Rock star psychologist: Adam Ficek
09 February, 2018
Musician and psychologist
Adam Ficek is an English drummer, songwriter, DJ and psychologist. He has had a fascinating career in music, including a 5-year stint as the drummer of Babyshambles, the group led by Pete Doherty of The Libertines.
He holds an undergraduate degree in music from Middlesex University and a Masters degree from the London College of Music. He has also achieved success as a DJ.
Adam is currently training as an integrative psychotherapist at the Metanoia institute in London. He currently divides his time between work within the NHS, voluntary sector and private practice, alongside his work as a performing musician and DJ. Details of his recent musical output are available on his website.
Adam has spoken openly about the turmoil which led to his exit from Babyshambles in 2010, and I was particularly interested to know how this has influenced his life and subsequent decisions in his career, including his recent initiative to provide mental health services to those in the music industry.
You've had a rich and varied career in music. What is your proudest achievement in your career? What's been the biggest disappointment?
That’s a tough question to answer! I think the proudest achievement in my career wouldn’t necessarily be an event or artefact. As I reflect on my ongoing career I think it is simply the fact that I am still involved in music.
I did previously hold playing Wembley and Glastonbury as momentous occasions, but with more insight I no longer feel that is the case.
Why is that? What factors led to your disillusionment with the music industry?
At ‘peak’ of my career, I found myself in a situation of feeling burnt out, anxious and generally commoditised within the music industry framework. I went from high level touring and exposure to a sense of shamed insignificance. Admittedly, this transition was in part contributable to my own upbringing (and adverse childhood experiences), but it was also fuelled by the lack of any ‘duty of care’ within the infrastructure.
It is a contentious area, as some could argue that I was in fact operating as a self-employed person, but at the time I felt I had a framework around me. It was only after I became distanced from the band that I realised how quickly forgotten and unimportant (as a commodity) I had become.
Did this lead to your interest in providing mental health services for musicians? How did it develop from there?
Yes, the disbelief, anger and frustration caused me to re-assess my position as a musician and as a person and also to investigate ways to help others in this position. I realised though that I needed more knowledge in all areas of the mind to enable me to continue my ‘music & mind’ endeavour.
I initially enrolled on an introduction to music therapy course through Nordoff Robbins which was incredibly rewarding. I found the course enjoyable yet I felt that it didn’t meet all of my needs regarding the depth of psychopathology and emotion I was drawn towards. I then started my psychotherapy training which has, and continues to broaden my knowledge in these important areas.
How do you feel about your involvement in the music industry now?
It took several years of re-evaluating my own musical process to regain my sense of joy in music. Eventually, I discovered the same passion and jubilation which initially propelled me to learn to play as a teenager.
From this exploration, and the growth from my own therapy, I now feel I have a greater sense of authenticity within my own self and my creativity.
Readers will be interested to know how you have balance your training in psychotherapy alongside your musical career? What has been the biggest challenge?
Well it is challenging. For example, I am currently studying for an MSc in integrative psychotherapy at the Metanoia institute which is based on a relational and psychoanalytical model. For a while, my musical output had to be slowed down (though not stopped), as I couldn’t balance everything that needed to be done.
The biggest challenge was the clinical practice, as it required a solid time commitment without jeopardising the relationships and work that was being done. To fulfil the practical requirements I spent the majority of last year in a variety of placement settings ranging from voluntary to NHS settings, long and short term.
Thankfully, I’m now at the tail end of my initial training, so luckily have time to re-ignite my musical endeavours.
You are also interested in research in this area. Can you tell us a little about this?
My initial academic interest in how emotions and music intertwine came about through my dissertation for an MA in music production. For this research, I sent out two versions of my own album. One in an ‘un-produced’, raw ‘demo’ form and another in a much more polished presentation. I used the feedback to evaluate the extent to which the production had influenced the emotional impact.
More recently, I submitted my PhD proposal which will outline the ways in which the music industry contributes to psychopathology. The thesis investigates how pre-existing mental health conditions react with the industrial environment. The study broadens the recent research that suggests that the music industry is destructive, yet involvement in music is constructive in terms of mental wellbeing.
From my own first-hand experience, and from conversations with many of my peers (some of which are still at the top of their game), I have found it to be a rich and controversial subject.
At the moment, what do you enjoy the most – DJing, recording, playing live, or your work as a professional psychotherapist? Is having a mix of all of these important to you?
I think all of the above roles have their own merits. My therapist work is incredibly connecting and gratifying in a deep and meaningful way. DJing and performing is much lighter in that respect and enables me to connect in a different context.
I also see performing though as a necessary part of the process of creation. Once I have written new material, it has a need to be aired and shaped with a live audience.
