Back from the brink: Jonny Brown is clean, happy and putting Twisted Wheel back on the road
Marcus Raymond talks to Twisted Wheel’s Jonny Brown about life after drug addiction and taking his band back on the road.
In 2009, Jonny Brown gazed upon huge crowds as his band Twisted Wheel – formed only two years prior – took to the stage to support Oasis, Paul Weller and many more of his idols.
But cut to 2017, three years after the band had split up, and Jonny was looking back on some far darker times. Addiction to both heroin and crack had seen him close to death having taken six overdoses. He was saved by paramedics each time.
Jonny was homeless for a spell and sofa-surfed, lost the love of friends and family members, squandered his savings, pawned guitars and had no clothes. He lived his life in circles he describes as “literally being like scenes from the film Trainspotting, on the floor of a house in Oldham with no running water or heating”.
But in December 2017, having got himself clean some months previous, he announced the return of Twisted Wheel with a brand new lineup. He’s now happy, healthy and loving life. He told Louder Than War the whole story.
A career of superb highs and terrible lows
Having spent his childhood playing in various bands and arrangements, it was only when Brown brought two different jamming partners together – Rick Lees and Adam Clarke – that things clicked into place like never before.
A Twisted Wheel demo followed, posted out to hundreds who had sent their addresses to them over MySpace. Many more were handed out after the gigs of similar-sounding bands as revellers spilled out of Manchester’s venues. Within six months of forming, record deals were on the table from Universal, Sony-Columbia, Heavenly and Independiente to name a handful – the band had flown out of the traps.
“It’s absolutely mind-blowing to think that we started this band in a bedroom after two of us had met at Leeds Festival, off our heads in a reggae tent,” Jonny said.
“Next thing we’re on stage and Paul Weller’s in with us, we’re doing support tours with Oasis, The Enemy, Reverend and the Makers, The View, Ian Brown, opening for Happy Mondays at the GMEX.
“We got some good chances and grew up quick doing that. We learnt a lot, got to play to big crowds, and won a lot of fans.
“I don’t think that was just luck. Those artists I looked up to actually liked us, which meant a lot. But it often goes forgotten that whilst all this was going on, we were doing our own shows as well. Those early, real gigs in absolute sweatboxes were Punk As Fuck, people almost jumping on the stage.
“We went to Italy, 3000 people watched us in Japan, it was just a great time. We had no idea what we were doing though, we just went with it.”
Things moved so fast that before long the band had partied with the Gallaghers, recorded in Hollywood and played over 40 gigs in support of Paul Weller – Brown was even invited on stage at Silverstone to join The Modfather in a rendition of That’s Entertainment. But before long, darkness started to creep in and disturb all of the promise and the light.
“By 2010 things were already unravelling. I was getting very messy, not delivering the product to the label. I had the songs but because I was off my head I wasn’t confident enough in them.
“I was dabbling in heavier drugs by then. It’s the industry, it’s there in the music business. At the time you had Babyshambles going – those sort of drugs were around. I was always scared of becoming addicted to heroin and crack – I knew I liked drugs but thought I’d never touch them.”
Despite being adamant he would never try those substances, Brown ended up succumbing to the lure of the most dangerous drugs around.
“I had quite a lot of money then – enough for a young lad anyway – and was having parties at my flat when I wasn’t touring. I had some of the wrong people around me. I was probably green and naïve to everything going on and had a lot of fake friends around.
“There was a guy at one party, and at about five in the morning when everyone started passing out, he started smoking heroin. He said ‘Do you want a go of this?’ and me being half cut said ‘Oh go on then… ooh that’s a nice feeling’ – it was in my head then.
“A week later I rung him up and went ‘yeah get some of that’. I slowly developed a smoking habit on heroin and crack. I started cancelling gigs because I’d run out of heroin on tours and wouldn’t be able to fucking function otherwise. When you need it and haven’t got it, you’re ill. There’s no way you can do a gig.
