When Warren Thomas Fenzi sold his acoustic guitar and drums for drug money, he knew he needed help.
His high school alcohol and pot habit had progressed to opioid and heroin addictions during his time as a student at Berklee College of Music. The drum-set performance major would get “super fucked-up” to write a song, only to wake up in the morning and realize it wasn’t any good. Now he was literally pawning his dream of being a professional musician for a quick fix.
“I’m the type of person that, when I find something that works, I just want to do it all the time,” the willowy, goateed 26-year-old says over coffee. “That was the case with substances.”
In 2014, Fenzi dropped out of school and completed a 30-day residential rehab program in Arizona, where he grew up. He then spent a year of sober living in Huntington Beach, California. Eager to get back into music again, he relocated to Minneapolis to play with his former college roommate Karl Remus, the frontman of Lucid VanGuard, who’s also sober. Two soon became five, and the Kremblems Collective, a record label and group of affiliated musicians based in northeast Minneapolis, was born. Remus, along with Bailey Cogan (of 26 Bats), Christian Wheeler, and Daniel “Chavo” Chavez not only back Fenzi but play in each other’s bands as well; everyone except trumpeter Chavez fronts a band.
“We’re all so versatile in our skills that we can shapeshift very easily,” Fenzi says. “We’re all supportive of each other’s projects.”
By 2017, Fenzi had enough solo material for an album, so he launched a Kickstarter that raised over $8,600 for his solo debut, WTF. To meet his goal, he reached out to each of his Facebook friends individually. “That was my first experience being a salesman,” he says. “I’m really grateful for it because I think it toughened my skin up.”
WTF is a concept album—Fenzi imagines it like a movie, with each song a different scene. Drawing upon bands like the Shins, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Modest Mouse, his sound is atmospheric, evocative of the wide West Coast vistas he grew up around. The album is centered on themes of growth and honesty, with two prominent female influences. One is an ex; she and Fenzi weren’t together long, but “it was the first time where I was OK with the fact that things didn’t work out,” he says. “In the past, I would be super resentful. Or I’d be like, ‘It’s your fault, not my fault.’ I think that has a lot to do with me being sober. It’s like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with either of us. It’s just not meant to be.’”
Another woman, Fenzi’s aunt, inspired “Wish I Would Have Called.” She made him a pillow with his initials, WTF, sewn on the front for his fifth birthday. When she was dying from cancer in 2012, Fenzi’s parents urged him to call her. But when he finally did, his uncle informed him that she’d died three days prior. Fenzi missed his opportunity to say goodbye because he’d been so distracted by his addictions.
A photograph of that beloved WTF pillow, perched on a chair in the Grand Canyon, is the cover of the album, initially released in August. Fenzi celebrates the vinyl release at Icehouse on Tuesday, the eve of his four-year sobriety anniversary—fitting, given that music motivated him to get sober and has helped him stay that way. “It’s my meaning to life,” he says. Sobriety also changed his creative process, primarily because he can focus now. Exercise, twice-daily meditation, meetings, and journaling have also been crucial to his recovery.
Though Fenzi has had the occasional craving, a phone call to a friend is usually enough to quash it. “As long as I’m keeping up with things I need to do, if I’m being honest with myself, if I’m giving back, if I’m being of service to people, if I’m showing up every day the best way I can, then those things don’t even come into my mind,” he says.
If he’s at a party, he’s keenly aware of when people get ramped up and he needs to leave. He’d rather go to bed anyway and get up early to work on his music. He’s noticed that the people he admires in the industry have a low tolerance for drunken behavior as well. “I don’t want to work with people that are constantly getting high or are drunk a lot,” he says. “I’m like, ‘I’m probably just not going to call you. I don’t care how good you are. You’re not reliable.’”
He hopes to collaborate with those local artists who have their act together in the future. With enough music written for another record, he’d like to try a new approach to recording and releasing it next time, pairing up with different musicians on each track and releasing them as singles.
Fenzi also has designs on moving the entire Kremblems Collective to the West Coast—while they’re still young, unattached, and child-free. Long-term, he hopes he can make a “comfortable living” as an international musician as well as score films. He also aims to be a “pillar of hope for people that want to be in the industry” without relying on drugs and alcohol for their creative or energetic boosts. He’s made quite the case for clean living as a conduit for momentum, having toured to Arizona, Colorado, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin over the past year while still holding down a food-runner job at the Dakota Jazz Club.
“That whole rock-star mentality is, I think, less and less of a reality for musicians,” he says. “This day and age, you’re managing yourself. Record labels are still absolutely a thing, but it’s also very possible to do things on your own. No one’s taking care of you. You’re not just getting paid and people give you drugs and all you have to do is just show up. No. You have to do all of this.”
Warren Thomas Fenzi
With: Jeremy Ylvisaker, Gully Boys
When: 10 p.m. Tues. Mar. 27
Tickets: 21+; $7; more info here