Geoff Rickly's second act

Geoff Rickly's second act
The influential Thursday frontman discusses his debut novel ‘Someone Who Isn’t Me’ – a fictional fever dream based on his real-life experiences with heroin addiction.

“SWIM has always preferred going fishing when sterile equipment is readily available.” “SWIM's favourite way of administration was vaporising.” “SWIM never really liked the foil method.” “Trust SWIM.”

Scan online drug forums from the late 90s and 00s and you’ll see the acronym ‘SWIM’ a lot. Standing for Someone Who Isn't Me, it was commonly used as a way to “avoid” self-incrimination when posting about doing something illegal or generally unwise to cop to – essentially “asking for a friend” for people trading tips on freebasing. Someone Who Isn't Me also fitting serves as the title of Geoff Rickly’s debut novel; a poetic fever dream about heroin addiction and identity crisis from one of the defining voices of 21st century emo/post-hardcore.

Those familiar with Rickly’s career, and the biblically proportioned highs and tragedies contained within, will recognise elements of memoir in the book. There are bloody-nosed passages about performing with Thursday, a band Rickly fronts whose polarising sound – too clean and lyrical for hardcore fans, too abrasive for everyone else – was largely disparaged in the 00s but nevertheless helped pioneer an entire subculture. There’s a cameo appearance from Martin Shkreli, the pharma bro whose public trouncing for jacking up the price of Daraprim also revealed him as the financier of Rickly’s label Collect Records [they have since severed ties]. And most significantly there’s the “white light moment” that led Rickly to a clinic in Mexico to take ibogaine – a naturally occurring psychedelic billed as a promising new treatment for opioid addiction, with serious side effects including fatal arrhythmias.

Someone Who Isn't Me is a work of fiction. It follows a man called Geoff, who sings in a band called Thursday, whose addiction to heroin is imploding his relationship, his friendships and his sense of self – but Rickly deftly detaches his prose from reality. The narrator’s own journey to Mexico for ibogaine treatment serves as a prism for self-examination, with “the trip” knocking any kernels of truth sideways into illusion. A river of blood covers the stage at Warped Tour, a swarm of insects are shredded through a car ventilation system, a tour bus hits a horse in the middle of nowhere and paints the road with body parts. It’s part band memoir, part hallucinatory gallop in the footsteps of Dennis Johnson and Jim Carroll (who, incidentally, Rickly saw read at St Mark’s Church in New York as a teenager, seated in an audience that included Allen Ginsberg), and part retelling of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In short: a work of prose so impressive it prompted best-selling author Chelsea Hodson to set up her own publishing house just to release it, and now serves as a highly disorienting beach read.

Top to bottom: Geoff Rickly (Photo: Liza de Guia) Someone Who Isn't Me (Published by Rose Books)

But the biggest questions the book poses aren’t about drugs, or addiction, at all. As the trip unfolds and Geoff spirals deeper into himself – following the path like a needle around a record – he reaches the centre and, where you would expect the self to be, finds a hole and falls through it.

“In earlier drafts I found that I wrapped it up too neatly. I kept trying to put a bow on things. So I thought, how do I get to the end and be like: alright, he's not in hell anymore, but he's still gonna spin the record and be a crazy person,” Rickly tells me over black coffee after a reading of the book in London. “There's an idea in the book that there’s certain sensibilities that animate a person. And you can't cure those sensibilities. You can try and make their habits healthier, but they're at heart going to be who they're going to be.”

As much as Someone Who Isn't Me is a journey of recovery, it’s ultimately a philosophical exploration of what it means to be a person – of who we really are, and what it takes to survive.

So what happened in the time between travelling home from the clinic in Mexico and beginning to write the book. What was going through your head? Did it take some time or were you immediately like: I have to get this out?

Geoff Rickly: It was probably about six months before I started writing. The time between was like, I need to make sure I have a therapist, I need to make sure I go to meetings every day, I need to find a sponsor. The book paints a pretty linear picture of recovery after [the clinic], but there’d be times where I’d buy a bunch of cocaine and be like… ‘Maybe I could do cocaine?’ And then my therapist would call and be like ‘No, throw it out.’ So it wasn't like, ‘Now I'm better.’ It was more like, ‘Maybe I could get away with this? Maybe I’ll start drinking?’ It took me about six months to realise that I should probably just do it the way everybody else says you gotta do it: no more drinking, no more this, no more that. And it did work.

