Local Current Blog

Johnny Solomon’s road to recovery

Credit: Nate Ryan for MPR

Ask a successful musician to name some of the highlights of their career, and many will pick a vivid turning point when they knew that their songs were suddenly enjoyed by a larger audience. For some, it’s the first time they hear themselves on the radio, jumping and screaming at the thrill of an endless and faceless sea of listeners being exposed to their art. For others, it’s the first time they book a headlining show at a big club and see their name on a poster or marquee.

For Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter, that moment came when the ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy” prominently featured his band’s song “Speed of Sound” in the opening scene of an episode last winter, and later in the same episode played the title track of his band’s debut album, Soundtrack to the End.

But what Solomon never could have imagined is that he would experience his first prime time TV moment from inside Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center, where he had checked himself into rehab after a 15-year struggle with substance abuse and undiagnosed bipolar disorder, surrounded by other patients receiving treatment. After suffering through a series of downfalls and disappointments that included jail time, a failed business venture, obliterated personal relationships and a self-destructive spiral that almost killed him, Solomon finally made the decision to get help and get clean.

And he made it just in time: Communist Daughter was about to be introduced to 20 million new fans, and whether he was ready or not, Solomon’s life would never be the same.

Communist Daughter publicity photo 2012 Patrick Kelly

Fans of 89.3 The Current were likely first introduced to Solomon and the rest of Communist Daughter by their track “Not the Kid,” which was the first local single to hit the #1 spot on the station’s popular weekly Chart Show back in early 2010 and still receives hearty cheers at their live shows. Since that single debuted, Communist Daughter has rapidly gained fans in the Twin Cities and beyond, drawing large crowds and earning praise from critics for their smart, Brian Wilson-inspired harmonic pop music.

Solomon’s career as a Minnesota musician actually reaches back to the early 2000s, when he made a name for himself fronting the notoriously hard-partying power-pop band Friends Like These, who seemed poised to break out into the national arena but failed to spark interest on tour. Though he didn’t know it yet, Friends Like These’s brush with almost-fame and sudden demise would be the first in a series of near misses for Solomon, and it set the tone for a tumultuous few years that eventually brought him to Hazelden and, a year later, to a point where he could finally celebrate some peace of mind and look back at where it all began with this weekend’s Friends Like These reunion show at the Triple Rock. It will be the first time the quartet have performed together in five years — and appropriately it’s all going down on Friday the 13th.

“The last Friends Like These show, I was in jail for, so they had to cancel that,” Solomon blurts out bluntly, warming his hands on a mug of mocha at a coffee shop near his home in St. Paul. “We were opening for Soul Asylum, it was some festival. We were going to open for Soul Asylum and I got arrested.”

Friends Like These publicity photo mid-2000s

Solomon is unapologetically, almost compulsively honest in the recounting of his storied past, and the only time he flinches is when he’s gauging the reaction of his fiancé and Communist Daughter bandmate Molly Moore, who sits next to him and encourages him with a sweet smile. When asked why he was arrested, he shrugs. “If you had to break it down, it was for erratic drug behavior,” he offers (public records from March 2007 indicate he was found guilty of disorderly conduct), adding that he was in jail for a month and re-emerged to find himself freshly divorced from both his first wife and his first band.

“I was like, screw this,” he scoffs. “I don’t want to be a fading rock guy anymore. I wanted to find some real reason — so I moved to Prescott, [Wisc.]. But I started drinking heavily there. So then I was in Prescott trying to convince people that I used to be somebody.”

“That’s how he got me,” Moore interjects, laughing.

“I was like, I used to be somebody! I used to be a rock ‘n’ roller! Listen to this!” He shakes his head. “I know. It was bad.”

Some people move to a small town to slow down, but as soon as Solomon set up camp in Prescott time started whirring past him. He had decided to throw himself into another passion — cooking — and soon had a lease for a bar, restaurant, and living quarters that would take over his life for the next two years. With a limitless supply of booze at his fingertips, Solomon dealt with the pressure of operating a restaurant the only way he knew how, and he says he eventually “made the decision, as all good addicts do: I was drinking so much that I was tired all the time, and I was so depressed because I didn’t like the life I was leading, that I was like, well, why don’t I just do speed so I’m not so tired?”

Solomon says meth was something he had dabbled with off and on for years in an attempt to steady what he describes as “episodes,” which he would later learn were the symptoms of his bipolar disorder.

“I’d have moments where I’d just get irrationally angry, and there were times where I thought I was smarter than everybody and I could read everybody’s thoughts.” When he reaches this point in the story, his memories start to blur. “I didn’t know what the next day was going to be. I couldn’t control what I was doing at all… That was the whole thing about moving to that small town and starting a restaurant, it was like — but I’m still an addict. Oh no. I thought growing up and getting a restaurant and moving to a small town, I’d be happy. I wouldn’t be like, ‘oh, I’m still an addict.’”

Through it all, Solomon’s passion for music endured. Friends Like These had splintered apart but he was still churning out songs, and he soon convinced Moore to come sing harmonies on the quieter, more introspective music that would make up Communist Daughter’s debut album Soundtrack to the End.

Johnny Solomon Nate Ryan for MPR

Like its title suggests, Soundtrack to the End aches under the weight of persistent melancholy and hints at a larger downward spiral, but it also glimmers with an underlying sense of hope. In many ways, it’s an appropriate document of the time in Solomon’s life, when he was increasingly and painfully aware of his struggle with addiction, still a prisoner of his own disease, but slowly piecing together an escape plan.

For our second interview, Solomon is tucked away in his home recording studio, scrolling through the tracks from the unreleased sophomore Communist Daughter album and chugging diet soda from a mason jar. Moore is padding around downstairs, cleaning up from dinner, brewing tea, and tending to Tigger, the couple’s boisterous, Muppet-sized dog.

Solomon is visibly more comfortable in the confines of his own home, and as soon as we nestle into the studio he picks up the story from where we left off days before. “Because I grew up not knowing that I was bipolar, and with my family not really around at the time when things like that were coming out, a lot of how I formed my identity was thinking that I was cursed,” he reflects somberly. Solomon was raised on a sheep farm in Liberty, Missouri, and his family dissolved before his eyes in his mid-teens when his parents got divorced and went their separate ways, leaving him and a younger sister to fend for themselves. “It wasn’t really like putting a word on it, like ‘hey, I’m cursed,’ but just knowing that nothing would work out. Like, ride that train as long as you can, and it’ll crash, because everything does. And not knowing why, but just knowing that was the case.”

He pauses, his steel eyes piercing through the dim light of his studio space. “A lot of people just thought I was going to die, and in a lot of ways I thought I was, too.”

Communist Daughter was meant to be a fresh beginning for Solomon, but not long after forming the band he found himself floundering again. With meth, alcohol, and his untreated bipolar disorder ruling his day-to-day life in Prescott, he eventually found himself buried under a heap of financial problems and was evicted from his restaurant and home. Pouring all his energy into the band, he attempted to take Communist Daughter on tour, but Solomon’s wildly unpredictable behavior scared away potential label reps and booking agents and eventually eroded whatever lingering trust he had instilled in his bandmates, until he found himself flying home from a particularly dramatic West Coast tour alone.

Like all stories with happy endings, however, this one thankfully has a turning point. Exhausted from years of self-destruction and alienated from almost everyone in his life, Solomon says it was music that finally led him to get the help he needed.

“Really the last thing that made me decide to get sober was the night when I had drugs, I had food and alcohol and I had my computer set out, I had my guitar, I had everything I needed — and I couldn’t write anything. And it was just like, ‘well if that’s gone, then what is there left?’ The music was done, Molly wasn’t speaking to me, the band wasn’t really functioning, no one was talking. I called my mom and said, ‘I’m just done. Either I’m going to die or I guess I gotta go to treatment.’”

