Andrew McMillen, prolific contemporary music writer, has written 'Talking Smack' — but not before consulting a some significant identities in Australian music.
He interviews some of the biggest names in the music industry who go on the record for the first time – including Gotye, Tina Arena, Paul Kelly, Mick Harvey, Bertie Blackman, Spencer P Jones (Beasts of Bourbon), Lindy Morrison (The Go-Betweens), Tim Levinson (Urthboy), Holly Throsby, Jon Toogood (Shihad) and Steve Kilbey from The Church. These are highly personal accounts – from Steve Kilbey candidly sharing for the first time his slow erosion into a heroin addiction that took him 11 years to kick; to Bertie Blackman’s insight into anxiety disorder, anti-depressants and the effect alcohol had on her life.
It’s not all black and white though, and McMillen unpacks the greyness in between, with Paul Kelly talking about his recreational use of heroin, Wally de Backer (aka Gotye) on his abstinence from drugs, alcohol and mainstream medicine, and Mick Harvey from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on what it’s like to sit as a friend on the sidelines of drug abuse.
This is a fresh and fascinating take on 14 of Australia’s most successful musicians, filtered through the lens of their illicit drug use. McMillen explores what their childhood was like, why they chose to take drugs, how it affected their relationships and what drugs did and still do for them – from mind- altering epiphanies to desperate body-sweating withdrawal. He also turns the camera on himself in the process, detailing his use of the online marketplace, Silk Road, to order drugs through the postal system.
In keeping with the slightly surreal theme, we asked Andrew if he would mind being interviewed by ... himself.
What the hell are you hoping to achieve by writing about dirty, criminal, good-for-nothing drug users?
Drug users are human beings, too. The reasons why people choose to use drugs of all sorts – caffeine, cocaine, heroin, paracetamol, alcohol – are complex and nuanced. The law draws a distinction between some of these substances, but the human brain does not.
It's my hope that Talking Smack will prompt a more reasonable, compassionate public debate about drug use, as I feel that for too long this topic has been marginalised to the shadows. Drug use is not a black-and-white issue, with addicts at one side of a vast chasm and abstainers at the other. Instead, there are many shades of grey, and that's what I wanted to explode by speaking with some of Australia's best-known musicians.
So what you're saying is that you're a dirty, criminal, good-for-nothing druggo, too?
I don't agree with the adjectives, but yes, I am an occasional, recreational user of some illicit substances. I’m also a consumer of legal ‘highs’ offered by alcohol, caffeine, and the occasional cigar.
Up until around two years ago, the very idea of taking an illegal drug scared the shit out of me. While writing and reporting on this matter, though – particularly while writing about the online drug marketplace Silk Road – I started to reconsider my hardline anti-drugs views, and accept that many reasonable people use substances without necessarily falling victim to addiction.
So everyone you interviewed for the book was coked up to the eyeballs while mainlining heroin, then?
No. Almost every conversation I had was completely sober; the single exception was my meeting with Jake Stone, which took place at a Sydney bar over beer and whiskey.
Believe it not, it's possible for most drug users to draw a distinction between work and recreation. We may think of musicians as living charmed lives, where they're paid to strum the occasional guitar, write a soaring chorus hook or sing into a microphone before thousands of adoring fans, but the truth is that almost every successful musician has years of unpaid, unacknowledged toil behind them.
Also: it's pretty hard to function if you're high or drunk all the time, regardless of whether or not you're employed in the creative industries.
Whose story surprised you the most?
Of the 14 musicians I interviewed, the majority had experimented with various substances, but only a handful had experienced addiction. The large number of 'successful' recreational users surprised me: successful, in the sense that they could use drugs for a few hours at a time, and then resume their normal, productive, creative lives.
People like Holly Throsby, Urthboy and Ian Haug of Powderfinger stand out to me for that reason. All of the above have sampled various illicit substances; some they liked, others they didn't. They sated their curiosity without succumbing to addiction.
This type of story is extremely common among drug users throughout Australia, it's just that we tend not to hear those stories. We don't hear about the close friends who took MDMA together at their apartment and had a life-changing bonding experience that they'll carry for the rest of their lives. Instead, we hear about drug-related crime and unfortunate outcomes like overdose and death.
Not to discredit the seriousness of the latter outcomes, of course, but it's disingenuous of our society to focus on those rare negatives while ignoring the common positives.
What’s next for you, now that you’ve written a book about drugs?
I’ll be spending the profits on the finest cocaine known to man. Kidding.
I’m a freelance journalist who writes feature stories for magazines such as The Weekend Australian Magazine, Good Weekend and The Monthly. I’ll continue writing those long-form features about topics that interest me, until I strike upon my next book idea. It could be next week; it could be next year. We’ll see.
Andrew McMillen (@Andrew_McMillen) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. http://andrewmcmillen.com/