I was lucky to find a sponsor who's also an artist – and luckily not in music, so there wasn't too much career comparison. It was more like: ‘you're going to do better work, and you're going to do more work, you're going to get paid more, you're just gonna do better.’ He was telling me all the terrible ideas that he had in sobriety, you know, and made me realise that you’re still going to have bad ideas. You’re not going to suddenly be Mr-got-your-shit-together and not have anything to write about. You’ll have plenty to write about. You’re still you.

At the reading you said you don't think that the role of art is to be moralistic. That the point of the book isn't "heroin is bad," though I suppose that's kind of self-evident. I wanted to talk a bit more about that, because I think the book treats things quite matter of factly. Like Geoff is nodding off at his desk, he's hiding paraphernalia from his partner, he's digging a bag of heroin out of a public toilet and snorting it off the floor. And that allows his humanity and the reality to shine through equally. Was that a hard thing to do? And do you think it would have read very differently as a straight memoir?

I don't think I would have been able to do it as a memoir, because I feel like there's some part of memoir that’s reflecting and coming to a conclusion of some sort, and that’s just not the way I think. I don’t really know if I can make decisions and tell them to people. Even in my role as a sponsor in the [12-step] programme, I just carry the message that's already there. I say, ‘Well, the Big Book tells us this, and if you call five people you'll get five different answers, but this is my experience of what I’ve been through.’ I have a really hard time saying, ‘If you do this it's not cool because of X, Y and Z, you’ve got to do it this way.’ It’s not what interests me about life.

The thing that I like about a novel is you can observe somebody living as a human lives and go: okay, let’s think about that. Some of the more interesting questions of it to me weren’t questions of morality or health, they were questions of: What’s the nature of time? What’s the nature of somebody’s relationship to you? What's the nature of your relationship to yourself? Are drugs inherently bad? Because some of it I got quite good things out of, you know what I mean?

Some people are completely able to handle [drugs] and live a normal life, and I’m lying to everybody that I know and bankrupting myself. There is a difference, but I think it's very possible that all the things that I did wrong in my life, I could have done without heroin. Even in sobriety I find myself taking out unhealthy thoughts on other things. Like, am I gonna have to start working another kind of programme now? Am I gonna have to work a co-dependency programme? A food programme? There's a passage in the Big Book that says “instinct run riot” – these are all natural feelings. You want to feel good. You don't want to hurt anymore. It’s understandable. Like, who doesn't want to stop hurting?

In the flashback where Geoff first does heroin – I had this grandiose big scene where it hits, you know? Then I realised that's not really what it is. It's really just realising how much everything hurts, and then your hurt goes away. And that’s the powerful feeling. That's why you don't want to give it up.

I read Flea’s memoir recently, which is great, but it’s all about his childhood and young adult experiences and it’s filtered through his current lens of morality. Like he’ll recount a story about drugs or the way he treated someone and then clarify that he was a shithead back then or something. There was a lot of course-correction. I think it would have been very easy for a book like SWIM to read like that, and in my view it's much better that it doesn't.

I totally know what you mean. It’s scary to stand in front of a crowd of people and say ‘I don’t think that art should be moralistic,’ because it’s easy for people to interpret that as ‘he thinks being woke is bad.’ It’s not like that. I do think it’s reductive to the human experience. You can totally draw boundaries of what you don't want to do because you want to be a good person, but it's not acknowledged that it’s not always the way the world goes, and that sometimes it's not even good or bad – it just is.

Even when people try to engage with me on Martin Shkreli, I have a really hard time. If I say anything other than he’s a monster and I hate him and he was always a bad guy, they’re gonna think that I’m being political or sticking up for him. It’s just true that I did see a lot of good things before that, and when that all happened I called him up and was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he totally blew me off. I have no need to stick up for him. He’s an idiot. He couldn’t imagine the world not bending to his will. His sister was the office manager at Collect Records and she was so traditional and so quiet, and she was like, ‘Do you know what Martin’s doing? I saw him on TV and he seemed strange…’ He’s just a human being and maybe he went off the rails, but nobody’s as simple as good or bad. Good people can do very bad things, and bad people can do really good things.

