To say Billy West has had an eclectic career would be an understatement. From playing in rock bands to being a noted radio personality to doing voice work for Space Jam, Ren and Stimpy and Futurama, West has made a living off of his impressive pipes.
We recently talked to him about his career and his personal struggles. This is part two of that interview, in which he opens up about his struggles with depression, drugs and alcohol and how it feels to come out happy and sober on the other side.
[You can read part one of our interview with Billy West here.]
When you do something like Space Jam, where you are doing established voices like Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, how do you find those voices versus making up a character’s voice from scratch?
Well I think most voice people start off trying to mimic styles of people who influence them. I think it’s a natural. So I could do like a pretty good job with Warner Bros. characters. I didn’t have all of them down totally, but in my heart of hearts I didn’t really want to be an impressionist. I didn’t want to wind up as a footnote – spend my whole life as a voice guy and end up as an inscription on a watch or something.
I wanted to make some noise and I wanted to be in everyone’s face when I moved to New York. I was like a Terminator. I auditioned for everything and anything.
Then they started looking for guys who could create a character for them rather than sound-alikes because a lot of the impressionists couldn’t create a character. You know and you’d be sunk.
But what you can do creating characters is you can take famous people and styles that you recognize and throw them together in a test tube. You pick some piece of show biz periphery – some guy – and fuse him with the energy and exuberance of another person in show business or a famous voice. Even a lousy impression is a voice nobody has ever heard before. [Laughs.]
So there’s ways of getting to some kind of originality. Even though there’s nothing new under the sun, you keep hoping you can continue being somewhat of a hybrid of everything that’s gone down.
You’ve accomplished a lot in your career. Is there anything else left that you really want to do?
I want to produce and write shows – animated shows – which I’ve been doing, I have a project going and we’re starting to animate it. We’ll see what happens with it. My partner is an animator, director, writer, producer who came from Ren and Stimpy days – Jim Gomez. We’re working on stuff and we have been working on four or five things. They’ve got some interest and one of them is going off to be animated – a small part, like a demo. I’m hoping that that will allow me to expand what it is I have to offer a network or a company.
Is there a way for people to keep up with what you are doing? Do you have Twitter or a website?
No, I used to have a website and I made the terrible mistake of being too accessible. I was being driven crazy. It was like walking into a hive full of bees. There’s the usual, “You suck. I’m better than you.”
I had to answer back and I’d go, “What’s it like being seven-and-a-half, I forget?”
And I had a couple of dangerous people. You get into that whole thing like, “Screw that, I don’t want to be a moving target.” But it is important to have a website, so I won’t have a forum and I can keep everyone informed who has an interest in what I do.
And thank God, what are the odds against people following what you do for a living? I mean, it’s got to be a billion to one. And I totally know that and I talk about it with my other friends, my other voice over people, what are the odds? We’re just so thankful and have so much gratitude that we can work and do this and not fall off the face of the Earth in spite of the celebrity invasion.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I’d probably try to keep being a musician. But that was getting tougher and tougher. And now I understand that if you’re a young guy and you play and sing, you’ve got to be in five bands to try to make any money at all or try to make a name for yourself. That’s whack, you know?
How often do you play these days?
I have a room full of beautiful guitars that I love and every now and then I get to play – crank up the amplifier. I tried having a band and it’s just too hard. It’s too hard. You’ve got to have the energy and you can’t have responsibilities. That’s what the beautiful part of being in a band was years ago. You had total abandon to say, “Alright, first we’re going to get some instruments and then we’re going to take over the block, then take over the city, then we’re going to take over the country. All we’ve got to do is learn how to play these things.”
It was a wonderful feeling, that feeling that you have no idea where you are going or what you’re going to do. There was magic about that. And then when you have tons of responsibilities in life and commitments and everything, you miss the romantic notion of the way it felt to be out there just shooting from the hip, playing every night, playing every gig. I do miss playing with other people. And that’s hard to get together.
When I think about it, it’s ridiculous. I’m 60 years old and it’s like I want to go over to my buddy’s house and knock on the door: “Hey, you wanna jam?” [Laughs.]
I’m one of those people that never grew up or something. I don’t feel like an adult. And I do realize that the day you lose your ability to play and have that kind of freedom, that’s when you become a geezer. [In Professor Farnsworth's voice:] “Good news everyone, I’m a geezer.”
Audio Version – Hobo Radio 253
If you want to hear Billy West do the voices of Fry, Zoidberg and Professor Farnsworth or if you simply hate reading, then you won’t want to miss the audio version of our interview. You can listen to the interview in its entirety, and hear a song by Billy West and the Grief Counselors by clicking the play button below or by subscribing to Hobo Radio on iTunes. (And you can find more audio versions of our celebrity interviews, including John DiMaggio, the voice of Bender, here.)
What is something most people don’t know about you?
Let’s see. Oh, that I’ve had chronic low-level depression since birth. I had no idea what life was really like until I was about 50 and I was treated for depression. I felt so horrible, I wanted to kick my own ass once I realized what real life was like. Because when I was growing up and I was a younger adult beyond that, I would look at everybody else and I would say, “Look at these people. They don’t do what I do. They don’t hide in the shower and sit down like a fetus and can’t come out. And yet everybody goes through this, so I must be a big pussy because I can’t deal with life on life’s terms and all these people can somehow.”
So you beat yourself up. You have no idea that almost none of those people knew what it felt like to be chronically depressed. It’s a miracle I actually lived to be doing what I’m doing because there was a blackness to all of that, no matter how hard you try to be happy it crushes you to the floor. And to me, that was normal life. I didn’t know any different from that. So how I ever managed to achieve or do anything is beyond me.
But it got better once I was being looked at about depression. Women have always been my best teachers in life. I met a woman therapist who got a load of me for about a couple few months and she said, “Have you ever been treated for depression?”
I said, “No, why would I want to do that?”
And she said, “Because the way you talk, the way you describe things and that you’re emotional – not that that’s a bad thing.”
She said, “Did you ever go to see if that’s something that might be going on?”
I said, “No.”
She gave me a card for this guy. Next thing I know, I find out at 50 years old that I’ve had chronic low-level depression since birth and it was hideous. I never realized how hideous hideous was. It’s all relative.
So I was being treated for it. But before I took it, this guy said, “Oh no, you’ll be able to think clearly and your mind will be a little more at ease. You won’t have staggered breathing. Those are usually things that subside.”
And I said, “Yeah, but what if I become happy and it negates the need for me to entertain others or to overcome great obstacles to create some sort of art? What if there’s no desire anymore to be compulsively performing and uncompromising?”
And he just said: “That’s a very good question.” [Laughs.]
But he said: “What I can tell you is all the artists and creative people that I have treated, they began to do the best work of their life because now they weren’t looking through a prism of shit.” They could see things clearer, perceive things better and analyze stuff the same way. I was afraid I might lose something if I didn’t feel out of whack, but I didn’t and the work got better and better.
I was thinking of horrible scenarios like, “Hey doctor, what if back in the slave days they had this stuff and they gave it to the slaves so they could feel better? Would they have sung out their pain in 12-bar blues form, which is the true American art? Would they have been moved to do that or would they bother not to do that? Blues which begat jazz which begat rock and roll, when the House of Blueses all started disappearing.”
He didn’t know what to say because that’s the first thing I thought of. We probably never would have invented anything if somebody wasn’t whacked out somewhere or in pain or distraught.
If that really was the only option, would you have chosen to remain unhappy so that you could continue to create?
No. I knew in my heart of hearts that something was desperately, desperately wrong and I didn’t even know how to articulate it. I had all of these classic symptoms, it’s just that if I entertained the thought, I thought that somehow I was bigger than that and I could fix anything. “I’ll just fix myself, don’t worry about it.” But that was not the case.
I had a horrible childhood. My dad was a horror. He was certifiable. He tried to kill me like 20 times. I took my first beating in utero. When my dad found out my mom was pregnant, he was drunk and he just went nuts. He didn’t want nothing to do with me. One time a shrink brought up that fact and I said, “I love my dad, I don’t know whatever I did to him or made him angry.”
And they said, “Did it ever occur to you that he didn’t love you?” That was a totally foreign concept to me. How could that possibly be? And yes, it was true. So I grew up guessing at what normal was.
But, wherever we sit – wherever you are right now – whatever it is that your assignment is or whatever your job is or whoever you’re with, it’s all the sum totals of everything that happened in your life. I’m convinced that I had to have gone through everything I went through or I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Win, lose or draw, you’re sitting where you’re sitting for a reason.
That’s a good attitude to have.
It’s either that or have a gun for lunch. [Laughs.] How else can you think about it?
But I’m a happy guy. Like I said, I’m just so, so grateful that people like what we do. And I can work and it’s always fulfilling to me. I never got jaded. I’m always trying for something new.
I also didn’t mention that I was an alcoholic and a drug addict for two decades because I couldn’t handle bare wires – these horrible feelings, I didn’t know what was wrong. They were raw nerve endings that were electrified like telephone lines. The only way I had to treat it was to medicate myself. I was terrible. I was not myself in any way, shape or form once I got going.
Although I could play. I don’t know how that’s possible. I used to do things in blackouts. “Did I play last night?” I didn’t even remember coming home.
You could do entire shows and have no recollection of them?
Yeah, the first few years that I was in radio, I was in a blackout. They told me everything I did was amazing and great, but I don’t remember a lot of it because I was there but I wasn’t there.
Have you ever heard any recordings of any of those shows?
Yeah, I heard some things and you know what? They are pretty clever and you can hear me – A for effort – trying my balls off. But a few of the things, I could hear the coke in my nose. Do you know what I mean?
You watch an old Sonny and Cher show from the 70s, you could taste the coke.
What you do relies so much on a sense of timing. Being drunk or on drugs seems like it would really throw off that timing and make it harder to do what you do, especially when you are doing radio.
I did somehow, but I was flying blind.
I had so much of a gift. And what an insult to the universe to throw it back in the face of the universe. I could give a shit about anything back then. “What am I doing this for? What am I, a clown doing tap dance and swimming circles?” I started to resent myself and it was all low self-esteem and thinking somehow you could rise above that. But that’s the state you’re in when you’re like that.
And when you’re a druggie and an alky, there’s no future. It’s always the past. It’s always a downward spiral. That’s where you spend most of your time. Or in the constant present of nothingness. You can’t speculate on the future. You’re not living there. You’re not even living in the moment you’re in. Everything is bleak.
I feel terribly for anybody that’s going through this kind of thing because a lot of it is depression underneath all of it.
Are you still getting treatment?
Yeah, I take medication and stuff. I’m kind of the me I should have been. It’s almost like if I could skip 19 years of craziness, I was a good guy. I was a sensitive guy. I was raised by a woman. My mom took three kids and moved to Detroit. I understand a lot about women. How they can be so nurturing and tender and how disciplinary they have to be, like a sergeant. I leave the toilet seat down, as a matter of fact. I don’t mind telling you that. I’m an evolved man.
I was a good kid. And then I just took a wrong turn. But I feel like I joined that good kid in progress.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy.