There have been times when Chip Z’Nuff could have rolled over and given up, and nobody would have blamed him. During the glory days of the late 1980s, his band Enuff Z’Nuff were fêted as rock’s Next Big Thing. They were power-pop princes in glam-metal clothing – The Beatles and Cheap Trick reinvented for the lip gloss-’n’-hair-spray set. Bassist Z’Nuff and singer/guitarist Donnie Vie were one of the great double acts of the era. They were blood brothers, as close a pairing as you’ll find, and together they had the drive, the ambition and the songs to become stars.
Unfortunately, they also had a superhuman capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, which they proceeded to do at every step along the way. For all the great music they have made, Enuff Z’Nuff’s career has been punctuated by drug-induced self-sabotage, inglorious failure, premature death, bankruptcy, a constant churn of record labels and personnel, and ultimately the acrimonious dissolution of the brotherhood between the two men at the heart of it. As Z’Nuff, a man not prone to under-exaggeration, puts it: “It’s been ten steps forward and thirty steps back.”
But quitting has never been Chip Z’Nuff’s style. Almost 30 years after Enuff Z’Nuff’s debut album, he’s still flying the flag for the band that shares his name. Their new record, the iridescent Diamond Boy, is as good as anything they’ve released since their late-80s/early-90s heyday.
It’s also the first record Z’Nuff has made without Vie; Z’Nuff handles vocals, although the spectre of his former bandmate haunts songs like Dopesick and Down On Luck. ‘I’m living in a world of pain and mixing it with cheap cocaine,’ Z’Nuff sings on the latter, a barely disguised reference to his old friendturned-unwilling antagonist.
“I put the band together back in the eighties and I didn’t wanna give it up,” Z’Nuff says proudly. “The choo-choo train still has some fuckin’ coal in it.”
Chip Z’Nuff is a natural-born optimist. “There’s not a lot of pessimism in my life,” admits the man born Greg Rybarski in Blue Island, Chicago around the time The Beatles got together. He talks with an accent as wide as the Lake Michigan waterfront and a rasp like a malfunctioning hair dryer. “Although the music business will bring the worst out in you.”
He’s an inveterate networker, too. During our conversation he drops in the names of various people he’s crossed paths with, from legendary music mogul Clive Davis, who signed Enuff Z’Nuff to his label, Arista, in the early 1990s, to fellow Chicagoan Kanye West; Z’Nuff worked with the rapper in 2007 on an album by West’s protégé, Malik Yusuf. “I thought it would show people that we weren’t just rock musicians, that we were sixtrick ponies,” he says, and then laughs a throaty laugh. “Obviously that failed miserably.”
It’s this enthusiasm for life that has kept Enuff Z’Nuff afloat through their turbulent career, and got them off the ground in the first place. “There were a lot of obstacles back then,” he says of the band’s beginnings in Chicago in 1983. “There were a ton of groups out here who were kicking ass but just couldn’t get arrested.”
He’d put the band together with Donnie Vie, a wild kid from a broken home. Z’Nuff, five years older, took Vie under his wing. “The bond was unbreakable,” he says. “The task as hand was: ‘Let’s write some great songs.’”
They bought a drum machine, moved into a flophouse and began writing those songs. They played anywhere that would have them, passing their tapes on to anyone who would listen. “We were full of piss and vinegar,” says Z’Nuff. “We knew we had a good sound. We were very flamboyant, very colourful, we looked great.”
They were opportunists, too. They recorded a demo at a studio in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. “We’d sneak in the studio at two o’clock in the morning when everybody was done and record these songs,” says Z’Nuff. “We’d get an ounce of cocaine and a couple of bottles of Jack Daniel’s and go for it.
One of the peculiarities of talking to Z’Nuff is that he frequently uses the word ‘we’ when referring to his band’s ill-starred narcotic history, despite insisting that he never indulged in anything stronger than pot.
“I never fell into the drugs,” he says. “I knew we couldn’t do any business if we were all fucked up. But you are the company you keep. If you’re hanging out with somebody who’s all fucked up on the hard stuff, well guess what – you’re fucked up as well. I include myself, cos that’s my team.”
The hard stuff was the provision of Vie and guitarist Derek Frigo, a local hotshot who joined Enuff Z’Nuff in 1988, a year before they recorded their self-titled debut album. The pair’s chemical proclivities often came close to undoing what Z’Nuff was trying to build.
“Everyone was fairly jacked up,” says Z’Nuff. “I found myself always trying to break up fights, trying to keep the drug dealers away from the band. I tried to make the road a little bit smoother for us. It never was, it was constantly bumpy.”
