It came down to a simple choice: Did he want to get clean for himself and the love of his life, or was he ready to give up and surrender to the cold siren song of abyss?
Fortunately, he chose the former, he told The Ties That Bind Us this week, and every day since has been a blessing. The former vocalist for the metal band Mushroomhead, and now frontman for the band A Killer’s Confession, has been delivered. Life still shows up — it always does, but then again, it kept showing up even while he was addicted to drugs, he added.
Being clean and sober, however, means that he’s able to accept the bad, celebrate the good and build a career for himself that’s the most rewarding thing he’s ever done.
“When I told her I was done that last time, I meant it,” Reavis said. “I wanted change, and she knew I wanted change. I wanted to be happy. I didn’t care about being rich or being famous or other people’s love. I wanted her love, and I knew that what I was feeling for her would be gone if I didn’t get clean. Something told me, ‘This is your door. She’s going to stay with you if you walk through this door, but you’ve got to walk through it, you’ve got to walk the line, and you’ve got to be accountable.’
“And I was relieved. I don’t have cravings. I never think about it. This is the most I’ve talked about it in a long time, even though I’m very open about my sobriety. Just the idea of getting high now, it’s like a sickness, like I’m going to be violently ill. I physically hurt with the thought, and I know that’s my body telling me, ‘You don’t want that stuff.’ Sickness, anxiety and pain is what I feel when I even see somebody getting high in the movies, and I’ll keep that. That’s my badge of honor.”
Waylon Reavis: A rock 'n' roll baptism
Growing up in the South, Reavis — who hails from North Carolina — started out on the straight and narrow. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, and his father was Southern Baptist — “I had to go to two churches a week!” he said — and the metal he discovered via friends was definitely frowned upon in the Reavis household. On May 5, 1995, however, it ceased to become a genre he listened to and became a calling, he added.
“I snuck out of my house and went to my first concert — Marilyn Manson, Danzig and Korn, and Korn opened,” he said. “When Jonathan Davis (Korn’s singer) and the rest of the band got off stage, I knew at that moment, ‘This is what I have to do.’ I’ve never been moved so hard in my life, and I was determined to follow that dream. I still follow that dream, but now I have some added baggage with it.”
He was 16 years old, and less than a decade later, he joined the nu-metal band Mushroomhead as vocalist after original singer Jason “J Mann” Popson stepped away. The Cleveland-based outfit, established by drummer Steve “Skinny” Felton in 1993, made its bones by wearing masks and makeup in a similar vein as GWAR and Slipknot. Over the course of Reavis’ tenure, from 2004 to 2015, the band’s three records featuring his vocal work climbed successively higher on the Billboard 200 albums chart. “The Righteous and the Butterfly,” released in 2014, landed at No. 20, and No. 1 on the Billboard Indie Albums chart, the most successful Mushroomhead release to date.
Serendipitously, Reavis added, the level of fame achieved with that band helped him establish relationships with other musicians who offered righteous guidance after he got clean and sober.
“Brian Welch (Korn’s guitarist), Fieldy (bassist Reginald Arvizu), those are the guys that warned me: ‘There’s nothing good after dark. Get out of there,’” he said. “Them boys know what’s up, and I owe a lot of credit to them, because they laid the foundation of the way I am now.”
It would take until 2017, however, before those lessons took. If anything, he added, joining Mushroomhead opened further doors of destruction that he was more than willing to step through.
“From 2004 to 2017, it was party, party, party,” he said. “There are years I don’t remember, and I’m ashamed of it, and it’s hard for me to look through old pictures, because I don’t see me: I see the drugs. Being artistic and being a musician, a lot of us do drugs. It’s a part of it, unless you’re straightedge and don’t, but we were our No. 1 enemies.
“I tampered with everything but heroin, mostly because I was allergic to opiates. They always made me violently sick, and now I’m thankful for that allergy. I always liked to be up, anyway. I never liked to fall asleep, so I would do a bag of cocaine, crawl in my bunk on the tour bus and just tweak.”
The end of the road
By October 2015, Reavis’ run with Mushroomhead had come to an end. Popson had returned to the fold two years earlier, and while Reavis stayed in the fold for two more years, his departure wasn’t pretty. Harsh words were exchanged in the media, and now, six years later, he owns his part.
“I regret how I left, and I regret what was said and how it went down,” he said. “Do I wish I could do it differently? Yes, I do. At the same time, I wouldn’t be there still. I feel like my time was done. The drugs definitely played into me leaving, and our attitude toward each other, but we all had our vices. We did what we wanted, how we wanted, and we didn’t give a shit.”
A year later, Reavis announced the formation of A Killer’s Confession, which signed to EMP Label Group, established by Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson. The band’s debut, “Unbroken,” came out in the spring of 2017, and by that point, he had started a new relationship with the woman who would become his wife, Julie Reavis. The mistress that was his addiction, however, demanded his soul, and by the time he faced the choice of getting clean or losing Julie, his world was on fire.
“It was every day, and I would just lay there and listen for footsteps and do it by myself, and physically hurt while I was doing it,” he said. “It wasn’t a high anymore. I would do it and get tweaked out and be paranoid and violent and angry. If I didn’t have it in my system, I wasn’t happy. If I had it in my system, I wasn’t happy. It didn’t matter. I would just lay there listening for footsteps, thinking someone was going to break into my house, just delusional and paranoid.”
The last straw occurred on stage in Wichita, Kansas, when he nearly stroked out from the amount of cocaine coursing through his system, he said.
