Another, and another, and another.
Dave’s head sunk low between his knees, his arms limp at his side. The warmth of the alcohol somehow gave him a chill throughout his body that he remembers to this day. There were two empty bottles of whiskey at his feet and a bottle of cheap wine on the table. His hair was sticking to his neck and forehead as a result of the mixture of tears and sweat trickling all down his body. He felt a vibration from his pocket and fumbled with his phone and answered.
“Mate I am on my way to your parent’s house. Don’t kill yourself. Once I get there, then you can.” Paul said over the phone.
“Hey man, sure, whatever,” Dave replied with a sense of false cockiness.
“Wait. Wait. Please just wait.”
He was drunk, but he listened. For some reason he listened. The moment he was about to drunkenly stumble onto the freeway, he stopped and listened and waited. The police arrived at his house and as he sat in front of the magnolia tree that his dad had planted when he was young, he had a single, solitary moment of realisation; you know what? Chin up motherfucker.
David Le’aupepe was born in February of 1992 in Strathfield, Sydney; raised in a typical family household by his mother and father with his older sister Giselle. With a Jewish Samoan heritage, Dave was prideful of his cocoa butter skin and his lion’s mane of untamed dark brown locks. He felt growing up, not as a skinny white boy, he gravitated toward a certain scene that accepted him, one that didn’t bully him.
Apart from his minority heritage within the area he lived, life was very average for Dave when he was young. He grew up in a modest neighbourhood and attended church on Sunday evenings and youth group on Friday evenings. Despite his early exposure to religion, he still does not fully understand it. He is happy to out himself as a believer in Jesus, but he is still looking for God and asking where He is in all this bullshit. Also contrary to his religious upbringing and stereotype that comes along with that lifestyle, Dave grew into a bad kid. He would drink at school and get into trouble with the police, which eventually led him to being kicked out of various high schools.
During his early teenage years his temptations grew, as they would inside most. Dave turned toward alcohol and quickly began to abuse it. This only led him to a life of early onset substance abuse. Since he was fifteen years old he struggled with drug and alcohol mistreatment and according to his own personal evaluation, he is a fornicating drunk on a good day. He regrettably notes that it is part of his DNA. He needed to find a way to expunge the abuse; this came through music.
As Mickey Hart once said, “There’s nothing like music to relieve the soul and uplift it.” For Dave, this is exactly what happened, although the process was a challenging few years under genuinely stressful circumstances with a near death experience to shake him out of it. He met his now ex-wife, Megan, in 2011 during her second round of chemotherapy for a metastasised melanoma that had spread from her left ear to her left lymph nodes. After a few years of dating they decided to marry, optimistically thinking their worst years were behind them.
However clear Dave’s revelation was about using song writing as a form of therapy, it came accompanied with overwhelming news. Megan’s cancer had now progressed and been diagnosed from a stage two to a stage four. The couple were distraught and soon moved to Nashville, Tennessee to receive treatment. Things only began to worsen for Dave and his partner. They had medical bills to be paid as well as needing money for rent and food. In addition to these expenses, they need travel money for Dave to travel to and from America as he was having issues with his visa that required him to frequently return home to Sydney. An emotional strain was put on the couple’s relationship as they were trying to navigate married life at such a young age. Accompanying this anxiety was the fact that they had to deal with living across the globe from their support networks of family and friends. A feat that would prove challenging for anyone in their position.
During this time however, Dave still sought his friends’ advice and support from Sydney as best he could. They ultimately gave their whole lives to satisfy his vision he recalls. That was a vision of music that would comfort and of music that would make people feel. He wanted to start writing properly so that Megan could listen to something during her medical appointments and times at home when he could not be with her. He wanted her to be able to enjoy something while she dealt with her terrible illness.
