DJs and Mental Health: Electronic Music's Last Taboo

The challenges of being an on-the-road performer are often popularized in modern culture; more so than they are discussed by real life musicians. One only has to refer to the likes of DJ Ickarus (aka. Paul Kalkbrenner) in Berlin Calling, who succumbs to a mental illness as a consequence of the rock & roll lifestyle he adopts.  Or there’s Frankie Wilde in ‘It’s All Gone Pete Tong’, who struggles with addiction, loss of hearing and arguably, loss of self-identity. Yet, as we happily grimace at these fabricated, big screen purveyors of dance music, mental health issues in real life are no laughing matter. One in four of us will struggle with mental health issues at some point in our life. It’s something however that a very small segment of the DJ community has spoken openly about. So how prevalent is it among the touring DJ scene, and why does it appear to be the last taboo to be broken? We spoke DJ veterans Joost van Bellen and Jeremy P. Caulfield to shed some insight on this sensitive subject.

Aim For the Stars
Towards the end of Dom Phillips’ 2009 book, Superstar DJs Here We Go! (The Rise and Fall of the Superstar DJ), is the story of Sasha, and how, during the peak of his career, he struggled to deal with the pressure the industry was putting him under to release music. Following the success of several singles and countless mixes, he was still yet to release an album – a record he consistently confirmed was coming out. ‘Muzik magazine went over to New York to interview him. Sasha proved elusive,’ Philips wrote. ‘The eventual feature was entitled The Lost Weekend. Last time Muzik sees him in New York, he’s half underneath his bed at the Soho Grand Hotel, waving a two-litre bottle of vodka in one hand and a bin in the other.’

While we might otherwise laugh at the rock & roll clichéd actions of Sasha at this point in his career, it is clear that these were not the actions of a healthy person. Massively overwhelmed due to an exhaustive schedule and pressure from a baying audience, Sasha’s actions became irrational, and his actions, unsound. These idiosyncratic, patterns on behaviour are characteristic of many artists within the musical sphere. When the pressure is on, and fatigue sets in from over-work then one’s own mental health can begin to suffer. This is especially prevalent when there is an ease of access to excess alcohol and drugs.

"...At one point, after a pretty exhausting tour, I came back and it just wouldn’t stop – the anxiety stayed...”

Confiding in the Press
DJs are bearing more than ever in progressively candid interviews with press and media. Quite often an artist will talk about their childhood, liaisons and drug use. Yet very rarely will they talk about some of the mental challenges that have had to tackle. Topics of which can be perceived to be extremely personal. There are a rare few who have gone against the tide. Dutch DJ Laidback Luke is one of them.

“I’ve had burnout twice in my life; I had a burnout when I was 20 and I had a burnout when I was 30,” Laidback Luke confides to online publication, OnlyTheBeat. For a mini-documentary entitled, My Son The DJ, the Dutch DJ elaborates further regarding the latter incident. In 2010 Laidback Luke had the most international bookings out of all Dutch artists (150 in one year) – this inordinate touring schedule, combined with the breakup of his marriage lead to this second period of burnout. “I was in the bus enjoying my time off and I all I wanted to do was fucking scream inside of the bus because I was just getting crazy,” he explains. This is the response of someone who is not just suffering from physical fatigue, but from something more complex, and sometimes misunderstood; nervous exhaustion.

When we’re ill we can see the doctor, or simply take some medication, but matters of the mind are much more difficult to fix. German house DJ, Motor City Drum Ensemble, was honest enough to talk extensively about his anxiety problems in a recent Resident Advisor documentary. “At one point, after a pretty exhausting tour, I came back and it just wouldn’t stop – the anxiety stayed,” he candidly admits. The realisation of such, actively lead to the DJ cutting down on his touring commitments, in order to improve his health.

For every story of someone who’s managed to acknowledge their health problems, there are countless examples of those who haven’t. Just take the tragic story of US house producer Gemini, aka. Spencer Kincy. Luke Solomon talks about Kincy’s problem in a Resident Advisor Exchange podcast, during which he describes how Kincy has ‘decided to opt out of society, to not have a fixed abode, not be a part of the music industry anymore and he doesn’t want to be a part of this world anymore - that’s his choice and mental illness and that, are a factor.’ Although, this is a very drastic example, it only goes to highlight the extent to which mental illness can impact an individual’s life. Something, which were it not to have been brought to our attention, could have easily slipped under the radar.

Christina Villarreal, a Mental Health Examiner in Oakland, talks about the psychological issues celebrities can struggle with at various points in their career, in an article for The Examiner. Villarreal lists the following points:

-No Privacy: a suffocating environment can lead to individuals acting out in an uncharacteristic manner, such as ‘unsavoury sexual appetites, volatile outbursts or uncontrolled substance abuse.’
-Loss of Self-Sense: this can cause individuals ‘to make choices that no longer reflect their true self.
-Loss of challenges: a problem that can cause those who’ve become successful, to consistently seek new challenges and ways of becoming even more successful.
-Imposter syndrome: a problem that can lead to inadequacy, when an individual feels that they might not be up for the job.
-Quest for media spotlight immortality: a prevalent problem leading to artists going to the utmost limits to ensure that they remain as famous forever.