"It's really just realising how much everything hurts, and then your hurt goes away. And that’s the powerful feeling. That's why you don't want to give it up."

Geoff Rickly (Photo: Liza de Guia)

Within the first few pages Geoff throws a copy of Howl out the window of City Lights. Shortly after, a copy of Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems falls out of his bag into some snow slush, and he yells "fuck you" at it. There's loads of pop cultural references in the book, but it felt symbolic that these two titanic authors who are emblematic of the Beat Generation and its drug culture are name-checked so early on in a way that's like… the protagonist feels very strongly drawn to and repelled by them. Was there a particular intent behind these two references

The Beats formed a strong piece of who I am. I don’t think I mention him in the book, but William S. Burroughs was the first love that I ever had. What really hit me about the Beats was that ambivalence; that sense of attraction and repulsion at the same time, and so much of the book is that same feeling. Attraction and repulsion. Everything that [Geoff] loves, he feels both of those things about, and I wanted to show that right away with both of those writers

Heroin can be a hard drug to talk about. It's socially stigmatised to a degree that makes harm reduction really difficult, but culturally it's kind of romanticised – the Beats, 90s cinema, heroin chic etc. I went to see Nick Cave talk recently, and he was using for 20 years, and he said he started because he had a contrarian streak and it seemed like the most antisocial thing he could possibly do. But this book feels like a totally different story. It has a "positive" ending, for starters, but there's also a yearning for goodness and love that feels very different to the nihilistic tone typically associated with a lot of art tied to heroin. Is that fair to say?

There are times when I read the book through a lens that I think is quite nihilistic, but also I saw this meme the other day that was a rabbit with a backpack on eating a strawberry, and it said ‘I wanted to be cool, but I accidentally loved and now I have to be a lover.’ And that’s me. So it being a nihilistic book through my eyes doesn’t mean that it is. If anything it’s more a reflection of who I am that maybe I couldn’t avoid if I tried.

I did want to write a different kind of book about heroin. I didn’t want to make it seem cool or hip. I wanted to show that you can have this attraction to things and get lost inside them and that’s it. There was another version of the book where Geoff asks to see the real him, and he sees Lucifer. That is more true to my actual experience, but then it really started to feel like a morality play... And I was like, I can’t do it, I need a bit of comic relief. Sheila Heti says, “If you know where the funny is, you know everything.” So I kept the jokes in and tried to lean into them more, and tried to find what’s funny about life.

Stepping outside the book and into reality for a moment – did the experience at the ibogaine clinic change your perspective on things, or is it more like you feel basically the same but without the dependency?

I don't know if it's getting off heroin, I don’t know if it's the DMT experience that I had, I don’t know if it’s the 12-step programme – but I went from being an atheist to not being an atheist, and that’s quite a big change. I wouldn't be able to say what it is that I believe in, or name it in any way, but I’m like oh, there’s something there, we’re all connected. I heard Alan Watts say once that we all imagine ourselves arriving on earth the way that pigeons land on a telephone wire together, you know, we’re all here together but who knows how we got here! But the truth is probably closer to the idea that we're all whiskers on the same cat’s face. We see ourselves as separate, but we’re not. We’re all one thing growing out of the earth or whatever, and I can see that.

Creatively, would you say it's given you a kick up the arse?

I think two of the best pieces of art that I've ever made have come since I've been sober. That's not to discount Thursday or anything, but those [songs] I don't feel nearly as responsible for. I was one little piece of a vessel, and a lot of them worked in spite of my limitations and my crazy ideas. Whereas I think SWIM is very much a culmination of the way that I think about the world. I think it's quite a bit more sophisticated than a lot of the things that I've worked on, and I had the concentration to finish it. Five years! Before I was sober, I never would have given anything five years of discipline.

That doesn’t mean everything I do from now on will be good, it just means I have the capacity to do things that I love and that I’m proud of. And that's all you really need: the belief in your ability to do it. The thought that without drinking and drugs you have nothing left to offer anyone is so crippling, you know? And you don't have to do good things. You just have to believe that it’s possible, and suddenly you're free again.

"I did want to write a different kind of book about heroin. I didn’t want to make it seem cool or hip. I wanted to show that you can have this attraction to things and get lost inside them and that’s it."

