Geoff Rickly of Thursday and No Devotion on ‘Dark Blue’, his new podcast exploring mental health in the arts

"I really want to cover some different perspectives"

The issue of mental illness in the arts is at pressure point. Increasingly, we’re seeing musicians, actors, artists and other creatives opening up about their mental health struggles, and widening the conversation surrounding how the creative industries can better deal with their confidants’ emotional wellbeing. But the thing with mental illness is there’s no ‘one size fits all’ response. Illness, like art itself, is complex and multi-faceted, and presents itself differently to every sufferer. That’s something Geoff Rickly knows all too well.

The alternative icon, best known for fronting post-hardcore titans Thursday and No Devotion, has long been disarmingly frank about his troubles with addiction, and how they’ve impacted his life. With his new podcast series ‘Dark Blue’, Rickly is looking to open up the conversation even more. Enlisting a number of fellow creatives, from musicians to novelists and beyond, the show finds Rickly in conversation with his guests, discussing and dissecting how art and illness intersect.

More than just straightforward discussion about anxiety and depression, or platitudinous self-care tips, ‘Dark Blue’ unpacks everything from dealing with your sense of self in an increasingly online world, to how artists are often blamed for drug epidemics, to the impact being ‘closeted’ to their own bandmates can have on gay musicians. It’s a holistic view of mental illness – one that accepts and addresses the wider contexts and personal or situational changes that can impact every one of us.

Refreshingly, Rickly doesn’t proclaim to have the answers – instead, he says, he’s simply seeking a more rounded view of mental health in the arts, and how it impacts and affects the artists behind our favourite creative works. “I decided to start this show to document my own recovery and to explore the challenges that artists face and the solutions that have worked for them,” he says. “This series is meant as a form of searching, seeking out help. I’m not a professional and I don’t claim to be an authority — just another person looking for answers.”

Below, we speak with Geoff Rickly about ‘Dark Blue’, his own mental health issues, and how we need to move past discussion and into tangible development of mental health resources, both for artists and others.

When did the idea for this podcast come about?

Geoff Rickly: “It first came about when I was getting sober. I just started looking for stuff, to listen to, and people kept steering me away from the arts in general. They were like, ‘You probably won’t make it, if you keep making music.’ I was like, ‘If I have to choose between music and drugs on one side, and sobriety and no music on the other, I’m just gonna go back to doing drugs!’ You can’t take music away from me, at this point. If I’m gonna have 30 years miserable, or another five doing what I love, I think I’d rather take my chances with the five… but I don’t know if that’s healthy either, so it’s something that I’m looking at right now!

“But I started looking into how I could be a healthier version of the me that I wanted to be. There’s this great book, The Artist’s Way [by Julia Cameron], which is like a twelve step programme for creative types – not for getting off drugs, but it’s about rediscovering why you wanted to make art in the first place. I just started looking at all these different things, and I wanted to put it together in a way that people could consume easily.”

How did you develop the concept from there?

“Over time, I realised I wanted to talk to artists not based on liking their art, but based on the kinds of tools that they’d used in the past. It’s like, ‘Well, I’ve gotta talk to David Lynch about transcendental meditation, because that’s his thing!’ People would say like, ‘Oh, this guy’s done this crazy thing with electroshock therapy’, so I’d go talk to him, too. So that’s where the idea started to take shape more – it’s like a survey, going across the spectrum.”

It seems like you’re trying to spread the net quite wide in terms of people’s mental ailments and how they deal with them.

“I’m trying to, yeah. There’s a couple of them [still to be released] that I might re-do, because I’m not sure if we got to a place where we’re talking about something new. That’s something I really want to do – I really want to cover some different perspectives.

“My favourite one, coming later this month, is one that I did with Steve [Pedulla] and Norman [Brannon] – Steve is from Thursday, my band, and Norman’s from Texas Is The Reason – talking about what it was like to tour while they were still in the closet, even from their band members. They both said that they didn’t think that band therapy could work, so because they said that, I found a therapist who goes on tour with bands, doing therapy on the road to keep them sober, so you could get his perspective. I lined them up as the two episodes that go week-to-week.

