Rich People frontman Rob Rich: With recovery, ‘the drugs don’t even matter anymore’

Courtesy of Ian Bell
Courtesy of Ian Bell

Despite the degradation, dereliction and desperation that accompany active addiction, life in recovery isn’t without its pitfalls.

The Ties That Bind UsLife still shows up, and while those in a recovery program aren’t struggling with the day-in, day-out siege of maintaining a habit, they still face challenges. Life is … well, life. Sometimes it’s the elation of winning the Super Bowl; other times, it’s a darkness that seems to permeate everything.

“I’m always talking to people about that year of my recovery,” said Robert Rich, founder and guitarist/vocalist for the Philadelphia-based “introspective Americana” band Rich People. “Most people know me as even-keeled and joyous and things like that, but that year that I wrote (“Jacob’s Ladder,” his band’s 2015 release), I went through some of the deepest depression I ever felt in my life, pretty much for that entire year. I think ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ reflects that, and when I go back and listen to it, it’s morbidly depressing at this point.”

As many right crosses and left hooks as life threw at him during that year, however, he didn’t have to get high to cope. Instead, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, he decided to channel his pain into music. After getting clean, the New Jersey native threw in with a hardcore band called Youth (which eventually changed its name to Tight Lungs). After a promising start, the band fell apart, and Rich decided to strike out on his own.

“I remember that we had this big LP release show when I got a phone call and just decided I wasn’t doing it with them anymore,” he said. “By that Monday, I got my own storage unit in the same place I used to smoke crack in.”

And so, in Sicklerville, N.J., Rich conceived and gave birth to the rock ‘n’ roll project that sustains him to this day. Behind the roll-up doors and between the concrete walls of a unit in the same complex where his addiction came to an end, he found a new beginning.

“I was going to write something for me, and I was going to make a new project that I hoped would bring in the guys that wanted to play the music I was writing,” he said. “It was sort of like a ‘Field of Dreams’ thing — if you build it, they will come.”

Straight Outta Sicklerville

Courtesy of Ian Bell

Rich grew up in Sicklerville, a suburb of Camden, N.J., and part of the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. He remembers listening to cassette tapes his father gave him as a child, albums by Joni Mitchell and Genesis and Moody Blues, but when he was 13, he experienced something of a revelation when he first saw “Dig!,” the 2004 documentary about the band The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

“That was about the time I realized that being Catholic wasn’t for me, and I had that whole breakdown of, ‘I don’t believe God is real, we’re all gonna die, and death is an infinite abyss,’” he said with a laugh. “So naturally, I got into punk music, and when I saw ‘Dig!,’ I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to do with my life!’ It was just all about them touring like crazy and (singer/frontman) Anton Newcombe shooting dope and making albums. It was intense, and I was really young, and I thought, that’s exactly what I want to do. So I sank my teeth into both sides of it pretty heavy from there on out.”

By that point, he’d been playing guitar for a year or two, mostly messing around and playing cover songs with a neighborhood friend who had a drum kit. The Sicklerville area where Rich lived was a blue collar neighborhood in which African Americans made up the majority of residents, he said.

“Until I was 12 years old, I thought the world was more black people, and that white people were a minority everywhere,” he said. “And in my town, half the kids had nice (stuff), and we definitely did not have nice (stuff), so there was something to compare it to. I always had this feeling of being on the outside, and I definitely was under the impression as a kid that I was given more feelings than everybody else.

“I felt like my feelings had to be bigger than all of my friends’, and I felt like I had these dark-ass thoughts that couldn’t be shared with anybody. I always had these thoughts about my parents dying and just all of this crazy stuff. My childhood wasn’t crazy traumatic, and I understand a lot more now about my parents. The Fourth Step cleans a lot of that up, and I understand now, as an adult, that they did their best.”

That swirling darkness, combined with the restless energy of youth, made Rich a perfect candidate for a punk band he and a friend started when he was 13. Called A Kiss For Corliss (after the final film role by Shirley Temple), the group used a high school battle of the bands showcase as a springboard to shows around South Jersey, quickly embracing hardcore and metalcore as the guys grew more proficient on their instruments.

