EXCLUSIVE: Scott Stapp on drugs, God and near death experiences

Scott Stapp has just released his autobiography Sinner's Creed, a powerful, moving account of his life in music and faith, in the UK. The 40-year-old singer sat down with us to share some memories of his journey and the dark side of the rock n' roll lifestyle...

Why did you feel that now was the right time to tell your life story?

“Well, when I started writing the book in late 2010/early 2011 I was just getting into a recovery programme, just finally admitting that I was an alcoholic and had become a drug addict: the underlying issue was depression and I was self-medicating and it just spiralled from there. As part of that process there was a lot of self-reflection and I was asked to go back over my life and write down my story, starting with being born on August 8, 1973, and that’s really how it started. I had no intentions of writing a memoir, it was just me in rehab, alone, in my room trying to figure out how I got there, and someone said ‘Go sort through your life and be 100% honest with yourself, that’s the key.’ And so I just started writing and it just poured out of me. And as I was becoming more clear and sober I could really see how my perspective on things was changing. I felt a lot of guilt and shame for being in that position, so I was hard on myself, but I was looking at every situation from the standpoint of ‘What did I do? What was my role?’ And that’s also the way they wanted you to look at making amends to people. I was in a real vulnerable place and so I just started writing everything down with the intent of letting one person read it, the person who was my companion in the rehab centre, and then I was going to burn it, as a symbol of letting everything go. And then my wife came to visit when I was there, and I began to let her read it and she said ‘You need to share this story: there are a lot of other people that are alcoholics and addicts and have had issues in their lives that might benefit from reading this.’ I was like ‘Hmmm, I don’t know’ but the more I got into my sobriety programme and learned that in helping other people that were going through the issues that I was coming out of, that’s part of how you stay sober. At that point my life got minimised down to the most important things: every day was about getting up and going to meetings and serving coffee to people and seeing if I could help somebody else, not only for them, but for me, to keep me from going back and using. So as I began to get more comfortable with that, and my life went from huge rock n’ roll star where everything is about me and, like, ‘Where’s my next career move?’, to just being this guy who only cared about helping people in recovery, that’s when it finally clicked with me: ‘Okay, I’ll share this’. I felt like I needed to set the record straight, not only for my fans and my career, but for myself, and as a way to close the chapter, put it on the shelf and start over.”

Your childhood, as related in Sinner’s Creed, was a tough time, particularly in regards to the physical and mental abuse meted out by your step-father.

“It was pretty dark. The line between discipline and abuse was crossed on a regular basis, for both myself and my four sisters. And then, to top it off, we had the emotional and spiritual abuse, because everything was done in the name of God. We were little kids, and this man was a doctor, so of course we believed in him, and he was god in the household, so that really distorted my view of God: God, to me, was this punishing, never-satisfied entity, because my step-father did what he did in His name.”

It seems astonishing to me that having had that kind of brutal indoctrination into religion, that you wouldn’t have completely rebelled against belief systems…

“Well, I did, but in a kinda unique way. One of the punishments that my step-father would make me do, for days, sitting in my room, would be to write out the Bible, especially Psalms and Proverbs and then the gospels in the New Testament. And he’d make me write a commentary on what each chapter meant to me, and then I had to turn it into him, to check for spelling and grammar and neatness, and he’d spank me and hit me if there were any errors and make me do it again. And that happened for years. But in my own private reading during those times I began to find inconsistencies with what he was trying to teach me about faith and God. I’d bring these things to his attention and get severely punished, but I began to develop my own connection to what I was reading. So when I went to Christian college at 18, and then got kicked out for smoking weed with the Dean’s son, at that point I did completely run away from the church and took comfort in what I was told was the Devil’s Music, which I had loved in my heart ever since I was at my friend’s house and the video for Photograph by Def Leppard came on MTV.”

Were you not permitted to have rock n roll records in your home when you were growing up?

“The only records I was allowed were by U2, because I convinced my step-father that they were a Christian band, as I guess a lot of people later did with Creed. For about four years the only rock record I could listen to at home was The Joshua Tree. But then I’d also be secretly feeding my head with AC/DC and Metallica and Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd at my friends’ houses: my friend Gary had older brothers who were into Sabbath and Zeppelin, so we would sneak into their room and borrow their cassettes, but I couldn’t bring them home.”

