By Nick Krewen
Hugh Dillon was once imprisoned by his vices.
Labelling himself a “garden variety alcoholic/addict,” you can hear every ounce of pain, anguish and experience that the darker side of life afforded him on PeopleSkills, the relentless new rock album by Headstones, of which Dillon is the singer and lyricist.
Hell, you can hear examples of the Kingston, Ontario native’s tortured life in the songs of any of Headstones’ 10-album catalogue, whether it’s 1993’s Picture Of Health or 2017’s Little Army; the Toronto punk-driven rockers always wore the seedier sides of life on their sleeves.
Headstones was also a band that Dillon was forced to quit in 2003 when he relapsed into heroin addiction (it reunited in 2011) and realized he was looking over the ledge of a bottomless precipice.
But Dillon, whom you may recognize as the recurring character of Sheriff Donnie Haskell on the Kevin Costner Paramount TV series Yellowstone, about to air its third season; or as Mike Sweeney on Durham County or his award-winning turn as Ed Lane on Flashpoint, which ran for three and five seasons, respectively, counts his blessings for a musical outlet that allows him to express the manifested emotions and process the experiences of such a harrowing, former lifestyle.
It’s been cathartic for him – “even more so since I got clean and sober” – he admits.
“Now I’m way more aware of how much songs help me,” says Dillon, 56. “I’m so lucky that I learned to understand what this muse of songwriting was able to do for me. Before, it was just something that I was drawn to and it helped. But now, I’ve been able to put a finer point on it. It’s just an excellent outlet.”
While songs like “Dark Side of The Doomed,” “Leave It All Behind,” “Horses” and “Part Of Me” don’t necessarily mention specifics, the analogies and imagery that he often writes with album producer Chris Osti come from a man who has cast aside his demons, but recognizes that he wouldn’t be where he is today without them.
‘I loved making the record,” said Dillon, 56. “I loved writing the songs. If it finds an audience, that’s just a bonus. That’s when you know your craft – when you’re just compelled to do it whether there’s an audience or not.”
Dillon hasn’t lived the life of a saint by any means. His well-documented past as a teen involved dealing in drugs, and life on the road in a rock band – especially a Canadian rock band – leaves one open to intriguing life choices determined by long hours on the road, extreme isolation, little sleep and persuasive, adventurous strangers-turned-fast-friends.
“It’s not like some jobs where you can’t work here anymore unless you go and get help and get tested,” Dillon explains. “In my case, being an artist, running your own business or whatever it is, you could potentially go on longer because there aren’t any checks and balances, other than your family and if something happens with the law.”
The singer characterizes his descent into addiction as “such a slow road into it – it evolved over many years and it’s really fucking brutally hard to get out” and says his breaking point also served as his wake-up call.
“Ultimately, I was in the band and had gotten a little clean time and, had made a record,” Dillon recalls.
“I suddenly had a relapse out West and had to quit the band. And with that relapse, I realized, ‘I’m going to die.’ Then it’s really life and death: you realize that you can’t play anymore games. You’ve kind of gotten to the limit.
“By that time, I’d been through therapists and a drug treatment surgery called naltrexone, which may stop you from using (drugs), but I refused to get any real treatment.
“Then I was diagnosed with anhedonia, where you have no capacity to feel joy. The opiate receptors in your brain have shut down – and it influences you like you’re depressed and you can’t find your way out.”
Dillon credits his unconditional support system, including his wife Midori Fujiwara, for helping him survive.
“If you don’t have people around you that can guide you out of that, it’s brutal. I was really lucky. I had family, my wife who loved me and even my manager Bernie Breen.”
Dillon credits Breen for treating him as a friend rather than an income generator.
“(Bernie) was great because he and the doctors saw where I was going. Most managers want to keep their clients on the road: He didn’t. He got it and told me that I gotta quit.”
The decision to withdraw from an unhealthy situation left him in a quandary: Dillon still had bills to pay and rock ‘n roll was no longer an option.
