Jun 2, 2016
How To Get $200,000 Worth Of Revenge, Or How Mishka Shubaly Stopped Dodging Success
About a hundred pages into Mishka Shubaly’s memoir I Swear I’ll Make It Up to You, which came out this March, our hero, in a drunken haze, makes a four-point plan for world domination. One is “Graduate college and make mama proud.” Two is “Do something incredible.” Three is “Become successful.” Four is simply, “Get revenge.”
Last month when I ask him how his plan was going, he laughs and says “Um, good and bad,” offering an explanation that draws heavily on a metaphor rooted in the 1988 horror film Pumpkinhead, which I have not seen. As he’s explaining the premise of the film, we start talking about the deceased New York rapper Pumpkinhead, with whom Shubaly is unfamiliar, and by the time we’re both back on the same page we’ve forgotten what we were talking about in the first place. Then again, one of the lessons Shubaly has learned in his roughly four decades on earth is as corny as it seems, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Another one of the lessons he’s learned in his roughly four decades on earth is some things sound corny because they’re so true that they get repeated ad infinitum.
In person Shubaly is incredibly warm and friendly. When we first met at LA’s iconic Rainbow Bar and Grill he gives me a bag of oranges and avocados he hand-picked from his sister’s backyard. The Rainbow is the same place where the Hollywood Vampires hung out in the 70s, where the principals of the Sunset Strip hair metal scene got blotto in the 80s, and where Lemmy from Motörhead drank and played video poker damn near til the day he died. A couple decades past its prime, it’s not quite the bar that it once was–it’s halfway between a tourist trap and “living history” in the unkind sense of the term, where everything’s a little fucked up and no one cares enough to update any of it. But it’s got character, and as Shubaly and I can both attest, they make a damn edible burger.
The one-line description of Mishka Shubaly is inarguably impressive. He’s a singer-songwriter and regular-writer who’s written several best-selling Kindle Singles and counts such influential figures as Doug Stanhope and Jeff Bezos among his fans; he got his MFA in writing at Columbia and is currently a lecturer at Yale; and he traded a debilitating alcohol problem for the much healthier hobby of distance running. But up until a few years ago, that description would have been a single word, and that word would have been “drunk.”
Well, that’s not totally accurate. Even before he cleaned his act up, Shubaly was a character. As I Swear I’ll Make It Up to You attests, Shubaly managed to accomplish a dizzying amount of shit in between–not to mention during–trips to the bar. The son of a rocket scientist and a stay-at-home mom, when he was younger Shubaly attended high school at one of those inscrutable boarding schools for gifted teens that seems so New England that it shouldn’t exist. It’s there that he would end up surviving a school shooting, only to head home that day and find out his parents were getting a divorce. A few years later, he moved to New York just before the Y2K scare came and went, where he fell into the city’s music scene, playing in bands and booking for the Knitting Factory.
When Shubaly says things like, “I’ve been dodging success for a long time,” he might be joking, but he’s definitely not fucking around. He was in Freshkills whose first gig was opening for TV on the Radio back in the early 2000s. That band’s lead singer, Zachary Lipez, would later find success as both a writer and the frontman of the post-punk group Publicist UK, and also–full disclosure–success in the field of “being my friend.” Beat the Devil, a band Shubaly played bass in, once opened for Vampire Weekend on the eve of that band’s first album release–at the time, they even got a call out in a Village Voice review of the show.
Perhaps most notably, it was Shubaly’s band Come On who inadvertently helped The Strokes get their big break. See, Come On and The Strokes shared a bill way, way, back in the day, when The Strokes were just an unknown group of human haircuts, gigging their way around the city, right before they got discovered by producer Gordon Raphael, who’d go on to produce their debut album Is This It. Thing is, Raphael didn’t even like The Strokes. Speaking to The Guardian last year, Raphael said of the fateful gig, “The first band, Come On, were jaw-dropping. I thought the second act, the Strokes, were a bit too stylish and pleased with themselves. But I gave them both my card. The Strokes called me back. I never heard from Come On.”
“My life is a caricature of normalcy in some ways,” he jokes. These days, Shubaly splits time between living in Orange County, teaching writing at Yale, and touring the country in a beat-up Toyota Previa with a hand-made cot in the back, a sober guy playing shambling country-folk songs about his days of being drunk, down, and desperate. His most recent album, The Coward’s Path came out last fall and is full of songs with titles like “Fuck Self-Control,” “Taxes & Jail,” and “Your Plus One at My Funeral.” They’re darkly funny and at times purposefully ugly, but always brutally honest and never quite able to obscure Shubaly’s big, beating heart.