Understanding his condition and the affect it was having on his marriage, Dave decided to sober up to save it. He describes himself as loyal and stupid during this time even though he wished he had bailed when he had the chance. In other attempts to distract himself from grief, Dave began to focus heavily on his band and their future. With local and international recording companies and radio stations showing interest in their work, the future looked bright. The same unfortunately could not be said about Dave and his now ex-wife.
After recording an LP in New York one weekend, the band decided to move back home to Sydney and try to write a proper album. With a greater physical distance between him and Megan, as well as an ever-growing emotional distance, Dave remembers feeling lost. Being only twenty-one years old he did not have the life experience and mature mind-set to be able to cope with a partner undergoing chemotherapy for stage four cancer and living on the other side of the world to her at the same time.
It was during this time in late 2013 and early 2014 that Dave began heavily drinking again. He says that it has always been an issue for him and he has had years of life informed mood swings by his substance problems. What seemed to be the little hope left in him began to evidence itself through his music. After the local success of their first few songs the band began writing and recording more material. Dave attempted to deal with his issues through writing but also regrettably, drinking. He seemed to have given up hope on saving his marriage, which is now evident as he typically only ever refers to his ex-wife as ‘some girl’.
As a result of his alcohol and substance abuse, as well as the stress of a deteriorating marriage with a severely ill partner, Dave’s mental health began to decline. He was seeking professional help and admits he became very close with his counsellor, but he would still go on weeklong benders and drink until he could see the bottom of the bottle. Though he sought refuge in song writing, his innate desire to numb himself through drugs and alcohol unfortunately prevailed.
Despite his apparent downward spiral, Dave sought out his friends for comfort and support to help him work through his pain. His band mates in particular were his main source of encouragement, he admits. He also states he did not care whether the band would succeed or not and that that was not his intention in the slightest. He just wanted to jam with his mates, Joji, Max and Jung. While he struggled with his addiction and the breakdown of his marriage, Dave realised that the healing component and the quality of music that makes people feel whole again was what was going to save him. He comments that the record became more about his buddies propping him up and holding him together stumbling drunk down the road, throwing up blood trying to figure out his shit.
The relationships Dave has with his band mates were formed long before they started making music. Friends from childhood, the boys had already been supporting each other for years. It is no surprise then that they were by his side during his darkest period, he remembers.
“In braving the last of this terrible wine
I’ve savoured the last and I’ve kissed it goodbye.
There’s no kind of right way to do what I’ll do,
But I’m king of the earth
With impossible blood on this 3rd of June.”
It was this night on the 3rd of June in 2014 that Dave was going to attempt suicide. His band mates, friends, family and counsellor, Paul, were already on high alert as he had been on a weeklong bender, no longer married in his mind, and with a stomach full of alcohol.
“Hold on officer I know that I’m a danger to myself.”
Fortunately they had notified the police in time and were able to intercept him before he took fatal steps toward the busy freeway. He sat in his parents yard staring at the magnolia tree his dad had planted when he was young and had a single, solitary moment of realisation.
“So I’m staggering home.
Show me the way,
Oh, show me the light.
Yeah, I’m drunk but I’m ready
To kick some ass tonight.”
It was after this suicide attempted that Dave ended up in hospital having his stomach pumped to rid him of the alcohol he gorged himself with that night. After that, he was forcibly placed into rehab where he states, almost seemingly amused, that they would only let him use plastic knives and forks.
In his song appropriately titled ‘Magnolia’, Dave recounts his experience of that nearly fatal night. He describes his lax attitude toward life and emphasises his egotistical nature and ‘fuck it’ attitude. He consistently describes himself as an asshole, an angry control freak and the worst human he knows. However, when he discusses this song he labels it as a cathartic moment, one that allowed him to expel the waste in his heart through song. Dave felt he needed to share it; he needed it to come out; he needed it to be a big firework of emotion.