However, I do struggle with the exposure and vulnerability of performing, especially when I am playing guitar and singing solo. It was much easier being a drummer, when I could hide at the back and just take a foundational position as there was far less pressure. DJing is much more relaxed and less pressured I don’t feel as if I am on ‘show’ to the same extent.
All in all, yes, I do think that I need a constant mix of all of these factors to enable me to feel satisfied and balanced. Music does provide an important stimulation but at times this is not enough, hence my academic and other pursuits.
What do you think are the biggest problems faced by musicians, relating to their mental health? Are substance misuse problems almost ubiquitous, as we are led to believe?
I think there are many innate struggles for the aspiring professional musician. Many of these have always been apparent yet some are becoming ever more problematic.
Currently in London we are faced with the increasing amount of venue closures, which limits the performance opportunities for professional musicians. Together with the financial devaluation of music sales, this has put even more pressure on the modern musician.
Traditionally, ‘being a musician’ has always been a difficult path with factors such as late nights, touring, relational stress and financial insecurity contributing negatively to mental health. Substance misuse also has a big impact.
Although drink and drugs are rife in the music industry (especially in my genre), I do feel people are becoming more aware of the damage that can be caused. There seems to be an overt attempt to learn from the mistakes of the previous generations which also goes hand in hand with the current trend of health consciousness.
Are drummers really an especially eccentric group?!
From own experience of being a drummer I don’t feel that we are an especially eccentric group. On the contrary, I think that we are the more stable of the group, especially nowadays when we are competing with a drum machine or a laptop!
Aside from therapy at an individual level, what sort of initiatives might help at a group level?
I feel this is a complex area as indeed there is a great overlap between the two. What could be construed as a serious mental health problem by one person could perhaps be a normal life challenge for another.
From my work as both a musician and a therapist, I think the most impactful resource we all have is connection. To be able to connect deeply and authentically with another, to feel truly heard, is the most potent thing we have.
Unfortunately in our age of social media I feel we are in fact doing the opposite. We construct our false selves to appeal to others then wonder why we lose the sense of who we really are.
I'd imagine that listening to music is a major part of your life. Outside of listening for professional reasons, how does this fit in to your daily life? What do you listen to for relaxation?
I don’t listen as much as I used to, but I generally use my travel time to listen to new music. When it comes to relaxation I listen to a lot of folk music, I like the simplicity and humanness on which it is built. The less production, the better. I look for purity and connectedness.
Can you give us a few selections of music that's been especially important in your life and career?
Important tracks in my life have been the following:
The band were my first love which inspired me and a bunch of school friends to want to be in a band and escape our council estate detainment.
This track was incredibly therapeutic for me during a bleak and troublesome period in my late teens. It was the closest to ‘non-being’ I have ever encountered and the music of The Smiths somehow helped to connect me to a resilience I never knew I had. Something about the timbre of the vocal, more so than the actual lyrical content, helped to soothe during difficult times.
I had managed to clamber up and embark up on a degree in Jazz and knew nothing about the genre. Bebop was confusing with no sense of melody back then and this track helped me to understand how soulful it could be. I subsequently evolved and now spend many hours indulging as an aspiring bebop guitar player!
I played the drums on this track. it was my first commercial recording and I was proud to see my name on a real musical artefact. It was during this time where I became aware of the merits of music production especially in regards to drum programming and the limitless creativity it beholds.
The was our first top ten single which set me on my journey of becoming a bona fide Z-list ‘rock star’. It was messy, under-produced, substance fuelled and emotional like our joint states of mind at the time. During the recording of the song both my mother and the guitar player’s father died of cancer and the band was on the verge of implosion. It was an incredibly fractious time.
This track was my first single as a solo artist which enabled me to get signed to EMI. The company was subsequently taken over and my album became embroiled in a legal stand-off. I eventually retained ownership. The song is a somewhat twee and naïve insight into the beginning of my own adventure of moving out from behind the drums.
This is from my most recent EP. I feel like I’m just getting near to where I want to be in terms of musicality and prowess on guitar.
Given your background, we'd also be interested in any tracks you think have therapeutic potential.
Therapeutically, I feel it is a total subjective choice. I’ve recently read a good book by Trisha Ready called ‘Music in Therapeutic Practice’, in which she discusses letting her patients chose their own music. I like this idea, as many people have their own reactions from their musical choices whether this be nostalgia, lyrically or musically informed.
I will be chastised if I don't ask for at least one rock and roll story – can you give us one?!
We were in Italy playing a club called the Piper Room when suddenly I felt a heavy blow to my face. An audience member thought it a fantastic idea to launch a bottle which subsequently struck me full in the face, unsettling four of my teeth. I didn’t realise what had happened so attempted to gather myself and play on. I finished the song and collapsed!