Music » Music Feature

Heroin Hell

After five years lost in the wilds of addiction, Chamber Strings front man Kevin Junior tries to pick up where he left off.



When people ask Kevin Junior where he's been, he doesn't know quite how to answer. "It's such a fucking long, weird, horrible story," says the 37-year old Chamber Strings front man. "I should just start saying I got kidnapped by aliens. That's really what it was like."

Five years ago, the fastidiously styled, flamboyantly coiffed singer was one of the most promising musical talents in the city. But shortly after the release of his band's second album, the critically lauded pop-soul opus Month of Sundays, Junior's life took a series of devastating detours. Hooked on heroin and reeling from the loss of one of his closest friends, he abandoned his band, lost his wife, wound up homeless in LA, and narrowly escaped his own death.

"Every time I thought I'd hit bottom, there'd be another level below that," he says. "I'm surprised I didn't end up in China. When things were really bad, I thought, well, at least it can't get any worse than this. And sure enough, it would. It's taken a long time to get out of that frame of mind."

Junior says what brought him through it all was the thought of returning to Chicago, reuniting with his band, and recording a third album. After more than a year of fence-mending, he's finally taking his first step in that direction: the Chamber Strings will play their first show since 2001 at the Double Door this Saturday. "It represents a second chance on life for me, even though I've had 11 second chances already," says Junior. "I just barely made it through, and now I've come full circle."

From an early age, Kevin Gerber seemed destined for a life in music. He spent most of his childhood in Akron, Ohio, holed up in his room. "I'd be in there with a stack of records on one side and a stack of books on the other, just absorbing that stuff," he says. His family included several generations of band leaders and musicians on both sides, and his parents were dedicated R & B disciples who were constantly playing records. Chrissie Hynde was part of a group that used to babysit him, and he attended Firestone High School, which produced such future stars as Hynde, Rachel Sweet, Joseph Arthur, the Black Keys, and members of Devo.

Kevin's mother was an interior designer and painter, his father an oddball inventor with a small manufacturing company. He claimed to have had a hand in several well-known creations--the stereo chair, for example--but his inventions never paid the bills. The two divorced in 1982, and Kevin's father moved to Chicago. Three years later, Kevin followed. By then he was 15, and he'd taught himself how to play guitar. He attended Lincoln Park High School, though he says he spent most of his days ditching class, smoking weed, and practicing. He booked some solo acoustic gigs at Batteries Not Included, the old punk club at Clybourn and Webster; because adults tended to call him "the kid" or "junior," he adopted the latter as his stage name. In 1986 he formed the Mystery Girls, a glam-punk group that also featured future Cash Audio drummer Scott Giampino and Rights of the Accused bassist Tom Faulkner, and in 1992 they changed their name to the Rosehips. Two years later they released a full-length, Soul Veronique in Parchment, on the local Red Dog label. The record didn't do much in the States, but it did shoot to number one on the Finnish charts.

It was around this time that Junior became friendly with Epic Soundtracks and Nikki Sudden, the brothers behind the British postpunk outfit Swell Maps. "I had been friends with Nikki for a little while," says Junior. "When Epic put out his first solo record, Rise Above, he came and played Chicago. I introduced myself at the show and we really hit it off. We started talking about everything from Laura Nyro to Paul Westerberg, the Beach Boys to the Monkees. He was a huge Monkees fan."

When Soundtracks released his second solo record, Sleeping Star, he asked Junior to help him put a band together. Junior enlisted Plush bassist Russ Bassman and an old high school classmate, drummer Anthony Illarde, and the group toured Europe extensively that summer. Illarde saw firsthand the tight fraternal bond between Soundtracks and Junior. "They were both romantics, in probably the most self-destructive way," he says. "The thing that moved one moved the other, namely music. They were incredibly close." Junior was in an especially good place, living with his longtime girlfriend Karen Kiska, whom he married in 1999. "I took care of Epic," Junior says. "Like him, I'd been a chronic depressive since childhood. But at that point I was able to handle it. I was happy at home and happy with myself."

