At the corner or Harrison and 16th streets stands a gray, drab warehouse with bars on the windows. A wholly unremarkable site, the building is nestled within a quiet industrial neighborhood, far removed from the restaurants and clubs that dot Valencia Street and other vibrant corridors of the Mission District.
But for Shaun Durkan — guitarist and chief songwriter for the post-punk trio Weekend—that nondescript address represents an asylum of sorts. Within those doors is Ruminator Audio, a recording studio that Durkan shares with longtime local producer, Monte Vallier. Surrounded by a phalanx of acoustic and electric guitars, various effects pedals and all sorts of studio gadgetry, (and followed closely by his beloved dog, Hazel), Durkan can reflect with some clarity on the twisting, volatile path that led him to where he is today.
“I’ve had this very surreal shift in perspective,” Durkan says. “It always shocks me — the things that we accept about ourselves. These habits that we develop — they come from somewhere and they are not forced upon us. We seem tortured by what we do to ourselves, but at the same time, we don’t feel strong enough to shake our habits. As a musician, there is this notion that your art has to come from a place of suffering. It’s taken me a long time to shake that belief.”
In the past 10 years, Durkan has experienced critical adulation for his work with Weekend, endured lengthy bouts of creative ennui and disinterest, fought through traumatic (and self-imposed) personal and professional relationships, and battled a crippling drug addiction that left him on the brink of death. It sounds silly, but there are enough plot twists to make a movie. Durkan even found time to cross paths with famous pharma-douche Martin Shkreli.
In many ways, it would have been unthinkable for him to be telling his story, in his studio, just nine months ago. But he is finally clean and sober, eager to embark on his artistic endeavors, and generally feeling hopeful for the first time in years.
A native of Novato, Durkan was encouraged at a young age to explore music through his progressively minded parents (his dad was in the ’80s Bay Area post-punk group Half-Church.) Durkan attended his first concert at the age of nine, a performance by San Francisco avant-rockers Oxbow (not exactly the Wiggles), and by his early teenage years he was playing guitar and other instruments in various bands, school and otherwise.
It was at his sixth grade jazz band class that he met future Weekend guitarist Kevin Johnson, and following graduation from high school, those two enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, where they encountered Abe Pedroza, a drummer who shared their same taste in music. In 2009, those three officially formed Weekend.
Embracing the brooding and ear-popping rawness of bands likes A Place to Bury Strangers, the feedback laden landscapes of shoegaze masters My Bloody Valentine, and the boundless, big-sky nature of post-punkers Echo and the Bunnymen, the band managed to rein in the sounds of their idols without sounding revivalist. Their unique take on the time-honored classics helped them eventually land on the legendary dream pop label Slumberland Records, based out of Oakland.
Their 2010 debut album on Slumberland, Sports, quickly grabbed the attention of the national music blogosphere. Borrowing all the best elements of Joy Division, The Cure, and Slint, Sports was a testament that sounded decades in the making. A gripping masterpiece that was immediate, violent, and visceral, but also beautiful and ghostly, Sports won praise from perennial tastemaker Pitchfork (then still a definite voice in indie rock media) and other respected outlets, like Drowned in Sound and Stereogum.
In its heading for the review of Sports, Pitchfork called the album “one of the most promising indie rock records of the year” and the band seemed destined to capitalize on their well-earned recognition. The fact that they hailed from San Francisco — then the epicenter of the indie rock world, with acts like Girls, Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, Tamaryn, and Mikal Cronin calling the city home — only seemed to add to the surefire nature of their upward trajectory.
But during the process of recording Sports and the subsequent tours in support of the album — lengthy jaunts that included trips to Japan and Europe — the band fell into the familiar pattern of excessive drinking and drug-taking, a rock cliché that’s a cliché for a reason. For Durkan, the transient lifestyle amplified tendencies he had noticed early on in his life.
“Growing up, my dad had a pretty bad drinking problem and my mom also struggles with addiction, so I always felt like there was this energy inside of me that was just waiting to blow up at any moment,” Durkan explains. “I waited until I was 18 to drink, and I still remember the first time I got drunk. I was in a hotel room and I absolutely ruined it. It was immediately disruptive, and very clear from the beginning that I was right, and I should have stayed away from it.”
