It all came to a head for Stefan Tisminezky, the artist known as Stefan T, in the parking lot of a job he was on the verge of losing, along with his sanity and possibly his life.
The night before, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, he’d met up with former co-workers at a music studio job from which he’d been fired because his drinking was out of control. By that point, he added, he was up to two bottles of wine and a pint of vodka a night, and he didn’t give it a second thought when the guys called him to come hang.
“They hit me up halfway through that pint of vodka to come hang at the studio, and I just said, ‘Alright, I’ll be right there,’” he said. “I remember blacking out and coming to doing 120mph on the 10 (Freeway), and once I showed up, I thought, ‘Nobody knows I’m drunk!’ Of course, it turns out they all knew.
“The next day, I was supposed to be at work at 10. I was working at a trailer music place doing metadata entry, which was still a music job, but there I was, sitting in my car at 10:30, hungover as fuck. That’s when it hit me: In the past, I had totaled my car, I had been arrested, and I didn’t know what was going to happen next — but I remember thinking, ‘I’ve gotta stop, because if I continue down this road, I’m going to die.’”
That was the turning point, and ever since that day three years ago, Tisminezky has remained clean and sober. Today, he’s made greater musical strides in sobriety than he ever did before, and he’s using his platform as producer, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who once trained at the Berklee School of Music to call attention to the ways in which those who suffer as he once did can reclaim their lives and their sanity.
“I’m talking about mental health for everybody, but especially the guys out there,” he said. “The whole mental health side of things and taking care of myself mentally is very important to me, too. One of the things I tell guys out there is that it’s OK to seek help for your mind. That’s one of the toughest things you can do, and it takes strength. Whether it’s through sobriety, therapy or medication — whatever you want to use to get yourself good, just do it.”
Stefan T: Music as salvation
As far back as he can remember, music was a part of Tisminezky’s life. He spent his first five years in Venezuela, where he was born, before his family moved to the United States, and he can remember his mother jamming to pop star Ricky Martin as a young child. It was, however, rock ‘n’ roll that lit a fire in his young heart, he said.
“One of the things that impacted me the most was I remember driving around with my dad, and Audioslave had just put out their first album, and he was listening to it,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck is this? This is amazing!’”
While he can certainly shred if he so chooses, Stefan T. rides a smoother groove than the dissonant rock of Audioslave, but in many ways, he draws on the influence of that band’s frontman, the late Chris Cornell, he added.
“It shaped the way I make music, the way I write, and when Chris passed, that really hit me,” he said. “There are guys out there like him who I consider my musical parents, because they shaped the way I write, produce or do anything musically.”
Once his family settled in Las Vegas, Tisminezky struggled through grade school, dealing with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar II disorder and bullying. In the sixth grade, however, he found salvation in the form of guitar.
“I had to pick an elective, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just play guitar,’ but it turns out that having that and finding music as a creative outlet saved me,” he said. “I naturally fell into music as a way to express myself in a language that doesn’t require words. At first, I thought I was going to be the really cool guy who played the guitar to get girls, and it all started with picking out simple chords.”
It turns out, however, he was naturally gifted, and he began taking lessons with a classical guitar instructor who set him up on a nylon-stringed guitar. That particular fingerpicking style requires longer nails, and growing his out to get better sounds from the instrument led to more teasing — but by then, he was all in, he added.
“I loved it, and I wasn’t going to let that bother me,” he said.
After completing the eighth grade, he set his sights on auditioning for a magnet high school that had a music and arts focus. He remembers clearly the day he auditioned — a case of the jitters made him physically ill, he added — but he landed a spot, and the curriculum called for roughly 90 minutes of guitar, five days a week, throughout the duration of his four years there.
“I was also taking private lessons at the time as well to really reinforce the pieces I was learning,” he said. “I was learning how to sight-read, the ins and outs of guitar, how it works, everything. During that time, me and a couple of buddies started a band, and even though it didn’t work out, I was eating, sleeping, breathing music for those four years. I didn’t want it to stop, because I loved who I was becoming.”
The bottle beckons
The dark side of that transformation, though, came in the form of alcoholic solace. Not long after he started high school, he began exploring his parents’ oft-neglected liquor cabinet. He knew no one at his new school, he added, and had trouble making friends, and in that rut, the booze seemed to call out to him.
“I was always interested, and I was looking at those bottles wondering, ‘I wonder what that does?’” he said. “I just grabbed a bottle of what turned out was very expensive whiskey, and I took it to my bedroom, and I drank the entire bottle and just went to sleep. After I woke up, I took a shower and felt great, and it was like, ‘That was amazing.’ Little did I know that would lead me to 10 years of hell, because once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
Like most alcoholics and addicts, however, he didn’t go from that first drink to homelessness in the span of 24 hours. His music career progressed nicely, and when it came time to consider a higher education, he auditioned for Berklee in Boston, impressing the admissions counselors with his abilities on classical guitar. Once in the door, however, he began to broaden his horizons.