“I was hiding it from everyone in the band but slowly the truth prevailed like it always does. I went onto needles, injecting crack and heroin together. I was useless, could hardly sing. My guitar playing had gone crap, I couldn’t remember lyrics from old songs, I’d just completely gone – it took over my life.
“Adam left, he said ‘I can’t be doing with this’. We weren’t doing as well as a band and had done a few bad gigs. The label were asking for new songs but I had pawned half of my recording equipment to buy more drugs.”
Jonny then got into an ongoing circle of relapse, recovery, relapse, recovery, and different band lineups came and went with the ebb and flow of his addiction cycle. He got onto a substitute drug from the doctors and thought he could sort things out and prove a point to Adam, but he slipped up again and Rick then left the band too.
“I was hard work, I’ll admit. They shouldn’t have had to put up with a junkie like me ruining their time in the band. I don’t blame them for leaving. It’s a shame though because we were a very unique three-piece band.
“Ste Evans then joined and I got myself together. I got a new girlfriend and her parents took me in. They knew my history but still looked after me. I abandoned my house for a bit and lived at theirs.
“Before that I’d started losing weight and looking like shit, and didn’t have much weight to lose in the first place! I was ill – I was mentally poorly because I had a bad addiction I hadn’t really got to understand at that point.”
Brown was looked after and got back onto substitutes, keeping things together, and “just had the odd little dabble when I could get away with it”. But come the recording of the second album, Do It Again, things went awry once more.
“It was a complete disaster. We were off our heads in the studio, fucked. I was injecting drugs and the producer knew. I was just all over the place.”
Other members came and went afterwards, but the band just ran it’s time and called it a day in 2014. Jonny had some tough times up to then, but things got a whole lot worse after the split.
“After that everything went pretty dark, I was pretty gutted. I was back on the needle, injecting in my legs and groin – crack and heroin together. I could be spending £300 a day on it if I could get my hands on it, injecting 20 times a day.
“Through that time, I did do a few acoustic solo gigs, but just to get money in – a scenario where you are literally doing it to get money for drugs. I wasn’t that bothered about a good performance. I was just being a twat really, but the drugs had took hold of me.
“When mixing those two drugs together, it doesn’t take long before you deteriorate. I just looked horrible. I pawned all my guitars, lost my house. sofa-surfed for two years. I was skint, I was a cunt, I’d upset people and no-one liked me or wanted to know me.
Within the last three years, Brown has had six overdoses.
“Six times. Not a lot of people get that lucky. Either there’s some angels looking after me or there’s a reason I’m meant to be here.
“I should really be dead. At the time I probably deserved to be, the way I was abusing my body. Completely ruthless. That’s not rock and roll – it destroys your creativity, it’s not cool, you’re not thinking anything bright or being nice to people.
“It’s all self-indulgence. Not everyone gets the gift of a talent – if you do but you abuse it, you’re taking the piss out of everyone who hasn’t got what you’ve got. Sometimes I would stop for a bit, but then start again. It was just stupid. I wouldn’t advise anyone to ever touch anything like that.
“But there came a moment when I went ‘fuck this, I’m done’ and vowed to get off the drugs once and for all. This was when doctors were advising me that my life was at risk. I then went back onto a substitute drug and to my friend Guy’s house, in Preston.
“He looked after me. He’d done it a few times in the past but I’d failed and run back home and got drugs. He literally nursed me like a brother, took me to the toilet, more-or-less spoon feeding me at some points. Coming off the medication, you can’t really do anything. But he put up with me and got me out of it this time.”
Brown was booked in to play a gig at Band on the Wall in December 2017. Prior to the night, it was announced that he would be joined by a new band for the second half of the show – Twisted Wheel were back with a brand new lineup.
But the significance of this was greater than some fans perhaps realised at first – in the New Year, Jonny shared an Instagram before-and-after photo, alongside a heartfelt message about his tumultuous journey to get to this point. Supportive messages flooded in.
