Tommy Vext of Bad Wolves: Recovery is the road map out of the mouth of madness

Tommy Vext
Courtesy of Josh Adams

It’s mid-afternoon on the West Coast, and Bad Wolves frontman Tommy Vext is hurting.

The Ties That Bind UsHe’s just left Gold’s Gym, where his personal trainer put him through the ringer. The trainer, Vext tells The Ties That Bind Us, is the same guy who helped actor Josh Brolin get into shape for his role as Cable in “Deadpool 2.” Vext is working on endurance, so that when his band, Bad Wolves, primes the pump for Five Finger Death Punch and Three Days Grace on the trifecta’s current arena tour, he can go the distance.

“My whole body hurts all the time,” Vext says via phone. “I’m working on mobility. I’m actually pretty strong; I don’t have a problem moving weights around, but as I’m getting older, a lot of the bodybuilding techniques that worked in my 20s are counter-intuitive to my live performance. I’m working on core strength and lower back strength — I wanna be like Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden) in my older years!”

He laughs, a hearty, jovial sound that’s rich with affection — for his career, for his relationship, even for the physical pain. Every bit of it, every aching muscle and road-weary night spent on a tour bus … every phone call back home to his girl, every primal bellow his throat projects at a thousand screaming fans … it’s all worth it, he says, because it’s a reminder: He’s alive, when he rightly shouldn’t be.

In fact, there were times in his past, during his addiction and even after he got clean, that he tried not to be. The dark shadows of the soul that have been a part of him since childhood haven’t dissipated completely, but he spends more days in the light than in the darkness, and he refuses to take anything for granted, he says.

“I didn’t get sober to have a mediocre life,” he says. “Everything in my life, I want it to be extraordinary: my relationships, my jobs, the way I interact with people. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ve got to have that, but I also have to work for it. They say (in the rooms of the 12 Step meetings that helped him get clean and sober) that more will be revealed, but the reality is, more will be required.”

A childhood spent in turmoil

Courtesy of Matt Resch

More has always been required of Vext, even when he didn’t realize it. He and his twin brother were abandoned by their birth mother shortly after they were born, but they were adopted as infants by a caring family. By the time Vext hit double digits, however, the tendrils of mental illness had wrapped themselves around his brother’s brain.

“My brother is a very sick person, and he was a very sick child,” Vext says. “He was very, very obsessed with my dad, and he very much needed to turn my parents against each other. He was very intuitively manipulative without cause or provocation. I didn’t learn until I was an adult that, while he was in and out of mental institutions by the time he was 16, that doctors deduced that he would be a serial killer.

“He exhibited all of these precursor behaviors, and they said that by the time he was 30, he would have fully grown into being a murderer. But my parents thought the doctors were crazy, so they took him out and brought him back home with us.”

Throughout his adolescence and teenage years, his brother’s various diagnoses — bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more — didn’t just disrupt the family dynamic; they set it on fire. Vext would find out later that his brother physically abused the family’s pets and their mother, but when she leveled those accusations against his sibling, his brother would gaslight her and the rest of the family, until they began to suspect it was really the family matriarch who had the problem.

Even when he witnessed the abuse and stood up for their mother, their father turned on Tommy, defending his brother’s actions as a symptom of his illness. By the time Vext was in his late teens, his parents had split up and his father, who at one time had multiple years of sobriety, started drinking again. Stability became an illusion, and Vext was often left to fend for himself.

“In adolescence and formative years, when there isn’t any structure and there aren’t any consequences and no one cares whether you do good or bad, you eventually stop caring,” he says. “As a result, it’s very difficult to incentivize a young person who has no consequences, no love, no safety. Life becomes a game of survival and all the things that come with living in a household that’s encumbered by violence and addiction.

“You have to learn to be hyper-intuitive, because you don’t know when the next beating or explosion is going to come. And people that grow up in those environments, that’s the only life they know, and we carry that into our adulthoods. It’s very difficult for people who grow up in those experiences to have healthy adult relationships.”

