No More Silence: Q&A with Warped Tour sober coach Mike Farr
MIKE FARR has served as a sober living coach on Warped Tour for the past six summers, working on the tour as a representative of the foundation MusiCares. It’s an organization that helped him get his own addictions under control years ago, and now Farr is a trusted ally to those struggling with similar problems in the music industry. This summer, his name hit the news in the midst of the Slaves situation, when one of the proposed stipulations for Jonny Craig to stay on Warped tour was that he would meet for a counseling session each day with Farr. AP talked with Farr about how the industry can help its artists, his perspective on sexualized youth culture and how the steps of addiction recovery programs can be applied to sexual violence scenarios.
Interview: Lee McKinstry
How did you get involved with MusiCares?
MusiCares was brought to my attention because of my own addiction. I reached out to them because I was in a place where I had literally been imprisoned because of my addiction. I had gotten arrested for drugs, and I had gotten out after serving a year and didn't have anywhere else to go. I didn't want to go back to that life. I had been sober before. I had done 12-step programs, and I kind of realized that I really didn't do that to the best of my ability. I was faced with a choice. I called Harold Owens [who] works for MusiCares. I had his number prior, and I talked to him a couple times. I thought, "What a nice guy, this guy seems like he gets it." I didn't know who he was, really. I just knew him as a voice on the phone. But he was a sweetheart and I just felt a lot of compassion from him in that he understood my predicament. He asked me a few questions and said, "Can you get to L.A.?" I was in Detroit at the time. And he said, "I'll come up with the money to put you into sober living if you're serious about this." And I did that, and I've been sober ever since the day I got arrested. [MusiCares] paid for several months rent, got me back on my feet and allowed me the space to recover.
What's your job title at MusiCares today?
I don't necessarily work for MusiCares. I don't get paid through the MusiCares foundation; I get paid through Warped Tour. They put a bunch of names in a hat and my name came up as the guy most likely to want to do it and having the experience to do it, because I've been in music a long time. Prior to all this, [I had] a life as a musician and also as a photographer. I see myself as a person that they're initiating into this new form of music recovery.
So you, MusiCares and Kevin Lyman decided to partner up on Warped Tour?
Yeah. We came together as a result of [the services] we were doing out at Coachella. Kevin said, "Why don't we just take this on the road? It'd be great to have some counsel for people." He also saw that organically, there were sober people having meetings on their own [on Warped]. He noticed that happening over the years and then thought, “Well, why don't we just do this for real?” Like, actually make it part of the touring experience, which is really smart, actually. And then the festival thing started exploding for us too, as far as MusiCares is concerned. We do a lot of meeting outreach at festivals around the country.
What does that festival outreach look like?
We have a tent, and we call it a safe harbor area. That tent is there all day long, available for musicians and crew. It's a safe place for them to go and get out of the sun and still be around the pulse of the music. A lot of people are newly sober, so they want to have that support, and some people just want to be of service to those who are new [to recovery]. During show days, there's always one of us in the tent. We've got couches, food and water. It's just a nice place to hang out and not drink.
I understand that the tent is a service not just for those struggling with alcohol addiction.
Yeah, it's everything. Addictions are addictions. You use stuff, whether it's sex or drugs or liquor or eBay. We use things to fill a void.
What was your role on the 2015 Warped Tour? You help musicians in a number of capacities through the tent’s services, but you were also at the forefront of the meeting with Jonny Craig and SLAVES.
My role was to, for lack of a better term, counsel Jonny, and hope that he comes up with the answers to the questions that I was coming up with for him. The philosophical tilt on this thing is that alcoholism or addiction require the person to acknowledge it before they can get help. I had experience prior to me getting sober with recovery, and it did implant in a subconscious place the idea that I could live a better lifestyle. I could live for a purpose. That's kind of where it's at. We kind of a play the role of Johnny Appleseed; we plant ideas. I tell my story and see if people can relate.
It's interesting trying to figure out why all of this is being recognized now. It’s not that this is a new problem, it's just that we're talking about sexual violence more right now.
It's not that it's new—it's just that what's new is the internet. What's new is the ability to put information out really quickly without thinking. I think that's a bigger problem than the age problem of girls and boys that are three or four years apart being attracted to each other. I think that's kind of normal. We do have laws in effect in our country about that stuff, and people are taking them very seriously, obviously. It's not that I don't understand his behavior. I get it. The guy doesn't have a lot of stuff going on in his life, then all of a sudden out of nowhere he's got all these young girls after him. I understand that. What I don't understand is, how do we keep an eye on what these kids are doing when their parents aren't watching online?