You can apply any one of these issues to a certain number of DJs. It’s clear that when Sasha was pushing himself around the time of Xpander, as stated at the start of the article, that that lack of privacy and loss of self-sense, was putting a huge strain on the Welsh DJ.

Leading dance music journalist Marcus Barnes, writing on the health issues that touring DJs need to be wary of, consulted senior NHS nurse, Jacqui Jedrzejewski, when writing a similar article for the online outlet, Meoko. As well as various physical ailments, such as back issues and tinnitus, Barnes states that consistent touring, alongside effects of jetlag, can lead to wide-ranging effects on an individual's physical and mental wellbeing.’ Barnes also refers to the problems of depression, upon which Jedrzejewski states that: ‘Becoming isolated from friends, or the world in general and feeling alone or misunderstood can quickly lead to depression.’

I spoke with Gordon Shippey, a US based psychotherapist and counselor about the perils posed to those exposed to excess fame. “Having an adoring fanbase near at hand can cause problems. One credible explanation for why we see stars acting badly, is that in their fans' eyes, they can do no wrong. A big part of narcissism is the inflated sense of self-importance. But for people who are legitimately famous, that sense is reinforced by their fanbase.”

“I know DJs who get anxiety attacks and depressions; who get paranoid even when playing at a club or festival”

Joost van Bellen is a revered and legendary DJ from the early days of dance music in The Netherlands. Known throughout the country as one of the instigators of the Dutch electronic music movement, the 54-year old DJ helped established the RoXY club in Amsterdam, which laid the groundwork for the current wave of underground Dutch and techno.  He recently wrote a book – a work of fiction – about the perils of fame, entitled Pandaogen, from the perspective of a fashion model. “Success and fame would bring happiness, but she loses her friends and herself along the way to the Holy Grail,” explains van Bellen. “It can happen to DJs too, there is actually a DJ in my book who is my nightmare reflection in a mirror.”

Haven spoken previously about his concerns regarding the health implications brought on my excessive DJing, DJBroadcast caught up with the influential Dutch DJ to take his perspective on the whole situation.

“I know DJs who get anxiety attacks and depressions; who get paranoid even when playing at a club or festival,” he explains. “But most of them will be waving they’re hands in the air when they are back in that DJ-booth like nothing is wrong.” Is this a sign of denial, or do DJs not want to let on that this perceived notion them of having a good time is actually a fallacy?

As well as hosting the regular Rauw nights at Amsterdam’s Trouw, van Bellon is still doing two to three shows every week. He used to do a lot more; something which took its toll on his own mental heath.

“I’ve been there: saw things which were not there because of exhaustion and light effects in clubs. I had trouble breathing properly, got hyperventilation attacks and saw the world around me spinning like a merry-go-round.”

So if it is happening, then why does it come across as being so taboo? “You might feel like shit but you always have to be happy and pretend it’s a great party,” he states. DJs, are in a sense, becoming actors, and pretending that everything is fine. Until, that is, when it all goes terribly wrong.

Faking It
Jeremy Caulfield recently went into semi-retirement . The Canadian DJ, producer and label owner moved from Toronto to Berlin a few years ago, after establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with among his fellow tech-house and techno DJ peers. His label, Dumb-Unit, was established at the turn of the century, giving rise to the likes of Butane and Mike Shannon.

Caulfield however called time on his DJing, after recently becoming a father, in addition to taking on the management of a new Berlin-based café and bar, Aunt Benny, which he runs with his wife and brother-in-law. He could see that, if he carried on with the way things were, it wouldn’t work out too well for him. He’s now opted to focus on being a dad and looking after his business – he’ll still take the occasional booking though, but only if it’s for the right reasons; the reasons why he started DJing in the first place.

Fans of Caulfield might have seen this coming. In a 2009 Resident Advisor article, Caulfield expressed his growing weariness of international touring.

‘Years before—on my first tours—I was excited to be in Europe, to visit the sites and to take in the culture. But lately I had not been feeling very inquisitive. My TV intake began to rise, I was getting into the salted peanuts a lot earlier and seeing a town consisted of a pre-gig excursion to the hotel bar. The original sheen had faded.’

Now out of the rat race Caulfield looks back with an objective eye. “I wouldn’t say that I was going nuts yet, but I could see that it was wearing me out,” Caulfield explains. “While I have regrets of not fulfilling my duties, I’m quite happy that I ended it - even though I’ve moved into something even more stressful.”

