Surrender to win: Dramarama’s John Easdale quits keeping score

John Easdale
Dramarama, from left: Mike Davis, John Easdale, Tony Snow, Peter Wood and Mark Englert. (Photo courtesy of Amy Martin)

There’s a saying in recovery circles that John Easdale, the founder and singing, songwriting force behind the power-pop ensemble Dramarama, clings to all the harder the older he gets:

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

The Ties That Bind UsOften, the collection of chips or keytags marking accumulated periods of sobriety is a point of pride for those who have emerged from the darkness of addiction and alcoholism. He doesn’t fault those individuals, nor does he discourage them from picking them up. But for himself, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, they eventually became an albatross.

Easdale, like a great many other recovering addicts and alcoholics, found that the darkness of his disease was a creeping thing, always on his heels. And when it overtook him, the guilt and shame of surrendering those chunks of clean time to start over only served as a reminder of just how tenuous recovery can be.

“Counting days felt like marking off X’s on a calendar, like I was waiting for my prison sentence to end,” Easdale said. “I got sick and tired of going back and starting over and the shame I felt that was involved in that. And over the years, I saw people with some really decent time go back out, and that shame would kill them — the drugs did it, or they did it themselves, and I got tired of losing friends.”

Easdale — who recently released “Color TV,” the first new Dramarama album in 15 years — got off of hard drugs in the 1990s, and he’s never regretted it. He was miserable, he said, and made everyone around him equally so. The lightbulb came on when he realized that the substances that once offered comfort and succor had become a handicap.

“I couldn’t live a happy life, and I realized I couldn’t be myself anymore if I still did that,” he said. “It wasn’t like a light went on and I said, ‘From this day forward, I’m never going to do it again!’ Because I had said that in the past, and it still took a bunch of times, and a lot of hiccups along the way — a lot of setbacks, a lot of relapses, a lot of mistakes, and every time I came back, I felt a lot of shame and sorrow and anger at myself.

“But it’s been a number of years since my last relapse, when I went out on a weekend and spent close to a week in jail, and when I came back, I said, ‘You know what? This is fucked up. I’m not that guy. I’m not going to walk around with the big ‘S’ for sober on my chest.’”

John Easdale: A return to form on 'Color TV'

John Easdale

Courtesy of Conni Freestone

Like so many others, Easdale views sobriety as a personal lifestyle choice, not a cause. At the same time, it’s a choice that’s brought him a great deal of peace in recent years, and led to the recent release of “Color TV,” a rock ‘n’ roll record that turns on Easdale’s “fiercest and most moving compositions,” according to a recent interview with him in the publication American Songwriter. The album punches out of the gate with the whine of feedback giving way to the jubilant “Beneath the Zenith,” a song that proves Dramarama was a template for modern alt-rock outfits like Japandroids, and it doesn’t let up. From the bluesy shuffle of “Swamp Song” to the muscular “What’s Your Sign?” to the languid and contemplative “You, You, You,” Easdale and his bandmates pay homage to their ’80s power-pop origins while blazing bold new trails.

“I’m very proud of the songs and the way the record turned out, for sure, but it took a long time to make it sound right,” he told The Ties That Bind Us. “With the way we recorded this record, we were able to use one of the best studios in the world, The Village in West L.A., where everybody from Elton John to Cher to Barbra Streisand to Steely Dan recorded. They have a history there, and the guy who owns it and is my co-producer has been one of the great helps in our recording.

“He let us sneak in at night and on weekends to use this wonderful facility, and it took longer than most records. There’s some tedium, especially in the new methods of overdubbing and going back and fixing things, and as time went by, we would tinker and fiddle and change this and that because we had the luxury to do so.”

Before COVID-19 sidelined the music industry, Dramarama had a few shows planned, weekend runs in major cities to promote “Color TV,” but with the accessibility of the digital age, fans of the band don’t always need a live show to be convinced to pick up a copy.

“With the internet, it’s easier to get into people’s homes than ever before, so even if we can’t go out and play, people are home right now and looking for something to listen to,” he said. “I’m really thrilled with the reception we’ve gotten so far.”

It is, in a sense, a righteous channeling of the pure and unadulterated love Easdale felt for rock ‘n’ roll as a young boy, growing up in Wayne, New Jersey. Although it’s been absorbed as a suburb of New York now, at the time it was a rural hamlet at the end of the highway, on the edge of Jersey farmland but still pulling in radio and television signals from the Big Apple.

“It was a very small-town kind of feel, and it was just your typical upbringing and childhood, but I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll when I was 4 years old and started watching The Monkees’ TV show,” he said. “I turned 5 that September, but I was hooked, so to speak. I was a little too young for the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Beatlemania, and I went back to that, but The Monkees were my big initial musical baptism.

“As the ’60s progressed, and I got older and older, I was a voracious consumer of music. I just lived and breathed it. It was passion, it was pleasure, it was everything. It was a mind-altering thing, before I got into mind-altering substances.”

