LCD Soundsystem’s Tyler Pope reflects on grace, music and sobriety

Tyler Pope
Courtesy of Ruvan Wijesooriya

Sobriety is a radical reinvention, and bassist Tyler Pope took that to heart when he made the decision to embrace it in 2010.

The Ties That Bind UsFor one, he left his post as the guitarist (among other instruments) of the dance-punk band !!! (pronounced “Chk-Chk-Chk”). For another, he joined LCD Soundsystem, a similarly dance- and groove-driven rock act with a worldwide audience.

And he went on tour. All while trying to save his marriage and, more importantly, himself, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“It was painful, at times, going on tour (with LCD Soundsystem) right after I got sober, because I remember being in my own head a lot on that tour,” Pope said, speaking via Zoom from his home in Berlin. “But when I look back at videos of that tour, I’m just nonstop dancing. It almost looks like a crazy person, because I’m just moving my body so much, but I remember it really worked. It can be really powerful when you’re in the moment and you’re really tripping on the whole experience of music and the way we relate to it and think about it.

“And to me, sobriety is a lot like that — just stepping back. What keeps me sober is stepping back and realizing what a crazy thing life is, and being on stage, playing in those concerts, was something I was really grateful for when I stepped back. And keeping my mind on that — that we’re just on this rock, floating through infinite time and space, and letting the music move me instinctually, was just really powerful.”

Tyler Pope and the baptism of rock 'n' roll

Tyler PopeIt's serendipitous, in a sense, that the 2010 tour that brought Pope into the LCD Soundsystem tribe was to support the LCD record released the same year, and that the lead-off track to that album is titled “Dance Yrself Clean.” That’s exactly what Pope was doing, and in tapping into those spiritual leylines that helped him transcend the weight of self, he was reminded of the things that made him fall in love with music in the first place.

“Music is a healthy thing, and in a way, music elicited some sort of high as far back as I can remember,” Pope said. “I can remember always waiting for MTV to play ‘Paradise City’ by Guns N’ Roses, just waiting for the guitar intro. It’s super simple — just C-G — but I felt like time would stand still when I would hear that guitar intro, like it would transform me.

“I feel like I felt it more than other people did. I mean, everybody in my life was into music or was getting into music, but I was the kind of guy who was always pushing it onto my friends: ‘Oh, man, you’ve got to hear this!’ Even today, I notice those things about me: I have these songs that I want to listen to over and over again, because they do something to me.”

Eventually, Pope said, his love of music pushed him to do more than listen. Growing up in Sacramento, his father was an attorney who happened to dabble in music on the side. He played drums, and there was an old guitar sitting around the house that never got played, and even though it only had two strings, Pope picked it up and started messing around.

“Right away, I enjoyed it so much, even with just two strings, that my parents could tell,” he said. “They said, ‘It seems like he really wants to do this,’ so they bought me guitar lessons around the time I was in the seventh grade.”

His teenage years were spent in and out of bands, discovering different genres of music and, like a great many of his contemporaries, using chemicals as a way to expand the boundaries of exploration and creativity.

“In the beginning of high school is when I kind of started to smoke weed and take acid, all of it sort of related to music and going to concerts,” he said. “I had a moment of being really into the Grateful Dead, and then Phish around ’91 or ’92, and of course with being a musician, the standards are always kind of warped. Nobody was going to work or class the next morning, and you’re surrounded by a lot of people who were always going pretty hard.”

By the mid 1990s, however, his abilities on the guitar, the bass and other instruments led to opportunities that aspiring rockers dream of.

Bottoming out in Berlin

!!! grew out of a 1995 joint summer tour of the bands Black Liquorice and Popesmashers. Around the same time, members of !!!, including Pope and frontman Nic Offer, formed the band Out Hud, and between the two projects, Pope found himself ricocheting between tours and recording sessions. A couple of years after James Murphy formed LCD Soundsystem in 2001, he tapped Pope to lend his talents to that group as well, and somewhere in there, Pope found time to contribute to recordings by the band Cake.

Needless to say, the frenetic pace and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle sent him to seek comfort through chemical means, he said.

“On tour, you’re hitting it extra hard, and it’s normal to wake up on the bus and have a beer,” he said. “You’re just drunk and high all the time, and eventually, for me, it became hell. It was a living hell on those tours, which is remarkable, because you’re doing the coolest thing. You’re living the dream, completely, but it’s a total nightmare. I don’t regret those times, but now, it makes me appreciate being sober.”

Touring the world and playing to packed clubs, theaters and arenas also led to a certain detachment from the harsh realities endured by many addicts and alcoholics. The misery was the same, but the lifestyle was conducive to prolonging it, he added.

“Up until I got sober, I didn’t even have that moment of personally being like, ‘I need to totally stop,’ or, ‘Maybe I’m an alcoholic or a drug addict or whatever,’” he said.

Eventually, however, it got to be more than his mind and body could bear. He was living in New York, and his then-wife had moved to Berlin, and to deal with the pressures of a dream life-turned-nightmare, he was prescribed both Xanax and Adderall, he said.

