Drew McManus is living proof that not all of those recovery cliches, the signs hanging on the walls in 12 Step meetings around the world, are a one-size-fits-all guide to sobriety.
The co-founder, songwriter and vocalist for the Montana-based band Satsang, McManus went to rehab in 2010, stumbled briefly and then realized what he needed to do. And while one particular self-help group preaches that “an addict alone is in bad company,” he found that for his particular journey, the complete opposite was true, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.
“For me, it was isolation, man,” he said. “I spent all my time out in the mountains. In the winter, I would ski; I would go fly fishing all the time; I would go rock climbing. Really, I would hang out by myself, 99 percent of the time. I moved to Montana for treatment, and then I just stayed.
“I liked the Big Book (the central source of literature for the Alcoholics Anonymous program), and I would read it by myself, but I didn’t like the meetings. I didn’t see a lot of exuberant people there. My gut reaction when I got out in nature was, that’s where we come from. The world’s a noisy, chaotic place, and when you live in the mountains, you remember the natural cycles of the earth are always going. And something about that rubs me the right way.”
In becoming one with those cycles — a central tent to the celebratory sounds of Satsang, which released the new album “All. Right. Now.” last Friday — McManus found what he was looking for: connection. His relationships began to improve, including the most important: the one with himself. The world around him summoned his spirit, which had so long languished in the shadows of self-imposed slavery, he added.
“You just start to realize what a burden it is to wake up every morning and wonder who you have to apologize to, and I just felt a lot of freedom,” he said. “When you’re an addict, you’re a literal slave to this thing, and you normalize it, but when you’re free from it, you realize, ‘Oh, man, I wasn’t really living before.’”
Satsang: Powered by belief
As an artist, McManus has fashioned a career and an ethos as a Big Sky Country shaman, a musical Svengali whose work is imbued with the natural wonder and beauty of the place in which he lives. His approach is a similar one to Michael Franti, the singer-songwriter and activist who’s featuring Satsang as the opening act on a string of shows taking place this week, including three dates at Colorado’s fabled Red Rocks amphitheater.
Sobriety made that possible: A few years back, McManus said, he took a leap of faith and gambled everything he had, all but $37, to take Satsang to Florida to open for Michael Franti and Spearhead.
“This venue was set up in a way that the green room was above the stage and off to the side, so you could stand in this secure balcony and watch the show,” McManus said. “In my head, Michael Franti would come out and see us and appreciate what we were doing. And about a week after we played those shows in Florida, we got an offer to go on the road with him for a whole year, so it was a good bet.”
And it wouldn’t have been possible unless he’d gotten his life together, far from the cacophony of civilization, in places like the Bitterroot and the Bear Tooth, the Whitefish and the Elkhorn, those wild lands where the solitude quieted a mind long occupied by the feverish needs of addiction and allowed him to become one with the land.
Such a rebirth is celebrated in the music of Satsang, whose eclectic blend of folk and Americana and world music speaks of a communal celebration that makes Satsang a natural fit alongside bands like Spearhead or Nahko and Medicine For the People, another act for whom Satsang has opened. He owes much to the gift of sobriety that his time in the wilderness provided him, he said, and the music he makes is a direct reflection of that profound gratitude.
“It’s my heart, this music. It’s how I relate to the world, how I make sense of everything,” he said. “As far as Montana goes, I just try to carry the spirit of this place everywhere I go. It’s really pure, the place that I live. It hasn’t not been exploited, so it’s like this beautiful little protected zone, and it’s a good example of what society could be if we worked with instead of against all the time. My life now is just trying to walk and live and sing and pray and exist in that way, not against and not trying to push against anything anymore.”
And while previous Satsang releases have sang its praises in numerous ways, “All. Right. Now.” may be the boldest, biggest release to date by the band. It sounds, he added, like Montana looks: skies of melody that stretch endlessly to the heart’s horizon, jagged and distant peaks that beckon rather than impose, endless rolling prairies of rhythm that are meditative in the way they unfurl like gently sculpted plains of sonic beauty.
“It’s different than anything we’ve ever made before,” he said. “I think the other thing with this record is that a lot of the songs are up for interpretation. I know what they’re about for me, but they’re written in a way that they could be about anything for anybody. It kind of just made itself, and I think these songs came out a lot more universal.”
The roots of a man and a movement
To say that Montana is in McManus’ blood is no exaggeration: He was born there but raised in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa. Music made an impression early on: He can remember the impression Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” made when he was a boy, even though he had no idea what the song was about, and when his mother recorded one of Garth Brooks’ televised concert specials on the family VCR, McManus watched it obsessively.
“I would watch it every single day,” he said. “He’s probably the greatest performer of my generation, and just seeing somebody singing songs in front of a stadium of people, and the just amount of work that went into the show — the pyrotechnics, Garth swinging down from ropes — that was just so crazy to me. I thought he was the coolest person alive, and I knew I wanted to do that.”
He was 13 when he got his first guitar, and from the first down strum, he became obsessed. As a high school freshman, he signed up for an open mic performance at a Des Moines coffeeshop — but after telling his friends he was performing, he nearly froze up when a hundred of his classmates showed up.
“I was in the bathroom kind of hiding and shaking like I was having a seizure,” he said with a chuckle. “But I kind of had one of those moments: ‘Is this what you want to do or not? So let’s go do this,’ and I went out and did it. And when they started cheering, that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, yeah — they’re here to hear me play these songs!’ And to this day, man, I don’t get any nerves. If someone hands me a guitar at a barbecue, I’m way more nervous than walking out on the Red Rocks stage.”
It’s also no exaggeration that addiction was a part of him from the beginning: His biological father got sober when McManus was 3 and after years of working in a drug and alcohol treatment center now runs a Christian-based 12 Step program. His stepfather, he added, was an active alcoholic, and the two influences made for an odd dichotomy.
“I always remember recovery and AA and stuff like that being a big part of (his bio dad’s) life, and growing up being raised by an active alcoholic and being around people that were drunk all the time, I didn’t find alcohol very attractive,” he said. “When I was a freshman in high school, I got caught with a very small amount of marijuana, and I got put on six months of probation where I got drug tested every week, and that’s when I started drinking — and I just didn’t stop. I drank every day from the time I was 15 until I was 24.”
Those years were marked by skateboarding and punk rock and his mom’s country music, and by the time he landed in Chicago — where he first met Karl Roth, Satsang’s bassist and studio engineer — his interest in music began to take a backseat to his chemical consumption.
“By the time I was in Chicago, I knew I was different than everybody else, but everybody was partying, so I could just kind of blend in — I just took it way further than everybody else,” he said. “In Chicago, I was selling drugs, so I always had enough money to drink and do drugs and pay my rent, but I decided to move to Colorado, and I ended up running out of money.
“I remember the morning I woke up and didn’t have any booze, and I thought I was dying. I felt like I was having a seizure, and I remember shakily going downstairs to this neighbor, and I had to knock on her door and ask her for alcohol. She could see I was really sick, and she gave me two tall cans of Steel Reserve, and that was my first realization: ‘Fuck, dude, you may have gone past the point of no return here.’”
From the bottom to the wild places
He drifted back to Chicago, spending nights on the couches of whomever would allow him to crash there. After one particular drunken night, he cut his wrist open, and that’s when those who loved him staged an intervention.
“A bunch of people ended up at my sister’s house, sat me down and said, ‘Alright, homey,’” he said. “I flew to treatment the next morning. That was in 2010, and I relapsed when I got out pretty much right away, but I had a pretty heavy experience where I just knew that my options were either continue the family lineage of being a terrible person or build my own life.”
And so he lit out for the wilderness, accompanied by the girl who would become his wife. Music came back into his life, but he mostly played for himself, always writing songs but wrestling with the idea that it could become both a method of spiritual expression and a way to earn a living. His wife gently pushed him, however, but it wasn’t until he took a sabbatical to Nepal that he made the decision to throw caution to the wind and make the music that sobriety had allowed to fill his hear.
“I took a survey job for an oil and gas company and made a bunch of money, and I spent every single penny to go to Nepal,” he said. “There was a guy I worked with at a gear shop who had been guiding there for 20 years, and he told me, ‘I have a trip at the end of April; if we go at the first of the month, we could do our own trip together,’ and so we did. It was the most life-changing experiences of my life, and one of the hardest things I ever did.”
Their route is considered one of the most difficult to undertake, because the Three Passes Trek takes hikers across three of the highest passes in the Everest region: Kongma La (18,209 feet of elevation), Cho La (17,782 feet) and Rengo La (17,560 feet), which was the one McManus looked forward to traversing the most.
“In Rengo Pass, you can see Everest and all of the tallest mountains in the world, and while I was there, I took out my journal and wrote what would become part of the song ‘Thrill of It All’ (the second track on the debut Satsang record, “The Story of You”),” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘You did it, man. You stood in that spot. Now what are you going to do?’ And on the walk back down, I just realized, ‘It’s music. It’s always been music.’
“Just getting away helped. I talked to my wife twice via satellite phone, and I was literally on the other side of the planet, in the middle of the Himalayas with no phone and no electricity, and you’re walking everyday and carrying everything on your back, and it just gave me this time to not be distracted with anything and figure out what the hell I really wanted to do.”
Satsang: The birth and the continuing adventures
Back home, he started writing, and writing, and writing some more. “The Story of You” was released in 2016, a stripped-down, reggae-heavy affair that’s the sound of a man finding his voice and a band circling the target of its eventual sound. He started playing shows first as a duo, eventually convincing Roth to move to Montana, and Satsang developed a reputation as a regional bright spot in a region often associated with harsh winters and rugged terrain.
Satsang released “Pyramid(s)” in 2017, featuring a songwriting collaboration with Medicine For the People frontman Nahko Bear, and gradually the band began expanding its reach throughout the Mountain West. From the beginning, McManus wanted the project to communicate more than just music. Lovely as it may be to some — and that’s perfectly alright with McManus — he draws strength and inspiration from the followers and fans who come to his music for the truths he’s discovered on his travels — the literal ones, and the metaphysical journeys into places of shadow and light within his scarred-but-healing heart.
Even the band’s name is a reflection of that desire: Satsang is a Sanskrit word that means “a congregation of religious or spiritual people who assemble together to listen to a guru or a religious discourse or participate in some religious or spiritual activity such as devotional singing, dancing, meditation or concentration,” according to the Hindu Website, and until COVID sidelined the band’s touring, it was the way McManus and his bandmates approached every show.
Because in unity, he added, there is spiritual solace. That applies to the music he makes, and to the sobriety that still sustains him.
“There are so many friends I grew up with that are still struggling, and it’s hard to know how to help, because everybody’s so different, and for some people, I know that treatment isn’t for them,” he said. “But I would advise anybody, addict or not, to read the 12 Steps and execute them in their lives. I think it’s just a good way to be. And depending on where somebody’s at, I would always recommend treatment of some kind.
“At the very least, going to meetings and treatment, you learn about addiction. I think that when we’re addicts, we can really trick ourselves, but what I always got when I was in a room full of other recovering addicts and listening to them share was, ‘Oh, you tell yourself this same bullshit too, huh?’ It helped me to realize that it wasn’t just partying, and that I have this thing in me that everyone else there seemingly has.”