“During high school, I had started experimenting with music production and messing around with FL Studio before I moved on to Reason and different digital audio workstations,” he said. “In college, I really loved it, so I auditioned for my major, which was electronic production and sound design, and I got into that. I basically made music in Ableton, graduated in 2016, and after that, it’s just been music nonstop.”
And with the music came the romanticized notion of what a professional musician did to accessorize both the sounds and the lifestyle. His freshman year started out with drinking and weed, and by the time he graduated, he was showing up to school intoxicated. In Boston, he said, he discovered harder drugs.
“I’m an uppers guy, but the entire time, I thought that was the way it works, that you can’t be a rock star without partying,” he said. “I thought that creativity and getting fucked up go hand-in-hand. That’s just the way it is, I thought.”
After Berklee, he moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to find work in various musical endeavors, but his drinking began to take a greater toll. He went back to therapy, something that has been a part of his life for years, but every time a therapist suggested he might want to take a look at his alcohol consumption, he would push back.
“I would think, ‘I’ve got it under control! Who are you to tell me that I’m doing something wrong?’” he said.
Stefan T: A way out, and a way up
Reality told a different tale, but even the consequences of his drinking weren’t enough to get him to quit. He totaled his car and woke up in jail, but as soon as he got out, the first thing he wanted, he said, was a drink.
“I didn’t know how to handle traumatic experiences,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do with those stressful situations, so I went right back to it.”
Eventually, it all came to a head in the parking lot of a job he didn’t like at 10:30 one morning in 2018. He had attempted the 12 Step route, but it never clicked for him. Tisminezky instead found recovery through Clare|Matrix, a Santa Monica-based outpatient facility that showed him a way out.
“It was really science-based — the science of addiction and what it does to the brain and why you’re fiending and little techniques on how to stop it,” he said. “A really good one for me that helped out with my triggers, for example, was that I couldn’t go to a grocery store for a while, because if I was in the liquor aisle, I would get a physical chill.
“So how do I fight this? I fought it by having groceries delivered to me. They taught me about playing the tape forward, about thought-stopping techniques, and that was really cool. And really, at the end of the day, you start seeing that this particular way, and 12 Step programs, and SMART Recovery, and all these rehabs, all basically teach the same thing: They just word it differently, and people find the one that works best for them.
“As long as you’re healthy and sober at the end of the day, you’re good,” he added. “For me, I can go to grocery stores again, but what really nailed it for me was seeing success in my career.”
The difference in his creativity has been like emerging from a thick fog of polluted thinking and nebbish concepts to razor-sharp focus and ideas that germinate into soundscapes that swirl and bounce with a frenetic, determined energy. More than anything else, when he comes up with a new idea, he remembers it. The retention of information, he added, has been a game-changer.
“You want to try these new ideas every time you come up with tone, whether it’s the tone of a bass guitar or messing around with patching modulators to their sources in a synthesizer, but you’ve got to be able to retain all of that,” he said. “If you’re fucked up and just messing around, it’s a waste of time, because you’re not retaining any of that information. My career took off when I started retaining that information and figuring out what works for me to get a certain sound.
“I wasn’t focused on getting fucked up. I was focused on getting the music to where it needs to be.”
Staying sober, 'No Matter' what
Tisminezky released his first album as a self-titled effort under the pseudonym The Saint Machine. It’s a ghostly, ethereal affair that personifies his relationship with addiction, he said, and while it’s a lovely record, there’s also a darkness to it that’s largely absent on the debut album under the Stefan T. moniker, last year’s “Night Shift.”
The blog V13 heralded its arrival and lavished Tisminezky with praise: “Not just a singer or instrumentalist, he is also a reputable producer and engineer which is why the soundscapes are so diverse and well-developed throughout ‘Night Shift.’ Also quite the lyricist, Stefan is, at times, retrospective, introspective and capable of evoking a whole body of emotions, from mellow and sad, to uplifting and intense, and even aggressive.”
There’s a distinct pop sheen to the songs, many of them collaborations with artists such as B. Rose MÁDAM, Gracie Van Such and more, that’s been toned down for his latest singles, he added.
“The new single off the EP I’m working on is called ‘No Matter’ (released last Friday), and it’s just a fun little love song,” he said. “I recently found myself in a relationship with a really amazing lady, and she inspires me to really touch into a part of writing lyrics that I’ve never wrote about before: love, and love is such an important part of a good life.”
He means romantic love, of course, but his demeanor speaks of a self-love that’s come into sharper focus thanks to sobriety. He mixes and produces all of his music, and while plans for live performances are in the early stages, he loves posting videos to Instagram, and he recently made the leap to Twitch streaming. The feedback he receives is overwhelmingly positive, but like the life he’s built for himself since getting clean, he takes none of it for granted.
That humility keeps him grounded — and allows him to never take for granted the peace of mind that was absent from his life for so long.
“I would not trade it for anything,” he said. “The thing about sobriety is that it gives me this feeling that no drug or drink could ever give me. This is what I’ve always wanted: being in an amazing relationship, feeling love, giving love, experiencing love throughout life. And that’s what I want to do with what I create, is to hopefully have people experience that love through music.”