In a way, Shubaly’s music and writing feel like complementary parts of a single story–that of a guy who made all the mistakes you’re not supposed to make, and survived in spite of himself. I Swear I’ll Make It Up to You starts out as a book about how to fuck your life up, and ends as one about how to put it all back together. After two hundred pages of immersing himself in the filth of his darkest impulses, Shubaly cleans up, repairs his broken relationship with his father, drops the bottle, and picks up a pair of running shoes. His prose is muscular and full of the sort of brutal honesty that inspires self-examination. His passion burns through on every page, making every passage feel vital, whether he’s discussing living through a school shooting or talking about how much he loves his sister’s dog.
Over the course of several hours, Shubaly and I discussed his time in Williamsburg, substance abuse, what it’s like to suddenly go from having no money to having lots of money, and why sometimes it’s best to suffer a little bit.
Are there any memories you have of Williamsburg that stand out in particular?
I remember in 2008 when Obama was elected, it was like fuckin’ World World II had just ended in Williamsburg. I was still drinking then, and I went to take a piss in the corner of the street. I remember hearing the hard-soled shoes of the cops behind me. I turn around and they say, ‘No go ahead buddy, we want you to finish.’ And I was like, ‘I will not get arrested tonight.’ I just choked off my piss mid-stream, didn’t even do my pants up, and sprinted. I heard them running after me, and they were like, ‘Nah, forget it, he’s gone.’ That’s hope, man!
Tell me about your involvement with the New York music scene back in the day. You had a band, Freshkills. When did that end?
About nine years after we should have. [laughs] We put a record out, nothing happened. We did a tour with Riverboat Gamblers, nothing happened. I just had that moment of clarity where I was like, ‘This is it. This is as good as it will get for this band. We’re all pushing 40, we’re playing for two 16 year-olds with fake IDs, the bar staff, and four people our age, two of whom we’ve slept with.” The first Freshkills gig was late 2002, early 2003, opening up for TV on the Radio. Freshkills opened up for Yeah Yeah Yeah’s at Santos the night before they did Saturday Night Live back in the day. Then there was my old band, COME ON. The Strokes got their big break on a bill with us in ‘98 or ‘99. My other band Beat the Devil played Vampire Weekend’s album release party. I’ve been dodging success for a long time. It’s taken some real dedication.
I think a lot of people look at you and say, ‘Here’s the guy who was an alcoholic but now he’s a distance runner!’ Do you want to talk about that a bit?
All the sober people I talk to, they wanna talk about how I quit drinking by substituting running and got to this perfectly health place where I eat well and I don’t take any drugs or chemicals or whatever and I always have to say ‘No, that’s not it, that’s now how it worked.” I quit drinking. Period. I was just like, ‘I’m fucking done with this.’ And then, after I quit drinking, my life felt like a gaping chasm. When I didn’t know what to do, I started running, and that was the tool I used to get myself better, the way some people use meditation.
I’ve been sober for seven years now, and it’s past the part where it’s rewarding. Now it’s just my default. I never black out, I’m never hung over, I’m just sober all the time. There’s two sides of depression you know—one is being sad, and the other is not being able to feel happiness. I’m at a point where it’s not like, “I made it a year!” It is what it is. There are times where I can’t remember the last time I had fun—real fun. So I always try to remember the really horrible shit, of like sitting on the toilet throwing up on your crotch because you can’t figure out if you’re gonna shit or vomit. Or when I shit my pants a block and a half from my house. I just try to keep that shit in my head when I think my life is boring. My life is fucking great, man, I just have an attitude problem. I’ve realized I don’t crave vodka, I crave a fucking time machine so I can go back and be 22 again.
What’s the longest you’ve ever run?
I did 62 miles one day. That was hard. In the distance-running circle, that’s small potatoes. But it took 14 hours, lost some toenails.
A big theme in the book is wanting to do the right thing and just having this impulse to do bad.
My current nemesis is my six-year-old nephew. He’s a fuckin’ monster. [Laughs] I remember waking up one day on the floor of my sister’s house, waking up with this thought of, ‘Where did the trouble start? What the fuck happened?’ And then I looked up at the couch and my sister’s kid was sitting there with a shirt on that said, ‘I tried to be good but I got bored.’ And I was like, ‘Motherfucker! That’s it!’ It’s fun being bad, y’know? As a sober person you never want to go back and tell war stories, but I remember being a bar back and making a hundred and fifty bucks a night, picking up a bunch of half-used bags of coke off the floor, maybe get in a fight… that was awesome! I wouldn’t change anything. But also I had the distinct… whatever the opposite of pleasure was. It’s like, I was a kid, I had fun, now it’s time to move the fuck on with my life. It’s over.
One thing that really jumped out at me in the book was that you have really visceral depictions of vomit throughout the first part.
For a long period in my life, vomiting played a bigger role in my life than sex did. I threw up every day for a long time. It was an intimate, humiliating thing, but it was just part of the day, like finding a parking spot.
What’s it like going back and revisiting your darkest days in such vivid detail?
It totally sucks, dude. I don’t know that I have anything more articulate to say about it than that. In your life, you do the stupid stuff, then the next morning when you’re coming to you say, “Aw, fuck, I can’t believe I said this and did that,” then try to never think about it again. And if you do think about it, you try to assign blame to other people.
