Mark “Kaz” Kasprzyk, the Canadian who found a home in Southern California and fame with his band, Redlight King, never set out to be a role model for addiction recovery.
If anything, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, his journey is often an example of what not to do. He’s being facetious, of course, because therein lies the heartbeat of sobriety: sharing experience, strength and hope. To those on the outside looking in, that may appear to be failure. To those who walk alongside Kasprzyk — his immediate network of recovering brothers and sisters, as well as the unseen faces of thousands who work toward a better way of life on the other side of addiction — it’s something else entirely.
It’s learning to live life on life’s terms. It’s the understanding that recovery is never a linear path. And it’s gratitude that even those times when everything collapses like an unsteady house of cards, there’s still a way forward as long as the heart pounds out a steady rhythm of determination.
“A lot of times, I’ll beat myself up for being human, for being sick, and if that happens, it’s hard to get through the (12) Steps. It’s hard to get through life, period, when it’s like that,” he said. “But what I’ve come to realize is that this is your trip. Nothing could trigger you except you, and if you’re not getting better or you’re staying sick, then you’re making excuses.
“But no two paths are the same, and it can be hard to put someone in a program that’s built for everybody. That part is tough. I’m not saying it’s wrong — I’m not anti this or anti that. And it was a great foundation for me. But if you need more, you’ve got to ask for more, and at the end of the day, you just have to be consistent. At the end of the day, if you don’t drink or use, it’s a great day.”
Mark 'Kaz' Kasprzyk: Success built on determination
In recovery, Kasprzyk has put together numerous great days, in and around a career that saw Redlight King build a respectable following in alternative rock circles in 2011 and 2012, after he and his bandmates were signed to Hollywood Records. Appearances on all of the late-night talk shows, festival runs and global tours put Redlight King in the middle tier of successful alt-rock acts, but even before that, he found fledgling fame as a solo performer — and in 2007, long before Redlight King was a blip on the alt-rock radar, he had his come-to-Jesus meeting, to put it colloquially, with drugs and alcohol.
“After many roadblocks and success then not having success, of being on TV and then not being on TV, the roller coaster effect of the entertainment industry kind of hurt me,” he said. “I wasn’t able to stay focused, and the breaking point for me, what most people call rock bottom, came when I had a standoff with the police on my roof. I fell into a psychosis, and they were coming to arrest me. They ended up locking down the block, and a whole lot of rumors started spreading.”
It’s not a story he relates to demonstrate any sort of street cred, but at the same time, he can’t shy away from it, either. Recovery programs are built on principles of rigorous honesty, and while such an incident is a part of his story, it doesn’t define it. It’s just a moment, strung together with thousands of others, that makes up the heart of a man who can claim sobriety just for today, relish the life it affords him and focus on a future for himself and his band.
“A lot of my records are about recovery,” he said. “That was a big therapeutic exercise for me and still is — and at a certain point, it’s not even therapeutic — it’s just who you are. You keep constantly making these new pathways in your mind where it’s about knowledge of self. As much as alcoholism has caused pain and discomfort and stress in my life and for those around me, I’m grateful to be here and to tell my story and maybe help someone else who’s going through it, so what they go through might not be as heavy.”
It’s a heaviness he’s carried since growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, a “gritty steel town” populated by hardworking men and women who scrapped and clawed for everything they had, and when the quitting time whistle blew, many of them turned to substances as a panacea. His late father was a hard man who pushed his son hard to succeed, and when Kasprzyk was a youngster, his pops dragged him to a judo club in the city to turn him into a fighter. While his father’s ways took their toll, that path also helped keep him out of trouble, he said.
“A lot of people around me drank and used, but I didn’t think anything of it because I was doing judo, and that would have affected my course,” he said. “I became a member of the national judo team and was even training for the (2000 Summer) Olympics. We didn’t qualify for our division, but I would have gone had we qualified, and I think I was a world-class fighter.
“I won a lot of tournaments, I trained for four years, I placed in the Pan American Games. I took that obsessions with sports, and when I found alcohol and started dealing with my own failures and losses, I did the same thing, because they both were an escape. As hard as I went into sports, I went into my drinking and using.”
An introduction to recovery
His path to alternative rock began with hip-hop, and at 16, his demo tape made it to Epic Records, which signed him to his first deal in 2002. He was 24 years old, and his debut album, “Go for Broke,” was released in Canada, France and Scandinavia. The song “Pedal to the Medal” found traction in films like “The Italian Job” and “Catch the Kid,” as well as numerous sports broadcast montages. It also opened the doors to his creative muse, and the lifestyle of being a major label rocker opened the door to substances.
“I took my same work ethic and obsession into music and art — it was like, just go. Don’t worry about getting knocked down, and just keep pushing,” he said. “All these steps of getting music and playing different instruments and studying lyrics and the greats, I would obsess over that. I was making records at 3 in the morning with people who were smoking pot and having beers and doing coke to stay away. I went from a poor boy from Hamilton to buying my mom a brand new car off the lot with cash.”
It didn’t take long, he added, for the lifestyle to catch up with him: staying up for days at a time, slowly slipping in and out of sanity, alarming family members and friends with his out-of-control behavior. It was a constant grind, he said, that took a toll on a mind that was groomed through childhood and judo to crave consistency and discipline. Losing it to rock ‘n’ roll excess, he believes, may have played a part in his undoing.
“It was a lot of touring, a lot of drugs, a lot of things that led up to those moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to change, because of this doesn’t kill me, I’m going to end up hurting myself or someone else or end up in jail,’” he said. “It had gone too far, and when I did come to and start to get sober, cleaning that slate and getting healthy for me was a lot of work.”
After a second solo album, world tours and a nomination as Best New Artist at the 2004 Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys), Kasprzyk had his rock-bottom moment in 2007. That was his introduction to 12 Step recovery, and the realization that he wasn’t alone in his brokenness. Acceptance of his problem, and a path forward to do something about it, led him to become a stronger individual, and it opened the door for greater success. In 2009, he formed Redlight King with longtime collaborator Julian Tomarin, and the band was quickly signed to Hollywood Records.
The band released the record “Something for the Pain” in 2011, the highlight of which was “Old Man” — which sampled Neil Young’s classic “Old Man.” Young himself blessed the collaboration, and Redlight King’s “Old Man” landed in the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock chart. The record’s second single, “Bullet In My Hand,” rose to No. 3, and suddenly Redlight King was making waves as a powerful new act driven by Kasprzyk’s intensity. In 2013, Redlight King released the album “Irons in the Fire,” and the single “Born to Rise” again found placement in film and sports.
But then the foundation began to crack.
“I went five and a half years sober from drugs and alcohol while I was on the road,” he said. “I got married, everything was looking up, and I had five really great years. And then my old man passed away. My wife left me and divorced me, and my grandmother died, too — all within a three-week period. About a month later, I lost my record label as well.
“It was kind of like, ‘What’s going on?’ I stayed sober, and I managed to work through it, but I just tucked stuff away, and I started drinking again a year later.”
Mark "Kaz" Kasprzyk: Rebirth and 'Moonshine'
This time around, he struggled to get back on the horse, he said. In hindsight, he added, he should have gotten back into recovery meetings and working a recovery program. It had, after all, served him well in the past.
“There are some fantastic guidelines in there, so many things that are just money,” he said. “All of these golden nuggets help teach you that you’re okay. For example, I always thought it was an artist thing to isolate, but it’s a human thing. Or the fact that I grew up with a very verbally abusive father. I loved the guy, and I was able to make amends before he passed, and the fact that he died in my arms allowed me to deal with it.”
His saving grace, he said, was the fact that he was surrounded by individuals who saw through the miasma of pain and stood by him, regardless of his shortcomings and slip-ups. His brother, for example, was an oak during that time.
“He would tell me, ‘I don’t know what’s going on; I don’t get it, but I know something’s off, so tell me how I can help. I’ll do anything it takes,’” Kasprzyk said. “To have a guy like that in my life was great, because there were so many people close to me that didn’t understand it and didn’t get it. Even when I was sober, I still had all these character defects. I didn’t know how to handle my emotions then, or I obsessed over being successful.
