DS Exclusive: Miguel Chen (Teenage Bottlerocket) on his new book, “I Wanna Be Well: How a Punk Found Peace And You Can Too”

If you’ve willingly plucked your head out of the proverbial sand at any point in the last handful of years, you’ve no doubt become aware that in a macro sense, we’re living in a pretty divisive, unstable time. If you add personal issues and unrest to the pile, the result can swallow you whole, whether you want it to or not. As an outlet, people will turn to a variety of solutions to help stem the tide of negativity; music, the arts, exercise, writing for a small punk-centric website, etc. Some people unfortunately choose more self-destructive paths that they hopefully, someday, are able to make it through minimally scarred. For Miguel Chen, the path seemed dark for a while, but has slowly, steadily become lightened – and enlightened – as it’s gone.

If you’ve been even a casual Dying Scene reader over the years, you’re no doubt familiar with Chen from his role as the bass player for iconic Wyoming pop-punk band Teenage Bottlerocket for more than a decade. Like many bands in this scene, TBR developed a reputation for working hard and partying harder, touring seemingly endlessly and enjoying the experience to the fullest. The annals of rock music history are littered with similar stories, frequently ending in disastrous consequences. “On my own path,” explains Chen, “it (went) from ‘alright, we’re in our band, it’s fun! We’re touring, it’s fun! We’re putting out records, it’s fun! Holy shit, we’re on Fat Wreck Chords, it’s fun! We’re on the road with NOFX, it’s fun!’ And the whole time, it’s just like ‘party, party, party, party, party.” Eventually, you return home from the road, however, and something seems to be missing. “You get home from tour,” Chen explains, “(and it’s) ‘oh fuck, this is boring, I better party. Party, party, party, party, party.’ All of a sudden, years later, it’s like ‘fuck – am I a person who has to drink or do drugs? Is that me?‘.”

While that part of the story might sound endlessly familiar to anyone that’s been in or around the music scene, Chen’s tale takes a bit of an atypical turn. Years of what he considered ultimately ineffective traditional treatment for mental health diagnoses that included bipolar disorder and anxiety – think psychotherapy and medications – led Chen to develop an increased involvement in the practice of sitting mediation. From there, the repeated insistence of friend then brought him into the world of yoga. “Finally I went and tried a class,” he explains, adding “I thought ‘what’s the worst that can happen? I’m going to sweat a bunch and it’s going to suck and I just won’t go back. So I went to my first yoga class, and then the next day I went to my second yoga class and then the next day I went to my third yoga class and I just never stopped.”

Chen went from practicing yoga to teaching at a studio in his hometown of Laramie, Wyoming, to eventually taking over the studio he’d been teaching at and opening a second studio in nearby Cheyenne, Wyoming. He continues to push himself in the punk rock world – Teenage Bottlerocket released a full-length album of covers and an EP of new original material last year – and the yoga world, having just returned from an intense training in Rishikesh, India, that lasted more than a month right before we talked. “It was one of those things where I said I’m just going to dedicate a month of my life to only complete practice,” explains Chen. “From waking up at 5:00 in the morning to start my practice, and I go to bed at 8:30 or 9:00pm, and that’s all my day is all day, every day. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

Chen has also pushed himself positively in a new, creative way; published author. Released last week through Wisdom Publications, Chen teamed up with editor Rod Meade Sperry for the fun and insightful new read, I Wanna Be Well: How A Punk Found Peace And You Can Too. While we’re presently living in what seems to be the age of the memoir, I Wanna Be Well is not your standard rock star autobiography fare. “I knew I didn’t want to just write my story, because who gives a shit,” jokes Chen. “Everybody has a story, everybody can write a book about themselves. I wanted this book to offer something to the readers. I wanted it to be about the reader. So that’s kind of where the idea, including these practices, came into play. Obviously it’s my story – here are things from my life – but at the end of it, that’s pretty much just an anchor point.