Music as a lifeline

Tommy Vext

Courtesy of David Jackson

On the streets of Brooklyn, however, Vext found his calling. He channeled his rage into the New York hardcore scene, cutting his teeth in freestyle rap battles and shows that were primal explosions of angst and fury backed by scattergun guitars and howitzer-blast drumming. A band called Maniacal Disciple eventually changed its name to Vext, and by 2005, Vext the frontman was singing alongside Slipknot’s Corey Taylor at a Roadrunner Records anniversary party.

The next year, Dino Cazeras of Fear Factory tapped Vext to front his new project, Divine Heresy; the band’s debut, “Bleed the Fifth,” established Vext as a visceral young voice in metal, but two years later, he parted ways with the group. While the metal press was ripe with tales of bad blood, Vext owns his part: He was a sick man, something he didn’t realize until, on the other side of recovery, he began to untangle the knotted ball of family of origin issues.

“There were things we grew up with on a regular basis: Violence was a certainty, not enough food was a certainty, lying was a certainty,” Vext says. “What happens to people when they don’t know what the next right thing is? It’s hard to ask them to do that when no one ever did the next right thing for them. When you’re raised on the backs of a lot of broken promises, it comes out in a multitude of things.

“That’s our story. Alcoholism is a family disease, and that’s what being sober is about. It’s not just about, ‘I’m an addict, and I’m suffering’ — it’s about, ‘This is what it’s like to be in a relationship with me. This is what it’s like to be with people whose lives are messed up from the start.’”

By the time Vext was asked to step into the singer’s role for a reformed version of Snot — a West Coast metal outfit that came to an abrupt end in the late 1990s when singer Lynn Strait died in a car wreck — he was, as he puts it, “circling the drain.” The members of Snot reformed in 2008 and brought in Vext as their singer; a fall 2008 tour supporting DevilDriver was something of the last gasp of Vext’s slow slide toward suicide, he says.

“I was the youngest guy on a tour with dudes who were 10 or 15 years older than me, and we were drawing straws to see who would wake the others up in their bunks on the tour bus, because we didn’t know if they were dead from partying the night before,” he says.

One member of Snot, however, stood apart from the rest: Sonny Mayo, who would take Vext under his wing and introduce him to 12 Step recovery.

“My introduction to 12 Step programs through Sonny was purely by example,” he says. “Sonny lived in a house with a wife and a car and a couple of dogs. He had peace, and I saw what he had, and I wanted it. I didn’t want to die anymore. I had tried, and it didn’t work out so well.”

Recovering from more than just the dope

Tommy Vext

Courtesy of Jon Christianson

In those early days of recovery, however, Vext discovered what all recovering addicts and alcoholics come to understand: the substances are just a symptom of the problem. Vext was essentially a broken man: Despite the success of the Snot tour, he was homeless; the relationship he had just ended was mutually destructive, and the girl with whom he drank and used had lost a baby. Relationships, he adds, have been one of the toughest things to navigate, even in recovery.

“We seek what we know, and for me, that meant seeking out partners with mental health issues,” he says. “I dated my last really, mentally sick woman five or six years ago, and it was extremely traumatizing. She was someone I could not save, and I had to throw in the towel, because this person decided she was going to destroy my life.

“What I had to realize is that I am toxic, and I am emotionally sick. I did not believe I was worthy of not having to deal with this, and that only someone who needs me to function would stay with me. What I found is that only a lot of therapy and work undoes that thinking, so I spent 4 ½ years single, because I couldn’t trust myself to pick out a healthy partner. I needed a lot of work on myself.”

After getting clean in 2009, he quit music for a year, taking advantage of the nonprofit organization MusiCares to get into an addiction treatment program. A year later, he returned to New York, anxious to repair relationships with his family. He found work as a bouncer, but his brother’s mental health, he discovered, had continued to deteriorate.

“There’s a lack of education when it comes to mental health, especially when it comes to disorders that are that extreme — people who are psychopaths or sociopaths,” he says. “With him, it wasn’t just bipolar disorder, and it wasn’t just ADHD, even though those were the initial symptoms that showed up in the very beginning. But as it progressed, it was very textbook: torturing animals, lighting fires, being really fascinated with serial killers.”

Vext tried to help his brother get clean, but in so doing discovered that his brother’s problems were far beyond what traditional addiction recovery could touch: He attacked Vext with a crow bar during a robbery attempt on a family member, fracturing Vext’s skull, breaking his arm and rupturing his spleen. Although his brother was arrested, he also took out a contract on Tommy’s life, forcing Vext to seek witness protection.

The stress took its toll: Even after his brother was given a lengthy prison sentence, Vext couldn’t seem to catch a break. His girlfriend relapsed, forcing him to find another place to live; he lost his job as a bouncer, and he was torn between two extremes surrounding his brother’s sentence: Guilt for testifying against him, and feeling like he no longer had a purpose, now that this most toxic figure in his life wasn’t able to hurt the family members he loved.

And so he resolved to take his own life.

The darkness lifts

Tommy Vext

Bad Wolves is (from left) Kyle Konkiel, Chris Cain, Tommy Vext, John Boecklin and Doc Coyle (Courtesy of David Jackson)

He went so far as to lay out the suit he wanted to be buried in and pick out an above-ground train platform in Brooklyn to throw himself off of, when a phone call from another suffering addict stopped him from carrying it through. While on the phone with a younger version of himself who was struggling with heroin, Vext stepped away from the ledge, figuratively and metaphorically.

That day is one he still recalls with vivid clarity, and while he’s not exempt from self-pity, he’s done a lot of hard work to keep it from ever turning into such a miasma of existential dread that he’s again approaches a point of no return.

“I think that it’s important for people who are new in recovery to stay close and be open,” he says. “There’s no need for unnecessary suffering. If you’re beating yourself up, take a break. Take five. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and realize that recovery is one homeless guy showing another homeless guy where the bread is.”

After finding purpose as a sober companion, Vext began to explore the possibility of returning to music. In New York, he had reformed Vext, which released two EPs in 2012 and 2013, and he eventually moved back to the West Coast, where he continued to perform with Snot intermittently and began putting together a project that would become known as Bad Wolves. All of the guys were players Vext had run across during his time in various projects, but together the guys — drummer John Boecklin (formerly of DevilDriver), guitarist Doc Coyle (of God Forbid), guitarist Chris Cain (of Bury Your Dead and For the Fallen) and bassist Kyle Konkiel (of In This Moment and Scar the Martyr) — hit paydirt.

While the roots of the group’s debut, “Disobey,” were planted two years earlier, it was the band’s cover of “Zombie,” originally released by The Cranberries, that put Bad Wolves on the map. While faithful to the original, the Bad Wolves version — performed with the blessing of Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan, who died three days before its release and had planned to add guest vocals before her untimely demise — hit the top of the Billboard Mainstream Rock Charts. Bad Wolves spent much of 2018 opening for Five Finger Death Punch, Shinedown and Breaking Benjamin, among others, but work began almost immediately on the group’s most recent album, “N.A.T.I.O.N.,” released last month.

“Bad Wolves is constantly evolving,” Vext says. “I have an unsatisfied mind, and that goes for creative things, too. The band is definitely a vehicle for the message, but as far as I go, I’m never going to be satisfied with being one-dimensionally creative. This band is a collective, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.”

The work never stops

Tommy Vext

Courtesy of Josh Adams

Already, he’s two songs into the next Bad Wolves record. Down the road, there’s talk of a Bad Wolves covers album, as well as a Tommy Vext solo record. He’s also writing an autobiography and working on a new relationship. Needless to say, he’s received what he came to recovery to obtain: a new way to live, and helping others find it. (The nonprofit organization Rock to Recovery, in fact, honored him in 2018 with its Service Award for those efforts.)

