It’s hard to imagine a more modern or classic version of the all-American, boy-makes-good, rock-god story in which a talented guitarist falls from grace, then rises from the ashes of drug-and-alcohol addiction, than the saga of former Korn touring guitarist, Wesley Geer.
Korn, the penultimate definer of the nu-metal genre that first carved out a vast, global and still-thriving fanbase in the early 1990s, hired Geer as its on-tour string plucker in 2009. He left the band in 2013 when founding guitarist, Brian “Head” Welch returned to Korn’s lineup—a decision the latter rocker had to consider in light of his “conversion to Christianity” in recent years.
Geer (AKA, “Westyle”), whose songwriting, producing and powers of guitar mastery have also sounded out rap-rock act, Hed PE, of which he was a founding member, overcame a rabid case of addiction disease through a 12-step recovery program and through other means, not least among them returning to his first love, music.
Certain that the therapeutic value of one formerly addicted, but now recovering addict helping another, still-suffering addict or alcoholic could be augmented by the therapy he found in music, even if the newcomer addict or alcoholic were not a musician, Geer established a method and a program for bringing music therapy into rehabs and recovery homes.
He calls his program Rock to Recovery, and it’s making waves in the nation’s swelling recovery community at the very moment America is seeing a new crisis of addiction like never before courtesy of the opioids epidemic.
I reached out to Wesley Geer to learn more about his journey to rock-god status, his descent into addiction, then his ride back from the depths of despair to learn how Rock to Recovery works—as well as a little about the program’s most inspiring success stories. I also asked if there have been any tragedies since Rock to Recovery’s inception five years ago.
Thom Senzee: If you’ll forgive me, with a name like Wesley Geer, it would seem you were destined to be a NASCAR driver, a porn star or a rock guitarist. Is that your given name; and what were some of your other jobs before you were able to support yourself solely as a musician?
Wesley Geer: Well funny enough, the name Wesley came into my family from John Wesley, a prominent Methodist theologian in England. My father was Wesley Sr. There is a lineage of Methodist evangelicals on that side of the family, and Episcopalian on Mom’s side. But the church didn’t seduce me much, though I have fond memories of the traditions as a child. I started out as a Domino’s delivery guy, and finally got into corporate world as a customer service manager for an insurance company, where I worked with my Mom. It broke her heart when I quit after eight years to sign my first record deal.
Traversing your personal timeline a little further back, do you mind sharing some of your family background—you know, where’d you grow up, sibling, etc…?
My childhood started in California until five when my parents split. I went with Mom back to her roots in Massachusetts where we lived with my grandfather. He was a great musician. My grandmother was as well. He was music director at the church and a masterful carillon player while “Nanny” played violin with the symphony. So, the norm was having ears filled with music. Classical, worship music was the norm, but it was when I was about six I heard my brother play “Smoke on the Water,” on acoustic and I remember thinking, What is that?! It stood out. It is raw rock-n-roll—simplicity, and planted the seed that rock guitar was really cool.
What was the first drug you tried, and what was second? How old were you?
So I got to grow up running wild in the back forests of Massachusetts. It was amazing being free to roam in nature like that. Once Mom reconnected with her high school sweetheart, who was in California we moved back to Fountain Valley [a suburb of Los Angeles, in Orange County]. I remember being kind of excited to go to Cali, until the kids made fun of my played-out Eastern style. Definitely some bullying in there. [It also took] some time getting used to having a step-dad. He is an amazing, loving man, who I am so very thankful for; but all that stuff was a huge adjustment for me, looking back. Adding a step brother—too suddenly, you are life-mates with strangers.
But my family was amazing, overall. So we moved again, to Garden Grove [also, in Orange County, Calif.], and I felt like I finally got roots being there for a few years, had some close friends. My parents got a great opportunity for a house in Lake Forest [further south in Orange County]. Garbage Grove, as they called it, was on the decline and we had an amazing big house to move into, in a much better city. But, that move really shook me.
I remember not wanting to go. And I would go back to Garden Grove to visit w my friend Chris Murphy. We had a “band,” in our own minds at least. We couldn’t even play yet, but we jammed as best we could. Chris was from a really fucked-up family, no parents. He lived with his weird grandma, in a gross house. But dammit, he was my heavy metal buddy. We discovered Motley Crue’s first record together. They looked like…freaks! It tripped us out and we loved the music. Iron Maiden as well. Their album covers were scary as fuck, but it was that time.
Moving yet again, I started smoking weed, which was like taking acid at that age. Then, in Lake Forest came drinking. I latched on to the rocker kids, and just wanted a friend. My first friend said, “let’s steal a bottle of Jack Daniels.” And, being great at stealing giant candy bars, I of course said “Okay!” We posted up in the bushes, I had to be home in 40 minutes. I drank a pint, at 12 years old, in 15 minutes. It was hell. The taste, the vomiting. Then, within next couple of days I drank it again. Jack Daniels ended up as my drink of choice for years.