Bumpy or not, the road eventually led them to Atco Records, who threw their weight behind the band. All the signs pointed to stardom. They looked like part – psychedelic glammetal gypsies in billowing shirts and purple-tinted granny glasses. MTV embraced the Beatles-y singles New Thing and Fly High Michelle. Their sparkling self-titled debut album sold half a million copies – not Guns N’ Roses numbers, but certainly respectable. Then the label dropped a bombshell.
"They came to us with a bill for $775,000 and said: ‘That’s what you owe us,’” says Z’Nuff. “We said: ‘We sold half a million records and we still owe three quarters of a million dollars?’”
Undeterred, they recorded a follow-up, the magnificent Strength. It matched its predecessor sales-wise, and even Rolling Stone took notice, declaring Enuff Z’Nuff to be the hottest rock band of the year. But their debts were mounting.
“Here we are, making great records, touring the country,” says Z’Nuff. “It was everything we wished for, yet we’ve got no dough. On top of that, because of our problems with substance abuse we weren’t focusing on the shit that was all around us business-wise.”
Z’Nuff decided to hit the nuclear button: he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on behalf of the band. It was a risky gamble, one that could have turned Enuff Z’Nuff from bright young things into music industry pariahs. But it paid off when Clive Davis – the man who built the careers of an impressive list of artists including Aerosmith and Whitney Houston – offered them a deal with Arista.
“Clive knew when he signed the band that we had a few issues, but he was unaware of just how bad they were,” says Z’Nuff, who claims that Vie was arrested for drug possession the night before a crucial meeting with the label. “But he went with us. He said: ‘I don’t care what it takes to get that vocal out of your brother, make it happen.’”
He wrangled the vocal from Vie, but that was pretty much all he got out of their time with the label. Enuff Z’Nuff’s third album, 1993’s Animals With Human Intelligence, was released just as the grunge wave crested. The band remained stuck in the traps. Within a year they were off Arista. “We were never fired, we were never dropped,” says Z’Nuff. “But we found ourselves in debt again.”
Chip Z’Nuff being Chip Z’Nuff, he wasn’t about to let everything he’d built fall to pieces. The bassist hustled and cajoled his way through the next few years, releasing a string of albums on assorted independent labels. He still had enough charm to persuade the likes of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, Styx guitarist James ‘JY’ Young and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan to appear on the band’s 1999 album Paraphernalia.
“I met Billy at a funeral, and said: ‘Are you aware of my band, Enuff Z’Nuff?’” he says. “He goes: ‘Are you kidding? I got the Strength album in my car right now.’ I thought maybe if I get some of the musicians in Chicago to come in and cameo on the record it would help elevate Enuff Z’Nuff’s name.”
It didn’t. The bumps in the road got bigger and more frequent. Enuff Z’Nuff cycled through a steady stream of band members and managers. In 2007, drummer Ricky Parent lost his battle with cancer. Three years earlier, former guitarist Derek Frigo, who had been fired in 1993, had died of a heroin overdose; for a while it looked like Donnie Vie would follow him.
“I was there for my brother all the way,” says Z’Nuff. “However, if I said there wasn’t any stress and aggravation, that wouldn’t be true.”
The cause of that stress and aggravation was having problems of his own. Since the beginning of Enuff Z’Nuff, Donnie Vie had been getting fucked up. And the only way he knew how to deal with that was by getting even more fucked up.
For a man who has spent a large chunk of the past 30 years in a bad place, Donnie Vie hasn’t lost his sense humour. “A bad place? Ya think so?” he says drily.
Vie currently lives in California. He’s two thirds of the way through recording a new solo album, the follow-up to 2014’s The White Album released soon after he quit Enuff Z’Nuff for the second and final time.
“I should have done it a long time before that. I just wasn’t ready,” he says of his departure. “I’ve just outgrown it. It’s not that big a deal.”
Except it is. Whether he likes it or not, Vie is still inextricably linked with the group he joined as a teenager 35 years ago. But any pride he takes in being part of Enuff Z’Nuff for so long is overshadowed by a mixture of ambivalence and frustration.
“I made I don’t know how many records, and wrote all the songs and sang ’em, and nearly killed myself doing it,” he says. “It’s part of my history. But that’s what it is: history.”
He was a kid named Donald Vandevelde when he met Chip Z’Nuff back in the 80s. “Fucked up, came from a dysfunctional home, manic depression, ADHD, bi-polar, all of that shit,” he says. “Like anyone in that situation, as soon as you can you find something to drink or smoke so you don’t feel like this depressed, insecure piece of shit.”