The abyss beckons

In a way, he and his bandmates formed a makeshift family, assembling the pieces of their relationship from broken homes and dysfunctional dynamics. Rich’s home was probably the most stable of the bunch, but all of the guys liked to indulge in substances, particularly alcohol. His cousin, two years younger, was his wingman, and Rich likes to joke that when the two started out in the hardcore scene, they proclaimed themselves “straight-edge.”

“… because we never got invited anywhere!” he said. “When I was 14, I got invited to a party, and everything was a wrap after that. I got shitfaced, and I remember a girl puked on my feet, and I still thought it was a great time. I remember thinking everything was so good, and at that point, there was nothing standing between me and going really deep into it. I was already glorifying getting (messed) up alone, and I’d hang out behind the liquor store and ask older people, ‘Yo, can you get me a 40?’ And I’d just go home, or go to a friend’s house, and drink.”

It was a chaotic time, but for Rich, the insanity took hold quickly. When one band fell apart, another would start just as quickly, and Rich was a fixture on the South Jersey house party circuit, never short on bandmates or party pals.

“In comparison to my homies, I definitely know my path took the dark turn first,” he said. “I was always that kind of kid your mom always warned you about, and my mom knew I was that kid. She knew I was the one that other kids’ moms said they shouldn’t hang out with.”

He began to see drinking as a challenge, consuming as many beers as he could in a single night to be the first to achieve blackout status. When he got drunk, he also grew violent, and over time, friends who managed a modicum of self-control began to distance themselves from him. Shortly before his 18th birthday, he was arrested for his first DUI, an incident that resulted in 11 charges, he said.

“I was blackout drunk, and I assaulted a police officer and tried to take his gun,” he said. “I came to sitting up, 12 hours later, with a plate of dinner in front of me. That was a wild moment. At that point, I was court-mandated to go to Intensive Outpatient treatment and 12 Step meetings, and I actually went to a few.”

That was his first exposure to recovery, but it didn’t take. By the time he was 18, he was still playing rock ‘n’ roll, but he traded in his “crappy job,” he said, for selling drugs. That’s when things started to get real.

Circling the drain

He got connected with certain families in Jersey, moving product for them on a regular basis and making money hand over fist, he said, by selling prescription narcotics. A friend suggested they give the pills a try, and soon thereafter, Rich was slinging to keep his own habit going.

“After it started, it escalated so fast, and the next three years were a wash,” he said. “I remember my dad sat down with me when I was 18, and I’ll never forget what he said: ‘There are some things in this life that once you touch them, you can never untouch them.’ He told me he loved me, but I couldn’t be around there anymore. So I lived in a Honda Civic for a while, then moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the worst neighborhood.

“It was me, this girl who was a stripper, my buddy and three pit bulls, and it was just a crazy mess. I remember waking up sick all the time, sleeping on couches with these people, and that escalated into heroin pretty quick, because that was way cheaper.”

Still, his diseased thinking convinced him he was doing alright for himself, and that he could maintain his particular vocation indefinitely. He may have, too, had it not been for crack. A taxi driver offered him his first hit, a buddy showed him how to smoke it and everything after that, he said, “came to a very screeching halt.”

“It was a crazy few months where it was nonstop,” he added. “I stopped being able to sell drugs, being able to do anything but sit in that storage unit in Sicklerville. I was just gone, man.”

During that last year of his addiction, he started going back to 12 Step meetings, so somewhere in the back of his mind, he realizes now, there was a part of him that knew what would work. When he turned 21 in the summer of 2011, he gave himself another month, and on Aug. 5 of that year, he surrendered.

“It was the perfect storm of a lot of shit that just happened at the right time,” he said. “I was unhealthy and ready to die, so I went to detox for 24 hours, then left (against medical advice). I called my mom and told her I was serious about getting clean and that I was really going to do it, and I proceeded to kick on her couch for nine days.

