Elliot Wright felt a serious pain in his neck before his group Eliquate hit the stage at the Catalyst during the Santa Cruz Music Festival in October of 2015. But he wasn’t going to let it stop him from going out to perform for the nearly packed club.
After all, this was it. After tonight, Eliquate, the high-energy Santa Cruz alt-hip-hop band would be no more. In its place, Wright would return to his roots as Eliquate, the thoughtful, indie solo rapper—a move that both excited and terrified him.
The pain didn’t start at Eliquate’s final show. Wright had been living with chronic neck pain since he was 18, when he suffered a hockey injury. But regardless of how much it hurt before any given performance, the showman in him took over once the music started. He dominated the stage with a rapid-fire and brainy flow, like an Aesop Rock who’s borderline shouting. He’d dance with total abandon, head-bang like a metalhead and mosh in the crowd with rowdy kids five to 10 years younger than him. Adrenaline was his best friend, and his worst enemy. He paid for it when he wasn’t on stage.
But that night, as he was leaving the Catalyst Atrium stage, saying his final farewells to a band he’d spent the past six years putting his all into, a thought crossed his mind: This pain is different.
It took a little while before the full extent of the injury revealed itself. He stood up two days later, tried to adjust his neck, and felt an intense tingling sensation run down his arm, then his entire body. He collapsed, unable to get up for a few minutes. When he could get himself to a hospital, they handed him a bottle of pills and told him to stretch more. Wright knew this was no ordinary neck injury. He called his dad, who drove down from Novato and took Wright to see two doctors up there. The second doctor told Wright that if he didn’t get surgery soon, he’d lose the use of his right arm.
In two days, Wright was in surgery.
“It was the probably the most terrifying experience I ever had,” Wright says. “It was the worst pain. I was terrified something could go wrong.”
Fortunately, the surgery was a success. Since then, Wright has been living at his parents’ Novato home, the same house in which he spent his high school years. He’s been trying to recover, while simultaneously rebuilding his music career as a solo artist. Last week, he finally released his long-awaited album, Me and My TV, which he’s worked on for the past year and a half. The album documents this difficult period, in which he wasn’t just recovering from a life-threatening physical injury. He was also taking an honest inventory of who he was, and facing a demon he’d kept hidden from most people in his life up to that point: His addiction to drugs.
SIGN OF THINGS TO COME
Wright sits with me at a Starbucks in Novato, just a quick drive from his parents’ house. He’s dressed casually, sports a bushy beard and seems at peace, though at one point he tells me that he’s still in chronic pain, even right now.
His energy is a bit scattered, though he speaks in clear, thoughtful sentences. He spends the duration of the interview fiddling with a small gadget he tells me is specifically designed for people to focus excess energy on. (“It keeps this half of the brain busy, while the other half of the brain tries to think of cool shit to say.”). Going back to his injury, he explains the gadget’s other purpose: to help rehabilitate his muscles.
Few Eliquate fans are familiar with Wright’s roots as a solo artist. By the time he’d recorded his first album, Eliquate was already a duo with Jamie Schnetzler. By the following album, Eliquate was a full band, regularly packing Santa Cruz clubs, and touring the West Coast, and eventually the entire country.
He tells me a story to explain the kind of person he was when he first moved to Santa Cruz in 2009, still relatively new to the identity of Eliquate, the rapper. He would stand on Pacific Avenue holding a sign that read “World’s Best Rapper” along with a stack of CDs he’d sell for a buck a piece. People got the irony; they’d laugh, but sometimes they’d buy a CD, too.
His approach to gigging back then was similarly cocky. He would show up to parties uninvited, with an iPod and an amp, and tell whoever was in charge that he’d do a live hip-hop show if they wanted one. Many took him up on the offer.
“I was just an arrogant 19-year-old. I’m so glad I did that then, because there’s no way I’d be arrogant enough to do that now. It’s like, ‘I’m young, so this is ok,’” Wright says.
He is much more self-conscious now, as he presents the new solo Eliquate to the world. The album’s been mostly finished for a while, but since it’s so personal, he’d been procrastinating putting the final touches on it. The longer he waited, the more he felt pressure to make it something fans would like.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be worth it or not. I wasn’t sure, ’cause I’m a pretty insecure dude underneath it all. I just thought it’s going to be shit, and all it’s going to do is disappoint people,” Wright says.
The album expresses not only a whole new level of vulnerability for Wright, but also self-examination. The injury wasn’t his low point—that came later as he spent months in his parents’ house, doing little besides taking opioids and reflecting on all the mistakes he’d made with his band, and how he’d let his drug addiction escalate.
“I was just so disappointed in myself. I failed all my fans. I failed the band. I failed my family. I failed my 13-year-old self that was really counting on me doing this. I didn’t care, and I would rather escape into the oblivion of an opiate high than deal with that pain and disappointment,” Wright says.
The injury and subsequent surgery certainly warranted that Wright take painkillers. The problem was that Wright had a long, mostly secretive history with pills that he hadn’t properly addressed. Leading up to the injury, it had gotten worse. When his neck pain flared up, he’d get a pill prescription and go on a “neck vacation,” as he puts it, for a while. His routine also included a regular weed habit—and near the end of his time in Santa Cruz, cocaine.
He never drank much alcohol, which became his biggest justification. How could he be an addict if he didn’t drink? Now he laughs at this thought, which he says is typical addict thinking.
One of the people that helped him get sober was friend Brendan Powers, the rapper known as Pure Powers, who is himself six and a half years sober. He’d support Wright, check in with him, and let him vent or just talk whenever he needed. Before Wright confessed his addiction to Powers, Powers was unaware of what was going on.
“I was really taken aback. When someone’s addicted to opiates, sometimes you can’t tell. You can’t smell it on them. Sometimes you see them nodding out—I never saw Elliot doing that. He was usually in good spirits. It’s definitively going to take some people by surprise,” Powers says.
These days, Wright feels like he’s adjusting to life in Novato. He has a desk job in San Francisco, which he enjoys, and he works on music and plays shows when he can. He’s getting ready to move, but Santa Cruz is not likely going to be his new home.
“Santa Cruz does have a way of sucking people in, and not letting them out,” Wright says. “I needed something major to happen to wake me up and get me out of that destructive routine. Next thing I would have known, I would have been 40 and living in a borderline flophouse, working at a restaurant, and just feeling like I let myself down.”
The biggest adjustment for Wright now is in his live performance. He’s no longer backed by a band, and he is doing his best to take the health of his neck into consideration when on stage. So far, he feels happy with the somewhat more low-key version of Eliquate.
His performances back in Santa Cruz were infamous for being off the hook. Wright’s manager Thomas Dawson tells a story about one young fan who wrote them a letter saying that he was so amazed by Wright’s performance, he vowed to start working out.
“There’s nobody that performs like Elliot. He is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t matter how big the show is, or the crowd,” says Dawson. “He’s a punk rock kid. He knows what it’s like to be a viewer of music. He knows what he likes to see from an artist.”
Before Eliquate’s dominance as a local live act, it was just—much like this past year—Wright spitting rhymes in his room. Music to him was therapy, and lyrics were everything.
But it was other people’s music, even before he wrote his own songs, that meant so much to him. He obsessively listened to music as a means of coping with a home life that included a mom with an extreme case of bipolar disorder. “She would have these fits of rage. And it was terrifying. I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d run into my room and grab my headphones and push them into my ears. It sounds corny, but I’d just escape into music,” Wright says.
Wright grew up listening to punk rock and hip-hop, elements clearly found in his own music. But more than any specific genre, it was the way music made him feel safe and less weird that inspired him as an artist. He would dream about being that for someone else.
“There was a vulnerability there that I connected to. It was almost like this Trojan horse effect where you’d get people to listen to your music because it’s fun, it’s got this beat and there’s this energy to it. While they’re not paying attention, they’re actually being exposed to someone’s inner demons. All of a sudden, whether they know it or not, they got to know a complete stranger through the way they expressed themselves,” Wright says.
His raps were mostly something he did in secrecy as a high schooler. As a senior, Wright turned in a history assignment in which he created a rap about Abraham Lincoln and slavery. His teacher loved it, and told him she would play it to all her subsequent classes. Her positive response shocked him.
Building the Band
He went to Santa Rosa Junior College the following year, and started to play live at parties. By the time he transferred to UCSC as a junior, he felt confident showing off his rap skills, even though he wasn’t wild about his own beats, which he flippantly calls “trash.”
Eliquate, the band, evolved quickly. He first teamed up with guitarist/beat maker Jamie Schnetzler. As a duo, Schnetzler produced the music, and Wright wrote all of the words. (“It was like peanut butter and jelly,” Wright says.) The duo released the philosophical hip-hop record Arc Rhythm in 2009, Eliquate’s debut.
Soon more members joined: drums, bass, guitar, keys. It was unwieldy at first, with the band improvising jams while Wright rapped over it. The group eventually settled on more solid, pre-written beats. The next album, the genre-hopping, funky-indie-rock-influenced Chalkboard’s War Against Erasers was released in 2013. It featured the whole band.
The group did several small tours, but it was on a three-month tour they did in 2014 that everything felt like it was really coming together, and that they were set to explode on a national scale. All the responses they were getting were overwhelmingly positive. Wright says with mixed emotions that had Eliquate returned to these same towns a year later, they would have drawn twice the people.
“I assume I’m pretty bad at everything, and nobody likes me. But I couldn’t deny the reactions we were getting. People were coming up, like ‘What the hell. I thought you guys were going to suck. That was awesome,’” Wright says.
But after that tour, things just stalled. On one hand, Wright felt conflicted about taking the leadership role to get them where they needed to be. But on a much deeper level, Wright was conflicted about the presence of the live band. On the web bio written during this time, Schnetzler is quoted as saying that Eliquate plays “party music with a purpose.” But the party element to Wright felt like it was overshadowing the purpose.
“That was blood, sweat and tears for me, writing those lyrics. For people to be just shit-faced dancing, and not know that there’s something actually going on there, it hurt and it was kind of discouraging,” Wright says. “Now they come up and they’re like, ‘Hey I wanted to ask you about that one song.’ I’m like, ‘You guys are actually catching that now. Weird.’”
He sat the band down and told them that in order to go forward as an artist, he needed to be solo again. The band understood. Everyone agreed to make the SCMF show their last.
In retrospect, Wright wonders if that show really would have been the final band performance had he not injured himself. He wanted to get away from playing party music, but he wasn’t quite ready to stop partying.
I TO I
Despite his initial reservations, Wright recently started to feel excited about releasing his new album. Once he’d finished his parts a few months ago, and he handed the tracks over to a producer to fine tune and master everything, he felt liberated. He was able to take a step back from his own expectations, his perceived expectations from fans, and feel proud for creating something so honest and self-reflective.
“It’s not about me looking at the world,” he says. “It’s about me looking at me. The other ones were my opinions on things, and this is more about me in direct situations, relationships, getting sober, dealing with my demons.”
The title Me and My TV is a reference to being alone in his room, away from everything this past year. It’s about escaping, not fighting yourself, and just facing it all head-on, he explains.
The record documents directly and indirectly many of the challenges he’s faced since the accident, which include being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (“I was feeling so anxious and terrified, like I was about to go fight a grizzly bear, but I was just sitting there. Or the depression, which wasn’t ‘I feel bad,’ it was ‘I don’t feel anything,’” he says.)
His quest for sobriety isn’t dealt with much on the record. The next one, he says will be about that. The album is about self-acceptance, and taking an honest inventory of who he is. He talks about dealing with his bipolar disorder (“David Cronenberg”), trying to not give up on himself (“Not Be So Sure”), realizing that he’s not as good or bad as he thought he was (“Man-Wolf”), and dealing with the uncomfortable feeling of liking a girl, then realizing she has a boyfriend (“Not Subtle”). The beats are surreal, more left-of-center than anything he’d released before. When he raps, it sounds less like shouting, more conversational. He even occasionally goes into a sing-song style of rapping.
As Wright talks about his sobriety, he speaks very tentatively. It’s all new to him, and he’s still learning the full impact of making this decision to change his life. He tells me at one point that had we interviewed last year, he probably would have lied about everything.
“Being sober is about being accountable for your life. That’s where I’m still struggling. You can be not doing drugs and still not be recovering,” Wright says. “I’ve got a long road ahead of me as far as getting clean and staying clean. It’s going to be something I deal with the rest of my life.”
Underneath everything—the new record, playing live as a solo artist, examining himself so closely—it all brings him back to the essence of why he wanted to make music in the first place, and likewise the reason he chose to break up the band in 2015. He wanted to affect other people in the same way that he’s been—still is—affected by music.
He says he used to hold this romantic notion that being a real artist meant being a self-hating, drugged-up mess. Now he realized that he can do more to help others, and can dig deeper into himself if he stays clean and loves himself.
It surprises him, the level of satisfaction he feels, considering that he’s working full-time at a desk job and working his music in around this work schedule. Drugs, he says, used to give him a cheat to feel like he’d accomplished something, when he hadn’t. Removing that from his life motivates him to find happiness through creating music and expressing himself.
“I’m being who I am now, and being OK with that,” Wright says. “It’s hearing from people that feel weird and displaced and uncomfortable, and they can listen to my music and it makes them feel not so bad. Fuck everything else. That’s what it’s about. I was that kid. I still am. Still to this day.”