Richard Jankovich of Big Mother Gig pens an ode to sobriety on ‘Gusto’

Richard Jankovich
Big Mother Gig is, from left, Micah Lopez, Albert Kurniawan, Michael Datz and Richard Jankovich. (Courtesy of the artist)

The first Noble Truth of Recovery Dharma, the program that helped Richard Jankovich find a new way to live on the other side of a drinking problem, puts it plainly:

The Ties That Bind Us“There is suffering.”

Life as a flawed, fallible human being is accompanied by suffering, which can take many forms. The Recovery Dharma literature describes it thus: “There’s suffering any time we want things to be different than they are.”

As the creative mastermind behind a number of different music projects — Burnside Project, Pocket, Mon Draggor and Big Mother Gig, which will release a new full-length album, “Gusto,” on April 30 — Jankovich has always viewed the world as it could be rather than the way it is. He’s a humble guy, so he would never presume to declare that life and humanity should cater to his individual whims, but it’s hard not to look out at a societal landscape of chaos and discord and not feel despair over humanity’s inability to come together for the common good.

And for the longest time, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, that was as good a reason as any to drink.

“At some point in my life, I looked at the world and thought, ‘The world is a shitty place,’” Jankovich said. “There are wars and crooked politicians and homelessness and all these problems, and I used that as a justification for feeling depressed. It was like an equation: If the world sucks, you’re going to feel really bad about that, so feeling depressed is normal, and in fact if you’re not depressed, there’s probably something wrong with you.

“And so drinking became an anti-depressant pill, and it became very easy to justify: ‘This is what anyone needs to do to get through this terrible life we live. Everyone needs something to get through the day.’ I knew I had a problem, and I knew I drank too much — that I didn’t drink like normal people. But for the longest time, I wondered why other people weren’t drinking like I was, because the world sucks, and what’s the point?”

Alcohol as a panacea for pain

Big Mother Gig is, from left, Albert Kurniawan, Richard Jankovich, Micah Lopez and Michael Datz. (Courtesy of the artist)

Jankovich didn’t come into the world as a cynic, but life made its mark during his younger years. He came from a long line of drinkers, and the nurturing connection Jankovich has built with his own daughter was missing. There were times, he said, that his father’s role as a disciplinarian overshadowed the compassion he needed as a child.

As a result, he said, finding his own lane was difficult as he got older, and it often shifted depending on the crowd he ran with.

“If you knew me in high school, depending on when you knew me, you would either know me as literally a straight-edge kid, or if you met me three months later, you would know me as a kid trying to get in trouble,” he said. “When I identified as straight-edge, I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t do anything but listen to Minor Threat. And then six months later, I was sneaking off behind the school to this bridge we had, smoking weed with the stoner kids. And once I discovered that, it got really exciting, and I wanted to do that all the time.”

Moderation, he added, was always just out of grasp — and in many ways, his proclivity for going 100mph at everything he tried helped make him the successful musician and entrepreneur he became. By the same token, that success likely contributed to alcohol causing problems in his life for as long as it did.

“An alcoholic, as I always understood it, was someone who couldn’t keep their marriage together, couldn’t keep a job, and woke up in strange places,” he said. “Being a functioning alcoholic, which is what I was, it took 20 years before I realized I had a problem. One of the things I realized is that I never really hit rock bottom. I was always on the way, but I was able to keep it just shy of hitting rock bottom, and in a way, that’s almost worse. I kind of wish I had hit rock bottom 15 years ago, because then I would have enjoyed an adulthood free from alcohol.”

Jankovich eventually arrived at rock bottom — his own, the place unique to his story and the turning point in his sobriety — in March of 2018. He finally realized that the control he thought he had over his drinking was an illusion, and that everything had started to suffer as a result.

“I looked at that and said, ‘Wow.’ It was clear that I needed to get my drinking under control — not so I could stop drinking, but to remember where the limits are!” he said. “I was an alcoholic, so at first, I just wanted to put a pause on it. I remember thinking, ‘I just need to figure out how many drinks is too much. I just need to reset so I can continue being a functioning drinker.’”