“That’s when I realized it was a problem, because it became these crazy cycles of getting tweaked out, and that just let me keep drinking,” he said. “I would go to Berlin to be with her and dry out, and then when I would go back to New York to work, I would instantly call my doctor and get more pills and go to town for three weeks before I would go back to Berlin and use that time to stop everything.

“I would take everything the night before I came here, then get to Berlin and go cold turkey, and it would take me a month to get somewhat back to normal. I was just in such bad shape, and that’s when it really became something I had to look at.”

Tyler Pope and the resurrection of sobriety

Tyler PopeLike a lot of loved ones, his former wife saw the writing on the wall, and to keep his marriage, he sought help from a free clinic in Berlin. There, it was recommended he attend a 12 Step meeting, and for Pope, sitting in that room with other addicts and alcoholics felt like the most natural thing in the world.

“At the time, I was willing to do anything to stay together with my wife, but when I went to that meeting, it was really resonating,” he said. “It wasn’t like I had a bad hangover morning and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and that drove me there. It was just a feeling of, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Nothing in my life seemed to make sense at the time, and then that meeting totally seemed to make sense.”

The orderly nature of the Steps, and the genuine relationships therein, lent themselves to his own life relatively quickly. He left !!! to focus on LCD Soundsystem, streamlining the demands on his time and effort. He settled permanently in Berlin, where he found a thriving artistic and recovery community.

“I really like it here a lot, just the vibe of the city,” he said. “It’s got a reputation as being this place where there’s a ton of artists and musicians and creative types, and you can do all of that and still afford to live here. It’s just super vibrant, but it also has really big (recovery) fellowship, and it’s only gotten bigger.

“Since I started coming to meetings 11 years ago, it’s probably tripled in size, and for me, it’s been great. I think I would have struggled to live anywhere else in Europe, but here in Berlin, there are at least two meetings a day in English.”

He took suggestions and got a sponsor, but more importantly, he became an active participant — in both recovery and his own life. And it began to pay dividends, as the joy of playing music returned and those who had watched his slow spiral with concern celebrated the return of one of the fiercest talents in the dance- and disco-punk genre.

Sobriety, of course, is rarely linear, and there have been stumbles along the way. It’s a tale familiar to many in recovery circles, and the most recent took place almost a year ago, when life on life’s terms came crashing through his façade of serenity like a wrecking ball. He and his former wife separated. COVID had shut down and decimated the industry through which he made art and a living. And then he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

“I wasn’t prepared for that,” he said. “I just fucking stone-cold panicked. I was already down from the situation with my wife, and we have two kids, so I was trying to navigate that. I couldn’t go out and see people because of COVID, and then when the doctor told me it was cancer, I asked if he had any (benzos).

“I left the hospital and bought some weed and smoked it, and I finally called my sponsor. He told me to throw everything in the toilet, and I took the suggestion. As much as there were moments I wanted to pick up after that, now I’m cancer-free, and the situation with my wife is way better.”

'Just Because He Can'

One piece of literature in 12 Step recovery states that “after a member has had some involvement in our fellowship, a relapse may be the jarring experience that brings about a more rigorous application of the program.” For Pope, and so many of his brothers and sisters who make it back to the rooms, that’s proven true.

“For me, sobriety’s been really rewarding for creativity and things like that, and it also keeps my ego in check a little bit — especially getting too down,” he said. “That was my thing. I usually fell more into self-pity, but sobriety helps me be more realistic, and it’s been super-helpful for my creativity.”

He continues to do session work in Berlin and is awaiting word from Murphy, LCD’s frontman and founder, about what the next step for the band will be. In the meantime, last year’s release of his first EP under his own name — “Nur Weil Ich Kann” (German for “Just Because I Can”) — has opened doors to future possibilities outside of his traditional role as a sideman and session musician.

“It was huge to get stuff out under my own name, and it’s been really fun,” he said. “This is the real gift of sobriety, that I’ve been able to take these steps to do this. I would have never gotten to this point if I didn’t have recovery, if I wasn’t sober, if I wasn’t trying to live a more spiritual life. I wouldn’t have done it, because I wouldn’t have been able to get my mind right. Before, I could never finish anything, because I had that voice of self-pity telling me, ‘You’re a piece of shit, and you can’t do it.’”

Not only did he, but he’s working toward the completion of his next EP — and in keeping a right-sized frame of mind about it, he’s happy with the results. And, more importantly, he’s happy with his life. LCD Soundsystem will return at some point, he’s confident, and until it does, he has enough projects to keep him busy. He has a life in Berlin. He has a recovery program that keeps him grounded and, more importantly, able to navigate the highs and the lows of a life that’s awfully blessed.

And, he pointed out, his story isn’t unique. There’s a way out for anyone who similarly struggles, and he has to look no further than at the guy in the mirror.

“It’s so true that it’s way better than you can imagine, especially if you’re a musician,” he said. “Being sober and touring sober and doing everything sober and trying to get over yourself, and having people around you be able to do that, is way better than you can possibly imagine. For anybody who’s struggling, that’s the best piece of advice I can offer: Give it a try. Give it a try, and just give yourself a break.”