Dramarama: Sounds of a city, dreams of a boy

Dramarama, courtesy of Nicole Lemberg

By the fourth grade, he started playing drums, but his ability to carry a tune in school choirs steered him toward singing. In the beginning, he was the guy that young garage bands would put up front to belt out covers, and as a young teen, that’s where he was introduced to alcohol for the first time, he said.

Drinking and drugging and playing in bands kind of went hand in hand, at least in basement garage bands, and having a few beers gave me the courage to get up and sing,” he said. “It was just a thing that everybody else was doing, and I was doing it, too. At 14 and 15 years old, you had to sneak around to do it, and that was one of the most appealing things about it — that you were kind of breaking the rules. That was my way of dancing with the devil, so to speak, and that would continue on throughout my life.”

As a budding rock ‘n’ roller, he quickly came to see that playing covers was well and good, but it wouldn’t take him anywhere beyond local bars. Besides, he wanted to sing his own songs, so he started dabbling with guitar and keyboard and writing words to go along with the songs he heard in his head. By the time he was 18 or 19, he and some friends found themselves drawn to a burgeoning movement that took cues from punk acts out of New York and a blossoming, roots-oriented strain of rock ‘n’ roll that would become known as jangle-pop or college rock.

“Growing up in the New York area, there were a lot of bands coming out of Manhattan that weren’t on the radio, little things you heard about through the underground that weren’t a part of mainstream magazines,” he said. “We spent a lot of time in the basement, fiddling with recordings and trying to make tapes and whatnot, rather than getting into clubs and trying to make a name for ourselves. We were getting to know the studio and how to make records, and even then, we weren’t trying to be a part of a scene or be a part of anything else. We were very much solo lobos.”

At the same time, other musical hotspots around the country began to birth other acts that coalesced around a similar sound. In Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. released the classic EP “Chronic Town” in 1982; in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Mitch Easter’s band, Let’s Active, started making waves. The members of Dramarama were aware of their contemporaries, Easdale added, but they were very much an island unto themselves.

“We were just doing it for our own benefit — going out and making our own 45s and a 12-inch EP,” he said. “I don’t think anybody at the time got copies except our parents or our girlfriends or our buddies. We made an album that came out in France, and people seemed to like our recordings, and we started getting little pieces of press here and there.”

Blitzing deejays with their recordings led to regular radio play in France, where the band’s EP, “Comedy,” found traction. That led to a deal with New Rose Records, which released the Dramarama full-length debut, “Cinéma Vérité,” in 1985.

“Even then, we were just playing in the basement,” he said. “We were not even a live act until we were on the radio, for the most part. We played a couple of clubs here and there, but we weren’t seasoned. We didn’t earn our chops.”

John Easdale finds a home and a family in SoCal

Dramarama, courtesy of Nicole Lemberg

Out on the West Coast, however, fans went nuts for the single “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You),” which eventually became one of the most-requested songs of all time on KROQ-FM, 106.7, in Los Angeles. It found a place on the soundtrack to “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” and would show up regularly in films and TV shows like HBO’s “Entourage,” and it was generously covered by bands like Buckcherry.

Based on the song’s popularity, legendary KROQ deejay Rodney Bingenheimer persuaded Dramarama to come west, and because the song was on the radio every day, the band sold out its first shows at famous L.A. club The Roxy. The guys picked up and moved to California, but they soon discovered that their penchant for studio wizardry didn’t exactly translate to the stage, at least back then.

“Unfortunately in those early days, we weren’t as experienced, and we weren’t as good as the records we made,” he said. “Live in concert, we couldn’t deliver. Over the years, we’ve gotten exponentially better, and now, we’re happy with the way we are. People say nice things when we play live, but at the time, we were just above amateur level.”

At the time, he said, his drug and alcohol use wasn’t anything extraordinary: A Friday night bender here, bags of weed there. In California, however, cocaine was plentiful, and weekends began to stretch from Thursdays through Mondays.

“Every day was Saturday, and you stayed up all night for days in a row,” he said. “It became more of a thing, and certainly more of a thing when we were out playing concerts and on the road and stuff.”

He fell in love on the West Coast and married a girl from Southern California, where he lives today. The two had a child, and in the beginning, his drug and alcohol use were limited to his rock ‘n’ roll life. At home, he might sneakily smoke some weed or have a beer occasionally, but everything else was put aside. Eventually, though, he hit the end of addiction’s leash.

“After a while, it became something I couldn’t leave, and I ended up bringing it home,” he said. “The thing that turned me into a stone-cold junkie was smoking cocaine. I went from being a weekend warrior and somebody who just did it when it was there, to a full-on junkie. And because I was limited by my personal finances, I started selling my stuff and stealing from the household finances, doing whatever I could.”

Dramarama continued to churn out records — 1987’s “Box Office Bomb,” 1989’s “Stuck in Wonderamaland” and 1993’s “Hi-Fi Sci-Fi,” regarded as a cult classic and the group’s high-watermark — but outside of the studio and off the stage, Easdale was struggling. He’d dabbled in crack while living back in New Jersey, to the point that it was on the verge of wrecking him then, but the move to Cali curtailed it.