Each of the twenty-five chapters that make up I Wanna Be Well is broken into three four parts. First, there’s the lesson, which sometimes contains autobiographical stories and sometimes contains brief teachings from Buddhism or the self-help community, for example. Then comes the “practice” section, in which Chen gives the reader something to learn. Sometimes it’s instructions on how to start basic sitting meditation, some times it’s the steps behind some basic yoga movies, sometimes it’s just tricks to improve your own mindfulness of where you fit in to the world around you. Finally, each chapter culminates in a “tl/dr” tidbit that boils down the practice to its most essential point. “Rod had this genius idea,” tells Chen,”that people have short attention spans, so why don’t we add this thing at the end of each chapter where here’s a practice in a sentence or two for when you don’t want to fucking read the whole thing.

Let it be known that you should read the whole thing, however. It’s a quick read that somehow covers the entire emotional spectrum pretty quickly, from dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer when he was a child to the sudden loss of his sister in an accident less than a year later, to being asked to join one of his favorite bands and to create music with some of his best friends in the world, one of whom (founding TBR drummer Brandon Carlisle) also passed away far too early several years ago. All the while, Chen explains how these incidents have made him who he is today, and how, good or bad, they’ve all served to keep him looking inward and growing outward. “The whole time I was writing this book,” says Chen, “I was thinking ‘man, if even one person really gets it, this whole thing was worth it.‘ I’m grateful to every single person that even thinks about reading it, I’m going to be thankful to every person who reads it, even the people that don’t like it. I’m really grateful to have had this chance and to help.”

Because this is 2018 and the traditional book tour circuit is becoming less and less of “a thing,” there are no formal dates where you can catch Chen promoting his tome just yet. But, as a constantly touring musician, he’s found a way around that. “Luckily I travel a lot anyway,” he explains. “My plan is to kinda keep doing that, except now I’ll bring some books along. I always leave it open when I’m on tour, like hey, this is where I’m going to be, if anyone wants to do yoga or do some medication, shoot me a message.” And occasionally I’ll do events, like I’ll do Yoga For Punks or whatever, and I think I’ll do the same with the book. Like, if you want to pick up the book or talk about it, I’m on tour, come hang out!”

Check out our chat with Chen below, and pick up your copy of I Wanna Be Well at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Target or your local bookstore if you’ve got one!

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Having never done either one, is it sort of like the release of an album, where you have it done however many weeks or months in advance and you just have to sit around waiting for it to come out, or does this feel different?

Miguel Chen: It’s different. It’s slower, for sure. When we do a record, usually we’re done recording, then we do mixes and masters, and it’s usually a few months til it’s out. I think, tops, it’s like half a year. With the book, I was done writing it basically a year-and-a-half, two years ago. Then it bounces back and forth between the editor and me so many times. We were getting close to a final draft and sending out advance copies and still touching things up. It’s a long, slow process.

Why is it such a long process, or do you still not even understand that part necessarily?

I don’t know, man. It’s my first trip through book world. I’m super used to music world, and book world just goes slower. A lot of it is, you know, for starters, there’s a lot more words! There’s a lot more margin for error, so clearly has to be a lot more sweeps through the book to make sure everything is correct before it goes out. Book world is slow, but now I understand book world more, so if I want to do another book and I want it to come out before I have grandkids (*both laugh*)…I better start writing!

So where did the book idea come from? Was it something that you had been toying with, or did they approach you? I know you had done writing on different websites and stuff…

Yeah! Like you mentioned, I did some blogs and some interviews and some articles so I would write that way, and I think in the back of my mind, I was always like “it’ll be cool to do a book some day,” but I didn’t really know what to do to make that happen. I have plenty of friends who write books – quote/unquote – but then they just sit around and hope that someday somebody’s going to want to put it out. And I was a little bit of the opposite. I was like “maybe I’ll write a book,” but then Wisdom (Publications) asked if I wanted to do it, and then I said “oh shit, I better write this book!” They came up to me. A lady at Wisdom, her husband was a big Teenage Bottlerocket fan, and because of that, they caught wind of some of the articles I was writing. That snowballed into all of a sudden, I’m sitting down with Wisdom talking about doing a book.