Was living that double life not quite difficult?

“Well, it probably conditioned me to be able to live that way for survival. When I was trying to hide alcoholism and addiction in later years, I’d probably been well prepared for that duality and duplicity. When Creed was taking off there were days when I felt weird and didn’t want to get out of bed, and at the time I didn’t know at the time that I had depression, I couldn’t understand it, but I knew that when I had a few drinks I didn’t feel that way anymore. So I kept it secret from everyone. And having to hide my interest in rock n’ roll probably helped condition me for that.”

Much like Nikki Sixx’s Heroin Diaries book, your book paints a rather bleak portrait of rock ‘n roll success: there’s an awful lot of sadness even as you were living a life that, theoretically, should have been your dream.

“Yeah, and I think you could see that clearly in the Weathered album. The title and the lyrics on that record absolutely relate to that - “I’m rusted and weathered, barely holding together, I’m covered with skin that peels and it just won’t heal” - that was me sharing my heart and soul. I guess I’d learned how to flip the switch when I had to. As a kid I was living in fear, but when social services came to check on reports that we were being ill-treated, I had to flip the switch. So I was trained as a child. There was a time after I had a car accident and I was introduced to painkillers, where I thought they were miracle drugs, because for the first time I felt normal. But once those took a hold of me it was isolation, then flipping the switch to get throw the show…until I finally broke down in Chicago.”

You mention that incident in the book: for those who’re unaware of the incident, it basically involved you losing it onstage at the Allstate Arena in Chicago in December 2002, and publicly accusing your bandmates of not having your back.

“Well, I guess that was when my demons came to life and played out in public, the demons I was fighting the whole time. There were times at shows when I’d look and see people dancing and smiling and I’d wonder if they understood at all what I was singing about. But the whole rock n’ roll world - the women, the excess – was filling in holes and temporarily getting me through, and I’d adjust my mindset to try to just enjoy it. But then there was the whole Christian label that got put on us which really caused a rift in the band, and was probably one of the key reasons we broke up: we all knew how we were living our life and that that’s not what we were and we didn’t want to be held to that standard…and then be called hypocrites. So when things came out about the sex and the drugs of course everyone thought that anyway.

I regret that night in Chicago. I was hurt at that point in time by those guys, but my perception was off: I was drinking from the time I woke up ‘til the time I went to sleep, and under the influence of pills as well, and that was something I should have never let out publicly. And I’ve since apologised and done my best to make amends. That was an error, and I always will regret that and wish I hadn’t done it. But that was the first time where what was going on behind the scenes spilled out.”

So how did Creed finally come to an end?

“I found out that Creed had broken up when I was watching VH1 one day and it was some kind of Spring Break type show and I heard the VJ announce ‘Mark Tremonti and Scott Philips are here..’ and they said ‘Creed has broken up’ and then they announced their new band. And they did it purely to get publicity for their new project. And I was hurt by that, I felt used and betrayed. But I’m sure they had some animosity too, not just because of Chicago, but also because I’d disappeared to Maui to get my shit together. Looking back, I think my wanting to take a break helped Mark to move towards a decision that he wanted to take anyway, but I was disappointed that we never sat down and discussed it.”

In Sinner’s Creed it’s notable that you don’t ever mention Alter Bridge by name.