"You become a sociopath to some degree because you have to maintain this persona”

As we discuss his experiences, the conversation inevitably came to the subject of ‘loss of self sense,’ as Villarreal described it. “I think after a while you become a sociopath to some degree because you have to maintain this persona,” he says, about the constant need to put the ‘DJ act’ on when meeting people.

“I pulled all my [social] accounts when I retired,” Caulfield continues. “On a narcissistic level, it’s an epidemic, so pulling my Facebook account was a real personal vindication and was one of the most beneficial things for my health.”

“Narcissism is entwined within the fabric of the scene. As a DJ you are projecting yourself to a younger crowd and when you start getting out of touch with that and you can no longer trust your own instincts about what is good and what is cool, that its time to relinquish a bit.”

At what point, after you’ve been promoting yourself and talking-up your own work, do you actually begin to believe the hype you’ve created about yourself? Social media only inflates the DJ-super-ego. Even though, as I discuss with Caulfield, DJs rarely have anything interesting to say.

The Wild Card
Bill Hicks famously said, “I want my rock stars dead,” and in a weird way, we do actually want to see our idols suffer, due to our sycophantic relationship with celebrity and media. There’s a collective ‘sigh’ when our favourite drug-addled musician cleans up, because we worry that the music quality might suffer. Or we drop our shoulders when we read that a DJ we adore doesn’t drink. How can we relate to someone who isn’t as decadent as us?

We are naturally drawn to the eccentrics; the Sven Väths, Squarepushers, deadmau5s – in this world. Some of these wild cards might not have the best grip on reality, but then again, that’s what makes their art so great. “You don’t have to be mentally healthy to be an artist,” Caulfield explains. “Just make sure its not killing you or hurting anyone else around you.” Caulfield makes reference to Danny Tenaglia’s ‘breakdown’ in 2012, in which he took to social media to resign from DJing. During his online rant the US jock complained about how poor he was (‘many people think I am wealthy but I assure I am not’) and that he was intending to move out of his NY loft. Of course this didn’t happen and his resignation was short-lived, but there it was; a breakdown made public through the internet – for all to see.

In all areas of art, we are drawn to those whose eccentricities are exuburated by their individual neuroses: Vincent van Gogh, Daniel Day Lewis, Kurt Cobain. As Joost van Bellen said, “you have to be a little twisted to be a good DJ.”

The Last Taboo
It’s clear that more than likely, some of our favourite DJs have exhibited some of the pior listed traits about irrationality, dependency and depression. Yet, the topic at hand seems to have been ignored in conversation.

While researching the article I reached out to many artists for their opinion and almost all of them declined to comment. This as much didn’t come as a great surprise. While reading Barnes’ Meoko article I saw that Elite Force, aka. Simon Shackleton, had commented on the piece heavily, so I decided to reach out to get his opinion on the situation. “Generally people are very guarded about this side of things,” he told me. “There's so much smoke and mirrors when it comes to this profession, and honest responses would probably be seen as a sign of weakness by many people.”

“There's so much smoke and mirrors when it comes to this profession"

Again, there was that reference to avoiding public displays of weakness. Caulfield also touched upon this during our conversation. “No one wants to be a downer,” Caulfield explains. “In these days people who are downers get scuttled under the carpet, this relates to drug usage too.”

Caulfield thinks that the image of the troubled DJ might also have a detrimental impact on their career, which is why people stray away from the topic. “The legitimate side of dance music, where it has moved to now, i.e. big money and business, has grown and any sign of weakness is deemed to be bad. People often will look for a way to take advantage of that.”

All of this, he explains, is tied together through the intricate web of social media. Once someone becomes more open through social media, then their message spreads like wildfire through the music community. Just look at Tenaglia.

Breaking The Habit
The DJ community has become very open when discussing their nefarious habits, such as drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and other on-the-road mishaps. Yet the only way to break the taboo surrounding mental health issues, is to discuss them freely, in an environment free from judgement. Is the electronic music scene ready for that? We can hope that our scene that was born out of open tolerance and liberty, can also embrace the needs of its more challenged participators.

The elements of conceitedness and for all practical purposes, machoism, need to also be addressed. We can’t carry on expecting that DJs live this party-hard, facile style-of-living. By allowing them to be more open and honest, we might even help ourselves approach reality with a fresh perspective. One individual in particular we can point to is Seth Troxler. From his extremely candid interview with Resident Advisor about the problems of holding down relationships, to his RBMA lecture which touched up upon the issues of holding it together, Troxler has been a luminary among the DJ community about discussing real-life problems.

We also need to address our own expectations and understand what effect they have on those we look up to. At some point we should have said, “hey Sasha, Xpander was really cool. I don’t care if you do another album or not, just be who you are.”

Going out, partying and dancing, are forms of escapism; an attempt to temporarily detach ourselves from reality. But how do DJs indulge in escapism and what happens when they need a break? No wonder there’s this perpetual relationship with DJs and drugs. This should be a warning sign, that we need take this issues more seriously.