Did they talk to you about what kind of book they wanted you to write? It’s such a cool idea, the way that you break down each chapter, where yous tart with a lesson or a story, and then there’s the practice part, and then there’s the “too long/didn’t read” part – did you have to pitch that concept to them, or did you collaborate and come up with that idea?

They were just, like, “have you thought about writing a book,” and I said that yeah, I had, but I hadn’t ever fleshed out the full outline for a book. They told me to write a proposal and a sample chapter, and so when I was working on that, I knew I didn’t want to just write my story, because who gives a shit. (*both laugh*) Everybody has a story, everybody can write a book about themselves. I wanted this book to offer something to the readers. I wanted it to be about the reader. So that’s kind of where the idea, including these practices, came into play. Obviously it’s my story – here are things from my life – but at the end of it, that’s pretty much just an anchor point.

The important part of it is “here’s something the reader can take away and can try on their own.” That’s the plan. I want people to try these practices and relate to one or two of them and try them consistently. Maybe that’ll help them in life. The “too long/didn’t read” section at the end of each chapter was actually (co-writer) Rod (Meade Sperry’s) idea. Rod’s been my buddy and writing mentor. He’s one of the lead editors at Lion’s Roar Magazine, and he actually worked at Wisdom many years ago. He’s very familiar with book world and all of that, so I thought it was important to have somebody like that along. Rod had this genius idea that people have short attention spans, so why don’t we add this thing at the end of each chapter where here’s a practice in a sentence or two for when you don’t want to fucking read the whole thing.

Well, people should read the whole thing, because A) it’s a quick read and B) it’s an important read, but it is sort of fun and funny to have that sort of thing at the end of each chapter. You talk a lot about some formative experiences for you, whether it was certain significant deaths or the two people who showed you “the way,” but where does the yoga portion start? When did you start trying that on your own?

The beginning of my spiritual path, especially the meditation stuff, is in the book quite a bit, but I had had a sitting medication practice for years. Over time, this consistent practice started to open up a lot of things for me. A lot of friends started suggesting that because I liked meditation, I should give yoga a shot. And I always thought “that looks like a lot of work. Fuck…that!” For me, the essence is that you sit here and quiet your mind and that’s where answers start to come. And it still is, really, but over time there were enough people saying I should try it. My body was just trashed from being on tour all the time and being in vans and partying too hard. Even though I was starting to get mental clarity, my body was so fucked up that it didn’t matter so much. I kept getting drawn back to “yeah, I can find happiness or find connection in certain things, but then my neck hurts so bad that it immediately pulls me out of it.”

So finally I went and tried a class, and I thought “what’s the worst that can happen? I’m going to sweat a bunch and it’s going to suck and I just won’t go back.” So I went to my first yoga class, and then the next day I went to my second yoga class and then the next day I went to my third yoga class and I just never stopped. I all of a sudden was like, “if I take care of my body, I can sit in meditation longer and move further down my path.” The more I studied yoga, the more I realized that it’s part of the same thing; it’s a different tradition, but it’s trying to get you to the same place. Shortly thereafter, I started teaching, and it just kept rolling and rolling. I took over the studio I had been teaching at, I opened a second studio, I kept taking other trainings – like, I just came back from India doing another teacher training – it’s really become a huge part of my life that I never wanted but now I couldn’t be without!

That seemed like an intense training. You were gone for six weeks or something?

Yeah, I was gone just over a month, in Rishikesh, India. It was really hard, but amazing, you know? It was one of those things where I said “I’m just going to dedicate a month of my life to only complete practice, from waking up at 5:00 in the morning to start my practice, and I go to bed at 8:30 or 9:00pm, and that’s all my day is all day, every day. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

I can’t really wrap my head around that. Bands talk all the time about being on tour for a month at a time, and that’s obviously hard work, but this is a different type of hard and a different type of work.