“Right. At the time when I was writing the book I didn’t want to give them any extra publicity. Because, basically, I felt that what they’d tried to do was getting another guy and have him look like me, dress like me, try to act like me and just replace me. And I felt betrayed, because Creed was my band too, my baby. And I was hurt too because, for a PR move, they went out and brought [ex Creed bassist] Brian Marshall back, so that it looked like ‘Oh, Scott’s the one that’s been causing all these problems.’ And that was carefully calculated and planned for imaging, and it really pissed me off. So I did have some animosity, because I began to see with Alter Bridge that whoever was guiding Myles [Kennedy] – who’s an amazing artist in his own right, and an amazing guitar player – was trying to make them be Creed under a different name. I was thinking ‘If you’re going to break up Creed, go do something different, be original and don’t try to copy everything that I am, and just mimic me.’ I had that animosity for years. But at this point in my life I’ve let that go and I wish them the best. I’m 40 years old and I wife and three kids and I just want to be happy and I can’t carry around all that stuff. There’s three sides to every story – theirs, mine and what really happened – but certainly at a point I was feeling abandoned and betrayed, like my friends had just kicked me to the kerb and used me when I needed them the most. But I’m over that. It is what it is. And I just want Mark and Scott and Brian to be happy and enjoy their lives and they seem to be that way. And Myles is a great guy, I’ve hung out with him in Oklahoma, and he’s cool. On one hand, I can understand Mark not wanting to deal with someone who was struggling with depression and addiction and alcoholism, but on the other hand, as friends, I can’t understand the lack of wanting to be here for me and help me when I needed it. I spent a lot of time alone on the tour bus, in whatever mental state I was in, wishing that they would walk through my bus door and no-one ever did.”

But did they know though that you were suffering from depression then?

“No, I don’t think they did, because I didn’t know. To them I think it just looked like I was this weirdo in his bus by himself all day long, drinking. One thing I’ve learned in life is that you can’t expect anything out of anyone, but I know that, with the kind of person I am, I’d be there for Mark in a heartbeat, I’d cancel everything. But by no means am I saying that I was the perfect human being, that’s just my perspective. It’s all good now, there’s no ill feelings or bitterness, but at the time I was writing the book I was still dealing with resolving those conflicts.”

I think that, in the UK at least, Alter Bridge’s decision to distance themselves from you and Creed, made you look like the bad guy in that relationship.

“No, you’re right, and that really hurt me. Because I felt I was a loving and loyal friend to those guys, and to feel that there was an intentional PR and marketing agenda to paint me out that way really hurt my feelings. Because they know the truth, they know who I am. Still to this day I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t say that it still upset me a bit, because it’s not even close to reality, but I guess I’ll just have to talk to people one person at a time and let them make their own decisions.”

With all due respect, the fact that God and faith plays such a huge part in your story might be off-putting to some readers…

“I get that, because it’s not a traditional rock n’ roll memoir. But I have to be honest, so this was never about doing a PR job on myself.”

Addiction is often discussed as filling in a God-shaped hole in people’s lives, but now that you’ve conquered your addictions, and filled that God-shaped hole with God, it might just seem like faith is just another addiction…

“Well, it keeps me alive. So if I’m addicted to God it’s better than me being addicted to alcohol and drugs. Faith saved my life and it works for me. I’m not trying to be evangelical, I’m just sharing what got me sober and what’s kept me out of the dark places since, and what’s been a roadmap for me to try to stay alive.”

Perhaps the most memorable part of the book is your near-fatal fall twenty feet down from a hotel balcony in Miami in November 2006: you clearly were in a desolate and desperate place at that point.

“I should say here that I didn’t jump that day, it was an accidental fall, but at the time I was committing slow suicide: I had given up in my mind many times, but wouldn’t pull the trigger, but I think that by increasing my drug usage and alcohol intake I was trying, slowly and subconsciously, to kill myself, because I just didn’t care anymore. That was a dark time. But that fall was the beginning of a change in my life. I have that date tattooed on my arm, because I feel like I was given a second chance that day. I mean, it really put me down: aside from the broken bones I couldn’t think straight for a year and couldn’t articulate my feelings. It was a really tough and humbling time. My wife had to bathe me, I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom, and I kinda felt that my broken body kinda represented me being broken physically, spiritually and emotionally too: it was time for me to build a new foundation, not only for my family but also for me as an artist.”

So how is Scott Stapp feeling on this day in 2014?

“I’m feeling excited and happy and proud that I have a new record that I love and I’m getting the chance to play it for people. I’m living one day at a time but I have a new re-invigorated passion and energy for my music and performing: there are days when I wake up and think ‘Man, I haven’t felt like this since I was 19 or 20’ in terms of really wanting to connect and make it. Now that I’m 40 years old and I feel like I’m starting over , it’s exciting and I think I know how to navigate this life better. I feel like I’ve grown as an artist and I really feel like my music is relevant today, so I’m just hoping for that chance to be accepted for who I am, doing what I do.”

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.