Ben Gordon is Just Letting Life Unfold - Men's Health Magazine Australia

Ben Gordon is Just Letting Life Unfold

"When you realise that thoughts are just thoughts and they don’t actually define you, life becomes infinitely easier and more manageable."

Ben Gordon had performed for millions of heavy metal fans as the drummer for Parkway Drive until success and its associated pressures left him struggling with crippling anxiety. As it turned out, marching to the beat of his own drum proved to be the perfect antidote.

On any given day, Byron Bay’s General Store can play host to any number of improbable guests and intriguing characters. A frequent haunt of Hollywood superstars, sporting icons and the odd food blogger or 10, ‘The Gen’ is a holiday destination in and of itself. The interior is conspicuously open plan, created to encourage collaboration and discussion between patrons, with rustic trimmings and greyscale photos of yesteryear adorning the walls, a tribute to the original General Store that stood in this very spot. It’s an ode to “the old soul of Byron”, the town before Instagram, co-owner Ben Gordon told me when we caught up earlier this month.

It’s unseasonably wet outside and Omicron lingers still. These factors combined with the start of the school year mean that The Gen is unusually quiet for a Monday morning. But none of this bothers Gordon, who is simply grateful to be staring down the barrel of another week living out his dreams. 

As we chat, Gordon sits in a corner regarding the clubhouse of his creation, framed by the tributes to the past hung behind him on the wall, and he’s flying characteristically high as he indulges my interest over a cup of tea, having scheduled time for this chat between a morning meditation and a training session lead by none other than tennis legend Pat Rafter. To look at Gordon – salty hair, decked out in a loose-fitting tee, sand between his toes – you can’t help but think that he’s living out an idyllic Byron Bay cliché. But this is only half the story. For the man before me presents as a walking, talking and drumming contradiction.

To the music world, Ben Gordon is the drummer in one of the world’s most successful heavy metal bands, Parkway Drive. With six studio albums (and another on the way), two docos and headline credits at festivals across the globe, Gordon is a certified rock star, revered among his peers and fans alike, a viral sensation beyond the world of heavy metal thanks to his rotating [read as: upside down], flaming drum kit, which is as impressive as it sounds. 

To the occasional tabloid reader, he’s the passionate co-owner of the General Store, who’s been resolute in his calls for action on climate change and environmental protection, and who recently made headlines for decrying the exploitation of the town he holds so dear. To his friends, he’s simply ‘Gaz’, the surfing vegan teetotaller, a source of endless spiritual wisdom.

I first met Gordon more than three years ago when we were introduced by mutual friends, a few weeks before a two-day endurance race in which we were to compete as a pair. That event would see us tackle 80km of mountain biking, 45km of trail running and 16km of open-water kayaking, hurtling through dense virgin Queensland rainforest. With only three weeks to prepare for the undertaking, Gordon’s physical readiness was nonetheless immediately apparent, a result of 15 years of intense drumming – both right-side-up and inverted – and a life of sobriety. What struck me most, however, was his mental fortitude under duress. He was my own fountain of wisdom in the wild. 

From this first meeting it was apparent that Gordon had the kind of rock-star mettle befitting the pages of Men’s Health. Much like Gordon himself, however, this wasn’t a story to be rushed. The more I got to know the man behind the drums, the more interesting his story became. 

Ben gordon

Our pairing turned into a friendship punctuated by Saturday-night kombuchas, reflections on the endeavours of David Goggins et al, and deep analysis of the works of Eckhart Tolle while moon-gazing. Together, we’ve completed charity trail runs as members of Surfers For Climate and explored the ecstasy and torture of ice baths. Gordon, meanwhile, has introduced me to his concept of “screen-free Sundays”, which are exactly as advertised.

Fast forward three years and one pandemic, and I’ve learnt more from Gordon than any formal education could provide. It has been a long journey for the multi-award winning drummer, these days self-assured and self-aware, but who has often felt pressured by societal norms and at times came close to crumbling under the weight of expectation. A decade of self-discovery and spiritual exploration has allowed Gordon to avoid the pitfalls of stardom and emerge as a man grateful for all his life has provided. To know Gordon as he is now is to be reminded that the pursuit of a pure existence needn’t come at the expense of success. 

The thoughts, practices and inner workings of Ben Gordon’s mind serve as a blueprint for anyone struggling with the pressures and anxieties common to many, particularly as we contemplate our re-entry into a post-pandemic society. As Gordon tells, often the best way to deal with the pressures of the outside world is to turn inward.

