On ‘CONSUME,’ The JAB weaponizes rock against stigma, suffering

The JAB
Courtesy of Karen Rettig

Beloved broadcaster Paul Harvey once regaled millions of listeners with his touching, poignant tales of humanity, delivered in the measured cadence of his soothing Midwestern drawl.

The Ties That Bind UsOften, key parts of his stories were withheld until the end of the broadcast, at which point Harvey would sign off with the signature phrase that gave his program it’s title: “And now you know the rest of the story.”

For Chicago-based musician Jam Alker, the rest of the story has yet to reveal itself, and what happens after Feb. 4 — the day his band, The JAB, releases “CONSUME,” its new album on the Sony imprint The Orchard — is anyone’s guess. But just as Harvey’s soothing voice let listeners know that everything would be alright, so too does Alker have that same sense of conviction, thanks to his recovery from addiction.

“It’s insane right now,” Alker told The Ties That Bind Us earlier this month. “I’m about to do a bunch of press in L.A., including a two-page story for Recovery Today magazine, which has featured some of my heroes, like Russell Brand, on the cover, so I’m pretty excited about that. We’ve gotten a lot of good press for the band, the label’s behind what we’re doing, and we have a second single coming out at the same time as the album.

“There’s a lot of excitement. A lot of people in the industry are very excited about what we’ve got going on here. Of course, there are no guarantees in the music business, but having a team in place that believes in what we’re doing and supports what we’re doing and the mission is huge.”

That mission has remained the same since Alker got clean and sober on Oct. 14, 2014, a journey he described in detail to this blog last summer. In a drug and alcohol treatment center, songwriting became a part of his therapeutic journey, and ever since, he’s remained committed to keeping recovery front and center — in his life, and in his art.

The JAB: The story begins

The JAB

Jam Alker (left) and Terry Byrne. (Courtesy of Karen Rettig)

“Recovery is at the core of everything that I do, and even outside of music, I do a lot of speaking events,” he said. “It’s something I don’t publicize a lot, but when I’m on the road, I like to speak at treatment centers, where I’ll tell my story and bring my acoustic guitar. I’m very involved in the recovery community, and I work a lot with therapists and clinicians who are on the front lines of the addiction crisis as well.

“My life is very much enmeshed in it, because the only thing authentic is for me to write what I’ve experienced. I can’t come up with a narrative of some guy I see on a bus; it has to be something compelling about what I’m going through or what I’m feeling.”

These days, Alker’s feelings are overwhelmed by a profound sense of gratitude. The JAB isn’t a religious group, but Alker’s reliance on a higher power colors everything that he does — including not just the success of the band but the manner in which it came together, particularly the union of Alker and his multi-instrumentalist, Terry Byrne. A Chicago native who found modest success on the West Coast before alcoholism slowly robbed him of everything, including his health. In 2018, after his sixth hospitalization for alcohol-related complications, Byrne made a last ditch effort to get sober.

Already, he knew the name Jam Alker, because of Alker’s work building bridges between music and recovery.

“I had begun working with a treatment center at the time that had a music program,” Alker said. “I knew that music was the thing that helped me in treatment, and the more I shared music with guys in there, the more they started coming to me with poems they had written, and every one of them said, ‘If you want to put them to music, that would be cool with me.’ I saw how it made other guys want to write.

“I came up with the idea to host workshops in treatment centers, and I met with a clinician who did these music groups, and we came up with a six-week curriculum where I would do an hour group once a week: lyric analysis, teaching them how to write lyrics, and by the sixth week, we’d sit down and write a song with them.”

For six months in early recovery, Alker facilitated those groups, and he credits it with some of the most powerful work he ever did. But life got busy, and his career got busy, so he scaled back, until he realized just how much he missed it. He called a friend who was the administrator over a Chicago-area medical detox program and asked to come in and volunteer, Alker recalled.

“I looked at my calendar and saw that Tuesdays were probably the best days to come in, and I was calling on a Monday, so I thought it would probably be two or three weeks,” he said. “They asked me when I could start, and when I told them Tuesdays, they said, ‘Can you come in tomorrow?’ And ‘yes’ came out of my mouth before I had the time: ‘Yes, I’ll be there tomorrow.’”

Byrne believes that Jam believes

The JAB

Jam Alker (left) and Terry Byrne. (Courtesy of Karen Rettig)

It turns out that Byrne was finishing up his final day of detox — not because he had completed it, but because his insurance had run out. He noticed a flyer for a music group taking place at 2 p.m. that Tuesday afternoon, however, and still reeling from his last bender and desperate to keep his mind occupied, he decided to stick around. Little did he know that the facilitator was the guy he’d seen on posters around town.

“I remember there were these posters for a concert Jam was doing in Evanston, and they were promoting it in the recovery rooms,” Byrne told The Ties That Bind Us last month. “Everybody was talking about him being a musician in recovery, and I was like, ‘What’s the deal with that? And he’s affiliated with the program? Man, that’s exactly what I would do, if I could do it. I’ve got to find a way to meet this guy.’”

When that 2 p.m. group began — on a day that, 24 hours earlier, Alker had no idea he would be doing, and two hours after Byrne’s insurance had shown him the door — fate brought the two men together.

“I walked into this meeting I wasn’t supposed to be at, and here was the dude from the posters!” Byrne said. “I was like, ‘I know who you are, man!’ It was crazy, and I had a million questions.”

They analyzed one of Alker’s songs, and in Byrne, Alker recognized a musical natural. On a hunch, he asked Byrne if he played bass.

“I needed a bass player for a show coming up, but I wasn’t worried about it, because I knew everything would be fine,” Alker said. “When I asked Terry, he said, ‘It’s not my best, but I can play it,’ and I knew, in that moment of spirit, that moment of God, that he was my guy. I told him then and there, ‘Learn these songs, come to my house, show me what you’ve learned, and you’ve got the gig.”

Despite Alker’s spiritual certainty, however, Byrne took some convincing.

“I was still very early on after my last bender, and my nerves were shot, and I had all that anxiety and self-doubt,” Byrne said. “I was a mess still, physically and mentally, and I told Jam, ‘You should probably employ a professional bass player.’ But he was like, ‘Man, I think this could be a really good opportunity for you. I think we should meet. I want you to learn these three songs, and I’m going to text you my address.’”

Despite the fog, Byrne was familiar enough with the concept of surrender that he turned it over to his own Higher Power and shortly thereafter, the band Alker founded in early recovery, as part of his mission to promote recovery, added to its lineup another member in recovery. It is, without a doubt, one of the most serendipitous moments of Alker’s life, he said.

“It’s just such a compelling story of how he and I met,” Alker said. “Terry’s an amazing bass player, guitar player, piano player and singer — he’s the multi-instrumentalist, and with him, all of the pieces just lined up into place. I still can’t get over how amazing that moment was and how we came together to turn into this band.

“If there was ever any sort of proof of a Higher Power or the universe or the source or spirit or God or whatever, this is an example of that thing being real. How has this synchronicity, all of these coincidences, happened? It’s hard to explain otherwise.”

The JAB: The road to 'CONSUME'

The JAB performs in September 2019 at the House of Blues Chicago. (Courtesy of Karen Rettig)

By that point in 2018, the Jam Alker album “Sophrosyne” was a year old, and while the building blocks of “CONSUME” are there, Alker admits that the songs on that record were raw. Three of them were written during his 2014 treatment center stay, he said, and others were inspired by the very visceral experiences and emotions of early recovery.

While “CONSUME” isn’t necessarily a recovery record, it’s connected to the second phase of his sobriety journey in ways that will resonate with audiences across the board. There’s plenty of full-throttle energy, spit-polished to an alt-rock shine with some radio-friendly flourishes, to please everyone. But those who walk similar paths as he and Byrne will find something extra in the meaning of the lyrics, he said.

“A lot of it is written about the relationships I’ve experienced with friends in recovery, especially some of the young women who tell me their stories,” he said. “It breaks my heart to see the way some of them have been treated and some of the behaviors they’ve had to engage in while in their addiction just to get one more. And then there are a couple of songs on there where I talk about wanting to express love, from a male character to a female character, and that person is so damaged that they’re not able to accept it.

“They’re not able to experience love without it being some sort of transaction, because they feel like they’re not worthy of it. So I’ve written about that and about redemption and about folks I’ve met along the way who have taken advantage of others and are looking for redemption themselves. There are references throughout that people who have walked the path I have will get that others won’t, but the underlying message is about the human condition. In the end, it comes down to suffering, anxiety, grasping, attachment, unrequited love — and that’s something we all understand.”

Including, he added, the trappings of fame and potential fame that accompany The JAB’s meteoric rise to the precipice of stardom. These days, he pointed out, he’s far enough along in his recovery that drugs are not a temptation outright. Sure, he takes precautions not to put himself in precarious situations, but the biggest warning sign these days, he said, is consumption — of food, of attention, of people.

“Consumption is meant to distract us away from the underlying things that cause us to be restless, irritable and discontent,” he said. “I always try to be in the right place — meditating, going to meetings, being of service — but when I’m not at my center, and when I’m not working my program because life has gotten very, very busy, I will find ways in which it will manifest. I’ll be sitting on my phone on social media, waiting for the next person to tell me how amazing I am because it gives me a little dopamine rush … I’ll convince myself I can have one cookie, and then 20 cookies later, I’ll be wondering what the hell just happened?

“It can be relationships with people who are important to me. It can be anything that I allow to get out of hand and use to fill the hole inside of me, like attention. All of that can become another drug, because it’s anything that gives me a little dopamine rush that I’ll want more of. Those are the things I have to be careful with today, and I write about those a lot.”

The future's so bright ...

The JAB

The JAB is drummer Tom Stukel (from left), guitarist Ryan Herrick, frontman Jam Alker, multi-instrumentalist Terry Byrne and bassist Alex Piazza. (Courtesy of Karen Rettig)

And that, he added, is the central idea behind the title track. “CONSUME” is a swaggering, bombastic rock number that delves into all of the ways individuals — not just addicts — can use substances and behaviors as an external balm for internal wounds. And as a guy who’s spent the last five years recognizing that healing is an inside job, he knows all too well how futile such consumption can be.

That’s another reason, he added, that he’s so very grateful he found recovery before he got the big record deal. There was a time he worked to become a rock star in his 20s, but if he had been successful, he believes, he wouldn’t be here now.

“I’d be dead,” he said simply. “I needed to go through the experiences I went through to get to this point, to understand the illusion of celebrity, of fame, and how if you buy into it, it’s just another form of addiction. And I get it — I really do. Some of these parties I get to go to now, the VIP treatment you get that’s completely different from when they didn’t know you, it’s all about that dopamine. But it’s an illusion, and if I allow it to swallow me up, it’s just another form of addiction.”

Recovery allows him to keep a cool head, he added, and whatever fame may come thanks to the impending success of “CONSUME,” he hopes it will give him a bigger platform to reach individuals who need to hear his message the most.

“I want to use it as a way to educate, to reduce the stigma, to help others who are still suffering,” he said. I truly believe that all the success we’re experiencing now is a result of the authenticity behind that motivation, because if I was still doing it for money or girls or opportunity, it would swallow me whole.”

The album’s release, he added, is just the tip of the iceberg. Negotiations are under way for The JAB to open for big names in Europe and in the United States; a video is in the works for the band’s second single; and the bulk of 2020, he added, will be spent on the road.

The rest of the story remains to be written — but with recovery as his motivation, a message for his mission and, last but not least, a brother in sobriety by his side, whatever happens will be a blessing, no matter how bumpy the road might get.

“All of the guys in the band are part of the mission and get what it is we’re doing, but it is a special bond with Terry,” Alker said. “Those of us in the shipwreck together who made it to shore — that’s the bond Terry and I have. We’re both survivors of that shipwreck together, and that creates a bond that you can’t have with someone who hasn’t been through what we’ve been through.”

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