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Frieze London 2020

DJ Fat Tony Assumes The Recovery Position

The clubland veteran is committed to sharing stories of survival

BY James Greig in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine , Profiles | 02 OCT 20

When the first line of cocaine you ever try is with Freddie Mercury, where do you go from there? For Tony Marnach, better known as DJ Fat Tony, the 1980s and ’90s were a time of almost unimaginable excess, travelling around the world and partying for days on end. This February saw the release of I Spent £1,000,000 on Drugs: Fat Tony Is Dance Music’s Wildest DJ, a MixMag-produced documentary that charts his rise as a star DJ and house-music pioneer, partying with celebrities like Boy George, George Michael and Kate Moss, followed by the years he spent battling a life-threatening addiction, and his eventual journey towards recovery. 

‘Addiction is a hereditary disease,’ says Marnach, calling me from his home in London. ‘I come from a long line of alcoholics: it’s in my blood.’ For someone susceptible to addiction, the kind of lavish success he experienced is, arguably, the worst thing that could have happened to him. When there’s no limit to how much you can spend and you have the kind of job where taking drugs is par for the course, it’s easy to become unanchored. Success, for Marnach, exacted a heavy toll. ‘People think “rock bottom” is ending up homeless on a park bench but, really, it’s when you get to the point where you wake up and think: “What the fuck happened this weekend? I don’t want to do that again.” Most addicts are going to have a million and one of those moments.’ There were times where he sold his possessions to buy crack; once he plucked his own teeth out in a fit of psychosis. There were months on end when all he thought about was death.

 Fat Tony, 2020. Photograph: Kuba Ryniewicz

Marnach’s final, decisive nadir came in 2007, by which point he weighed just 45 kilos. ‘My partner at the time came to a club where I was DJing,’ he says. ‘I’d been out for three days. For years beforehand, he’d come into places I was working and cause fights because he was trying to save my life! That night, when he found me, he just looked at me and said: “What happened to you?” He just asked me that question, and I couldn’t answer it. That was when I realized I needed to change.’ Marnach began drug counselling, went into rehab and started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings – something he still does every day. Compared to his former excess, some might imagine Marnarch’s sobriety to be boring, though he is keen to tell people that’s a misconception. ‘Boring is sitting around a table at 6am chatting repetitive shit, listening to the same three tracks,’ he says. ‘That’s boring. Since I’ve got into recovery, I enjoy the moment.’ 

This summer, Marnarch started a broadcast series, titled The Recovery, in which he interviews well-known survivors of addiction or trauma, including comedian and actor Russell Brand, television presenter Trisha Goddard and transgender model and activist Dani St James. The scope of the series is not limited to drugs and alcohol, however, and is concerned with recovery in a broader sense. While some of the guests have histories with substance abuse, others are in recovery from entirely different experiences. Marnach also interviews Katie Piper, the survivor of an acid attack, about how she coped with the drastic changes to her life and appearance. The channel allows a space for free-flowing and good-humoured discussion about the nature of addiction and trauma, and the idiosyncrasies of how these concepts play out in people’s lives. In my experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer demographic of people than addicts in recovery and Marnach possesses the calm, almost zen-like energy that’s common to those who’ve spent time in 12-step programmes. ‘The ideal guest is someone who came through having nothing and has everything today,’ says Marnach. ‘And I don’t mean that in a material sense. I mean they have freedom; they have peace and self-respect. That is recovery.’

Marnach’s efforts come at a valuable time: as experts predicted from the outset, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have been difficult for people struggling with addiction. ‘I started the channel specifically because addiction was increasing so much in such a short space of time,’ says Marnach. ‘People were left by themselves, or they were stuck at home with partners they’d previously only seen for two hours a day. Lots of people didn’t have the tools to cope with that, so they turned to alcohol and drugs. It’s a big step for someone to say: “I’ve got a problem.” I wanted to highlight the warning signs and make people consider if there were aspects of their behaviour they needed to watch.’ What kind of signs should people look out for? ‘If you’re always the last one out, when everyone else has gone home, it may be time to check yourself.’

Amidst the pandemic, there is a particular resonance to the The Recovery’s message: that it’s possible for good things to rise from disaster. While the nightlife sector is in a bad state right now – Marnach is angry at the lack of support his industry has received from the UK government, claiming DJs and nightlife workers are ‘the forgotten profession; there’s no help for us’ –  he’s confident that dance music will emerge from the pandemic as vital and innovative as ever. In fact, he thinks, there could well be a silver lining. ‘Before lockdown, clubs were so big. We had Printworks in London. We had all these massive festivals. Things grow, they become big and beautiful, and then they die. That’s the cycle. What comes next will be really small, underground, beautiful things.’

Marnach projects an exuberant excitement for his personal future, too. He’s writing a memoir, launching a streetwear brand called Arrogant Hypocrite and is in talks about adapting his story into a television show. Living proof that life in recovery can be just as exciting as the prospect of a messy bender.

Main Image:  Fat Tony, 2020. Photograph: Kuba Ryniewicz

James Greig is a journalist based in London, UK. He is a contributor to i-D, Huck and Vice.