By Daniel Tucceri
Steve Hughes is a man who makes no secret of his past as a metalhead.
These days, however, the long hair is gone and the rock and roll lifestyle couldn’t be any less appealing to the respected thrash drummer. “Basically, I didn’t grow up. That’s why I look at myself with long hair and wearing f*ckin’ heavy metal shirts on stage. I’m a forty-five-year-old man for f*ck’s sake”, he scolds himself. “Now I can look at Lemmy and go, ‘well, he did it’, but Lemmy’s in Motorhead. You’re not, Steve. If I look at my personality and spirit, I’m not f*ckin’ Lemmy! I’m far more sensitive, I’m not a tough guy!”
“There was a part of me that was projecting that image that was fundamentally false”, adds Hughes in no uncertain terms. To hear a man who represented his metal brethren now admonishing himself for doing this very thing may disappoint some. Hughes goes on to clarify, however. He agrees that he wanted to present as such to partly prove that we could be relatively functional, articulate and intelligent human beings. For Hughes, the breakthrough has been taking steps closer to being comfortable within his own skin, and further away from the image he was renowned for.
“Heavy metal’s funnily open-minded, and yet it’s the most judgemental. It’s got a judgement about everything”. A faint air of exasperation grows in his voice, but he punctuates his point with a genial laugh. “Every religion’s f*cked, the mainstream’s fucked, it’s even judgemental to itself!”
“You see that last Morbid Angel album, which everybody hated for a few f*ckin’ Marilyn Manson sounding songs. But I’m sitting there going, ‘don’t you give these guys any respect?’ They toured their f*ckin’ arses off in stinking tour buses eating nothing but sandwiches for months on end playing to you f*ckin’ bastards so you can have a good night out.” Although Hughes is less inclined to present as a metalhead now, the intensity in his voice shows it’s still in his blood. “They release one album where they’d like to expand their idea of how they present themselves, and you all f*ckin’ hate them!”
“This is where I find the mainstream more open minded. Some people may not like the way U2 changed their albums, but they don’t f*ckin’ hate them!”
Critically for Hughes, he has no fear of being judged and has been open about his recent battles with mental illness. We’re not talking about the kind of illness that sees you speaking in tongues, thinking you’re Jesus and telling everyone not to vote (see Russell Brand). Quite simply, Hughes had overworked himself. Too many shows and too many late nights saw the disintegration of his relationship, his working life and nearly, his mind. Few would emerge from a breakdown unscathed. In Hughes’ case, he’s definitely emerged a changed man, but not for the worse. Where he once had the establishment set firmly in his sights, his dialogue now relates more to his personal experiences and finally coming to terms with his own demons.
“Well, my life’s been better”, Hughes admits with a quiet laugh, not mincing his words. “It’s quite f*cked. Trying to restart your life at forty-nine years old after you lose your f*ckin’ missus…” He pauses and draws an audible breath before punctuating each syllable. “It sucks! You can’t really put another word to it. It sucks f*cking cock”.
“When I had time off, sometimes I’d still take gigs in London thinking ‘ah yeah, it’s only 20 minutes, I’ll get some money’, but that was f*cking stupid. I should have taken time off”, he recalls. “My missus was a bit younger and she still liked to party, so whenever I was with her I’d be drinking and f*cking carrying on.” Hughes talks hurriedly, but every so often pauses like an athlete catching his breath. In those few seconds, he will ruminate upon his words before concluding. “In hindsight, it’s not her fault. I’m a grown man.” The comedian goes on to explain how he was at the mercy of his body’s own internal mechanisms, with overwork becoming a biological response beyond his control. Inevitably, entropy ensued.
“The worst thing about it, it’s like adrenal fatigue”, he explains. “You get insomnia from it, wondering why you can’t f*ckin’ sleep, so I’m using weed to get to sleep. Because your adrenal glands are overworked, your f*cking pumped full of energy”. While operating on four hours’ sleep, Hughes managed a hectic schedule and still found time to run daily. A biological coping mechanism had served only to fool his mind into believing his body could be stretched further. “You kind of feel alright. I’m going ‘f*ck, there’s c*nts half my age who can’t do this shit’. But it’s all fake energy”.
At what point did Hughes realise he was having a breakdown? “The stupid thing is, I f*ckin’ had a mild one about 2009”, he laments. “It just went away. I got depressed for a few weeks and it just f*cked off. It’s beyond down, f*ckin’ depression”. Hitting the road once more, he looks back and realises he wasn’t looking after himself despite the signs being there. “There’s a lot of regret to this, it f*cked up me (sic) whole life”.
