Written by Martha Lockie
I sat down for an interview with Rock to Recovery group administrator Sonny Mayo who, together with friend and Rock to Recovery founder, Wes Geer, brings music and the creative process into addiction treatment centers and sober living facilities in Los Angeles and Orange County. Both Sonny and Wes are working musicians in recovery and convey their passion for sobriety and music in order to heal addiction through song.
Tell me about your relationship with music before you got sober and in recovery…
I’ve been a professional musician since 1995. I moved to California from Virginia and joined a band in Santa Barbara called Snot. We had a major label record deal on Geffen Records. I was then in another band called Amen on Virgin Records. My alcoholism/addiction invariably brought me to the point where none of that mattered and I only sought ways of getting and using whatever substances I could get to feed the disease.
When I hit bottom and got sober my relationship with music became almost non-existent.
There were certain behaviors that were related to the lifestyle of playing in a band and touring that were contrary to my new goal of maintaining sobriety. But what I found out after taking the steps and staying sober, was that I can go anywhere free men go, and as a result I’ve had way more success in sobriety than I ever did using. I’ve written more music, written better music, toured the world several times over, and been able to truly enjoy this life- sober.
Some people say that they were so much more creative before…
Totally. I really believed the lie that so many of us believe – that I needed the drugs and alcohol for my creativity…for my sense of passion… So, I literally had to recover and become a new man. First, I needed to get back to everyday life, to try and re-create myself, work the program and take care of me. It takes time. I got to filter out all that warped thinking. I became unafraid to tap into something without influence… Something within. Call it the true voice of creativity and expression. That was the time when I was meant to be a musician again.
I make this joke that my relationship with music is like Godfather III – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
The founder of Rock to Recovery, my friend, Wes Geer played in a band called (hed)P.E. and they asked me to join them when I had 10 months sober. They were the first band I joined in sobriety. It was a wonderful experience to witness myself on tour, staying sober in the midst of that party environment. I was sober and Wes was not yet. But drunk or high that guy’s my friend; he’s a lovely man. Wes left the band and I ended up playing with them further as the only guitar player. Wes went on and had his experience. Beautifully enough… Sobriety, recovery, love and music brought us back together. Literally, it brought us back together.
What instruments do you play?
Guitar is my main instrument. I can get around on a keyboard, and a piano fairly well. I play drums, I play percussion really well, and in factI’ve even recorded on several albums as a percussionist. Funny, I don’t know how I got away with that at first. Two producers that I worked with in the past asked, “Who can play shaker?” I was down to try anything, so I started shaking a shaker and tambourine. Soon enough, I started getting hired for gigs for that, too.
How did the idea to form this business come about?
In 2011, Wes Geer, our founder, was on the “Music as a Weapon,” tour, playing guitar with Korn, which he did for a few years. A couple of other sober musicians and friends were on the tour too and they would have meetings backstage. They would always read the St. Francis Prayer so they called themselves “The St. Francis Group,” or the “SFG.”
One of the members told Wes about a charity event in which he’d played with veterans and children and written a song with them. Something sparked in Wes and he got the idea to create an organization that would bring music to people in treatment centers. To “form a band” with people in early recovery, as a means of sparking creativity, bringing people together as a team… And having a great time! Thus, Rock to Recovery was born.
When Wes told me about this last year, I immediately wanted in! It felt like a calling, it was a purpose and I felt it in my heart. Wes launched groups in Orange County, CA less than a year later. Then, less than a year from his start, we kicked off my Rock to Recovery sessions in Los Angeles. Wes Geer and Nate Lawler are the two administrators in Orange County where we have about eight or nine treatment centers. We’re in five treatment facilities in LA so far.
How does it work?
We go into a treatment center with two guitars, two small amps, a keyboard (that has amazing sounds), a drum machine, a small PA, with a microphone and some percussion instruments. We literally sit down with them and form a band. We share our experience with them – our relationship with music before and after recovering. We describe how we believed it was “over” when we got sober. That we believed there was no more fun or creativity to be had… And that we were wrong! It had only begun. We then commence to write a song with them, as a band.
It’s incredible, the experiences that we get to have. I’m a guy who has played hundreds of shows. Last year, I played Polish Woodstock in front of 500,000 people. This was an incredibly moving experience. But I am more than moved by the experiences that I get to have watching someone open up creatively and become vulnerable. To hear lyrics pour out that are full of sadness and hope at the same time. Wow. We get to watch people, who have never played an instrument, come alive after playing a piano part that we helped them write. To witness others pick up a guitar again after not having played for years due to active alcoholism/addiction.