Back in New York to promote one of Dramarama’s albums, he fell back into its clutches, he said.

“I had stayed up all night, and I was going to be in meetings all day, and there was a guy selling crack on the corner near our hotel,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’ll help me,’ but it led to a really dark period where I went through my family’s savings and spent thousands and thousands of dollars — five figures in a matter of weeks.”

John Easdale finds a new way to live

John Easdale

Courtesy of Karen McHale

That was when the alarm bells started going off, when Easdale found himself closed off in a back room, getting high, while his wife and children were in the house.

“It was just the realization that, ‘You know what? You can’t do this to your family. You can’t do this anymore,’” he said. “It wasn’t fun anymore. It went from something you did to enhance things to something that was the end-all, be all. It became the action rather than going out to the movies or a club and having a couple of drinks while I was there. That was when I was ready to stop denying I had a problem, to stop with the constant lying, to work at straightening myself out and accept some outside help.”

That’s when he made his way to the rooms of 12 Step recovery, but it was a rocky start. By that point, the drugs had sank their fangs in deep, and it took a trip to the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, for Easdale to stop using.

“I was immersed in the program, and it was the kind of program where you went through as 12 Steps in 30 days,” he said. “It was actually eye-opening, and I would say it changed my life. It wasn’t like an instant cleanse and all of my problems were solved, because sometimes after that, I would still try to find an easier, softer way.”

But it was a start — and if recovery is indeed about the journey and not the destination, then it can rightfully be said that it was the most important step he ever took. After getting out of addiction treatment, he returned to Dramarama, but the band was slowly sputtering to a halt. In hindsight, he said, it was actually a boon to his recovery.

“There were a number of reasons why the band broke up, but between the fact that we weren’t making millions and selling millions of records and were getting on each other’s nerves anyway, it was also a way for me to save my life,” he said. “I could be safe at home and I didn’t have to tell anybody why I wasn’t drinking or getting high anymore.”

Without the pressure of a band at his back that had to sell records and concert tickets, Easdale was able to focus on his recovery. He got involved in some of the more prestigious sobriety circles in Hollywood, working with the late celebrity addiction specialist Bob Timmins, whose clients included some high-profile rockers and other marquee celebrity names.

“I would go to (recovery) meetings, and all these guys were there, and that opened my eyes to the fact that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and that I could work my Steps and it save my life,” Easdale said.

And that’s when, he added, he began to find his own way along that journey. He watched peers relapse and succumb to the shame of stigma, and he almost did so himself. But one thing he never did was give up, he added.

“It happened to me, and I had that deep shame, so I stopped counting,” he said. “I just tried to stop and stay stopped. Over time, I picked up a sponsor back then that I still talk to on a semi-weekly basis, because I think it’s really important to stay in touch with people who are sober and to surround yourself with them. I think it’s important not to go back to those places or hang with those people you used to do bad things with.

“It was a number of years before I could go back to the bars and go back to playing in the band, and the band stayed broken up for a number of years.”

Dramarama finds a second life through the 'Color TV'

Dramarama, courtesy of Ronnie Baker

By 1996, though, Easdale was back into playing solo shows, and two years later he released an album under his own name — “Bright Side,” which featured childhood friends with whom he’s played music since his Jersey days, as well as an appearance from a couple of Dramarama alums. There was never any bad blood, and in 2003, when VH1 wanted the guys to get back together for the program “Bands Reunited,” they did so.

“That was going to be a one-time only thing, but we went and played a show at this big festival, and the reception was just so overwhelmingly positive, that we’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

Dramarama released the album “Everybody Dies” in 2005, and over the years, the music press has taken a shine to the band that only time and perspective would allow. Easdale has been called “one of the finest singer/songwriters of these times,” and the Chicago Sun Times hailed Dramarama as “one of America’s best rock bands.” Easdale doesn’t know about all that, but he does know that “Color TV” is about as personal a record as he’s ever made.

“A lot of these songs are ones I wasn’t comfortable sharing at the time they were written, because they were too close for comfort, so to speak,” he said. “Now that I have some years away from that, they fit into the narrative of this album. It takes you on the journey of my life from a drug addict to someone who’s safe at home and happy in his own skin.”

He’s still a believer in recovery, even if he’s not collecting key tags, and he credits the 12 Steps with delivering him into the new way of life that he enjoys today. He’s still reticent to take credit for any sort of sober activism, however, and if he’s done anything right, it’s to get out of his own way.

“I take pride in that, for sure, at least personal pride,” he said. “I’m certainly happy I’m not doing that anymore, but I’m certainly proud of the fact that I’m not a slave to substances and stuff, but I don’t feel like I’ve been a tremendous success, because I know guys who have years and years and years of total sobriety who get their chips every year.

“But I would say I’m a relatively content guy. There are a lot of things that go on in my head, and I deal with depression and bipolar issues that I don’t think have anything to do with sobriety — if anything, they were only exacerbated by drugs and alcohol, but generally, I’ve come to appreciate my family and what I do have — the things that really matter.”