Justin Furstenfeld is driving in his car as the sun sets on his home state of Texas. The first thing he remarks when he picks up the phone is how beautiful the sky is—something he likely would not have noticed six years ago when he was drugged out of his mind. But his recent sobriety, as well as the release of the latest Blue October record, I Hope You’re Happy, has the musician embracing a much more positive lifestyle.
It didn’t come easily, however. “I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do,” Furstenfeld reflects, “because all the music I had written before was so depressing.”
The man behind major alt-rock hits such as “Hate Me” and “Into The Ocean” certainly has one of the deftest songwriting hands when it comes to crafting melancholy tunes. But after completing a three-month stint in rehab, those weren’t the kinds of songs he wanted to write anymore.
“I [was] sitting in this room for four months and not getting one good note out of it,” he says of his songwriting just prior to rehab. “But I was thinking that I was making the most amazing material in the world. Listening back now that I’m six years sober, it was eye-opening, sad and funny all at the same time.”
That wasn’t the only reason he finally checked himself into an inpatient facility after over a decade of doping, though. “My motor skills were no longer working,” he says, revealing just how severe his drug use was. “I couldn’t function. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t write one word much less write a melody. I couldn’t play the guitar or look people in the eye. I can’t go into the things that I did to people, but my life had become so unmanageable.”
“The old song and dance of the rock ’n’ roller—sell a million records, get money, spend it all on drugs and then you have nothing to show for it.”
Unfortunately, it’s a familiar story. “The old song and dance of the rock ’n’ roller,” Furstenfeld calls it. “Sell a million records, get money, spend it all on drugs and then you have nothing to show for it.” It’s the path his many music idols have followed, as well as his friends.
“A lot of the people that have passed away from addiction or problems with depression or suicide are people that I grew up [watching] and people that I played with in my career,” he adds. “I played many shows with Scott Weiland, and I played many shows with Chester Bennington, and it’s sad to see one of your people not make it through.”
But like millions of people, that’s what Furstenfeld grew up thinking a rock star was. Their tragedy was the selling point, and suicide or a fatal overdose were just seemingly inevitable symptoms. Kurt Cobain may have shot himself, but at least he got to be a legend. Sid Vicious may have ODed, but he remains a punk icon. “They were doing it, and they just looked so cool,” he says. “All their problems seemed so shiny and amazing to me, and I wanted to be that guy.”
So when he was 18, he picked up the same self-destructive, tired script. There was one artist, though, who helped Furstenfeld turn his life (and his perspective) around: Chiodos vocalist Craig Owens, aka his roommate.
“It was the most uncomfortable moment and also the most touching moment, because being an addict you never really have real friends. You have people you can get things from.”
“We really pulled each other through,” Furstenfeld reflects on their time in rehab. “I remember one of the coolest things was when he came back from a group one time and threw a Gatorade to me. We hadn’t gone to a store in months, and they took him to a store, and he got me a Gatorade. I was like, ‘What’s this for?’ and he was like, ‘It’s ‘cause you’re my friend.’ It was the most uncomfortable moment and also the most touching moment, because being an addict you never really have real friends. You have people you can get things from.
“We would sit and just talk about when we got out of there,” he continues. “What we were going to do with our music? What’s the next step? What’s the game-changer? Where do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as an Iggy Pop when you’re older, or do you see yourself as a Peter Gabriel? Or do you see yourself as a Johnny Cash?”
This image game started to lose its luster as the two continued to improve themselves. As Furstenfeld got closer to sobriety, he also got closer to finding out what it would mean to just make music as himself. As if to answer that question, Blue October’s album Home would take the top spot on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart in May 2016, and I Hope You’re Happy would rank third in September 2018. The latter is an album that sees him doing exactly what he wants to do and being ecstatic about it.
“There are so many colors on this album,” he says. “It’s all about melody. It’s so romantic. It makes me believe in Santa Claus again—that’s how excited I am about it.” Furstenfeld only wishes he had figured out how to transform himself as both an artist and a person a bit earlier.
“I thought I was going to go [to rehab] for a month and get back out and go back to lying and tricking,” he says. “But it wasn’t like that. I learned something in there, and I took it with me. Now life is so fucking good. If I could talk to my [past] self, I would say, ‘Would you please stop fucking whining about all your problems? Get up and do something about it. Man up. You have a craft, [so] go work on it.’”
“If I could talk to my [past] self, I would say, ‘Would you please stop fucking whining about all your problems? Get up and do something about it. Man up. You have a craft, [so] go work on it.’”
In 2018 alone, we have lost so many influential artists who might still be alive today if, like Furstenfeld, they forgot about being “cool.” If they did away with the notions of what an artist is “supposed” to do and what they’re “supposed” to look and act like in order to focus on confronting their problems, they would avoid burying themselves beneath them.
So if you feel like you can count yourself among those people—the ones who use, abuse or try to act like someone they’re not—it might behoove you to take a listen to I Hope You’re Happy. You might even want to learn more about Furstenfeld’s story by watching his upcoming documentary following his struggle. Spoiler: It finds him in a better place in the end, which is where he’d like you to be, too.
11/02 – New Orleans, LA @ House of Blues
11/03 – Saint Petersburg, FL @ Jannus Live
11/04 – Jacksonville, FL @ Mavericks Live
11/07 – New York, NY @ Sony Hall
11/08 – Rochester, NY @ Anthology
11/09 – Cleveland, OH @ Agora Theatre
11/10 – Syracuse, NY @ WESTCOTT THEATER
11/14 – Norfolk, VA @ The Norva
11/15 – Knoxville, TN @ Bijou Theatre
11/16 – Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
11/17 – Nashville, TN @ Cannery Ballroom
11/18 – Mobile, AL @ Soul Kitchen
11/23 – Austin, TX @ 101X Indie Xmas
11/24 – Houston, TX @ Revention Music Center