After returning from Europe, Junior got together with Illarde, guitarist Tim Fowler, and producer/bassist Ellis Clark to record the first Chamber Strings album. Gospel Morning, an amalgam of orchestral pop and blue-eyed soul, was released in an edition of 1,000 on the small D.C. label Idiot Savant Music in the fall of 1997. Junior then decamped to the UK to continue recording and performing with Soundtracks, who'd been banned from the U.S. due to visa violations. "We did an acoustic-duo tour for a month, but then I had to leave and Epic was in very bad shape mentally," Junior says. "His label, Bar/None, wouldn't commit to putting out another record. He couldn't get into the States. He had no friends in London. I had to come back to Chicago, but I hated to leave him. I told him I'd clean up the demos we'd been doing and see what I could get going over here with a label."

Junior had literally just gotten home from the airport when he received a despondent call from Soundtracks. It was the last time the two would talk; Soundtracks died two days later. "They didn't find him for ten days," says Junior. "I'd been leaving messages forever with no response. I finally had to alert his family. The coroner's report on the cause of death was inconclusive. They thought maybe it was an overdose of antidepressants, but I think he just died of a broken heart."

Junior returned to London for the funeral and again for a special tribute concert a month later, but Soundtracks's death sent him into a tailspin of depression. "That's what started it all," he says. "From that day forward I entered a period of grief that wouldn't go away. I went and sought professional help; that wasn't working, so drugs started creeping into the scene more. Heroin seemed to be the only thing that got me through.

"The fucked-up thing is it helped my depression, but it also brought me into a really creative period. Then it started to go downhill."

In 1999 an expanded edition of Gospel Morning was released by the Aurora-based label Bobsled. The Chamber Strings toured for more than a year in support of the record, eventually settling on a permanent lineup that included Illarde, Fowler, bassist Jason Walker, and pianist Carolyn Engelmann. "That lineup really jelled--and not just onstage" Junior says. "We all had the same taste in music and were great friends. It was a really cool period."

Bobsled, an unusually well-funded indie, put Junior on its payroll in 2000 so he could focus solely on writing the second Chamber Strings record. But his addiction was getting worse. "I was doing several hundred dollars' worth of heroin and coke every day," he says. "The poor producer, Thom Monahan, I would keep him up for 19, 20 hours working on tracks." He tried to hide his drug use, "spending a lot of time in the bathroom," but his bandmates started to notice. "I think everyone else knew before I did," says Illarde. "I've never really done drugs, so I didn't know the signs. But also, Kevin and I were a little closer than everyone else. So I turned a blind eye--I didn't want to believe it."

Month of Sundays, released in March 2001, generated raves from the local press as well as LA Weekly, Magnet, Alternative Press, and Mojo. The band spent the rest of the year on the road. "Even though it was on a small level, it was pretty crazy for a while," Junior says. "All of a sudden we're doing Morning Becomes Eclectic, selling out three nights in LA, and Ben Stiller and Jason Schwartzman and all these celebrities are there watching us. And we're just a bunch of midwestern kids, you know? It was pretty heady stuff."

Junior's behavior became more erratic as the year wore on, particularly during a summer package tour featuring the Posies and the Pernice Brothers. "After a while it was obvious," he says. "I was nodding off in the van and boxing myself in; communication started to break down. Then the fighting started, because I should've been handling some of the business stuff that was being neglected. I was incapable of dealing with that stuff. I could always do a good show, but I was pretty much useless after that."

Junior went in for a five-day detox at a rehab facility in Rockford in the fall, but was using again days after his release. By the end of the year the rest of the band had been pushed to the brink. "At a certain point there was an issue of stolen [gig] money. That was the last straw for everybody," says Illarde. "It wasn't the money as much as his lying about it. That's when everyone kinda gave up." The Chamber Strings played their final show the day after Thanksgiving at the Abbey Pub. It would be the last time anyone in the band would speak to Junior for four years.

By the beginning of 2002 Junior had cut himself off from nearly everyone, including his wife. "I stopped answering the phone. I stopped looking at e-mails. It was straight back from the drug dealer's place to my house. That was it." Eventually his mother brought him to Akron to dry out. He stayed there for a few months, during which time Kiska filed for divorce. "That was the thing that just completely devastated me," Junior says. "That was the start of a very insane period. I tried to kill myself a half-dozen times. I swallowed handfuls of pills, slit my wrists, stuck a huge syringe full of heroin directly into my heart. Nothing seemed to work. I would wake up every time, just cursing myself."