For this reason, there is a great deal of merit in hearing Hughes bravely recount this experience in front of a live audience. He isn’t the first to admit to that, however. In his own mind, there has been a great deal of soul-searching and a questioning of the value of his work. “I look back and I go, ‘who the f*ck had I become?’ Like, literally. I think back and go ‘that’s not f*cking me’. I’ve done so much comedy about the shit state of the world, which didn’t f*cking help”.
“In one sense, we’re kind of in this Catch 22 situation. I guess people should wake up a bit more to what’s really going on in this planet, in the sense of people having plans for it in not so positive ways. But then, on the other end of the stick, on a more spiritual and psychological level, you’re better off staying happy and giving positive vibes into the world”. Where ignorance is bliss for some, the ancient Hindus related suffering to ignorance. Hughes’ experience has forced him to consider the liminal within this dichotomy. “You really don’t want to be sitting here in total ignorance, but you don’t want to end up letting this thing depress the f*ck out of you”.
“There’s a part of me that almost feels like I’ve wasted me (sic) life even bothering to talk about it”. To hear him speak so resignedly is somewhat disheartening, but that isn’t to say he feels utterly redundant. “No one can just sit around like a hippie thinking, playing the bongos, that not really doing anything’s going to help”, he maintains. “If there is a spiritual, conscious evolution that’s going to happen, then taking responsibility for your own life and actually being f*cking positive and happy has got to be a part of that.”
This process involved a significant amount of soul-searching for the raconteur. In particular, Hughes was forced to confront issues stemming from as far back as his childhood. “I was highly dysfunctional. I’ve got many issues which are very personal, which everybody’s got, which I’d never faced. But, I knew I had them”.
Physically, Hughes is middle aged, but as a conscious human being, he regards himself as an adolescent. Part of the solution for him involved realising that he was “making certain decisions unconsciously and gaining some power over those by being conscious”. In part, the rock and roll lifestyle kept him trapped in an adolescent environment. “Basically, I didn’t grow up”, he acknowledges. “I realised I was operating on an unconscious level. I wasn’t conscious of my life. I think a lot of us are not conscious of our lives”, continues Hughes. “We haven’t faced our own demons. I haven’t faced my own demons. I could block those demons out by what I saw as normality”.
“I think that any kind of revolution, or evolution, has to be on a consciousness level, perhaps we can’t even see that kind of reality yet. Say there’s World War Three, mass f*cking chaos, what are we gonna f*cking do? We can’t have a violent revolution, that never f*ckin’ works. Plus, they’ve got more weapons!”
Through being an agent of his own rehabilitation, Hughes is certain that society must act similarly if it is to prevail. “I think human beings could evolve to a place where they no longer have to have massive negative breakdowns to evolve. I think that should be the point of evolution.” In having gone through his own private hell after seeing the world at its worst, Hughes has undergone a personal evolution. For all the negative experiences he has recounted, he has still retained a kernel of optimism.
“Can we create a f*cking glorious future where things are better for the entire planet, without having to go through f*cking hell to realise we’re f*cking stupid?” he asks emphatically. “Because it sucks. We can sit there and go, ‘it’s the only way to do it, we’ve got to have these breakdowns’ and all that”.
“If everything’s connected, then if my body is a universe within the collective universe, then me being ignorant of my own situation, not looking after it, not taking responsibility, could be a representation of the planet”, surmises Hughes. “If you don’t take responsibility for the health of your environment, it f*cking breaks down”.
Hughes’ show prior to, Nervous Breakthrough, had been called, Conspiracy Realist. He certainly didn’t shy from identifying patterns of control that few comedians are willing to confront. These days, it seems his experience over the past few years has grounded him, but by no means sees him any less open to conjecture. “I sometimes wonder, ‘cos there’s all that stuff they talk about, like movies with predictive programming. I think the rabbit hole of the way human beings are co-creators of the universe goes deeper than we understand”, he points out. “And I think a lot of good secret knowledge about the true power of our hearts and our minds is being kept from us”.
For all his railing against the establishment, Hughes can’t help but think the answer might be a little more straight forward. “Human beings are just so complicated”, he muses with a wistful laugh. “We can be such inventive, creative and loving creatures, but we’re just so f*cking mental!”
Steve Hughes: Tour Dates 2016
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL COMEDY FESTIVAL
Tue, Apr 5, 2016 9:45pm – Sun, Apr 10, 2016 8:45pm
PERTH COMEDY FESTIVAL
Thu, Apr 28, 2016 8:15pm – Sun, May 1, 2016 8:15pm
SYDNEY COMEDY FESTIVAL
Saturday, July 2, 2016 – 7:00pm 9:00pm