BIG STICK ENERGY

“I started drumming when I was 11. I’ve always been a very energetic person, even as a kid, and drumming was always an outlet for energy. I could never sit still, and I was always tapping things, and my mum got fed up with me, so she made me get drumming lessons. I just couldn’t believe I got to just hit things, and make sounds. 

For me, it’s never been about aggression. It’s been about energetic outlet, the yin and the yang. And for me, the kind of drumming I do requires a lot of energy and fitness. And it’s not only an energetic outlet, but it’s a creative outlet.

Parkway Drive formed in Byron Bay, where all the members grew up. We all went to the same high school, and we all were into the same kind of things: surfing, punk music, hardcore metal. We started jamming in my parents’ basement when I was 16 and the chemistry was great. Within three or four months, we’d played our first show at the Byron Youth Centre and from our very first show, we just kind of had something, where the momentum started rolling, and it just never stopped.

We grew up listening to metal and punk, but I haven’t listened to metal music for a long time. I’ll listen to it every now and then, at the gym or when I’m running, but I don’t listen to it daily. We’ve been exposed to so much heavy music through the years, so much, that I’ve kind of overdone it. I love playing it, I love writing it, but I don’t listen to it that much. Living in Byron is conducive to chilled, relaxing, good-vibe music. It’s kind of weird if you were watching a beautiful sunset, with dolphins jumping, blasting heavy metal. It just doesn’t really go with the vibe that much.

To be honest, a lot of the bands in our genre, they seem to regurgitate the same stuff and copy each other, whereas none of us listen to that kind of music very much. We get inspiration from other genres, and other things outside of metal and that gives us a unique edge a lot of the time.

I mainly listen to bands from the ’60s and ’70s – The Beatles, The Stones, those kind of acts. That was such a timeless era, and just super-chilled music.

COMMON CONUN-DRUM

I’ve basically never drunk alcohol, which is quite rare in the Australian machismo culture. It’s been a very interesting journey, observing the drinking culture from the outside my whole life.

I drank two beers once when I was 15, and I really didn’t like how it tasted or how I felt. I’ve always had this intuitive feeling of not liking putting things in my body that aren’t good for me, and it didn’t sit well with me, so I didn’t drink again after that. And that was the age where I started seeing friends getting into alcohol and drinking a lot. I saw some get arrested, get into fights, and some died from alcohol-related incidents, and the more I observed at that impressionable age, the more I realised it just wasn’t for me and I didn’t want to be part of it.

Ben gordon

But not drinking wasn’t without its challenges, particularly back then, 20 years ago, due to the peer pressure I faced. You must be extremely strong-willed to be a non-drinker in our culture, or you must live life as a hermit. But I’ve managed to have a very healthy social life. I’ve had situations many times where I’ve had to walk away or leave certain places because I’ve been getting so pressured, and that’s something I really would like to see changed in our lifetime. Now, if you don’t drink, you’re going to get pressured, by your peers, your colleagues, your friends, family, and people when you go on dates – socialising is all about alcohol, which I would love to change.

It’s so ubiquitous in the culture that most people can’t see it because they’re in it. But once you step out and observe it from the outside, you see how insidious alcohol is.

Luckily there are a few guys in the band who also don’t drink. And my brother, who toured with us, he didn’t drink. We had a small group of friends who didn’t drink or do drugs, which was very handy. If you were just a lone wolf, it’d be extremely hard to navigate, but we had a good community. 

You can live a very fulfilling, healthy, amazing life without alcohol. I’ve realised that a lot of people who drink to excess actually don’t want to drink. They don’t particularly like it, but they feel like they have to because that’s just what you do. You have to have a drink in your hand. My advice, if you feel like you don’t want to be drinking and you don’t resonate with the drinking culture, is to remember there are a lot of other people out there who aren’t drinking. Find them.

Every few years there’s a certain behaviour that gets highlighted in our culture. Twenty years ago it was cigarettes. And then recently it was the meat industry and the whole plant-based movement. I feel like the next one’s going to be the alcohol culture. Not to demonise it, but just to say, hang on, what are we all doing here? Why are we all getting pissed every weekend and feeling like shit?

ben gordon

HIT TRAINING

On the road, I don’t actually train much, because drumming 90 minutes at full intensity every night is more than enough to keep me fit. It’s like sprinting a marathon, or doing an ironman for 90 minutes every night, so I save my energy
for the stage. I’ve found that if I do a workout or run, it can affect the show. I might go for a light jog, or I love walking around cities and stretching and doing yoga, but I don’t do anything too intense because the show is the workout. However I train a lot when we’re not touring. 

