In the world of Midwestern emo acts on the rise, few names draw the kind of buzz that Cliffdiver currently has. Since kicking off their 2022 at SXSW, the Oklahomans have toured with the likes of Less Than Jake and Bowling for Soup while also performing statement sets at festivals like Riot Fest and an upcoming feature for their second straight year at The Fest.
But while it may seem like everything is looking up for the Tulsa band since they released their debut full-length, Exercise Your Demons, back in May, it wasn’t long before that when vocalist Joey Duffy’s alcoholism and drug addiction threatened to not only end the band, but his life. Now 16 months sober and embracing his lifelong dream of being in a successful touring band, Duffy has made sure that Cliffdiver pushes forth his message of hope and recovery at their live shows, online and every step along the way.
Duffy and Cliffdiver co-vocalist Briana Wright spoke with SPIN IMPACT after their energetic Friday afternoon performance at Riot Fest last month about his journey through recovery and the success and support of the band.
SPIN IMPACT: How did you decide to become sober?
Joey Duffy: I have some mental mental illnesses — some real nice, fun stuff like bipolar depression, ADHD, all that kind of stuff — and I got hit pretty hard by life, and I wanted to die. I was trying to die. I didn’t care if I lived. Nothing mattered, so I just partied. I did anything I could do to just get out of my head. I did that for years — 14 years of hard living. I have a 10-year-old son, and I never drank or anything around him, but when he was gone, I would just go crazy. I’d use all my good energy trying to be a good dad — because that’s the most important thing in my life — but I was going to kill myself before he was born, and then suddenly he was there.
I was just spinning out of control. I would hear this bad voice in my head that would just go “Kill yourself. Just kill yourself” every day. So I would drink, and it would be quiet for a little bit. Then you get mixed up in coke and all that kind of stuff, because you want to keep drinking. Because when you’re drinking, you feel like “Alright, yeah, I’m OK. I feel OK. Everything’s fine.” You have that cognitive dissonance. When we were writing this record, there were a lot of songs about going through substance abuse and trying to figure out how that ties into trauma and
losing somebody. It’s stuff that everyone can relate to. I had a friend of mine — someone I was in love with at one point — take her own life when she had been struggling, so I’ve had this nightmare for years about her telling me just to die and come be with her, because no one will ever love me. That dream went on every night for years, so Matt [Ehler, Cliffdiver guitarist] and I wrote a song about it before Briana even joined the band. Then we wrote a couple more songs about drinking and all this kind of stuff, and at one point in the studio, I said to Matt “We keep writing all these songs about me drinking so much. You think, eventually, I should maybe not drink so much?”
I had this existential panic attack after being in the studio, where I was just like “What if it goes right?” I’d been such a piece of trash because I didn’t care how I treated people. I was petty. I was jealous. I was mean. I was all these kinds of things because I hated myself. So I was like “What if it goes right? You’re gonna fuck it up.” So one night, we went back to the studio and it’s Matt’s birthday. I just got trashed out of nowhere and ended up driving my car to this industrial park outside of town. I come to — I don’t remember driving — and I’m trapped inside this fenced-in area. I don’t know how I got in. I can’t find the gate because I’m still wasted, but all of a sudden I realize “Oh, here’s the consequences of all of your actions and all of your behavior. You’re trapped and you’re gonna get caught. You fucked up for no reason. Why are you still drinking like you hate yourself? Why are you doing this? Why are we here? You’re not even having fun.”
Then I woke up the next morning, and a bunch of my friends were like “You talked about killing yourself a lot last night, dude.” And I was like “Oh no. I thought that was done. I thought we’d gotten through that after the second EP, but I guess not.” So it was at band practice the next day, I’m laying on stage, and I’m just like “I’m done. I’m never doing it again, guys.” Eliot [Cooper], our drummer, goes “Heard it before.” And I go “You know what? Watch me.” It became this thing where I stopped drinking just to show them I could. But then, obviously, I never wanted to do cocaine when I wasn’t drinking, because that sounds horrible. I already have anxiety, so I don’t want to be more present than I already am. I’m very present.
At that time, my son had moved away for three years because his mom got remarried, which is when things got really, really dark because I didn’t have that lifeline. I saw him two or three times a month at most. But then almost exactly a month after I quit drinking, I found out he was moving back, and I just said to myself “Are you paying attention? These good things are happening. What are you going to do? Are you going to keep messing this up? Are you going to be there and be your kid’s dad? Are you going to be someone who you can both be proud of?” It was just that moment of clarity, where I realized “I don’t need [alcohol] anymore.” It’s been 16 months now, and every day is a little easier. I can be around people drinking and it doesn’t matter. I realized I was playing life on nightmare [difficulty in a video game]. I was one-shot killing myself. It’s hard enough just being mentally ill, but I was making everything worse because I was waking up every day, checking my phone and going “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Brian Bannon was out last night.” Brian Bannon was my alter ego, because when I got drunk, I sounded like I was from South Boston. He was a monster, and I’ve finally put him beneath the ground for good. He’ll still come by and be like “Let’s get wasted, bro!” But I’m like “Why? Go home. You’re drunk right now. Get out of here.”
How has being in Cliffdiver helped with your sobriety?