“I dropped on stage. I was drooling on myself, my lip was dragging, my eye was dragging, and I couldn’t get up,” he said. “I remember sitting down the rest of the show and not moving and singing, but I finished the show, and then I called Julie. She said, ‘Get your ass to the doctor,’ and I refused, because I thought ignorance was bliss.’”
Back home, she nursed him back to health, and when he was coherent enough to think straight, gave him an ultimatum: Give it up or get the hell out. He chose the former.
“I looked at her and said, ‘I’m putting it down forever,’” he said. “And I did. And she stuck by my side the whole way. I tell people, we are business partners, we are lovers, she is my soulmate. I don’t do anything that my wife doesn’t know about, because she’s my wife, but also because I’m a recovering addict, and I need to be held accountable.”
Waylon Reavis and the man in the mirror
Julie may have been the catalyst, but first Reavis had to make peace with the man in the mirror. Prior to getting clean, he couldn’t meet the gaze of his own reflection without wondering why he continued to destroy himself. Today, he said, he can not only look himself in the eye, he can hold his head high and look others in theirs.
“I can look everybody dead in the eye and rightfully say, ‘You’ve got nothing on me. I’ve done nothing, I’ve not done you wrong, I’ve not conned you, I’ve not done myself wrong,’” he said. “I live my life every day proud, because I was sober yesterday, and I’m going to be sober today. And the key to my recovery was my stage show — learning how to put videos on screen that were synced to my music. I spent six months figuring it out and turning my addiction into a work ethic, and now that work ethic is paying off.”
The first A Killer’s Confession full-length, “Unbroken,” came out the year he got sober, but sequestering himself in his home studio, he began to envision a new direction for the band. He had an outlet, he realized, to face down the demons that had long plagued him, and in so doing use the band’s music as a catalyst for helping others face down their own.
“I don’t want to just write about BS; I don’t want to just write crap that doesn’t have a deeper meaning,” he said. “I decided, ‘Let’s make stories. Let’s make these musical stories of this guy drowning in his own demise and what he’s done to himself. The people around him are watching him do it, but he’s not stopping, because nobody else did this. He put himself there.’”
Taking responsibility for his addiction, he said, was the key to getting better. Looking back at his life and career, it became easy to see that the decisions he made led to the things that had happened to him, and at the end of the day, the blame laid entirely at his own feet. By sifting through that wreckage, he found the tales that make A Killer’s Confession 2019 record, “The Indifference of Good Men,” a visceral and primal listening experience.
And in crafting those songs around that narrative, he added, he found a measure of peace that had long eluded him.
“If A Killer’s Confession doesn’t break big, I don’t care, because it’s not about fame,” he said. “My music and my words are there to share my story, and if I can stop just one person from making the mistakes I’ve made in my life and having the heartache I’ve had to live with and the shame and regret, then I’ve succeeded. My life goal is to let people know — ‘I’m glad you love my music, and I’m glad you think I’m a great person, but I wasn’t always a great person. You may like me now, but you wouldn’t have liked what was behind the curtain years ago.’”
By pulling the curtain back, he’s exposing a part of himself that he’s not proud of. His stories, the ones he tells in person and in song, aren’t meant to glorify the excess that was once a hallmark of his life, but to serve as a cautionary tale — and to remind those who walk a similar path that finding redemption can be a badge of honor.
“You walked it, you walked that path, but you’ve got to make it right,” he said. “You’ve got to scream at the top of your lungs that you were wrong. The way I see it, I don’t need forgiveness from you, but I need to ask for it, and more than anything else, I need to forgive myself, because I’m the one who did this to me.”
Finding gratitude even in bad times
Life, however, continues to show up: In December, Reavis revealed to the audience of a Headbangers Con livestream that he’s been diagnosed with colon cancer. It’s not something he wants to talk about at length — “I’m very private about it, and I don’t want to be known by that” — but it’s also a disease that killed his father, so it’s one he takes seriously. Surgery removed the cancer, and he’s radically altered his diet, and so far, he feels good and is being tested to see if it’s spread.
And, in a way, he’s not entirely surprised by the diagnosis. It goes back to accepting that the damage done by his own hand, during the darkest days of his addiction, have ramifications that reverberate long after he used for the last time.
“I’m a firm believer that I probably did this to myself,” he said. “Granted, I want to get better and get my treatments, but I have to look at myself in the mirror and take responsibility. My drugs and my addiction and my attitude cost me my world, and now I’m on a path of penance.”
On that path, however, is a profound reservoir of quiet strength. It’s made him a better husband and a better musician: A Killer’s Confession is releasing a new song every 28 days in 2021, starting with the down-and-dirty grind of “Remember,” a supercharged slab of rock ‘n’ roll that showcases what Reavis does best: clean singing and bestial howls overlaid with scattergun drumming and a bombing run of guitar work.
It's a stark reminder that while visceral pain might eventually fade, forgetting it can lead to a full circle trip back into the darkness. For Reavis, he’s worked too hard to ever go back, and he’s got too much to lose to even contemplate doing so. He loves his life today, and finding that love — for his wife, for his music and for himself — changed everything.
And, he added, it can change everything for those who similarly struggle as well.
“First things first: You’ve got to start loving yourself,” he said. “You’re not going to love anybody or succeed anywhere until you look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you and I’m not going to do this to you anymore,’ because you’re in the most abusive relationship of your life with yourself. And when you start truly loving yourself and walking the walk and getting that clarity and that true ability to know what’s right and what’s wrong, that’s when real sobriety will come in.”