Writing the book was almost like being a war criminal and you’ve spent years trying to distance yourself from that horrible thing you did in the jungle, and then suddenly you’re forced to relive it. Some of my most meaningful classes in college were in journalism and nonfiction, and so I feel a greater obligation to the truth than making people like me. Unfortunately, I was a shithead. So I feel like I have to go back and write things the way they happened, without saying, “Had I known then what I know now, I would have realized I was being a total dick.” It’s also like, these are all my secrets, and now I’m no longer afraid of someone else exposing them. Nobody can make me look worse than I already have. There is definitely an element of sharing this stuff and making myself look like a total asshole that is my greatest fear.
It’s almost like going to confession in church, but in public.
I don’t wanna call myself an atheist, because that’s pretty smug, so instead I’ll say I’m an anti-theist. I can’t say confidently whether there is one or there isn’t, but I’m against the whole notion. And so, in a Godless universe, the only way that human beings can make sense of our existence is to impose an order on a disordered world. One of the ways we do that is to connect with each other and to talk and to share experiences and stuff like that. It’s incredibly cathartic to just be like “Yeah, all those times when I wasn’t answering my phone or whatever, this is what I was doing.” And then you’re free of it. Except for when you try and date somebody and they go and read your book.
Does it feel like it was all worth it?
When I’m out on the road, I hang out with people who are like 32 or 35 and will say, “I’ve smoked weed twice, I’ve never done coke,” and it’s like, people shouldn’t have to go through what I went through, but I don’t think you should be 35 and not know about drugs and heartbreak and despair and all the miserable bullshit of humanity. You’ve gotta suffer sometimes, man. There’s no shortcuts.
Photo by Leslie Hassler
I think that sentiment applies to being an artist, as well.
I remember going to Lollapalooza in 1992, and everyone was crowdsurfing. People kept falling because there weren’t enough people to hold them up—they were all trying to crowdsurf. I had this epiphany then, at 15, that’s only gotten truer over the years, which is everybody wants to be on top, and there’s not enough people on the bottom. And that’s what it’s like to be trying to write now, or make music, or do anything creative. It’s like, everybody’s a fucking writer, making beats, doing records on GarageBand, and because of that there’s been no better time to be a music fan or to be a fan of writing because there’s so much stuff to read, but on the other hand our shit is worthless now, you know? I mean, it sucks to say that after having just had that book come out.
On the other hand, you made something like $200,000 from Kindle Singles, right?
For two years, I was just killing it. And that freaked me out worse than anything else, man, because I was newly sober, I’d never had any money. I think the year before I started publishing Kindle Singles, I made $9,000. The next year, I made $90,000.
There were a couple of months there where I was making like $30,000 or $40,000 a month. I had this imposter syndrome, like this is a fluke, the algorithm has gone wrong. A lot of my friends were like, ‘You’ve worked so hard! You really deserve it!’ And that was just bullshit. Yeah, I worked ‘til 4 in the morning a lot of nights, but I wasn’t writing, I was working at a fucking bar. So yeah, I worked really hard, and yeah I hit it big, but there wasn’t any correlation.
There was really a minute there where Amazon would deposit like $30,000 in my bank account and I would just be like, ‘I don’t know what to do, this money is evil, I’m just gonna buy guitars.’ And I bought every fucking guitar I ever wanted ever in my life. I would spend like $20,000 on guitars, and I would get through the month, say ‘OK, good that money’s gone.’ And then they would fucking do it again. And it kept happening, to the point that there was more money than I could fit under my mattress. I had to put it somewhere, and it seemed like a house was the smartest place to put it. So I bought a house, and now the money’s basically gone. That makes it easier. It’s rented, there’s a tenant and that pays the mortgage, and it’s fine.
One thing I really respect about your writing is you have a ton of life experience to back up the prose. The book isn’t just like, you writing about your normal-ass life in a witty way.
A lot of the corny shit that people would say in a freshman writing class is true. Some people learn how to write and some people are just born into it, and in some ways, it just comes from alienation and you recognize yourself to be the opposite of everyone else. And you’ve just gotta run to that and be like, ‘OK I’m an alien, that’s what I am, I’ll be an alien professionally.’
The way that I made it as a writer is by failing at every other thing out there. By the time I got sober I was just working off Craigslist, picking shit at the free section and selling it on the furniture section or whatever. Fucking dark days.
Have you ever made this mistake when you’re driving somewhere you’re trying to get to someone’s house and you’re like ‘I fucking missed it, I gotta turn around and go back.’ And then you turn around and go back only to find out that it was the next house or the next turn or something? I think that’s how it is, both in sobriety and as a writer, where there are so many times where you’re like, ‘Oh I’m screwing up, I’m on the wrong road, I need to turn around.’ But you just gotta keep going, man.
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