“Life is a limited time offer,” he says. “When I got clean, it was time to get busy working and get busy living.”

That life isn’t without its challenges: While co-writing his biography, he’s had to dredge up a lot of pain from his past, and when it began to affect his present, he knew it was time to do more work.

“I was just, like, not myself,” he says. “It was a lot of paranoia, I was having nightmares, and I was acting very strange with my girl. She was like, ‘Yo, you’re having problems. This is bring up a lot of stuff.’ She’s a big champion of therapy and is big into physical health. She’s a personal trainer, but she’s really into the spiritual and mental health side of things. I hadn’t been to therapy in a while, but I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go.’”

This time around, Vext began working with a therapist who specializes in EMDR — Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which has shown remarkable results for patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Like he does most things in his recovery, he talked it through with his network before taking the plunge, getting the experience, strength and hope necessary to help him make the decision to go through with it, he says.

“What I’ve found is that there were certain things that were buried that, in retrospect, was a lot of gaslighting — being told and telling myself, ‘Oh, this didn’t happen; that didn’t happen,’” he says. “There was no accountability, because the shame of the mistakes are too great to be acknowledged. There wasn’t space to breathe or process the things that happened, and it confuses your reality. It plays out in your relationships, whether it’s work or whatever.

“There’s a lot of healing in that (process). It’s almost like a guided meditation, because it’s kind of using this machine that helps your brain reconnect the neurological pathways to the events, so that when you get triggered, instead of reacting, you have the ability to respond. It lessens the reaction to the triggers by reliving it, so that the information is sent to a different place in your brain, and you don’t have those fight or flight responses.”

Seeking help for outside issues beyond the rooms of recovery was a significant hurdle, given his experience with his brother’s psychiatric woes. But over time, the combination of recovery and therapy has helped him find the missing piece of the puzzle that eluded him for so long: how to love himself.

Building a 'life of sustainable hope'

Bad Wolves, courtesy of David Jackson.

“That is a lesson that came later on in my recovery,” he says. “Somebody said to me once, ‘We’re gonna love you until you love yourself. The first time I heard that, I was so mad! I thought I was so unique, so it was like, ‘How does everybody know I don’t love myself? How is it so transparent?’”

Over time, the program has taught him that self-love is about so much more than paying simple lip service to the guy he sees in the mirror. It’s easy, he’s discovered, to skip a stone across the surface of the self and never penetrate the depths of self-loathing that rarely see the light of day. For Vext, he’s got to dredge the whole thing, to get down and let that mud dry out, and the process has to be genuine.

“My girl and I, we do a gratitude list sometimes, but a gratitude list can also be bullshit, especially if all I’m doing is writing down a bunch of things I’m grateful for, and that’s it,” he says. “We have to ask ourselves, what are we worthy of? Because that’s a different level of self-love. Am I worthy of happiness? Of being in a healthy relationship? Of having a healthy family? Of letting go of the past so I can have new ideas about myself and new experiences with the way I live in the world?”

And like the literature of the program points out — it’s all a daily reprieve, based on the maintenance of his spiritual condition. It’s not easy sometimes, because a well-lived life has given him so much that he’s always hungry for more. But despite the physique he’s sculpting and the mind he’s sharpening and the spirit he’s deepening, he’s still human. And experiencing that humanity in 24-hour increments, he says, is the best he can hope for.

“The race is only a 24-hour race that we live a day at a time, and that’s with everything,” he says. ““Life isn’t always sunny, and a lot of people die of shame. I’m reading a book right now, ‘Healing the Shame That Binds You,’ and it reminds me that, hey, look, we all make mistakes.

“You might not be an alcoholic or an addict. You might have mental health issues, and sometimes waking up and getting out of bed is the best you can do. And if you do that, and you get to the end of the day, that’s OK, as long as you’re working toward getting better and a life of sustainable hope.”