How and when did you begin to notice differences in the way you partied, i.e., consumed drugs and alcohol, versus the way your non-addictive peers did?
From an early age while “partying,” my friends singled me out as taking it too far. I didn’t get it. I felt like I was just doing what they were doing. But I would quit from time to time. I guess if you and your best friend go on Near Beer at age 18, that might be a sign. But I had to smoke weed all day everyday, from about 15 on. Isn’t that insane? Then I would quit for months. Early on I could.
Given the competitiveness and the pressure to perform (both on and off stage, as well as in rehearsal and in recording studios) at the top-end levels where Korn achieved fame, it seems almost unbelievable that you were able to sustain your career while also using addictively. Nevertheless, you managed for a time, as do many, at that level.
Is it fair to say that rock musicians are able to fly under the radar with active addiction because the genre itself allows for a modicum of addiction mythology?
Once I started (hed) PE, the band that would get us our first record deal, I discovered meth. I went from lost in our musical direction to that drug being my muse. I don’t want to glorify it, but it’s true. It helped me tap into something. But I couldn’t stop, for years.
I signed my record deal high as fuck in the Jive Records highrise, with my singer, tweaking balls. I almost missed our first record showcase because I got arrested for being a ‘prowler’ and doing weird tweaker shit. So I quit that, thought that was my problem, then the Jack Daniels intake went up exponentially.
Can you tell us how and when it stopped working for you?
People asked me about stage-fright, as we were playing big shows. I said I didn’t have it. I did! I had to drink or be high before every show. I had no idea. Again, it was “partying.” So that touring rockstar lifestyle gave me the opportunity to advance my addiction.
What happened to get you into recovery?
It’s a progressive disease—I cultivated it. I was out of control, the band thought I might die, but I wrote great music. but over time, my antics had my band lose all respect. I left the band, ended up in rehab. I no longer was able to stay stopped. I had to use even if I didn’t want to, and it wasn’t fun like the old days; it was dark and lonely. The days of tweaking and/or drinking with friends were over. I was isolated, and they highs just weren’t there anymore.
What has recovery given you?
In rehab, the guitar had value again. At the end of my using I couldn’t care about music much. but in rehab, just strumming a “stupid” chord brought me peace. I started writing meditative pieces to get me thru the anxious sober days. And then we would write silly songs on break and the whole house would join in, singing, dancing, laughing. That planted the seed of me knowing how powerful music was in the treatment setting. It has an exponentially greater affect in those settings.
When and how did you conceive of Rock to Recovery?
So, after staying sober almost three years, I got the Korn gig, only because I was sober. They had passed over me before when my name came up, but now my reputation was finally getting repaired. I got to tour the world totally sober, hitting meetings all around the globe. And that is when I found out about stage-fright. It was not easy playing another band’s music, totally sober.
In my band I could play my songs, and be drunk—easy. In Korn, I was paid to perform at a higherwas no room for error. But breathing exercises and meditation got me through. My heart always pounded on the solo moments though. Still does.
So, when Korn’s original guitar player, Brian Welsh looked destined to come back to his band, I started praying and meditating heavily. Instead of whining over my plight as a [former] drug-addict-sober musician, destined to be an outcast and be broke, I asked the Universe, “If this is who you made me to be, a musician, and a sober dude, then how can I help people with music, and make a living?”—and eventually, the vision for Rock to Recovery came to me in an instant!
[A] friend casually mentioned he played music in a treatment center, but sounded really enthused with the experience. I felt like this was my answer. It felt like God was talking to me, tying in my whole life and experiences in that moment.
What was the first year like building a whole new program, I mean creating Rock to Recovery from scratch?
The first half of a year was scary. Every session I worried so much, is it working? Is this a shit show? Because I was writing songs with non-musicians. And it would sound horrible, for 45 minutes, then the last 15 we’d have it down, our own little RAD creation, and the clients would get so pumped, so naturally high! And I was too. I was fear to elation in 90 minutes, every time. So I wanted to see if I could teach others how I did it. Who would I hire? Then it hit me, two of my best sober friends would be perfect. It definitely took some intense training, but they grew to crush it and really make our art even better, adding there radness.
When was the moment you knew you were on to something with Rock to Recovery?
The story of Mr. Pink: The first time I saw a junky come in, pissed, saying, “why the fuck am I in this stupid group; I’m dope-sick and want to die,” I asked him to just give it a try, and handed him a little, pink shaker [percussive, acoustic musical instrument]. Then by the end, he was elated. He was so stoked, he said he didn’t feel dope sick anymore. I realized just how magic this program is.