When dealing with such raw emotions surrounding suicide, fatal illness and substance abuse, there is a general understanding to handle these with great care and compassion. This can often unintentionally lead to the minimisation of the issues by placing a taboo over certain topics. To Dave however, he feels it was not hard to share because he doesn’t see the point of building up tension primarily related to something so personal. His story is who he is and it is what he does. He felt it was more natural to share than to keep it a secret. Ultimately, Dave refused to be the person who was too afraid to share something that could give hope and life and empathy to someone else. He did not want to lie to anybody and felt it was his responsibility and his duty as someone who tells stories.
For someone who went through as much as Dave did, it is not hard to understand his passion. Through sharing his story he wants to impact others, to see them given hope and courage to make a change. He comments that we – as a society – need to learn how to talk about suicide and depression and psychotic and non-psychotic illnesses. We don’t want to talk about them. The more embarrassed he is about trying to take his own life, he feels he is giving that shit power over himself and he’s letting the world give it power. He feels by not talking about it he is giving credence to this delusion that it’s not okay to talk about it, which is fucked up, and stupid.
Dave describes ‘Magnolia’ about being about hitting rock bottom. The strangely calm and intoxicating freedom of stumbling toward what may be the end with a belly full of booze and lungs filled with smoke and laughing at your predicament like the saddest asshole in the cosmos. He wrote the song as an apologetic gesture to everybody in his life that he had hurt and he hoped it would help make up for things a little. He felted outnumbered. He felt wretched and wild. All glory. All trash.
Fortunately for the modest Sydney band, this song brought about their commercial break through. Dave feels even more assured that he utilised the correct subject matter as the song went viral. His need, his want, his desire to share his emotions and his experiences so that others dealing with the same issues might find hope were spread far and wide across the globe. Despite this deeply personal project, his sole intention was for it to be heard, not just by those who he didn’t know, but by those he felt he had wronged.
Dave’s story of the magnolia tree seems to be a comforting paradox, a cliché of something good coming from a terrible situation. In a contemporary society where topics of suicide, mental illness and substance abuse are still sometimes swept under the rug, it is refreshing and comforting to have someone proclaim at the top of their lungs about their own experience. It is encouraging to hear such a powerful story about life, love, tragedy and loss with the protagonist coming out the other side with their head held high.
With music as his release, Dave found a healthy way to expunge his self-destruction and channel his emotions into worldwide fame. Despite this not being one of his intentions at all, his powerful statements about mental health and the struggles of life resounded with people across the globe. His music now means something to those other than himself. A fact he seems to find most comforting.
Another, and another, and another.
Dave’s head is sinking low beneath his small IKEA desk lamp as he writes and scribbles and doodles across the page. Lyrics flow from the tip of his pen as he develops another song for his next album. Now living in Newtown, a thriving part of the Sydney indie music scene, Dave deals with his issues through pen and paper. Still sharing a close relationship with his counsellor, he still seems to find comfort through music.
He believes he has no shortage of life experiences to write about. “There’s bullshit happening all around me,” he proclaims. Writing poetry and suffering is something he can do really easily, finding life-affirming hopeful things and very human moments, being negative or positive. While he admits he will struggle with substance problems his whole life, he seems confident that he will seek alternate pathways if he ever hits rock bottom again. This ensures he will hopefully never have to write another magnolia tale ever again.
When asked about what he will do in the future he responds with “that’s the golden fucking question.” He says he needs to keep figuring out who he is and is unsure of where exactly he will go next. Despite his lack of direction he does admit that he’s not the kind of person to write one song about tragedy and that he will have to write an anthology.
The next record is going to be about empathy, humanness, and trying to find some kind of meaning to the lost western millennials with no direction and no understanding of self he describes. Instead of one giant tragedy, he feels it will be an amalgamation of lots of little tragedies in his life.
To say that Dave came out of his early twenties better off is a colossal understatement. Beginning with a deteriorating marriage half way across the globe, no real sense of professional identity and serious mental health issues to finishing with a great support network, a critically acclaimed album and sold out national tour is no small feat.
In the end, music is his passion. It began as a hobby, developed into a coping mechanism and grew into a profession.