“My life since then has gone super positive,” he said. “I’ve been writing new songs and it’s some of the best stuff I’ve done by a mile.
“Our new sound is like Neil Young, like The Clash still, but has more Cure, Joy Division and New Order in there. There’s slightly more of an 80s influence than anything I’ve done before, but you can’t get away from that punk.”
Time has been booked in the studio and a tour announcement has since followed.
“Everything’s going really well, I think that’s a blessing and well-deserved for beating the heroin addiction. The response has been amazing. Tickets are selling really well with no new music and some gigs are sold out already. The old cult following is still around,” he said.
“What is a warming thing that really got me tuned back into what I’m doing, too, is the amount of young bands messaging me – ‘We started our band because of Twisted Wheel’ – now that is a buzz when you get that, it means more than anything. It gets you, that, it touches you.
“I want to get back out there and inspire more kids. I know we weren’t a mega successful band radio-wise or pop-wise, but as far as touching people and a cult following went, I think we did a pretty good job. Now it’s taking that to the next level.
“People do bring up those memories and it’s great, but as much as good things happened to us – some great times – a lot of my past feels quite dark. To go from doing really well, getting free clothes and being a bit of a geezer, getting on with everyone, meeting Paul Wellers, to suddenly being on the floor of a council house in Oldham… I’ve seen that life and where it can end up.
“I’ve seen people die, get AIDS, and its fucking awful. One of the overdoses I had was intentional. I put 60 pounds of heroin into a spoon and cooked it all and had 20 diazepam, a load of codeine – basically, a pretty good attempt.
“They saved me and I wasn’t happy about it when I woke up. But I’m not thinking about any of that now. Just onwards and upwards. At some point I want to help other people with addictions. But I’m not going on a Russell Brand do-gooder mission just yet, it’s a bit early for that – now’s just the time to help myself.
“After my Instagram post I got a lot of respect and got a lot of messages off people who I never expected are in the same situation as I had been… too many at first actually, I was like ‘bloody hell I’m not a drug worker!’ but I’ve got back to them all now.”
As well as bringing the music back, Jonny says he’s reacquainting himself with other things he’d massively neglected during the dark times. “A bit of real ale, a nice girlfriend, going out for meals, going to see art and plays – they’re all great things in life, I forgot how good those things are. When you’re on that stuff you can’t see that, it numbs everything. All you think about is that.”
Another thing Brown has reacquainted himself with is his humour. In response to the very first interview question, ‘When did you first pick up an instrument?’, he said “Well there’s a picture of me when I’m three, playing a guitar with my knob – I guess that was the first time!”
He reminisced about pleading with crowds to throw money onto the stage in the early days so the band could fund a demo and “people launching 50p’s at our heads” in response. The standard diet whilst on hard drugs was framed as “when you’re on that stuff you just eat ice cream… just drugs and ice cream, Cornettos by the bucket!”
The glint is certainly back in Jonny’s eye, and you can tell just how much he wants it all to work out now.
“At the beginning of Twisted Wheel there was a lot of pressure and we hadn’t developed as men really – we were still little boys. I’m going to be completely on the ball this time and there won’t be anything that can stop it getting out there.
“It’s like a beast in its cage now. I’m gonna break them bars and smash the fucking fuck out of it. I can’t wait. My focus is writing great songs, to come back with a bang and show everyone I’m not a faker and I mean it. I’ve beaten those addictions, I’m stronger than a lot of people and I will prove that.
“I want to play these new songs from the bottom of my heart. A lot of them document some of the times I’ve been through. I need to get them out and I’m meant to get them out and they’ll help people. I want it more than ever.”
Helping people by spreading the message not to go down the same dangerous route – especially to young up-and-coming bands – was one of Brown’s clearest take-home messages from the interview. He had clearly been through such a dark journey and didn’t want others to suffer the same fate.
“Don’t do heroin or crack ever” he said. “It’s not a cool thing to do. Stay away from those two absolute killers.”