The Dark Past and Bright Future of the Vanilla Milkshakes' David McGhee

David McGhee (center) with his Vanilla Milkshakes band mates.
David McGhee (center) with his Vanilla Milkshakes band mates.
Tom Murphy

"I think the first time music as a whole clicked for me was when I saw the Offspring's 'The Kids Aren't Alright' video," says David McGhee. "I was like, 'Wow, this is heavy like Slayer, but it's poppy like Disney. They're like a heavy Disney band!' "I started writing songs and thinking I was going to sound like the Offspring. Then I started showing people my songs and they said, 'You must listen to a lot of Nirvana.'"

At the time, McGhee was living in Georgia with his parents, his older half-brother Jimmy and his younger brother Eddie. Those were challenging years for McGhee, who has Asperger's syndrome but hadn't been diagnosed yet at that point. Instead, his symptoms were treated with a battery of ineffective drugs.

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"I was on so much medication that I don't even remember most of my middle-school and high-school years," he says. "They gave me Haldol, Risperdal and just all these things, and I was so sedated that I had no motivation and I would sleep during class."

The family moved to Denver when McGhee was a teenager, and the setting was a welcome change. "I didn't really wake up until I got to Colorado and stopped taking medicine," he says.

He and his brother Eddie loved Denver right away, because it had public transportation and was more pedestrian-friendly than Georgia. There were other things about the city that made it appealing, too, including its relatively liberal culture: McGhee vividly recalls going downtown and seeing a billboard for a gay phone-sex line. Despite the fresh start, he still faced a challenging home life and had no satisfying explanation for the many problems caused by his Asperger's. The condition prevented McGhee from picking up on social cues, and he often accidentally offended or miscommunicated with new people.

He turned to music, as he had before and would many times again. A chance trip to the Ogden to see the Gamits one night proved transformative. "That was the first time it clicked with me that local music can be really fucking good," recalls McGhee. "They sounded professional, like they knew what they were doing. It wasn't just, 'Hey, let's get together and jam'; it was more like, 'Hey, let's get together and do something.'"

Around that time McGhee made his first friend in Colorado: Mike King, a gifted and powerful bassist who has gone on to play in respected bands like Ideal Fathers and the Outfit. He and McGhee met while playing in a Marilyn Manson-inspired industrial-rock band and quickly formed their own group, dubbed the Ginkins.

But McGhee's personal struggles deepened, and he started taking hard drugs to try to cope. His tenuous grasp of social interactions slipped further. The Ginkins broke up, and he started a duo called the Milkshakes. By the time he played his final show with that project in the summer of 2007, McGhee had alienated most people in the music scene.

His addiction to drugs worsened, and McGhee struggled to put a roof over his head. He bounced between a bedbug-ridden shelter, a hotel and, occasionally, his father's house. He eventually wound up in the Circle Program at the state mental hospital in Pueblo, and that's when McGhee was finally correctly diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

"We had a self-accountability system and I kept getting into trouble," recalls McGhee. "One day I started crying and said, 'Why am I doing this? Why is this happening?' And they were like, 'I think you're autistic.'"

Given a better understanding of himself and some meager resources to help treat his Asperger's, McGhee started to find stability. The process got a lot easier when he met Frank Registrato through the dating website Plenty of Fish, where McGhee had posted a startlingly frank profile.

Like McGhee, Registrato is a musician -- his background includes a stint as an artist for Disney, and he's been in several jazz and jam bands. He also connected with McGhee in a way few others ever had. Registrato was familiar with Asperger's and found McGhee's openness and idiosyncratic humor interesting and charming. "He's really funny, and he has an interesting way of looking at things that's not wrong or bad in any way, just different," says Registrato. "He sees things very black and white. It's kind of liberating, actually. It keeps you honest."

The two started dating, and Registrato helped McGhee toward stability. At first, Registrato didn't really understand McGhee's music, but it didn't take long for them to start playing music together, too.

"I didn't get it," Registrato says, "because I was from these other backgrounds, in jazz and jam bands. I thought it was weird and far out and not really my thing, but it stuck to me, just like David stuck to me."  

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Registrato had been playing in a reggae band called Highline, and one day McGhee suggested the group get together and play some of the songs he'd written. Right away, things clicked with Registrato, McGhee and Highline's guitarist, JanKarl Hayes.

"At first I thought it was helping a friend with a gig," says Hayes. "But then I realized the intensity and energy of David singing and the sound overall, and it was easy to want to keep doing it." He switched from guitar to bass in order to fill out the band's sound. "David, more than anyone in my life, keeps me honest, because I know he'll call me on shit," says Hayes. "I don't know if it's Asperger's or just him...I feel like it keeps us focused on what we're going to do."

McGhee's particular mindset also allows him to work with unusual focus; he can spot what he sees as a shortcoming in a song immediately, and he knows right away when something works, musically. His bandmates have come to trust his instant judgments.

In April 2014, a year and half after they'd started playing together, the Vanilla Milkshakes released their debut album, How To Ruin Friendships and Influence Douche Bags. The melodic punk rock found on it makes the best use yet of McGhee's idiosyncratic outlook. His lyrics are full of sharp and poetic insight into human nature, but they possess a playful sense of humor. In classic punk fashion, the songs are crisp and shorn of all but the essentials. "I Need A Dollar" is a half-humorous memory of McGhee's desperate days. "At Odds With God" is a criticism of hypocritical moral standards that's reminiscent of Nirvana. Overall, the album is full of defiant, energetic anthems dedicated to the reclamation of personal dignity.

This past fall, the band arranged to record its next album at Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Studios in Olympia, Washington. As the founder of the influential K Records imprint and the band Beat Happening (among others), Johnson has long been an important figure in international underground music. Given Johnson's affection for musical outsiders like the Shaggs, Daniel Johnston and Half Japanese, he seems like the perfect match for the Vanilla Milkshakes.

McGhee is making strides in his personal life as well. He's sober and focused on healthy relationships and interactions, even though social settings are understandably intimidating for him. "I'm doing a lot of therapy and reading, and I'm working with Frank on my social skills and preparing myself to go out," he says. "I want to support my friends. I want to support new people." Registrato runs his own cannabidiol business, and with CBD McGhee has been successfully treating the stress and anxiety that accompany Asperger's. McGhee is surrounded by people who genuinely care about him, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he feels truly happy.

You can find out more about the Vanilla Milkshakes via Twitter or Facebook and listen to the band's music via Reverb Nation.

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