That fall Junior sold his record collection and guitars, packed a few belongings, and left for LA. "I was disillusioned with Chicago and thought LA would be a nice place to go," he says. "I learned after about a month I'd made the biggest mistake of my life." He entered several Musicians' Assistance Program rehab and sober-living centers, but continued relapsing. There was the occasional gig, including a brief run up the west coast with Nikki Sudden, but after a few months in California, Junior was in worse shape than ever.

"It was a crazy scene out there," he says. "There were certain drugs I wasn't hip to, like crystal meth. I didn't know how to take it. Most people would buy $20 worth and cut it with something else and snort or shoot it. I'd buy $80 and snort the entire thing. I'd find myself--dressed up like a dandy--running from downtown LA to Hollywood, just running down Sunset Boulevard for three or four days straight, completely dehydrated and screaming my head off like a maniac. I have no idea what that must've looked like."

Soon he was completely broke and homeless. "If you have nothing and no hope left in life, you go to skid row and sleep on the sidewalk and buy five-dollar bags of dope every day just to maintain. And you spend all day hustling around to get your five bucks," he says. "I was an absolute bum, a hobo with nothing left but the clothes on my back. The only thing I had left was this Japanese music magazine with my face on the cover. Every once in a while I'd pull it out and show people, 'Look at who I used to be.'"

Junior did three short stretches in the LA county jail for vagrancy and possession. Initially confronted by a menacing group of white skinheads, he says he buddied up to the black inmates by singing Delfonics and Intruders songs. "They'd be like, 'Man, listen to white boy sing.' They'd start clapping and joining in. That's kind of how I survived. They basically took me under their wing."

After six months of living on the streets, Junior awoke one morning unable to move. "My whole body just broke down," he says. "People were stepping over and around me." One of his homeless friends scooped him up and carried him to a hospital. "The nurses took my blood pressure and said it was serious. I'm screaming and trying to fight them off and they just jabbed me with a huge syringe of Valium." When he woke up a couple days later, Junior was told he had endocarditis, a serious heart valve infection. "Even though they told me that I still tried to leave the hospital," he says. "They made me sign a waiver saying I was aware that I could die if I left. So I got my clothes on and got outside of the hospital and just collapsed again. And then I said, 'OK, do whatever you're going to do.'" Junior spent six weeks in the hospital taking a strong antibiotic treatment to stave off the infection, just narrowly avoiding open-heart surgery. To this day he has a heart murmur.

Back on the streets again, Junior decided he needed to leave LA once and for all. His mother, who hadn't heard from him in months, had started calling all of his musical acquaintances in California, desperate to find him. One day Junior ran into Anton Newcombe, the notoriously unhinged front man of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. "He said, 'Do you know your mother is looking for you? She's called me twice.' I just thought, Wow, things have to be really bad if my mother is calling Anton Newcombe and he's trying to help me out."

After a brief respite at his mother's house in the spring of 2004, Junior got a call from Nikki Sudden, who asked him to come to Berlin and join his band for a European tour. Junior says it was a gesture intended to help him return to performing, but hanging out in the heroin capitol of the world with Sudden, himself an addict, was a bad choice. "It was a ridiculous situation," says Junior. "The amount of drug use, fighting, and inner turmoil was ridiculous. We were fighting over girls and scraps of powder, absolutely the most retarded, childlike behavior."

Ironically, Junior had always detested the Johnny Thunders junkie myth. "I'm a fan of Johnny Thunders's music, but I always hated the glorification and romanticizing of his lifestyle. I always wanted to be more like Carole King and have a family and kids and a nice quiet life where I could play my music. I never wanted to be seen as the guy with a fucking syringe in my hat, saying, 'Hey check out my arms, man.'"

The tour over, Junior headed to London to live with a friend, writer Robert Dellar. "I never wanted to go back to London after Epic died, there were so many ghosts there," he says. But Dellar encouraged Junior to get back on his feet. "He said, 'You really need to get back to America and get your health and your music back together.' And for some reason it finally clicked. I just thought, no matter what happens now, I'm going to find a way to get clean. So I found a doctor in London who got me on the right meds for depression and the right antiopiate medications, and I just committed myself to that.

"You just don't realize how bad you are when you're in the thick of it," he says. "I remember waking up one morning and thinking, What in God's name have I done? It just hit me in the face all of a sudden. It was like I'd been in a trance or something that whole time. It was such an awful feeling, 'cause then you start to feel the guilt. What have I done to my friends? What have I done to my bandmates? What have I done with my life? And is it too late to get it all back?"