I always love weight training, surfing, yoga, running. I’ve gone through stages. When I was younger, I was very much into weight training and getting bigger. But now I’ve found my body feels better being wiry and fit, and my training is more centred around flexibility and endurance, and being explosive rather than bulky. I feel like I’ve found my sweet spot in my body, and I really enjoy that. I don’t need to get bigger. I’ve got no purpose for it.

Byron seems to attract really good, like-minded people, who have positive energy and are into the same things. Byron has changed a lot, but I have embraced the change and really enjoyed the people it has attracted. We’ve just found ourselves with a good group of friends up here – people who are unique in their field, successful in their field, who have like-minded thinking and are into similar lifestyles. From that we’ve found this group of guys to train with that has been instrumental in a lot of the guys’ mental health. A lot of the guys have families in stressful situations, and getting together a few times a week to train and do a positive physical activity is amazing for them. 

Traditionally in Australian culture, when guys get together the purpose is to get pissed. But to get together and do positive lifestyle things, like going for a run together, surfing, group training or even a group meditation, it adds a lot to our lives.

“You must be extremely strong-willed to be a non-drinker in our culture, or live life as a hermit”

BIG SNARE, DON’T CARE

Meditation has been a massive part of my life for the last six years. I was into it before that, but I really deepened my interest in meditation because of playing live about six years ago when the band started to get a lot bigger. I started to do drum solos upside down, in front of 50,000 people. And it was getting streamed live to a million people every night in Germany. There was this period there where the pressure started to get to me. 

For the first time in my life, I really experienced anxiety and a bit of a deeper, darker period, brought on by performance anxiety and stress through playing live. I just went through this spiral of really getting nervous before shows. I wasn’t playing well as a result, and I was going in a negative loop in my mind, and I realised I had to try and figure it out. I saw a few psychologists about it, but I didn’t really get too much from them.

I looked to meditation for basically a way to relieve stress and anxiety, and since then meditation has become a staple and something that I can’t really live without. It’s such an important thing, particularly when you’re doing something like playing live, which is so stimulating. There’s pyro, and thousands of people screaming, and I have to be ultra-focused. It’s quite full-on, so I really need to balance that with the stillness that comes with meditation.

I’m now a completely different person: clearer, happier and more in control. One of the things I’ve realised is that nearly all problems, stress, worries, anxiety, they all stem from believing all of your thoughts to be true and believing them to be who you are. When you realise that thoughts are just thoughts and they don’t actually define you, life becomes infinitely easier and more manageable. Thoughts come
and go.

A good analogy is clouds coming and going in the sky. You are like the sky in which the clouds appear. Rather than being attached to what comes and goes, you have an awareness of things without forming attachment. 

We live in such a fortunate age, where we’ve got the gurus of the world and the teachers of the world in our pockets. I used to read a lot of science books about evolutionary biology, physics and everything. So to me, what these people are talking about, and I’m talking about, is science. It’s the science of the mind. I meditate an hour a day, at least. When I first started meditating, I would meditate for maybe 10, 15 minutes, and it was a struggle. My mind would try and get out of it, try and get to the end. But now, I meditate for at least, say, 45 minutes and when I stop, I just want to continue. The stillness and the peace that you find when the mind stops, and you just sit in that stillness, it’s beyond words. It is ineffable. You are completely present, but there is no resistance, there is no struggle, there is just peace. 

When you reach that point, life itself becomes the practice. When you’re interacting with people, or you’re driving, or different incidents happen, potentially triggering you, and instead you see your mind react, but you don’t actually act on it yourself. You realise it’s just thoughts, and it’s not actually you. Sam Harris says that “the quality of your mind determines the quality of your life”, and I find that to be so true. It’s not the size of your biceps. It’s not the size of your house or the size of your bank account – you can be rich, famous, good looking and have everything yet be completely depressed. The flip side of that is that you can have nothing and be ecstatically happy and content.

Our modern way of being human has complicated things, when life can be so simple and so amazing. It all comes back to gratitude, love, appreciation and acceptance. It’s all the same things that even the Buddha was talking about 2600 years ago. The same principles remain, but we have added so many complications on top of material goals and achievements and things you supposedly have to do to be happy. It’s really about stripping all that back and realising that life is now. This moment is life. And that’s really what mindfulness is: it’s being present. This moment is all there is. 

EAT IT

Being from Byron and being a surfer, I’ve always felt connected to the natural world. But it’s funny, it’s definitely a spiritual inner journey that goes hand in hand with an environmental journey. I went vegetarian seven years ago, and I’ve been vegan for over three years. Initially, that was for environmental reasons, from watching all the documentaries about that. But now, it’s also very much for ethical reasons.