“I want people to not think dogmatically, ‘Oh, it doesn’t work’. I want people to think that it can, and here’s why. But I also think it’s important when someone says, ‘I don’t think it can work for me, and what do I do instead?’ I know a bunch of people who’ve tried therapy and said, ‘It doesn’t work for me’. I want them to have a perspective on what else you can do, if that doesn’t work for you.

“It’s about getting people to present the issues from different sides – I’m not trying to endorse one, or say one is the answer. I can say that for me, twelve steps helped, and this psychedelic therapy in Mexico helped, but that’s not the answer I’m presenting. That’s just what helped me.”

Geoff Rickly performing with No Devotion (Photo: Rex Features)

How did your own experiences with mental illness present themselves through Thursday and No Devotion?

“That’s a good question, and it’s something I’m trying to figure out, because it didn’t come out of nowhere. But it did kinda come from… we were on tour all the time. It started pretty innocuously, where I’d pull my back and the doctor would prescribe me some Valium, and then I’d break a to or something and the doctor would give me a bottle of Percosets or Vicadin. Then I realised like, ‘Oh, I like these – when I’m on tour and somebody has them, I’m gonna bum a couple from them. Then it became, ‘No, I’m gonna go buy Oxycontin on the street’. Then, eventually, that was too expensive – I’m either gonna quit or I’m gonna start doing heroin. A few traumatic bumps along the way – a divorce, and the band breaking up, and then I got mugged one night at gunpoint – I just hit a pressure point.

“A lot of people might be into casual drinking, or casual drug use, or depressed, and you’re very close to the edge. Only one bad day can really push you past the edge – especially if you’re not taking care of yourself. One thing that I’m finding is that artists have very little access to resources with mental illness. Like, ‘Holy shit, we’re really all looking for some help here.”

Is that a conversation that you’d like to open up – the need for resources available to artists?

“I think generally, in this country, I’d like to see art valued a little more than just for what it can do on a commerce level. Especially in America, it’s like, ’If it’s consumable, and it’s consumed a lot, then it’s good.’ Whereas other countries seem to have figured out that art is inherently good, and we should fund it as a public good, because it’s good for all of us. We should fund art in schools, because we’ve started cutting that again – it’s like we’re back in the Reagan/Thatcher ‘80s.

“I think it’s a bunch of things – I think we all need to take mental health more seriously, and open it up. But we also need to give better resources to the arts, I think. I’m not sure if there’s a particular thing that can be ‘accomplished’, quote-unquote, but I think the conversation of what’s going on and what we need is something that should be going on. I feel like that’s part of the tone right now – starting to open up that discussion more.”

Were there any big surprises for you, recording the podcast? Chris Conley from Saves The Day saying ‘I wouldn’t recommend anyone does what I did’ was a bit of a shock.

“[laughs] Yeah man – I hear that more than anything. Almost everyone on this podcast says, ‘Don’t do it like I did it; don’t do it like this.’ This is something I talk about with Chris a bit, but it’s like – maybe pain is necessary? I don’t believe in bloodletting art – I’ve done that, and it brings out some of the poor, ‘woe is me’ type things – but I don’t think you can get to a place artistically without sacrifice and pain. That might not present it to you as, ‘Oh my god, I’m so tortured’, but it might just be like, ‘I can’t believe how hard this is right now, maybe I should quit?’ That’s something we all think about all the time – that maybe we should quit.

“I’m also really interested in talking to some older artists in the next year, because anyone who’s made it to the other side of forty or fifty years of art, it’s like: ‘How do you get there?!’”

Are there any episodes you’re particularly excited to get out?

“I have an episode this season that’s about the line between autobiography and real life. Anyone who has a profession in art – whether it’s a writer, musician, whatever – people think they know you. It’s about how you blur that line between who you think you’re supposed to be – the branding of a person – and the actuality of who you are. I spoke to the novelist Darcie Wilder, and she said this amazing thing which was: ‘But isn’t everybody having that same existential crisis right now?’ Because that’s what being online is – it’s like being your own avatar of your own brand, and not knowing who that is versus who you really are. You think they’re the same person, but they’re not.”

Geoff Rickly’s ‘Dark Blue’ podcast is out now – download it on iTunes and Osiris.