Junior returned to Chicago in the summer of 2005 in horrible physical condition. He was off heroin but still feeling the aftereffects of his long-term drug use and more recent heart problems. One of the first people he attempted to reconnect with was Illarde, who, along with the rest of the Chamber Strings, was playing in a new group, San Tropez. "The whole time I was hearing the rumors and horror stories about Kevin and trying to keep tabs on where he was," says Illarde. "Just following his trail to make sure he was still alive."

Illarde had felt angry and musically aimless since Junior's departure. "I took it personally; that was a really hard thing to come to terms with," he says. "My wife at the time, who'd been our champion from the get-go, got sick of me being unhappy and moping around. When she heard that Kevin was back in town, she went out and got him and brought him to our house. She and I had been contemplating divorce, or separation at the very least, so Kevin's arrival came in the middle of a time where I probably wasn't very receptive--especially after the way things were left and the condition he was in when he came back. It turned out to be kind of a bad scene."

Junior had come hoping to persuade Illarde to relaunch the Chamber Strings, a plan he now admits was a massive miscalculation. "Anthony and I basically got into a fistfight before we even started talking seriously about the band re-forming," he says. "There was a lot of bitterness and anger and years of pent-up feelings there, which I understood." Illarde says he "had to push him against a wall a few times. Even though we made a little bit of peace the first few days we were around each other, neither of us were ready."

The fight with Illarde set Junior back. He overdosed on prescribed Valium, collapsed on a street in Andersonville, and woke up in a hospital, where he spent the next three weeks. Once he was released he moved into a sober-living house in a west-side neighborhood that he says was overrun with drug dealers. "I decided to live there as a test," he says. "I wanted to make sure I could be around all the temptations and stay clean through it all. And I did fine. I attended AA meetings a couple times a day every day and started working really hard again on music."

At the beginning of 2006 an old friend in New Orleans offered to let Junior house-sit her apartment. Although the city was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, Junior stayed there for the next six months. "I just needed a place to reflect on it all and see what it was like to be alive with a clear head," he says. "My mind and body needed to recover from everything. There was a lot of solitude, a lot of time to get my songs together and make plans."

Then in March, Junior got word that his old friend Nikki Sudden had died of an overdose after a show in New York. "Just a couple days before he died we were in contact. We wrote each other a couple really funny e-mails. But then he asked me if I could hook him up with somebody in Chicago to get dope. And I said absolutely not. I was kind of insulted, 'cause I'd been clean for a long time. Like, 'How dare you ask me to get back into that world, Nikki.'

"But, for me, Nikki's death was a wake-up call. It made me realize how important it was to get the Chamber Strings back together--that was the one thing I wanted more than anything else. I thought after all the shit I've been through and lived through, I'm gonna be really heartbroken if I can't get these four people to make music with me again, 'cause no one is as capable or better at playing those songs."

Junior returned to Chicago in April to play a solo set at the Abbey Pub during the International Pop Overthrow festival and moved back for good in July. He rented a small apartment in Pilsen and slowly began the process of reconciling with his former bandmates. "I went and did my individual apologies and amends with everybody," he says. "But I think it was obvious right off the bat that I was back to the person they'd known before all the madness. They understand that everything was the result of the drugs and the depression. It's not who I really was."

"We finally had a long talk and said what we probably felt we needed to say," Illarde says. "I'm just glad to have my buddy back."

The Chamber Strings started rehearsing again in October and are currently working on more than 25 new songs. Despite their years off the radar, it seems as if the band hasn't been entirely forgotten: a week before their reunion show, advance ticket sales were higher than for any other upcoming event at the Double Door. Junior is in final negotiations to release a Chamber Strings compilation in Europe, and a few major and indie labels in the U.S. have expressed interest in a new studio album. (It's early enough in the process that Junior doesn't want to say which ones.)

For Junior, the experience of picking up where he left off has been understandably surreal. "I was giving Carolyn a ride home after rehearsal recently and she said, 'Kevin, it's so strange--it just seems like the last five years never happened. I feel like we just picked back up from when everything was good.' It's really kind of mind-boggling to everybody that we even went through this. In many ways I don't have any regrets about what happened though, 'cause I learned so much about life. To be back in Chicago with the band and have all this experience behind me and be alive--that's the ultimate success story."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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