Following two years of touring, the band returned to record its sophomore album, Jinx (which, like Sports, was produced by Vallier.) Released in 2013, Jinx featured more pop-oriented songs — urgent, yet ethereal nuggets that traded Sports’ distortion and dissonance for hooks and palatable guitar riffs. An absolutely underrated part of the Weekend catalog, Jinx failed to reach the critical heights of Sports and did not build the group’s fanbase beyond its loyal followers.
Prior to the release of Jinx, Durkan seized upon a long-gestating goal to live in New York City. Determined to stick together — but also cognizant about the need for a change — Johnson and Pedroza accepted Durkan’s offer to join him in the cross-country move, and by the end of 2012, all three members of the band relocated to Brooklyn (although unlike in the Bay Area, they all lived in separate places.)
Brooklyn in 2013 represented ground zero for the indie rock community — a place where the brightest and most talented bands sought refuge and collaboration. Weekend had close contacts with the many venerable labels operating in the borough at the time, including Captured Tracks, Mexican Summer, and Sacred Bones. Much like San Francisco in 2010, Brooklyn was the beating heart of the industry, but it was during these years in his new home that Durkan’s drug abuse continued to escalate, despite his misgivings.
“It went from like this celebratory, kind-of-fun thing to this really insular, private, and shameful thing,” Durkan remembers. “When we were living in San Francisco and Oakland, we would drink a lot and do some coke or MDMA. It wasn’t until I went over to New York that I started doing opiates. Opiates are one of those things where it’s like, ‘Oh, I got this, I can casually do this thing.’ And then like a month later you’re hooked on heroin.”
Initially, Durkan found his time on the East Coast rewarding. Geoff Rickly, the visionary behind the post-hardcore group Thursday, had founded Collect Records, and he quickly enlisted Durkan as an art director and to help with growing the label’s roster of artists (which included acts like Nothing, The Hotelier and Touché Amoré.)
While working at Collect Records, Durkan met Shkreli, the disgraced financier. Shkreli eventually would be imprisoned for fraud, but not before drawing the ire of the nation for his unrepentant price-gouging practices while he was the CEO of a biotechnology firm. Along with being a ruthless capitalist, Shkreli was also, strangely enough, a huge music fan, and after buying a guitar off Rickly, he offered to provide financing for Collect Records.
“Martin had a bunch of money and wanted to invest it in a label, and so we took off, like immediately — we had a really, really cool first year with him,” Durkan says. “I remember flying down with Martin to South by Southwest on a private jet. None of us realized what his plan was — at that time he was just a hedge fund guy and we were flush with cash. Unfortunately, it turned out to be this really dark, gross pharmaceutical money.”
When revelations emerged of Shrkeli’s various acts of financial malfeasance, Rickly had little option other than to shutter the label, leaving Durkan without a job (at one point, he was driving an ice cream truck to make ends meet.) It added another layer of uncertainty for Durkan, who was hooked on heroin at that point.
“I used dope every day for five years while I was in New York,” Durkan says. “I nearly died in the Collect Records offices. The only reason I’m alive now is because someone next door heard me fall and hit my head on the floor after using. They had to call the ambulance and I got two Narcan shots.”
Just as disconcerting as his drug use was Durkan’s drift away from his craft. An avowed music lover for as long as he could remember, he began resenting his artist friends who were reaching the critical and commercial heights he thought Weekend deserved. Stuck in a drug-induced haze and self-imposed shame, Durkan essentially went two years without listening to any music. The verve that inspired the first Weekend albums had disappeared, creating a wedge between him and his bandmates, Johnson and Pedroza.
The trio had moved out to the East Coast with the idea that they could reach new heights, emboldened and motivated by a tight-knit music scene that featured some of the most inventive minds in the industry. But that dream never materialized.
“When we first started the band, I was really motivated and driven and that’s why we took off so quickly,” Durkan says. “We knew what we wanted, and we did it ’till we got it, and at some point I just lost that drive. Obviously, Kevin and Abe were concerned by that, and I’m sure that I completely frustrated them at times. Whether it was me being out of it at practice, or not having the right priorities, or even selling their gear for dope. I mean, they put up with a lot.”
Eventually, Johnson moved to Los Angeles and Pedroza ended up in Australia. And in 2019, Durkan followed suit, coming back to his home in the Bay Area. After seven years in New York, the band did not release a single recorded song.
