"I just wanted to be asleep all the time" - how Fangclub came back from the brink
Fangclub frontman Steven King on hanging with Metallica and Smashing Pumpkins, and how he conquered personal demons to take back control.
"You're living in a nightmare, baby."
So goes the chorus of a breezy early cut on the new Fangclub record - their second, but kind of their third, which we'll get to in a bit.
Delivered by frontman Steven King (not that one) via signature vaguely callous snarl, it's a line that he's actually quite well versed in.
The Rush natives have much to celebrate - brand new album Vulture Culture, opening honours for Metallica at Slane and a subsequent European tour as guests of Smashing Pumpkins to name but three - though the biggest victory of all concerns King and his personal comeback.
The press release for Vulture Culture mostly eschews the usual hyperbolic bluster in favour of detailing King's struggles with addiction and depression, and an eventual overdose that took place outside of a hotel in London.
Not your usual sell, nor should it necessarily be cynically regarded as one. When this writer sits down with King, it's immediately apparent that this is an individual who, if anything, is ashamed at flirting with the most harrowing of rock star clichés rather than seeking to embody them.
By his own admission, the 30-year-old is painfully shy, a trait he accepts as a contradiction in terms when it comes to heading up a brash guitar-powered outfit.
Rather than register as a 'difficult second album' problem, Vulture Culture afforded King, alongside bandmates Kevin Keane and Dara Coleman, the chance to escape reality and channel difficult energy.
Now a year-and-a-half sober, King has reached the stage where press notes, living nightmares, exclusive trauma and the hard road of reconstruction speak to his life without telling the entire story. What comes next is still his to write.
"I feel good about it," he says, referring to all of this being public knowledge.
"I’ve seen a lot of bands going out there and promoting this other lifestyle, like a party go-go-go-go-go lifestyle, and it doesn’t exist. And you have young fans, you’re influencing them and putting them down a path that doesn’t exist. It definitely doesn’t lead to anywhere.
"They might be going through trying to find their identity or certain issues; there’s a huge mental health crisis right now - it’s always existed but it’s only kind of coming to the front now."
Clip via fangclubVEVO
Fans, especially those in pivotal formative years, genuinely mean a lot to him.
"When we would tour we would meet a lot of teenagers and kids, even people in their twenties, and they would be so open to how the band helped them and how maybe the music helps them," King notes.
"Not just our band but a lot of bands in the scene. I started realising that I really don’t want to promote this fake, self-imploding thing of a party lifestyle. It’s not that. Everybody has struggles and different issues. I wanted to put mine out there.
"I’ve been through it now so I’m kind of on the other side of it, and hopefully maybe some girl or some guy or whoever reads that or picks up on it in the album and just starts chatting to their friend or something, anything, you know?"
Not long removed from that Smashing Pumpkins jaunt, King is visibly inspired by the experience. On occasion, meeting your heroes ain't so bad, particularly when you're on the same page about pertinent issues.
"They were hugely about promoting mental health," he recalls.
"Every night they would do a big talk in front of 10,000 people about suicide rates being so high. It’s just so important. I couldn’t bring myself to carry on in the band and ignore it and pretend it’s not there.
"Billy Corgan would give a big talk about suicide rates going through the roof and he would say, ‘How many people are we not getting to in time? How many future Kurt Cobains and Elliott Smiths have we lost already, that we’ll never know?’. They’re out there. I just want to push that."
He talks of people approaching after shows and sharing their world, scars and all, a stark contrast to his own teenage years when everything was bottled up.
King's inevitable explosion happened at a time where everything before him, great and awful, felt entirely beyond his control.
"At the same time we got a record deal, and it was this amazing dream coming true and we’re getting tours and all of these great things, at the exact same time, within the same week, my family was starting to implode and crumble up," he explains.
"The push and pull of extreme negativity and extreme positivity caused me to chase certain things to numb it all. I just wanted to be asleep all the time. I just did not want to be awake. It was like, I could just stay drunk and then I’ll be alright.
"Eventually alcohol doesn’t do it anymore so you start taking other things with the alcohol, and then that leads to all of these other issues of bottled-up things," he continues.
"I was getting really paranoid. I was a little bit delusional with what was real. I was stressed out. I was exhausted. The main thing was I just thought I had become this weight on the band and my girlfriend. I thought maybe I was leading the guys down the wrong way, I thought my girlfriend could find someone better."