Yeah absolutely, and I think I owe a lot of my work ethic to punk rock and being in Teenage Bottlerocket. I can see it when I do things like teacher trainings. With the band, we always had to work fucking hard because no one was going to do it for us. That’s translated into my yoga life. I have good discipline now.

When you started down the path of mindfulness and meditation, did it take a while before other guys in the band or in the scene got what you were doing? I know that’s not necessarily important, but there hasn’t seemed, at least to me, to be a whole mindfulness community within the punk rock world. Did people talk to you like you were a little weird for a while?

Totally! (*laughs*) Yeah, the first layer of that is my band, they’re like my brothers, and I live in such tight quarters with them all the time. That was like, “alright dudes, you’re going to see me sitting and staring at a wall every morning, please just shut up and leave me alone! (*both laugh*) It’s only going to be like half an hour!” And that took a while to really accommodate and make it work, but nowadays everyone gets it. They see you in the morning doing yoga or medicating and they shut up and leave me alone for a while. At first, though, I don’t think anyone understood.

Did they think it was just a phase or whatever? Like “oh, give him a month, he’ll be back to normal” – or could people tell pretty quickly you were serious about it?

I don’t really know. I just know that — maybe it just took a while for people to figure out how to fit it in and work around it. When you’re around each other so much, you all pretty much eat on the same schedule, sleep on the same schedule, and it was like, okay, “well, Miguel stayed out with us partying last night and now he’s up early in the morning, how do we fit that into the bigger picture?” I think over time, they started to see how much calmer and less angry I was. That’s when they began to appreciate it and give me the space.

You mention anger now, and in the book you talk about being treated for depression and bipolar disorder and things like that…is that the catalyst for really trying something different? That’s a part that I think a lot of people, especially in this scene, can relate to and hone in on, so I’m glad that you put that part out there at least a little bit. Is that what started this whole thing rolling?

Totally, man. I was just trying to frantically grasp for whatever might bring some relief. That looked like a lot of different things over time. It looked like just indulging all my desires, and that wasn’t working. Then it was “well, maybe I better go talk to a doctor,” and they put me on meds and that didn’t really fucking work for me either. I can understand that medication at times is really useful and really necessary, but for me it was just really numbing. Maybe I was less sad or less angry, but I still wasn’t happy, so I was like “well, that’s not fucking working either.” And i’ve always been very suspicious of doctors and psychiatrists, and I feel like they’re really quick to give problems a name. So many people are diagnosed with bipolar disorder or anxiety disorders or depression disorders and, first off, they’re quick to give a diagnoses, and then they’re even quicker to give a temporary fix; to fix the symptoms and pump everyone full of drugs. So that suspicious nature, I was like “well, I’m going to try this, I have nothing else to try, but if it doesn’t work, I’m fucking out!” And it didn’t work, man. I still wasn’t happy, so I was like “now what?”

One of the things you talk about in the book is when Roxy from The Epoxies gave you the Dharma Punx book – where in that cycle of you trying to deal with depression and other diagnoses does that fit in, if you remember?

That was kind of in the tail end of my time with psychiatrists and counselors. That was pretty quick; the timing was immaculate. It was pretty much “I’m done with these shrinks, I’m done with these bullshit drugs,” and I headed out on tour and just at the right time in my life encountered the right friend who gave me the right book at exactly the right moment that I was open to it.

Right, and who knows what would have happened if it had been two years before, or five years before, or if you would have been remotely into then?

Absolutely!

I’ve never really asked anybody about this specifically, but when you’re out on tour and trying to deal with being to psychiatrists and counselors and being on medications, how does that translate to life on the road? It’s one thing if you have a therapist that you’re going to every week or every other week when you’re at home or whatever, but how does that work when you’re on the road and trying to live both lives?