Toward the tail end of his stay in New York, Durkan got serious about getting sober. Under a doctor’s supervision, he began taking Suboxone, a combination of the long-acting opioid buprenorphine and naloxone, which helps reduce cravings and prevent overdoses. He also had the support of his girlfriend, who had stuck with him during the various ups and downs of his drug abuse. But when he moved back to the Bay Area — while his girlfriend initially remained on the East Coast — Durkan encountered the same difficulties he experienced in New York, and he took to copping Xanax on the streets of the Tenderloin.
Durkan says he can’t really remember the first three months of 2020, and the long toll of his addiction proved to be too much for his relationship. His partner broke up with him, at which time, Durkan finally realized that it was time to get clean. He enrolled in rehab on May 5 and stayed for a month, before moving into a halfway house for an additional two weeks of detox. He has now been sober for more than eight months.
Along with addressing a potentially fatal addiction, Durkan regained the artistic zeal that had been basically absent for nearly a decade. While in the midst of writing Sports and Jinx, Durkan tapped into an emotional wellspring that had been bubbling his whole life, and after being empty for years, that reservoir once again began producing the ambitious music that made Weekend so exciting and immediate in their early years.
Withdrawing to Ruminator Audio, often with only Hazel and Vallier as his companions, Durkan began writing new Weekend songs while compiling and re-working half-sketched musical ideas that dated back to 2015.
He also reforged his bonds with Pedroza and Johnson. Despite living in three different cities and on two separate continents, the trio once again began collaborating on new Weekend tracks, remotely patching in their parts together. The friendship between the trio has been strengthened, a testament to the patience and love displayed by Pedroza and Johnson, who stood by their pal through his years of unpredictable behavior.
“We are super tight right now,” Durkan says. “Once you get sober, you realize how surface level a lot of your relationships are. But they’ve been my biggest supporters through all my darkest shit. And we are all super amped about playing together. Even Abe who’s in Australia — he is super excited about touring again at some point.”
At the moment, the band has assembled 10–12 partially or completely finished songs that are slated for the third Weekend album. Durkan hopes to have the album completely recorded soon and released to the public in mid-2021.
Early returns on the record are very promising. Three new songs Durkan played for the SF Weekly reveal a seamless blending between the abrasive and expansive world of Sports with the more accessible and driving undercurrents of Jinx. Like all the best Weekend songs, the new tracks marry moments of ugliness with beauty, grafting the profane to the profound.
Durkan has said he has completely reworked existing lyrics with different themes that address his sobriety and the difficulty of learning to make sense of the past and future from a new perspective. Traditionally Durkan’s vocal delivery fell below the mix of Weekend’s lo-fi barrage of guitars and synths, evoking ambiguous and murky narratives. For the levels on the new songs, Durkan’s vocals are more prominent, adding credence to his dogged effort to rewrite the words.
Durkan says that relatively few people have even heard the new Weekend demos. Right now, the focus is on just finishing the album, after which he’ll shift his attention to record labels and distributions.
While he hones the details on the Weekend, Durkan is also immersing himself in other recording projects, helping to produce the upcoming album from the local shoegaze outfit Young Prisms. He is also producing a collaborative effort in Los Angeles that features members of Earth, Kevin Morby’s touring band and Best Coast’s touring band. Additionally, he started DJing a late-night radio program, called “Heavy Air,” that runs from midnight to 2 a.m. every Monday morning on 102.5 KXSF (the selections skew toward post-punk, shoegaze, and dream pop, courtesy of both contemporary and classic artists.)
Durkan understands that his sobriety will be an ongoing test, and he’s taking therapy to help explore and address the underlying conditions that contribute to his addictive nature. He’s enjoying the clarity brought on by his sobriety, including a renewed joy in hearing releases from new artists and reveling in the older tunes that first spurred on his love for music. Most importantly, he’s learning to live with himself, to be patient and accepting of who he has become.
“I’ve always been one of those people who feels uncomfortable in general and I didn’t think I could handle my own feelings,” he says. “So, whenever I sensed some kind of struggle, I would use drugs to shut that down. The biggest change for me is to realize that I can stick with those feelings — they are not going to kill you and they will go away eventually. The minute I realized that, there was an immense internal shift. I’m not at the mercy of my feelings anymore.”
For those struggling with addiction, the San Francisco Area of Narcotics Anonymous holds daily meetings, covering a variety of topics. Those meetings are now held on Zoom. Scheduling information on the meetings, plus additional details on recovery resources, is available at https://sfna.org/.