Whose continued sobriety stands out from that first year or two as a particularly fulfilling story of recovery that you’re sure Rock To Recovery was a part making possible?
A cool story about Rock to Recovery was meeting Will. He was actually a client in treatment in a program we worked with. He asked if he could work with Rock to Recovery. Of course I said, “well, you are in treatment now; but if you stay sober, anything is possible down the line.” Well here we are couple of years later and Will has been with us over a year now, working full time for Rock to Recovery. Now he is bringing the love, through our program to other people brand new in treatment.
Another is a young woman who is wonderful, wounded combat vet from the U.S. Air Force. She said she had an “out plan,” meaning she was going to kill herself if something miraculous didn’t happen in her life. She said that by getting involved with the Air Force Wounded Warriors program, and doing Rock to Recovery she wouldn’t be here. She said, “Rock to Recovery helped to put put that song back in my heart.”
So it is, that music literally saving lives.
Any tragedies that looked like they were going to be another Rock to Recovery success story that you wish you could have a redo on?
We don’t have any tragedies really in R2R, but there are definitely tragedies in the stories of those we work with. There are times when you see these young folks start out obstinate, fighting everything. Then, through sessions, they really start to open up and embrace recovery. They, really shine and grow.
Then, sometimes they stop doing their recovery and get loaded again—and die. It hurts so bad hearing those stories about these people we were so intimate with; and we can go back and hear the songs we’ve written with them.
Life changes in an instant.
What’s the basic outline of how the program works?
How we work is we come to a treatment facility and form a aband with the clients. We bring all the gear, and have a topic of discussion finding our common ground in life and struggles, and recovery, and it’s challenges. We use those answer for lyrics and help the bandmates write lyrics, music and melody. We get ‘non-musicians’ all singing and playing the song. We record it at the end of the session. The magic is the effet the energy of playing music and singing our song written by us, for us, together. Connecting. And having it to listen to, forever, and share.
Can you give us an idea of the basic scope of Rock to Recovery, such as how many volunteers, musicians, bands who participate in your fundraiser concert, bands who help at rehabs, cities and states where you operate, clients, rehabs, people who’ve been helped, budget, needs for future work or donations you’d like to see, etc…?
Rock to Recovery is now 10 full time staffers. We work with 70-plus treatment programs, doing 400 sessions each month. That’s 400 bands we form, 400 songs we write and thousands of people we work with every month. We have a for-profit entity for place that we charge for our services, which then shares funds from that entity to fund our non-profit.
The non-profit donates sessions (or drastically discounts them) to places like state-funded programs, or other non-profit recovery programs that would otherwise never be able to budget for a service like ours. On the nonprofit side, we have a contract with the Department of Defense, working with wounded warriors of the Air Force and U.S. Army, as well as working regularly with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the Brentwood neighborhood community of Los Angeles, and with other Veterans programs. We work with at-risk youth with mental health, addiction, eating, co-occurring and other disorders, such as PTSD. We also work with the Boys n Girls Club. We really haven’t found a place that Rock to Recovery doesn’t help people.
What’s next on the agenda for Rock to Recovery?
We just started having annual fundraisers we we could grow our reach in helping more people. We had Chester, the singer from Linkin Park, Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit, Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray, Billy Morrison, Steve Stephens and Eric Eldenius all from Billy Idol’s band, plus Chris Chaney from Jane’s Addiction, and a slew of stars like, Jaime Pressly, Jason Wahler, Tito Ortiz, along with the band Filter, all-out performing and supporting our first sold-out event at the Fonda Theater in L.A.
This will be year number two. And we expect another star-studded night of music and celebrating the use of music in recovery. We raised $35,000 last year in our first-year, and will continue to strive to grow and thrive.
Do I understand right that your work with Wounded Warriors led to you getting to fly in a USAF Thunderbirds F16? WTF was that like and where do I sign up?!
Because of the work we do with the USAF, they gifted me a flight in an F16 fighter jet with the Thunderbirds. It was INSANE and very humbling. It really reminds you that you are making an impact. It also reminds you of how many amazing people it takes to put together just one flight. It’s a great metaphor for life: Through team work and great effort we can accomplish incredible feats.
I got to experience barrel rolls and loop-de-loops up to 9.3 Gs! When I was heading into rehab broken and lost I never thought that would happen. Miracles are out there waiting for all of us, I believe, as long as we create our own ‘luck’ through hard work and personal growth, which comes quickly from helping others.
What would you like to add?
Our goal is knowing how well our program works, to continue to raise funds, to build awareness, and to take Rock to Recovery far and wide—international baby! We want to help uplift those who need that magical energy boost and loving connection in their lives so they can be reminded it does exist. Love and happiness is within reach and recovery is possible.