Richard Jankovich: Driven to succeed

Big Mother Gig

Big Mother Gig, led by Richard Jankovich, will release the new album "Gusto" on April 30.

And to be fair, his career had flourished, in spite of his functional alcoholism. After forming Big Mother Gig during the ’90s alt-rock boom, he and the band put out three albums and toured the Midwest before he moved to New York in 1996. There, he established Burnside Project, which released four records on the Bar/None and Sony labels, and in 2003 landed the song “Cue the Pulse to Begin” as the theme song for the Showtime series “Queer as Folk.” Publications like Spin and Rolling Stone sang the band’s praises, and a couple of years later, Jankovich reinvented himself again as a remix artist known as Pocket.

As Pocket, he collaborated with guest singers like Robyn Hitchcock, Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren, The Church’s Steve Kilbey and more, and both Pitchfork and the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll gave him ink. In 2008, he moved to the West Coast, recorded a double album (“Pulling Strings/Pushing Buttons”) under the Mon Draggor moniker that made the Top 10 Best Albums of 2015 by PopMatters and launched a music placement service called Shoplifter.

In 2016, he reassembled Big Mother Gig, which has since played with bands like Gin Blossoms, Luna, Peelander-Z, Soccer Mommy and more, and the entire time he made inroads in the music world, he kept an eye on his drinking. He knew it was a problem, he said, and he even tried to get a handle on it, but every time he thought he was done, it found a way to pull him back in.

“For me, I think I always had a predilection toward addiction,” he said. “I always have a hard time — I still have a hard time — being moderate in any way, with any thing. And alcohol is so socially acceptable that it was the easiest thing to always come back to. Drugs never became a problem, because it just didn’t fit my lifestyle or who I wanted to be. I mean, I would take drugs if they were around, but I wasn’t the kind of guy who was out looking to score.

“Booze made a lot of sense to me, but by the end, I wasn’t even drinking beer and wine anymore. I was straight-up drinking bourbon, buying a couple of bottles a week and going through it, and I knew it was too much. The problem was that line, and it’s hard to explain, because I would definitely get very intoxicated, and it wasn’t like I knew when to stop drinking. I just knew that the next day, I could hop out of bed and head to work.

“I wasn’t even getting hangovers anymore,” he added. “I felt like shit because I was, but it just didn’t register as a hangover.”

From temporarily to permanently abstinent ... and beyond

Big Mother Gig, from left, is Michael Datz, Micah Lopez, Richard Jankovich and Albert Kurniawan. (Courtesy of the artist)

When he finally hit the pause button, never intending on quitting for good, but his problem became clear in a way it hadn’t before. He and his wife started working together in couple’s therapy, and that led to other therapy sessions that led him back in time, not just to his own childhood but to the events that shaped the man his father became.

“I would go to therapy sessions and start scribbling ideas down, and I had a few pages of notes about, why do I have this problem? Where does it come from?” he said. “I reached out to some family members to try to piece together what my dad had lived through, and I came to understand that my dad had a pretty tragic childhood, which had been hidden from me, because in the grand tradition of dads, he felt that he was protecting his family.

“And so I began to look at family history and question what was accepted as general behavior, and it started to dawn on me that I came from a long line of alcoholics. I began to think back to all of these aunts and uncles, and the amount of alcohol they drank was staggering. In the Midwest, which is where I’m from, it’s like water there, like alcohol is just a part of daily life. It’s very accepted, especially in working-class families.”

This time around, he added, he remained open-minded about therapy. In the past, when his therapist suggested he might have a drinking problem, he stopped going. By admitting it out loud, beyond the quiet internal whispers in the back of his mind, he began working on why he drank — and his mental health came into clearer focus.

