At one point, beer had replaced water in Michael Wanz Wansleys diet.
At one point, beer had replaced water in Michael "Wanz" Wansley's diet. Santosh Tawde

Michael Wansley remembers very clearly the day he first got sober—Seafair Weekend 1999—after waking up in bed with a stranger, full of regret. He remembers a night in Paris while on tour with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, in a small club surrounded by hundreds of people waving bottles of champagne at him from every angle after he’d finished his famous deep-voiced hook on “Thrift Shop.” And he remembers a simple but effective idea his AA sponsor told him one afternoon: “Michael, you never have to take a drink again.”

Wansley—or Wanz, as he’s better known—has been sober now for 18 years. The Seattle native, who came up in the local music scene, recalls partying with members of famous grunge bands, like Mudhoney and Soundgarden, and watching many Seattle musicians quickly get hooked on heroin, alcohol, or cocaine—with some consequently losing their lives.

Drugs and alcohol were everywhere; Wanz recalls drinking beer so frequently that it replaced water in his diet. “I liked the feeling of being buzzed,” he admits. “Alcohol greases a lot of the social wheels. But what I didn’t see was the diminishing of my physical and mental capabilities, because I was always around people doing the same thing I was.”

Being a musician requires managing several jobs. On the one hand, there’s the songwriting and recording. On the other, there’s playing live to audiences whose numbers can range from single digits to several thousand. Live performances can induce a great deal of anxiety, of course, leading artists to abuse drugs to feel relaxed or to facilitate dealing with stress. “Playing music in front of people is really nerve-wracking,” says the golden-voiced Robb Benson, front man for the Seattle rock band Stereo Embers. “Drinking calms the nerves, especially if you have one or two. But then you build up a tolerance. You’re enjoying it more and more often.”

Benson, whose first job in Seattle in the '90s was working at NAF Productions running errands for bands like Alice in Chains, quit his daily drinking habit about a year ago. And while the move has helped him save money and shed pounds, the decision immediately made him question whether he could continue performing. “I went through a short depression at first,” Benson says. “I didn’t want to write much for a few months, and it took a good four-to-five shows to even feel comfortable up there. My first totally clean show, I was a nervous wreck. Shaking like a scared deer. I questioned if I even wanted to do it anymore. It wasn’t fun, but now I think I am fine. It’s a process.”

Stereo Embers Robb Benson (right) plunged into depression and lost creative inspiration after quitting drinking, but he eventually cleared those obstacles.
Stereo Embers' Robb Benson (right) plunged into depression and lost creative inspiration after quitting drinking, but he eventually cleared those obstacles. Darla Rae Barry Benson

Wanz says he also felt afraid on stage initially, unsure what to do. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to work,” he says. “My first out-of-town gig sober scared the shit out of me.” He remembers finishing a set in Spokane just as a waitress approached his group with a tray of Jägermeister shots. “I just sat on the drum riser while everyone in the band who wanted one got one,” he says. “I found myself imagining the shot like a cartoon, as if arms and legs would pop out and it would start running toward me. I drank so often and so much that I forgot I had a choice.”

Tayler Lynn, singer-songwriter for the Emerald City Americana group Vaudeville Etiquette, recently exercised that choice for herself. About two months ago, Lynn decided to quit drinking. “I didn’t have a rock-bottom-kind-of-moment,” she explains. “But I realized that alcohol had become more of a habit than an enhancement. It wasn’t solving any of my problems or making anything better.” Lynn and her band toured Europe for about a month, “drinking all the time,” she says. “And when I came back to the real world and plugged back into my life, I kept that momentum up.” But drinking wasn’t productive for her. “It became easier to just have a few glasses of wine,” she says, “and then say I was tired and go to bed rather than want to dig down and write.”

For Vaudeville Etiquettes Tayler Lynn quit booze thanks to the inspiration of Tom Waits.
Vaudeville Etiquette's Tayler Lynn quit booze thanks to the inspiration of Tom Waits. Travis Trautt

Lynn says gravelly voiced bard Tom Waits inspired her decision to go dry. “He had this quote, something along the lines of ‘Life is psychedelic enough’—that, in fact, he discovered drugs and alcohol were drowning life out.” Lynn says she was nervous at first to perform without a drink but she “tuned into the present. And not in a way that made me self-conscious,” she explains, “but almost euphoric in a way alcohol hasn’t really been able to do. It felt almost childlike.”

So far, Lynn has remained successful in her efforts. And while alcohol is ubiquitous in the music industry, Wanz, Benson, and Lynn all say that it’s ultimately one’s choice whether to take a sip from those inviting and prevalent glasses. “There’s always that little guy in the back of my head,” Lynn says, “saying a glass of wine would be really great right now. And shows are a huge test of that. You have to push through those awkward moments and think about the larger picture. It’s still something I’m working on.”