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Satsang’s Drew McManus climbs from rock-bottom to sacred song

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By Brian D’Ambrosio EBS CONTRIBUTOR

BIG TIMBER – Music put Drew McManus on the threshold of a changed life. Montana secured him there.

Founder of the spiritual roots group Satsang, McManus once plummeted hard and deep into the dark pits of substance abuse. Luckily, he was able to discover those things that would help redirect his life from blight to bright. 

“Music was my way of kind of reconnecting with myself,” McManus told EBS during a phone interview he took from his vehicle in early April. “It was my way of figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be. Montana gave me enough space to do that.”

A native of Billings, McManus’ mother’s family ran cattle near Roundup, and his biological father was a preacher. Although he grew up in the Midwest, primarily Iowa and later Illinois, he spent clusters of his youthful summers in Montana.

But McManus’ childhood was a far cry from a fairytale. McManus described his stepfather as an abusive tyrant who made the family’s domestic life insufferable. He sold drugs for a living, a career which took him to all sorts of seedy, dangerous spots. He siphoned drugs for his own use and drank prodigiously.

“The stepfather who raised me was pretty abusive,” McManus said. “He’d kick the s*** out of me and my brother every day. We didn’t grow up in the best neighborhoods. We grew up having to deal with violence inside the house and outside the house, pretty much everywhere; Violence was a big part of our growing up. My brother ended up in prison for a little bit. I managed to stay out of jail.”

While in junior high school, McManus took to skateboarding and stuck with it for many years. Skateboarding introduced him to the rabid sounds of Los Angeles punkers Bad Religion and other left-wing punk activists such as Anti-Flag and Black Fag.

Drew McManus of Satsang struggled with a challenging upbringing and personal substance abuse before finding his way to music. PHOTO BY GREYSON CHRISTIAN PLATE

“I enjoyed the social commentary and anything outside of the mainstream,” he said. “I’d look at the back of the VHS and see what the name of the song was and go buy those records.”

Between ages 15 and 24, McManus said he abused alcohol virtually every single day. After intentionally slicing his wrist one night while supremely drunk, he entered treatment, but soon relapsed. Shortly thereafter, he traveled with a friend to Nepal and stayed there for about five weeks. Getting to the country was “a long, crazy haul,” he said, but the Himalaya would in time fill him with a clarifying perspective, one that blessed his life with true believing and sanctified his darkest hours.

“Nepal planted the seeds of a future in music,” McManus said. “Those big, long trails make it a full day’s walk from village to village. And each village has a monastery and a little tea house, and so that’s what your day consists of, walking, thinking the whole time, sifting through your s***. It just healed me. Like Montana, it provides that quiet and that space to reflect. And I think if you’re a good thinker, you start asking good questions. You know, like, what kind of man do I want to be? What kind of legacy do I want to leave? What do I want to be remembered for?”

McManus looks out over a vast landscape. PHOTO BY GREYSON CHRISTIAN PLATE

Around that time McManus said he decided he didn’t want to be remembered as some kid “that blew his potential” and miserably squandered his life away. A big part of the redemptive journey, he returned to Montana about 12 years ago.

“I always knew that I wanted to be back in Montana,” he said. “I moved out and followed a girl to Red Lodge and we’ve been married for 11 years. We’ve got a gaggle of kids.”

Journals from his trip to Nepal framed the songs that consisted of Satsang’s 2016 debut, “The Story of You,” in which McManus addresses the lonelier, wearier and more restless elements of the human experience. From the onset, he’s cross-pollinated his rural roots and extreme childhood with the glory of meditation and raw gusto of the landscape. 

Montana has provided more than just a beautiful twilight, a beautiful goal and a beautiful rest; It’s added a visible, heartfelt sheen to his music that is wonderful and positive. Similar to the profound experience he felt in Nepal, Montana lined McManus’ spirit with gold. Sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, he rolls the essence of life, death and that vast forever of home into one grand, spiritual ride.

“The first song, ‘From And I Go’, I sat down and wrote on a rock in the middle of the Stillwater River, loving the openness, and aiming to make it visual,” he said. “I see the Beartooths and tie my music to the places that I spend my time, so that’s such a huge thing for me…There is a stoicism here that’s kind of lost on modern culture and I kind of try to be a delegate and a representative of that with my art. Montana is just such a unicorn of a place to so many people, it’s just steeped in so much mysticism … people are so blown away that it’s even a real place.”

One sure thing that living in Montana has taught McManus is vulnerability, a humbling aspect of existence here in Montana that has greatly informed his songwriting. For example, at a period when McManus felt the most desolate and lonely, his life overwhelmed by the constant struggle of taming addiction, he scribbled a few lines of self-reflection which he later titled, “I Am.”

“In the beginning, ‘I Am’ felt like an overshare,” McManus said. “But that’s how most people find our music is from that song. It’s been a huge lesson for me: The more vulnerable the song, the more people seem to cling to it.”

McManus’ band, Satsang, performs at Live From the Divide in Bozeman on April 21. PHOTO BY GREYSON CHRISTIAN PLATE

Satsang’s hymn is immersed in the sacred strumming of inner self; Everything dynamic about their live music is predicated on being in readiness. Drawing from this crossroad of forces, McManus said he intends to make each new performance a critique on the last.

“Live is where the magic happens,” he said. “That’s what keeps me eternally tied to this craft. It’s somewhere between here and heaven. And we get to hang out in there for a while.”

Satsang performs at Live From the Divide April 21.

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