How the sober movement is set to transform nightlife

Articles | September 2020

Few public figures can claim a personal journey as in-step with our times as the DJ and professional man-about-town Fat Tony (real name Tony Marnach). Having built a reputation as a hell-raiser during the hedonistic ‘90’s, he was known for tearing the roof off clubs before promptly falling out of them, often accompanied by party pals such as Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. Fat Tony was the epitome of the big, brash, boozy culture that so defined British identity at the turn of the millennium.

Cut to today and he couldn’t be a more changed character. Having been sober for 13 years he’s still heavily involved in nightlife but is quietly doing his bit to transform it into a somewhat healthier place. Although far from evangelical about getting people to bin the booze, he’s simply showing those who are looking that there’s another way to party. In this sense, he’s becoming a very different kind of poster boy for the clean living and sober generation that has swelled in recent years.

“I used to call them do-gooders, you know,” reminisces Fat Tony during his conversation on Frontiers, a podcast by strategy and innovation consultancy The Upside, talking about his unlikely new peer group. “I remember being in a club once and my friend was like, I really want you to meet these guys, they go to Narcotics Anonymous. And I was like, nah nah nah! For me it was as if the Mormons had just walked in, as if they were here to take me away or something.” This is a familiar story for anyone recovering from addiction or who has a loved one in recovery: you simply cannot be told that time’s up; it can only happen once you’re ready.

For Fat Tony, he needed to reach rock bottom before he knew he took steps to save himself. “I used to just listen to this Mary J Blige album over and over again, thinking about my funeral,” he explains. “My casket would be carried into the soundtrack of Teardrops and then I’d be burnt to No More Drama. I used to think about my own death every day. I didn’t think about where I was going on holiday or what I’d be doing next week: all I ever thought about was who was going to come to my funeral.” Somehow this deep slump was the wakeup call he needed, spurring him to attend an NA meeting in New York. That was well over a decade ago and he’s never looked back.

A lot else has changed in those intervening years. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently reported a nearly 5% decrease in drinking around the world since 2000, going down from 47.6% of the world’s population to 43%. This downward trend is set to accelerate as the notoriously health conscious Gen Z are driving the shift, while many Millennials and Gen Xers are also looking to this younger cohort and being inspired to make changes. As with many lifestyle transformations such as smoking, a tipping point is generally reached where abstinence swiftly moves from unusual to acceptable to expected.

“The biggest frontier for me is to make people realize that you don’t need to drink or take drugs to have fun. Music is everything. You know, music is the best drug that I ever took, the best drug I’ve ever been introduced to. It has the ability to change everything.”

“Most addicts will do that stuff behind closed doors in such a destructive manner,” explains Fat Tony, highlighting the importance of public discourse in order to overcome addiction. “If you’re battling with any form of addiction and you’re in a really dark place and you feel completely alone, you just have to remember you’re not. All it takes is one conversation with someone.” The problem is that these conversations haven’t always been easy to come by, especially in the UK. Unlike America, Brits have tended to see sobriety as an uncomfortable topic, either one that will limit their fun or will lead to personal conversations about mental health (another area where we’re slowly catching up with our cousins across the pond). The big challenge then is less how to provide support to those who actively want to go sober, but more about destigmatising the whole idea of taking that first step.

This is where the current bevy of sober brands, club nights and bars come in. From blended offers that have added quality mocktails to the menu such as Lyaness to the completely no-alcohol Redemption (both in London) or Dublin’s newly opened Virgin Mary, there’s a growing range of venues catering to the sober crowd that don’t compromise on a good night out. Combine this with the dance event Morning Glory or cultural collective Sober & Social (along with a bevvy of booze-free brands such as Seedlip) and you’ve got the makings of a genuine movement.

“People often say to me, don’t you get bored not drinking? How do you have fun? And I tell them that I have more fun being sober than I ever did in my 28 years of drinking and taking drugs,” says Fat Tony. “The biggest frontier for me is to make people realize that you don’t need to drink or take drugs to have fun. Music is everything. You know, music is the best drug that I ever took, the best drug I’ve ever been introduced to. It has the ability to change everything.” To this end, Fat Tony has been working on new club concepts such as No Booze (a pun on the upmarket restaurant NoBu) in order to bring his brand of fun-fuelled sobriety to the capital.

With all this innovation in the area, there’s a real risk that the serious lifelong commitment of sobriety that those in recovery make in order to save their own lives is being turned into a trend to be commoditised, however. The journalist Ruby Warrington blundered into this debate with her book ‘Sober Curious’ (2018), which many former addicts felt belittled their battle, as did a major article in The New York Times titled ‘The New Sobriety’ (2019), which caused a backlash on social media (both Warrington and The New York Times have claimed their premise was misquoted).

As we feel our way through this brave new post-booze world, we’ll clearly need to develop better ways to distinguish between recovery and sobriety, but whatever the reason for cutting down on substances (or cutting them out altogether), a meaningful response is called for from across sectors – culture, retail and hospitality alike. We also need to also remember that the prize is far more than commercial: “Six years after going sober I was actually working with Mary J Blige and I told her that story and she started to cry,” says Fat Tony. “She was like, ‘that person wasn’t you, the person that stands before me is you.’ For me, that was one of the great joys of recovery.”

To hear more from Fat Tony, listen to the full conversation on “Frontiers” by The Upside

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