I don't think that all of this stuff with sexual predators and underage sex is even remotely new to the music industry. Not one bit. As a matter of fact, it's predominant. Since I've been alive, watching bands when I was a kid, it's been happening. But now, it's a different music scene. We have festivals and we have younger people and we have the internet. These young people are way more sexualized. They're thinking about things they didn't used to think about when they were 13. We have to be responsible as a group of people. I really like self-regulation. I really like the idea that there's a core group of production and band members and tour managers that get together before the thing starts and say, "Okay, here are the issues at hand, and this is how they're gonna get dealt with. We allow this, but we do not allow that. You can do this, but if this happens, then this other thing is gonna happen." Spell it out. That's really the only way it's gonna work—if we get behind our own people and educate.
What do you think musicians and industry professionals themselves can do? How can people educate themselves and hold people accountable moving forward?
We're gonna have to start self-regulating as a scene and making it not cool. When I went to Black Flag shows when I was a kid, I didn't even think about meeting a girl. It wasn't even remotely sexual. It was aggressive and it was at times violent, but it was never sexual. Now it's a different trip altogether.
It’s about the scene saying, "You're not allowed here anymore, man, because we're not down with the way you're acting at all, and we're not gonna put up with it." I think we have to get together as a group of people. We have to address the bands and the way they act and self-regulating that stuff. I would like to see discussion groups—especially at the beginning of the tour—where the tour makes up these rules and says, "Listen, these are the things that came up last year. These are the things that we're not gonna put up with. These are the things that are gonna get self-regulated on this tour and if you think you can get away with it, you're foolish." It's the same thing as having a laminate to get backstage; you have to have your credentials. You have to act a certain way or you're not gonna be allowed in. That's the beginning. That's gonna take some work because the music scene's very hedonistic, anyway. It's gonna be a long, slow climb, but I think it's gonna get done. On the back side of that, just to finish the thought, educating kids about how they act and what's cool and not cool. It's not cool to objectify women. Not cool, dude. Why would you do that? What's going on with you? Make it a thing. Instead of just going along with that "Ha ha, what a slut," just go "No man, that's no way to talk about a woman." Not accept that as something that's okay.
Moving forward what kind of initiatives or projects are you working on to address the problem?
We're talking about it. We're dissecting the information. I have meetings with people at the office at MusiCares and Kevin and his daughters to discuss how we can implement these ideas. Organize it in a way that there is actually a tour figurehead. I also think the problem has been that we have all these problems and then the tour is over and it just kind of goes away. Nothing gets settled. We're starting the discussion. I'm talking to band members about some of the stuff that we talked about on the tour. Buddy [Nielsen] is a good friend of mine from Senses Fail. He's very active in this stuff. We're trying to figure it out a little bit and see if we can't come up with some way to regulate ourselves so that we don't get it out in the public eye and it doesn't ruin the team. It's not really good for any of us to have this out on the internet because it just becomes too traumatic. It's just too much: It starts to make people wonder if they want to support the whole thing anymore.
If we aren't strong as a scene, it's just gonna open itself to problems. I think this is one of the things that Kevin and I learned this year. I was kind of going through it with him because I was there and I was the guy that he was sending a lot of these people to. I think when it comes right down to it, it's an easier fix if we fix it ourselves and not get it out into the public domain. I'd rather teach the kids how to act than how to react. Right now, they're really reactionary. I would rather see them take some responsibility and say, "We're reacting to something that doesn't have to exist if we just act in the right way." I don't know really how to entice them to do it.
Are there broader suggestions you would give to people that want to help people with addiction or who are struggling with addiction themselves, or tackling sexual assault?
With sexual assault, it starts with honesty. You have to be honest. If I have a problem, I know I have no problem [being honest]. It’s important for me to know that. The trickiest part is people don’t wanna admit it .They wanna try to figure it out on their own. A lot of times, you need help. I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t get sober alone: I needed the help of people who understood where I was coming from and what was going on with me, because I didn’t understand. Asking for help is probably the biggest asset anybody has. And just being honest—you can’t keep a secret and have it get any better. You have to get honest. There’s AA, there’s NA, there’s all kinds of programs for recovery that work really really well. There’s Refuge Recovery, which is the Buddhist form of the 12-step [program], which is really rad.
It's important for people like you and I and people who care to acknowledge that this thing that's happening in our scene is a result of something that's happening in our world. It's a trickle-down effect of things that are falling apart in our country and our education system. For us to look at that stuff and go, "Okay, education's not getting to the root of that stuff, so how do we educate? How do we become examples of the very things that we're trying to achieve?" The most powerful thing I can do is be sober on Warped Tour and everybody knows it. I continue doing it. We have to live by it. We have to think globally too, because these problems don't just spring out of Warped Tour. They spring out of what's going on with these kids as they're growing up. The microcosm of Warped Tour is such an intense place that we have these flash fires. alt
This Q&A is part of our No More Silence series about the ongoing problem of sexual harassment in our scene. For more information, including hotline numbers and resource websites, please look to our initial post:
Or, read further with our other Q&A's: