How a UK house legend's life fell apart in his mid-30s – and how he put it back together again
There's been a lot of talk in the electronic music industry over the past few years about mental health, and about 'wellness' more generally. This is a good thing, because working in the music industry, working around the music industry, hell even just being a regular, devoted clubber – these things can take their toll.
We're talking, after all, about an industry built on loud music, bright flashing lights and heightened emotions; about an environment where there can often be undercurrents of violence, and/or of sexual tension/excitement. All these factors can play a part in shaping how we react to things – a minor disappointment may become a crushing blow, a minor slight can get blown out of all proportion.
For artists, there are the added pressures of having to be on your grind 24/7 to get anywhere at all, and then be on it twice as hard when you get there. Of endless cancelled flights and lonely hotel rooms and the eternal dread that tomorrow you'll wake up a nobody again, and all your shiny new friends will have vanished and it'll be back to the Amazon warehouse.
Now factor in the elephant in the room – the D word – and, looked at one way, the electronic music industry can be quite a toxic environment. It took the death of Avicii for the industry en masse to wake up to this, but it's not like there weren't plenty of lessons we could have learned from earlier – people who just found it all that bit too much to deal with. Take Bristolian D&B founding father Krust, for instance, who spoke to iDJ recently about the breakdown he experienced at the height of his success in his mid-30s, and the long road back.
Or take Mark Wilkinson. A fixture on the UK's acid house scene since the very start, by his mid-20s he'd risen to fame as one of the Problem Kids alongside Darren Rock; by his mid-30s he'd also chalked up club and chart hits as Dab Hands, Donatella Movement, Kidstuff and more. And then disaster struck. Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a highly debilitating form of arthritis, Mark was forced to make some major lifestyle changes. But another crisis occurred a few years later when his Kidology label went under, and the former jet-setting superstar DJ was declared bankrupt, moved back home with his mum and signed on the dole.
In other words, another one bit the dust… only Mark didn't. Instead he immersed himself in reading – self-help books, science, philosophy, religion – and began to rebuild his life according to a set of principles, derived from his reading, that can perhaps roughly be described as “the power of postive thinking”. And now he's written his own book, Life Remixed.
One part warts n' all confessional to two parts self-help manual, Life Remixed isn't your typical DJ autobiography by any means but it's certainly an interesting read. And who knows? You might not agree with every one of Mark's ideas and suggestions, nor might we. But if they can save just one future Avicii from throwing away his/her/their life, then that doesn't matter, does it?
So we thought we'd give Mark the chance to tell you more about it. And here's what he had to say…
It's not an uncommon story, is it… people in our industry falling over in their mid-30s?
“Yeah, there are lots of stories around. I think in many people's lives there's a crisis, a turning point – a moment you go from thinking you know it all, to realising you know very little. For me, I reached a point where I could either just give up and throw myself off a tall building, or I could dust myself off and go again. I'd read in my studies that in every crisis there's an opportunity, so I was like, right, I need to do something about this, I need to fix myself and sort this out.
“I studied with some of the world's finest coaches – inspirational people. And yes, it is kind of a 'being at one with the Universe' thing… I just don't talk about it that way very much, because people think you're a mad old hippy! And I'm not, I'm just a normal guy who's very much at peace with everyone and everything around him, which is a beautiful place to be.”
I wanted to talk about all this today because there'll be younger people out there – people who are just reaching their mid-30s, maybe, and are going through similar things themselves, right now…
“Yeah, I love it. Look, I'm not doing this for money – money comes to me in other ways. One of the main things I really want to do is help young people who are struggling with various addictions, and I'll be doing that pretty much for free.”
Reading the book, I don't think I'd realised quite how early on you got involved with the whole acid house thing…
“Yeah, I was right in the thick of it, from 1988 when I was 18 onwards.”
So is there a part of you that ever thinks, 'I just wish I'd never bothered with the whole thing?'
“Great question! There's a few answers to it. The first one is, I'd go back to my 18-year-old self and have a little word. I'd say, I love the fact that you want to be a DJ, that you're passionate about music, that you want to bring enjoyment to people and travel the world and all that, it's great. Just manage your anxiety a little bit, and have assets behind you that can generate money when you're not working. Be a bit more of a rounded individual rather than just going hell-for-leather.
“So that'd be one answer: “Okay do it, but do it in a bit more of a balanced way”. I'm not saying I regret anything as such, because the person I am today is a person who's learned many, many lessons in life: you can't change the past. I went for it in a big way: I got addicted to pleasure.
“Thankfully I didn't go down rabbit-hole of… there weren't too many dark moments in drug dens or anything like that. But I was addicted to pleasure and partying and people and being out there. I tried to chase the party sometimes for days on end, and a lot of that was incredible. Y'know, Chapter 2 of the book is called 'Good Times' for a reason! But then Chapter 3 is called 'Lost In Music', because I was.
"I dunno, it's a difficult question to answer, because I don't live in the past, I live in the present moment. But yeah, if I could go back and have a little word with myself, I would.”
Well, what would you say if you had an 18-year-old son and he came home one day and said 'Dad, I want to be a DJ?'
“As above really. I'd be like okay let me help you, let's get some assets set up, let's get you out there… but be careful of what else is going on around you. I'd be a friend and a guide, hopefully.”
So you wouldn't be all 'stay away, that's the Devil's music!'?
[laughs] “No no no, not at all. Look, when I first heard Elvis and The Beatles when I was six years old on my Mum's stereo, I wasn't caught up in drugs or addiction or anything like that. I just heard this music and I was like 'What is this?!' because it gave me tingles up my spine. It was never the ballads, it was always the big uplifting tunes.
“Then at 14 I started drinking, and I slipped into addiction. My Dad was very sick – he had, I now believe, PTSD after World War II, and I picked up loads of doubts and fears and anxieties about the world from him. So at 14 I started drinking, at 16-18 I started taking drugs, and by 18 years old I was right in the thick of acid house.
“I gave up alcohol when I was 34, round about the time of my collapse, so that's 16, 17 years ago now. And I have the same little boy enthusiasm about music back now, but I only got it back by kicking all the addictions to one side. So music is music. Music is the sound of emotions, it uplifts you and gets you moving and feeling good, it's wonderful. It's a beautiful thing that humans can do. But what I'd say is, like so many things in life, it's all about balance. When you get addicted to too much pleasure, negative things can come out of it. My collapse was nature's handbrake.'”
I know you've been doing DJ sets online lately but is that the extent of it? Or would you be out on the circuit again if it wasn't for coronavirus?
“I've had a few bookings over the past few years, mainly just for fun. I did a little thing with a couple of friends for a while but that didn't quite work out. And now Life Remixed is here, so I'm doing the online sets on a Saturday night and we get about 800 people listening each week which is brilliant, but one of the things I really want to do is take Life Remixed out on the road and do events.
“You'll have seen Danny Rampling wrote one of the forewords for my book, for instance. Danny's a really good friend of mine, so I definitely think there's scope for some kind of Life Remixed events.”
So how would that work – how would the clubbing element and the self-help element combine?
“I don't know, I think I'd keep them a bit more separate to be honest. I've got some ideas in my mind, but I don't want to say too much about it right now. I won't be putting on all-nighters that go on till noon or stuff like that, that's not who I am any more. But I certainly think some kind of daytime event with the coaching stuff, maybe, and then you all go out dancing in the evening… something like that could work.
“I've learned from some of the world's finest life coaches and now I'm on a mission to share that. That's why I wrote the book, because my life purpose is four things: bring joy, bring knowledge, inspire and create. Those are my four things. And obviously music brings joy to people, the book brings joy and knowledge and is hopefully inspring, and then making music and writing a book are both creative things.
“So that's my purpose, because the purpose of life is a life with purpose! Too many people never stop to think about their lives for long enough to work out what their purpose is."
Well, I'm certainly guilty of that! I've always struggled with self-help books, because they say things like 'First, write down your goals', and I can honestly say I've never really had any…
“And is that serving you well?” [laughs]
I haven't, though! I don't have goals, I fall into stuff by accident, and if I ever did have a dream, it was to be editor of a dance music magazine – and I'd achieved that by the time I was 31…
“So there you go, that's you achieving a goal. But then again you're 50 years old, you could be on this planet another 30, 40, 50 years. So what's your mission? What's your purpose?”
I honestly don't know, that's the point! You see, you mentioned living a life with purpose –
“Yeah, the purpose of a life is a life with purpose – that's Mark Twain.”
…and the trouble with that, for me, is okay, we're both 50, you've been through a load of stuff, so have I, so have most 50-year-olds. But how does a young person work out what their purpose, before life gives them the series of kicks in the balls that it took us?
“Well my lightbulb moment, when it came to working out what my purpose was… I gave a talk to some students in Manchester. And they enjoyed it and about 10 of them hung back to ask me questions at the end, and I realised that I got the same feeling, from bringing some joy to those handful of students, as I did from DJing to a thousand people in a nightclub. And I was like, right, got it – joy! When I see joy in other people's faces, I feel great. So I was like, okay, that's part of the purpose.
“Then I was looking back at the rest of my life, and I thought, I've been doing this for 20 years, I've sort of accidentally been living my purpose without really articulating it or realising it. But once I realised my purpose, it wasn't just about bringing joy for a couple of hours on a Saturday night, it was about doing it 17 hours a day while I'm awake.
“So it's important to find out what gets you buzzing. Music was just the vehicle, for me. And it still is, I still love it, I get lots of joy from playing music and seeing people enjoy it. But now for the 17 hours a day I'm awake, I try and bring that joy to every person, every call, every client. I bring joy to them, I feel great, they feel great, everybody wins."
Fair enough. So, can we talk a bit about the ankylosing spondylitis? Because you've recovered, but I have a couple of friends with the condition and they're both pretty much resigned to the fact that by their late 50s they'll be in a wheelchair permanently…
“Well please give them my book! They don't have to end up like that: we're all responsible for our own health. The body is a molecular structure and it's reflective of what's going on in your mind, and many people won't want to hear that, but if I can reach some people that do want to hear it then I've done some good.
“I've recovered twice from series bouts of AS. It's come up twice in my life, savagely, and that's because of stress. Well, 80% stress and 20% poor diet. People have said to me, don't you think it was to do with your lifestyle? And yeah, I don't think that helped! But then it came up again in my mid-40s, when I was totally clean and sober, and that was purely because of stress.
“The bottom line for me is, when I'm under high stress, my body breaks down. And AS can touch people in a very light way, just a few aches and pains, but for other people it can just take them down. I've always had a life of extremes, as you can see from the book, so it took em down badly. I was having suicidal thoughts because it felt like my life was over, and that's a very negative place to be when you're only in your mid-30s.
“Funnily enough I've actually been talking to the National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society, NASS, about me fronting up a campaign for them this summer. Because it took me 18 months to be diagnosed with AS, and that was 18 months of absolute hell. I saw numerous doctors and no-one could tell me what was wrong. They couldn't even give me any drugs to get me back on an even keel. And then I got a new GP and she took one look and said, 'Frankly I'm surprised you've managed to keep going this long.”
"She got me an emergency appointment with a rheumatologist – I'd never even heard the word rheumatology before! The point being that modern medicine can help us, it can help us a lot, particularly in acute situations. Anti-inflammatories and stuff can really help. But if the body's getting inflamed, it's because of other things that are going on. And in my opinion, that's 80% stress and 20% the wrong food.
"So I gave up alcohol, because alcohol is about the most inflammatory thing you can pour into your body, and I recovered! But like I said, I could be here for another 40, 50 years, and I believe I've got a lot more work left to do in the world helping other people. One of my coaches and heroes is a guy called Bob Proctor… this guy's 86 and you should see the energy he's got! It's beautiful to see."
Yeah, those people do exist don't they? I've got an uncle who's 90, and until lockdown started he was still going to the gym three times a week…
“Love it! But there you go, you see: the only thing that's getting him to the gym three times a week is his mind. He's made the decision that he's going to keep his body as fit as possible, because he wants to be around as long as possible. I love it – your uncle's my new hero. Spend more time with him!”
There's certainly a lot to what you say about decisions. But the trouble is… what do you do if you make a decision and it doesn't work? Or what if you make a decision and don't stick to it?
“Well, the first thing is that doing nothing is also a decision! Maybe you've decided you don't want to change things, and that's okay, it's up to you, it's your life.
“Another useful saying is 'When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come'. I'm not here to change anyone's life that doesn't want to change it. I mean, if people had tried to reach me in my mid-20s when I was the party king… I wouldn't have listened to them then, I'd have been like 'what are you on about?'. That took me until I was in my mid-30s and my body was falling to pieces – then I was ready to listen.”
“And then there's loads of other stuff, to do with the law of attraction and the law of vibration. We all know about gravity, that's one universal law. But there are lots of universal laws, and they all line up right across religion, science, quantium physics – they all have similar messages, they just say it in different ways. And that's what I've done in Life Remixed, I've put my own take on it, hopefully in a language that people can understand.”
“And the last thing is that there is no such thing as failure. It's our thinking that makes things a failure: everything just IS. It only becomes failure if you have a belief system that says if I try that and I fail people will judge me, or if I try that and I fail I'll be pissed off and embarrassed… what I'm trying to give people in Life Remixed is freedom. The freedom is it doesn't matter what other people think of you. Comparison is the thief of joy and there is no failure – only learning events.
“There's a famous story about Thomas Edison tried to come up with the lightbulb 999 times, or whatever it was. And someone asked him how he kept going, and he just said, because I learned 999 ways not to do it. But he finally came up with a lightbulb that worked – and that's the one we all remember, isn't it?! My point is that as human beings we make our lives very complicated. There's no such thing as failure, and I'd actually be really happy even if people were to read this book, get just that one point and take it from there.”
You mentioned belief systems – how Western medicine is good at certain things and not so good at certain other things, for instance. Now for me, I'm very sceptical of any belief system, be it religious, political, philosophical – because I tend to think most of them have some wisdom and truth, and most also contain some degree of bollocks. So I see belief systems as little more than a set of tools that may or may not be useful, and it's my job to figure out what works and what doesn't…
“Well, that's your belief system then, isn't it? But I'm not actually pushing an agenda here…I'm not pushing religion, I'm not pushing science. What Bob Proctor actually said to me, back when I was in pain and couldn't walk, was, 'Your way isn't working, try mine'. And I said fine, I've got nothing to lose, I'll try it. At the back of my mind I guess I was thinking 'Well, if it doesn't work I'll just go back to how it was”. But I thought okay, I'll listen, I'll apply the knowledge I've been given and I'll try it for myself.
“So the very first thing was gratitude. I started being grateful. We teach kids to say 'thank you' but that's not gratitude. Gratitude is waking up not in pain, saying “another day, another crack of the whip, great, let's go!”. Gratitude is a universal law. You spoke a bit about mental health before, and there's a brilliant book called The Science Of Getting Rich. It was writtten about 100 years ago, and there's this briliant line about the whole process of mental adjustment and atonement can be summed up in one word: gratitude.
“And I took that to heart. So I thought, okay I'll be grateful that when I lost my flat, my Mum still had a spare room I could sleep in. I'll be grateful for the giro I got for six months when I needed it. I'll be grateful to the man who made my baked potato for lunch. Once you start being grateful for things… it's powerful, it really is.
“And I got into forgiveness. Forgiving everyone for everything, including myself, and I also got into total acceptance, which is my definition of love. And the more I got into this stuff… I know I'm sounding like some sort of Buddhist here, but the thing is, I tried this stuff out and it worked!"
But the question is: does someone have to wholeheartedly embrace every single aspect of this philosophy of yours to make it succeed? Or is it another toolbox from which you might pick five or six tools?
“Oh, you have to choose – you have to choose your own path, because we all have our own path.
“One of the reasons [best-selling self-help manual] The Secret hasn't worked for people is that force negates. That's a universal law: if you try to force something to happen, it won't. So you don't need to force yourself to do anything. For me, I've read a hell of a lot of books written by some great minds, from ancient philosophy right the way through to people like Bob Proctor and Kevin Green today. For me, it's about picking up the best bits that work from everyone else."
So what you're saying is, your book isn't a belief system – it's your take on what you've learned from other people's?
"Exactly that. All I've done is be inspired by other people. I've taken the best bits from everyone else I've learned from, and put them into practice. And now I'm very, very happy within. I'm also healthy, I'm also wealthy, and I'm also married, in a successful relationship where we love each other and support each other to a better way of life. And that's incredible, because when I was down I was unhappy, sick and broke. And most people, sorry to say it, are unhappy, sick and broke. And that's no way to live.”
Something that did strike me was that, like me, you had a much older Dad. I found, when I was growing up, it was sometimes hard to talk to my Dad because he'd never been a teenager – he was from the pre-rock n' roll era when teenagers didn't exist! That created a certain distance – was your experience similar?
”Yeah, my Dad was broken. He came home from World War 2, I believe, with undiagnosed PTSD, he had terrible problems… but he tried his best. By the time I was born, he was 50 and my Mum was 25 but the problem was, there was a lot of anxiety and doubt and fear and worry about. Then my Dad died when I was 18: he was 68 and he'd been in a lot of pain for many years. He started getting ill at 58, to the extent that it was almost a relief when he died.
“So yeah, I think a big part of me turning to drink and drugs at a young age was just as a way of escaping those feelings. But then, I never really knew him to be honest, because you know nothing at 18 – you don't really get to know your parents till your mid 20s or laters. And the other thing is my Mum tried to be both Mum and Dad, and of course she couldn't. Don't get me wrong, it was a very loving upbringing and she did her best, without a doubt. So did my Dad, but there were some big issues there.
“I mean I'm 50 now, but when my Dad was my age he looked 60 or 65, when all the other kids' dads were in their 20s and 30s. So that was harsh in itself, y'know, 'Is that your Grandad?' and all that. But we go through these experiences, we learn, we grow… I believe we're put on this planet to learn about ourselves, and the quicker we can learn about ourselves the better, rather than doing it from your rocking chair or your death bed. My two crises, of incurable disease and bankruptcy, were my opportunity to learn. And thankfully I was listening!"
Speaking of things lasting a long time, we should wrap this up! So what's next, is the obvious question? You mentioned events…
“Yeah. I've been doing some online events, some online coaching and stuff, but as I said I think we'll get back out into event rooms when we can. There'll be some DJ events, with some of the DJs that are mentioned in the book. Really it's just about keeping the vibe alive and keeping the party going.
“And then on the big plan, what's next would be book two. I've just had an endorsement from Bob Proctor, who's someone I've looked up to and listened to for the past 17 years, since I started turning my corner. He actually likened me to a guy he knows who's sold 50 million books in his lifetime, so who knows?!
“Obviously I'd be very happy with that… but honestly I'm just holding on to the ride, bringing my very best energy to every single moment of my life and when I look back, I'll be like 'There was a few challenges there in my mid-30s, but I stepped up and I changed'."
Okay, very last question… you said every crisis is an opportunity, and we've all been going through one of the biggest crises humanity has faced in a long time. So what opportunity would you like the people of Britain, and humanity as a whole, to take from that?
“Well, the strategies that I've put in Life Remixed are the ways to recover from any kind of crisis – but hopefully, people who read Life Remixed will never go into crisis, because they'll have thought about their health, they'll have thought about their wealth, they'll have thought about their relationships and their happiness. That's really the main goal.
“But you're right. I'd say 2020, 2021 have been the years to be grateful for what you've got. And if you can be grateful for what you've got, then we can get back to our mission and purpose, which is to grow, because any healthy person is always looking for growth in some areas of their life.
“I hope we grow sensibly, I hope we learn some lessons. Like, the air's been cleaner, nature has bounced back somewhat, let's start to learn some lessons! Homeworking, for instance: the fact that we could keep 80, 90 per cent of the economy going without anyone actually going anywhere, is incredible. Some people would look at that and say 'Oh no, the economy's down 10, 20 per cent!' but what about the 80-90 percent we kept going?
“I think there are some big lessons to be learned here. Will we go back to the way things were? Well, yes, there's things that are missing in life right now: fun things like pubs and shops and nightclubs and restaurants, being able to enjoy ourselves in a free way… most of us can't wait for those things to come back, hopefully over the summer.
“But we've got to learn to be grateful for what we've actually got, because gratitude is a really important message to send out into the universe. If you can be grateful for what you've got right now, that tells the universe you're ready for some more.”
Words: Russell Deeks
Life Remixed is out now, published by Hasmark