn’t remember much of the trip. On the way back home, he told his girlfriend that was it: He was done. He quit drinking and smoking cigarettes the same day, and without alcohol to flip the breaker, he was able to stay off of other drugs as well.

He considered 12 Step recovery, but ultimately childhood experiences with the Catholic church made him leery of anything with a spiritual bent. He’s not against 12 Step programs and acknowledges that they’ve helped a great many of his friends, but for Conversano, it was more of a matter of determination than anything else.

“It was just a lot of willpower. I’m a very goal-oriented and stubborn person, and I knew that I couldn’t even have a beer or two with dinner, because I would end up sneaking and doing shots from the freezer,” he said. “I stopped hanging out with all my friends who were still going out and drinking, and I got rid of it in the house. I really became a hermit for the first six months, which were the hardest.

“Plus, there was always the idea that if I did slip up, that whole time would have been wasted. It’s day by day, of course, but if I slip up now, I might as well have been drinking the entire time.”

Ravenscoon: The future's so bright ...

Shortly before he got sober, he dove off the EDM high dive and into the world of making his own music rather than remixing everyone else’s. He still finds great joy in chopping up, rearranging and augmenting the songs of others — one of his most recent releases, in fact, is the Ravenscoon (an anagram of his last name) remix of Cardi B’s “W.A.P.” But sobriety has given him a razor sharp edge to his production that allows him to pull from the darkest parts of his past and the brightest parts of his present to create something undeniably magical.

It's not always easy, especially being in the EDM community. He doesn’t go to as many shows as he once did, but he didn’t get sober to live in fear, and he’s found a way to make it work. He tries to avoid the bar, and he hangs out with friends who don’t go overboard in the way that he once did. And, he said, he’s found that when he shows up for the right reasons — to listen to or create music — it’s so much more rewarding.

“I love the music so much that I’m truly there for the music,” he said. “Drugs were the things that distracted me. I was always going to the shows for the music, but everything else became a distraction from that.”

Along the way, he’s made no secret of his sobriety. For one thing, it helps him stay accountable: It’s not unusual for fans and fellow performers to offer musicians of all genres free drugs, but by putting out into the world the story of his own sobriety, he’s built more of a safeguard for it. What he’s found is a supportive community that embraces his new lifestyle, encourages him to keep at it and even asks him for advice when one of its own struggles as he once did.

“It’s a combination of having good friends and focusing on the important things,” he said. “After going through withdrawal and the difficult part of getting sober, I feel almost like, for the first time in my whole life, that I’m awake. I can remember going to concerts and being a deejay, but I also remember being so afraid of getting so hammered drunk on stage and messing up.

“Now, I don’t have to worry about that. I just feel like I’m awake, that I have a purpose, that I’m exploding with a creative energy that I kept down with drugs and alcohol my whole life. All that energy spent on those things is now available to me, and to have taken music so seriously and in such a short period of time, to have really grown a solid fanbase with 11,000 followers on my music platforms, feels really, really good.”

And he’s not stopped growing mentally, either. His next step, he said, is to get into therapy to treat the underlying issues and traumas that drove much of his drinking and drug use, and he doesn’t take for granted the position his public acknowledgement of sobriety his placed him in.

“A lot of people have messaged me and said, ‘I also want to get sober,’ or, ‘I want to take a break from doing drugs and drinking — do you have any advice for me?’” he said. “I try to give them resources and encouragement and let them know that not everybody is the same. I think the most important thing is your willpower and yourself, that you have to decide for you that it’s your time to stop.

“Nobody can do that but you. Somebody can try to get you to do it, but it has to be your decision, and you have to have a strong support network that keeps you responsible and keeps you to your word. I would say to anyone that if you think you’re having a problem, you probably are struggling with something, and that even if you’re questioning it, maybe you should try talking to somebody.

“It doesn’t make you weak to reach out to friends or family, because you’re not alone,” he added. “A lot of people are dealing with this, because right now is an especially hard time for mental health in general, so if you are feeling that way, reach out. There’s a lot of us out here who can support you.”

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