How songwriter Dustin Tessier remade himself as Timbre Ghost
Dustin Tessier doesn’t want to be defined by his recovery. But to explain how the Duluth indie rocker began his new project, Timbre Ghost, requires a dive into the story of his addiction.
Tessier hit rock bottom in 2011, due in part to the breakup of his previous band, Lazer Forever. The threesome, formed in 2004, had released two albums but mostly toiled in obscurity. For Tessier, who had cut his teeth on the same Duluth scene that produced Low, Trampled by Turtles, and Actual Wolf, the band’s outsider status was frustrating.
“I was still really wanting to do something with music but being really disgusted and getting really sad,” Tessier says. “It was a whole continuum of negative emotion. ‘Why doesn’t anybody care? Am I not good enough?’ Just kind of hating the whole thing.”
Tessier was 13 when he first started meeting other musicians in his hometown of Duluth, accumulating skills and writing songs. In high school, he played in the band the Jiffy Toast Connection and hung out at Recycla-Bell, an old telephone building turned into an all-ages club. “It’s got this local folklore surrounding it,” Tessier says. “It was a great place to have punk rock shows, where all the weirdos from all the high schools in town would get together and not feel jaded for about three and a half hours or so.”
By the turn of the century, Duluth was bustling. Eric Pollard and Dave Simonett would soon break into the mainstream, and the Homegrown Music Festival was born. “It had gone beyond people picking up a guitar and learning how to play ‘Smoke on the Water’ or a Nirvana song,” Tessier says. “People started crafting what they did with their instruments, being a little bit more mindful, and writing their own songs. It was an interesting time when everybody was very young and really fresh but all kind of centered around the same scene.”
But Tessier failed to find his niche. In 2002, he moved down to the Twin Cities and would eventually form Lazer Forever with fellow songwriter Clint Boylan. After six years of playing to little fanfare, though, the band members had other goals in mind: grad school, a real job, starting a family.
“Our timing got kind of funky in terms of maintaining a band schedule,” Boylan explains. “I think it ended the best way it could have. It was mutual and we all felt it was the right time to do that.”
In the band’s absence, an identity crisis arose for Tessier. Music wasn’t just a part of his life — it was an all-or-nothing proposition. And without Lazer Forever, he felt like nothing. Drinking, a daily habit since 2006, increasingly filled the void. “I had become acutely aware at every waking moment of my life that I needed to stop. I was chronically depressed. My anxiety was crippling,” he says. “There were countless times where I held my cell phone in my hand and thought, ‘Who can I call?’ but I was so overwhelmed.”
In March 2011, Tessier ’fessed up about his addiction to his wife of three years. “It was a transformative moment for me,” he says. “I felt incredibly liberated. I felt this weight lifted off of me that I had a chance to come clean. But unfortunately, it was the nail in the coffin [for our marriage].”
That month, Tessier entered a six-week intensive outpatient treatment program and began attending 12-step meetings. Recovery, he learned, was an individual process, not a one-size-fits-all solution, and he wanted to work in alcohol and drug counseling. “It made so much sense,” Tessier says. “I’ve got the experience on one side of it. Why don’t I go to school and get the counseling experience?”
After he began working as a chemical dependency counselor, though, his idealism soon faded. “The field itself is meaningful, but abstinence-based treatment, which is still a pretty popular model, is unrealistic in most cases,” Tessier says. “It’s a revolving door. There’s a lot of recidivism.”
Tessier found that genuine, one-on-one relationships were more effective than simply dispensing 12 steps. “What really works for me is having time to be human around somebody else and watching them come out of their shell,” he says. “That’s when a person can start having insight, when that block is gone.”
He soon left the treatment field to become a mental health practitioner, and also reduced his workload to leave space for his music. “Part of the thing that led to me being upset was, ‘I’m writing music and it’s a personal and vulnerable state and nobody cares,’ so at first I didn’t want to get back into that whole thing,” he explains. But he picked up his guitar again, started writing songs, and played with friends and in cover bands.
By May 2016, he had a number of songs ready to be recorded under the Timbre Ghost moniker. He spent a month and a half tracking drums and guitar in his friend Derek Lee Miller’s garage; bass and vocals were added at Tessier’s home.
“I found myself with a concise collection of songs about the classic existential breakdown,” he says, but he wasn’t confident they were album-worthy. Tessier sought out Alan Sparhawk of Low for feedback. “He gave me some sound advice on recording vocals, and told me I had an album,” Tessier says. He then enlisted Neil Weir for mixing and Bruce Templeton for mastering.
“He did a remarkable job recording the stuff himself,” Weir says of Tessier, whose music reminds him of Neil Young. “He has an ability to conceptualize the song and arrangement in its entirety.”
Timbre Ghost’s reedy-voiced debut, The Ledger, dropped in October 2016. Then began the tough job of booking gigs again.
“I’ve been really working on getting out and being more social,” Tessier says, though that hasn’t been easy after such a long hiatus. “It’s a weird thing to be an introvert in this extrovert’s game but I’ve got this thing that I can do that feels like communication. That’s the role that music plays for me. It’s articulating the world inside that’s affected by the world outside.”
“For Dustin, music is more than just a hobby,” Boylan concurs. “It’s an outlet. He expresses himself through music.”
Now 38, Tessier doesn’t credit music for his sobriety, but rather “a deeper resilience that keeps me from non-sobriety.” Critical thinking, self-awareness, and meditation have been key to his recovery. But nothing has been as healing as connecting with others. “You want to temper the ravages of mental illness and addiction?” he says. “Love. Connect. Care.”
Tessier has come a long way since 2011, when he felt “as far away from my true self as I possibly could have been.” While his passion for music hasn’t changed, his expectations have: “Though I’ve not become the darling of any scene, or topped the list of local music tastemakers, I continue to make reflective and meaningful art.”