After writing, we record the song with them and post it on our Rock to Recovery Soundcloud page.
How has your own recovery influenced your passion for what you do?
On my own recovery level, I’ve been a guy who’s always worked with a lot of new men, taken a lot of them through the steps. So innately within me, I am called to do this work, because I connect with people.
You have the je ne sais quoi!
The “thing that cannot be described”, yeah! I can transmit what I have inside. I can actually use music and recovery to transmit love! I have 12 years sober and now, more than ever, I want to give Love.
I’ve gone through this really difficult time recently. Back in 2013, my favorite doG, Buckley (named after Jeff Buckley), died in February. My dad passed in June from multiple myeloma bone cancer, and my marriage ended in December. Then, this year, I was in a nasty car crash and my grandfather passed. The most difficult period of my life and I didn’t drink or use. I stayed the course. I said, “Okay, goD, I’m just going to keep walking forward.” Thankfully my home group, my sponsor, and the guys I sponsor sustained me. They would not let me isolate! All things pass, wonderful and tragic.
I was able to go play shows Down Under in April and May. I went to meetings in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand. And they sustained me. So, through this trying time that I was able to go through (not “get over” but “go through”) I have been changed…again!
How do you deal with the young person who is stuck in fear, coming from a place of lack and limitation?
Sometimes we get through it, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes they shut down, and that’s okay. Last week in particular, a girl who had 2 days sober was inspired enough to want to write lyrics. But she didn’t think she had a melody, and she kept on shutting down. I just kept telling her that I believed in her, but she was so worried about what everyone thought. I said, “Let’s look around the room… he’s playing the guitar … she’s playing the keyboard… he’s banging on the percussion… no one is looking at either of us. They’re only concerned with their parts… they’re having their own experience. You and I can do whatever we want… No one cares. We’re free”. Then, together we wrote this beautiful melody that she sang with the utmost courage. Just beautiful.
I ask for radical acceptance of that moment and I flow with it. Somehow, it works out.
What tools do you give them so they can realize and tap into their creativity?
I lay out all the instruments before they get there. Percussion instruments are scattered everywhere when people come in and it’s freestyle. In this process one of the main tools is that we create a safe space for them to exist. I don’t come in with a shield and a sword, I come in with open arms and I say, “Guys, I’m with you, I’m one of you.” I was in rehab when I was 16. I was not even allowed to touch a guitar; it was considered drug related and drug triggering behavior. My girlfriend would bring me mix-tapes every week and I would sit, playing air guitar to my favorite songs! Thank goD for progressive treatment nowadays. Sometimes, halfway through the process, someone will change their mind and say, “I don’t want to play the guitar, I want to play percussion instead,” and we roll with it. We can always change… it’s a safe place.
What does the creative process have in common with a spiritual process or awakening?
Ah, it’s the same thing… The surrender, the open-mindedness to try something, to destroy something, to create without fear… Jumping in headfirst. In life, courage is moving forward despite fear. It’s not fearlessness, but courage. When we say, “I’m afraid, and I’m going to do this anyway!” We literally break through walls of self-doubt and have spiritual experiences together.
How do you treat the young person who just can’t get it? Can’t sing on key, doesn’t have a musical ear, can’t groove with the group?
I just let them do what they’re going to do. I still come from a place of being a recovered alcoholic and a band member. The beauty is in the perfection of imperfection.
What bands/musicians have influenced you – musically – sober or not.
I love Jeff Buckley as a singer and songwriter and musician. He died in 1997, not from a drug overdose, nothing to do with any of that although people wanted to tie it to that because he is a musician. But, I have a really diverse taste. I grew on Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, but then I love artists like Me’shell N’degeocello, Dax Riggs, Refused, Curtis Mayfield, Clutch, Blue Sky Black, Beastie Boys, Al Green. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are my favorite composers currently. It just goes on and on!!! I’m a metal head at heart, yes. But I find that the softest, quietest music can be the heaviest. Thank goD for music!
And we ended on that note. I felt as if I didn’t want to stop talking to Sonny. He has an electric energy about him and his passion for life, music and sobriety are ever present. To find out more about Rock to Recovery, and Wes Geer and Nate Lawler, visit their website.