Duffy: Well, I get to have these conversations with people at every show about their struggles and about them getting clean and getting sober. Every night, I know I have to keep going and that we need to keep going. We need to be the people who break these curses for people — because for some people, it is a curse. For other people, they can have beers and party, and it’s not a big deal. For some of us, we’re not lucky like that. I went pro too early and suffered. That’s how I described it to somebody the other day, and I thought it was perfect.
Briana Wright: It’s been interesting from an outside perspective, because Joey is one of the closest friends I’ve had that’s been sober while we’ve been close.I’ve gotten to see up close the restoration and the support that we get to give and the love that we get to pour into Joey. Even just learning how to be there for him and say “What do you need?” and surround him on his journey. Personally, it’s taught me about friendship and the support of the people that you have around you, because it was so easy for us to support him. It was so easy for us to see how it was affecting him and to love him through it. I get to see him get better every day and his opportunities widen and his heart get further away from who he used to be. I’m so proud of him, and I’m proud of us as a band, because you need people to carry you through that. We’re really a family, and we all stepped up to do whatever he needed. We weren’t drinking around him at first, because even though he didn’t even ask for that, we made the decision to do that.
You have to find the right support system and the right people who aren’t saying “Nah man, have one more.” Even when Eliot said “Yeah, right, I’ve heard that before…” If you’re not going to drink to spite somebody, then that’s great. We were right there every step of the way. From the outside, it’s been really encouraging to see somebody just say “This isn’t a good idea for me,” and for everyone else to say “OK, I’m with you. This isn’t gaining any more ground in your life, and the rest of us are going to help you hold that fucking line.” Sometimes you need somebody bracing your fucking legs and making sure that you can withstand all the waves of shit that come with making a change like that. So it’s been really inspiring for all of us, and we jump all over anything we can do now — whether it’s an addiction resource or whatever we can do for people. And it’s really strengthened that for me, because I’ve gotten to see how things get so much better so quickly after making such a healthy decision.
Duffy: Cliffdiver saved my life. I have no doubt about that. I was hopeless before I joined the band. I was trying to just hold on to anything. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do for my entire life. To find hope again at 30 and watch it grow and become this thing that continues to save my life, because it’s like “Who do I want to be as a man?” I have this opportunity to show my son that you can get the shit kicked out of you and keep going. I tell him all the time “You’re gonna have bad days, and it’s gonna suck, but you’re strong enough. I’m gonna show you that you can do it, and I’m gonna be there every step of the way.” I have to be there, because if he’s anything like me, he’s gonna need me to be there clear-headed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m Cali sober, because medicinal marijuana saved my life as well. I wouldn’t have been able to quit drinking without it. It helped me get to the good days, and the good days are more often when you’re clear enough to see them. I’m just blessed, because I should not be here. I should not be alive. I actively campaigned against that. But now I get to do this and have so many more good days with my son. I hope that he’ll get to see one day that even when I was at my worst, I was always working to get better for him.
What’s it been like to see Cliffdiver really ascend in popularity as you were just beginning your recovery?
Duffy: It’s been something that really just set it into stone for me. Like we did The Fest last year on our first run after I quit drinking, and there was free beer everywhere. Then we went on tour with Bowling for Soup, and there’s free beer and people drinking everywhere. But for me, it was just like “Why would I want to forget this moment? I don’t want to lose any of this. I want to remember all of this.” It just continues to push me in that regard, and I also like being able to be entirely me in my interactions, for better or for worse. That used to give me a lot of anxiety, like “Oh, you messed up. That joke did not land. Do they hate you? They hate you,” and I would just drink to quiet that anxiety — but it would never help. So the longer I get to do this, I get to prove to myself that I do have what it takes and that it was worth holding on even in those real dark times. Now it’s like “Go back to drinking? What could that ever do for me?” I’ve just been doing a little bit of personal investment and just starting to take care of myself a little bit, and I’ve watched my life transform. It’s awesome. I get to tell people about it and go “You can do it too, because I’m an idiot. If I can do it, I like your chances.”
What would be your advice to someone who was in your shoes and is looking for that way out?
Duffy: I think it just comes down to reaching that point where you go “What do I gain? What does this truly make better for me? What does this do for me?” That’s when you find that it doesn’t do anything good for you — which most people who quit drinking will tell you the same thing. I think it’s that initial moment of realizing that you can find that freedom. It’s possible and you’re strong enough, but it’s scary. It’s hard and it sucks. The first couple of months suck because you can’t run, so those thoughts that were waiting for 15 years are finally at full volume. You just have to hold on and you go “No, I get to write my story now.” I spent so much time worrying about how other people were telling my story because I wasn’t taking control of the narrative. But you can choose to start over and go “You know what? That’s enough. Tomorrow can be different.” Is it audacious to have hope like that? Sure. But if you get to write your story, why not write one where you get it right? Why not write one with joy and hope? You just have to keep going. It’s hard, but find a support system. It doesn’t have to be meetings, if that’s not your thing. It doesn’t have to be religion. Find people you can be honest with and who hold you accountable. This band saves my life all of the time. Just find people who love you. You are worthy of love, no matter who you become to survive. There’s always time to get it right.