Johnny Solomon Nate Ryan for MPR

But Solomon was destined to play one more show. The day he decided to finally head to rehab, Communist Daughter was scheduled to perform their cover of the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” at Curtiss A’s annual John Lennon tribute show at First Avenue.

“The band didn’t know if Molly was even going to show up to the show,” he recalls. “That show was so packed, and I still had some drugs and a bottle of vodka, I should have been like ‘this ain’t so bad,’ but f*ck it was horrible. I hated it. I couldn’t feel anything anymore. It sucked out all the reason why I was doing music, and I felt like it was only a matter of time before I’d be playing covers,” something he equates to a creative death sentence. “I figured if I was ever going to call Hazelden, might as well do it from backstage at First Ave.”

For anyone who was in the Mainroom that night in late 2010, it was Solomon’s most publicly humiliating performance, and it’s a jagged memory shared by those who were in the crowd and those who were with him backstage.

Jordan Gatesmith, who now fronts skyrocketing band Howler but back then was performing as a guitarist in Total Babe, recalls the night vividly. “We had played with Communist Daughter a couple times before, but this was the worst I had seen him,” he remembers. “His face wasn’t looking too good. He looked really, really sick, and didn’t seem like he knew what he was saying or doing. But I know he made that decision there. He was telling us, ‘well, I’m going to Hazelden tomorrow, so this is it. This is it guys.’ He just looked so bad.”

Now that he’s a year sober, Solomon laughs at the cruel serendipity of hitting rock bottom while another young musician was at the beginning of an incredible upward path. “It’s great Jordan was there, because now he’s the f**king sh*t!” he cackles. Solomon’s confidence in his own abilities has grown over the past year, too, especially since overcoming his initial fear that he wouldn’t be able to continue writing songs when he was sober.

Friends Like These publicity photo 2012

“There was a moment in treatment where some counselor was like, ‘you’ve been high on meth for three years, and with all the things that go with it, you brain has had it. You’ve been as high as you will ever be, and you will never feel as good as that.’ And it was just crushing to me to hear that, like what’s the point then? And then I went outside. They were like, ‘You’ll find it, you’ll find your spiritual experience.’”

“I remember it was that kind of ghost thing where it’s December and it’s freaking cold, and they were like you should go walking outside, you should go find yourself in nature. And it was the middle of December, of course. But I went out, and I was listening to my headphones, and I just got so high. I mean, I’ve been messed up in my life, and that was a moment where I was like, I’m listening to music, I’m in the middle of nowhere, and I just suddenly was like, woah! Oh no, I have to sit down. I just was so high. God gave me that back. That’s the thing that came back, where he took it away that night, where I thought it was gone, I got it right back.”

The band is in the process of signing with new management and a new booking agent, and Solomon hopes to finally take advantage of the traction they gained with their Grey’s Anatomy feature to re-release Soundtrack to the End nationally and take the band back out on the road for their first lengthier tour.

“It’s awesome to just be out there and do that and have confidence, knowing now that I’m not cursed, and it’s not like I’m just holding on and hoping this isn’t the time that it crashes. I’m having fun doing this and it’s betting better, and it gets bigger… I still get nervous. It’s good though. For me it feels good to get nervous and then get on stage, because it’s like a release of all that energy; it’s a natural high.”

Solomon takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, reclining back in his chair. He opens a folder on his computer and thumbs through the tracks on his band’s new EP, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was released this past fall, and a handful of unreleased tracks, and then turns back toward me and beams. “Do you want to hear a new song?”

Johnny Solomon Nate Ryan for MPR

New Friends Like These and Communist Daughter albums are forthcoming, including a reissue of Friends Like These’s debut full-length and two EPs, which are being celebrated at a reunion show tomorrow night, Friday, January 13, at the Triple Rock Social Club. Communist Daughter performs next on Saturday, January 28, at the Turf Club.