Former Korn guitarist shares the healing power of music
“The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental. It is the profoundest non chemical medication.” — Oliver Sacks, Awakenings.
I meet Wesley Geer in a cramped strip mall in Costa Mesa, CA. He selected the locale: Avanti Natural Cafe, an organic vegetarian restaurant successful enough to not require a lot of square footage to keep the devoted coming in droves. Wes is one of the most unassuming rock stars you’ll encounter; he’s just as interested in your story as he is his own, and some of his most recent Facebook posts are of him and his mother out to dinner for her birthday — the dutiful son planting a peck on mom’s beaming cheek. That’s not to say he’s unaware of his talent or accomplishments, but until I ask him about these things he doesn’t bring them up.
Instead, he begins by selling me on Avanti’s “One Eye Pizza,” a buttermilk béchamel with garlic shallot baby arugula & spinach, sauted mushrooms, roasted peppers, mixed cheeses & baked organic egg floating on top.
“That’s really good,” he says, tapping at the menu. “You can’t go wrong with that.”
Kaila Charice, a former student of mine who volunteers for Wes’ non-profit organization Rock to Recovery (and who has arranged this meeting), arrives a few minutes later. As the three of us sip waters and chomp on fresh olives while awaiting our cycloptic pies, I note that the former guitarist for Korn — the chart-climbing nu-metal band from California — thrives on all things healthy: Scuba diving. Meditation. Running. Yoga.
He’s done his best to filter out the waste.
Wes spent many pre-Korn years abusing drugs and alcohol, until entering rehab in 2004. It was there he re-connected with music in an intimate form of therapy.
“With no weed, alcohol, drugs, women, there was nothing to hide my emotions with,” Wes recalls. “I remember I picked up my guitar and I just started strumming, and that simple act of strumming a few chords had an impact on me like never before.”
Wes may have felt a moment of quiet repose as he flicked his fingers across the strings, but he had yet to realize the profound healing power music would have for so many others.
In the 1990s, punk and hip-hop fused in innovative new ways, channeling the urban consciousness of gansta-rap and the aggressive experimentation of hardcore (both in instrumentation and lyrics).
It was amidst the circuit of this burgeoning musical intersection that the Orange County native met rapper Jared Gomes (“MC Underdog”) and the two formed the band Hed PE (Higher Education Planet Earth). Hed PE sang about a variety of socio-political issues, but also wrote songs glorifying drug use and sex.
“We were known for that lifestyle,” Wes says. “We were open about how insanely debaucherous we were.”
In 2003, Wes left the band, telling others he didn’t believe he would survive much longer if he remained.
“Our band was poised to do great things and I felt like a pro-athlete whose knee suddenly blew out. But I had to leave. It just wasn’t getting better.”
At first, he was unclear of how to proceed; he had been part of Hed PE for nearly a decade and knew of little else in his adult life.
“Initially I got depressed and all the bad things I had been into came storming back, full-force,” he admits.
He credits his brother for finally intervening and connecting him with a stable office job.
He also got sober.
“I was whacked out of my mind just before that point.”
For awhile, Wes made peace with the new nine-to-five schedule. He was grateful to his brother for pulling him back from the precipice and he now considered sobriety infinitely more important than fame.
During his time in rehab, Wes quickly noticed he wasn’t the only one who found solace in music.
“Other people were stoked to play my guitar,” Wes laughs. “Even people who didn’t really know how to play all that much would strum one or two chords and it would just elevate them.”
He began meditating and becoming acclimated to his new routine. Later on, he would begin a form of meditation known as “Ah meditation,” which explores ideas in the mind and then manifests them into reality.
“Within ten days of doing the ‘Ah meditation’ and asking for my music career back, I received a text from Munky (Korn’s guitarist) asking me if I would be interested in playing with them.”
The term “second chances” doesn’t even begin to describe Wes’ return to rock. Though he maintains his sincerity about being grateful for his day job, Wes confesses he was ecstatic when Korn invited him into the band after the departure of lead guitarist Brian “Head” Welch.