Geoff Rickly (Photo: Liza de Guia)

Thursday started playing together again around the time you started the book, and have continued to do so. The sentiment towards the band has definitely changed over the last 20 years as the animosity towards emo in the mainstream has morphed into a kind of reverence, but have your own feelings about the band changed?

I had this funny conversation with a young director in New York who does stuff for A24, and he was talking to me about possibly making a movie out of the book, and he goes, ‘One of the only things that I'm worried about is the emo thing is so uncool.’ He’s my age, and I was like, ‘Dude, you're thinking like an old person. This shit is cool now. The pop stars and the rappers, they think this shit rules. Whatever you’re worried about: all gone!’ And I get it, because I still think, ‘Ugh, what’s NME gonna say…’ And now NME’s gonna say ‘The classic band Thursday!’ But I remember when a writer reviewed our show at The Garage and said I literally sounded like deaf kids playing hopscotch or something problematic. It’s funny to think that now Thursday would be the cool thing, and the slur would be the unacceptable thing.

To see the attitude change about emo, I mean, I feel very glad that it's happened for my own art’s sake. I feel like people see it more clearly. Now the way people see it is like this is really cool, important stuff. If you’re looking for Machine Gun Kelly, Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, this ain’t it. It has no pop sensibility, there's no hits – but it’s still interesting, smart stuff. I feel like it’s a clearer appraisal for it. But I do sometimes think shit’s gone too far. Since when did we start liking Third Eye Blind?

I love Third Eye Blind.

I know, see! It’s like a dagger through your heart for me to say that. But I’m just as guilty as anybody else of maligning this stuff, because I’ll hear a Blink-182 song on the radio and, sure, it’s not my kind of thing, but it’s the catchiest song I’ve heard in forever. They have cool, weird voices. What is there to hate? They have fart jokes in there, it’s fun! So doesThe Lighthouse by Robert Eggers.

I am certain that’s the first time in history anyone has compared those two things.

The Venn diagram of fart jokes! It’s the same with Third Eye Blind. Back then we all thought The Smashing Pumpkins: cool, Third Eye Blind: uncool. Why? I can see my own time biases more clearly now because everybody else is changing. I really enjoy it, and it’s nice to outlast the people who looked down on us.

I've been watching the new series of The Bear and there's a lot in there about addiction, with various characters finding a new lease of life through acts of service in their own ways. As a mentor in a lot of ways, is that something that resonates?

It’s huge. I had mentored people for quite a long time before recovery, and it's a strange thing. I did that with my My Chemical Romance, and the very next band that I produced, Mikey, the singer, was a huge alcoholic. He drank so much the whole time we were recording. And I told him, ‘You can’t come in drunk all the time,’ because after 45 minutes it’s a waste. You’re slurring, you can’t perform.’ I loved those kids and they were such hard work. Then Mikey died and I stopped producing. I felt that I probably should have done something else, I should have figured out some way to help him. It was really hard, and it made me not want to mentor the same way. Then my very first sponsee in the programme went back out, overdosed and died. It was a huge lesson for me to learn that when you help people, you're not a god. You can't control them. They live their lives and you offer the best that you can offer. They can take it or they can leave it, but your hand is there if they want it. That really reframed the way I think about acts of service. I’ll keep doing my own projects that are in some ways selfish because they're from me, but the focus from now on is how I can contribute to other people getting their art out into the world or getting sober. That's the stage in my life that I'm in now, and it’s exciting.

There's this saying in the programme: ‘You get it you get it so you can give it away.’ And I once heard somebody say in a meeting, ‘No, that’s not it. You give it away so you can get it. You’re not actually sober until you can give it away.’ I think there’s some truth in that in the arts too. You're not really an artist until you've helped somebody else follow their dreams.

I've always thought of music and any kind of art as this great big underground river that’s just flowing all the time. It flows before you're around, and when you're young you're allowed to drink out of it and find this life of art and music and it's amazing. And if there's a point at which you're allowed to jump in and give back to that river, you're only giving a couple of drops or forming a few waves. But those waves keep the river going, and then somebody after you will be able to drink from it, and people keep drinking from it, and other people are in the river... It's not about you at all. It's about this river still going, and I love that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

Someone Who Isn’t Me is out now via Rose Books in the US and available to order through Curious Storehouse in the UK.

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