For me, it was pretty much like “alright it’s tour time, fuck the drugs, fuck the counselors, it’s time to rock!” I would set all that stuff aside and kinda forget about it, and actually I would be having a really good, fun time on tour. And that was part of it too – I was happy and away from doctors and meds, so maybe the problem wasn’t what I thought it was. If I was able to be out on the road and be happy, then why wasn’t I able to be home and be happy?

What sort of feedback have you gotten on the book so far, particularly from people in the punk community? I know there are a couple of quotes on the website – it seems like people really dig it. I know I have!

I sent a lot of advance copies out to a lot of friends and everyone who read it was super supportive. Jim from Pennywise, Trever from Face To Face, Zach from Rise Against – they all wrote little blurbs for me to use for the book which is fucking amazing. I’m so grateful to have those dudes, and they’re my friends and they’ll read my book and they’ll help spread the word. I haven’t really encountered anyone who just fucking hated it yet, so… (*both laugh*)

I can’t imagine that’ll happen!

It is bound to happen! And it’s always interesting, with the band and with records and especially in these days of social media, everything’s out there. There’s people that love what you do, and there’s definitely people that fucking hate what you do. I’m pretty good at navigating that with the band, I’ve gotten pretty good at focusing on the positive stuff and not getting dragged down by the negative stuff, but this is a whole new world. When I read the first just shitty review of the book, I don’t know how that’s going to feel. But, I do have an awareness that it doesn’t matter in the end. People are going to think what they think, and I hope people like it. If they don’t that’s okay too. I’ll keep doing my best.

There’s an interesting part of the book – and this is a long-winded question, as a lot of mine are – about gravitating to punk rock in your early years, and it’s always sort of been a home for those of us that were a little different or weird, and it’s always been a home that was very accepting to a degree, but we’re always also very anti-hippy or anti-country music or whatever. We have these things that we’re very against. So I’m curious as to how either the yoga community looks at this tattooed punk rock guy engaging on that sort of journey or how the punk rock world deals with this whole yoga and meditation concept and which side is more accepting of the other initially.

Yeah…I’ll say this: first off, everyone is just kinda where they are on their path, and there’s no real right or wrong, so I’m going to say this part half-jokingly but obviously there’s a grain of truth: you can kind of filter out who the posers are by the people who have a problem, not with me specifically, but anyone being who they really are and doing what they want to do, especially if it’s not hurting anyone. In the yoga world, for example, if anyone were to look at me and say “oh, he’s not a yogi, he’s covered in tattoos” that’s not a very yogic attitude to have, now is it?

In punk rock it’s the same thing. We emphasize individuality so much that if someone’s like “you can’t be into yoga and spirituality if you’re into punk rock,” that’s kind of a fucking poser thing to say, isn’t it? I don’t think it would hold too much weight on me either way. I’m pretty comfortable with who I am and what I do. That being said, I almost never encounter that stuff. I find almost completely across the board that the more I just am myself, the more I’m accepted wherever I go. In the yoga world, I have a lot of students who are middle aged or older, teachers, retired people, people that you’d think might be scared by a guy that looks like me, but they adore me and I adore them. Yoga is this catalyst to break down these perceived barriers. We’re people and we genuinely respect each other. Same with punk rock, man. You might get the occasional asshole, but for the most part people are like “good for you, man.”

I think that speaks to your authenticity in both worlds as well. You can be around a group of punks and talk about your spiritual path and you can be around a group of people at the yoga studio and be at peace in both because that’s who you are. There’s another chapter of the book that I wanted to parse out a little bit. I forget what number it is, but it’s called “Sorry Song,” and in it, you talk about the 12-Step Program world and maybe not necessarily being in recovery yourself but being familiar with the terminology and the concepts in the 12-Step and self-help recovery communities. Where does that part come from? It fit beautifully in the book.

