'I went like a demon into just getting out of it, until I crashed'
Matt Spalding explains to Carol Hunt how he got his 'feet back in the real world' after years of madness
Published 22/02/2009 | 00:00
SEX, drugs and rock and roll. One assumes they go together like drum and bass, Philo and Dublin. Not according to former In Tua Nua bass guitarist, restaurant owner and chef Matt Spalding they don't.
Next week Spalding opens a new venture: Padthai@ Shine. This is quite an achievement considering what he's been through in the past 20 years or so. Mind you, after hearing him tell his story, the fact that he's still alive to tell it is probably his biggest achievement of all.
First, I have to confess that, when it came to picking a topic to write on this week, I thought I might have to shoot myself if I didn't attempt to produce something cheerful and uplifting, the current economic climate being what it is and all.
Which is why I've decided to bring you a tale of rare genetic illness, substance abuse, relationship breakdown and career meltdown.
Trust me, it ends well.
Second, Spalding is a neighbour of mine, and when I first met him I was slightly in awe, as I'd been an In Tua Nua fan in the Eighties, and was always mad jealous of Leslie Dowdall, the super-cool blonde singer that my boyfriend fancied the arse off.
Over numerous cups of tea as our daughters played together, and the occasional pint, Matt revealed the odd gem of a story relating to his wild rock and roll lifestyle. When he admitted he'd had serious problems in the past, I'd assumed it went with a life of hotel rooms, groupies and drug dealers on speed-dial.
I was wrong.
Spalding was born with a rare genetic bone illness (nail patella syndrome, NPS, which causes abnormalities of the bones, joints, fingernails and kidneys).
He says, "It wasn't until years later, after all the madness and the therapy, that I realised how much this disease had hurt me. I remember when I was three years of age, I started school, and on my first lunch break outside that day, I stood there and realised, 'Physically, I can't compete with these boys.'
"I could see where all the other boys were and I remember going over and playing the eejit, doing the clown act, and that was it: The Matt Spalding Show had been born.
"Many people wouldn't notice, but NPS makes your arms, legs, knees etc deformed, so you spend your whole life acting, disguising yourself -- in my case with alcohol or whatever came to hand."
"So, how did you get into music?" I ask, determined to get to the cheerful stuff.
"I joined my first band, Liaison, when I was 16, with Paddy Dunning, in 1982 or so. Then I buggered off to LA --took up having an exceptionally good time out there -- had a girlfriend who was a hairdresser to the stars, so we hung out with Michael Jackson, Prince, Robert Downey Jr, Sheryl Crowe .
"In Tua Nua were in North Carolina and then came to LA; we looked each other up because we knew each other from home.
"They had a brilliant bass player but didn't really have a good guitar player, so Jack [Dublin] moved to lead guitar and the other guitarist got the heave ho and I was put in on bass. That was in 1988.
"We were six weeks back at home and then took off travelling across Britain, Europe and America.
"I mean, can you imagine -- 22 years of age -- being handed a bunch of guitars and somebody who was going to put strings on them for you?
"We played with U2, Simple Minds, Fleetwood Mac; they were kind of the big ones. The most memorable was the first big gig with Fleetwood Mac in the Nuremberg Ring. I assumed that with so many people I'd be absolutely shitting it -- but with such a big gap between you and the audience, you may as well be doing it in your living room.
"But the one thing I do remember is that there was a breeze blowing on to the stage, and the smell of humans -- I'm serious, you could smell everything, hair, clothes, feet and breath, sweat, tobacco, alcohol, 80-odd thousand people, and you could identify each of the smells -- really f**king weird."
"That would be because of the drugs you were taking, right?"
I'm assuming that, like most rock groups of the era, drugs were a necessary part of the equation.
He cracks up.
"You must be joking. Nobody used drugs in the band. In Tua Nua were by and large a bunch of tea-drinking f**king ponces -- (bar Leslie of course).
"I'm not saying there weren't some nice people in the band, but I hung out with the crew -- they drank a lot, but no drugs. They taught me how to drink -- that was an education in itself."
"So when did the problems start?"
"The band split up because there were disagreements over song writing and publishing deals.
"I walked away, messed around with a few projects, but I'm not tough enough to do the whole glad-handling, Lillies, Pink Elephant, 'kiss, kiss, darling' bit, so I travelled, learned how to be a chef, opened the original Pad Thai and then, a few years later I went back to Howth, opened up a restaurant there, and it was hugely successful.
"I began partying really hard, not looking after myself and generally f**king things up for everyone around me, especially my partner. And then the birth of my daughter really pushed me over the edge".
"Because when she was born I didn't even notice what sex she was for a minute. I was just looking at her hands, elbows, and knees, realised she'd inherited my bone condition, and I just went: 'shit, shit shit ... ' "
"So, rather than that making you cop on and give up the party lifestyle, it made you worse?"
"Just think about it; I've seen her already go under the knife and she's only seven -- and now they need to do more stuff to her -- I defy anybody to carry that burden and not react."
"So how did you react?"
"I just ... I went like a f**king demon into just getting out of it -- as out of it as is humanly possible -- as often as possible, until I crashed and realised I needed professional help.
"I remember eventually telling my partner and she just broke down in front of me -- she had no idea how badly I had been hurting and how I'd tried to hide it from her."
"And how did that affect your relationship?"
"It was over. Trust gone. Sadly, that was it."
When I first met Matt during those years, I'd never had an inking he'd had such a traumatic past. To me he was a hardworking, hands-on father, a great neighbour and a person my family could completely trust.
I asked how on earth he had managed this extraordinary turn-around in his life.
"I got the therapy I needed. I realised the most important priorities in my life were first, my beautiful daughter -- whom I co-parent with my ex-partner -- and then, getting back on my feet in the real world.
"My professional road to recovery really came about when Matthew Farrell Snr, who owns the Diep Group, hired me to open their new branch in Blackrock. I learned how to get back into the habit of working hard, and it was a huge learning curve because they are such a professional outfit with great Thai chefs.
"My whole passion for the food was reignited. Diep is known for its good food, but our staff food was particularly brilliant.
"Bernard Molloy and Eddie Doran of Solus and Shine bars then asked would I be interested in the whole notion of the gastro-pub. I've always thought that's the way forward, particularly for bars and restaurants, in this climate."
"So you're opening a restaurant in the middle of a recession?"
"It's not as mad as it sounds. It's perfect for the times. You won't be able to spend more than €12 on a dish. I have great chefs from North Thailand working with me. It will be very price-sensitive, good food for discerning punters.
"In these straightened times, I will be producing Thai peasant food for Ireland's new peasant classes."
He grins, "Didn't John Lennon have something to say about us all being peasants now?"
Padthai@Shine opens on Wexford Street, Dublin, this week. A coterie of famous celebs -- past and present -- will be on hand to celebrate Matt's new venture: a modern-day redemptive story of the Phoenix rising from the flames.