Beginning in 2010, Wes would spend nearly the next three years traveling the globe, playing in over 200 live shows in 42 countries, to audiences the size of which he never believed he would stand in front of again. He performed in numerous television broadcasts with the band, and is also featured on Korn’s BBC Sessions recordings. He has even been included in video games. The group headlined in exotic regions of the world Wes had never before stepped foot in. There were autographs, adoring fans, pyrotechnics, bright lights, roadies, tour buses, break-out jam sessions, and lots and lots of loud music.
Only this time, he did every single bit of it stone sober.
In 2013, Brian Welch returned to Korn and Wes left the group on good terms. Still, the exodus from one of the most popular bands in the nu metal genre was made considerably easier by Wes’ decision, made only a few months prior, to offer the therapeutic benefits he had personally gained from music while in rehab to countless others struggling with addiction.
As Wes had continued to meditate, as well as consider myriad interpretations of “God,” “universe,” and spirituality in non-dogmatic fashion, he began to embrace a spiritual philosophy that states it is permissible to pray for one’s own self-advancement, but only if others are to be helped in the process.
“I remember praying aloud, ‘alright universe, you made me a musician and you made me an alcoholic. How can I use these two things to help people and make a living?”
On 12/12/12, Wes Geer founded Rock to Recovery.
He began pitching the idea in early 2013 but soon found himself overwhelmed with self-doubt. “I was so afraid I was going to fail,” he says. “I thought the idea would crash, that it wouldn’t work.”
But rather than sinking into depression, resorting to drugs and alcohol, or resigning on his dream, he decided to “just take a few weeks off and not even think about it. Maybe the pieces would fall where they need to.”
In this brief interim Wes managed to catch a TED talk titled “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.” The talk emphasizes the point that those companies or organizations that have a clear sense of “why” are more often successful than those that do not.
“What I did to fix my mental block on Rock to Recovery was ask “why?” And the answer became crystal clear. Because I was in rehab, just like them.“
With the support of Program Administrator Sonny Mayo (a music producer, guitar teacher, and touring guitarist for the band Ugly Kid Joe), and a staff of six dedicated volunteers including Kaila, Wes traverses southern California, visiting treatment centers and working with groups ranging from 2-10 people. Members of Rock to Recovery bring with them a variety of instruments — “acoustic guitars, basses, keyboards, shakers, congas, djembe, various percussion, drum machines, and amplifiers” and each participant is invited to select the one he or she would prefer to use.
The group then takes turns sharing their own personal stories (Wes included) and explaining “what music means to them.” Then, on the spot, they create their band, and begin writing a song together, which they then record using professional studio software.
“The lyrics we write are based on the clients’ real feelings and always organically seem to be recovery-based,” Wes adds. Before the group disperses, “each band member [receives] a copy of our song, forever commemorating the experience of the project.”
Wes insists it doesn’t matter how astounding the song is to a critical or mainstream audience; the important thing is the communal songwriting experience.
“I’ve worked with kids who tell me that our song helped them get through the worst of it. I’ve had kids that were dope sick, detoxing from heroin, tell me their symptoms were alleviated while playing the shaker. Heck, sometimes they don’t want to leave at the end of the session. They’d rather stay late. They may go out for a smoke and then come right back in and jam some more.”
And Wes says it’s not only the students who get something out of the program.
“Yesterday I felt like I did a line of coke after a session. I felt super high. Amped. Euphoric.”
Before I leave our meeting I admit to Wes I’m a Korn fan (I often head-banged in my car to “Got the Life” when I was 18), and I ask if he wouldn’t mind a photo together. I readily concede: It’s not my most professional moment in journalism (never get too friendly with the interviewee), but I’m also genuinely touched by Wes’ story.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Let’s do this.”
We fidget with iPhone cameras and take one darkened pic in the restaurant. It comes out blurry.
“That’s a bad shot of me,” I lament.
“Alright, hold on, hold on. We gotta get another one then. We need good shots.”
Wes’ energy is infectious. We go outside and snap several more pictures under the entryway light.
“Are those good? Do we want more?” he asks.
When I finally walk away, it hits me: Wes had never called an end to the meeting — I had. The rock “star” was willing to talk for as long as I had wanted.
You see for Wes it’s not about the fame.
It’s about human connection.
For more information visit rocktorecovery.org