I feel as though I have no right to take another being’s life, whatever that being, whatever form it comes in. And so they all seem to go hand in hand. To protect the Earth, protect nature, protect other animals, and protect other humans. I’ve been outspoken about these issues and I will continue to be, because I feel like it’s just so obvious that we’ve got to take care of the Earth that has taken care of us.

I feel like my demographic of metal fans, especially in America and Europe, would not usually be exposed to this way of thinking. It’s pretty new to them, and a lot of people reach out to me and say that these ideas – caring for the Earth, not polluting it, being plant-based – are all very new to them. So, I do like exposing people to these ideas if they’re ready to receive them.

It’s very polarising that we found ourselves as one of the biggest heavy metal bands in the world, but we are completely different to what you’d expect heavy metal people to be. I like that, because I’m proud that we’ve stayed who we are. When you go backstage at festivals, a lot of these bands are in character. They’re wearing the makeup with tattoos, piercings and costumes. And they do their thing and we don’t judge. But we’ve chosen to stay who we are. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved through staying true to ourselves.

I think people can see authenticity, whether it’s in music or in an image. And as soon as people try and be something they’re not, bullshit detectors go off. [Parkway Drive] has made three documentaries now, and people have really liked the fact that we are just the Aussie surfer guys being ourselves and making heavy music. It is an interesting story – five guys from a small town, going to the same school, and then achieving what we’ve achieved. It’s quite bizarre. And I sometimes just pinch myself and  think, How did this actually happen?

ben gordon

ON A DRUM ROLL

As much as the pandemic was a big blow, and tragic in many ways, to me there have been a lot of positives. We’d been touring since I was 17, so after 18 years of nonstop touring I was really ready for a break. When that came I was able to establish more of a routine of health and fitness, deepen friendships and deepen relationships with my family. 

There were struggles for sure. And with the pandemic, everyone had to deal with it in their own way, myself included. People on the whole took it very hard, but personally, I feel like it was an immense opportunity for collective growth. It affected everyone to a greater or lesser degree, whether it was their work or their family or whatever it was. 

What I came to understand is that awakening doesn’t happen unless there’s suffering. You must get to a certain level of suffering at a personal level before you can go deeper into yourself. Because you’re not going to go deeper if you’re just cruising along. You need to go through something like the dark night of the soul… and then find your way out of it. And so I think this pandemic was an immense collective opportunity for that.

It drove some people the other way, into more depression or alcohol, but everyone has an opportunity to make the best of things. And that’s all you can really do, is to make the best of the situation you’re presented with.

I feel like in these last two years since we’ve stopped touring, I’ve become a bit of a fundamentally different person, so it’s going to be interesting to go on tour again and bring this new man into the world. But I’m looking forward to it, because life’s about growing and evolving and adapting. So, I’m looking forward to getting on the road again. 

I’m at the point now where I’ve honestly got everything I need, and feel like I’m living my dream life. So there are goals in the background, but it’s more about just appreciating and living every single day, and pushing myself to grow mentally, physically, socially. We’ve just been writing a new record for the last two years, and we’re really, really happy with how that’s come out, because we’ve actually had time to solidly work on it. 

When you’re grateful for everything, more comes. Life unfolds beautifully as it should, rather than you having preconceived plans of where you want to be in two to five years.

I’m almost at the point now where I’m just so trusting in life to just let it unfold. But at the same time, not to be complacent.

It’s more about being myself, being exactly who I am authentically. And the practices I’ve been working on are deepening my capacity for compassion, love and gratitude, as well as improving my physical fitness and health. And I’m really just embodying all that, and bringing these traits to life. 

Rather than having preconceived goals of knowing exactly where I want to be, I’m just so trusting in life that I just love letting life unfold. And that’s kind of the beauty of life for me; it unfolds in a perfect way. You meet certain people, and the journey just has this natural flow rather than you trying to be somewhere at a certain time. Just let it happen. Really trust and love that process, while loving every day.

The best advice I would give any man is that if you don’t have a meditation practice, start meditating, and go with that. It relieves stress and anxiety, but it’s so much more than that. 

The outward is important but going inward is when you really find out who you are, and you really unlock your life.”

By Scott Henderson

Scott is the Editor of Men's Health Australia, where he oversees all editorial content of the country's largest men’s magazine. As a fitness addict, adventure sport lover, and passionate story-teller, Henderson is committed to living the Men’s Health brand.

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