In my own path, it came from “alright, we’re in our band, it’s fun. We’re touring, it’s fun. We’re putting out records, it’s fun. Holy shit, we’re on Fat Wreck Chords, it’s fun. We’re on the road with NOFX, it’s fun!” And the whole time, it’s just like “party, party, party, party, party.” You get home from tour, “oh fuck, this is boring, I better party. Party, party, party, party, party.” All of a sudden, years later, it’s like “fuck – am I a person who has to drink or do drugs? Is that me?” And through deep self study, you start to look at things different and figure out what’s going to work for you. I’d been so extreme on one end, that I thought maybe I had to experience the other end to figure out where my place is in the middle. I studied a lot about recovery, a lot about the Twelve Steps. I would make myself dry out and make myself really, consciously, examine my relationship to those intoxicants.

Over time, I didn’t get to a place where I said “I need to be sober for the rest of my life,” but I did get to a place where I said “I need to back off a lot.” I needed to make sure that if I’m having some beers, it’s about having fun and connecting with my friends, it’s not about “this is something that I have to do because it’s what I’ve always done.” Having spent time with that and understanding both extremes, I figured out where my spot in the middle is. Sometimes, I drink. Sometimes I don’t. For me, it’s worked really well, but I’ve also understood that for a lot of people, it doesn’t work. I have deep respect for the literature and programs and tools that help people if and when it is their time to leave intoxicants behind.

Even just the act of examining yourself and checking in on yourself and really doing the “sober” task of self-reflection and examining your own attitudes and relationships toward whatever substance or behavior is hard work and scary work and something that not a lot of people do for those very reasons.

It is most definitely hard and scary work, and my theory on it is that sooner or later, we all have to. I think when you’re on the back end of it – when you’ve done a lot of that work – life is better. It’s in all of our favor to do this work, or at least start doing it, way sooner, so that we have more time on the other side of it.

And yet, that’s a tough thing to tell somebody that’s not ready to hear it or give it up yet. We can talk all we want to about helping people so that they can cut down as much as they need to in order to enjoy life for as long as possible, but that’s a tough conversation to have with somebody that’s not ready to listen yet.

Totally. Life is going to always present to you the lessons and opportunities that you need. And it’s going to present them over and over and you’re not going to notice until you’re ready to receive them. People are where they are on their path and that’s fine. That’s the whole point of being a human. We have challenges and we have awesome stuff and at some point we’re faced with these obstacles and these chances to evolve further. Sooner or later, you have to take them.

And so, I like the way that you put that portion of it in the book. If one of the underlying themes of the book is mindfulness, and increasing your own awareness of your connectedness to everything around you, you can put a chapter like that in there, because if somebody is in that mode of checking in on themselves and becoming more mindful of who they are and why they are, maybe they don’t need to totally adopt a 12-Step lifestyle, but knowing some of that language is probably a good idea because that’s probably one of the things a lot of us have to work on.

And there’s also an element of the idea that you can’t have too many tools. The book is presented like that too – here’s twenty-something practices, and now you have them. Maybe you don’t need to use them now, maybe you don’t need to use them ever, but at least they’re in your kit. And who knows, maybe someday it’s going to be useful.

Agreed. It’s become a book that I’ve gone back to a few times; I know I got the press copy of it somewhere before the holidays, and I’ve gone back to bits and pieces of it a bunch, looking for specific practices or specific stories because they became more relevant as I went along. I think it’s the sort of book that people will be able to do that with; read it once all the way through and then keep it by the bedside or in your bag. Sometimes we need reminders to be more mindful. Sometimes we need reminders to be more appreciative or we need a new perspective when we get bummed out. That’s not blowing smoke up your ass, I genuinely think it’s that sort of book.

Oh, thanks man. I really appreciate it, because I do deeply hope that something in this book means something to someone, so to think that people are going to reference it once in a while would be incredible. I’m really grateful to hear that and to gather the chance to write something that hopefully will resonate like that with a few people.

 


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