“What I came to realize was, I was a depressed person, and that I was using alcohol and other things to feel better and not be depressed,” he said. “I started learning about dopamine and serotonin and things like that, but I still didn’t identify as an alcoholic, until about a year later, when I went to visit a friend in New York.”

His friend, who was also sober, invited him to a 12 Step meeting. Jankovich had tried those before but always felt out of place, and even though he didn’t want to go this time, he agreed as a means of support. Sitting there, surrounded by alcoholics, he heard something eerie: His own story, coming out of the mouths of strangers.

“They went around the room, and every single story was the story of my life,” he said. “And when you hear a bunch of alcoholics tell the exact same story that you’ve lived, it’s really hard to say you’re not an alcoholic.”

Back in Los Angeles, he went to a few 12 Step meetings but couldn’t find what he needed. He eventually discovered Recovery Dharma, a program based on Buddhist teachings, and he hasn’t looked back.

“The focus is not just about alcoholism or addiction, but how you look at life, and how you can be a better person overall,” he said.

Richard Jankovich: Journey to 'Gusto'

Richard JankovichFor Jankovich, documenting that transformation through song began to take shape the Christmas after he got sober. His wife asked what he wanted as a gift, and he didn’t hesitate: A weekend alone, in the middle of nowhere, with just a guitar to put some of his thoughts and realizations and therapeutic breakthroughs into musical form.

“I hadn’t written an album by that point in a few years, and I didn’t know if it would be any good or what kind of music it would be. I just knew that in working through my issues, it would help to isolate for a few days and turn it into music,” he said. “So about a year after I stopped drinking, I went to Joshua Tree and rented a cabin and wrote morning, noon and night, and it just spilled out of me. All of these notes I had written down just all came together.

“I can’t really ever remember a time when 12 or 13 songs just flew out of me in such a short period of time, and I was in tears the entire time. It was not just cathartic — that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot — it was absolutely like an exorcism of sorts that weekend. Putting it all to words and music and singing it, it was like watching a movie of your life, and it puts it all into context.”

The end result is “Gusto,” an album that’s as powerful as it is beautiful, from the chiming guitar-driven opener “The Underdog” (an ode to his wife, “who never left, always cheered me on through a life of high-functioning alcoholism and disappointment,” he shared about the record), all the way through the soulful and shimmering instrumental closer, “Something About Fire.” There’s a charming snippet of field recordings captured at his house, the minutiae of children playing and mothers chatting, all of it designed to glorify the beautifully simple moments of life that he had so long overlooked.

Throughout the record, a range of reference points set “Gusto” apart from a lot of its melodic rock contemporaries. From the wry humor of Pavement to the melancholy rumination of R.E.M. to the shattered beauty of Red House Painters, it’s a distinctly modern take on a sound that’s been Jankovich’s wheelhouse since he first established Big Mother Gig.

It only made sense, then, that the songs recorded during that fateful spring weekend be recorded by that band, which includes Michael Datz, Albert Kurniawan and Micah Lopez.

“I wanted to use Big Mother Gig because I had put so much effort into making that a thing over the years prior, and it ended up working really well in that style,” he said. “With the other music I’ve made, I knew I didn’t want to go in that direction, and even though it does feel kind of like a singer-songwriter album, the same guys would have played on that, too, so it really is a Big Mother Gig album.

“I think if I had a better name, it would have been under my own name, but I’m at a point in my career, 20-plus years of putting out music, and I already have all these different names out there. I don’t know if I want to start over and create a new project and try to explain it to people.”

Bridging the divide between what was and what is

Courtesy of the artist

It's awkward enough explaining to those who saw only the “functioning” and glossed over the “alcoholic” that, yes, these songs are drawn from his real-life experiences. (At one point, the guys thought about calling the record “For Those About to Rock Bottom.”) Even though it never destroyed his life, it was always a huge part of his life, and the release of “The Underdog” as the first single, as well as the accompanying press has opened some eyes as to how much it affected him.