“It was the worst pain I ever felt in my life. Before that, I didn’t have the willingness to even be sick for longer than 25 minutes, so I don’t know how I did it, and looking back on it, I could never do it again. It was just a weird moment, man.”

Brothers in recovery and music

Rich People

While a Higher Power may have helped his willingness to detox, Rich credits the rooms with helping him stay clean. He started going to meetings regularly and found a group of guys that embraced him, despite his relative youth.

“The area I got clean in didn’t have many young people, so all of these dudes were 30 or 32, and they were considered the young guys,” he said. “I was the kid who came in and didn’t know how to talk about anything except war stories and the weather. I started at my feet, and none of my jokes stuck, and I couldn’t say anything that was cool. When I look back on it now, those first few years seem very surreal to me. It was just a perfect storm of good things and good people and interventions coming into my life.”

As he began crafting the songs that would become “Jacob’s Ladder,” other doors began to open. A few units down, Tyler Falcone, a drummer he knew from the scene, was jamming with friends and extended an invitation to Rich to sit in. He shared ideas with them for the record he was working on, played them some demos and fell into a creative chemistry that would become Rich People.

“It was definitely a group of dudes I never saw myself putting together, because our personalities are all over the place!” he said. “But it just worked, and we talk now about how it’s so weird that the four of us (Rich, Falcone, guitarist/vocalist Blake Horner and bassist Conner DeMuro) ended up playing together, but it’s really cool.”

During their first year under the Rich People banner, the guys wrote “Grace Session,” an eight-song EP that lands somewhere among the ambient melancholy of Night Beds, the clanging intensity of Okkervil River and the plaintive vulnerability of Bon Iver. As good as “Grace Session” is, however, it’s also the sound of a band just getting started, and the record the guys are working on now stands to be even better, Rich said.

“I moved to Philly as soon as the band started playing live shows, so when we were doing ‘Grace Session,’ I was getting used to that, and it was definitely the first effort where we had just started utilizing everybody’s skills,” he said. “There was still a lot of reservation and control as opposed to the LP we’re doing now. This is the first time I’ve stepped off and said, ‘Yes — you’re better in your lane than I am, so you do that!’ It’s been cool and relieving, because it’s less for me to figure out.”

A purpose-driven life

Live the band, exploded out of the gate: With all of the guys having a reputation in the South Jersey scene, there were 150 paid attendees at the first Rich People show. In September, Rich People will be opening for Grayscale, a Philadelphia-based pop-punk band that’s currently on a tour of the Midwest. It’s a big opportunity, but on a recent Wednesday evening, Rich is taking care of what recovery business.

“I’m headed out the door, about to pick up my boy Timmy and head to my home group,” he said. “I’m a bachelor, and I don’t have any kids, so I hit three or four meetings a week. I’ve got a regional service commitment, I’ve got sponsees, I do some work with a drug rehab up the street … I try to stay pretty involved. And honestly, the actual motivation behind it is that I just know I feel better when I do this stuff. I’m definitely not confused about any of it — most of the things I do are because they make me feel good!”

The spiritual high, however, is a far more fulfilling feeling that chemicals ever were. Rich maintains an active blog presence on his band's website, and occasionally, friends or even fans will reach out for some experience, strength and hope. If their problems are chemical in nature as his was, he'll tell them what worked for him and suggest coming to a meeting. He's not a counselor or a therapist, he added, but he is a guy with a few 24 hours under his belt, and a new way to live that's worked out pretty well for him so far.

And there's an added bonus: By putting out positive energy into the universe through kindness and spiritual principles, he reaps the positive results in his own life. It’s a pretty simple formula, and it’s one that can work for anybody, he added.

“I just try to let people know that you can still have a life, you can still have fun and you can still be cool and not have to do drugs,” he said. “When I’m talking about these things, I don’t try to preach that recovery will be the answer for everybody, but I do know that with it, you can be cool and play in a rock band, the drugs don’t even matter anymore.”