“I felt like I had to prove myself to myself, or instead of taking life as it comes, I became angry. I don’t know when that light comes on, that it’s okay to actually feel like that, but you can’t turn it off once that switch is on. You can only work on it for the rest of your life — realize it’s on rather than dismiss it and take care of yourself. Submit and make the changes.”
Eventually, he began to emerge from the fog. In 2015, Redlight King released the EP “Helldriver,” and two years later, Kasprzyk, under the stage name M. Rivers, released the single “Champion,” a synth-driven rocker that would also find a home on the latest Redlight King album, “Moonshine,” released in April. It’s a beast of a rock ‘n’ roll album, filled with the emotional pitfalls and personal triumphs that have been part of Kasprzyk’s journey over the past five years.
“I think of records as having two sides — side A and side B, and they tell a story, and that’s how you frame a record, like a movie,” he said. “For me, I wanted that continuity, that journey. I also wanted a record with balance, and I wanted to show a different side as well, something that came from an angst for injustice going on in the world.
“So many people are struggling, and there’s injustice in many parts of the country. A lot of people are working their whole lives with nothing to show for it. They’re not able to move up in comfort after being of service for so many years.”
Mark "Kaz" Kasprzyk: Learning to enjoy the ride
Those themes take center stage on the track “Nobody Wins,” which bounces out of the gate on a bass line overlaid by some gritty guitar skronk and Kasprzyk’s tried-and-true vocals. He compares it to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and like Gaye, he frames his role in the song as that of an observer.
“I’m just an artist, and I don’t necessarily offer an answer,” he said. “I have suggestions, of course, but I’m just telling a story in the way that Bruce Springsteen tells the story. And I think a lot of people can relate to the record, as much as they do to other records of mine in the past.”
That’s because it strikes the right balance between social angst and personal turmoil. “Something To Die For,” the first song he wrote for the album, is a rock ‘n’ roll dirge that captures the emotional tsunami he dealt with in the aftermath of his father’s death, but whether it’s intentional or not, it parallels his own resurrection as a sober rocker.
“It started through pain, but it also started through rebirth,” he said. “Take ‘Long Way to Heaven,’ for example: I wrote it when I was super depressed, and right as the record was finishing, I brought the song in and played it to our producer. He said, ‘You’ve got one. I think it’s great, and we’re not going to change a thing.’ So I played it, sang it and we built around that track, and right now, I feel like it’s the best track on the record.
“It feels good every time I sing it, and it still feels true to the moment. It still brings up the same emotions when I sing it, so it doesn’t feel like a job to sing that song. It’s relevant, like I have something to say, and I’m grateful for that.”
It’s a vastly different experience from some of his earlier material, he said, and it’s not a stretch to say that “Moonshine” is “one of the most important records I’ve made in my life,” he added. In a sense, it’s a distillation of the knowledge he’s gained through recovery and the experience he’s earned as a human being. Life, as the first Noble Truth of Buddhism teaches, is about suffering. In other words, suffering is unavoidable.
But for Kasprzyk, if he’s learned anything along the way, it’s that while suffering is part and parcel of life, misery is optional. His decisions and actions in the past have indeed brought him misery — but no longer. That’s not to say it won’t rear its ugly head in the weeks and months and years to come, but for today? For right now? He’s found his lane, and it’s a beautiful place.
“The consistency of working on yourself, and the principles of recovery, are fantastic,” he said. “For me, the less time I have sober, the more I’ve got to work at it, and then it becomes a maintenance thing. I don’t like obsessing over being in the disease or over being in recovery, and I’ve found through routine that when those thoughts come, I can say, ‘Hey, man — it’s still brighter on the other side. It’s going to take some work to face my challenges, but let’s do it.’
“Because I’ve learned that I’m useless any other way. I can’t manifest things, and I can’t direct things. It’s a downward slope, and I have to stay on top of it. I have to reach out and ask for help, and I find strength and honor in that, because when I fell off before, it’s because I wasn’t talking about it. And that way, when I’m on a roll and feeling good and things are great, when other people need help, I can answer that call.”