Asked what his poison of choice was, he laughs. “It would be easier to say what it wasn’t. I didn’t like acid. I was a great lover of the stimulants, but then comes the stress and you need something to equalise it, and before you know it you’re in a vicious loop. You become this monster.”
Vie’s relationship with Chip Z’Nuff was complex even back then. He credits the bassist with helping turn him from feral street kid into a proper musician and songwriter, and doesn’t deny that Z’Nuff’s drive was the thing that got Enuff Z’Nuff where they did. But he’s dismissive about their perceived roles in the band.
“He had a problem with being upstaged,” says Vie. “To this day he goes around claiming he wrote all the songs. He really didn’t. He made a very minimal contribution. Chip was a great player and a star, but he wasn’t an artist.”
Vie was uncomfortable at being bundled into the glam-metal movement, but he was too messed up to do anything other than go along with it. “There was a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs, a lot of girls,” he says. “The music and the shows was extra-curricular to the party. It was like a carnival ride. This thing was spinning so fast. And once that carnival ride is rolling there’s no way you can get off.”
Through his narcotic haze, Vie watched his band’s initial promise dissipate. He wasn’t unaware of the problems, just numb to them.
“Oh, it’s my fault that I wasn’t in any kind of mental shape to say this is wrong, that’s wrong,” he says. “When it came to that kind of decision making, I’d just disappear.”
More than once, he says, he tried to make a solo album, only for “other people” to muscle in and co-opt it as an Enuff Z’Nuff record. “Next thing you know, you’ve got a deal, you’re playing shows, you got money and you’re back on the carnival ride. I kept fooling myself, thinking: ‘This time it will be different.’”
It wasn’t. Vie quit Enuff Z’Nuff for the first time in 2003, only to find himself pulled back in a few years later. It looked like he had as much trouble breaking his addiction to the band as he did to narcotics.
He left Enuff Z’Nuff in 2013. It would be another couple of years before he quit drugs. The tipping point came when he returned from a European tour and was pulled off the plane by the police for an outstanding drug warrant. He could have gone to prison for a long time, but instead the court offered him the option of undergoing a programme to get clean. He seized the opportunity. “It was time to stop the ride,” he says. It worked. Vie says he’s been clean for more than two and a half years. The programme helped him deal with an array of health issues, ranging from rotten teeth to hepatitis C (a disease common among intravenous drug users).
“I have a lot more days where I’m not not happy, where I’m not all strung out,” he says. “It’s great that I know I’m not going to be in the studio for the next thirty-six hours because I’m all fucked up, afraid of the sun. There’s a lot of things I don’t miss about those days.”
One of those things, apparently, is Chip Z’Nuff. Vie hasn’t spoken to his former bandmate in four years, and shows no signs of wanting to change that any time soon.
“There’s no real reason to do that,” he says. “I could never function in that band the way he has it orchestrated without being medicated. There’s no way I could deal with that…” He searches for the word. “Buffoonery.”
And so here we are in 2018. Chip Z’Nuff and Donnie Vie have separate lives, separate careers. Despite his upbeat demeanour, Z’Nuff can’t quite keep the disappointment out of his voice when he talks about his former colleague and friend.
“The only time we talk is when it has to do with money, and it’s always through his manager, who is his brother-in-law,” says Z’Nuff. “I love the guy, but I don’t feel that love is reciprocated.”
Z’Nuff says that Derek Shulman, the man who signed them to Atco Records all those years ago, attempted to broker a rapprochement in 2016 with a view to getting the pair back together to make a new album. According to Z’Nuff, Vie wasn’t interested in the songs he’d written.
“That’s why I’m singing on the new album,” he says. “Listen, Donnie and I did a lot of stuff together. But when you don’t have your partner with you it’s swim or fuckin’ drown. And that’s what I did, I swam.”
Vie says he hasn’t heard the latest Enuff Z’Nuff record. Nor does he sound like he wants to. “I’ve moved on,” he says. “All that shit’s in the past.”
There’s no fairy-tale ending in sight for Enuff Z’Nuff, but then there wasn’t much of a fairy tale beginning either, the brotherly bond stronger in theory than in reality. But as long as Chip Z’Nuff has air in his lungs and there’s coal in the engine, that choo-choo train will keep on rolling.
Enuff Z’Nuff’s latest album Diamond Boy is out now. (opens in new tab)