As the mastermind behind glitch-party-rock outfit Kill Paradise, Nick Cocozzella never played a show sober. "I was drinking every day; I started having seizures and throwing up on myself. I was like, this has got to stop." Years of partying on stage and off left him wanting more from life. But when Cocozzella walked away from drinking a year ago, he also had to rethink his approach to his greatest passion: music.
He started drinking early. Growing up in a "100 percent Italian" family meant drinking wine with Sunday-night spaghetti dinners, he says, starting way back when he was just twelve. As he grew older, his addictive personality turned the habit into a problem. Kill Paradise's endless-party aesthetic amplified Cocozzella's worsening relationship with alcohol.
"It just got to the point where I was making a lot of decisions that weren't smart decisions," he says. "A lot of the blame I put on the record label or why we didn't get a certain tour -- but, really, it was just me. I was spending all of this money on alcohol and not taking a look at my own actions."
Now, with more than a year of sobriety under his belt, Cocozzella is back to doing what he loves: writing songs. Getting sober actually helped spark his creativity, he says, because the earliest stages of the process brought out a lot of feelings. But the material he was writing didn't quite feel like it fit his wild persona as the frontman of Kill Paradise. He ultimately decided to continue with that band (though his on-stage demeanor has changed), but he also started performing as the Cold Fire, a project that gives the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist an opportunity to find solace in his art.
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"I started recording acoustic songs without a name for the project. It was just me going into the studio and recording guitar and piano and bass," says Cocozzella. "I wasn't really even writing until I got into the studio, but then it was like three hours later and a song would just be born. I would record the guitar and then write the vocals afterward, based on the mood I was in. I had a lot of emotion; it felt like there was always something to write about."
It wasn't just the partying that made being a professional musician hard on Cocozzella the first time around; it was the whole industry game. Years of touring and living the rock-star high life with Kill Paradise left a lot to be desired. What started as a solo project in 2005 eventually grew to include fellow vocalist and friend Bryce Hoops and a full-fledged backing band, and the group found a place in the same all-ages scene that took acts like Breathe Carolina and 3OH!3 into the national spotlight.
In 2009, Kill Paradise landed a record deal with Breaksilence Recordings -- a label that was home to sonically similar acts such as BrokenCYDE and Eyes Set to Kill. Kill Paradise was seemingly living the dream, but Cocozzella says it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
"We took a hard hit with this record label; to this day, we've never been paid," he says. "We made some mistakes. There were definitely things that were our fault -- just being young and not knowing how it all worked." The stress of touring and the requirement for Cocozzella to be "on" every night for crowds led to more drinking, something he thought provided him with additional energy. But it was just masking a bigger problem.
In late 2013, Cocozzella had had enough. The partying had turned sour, and too much drinking led to vomiting and seizures. He found his way to a twelve-step meeting, and it changed his life. From there, his journey of sobriety began, along with his new life as a musician.
Cocozzella got a job as a counselor at a charter school in Craig, Colorado, working with at-risk high-school students -- a position he says has aided in his sobriety and humbled him greatly. Being 200 miles from the big city has helped a bit, too; the isolation has allowed Cocozzella some respite from the party life and a chance to work on his music alone.
Sobriety also left him with a newfound rawness that he channeled into Scabs, a seven-song record that Cocozzella says was fueled by the overwhelming feelings that came from being alcohol-free. "I loved to drink a little bit to feel and write, but there is so much emotion that I never felt before that I felt when I got sober," he explains. "When I got sober, it was like, holy cow, I'm fifteen again; I have to learn how to deal with it when I feel crappy. Instead of masking it with alcohol, I was able to learn how to feel down and be okay with it. That's why this music was such an intricate part of my healing process."
Cocozzella played his first show as the Cold Fire in December. He has deliberately avoided making any grandiose plans for the project, instead letting it progress organically. The music marks a stylistic departure from Kill Paradise, but with Cocozzella at the helm of both projects, the transition is likely to be a smooth one for fans. Cocozzella's happy-go-lucky voice -- one thing that makes Kill Paradise so irresistibly listenable -- is still intact, albeit nestled within a whole new context. This next musical chapter is definitely a stripped-down one, leaving the beat-heavy party vibe behind in favor of a scaled-back approach to rock and roll, and it goes well with Cocozzella's newfound honesty in songwriting.
He admits that the baby steps he's taking with the Cold Fire are partly from fear, too. The thought of playing a venue or even going to a show caused Cocozzella anxiety, and the fact that he had never performed with Kill Paradise sober made him wonder if he could give the new incarnation of his musical life a fighting chance. Ultimately, he realized that facing his drunken past was what pushed him to make music again, and that playing shows was going to be part of it.
"I would watch videos of Kill Paradise on YouTube and think, 'Oh, my gosh, I look like an idiot,'" says Cocozzella. "Now I'm just so excited to get up there and put my emotions out on stage and not really have to be behind an image of Kill Paradise, where it's all partying. There's nothing wrong with that -- I will still perform with Kill Paradise, though the music might change a little. But for [the Cold Fire], to be sort of secluded with my guitar in this town four hours away from Denver has been an awesome process."
The 29-year-old says he looks forward to being in control and that knowing he won't embarrass himself on stage anymore was reason enough for him to return to playing shows. The Cold Fire's current live lineup is Cocozzella on guitar and Aaron Rothe (formerly of Drop Dead, Gorgeous fame) on piano. Cocozzella plans to spend the early part of 2015 writing songs for another record; he'll record the drums, bass, vocals and guitar in his home studio. Beyond that, he may branch out and build a full band for live performances. But he's taking it all one step at a time.
"I feel so passionate about this project; I have no expectations for it. I'm not trying to sign a record deal," he says. "I could go play a coffee shop tomorrow if I wanted to, or an open mike. That's not something I could really do before. It's just exciting. It's a journey that keeps me smiling."
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