Touring relentlessly with no breathing space in sight, he collapsed, his London low point a brutal exclamation mark that couldn't be ignored. And yet, "stupidly" he offers, he went out on tour again.
"By Christmas of 2017 it was to the point where I didn’t want to do anything anymore," he says.
"I didn’t want to play in a band, none of it mattered anymore. I was trying to be as creative as I could, making loads of artwork. I showed my dad and he said it was like a warning sign. It was collage art with pictures of our band and pictures of me and I had defaced myself in all of them.
"He basically threw me in a car and brought me to a clinic and said we’re getting this sorted. Weirdly enough, I guess sometimes with these almost tragic things happening, my family got together and really fought for me to get well. My girlfriend as well, she’s awesome. The band, the guys took over all of the roles that I would usually do."
Also worthy of kudos; veteran UK indie three-piece The Cribs, who made a point of including King in their dressing room Nintendo sessions when Fangclub went on the road as their leader embraced sobriety.
Since then, focus, purpose and a sense of self have all been regained and revitalised.
Vulture Culture was recorded in warm surroundings as the band decamped to a farm in Wales "in the middle of nowhere" for a month, working alongside producers Alex Loring and Tom Andrews, handpicked not just for their skills, but also for their friendship qualities.
That, and a canny ability to improvise. Andrews noticed how King would naturally show off when his girlfriend sat in on vocal takes for 'Last Time', the six-minute slow-burn epic that kicks the record off, and so she was positioned in the muse role as the perfect pitch came together.
"She gets the executive producer credit," he laughs. "She paid for our first album to be made, as well, so she’s fully in there, the secret fourth member."
He's proud of his work on an album that those close to it have joked feels more like the band's third than second, pointing to 40 years of rock star trials and tribulations experienced in just one. Having come out the other side, King can allow himself a smile or two.
At home, his tribe occupies an interesting position. They're on a major label and have taken stick for that distinction despite adopting a fiercely DIY approach, even setting up their own imprint to champion independent acts.
Though they predate the likes of Fontaines D.C. and The Murder Capital, Fangclub don't tend to get listed off in the current cluster of bands that have supposedly saved Irish guitar music, nor do brothers-in-arms Otherkin.
"No, we’re never on [that list]," King nods.
"Yeah, it’s strange. I guess it’s whatever’s trendy, whatever’s hip, whatever helps them sell Urban Outfitters clothes and stuff, you know?
"Otherkin, yeah. They don’t get too many mentions, either. It’s strange but it’s kind of like, I don’t know. We’ve always kind of felt like we’re outside of the circle and the bubble that we could never be… we never wanted to be part of it anyway, part of the trend thing that was happening. We don’t get maybe mentioned in Ireland but we get a lot in the UK and Europe. It would be cool to get some in Ireland - that’s our home.
"When we were doing Slane and they were announcing it on RTÉ, our parents were sitting around their TVs waiting for it. Those kind of things are cool for family and friends to see. As far as being mentioned on lists, I don’t really care. I don’t give a shit."
Ah yes, Slane. A scrapbook moment for any kid that grew up with guitar in hand and dreams of rock superstardom bouncing around the brain.
"It was incredible. Incredible. And it was terrifying, because it was 80,000 metalheads.
"They were fuckin’ awesome, though. We went in with our heaviest songs - let’s just give them as heavy a set as possible. And they were fucking awesome, shouting back, applauding us. It was a really great crowd for the opening act, which is not easy, but it was a really easy day.
"It was just one of those moments again. I was too afraid to look out at the stage when we got there so I hid in the back room and the guys went up straight away and were taking photos. ‘It’s so massive!’ and I’m like, ‘Shut up, shut up!’, but no, it was cool. I saw loads of Fangclub t-shirts being waved in the air, that was really nice."
Such a sight can only feel like vindication. As for the next chapter, King is ready for it.
"I feel great," he imparts. "I feel really confident. I feel pretty strong.
"I’m writing a lot and constantly making art and writing music and loving life. I’m not afraid, I’m not trying to push away the bad things and ignore the good things because they’re scary.
"I’m letting it all in now and processing it. I’ve got my mind a bit more healthy and I’m a year and a half sober now so it’s just this huge clarity and I’m damn excited to get the album out and kick it all off again… and not implode this time."
Vulture Culture is out now on Vertigo Records