“There are people I’ve known for 15 or 20 years who are reading about it and coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘Are you sure you’re an alcoholic?’” he said with a laugh. “Everyone knew I was a drinker, because it was part of my social personality. But here’s the thing: I’m also a vegetarian. I’ve been one for 25 years, and once I decided to become one because of my beliefs around the treatment of animals, it really became a lifelong decision. For me to be morally consistent, I was a vegetarian.

“It’s the same thing for me with alcohol, because once you realize something, you can’t go back. Now that I’ve bought into it, I can’t go back, and the thought of drinking almost makes me physically ill.”

But even if they had realized it … even if, out of love and concern, they confronted him or staged an intervention or just casually suggested he slow it down … he doubts it would have gotten through, he added — because he wasn’t ready to hear it. And he certainly wasn’t ready to accept it.

And that’s the part of sobriety that no one can teach. Far be it from Jankovich to claim any sort of expertise on the subject, but some of those who have learned of his journey, and some friends who have heard advance copies of “Gusto,” have broached the subject of their own unhealthy relationships with alcohol. Far be it from him to proselytize, but there is one thing of which he’s certain:

“If you’re looking at your life and wondering, then the answer is yes, because if you don’t have a drinking problem, you’re not thinking about it,” he said. “Now, I really don’t believe everyone who has a drinking problem is an alcoholic, because there’s a difference between bad habits and a disease. I may have to watch my sugar intake because it’s not healthy, but it doesn’t mean I’m a diabetic.

“But I really believe as a society that we drink too much, and I know especially with the pandemic that drinking has increased because there’s nothing to do. People are stuck at home, and people are depressed, and it’s sort of like, society-wide, we’re overdoing it right now. And I don’t have words to help people see the light, because I don’t understand why or how it happened to me.”

Richard Jankovich gets vulnerable

Richard Jankovich

Big Mother Gig: Richard Jankovich (from left), Micah Lopez, Albert Kurniawan and Michael Datz. (Courtesy of the artist)

And even though he didn’t intend to stop for good when he took his first initial steps into sobriety, once he turned that corner, there truly was no going back.

“For me, with almost three years sober, I literally cannot even imagine drinking again,” he said. “It’s something I have no interest in, no desire, because I know exactly what will happen if I start drinking. I feel like I’m a better person today than I was three years ago, so to allow myself to do that would allow myself to devolve in a way.”

And with “Gusto” — completed at the end of 2019, debuted at a few label showcases at the beginning of 2020 and then sidelined by COVID-19 before he and the guys decided to go ahead and release it — he’s demolished another myth long-romanticized by musicians and other artists: that to make great works, you have to overindulge.

“I think now, that it’s really, really harmful to think that, because it gives creative people an excuse, and it justifies an addiction,” he said. “I often bought the sort of myth that creative people need more out of life than ‘normal’ people, that if you’re creative, you have an appetite for life. But saying that someone has an appetite for life as a way of justifying their heroin habit or their whoring around or their alcoholism, that’s really harmful.

“This album that I made might be the most important and most creative album I’ve ever released. Looking back at 15 or 20 years of records, and it’s without a doubt the most honest, raw and personal album I’ve ever made — and I did it completely sober.”

If there’s any takeaway from “Gusto” for other artists, it’s this: Justifying an unhealthy relationship with drugs or alcohol in the name of art doesn’t always lead to great art. Sometimes, it leads to darkness, dereliction and even death.

And if you’re lucky, it leads to a dark night of the soul, during which a line is crossed, but a lightbulb moment of clarity can illuminate the way back to sanity.

“What you think you’re experiencing when you’re under the influence of drugs and alcoholic, when you think your mind is being expanded, I believe is the opposite,” he said. “I believe you’re being tricked, because real life is what it is. Mundane has this bad wrap. We think it means boring, but it actually just refers to daily life.

“And that’s what daily life is: family. Responsibilities. Living. There’s no magic, there are no bright colors. And that doesn’t mean life is boring or terrible. It’s actually a beautiful, wonderful thing.”