“At the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Everything I had done in my life was all about music and rock and roll. I think I was 40. All of a sudden, your identity’s gone – but you have to do all those things to save your life.
“And that’s what really enabled me to save my life, because then it became about talking to other people and therapy and being completely honest to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. “The good news is that there is real help out there – really talented, gifted people whose whole lives are wrapped around helping others, you know?
“But it’s such a complex, odd little thing – it’s mental and it can change and I was just really lucky. I was lucky but I also was around really educated people who understood addiction and depression and all of the things that – in my case, the manifestation of my issues were alcohol and drug addiction.”
“The flipside of that is if you come out of it, you’re stronger. Your life is full. And it never ends – you’ve always got to be hyper-vigilant – and , it seems so simple, but you have to be honest. When you have some people around you who understand the issues that can help you, there’s hope, really.”
Dillon really stresses the importance of self-honesty, especially in terms of coming clean with your therapist. He says his choices of counsellor were moot until he did.
“None of them were any good as long as I was full of shit,” he contends. “That’s really the bottom line. You can say whatever you want, but almost all of them are great if you can be honest. If you can be honest, then they can help you.
“But if you’re going to talk all about how it’s other peoples’ fault or whatever, you’re not going to get anywhere. Sometimes you’ve got to get the right doctor and sometimes there are drugs involved and sometimes there’s a chemical imbalance or a personality disorder – but if you have a doctor who can steer you in the right direction…. a person who just has a drug problem, it’s easier than somebody who has a drug problem but is masking a mental illness, you know? Those mental illnesses can evolve if you don’t treat the drug and alcohol addiction. “
Dillon says that one of the first steps to recovery is admitting to yourself that a problem exists.
“The longer you are able to hide it or that your friends and family are afraid of it and enable it – even accidentally or subconsciously, the worse it gets,” he explains. “The bigger point is not how good is the therapist – that’s a crap shoot – that’s all bullshit. The bigger problem is that you need to start looking at it and define what it is sooner than later.”
One of the things that helped Dillon in his recovery was jumping into another career. He had dabbled in film with an appearance in Toronto director Bruce McDonald’s 1995 motion picture Dance Me Outside and played one of the leading roles in McDonald’s 1996 film Hard Core Logo.
He ended up moving to L.A. and the change of scenery worked wonders.
“Acting was just a great distraction,” Dillon admits. “ I had to move to Los Angeles clean and sober, as opposed to sitting around in Toronto and seeing places and people and the destruction that I kind of had left in my own mind.
“I had gotten a break to shoot an American movie with Vera Farmiga and (director) Debra Granik called Down To The Bone, a movie about heroin addiction, right on the cusp of me being clean.
“So, I’m out of this testosterone rock world and with all these real artists and they were just so warm and generous. Debra and Vera were great to me and introduced me to agents and managers.
“I was clean and sober and I had this second breath of life. The timing had just worked out that I was kind of getting my strength back mentally and physically and I met my friend Taylor Sheridan with whom I’m in this show Yellowstone with Kevin Costner.
“He hired me for the film Wind River, we’ve got a show in development and he’s using one of my songs for his next Angelina Jolie movie.
“All of a sudden, I’m not focused on music or the next gig or getting hammered or my past…I’m focused on, ‘how do I stay sane and sober?’ ‘Oh, I’ve got to learn all this dialogue? I’ve got to go out to auditions?’
“All these new things – that helped me. That was the best move I ever made. I just started gravitating towards these really grounded people and that’s what keeps things together for me.”
It’s a consistency he also intends on maintaining with Headstones – and the music he considers his main muse.
“It’s all very personal for me,” says Dillon. “The primary objective is to get my shit together and stay clean and sober, stay present and stay connected to my wife, the guys in my band, my manager and the people who I’ve spent this whole second half of my life with.
“It’s just been exceptional.”