Even On The Worst Nights: Mixtapes’ Ryan Rockwell discusses his alcoholism and brush with death

Last week, I received an email from Ryan Rockwell, singer of Cincinnati, Ohio, pop-punk band Mixtapes, who broke up last year. He and I go back a number of years, to his early days playing in Black Tie Bombers, and he was reaching out to me because he felt like it was time he opened up and told the whole story about his life before, during and after Mixtapes. What follows is his story, straight from his mouth, only edited for clarity when necessary. —Scott Heisel, editor in chief

What happened to Mixtapes? I’ve gotten that question many times over the last year, and it doesn’t bother me. It’s very flattering that people care enough to ask, but I never had a good answer. I’m also only one-fourth of Mixtapes but I did come here to explain what happened to me. I absolutely love creating music, playing music, and everything involved with it. Somewhere 2009-2010, I had kind of decided to do something different. My friend Timmy and I started writing raps in the back of a shoe store we both worked at. Tim had asked me if I could make beats and I lied and said, “Absolutely!” Somehow we convinced our friend Sarah to come sing with us, our friend Pat who actually could make beats to do so, and found an insanely talented band. By some miracle we went on to record and release upwards of 60-70 songs, play shows with everyone from Kid Cudi to Wiz Khalifa to Have Heart to Twenty One Pilots. I remember reading how Chris Carrabba used to show up to punk and hardcore shows and would open just sitting there on a stool with his acoustic guitar. We in the same light would play a rap show, then the next night open up for Blacklisted, it was really cool and an interesting time.

Somewhere during this time my dad passed away. My dad was in good health and it was very unexpected. My dad was truly my best friend. We ate breakfast together every morning, while having these amazing conversations. My friends could attest, my dad would sit there and watch Jeopardy every night, and answer every single question in every single category. It was crazy, he wouldn’t miss any. Then we would say, “Why don’t you go on a show like this”? He would always say, “Nah, I wouldn’t do any good”. It wasn’t an act either, he was just extremely humble and didn’t have nearly a high enough opinion of himself. When this happened it really messed up my head. I didn’t realize how much at the time. A friend of mine was at my work yesterday and we were talking about this and he even said, “Yeah man, remember? I was your boss and you came to work the day after he died and played a show that night. I told you to stay home and be with your family but you refused.” He was right, I just hit the ground running, and that’s where Mixtapes comes into play. I had always loved rap/hip-hop and punk rock equally. When I was a kid after school I would go buy the new Vandals or Less Than Jake records alongside the new Cam’ron and Hot Boyz records. I loved it all as well, from over the top rap to poignant and political hip hop. I just loved wordplay, it fascinated me.

In this time frame as much as I loved what we were doing I felt like I wasn’t being completely fulfilled, or maybe that I couldn’t get as serious as I wanted to doing rap/hip-hop. I was working at a venue here called the Mad Hatter at the time and that’s when I met a girl named Maura. I was told she could sing and play guitar and I had wanted to start a punk/indie rock band with male/female vocals so I asked her to do it. The crazy and awesome thing about Mixtapes is that we never started to be a “career” band. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that, but Maura and I were honestly just going through some really rough patches and we just wanted a place to let it all out. We recorded a record called Maps and we were really happy with the way it turned out. At that time our goal was to find a bass player and drummer and maybe play a couple of shows in Cincinnati. After we put Maps online it started to do really well and it got downloaded a bunch. Somehow this little basement project turned into playing with and meeting some of the best people ever all over the country and parts of the world. We did work really hard as a band and tried to always be recording or touring, but I feel like we also got lucky. It’s funny now because when it came to any sort of success, I feel i was always grounded. I was always very humbled by everything we achieved, I never expected or felt we deserved anything, and I was insanely stoked for all the opportunities we got. Looking back now I realize you can take things for granted in other ways.

About a year after my dad passed away is when I think it really hit me. I kind of ignored it, started doing Mixtapes and just focused all my energy into being busy. Around that year mark is when it hit me hard. I started having night terrors and couldn’t sleep, I would wake up screaming or in a cold sweat. I went to the doctor, therapist, anything to try and figure it out. At this point in my life I had never had a sip of alcohol, never smoked weed or anything ever, it was never my thing. I somehow (I shouldn’t say somehow, I decided to) decided to try drinking myself to sleep at night. I remember it well, I got a bottle of liquor, downloaded some movies and drank myself into a blackout. The next morning I felt awful but slept for a long time. Not realizing how stupid and unhealthy that “sleep” was, this set my course for the next four years.

Pills and alcohol became my way of numbing everything around me. I hated myself, I was depressed and in my head I was sitting here making money and touring off of something that only existed because my dad had passed away. I became a complete alcoholic. I somehow controlled it while on tour, it was the only place I was happy, and I could focus and feel free. I would come home and be drinking myself to death. I started losing myself, I thought I was fooling the world and I was fooling no one. It’s pathetic when I look back now how obvious and stupid I was. I was saying dumb things, doing dumb things and just truly messing things up that would take me forever to repair. The people in Mixtapes are great, talented people, and we always had a blast. I’m lucky to have had them as bandmates, I still think we were a unique band in the best way possible, and always looked at things from a unique perspective. Unfortunately in this time I was just a mess and the more I tried to act like I wasn’t the more I got worse, and said and did more stupid things. I also want to make clear that I’m not blaming alcohol, drugs or anything for any of this. Those things were my escape, but I was the miserable depressed asshole they just fueled what was already there.

We live in a time where everyone has access to everyone, and everyone is under a microscope. Usually this is probably a good thing, as it makes it harder to get away with bullshit. I’ve realized I can’t change the past, but what I can do is live differently now, and instead of talking a big game or bullshitting myself and everyone else, the way I live can prove it. I have many people to make amends to, some I have started, and many people I still need to and will. If you were a fan of the music I wrote and played then I appreciate it more than anything. I’ve been very lucky to be able to meet so many amazing people who luckily haven’t given up on me. If you were someone that was affected or offended or just think I was troublemaking idiot, fair, and I am sorry, you are probably right. I honestly feel like I could make this a 100-page book, but this is the basic story. I’m a guy who got caught up in a bad place in my head, and luckily for me I got out. I actually got pancreatitis from drinking, and while I was laid up in the hospital was told that if I had waited I would be dead, and if I wasn’t careful I would die. The craziest part is after that I relapsed again. I’m putting this all out there because now, after reaching six months of sobriety, I’ve come to realize how common this can be. I’m new at this, I’m trying to be a good person, and if anything I know I’m doing better than I was last year. If you are going through anything similar, please hit me up if I can help, make you laugh, sing you a song, anything. With that being said, thanks for taking the time to read this.

Ryan Rockwell’s new group, the hip-hop trio Massive Nights, just released their new EP, 72 Hours, for free download. Check out their new music video for “Sunday” below: