The classified ad in the local paper for Manly, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, read: “Medical Stool Donor Needed. $100 [per week]. Yep, you read it right. I need your poo!”
A 30-year-old man named Dave had placed the ad, seeking a donor for regular “fecal microbiota transplants” (FMTs), which had helped him treat a chronic and debilitating gastrointestinal condition. “Had enough of being [sick],” he wrote. “Coming up with solutions!”
Dave received about a dozen responses, and a man in his mid-fifties named Frank eventually passed all the requisite tests. When Dave showed up at Frank’s house to meet his donor, he still hadn’t fully identified himself. But when Frank opened the door, he looked at Dave and said, “Mate, I’m a huge fan of the band.”
Dave is Dave Hosking, the frontman of Boy & Bear, an Australian indie-rock group that formed in 2009 and became one of the country’s most successful and promising groups. But as the band’s stature rose, Hosking’s health deteriorated. He struggled to get a proper diagnosis, and every treatment he tried failed, until fecal transplants finally gave him his life and his music back. In September, Boy & Bear released their first album in four years, Suck on Light, a record that wouldn’t have been possible without one of the most unique crewmembers in rock history: a “poo roadie.”
Boy & Bear’s debut album, Moonfire, arrived in 2011. The record was certified double platinum by the Australia Recording Industry Association and garnered a slew of ARIA Awards, including Album of the Year, Best Group, and Breakthrough Artist – Album. But that same year, Hosking says he started getting “these acute episodes of weakness in my muscles.” “I’d be on a run and it’d come on really hard,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Sometimes I couldn’t get off the ground. My legs were like jelly.”
2013’s Harlequin Dream and 2015’s Limit of Love both topped the Australian albums chart, and the group sold out huge shows at home while building devoted followings in Europe and North America. But throughout it all, Hosking’s condition worsened.
“By 2013, I started to feel agitated and a bit of a disconnect, like an internal tremor,” he says. “Eventually, it moved into full-blown anxiety and depression. When we were doing [Limit of Love], I started noticing a ringing in my ears, my vision was turning pixelated, and I was having some pretty gnarly cognitive dysfunction.”
Hosking’s condition was so severe he could hardly write lyrics or play guitar. “I remember playing something, and something in me would spark and enjoy it, but I would instantly forget the chords or melody,” he says. “I didn’t play for a long time.”
Hosking saw an array of specialists and doctors, but it wasn’t until 2015 that his practitioner discovered the problem was tied to an imbalance of bacteria in his gut, known by the general term “chronic dysbiosis.” He tried various antibiotics and probiotics and overhauled his diet, but nothing worked. Still, the following year, Boy & Bear embarked on a massive world tour in support of Limit of Love. Their shows were getting bigger and more frequent. But for Hosking, touring was a nightmare — drifting between hotels and venues, propping himself up onstage, reading the lyrics he’d scrawled on his arms so he wouldn’t forget them. “I wouldn’t put my body through that again,” he says now.
“I started noticing a ringing in my ears, my vision was turning pixelated, and I was having some pretty gnarly cognitive dysfunction.”
When the tour ended in 2016, Boy & Bear took a year off so Hosking could tend to his health. The band’s future was uncertain. As Hosking again sought treatment, the rest of the group — guitarist Killian Gavin, drummer Tim Hart, bassist Dave Symes and keyboardist Jon Hart — began to write new material, hoping, but unsure, that Hosking would improve enough to join them.
The breakthrough finally came in 2018 when Hosking began seeing professor Thomas Borody, a pioneering gastroenterologist who heads the Centre for Digestive Diseases in Sydney and introduced Hosking to FMTs. Recalling the start of his unconventional and unexpected turnaround, Hosking says, “For the first time, I started to feel alive, like my nervous system was being turned down a notch.” He then adds with an amicable air, “That was the beginning of my poo journey.”
The first FMT in modern Western history was administered in 1958 by Colorado surgeon Ben Eiseman, who used a fecal enema to treat four patients with colon issues. But research suggests that using poop for medicinal purposes dates as far back as ancient China: In 10th century B.C., a “golden juice” was purported to treat infectious diseases, and by the 2nd century A.D., a “yellow soup” was being administered for intestinal maladies. But during the 20th century, fecal matter was largely considered waste and a source of disease, not a potential cure. As such, the medical community largely ignored the possibilities of FMTs for decades.
Borody performed his first FMT in 1988, and since then, the Centre for Digestive Diseases has performed about 22,000 FMTs at a rate of 50 per week. Borody speaks about his work with a mix of professorial detail and goofy dad humor you’d hope for from a man in his profession. (“A human being is one long tube,” he says. “With a mouth at one end and a planet called Uranus at the other…”)
FMTs are most useful in treating infections that cause everything from diarrhea to colitis, while Borody has also used them to help patients with Crohn’s disease. But Hosking had none of these ailments; in fact, Borody says there’s no specific name for what Hosking had. And while his infection was located in his gut, the majority of his symptoms were cognitive, proof of just how connected the mouth and that “planet called Uranus” are. “Once you go into cognitive-function reduction, or foggy brain, or the inability to remember words — that’s where Dave is,” Borody says. “So I was a little bit depressed thinking, ‘Are we going to succeed?’”
After an initial round of about 10 FMTs, Hosking began to feel relief almost immediately. But his condition plateaued, then dipped. Up until that point, he’d been getting the FMTs through the Centre for Digestive Diseases, which has its own poo bank and donors. But the procedure was expensive — about $470 USD a pop — and Hosking was starting to believe that daily FMTs were the only way to permanently improve. So he enlisted in a trial that allowed him to go the DIY route: find his own donor and concoct and administer the FMTs himself.
Borody says the trial was designed for patients like Hosking, whose chronic conditions required regular transfusions. To help Hosking and others, the CDD ran training sessions where they taught patients how to use enema bags, how to dilute and homogenize the stool, how not to expose the stool to too much oxygen and how to properly administer the FMT, getting down to the nitty-gritty of how to lie down and how to position the catheter so nothing dribbles out.
But finding a healthy donor for Hosking wasn’t easy. “You’d be surprised,” Borody says. “There’s just no good poo out there. You might go through 20 people before you find a poo that comes from a person who has not been exposed to diseases, fed multiple antibiotics, traveled in certain places, or used drugs. We really exclude the majority of patients on the history [before doing] the stool and blood test.”
The rigorous screening process for donors is crucial, as an unhealthy or contaminated stool can be fatal. Last month, as The New York Times reported, a group of doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine explaining how a stool compromised by a strain of E. coli was administered to two patients in a trial; one became extremely ill, while the other died.
As such, Hosking’s Boy & Bear bandmates were eliminated. A friend stepped up for a moment, but had to drop out before a trip; then came Frank, but he too had to stop eventually. To keep things up, Hosking dropped letters around his neighborhood, with one ending up in the mailbox of a 95-year-old woman — her grandson, Tom Maher, briefly became Hosking’s donor, then passed the duty along to his brother, Harry Maher, a 23-year-old engineering student. Soon, he would be affectionately known as Boy & Bear’s “poo roadie.”
Here’s how Hosking and Maher’s DIY FMT system worked: Maher would go to the store and stock up on plastic takeout containers, which he then placed at the bottom of his toilet. He’d catch a stool in the container, cover it up, and chuck it in the freezer. Because Hosking lived about an hour away, he and Maher scheduled weekly pickups, where Hosking would swing by, grab the poo, then race back to his place before anything got too funky. (According to Maher, there were at least a few batches that turned unusable because it took Hosking too long to get home.)
Back at his place — a share home with, Hosking notes, some “very open-minded housemates” — Hosking set up a mini-laboratory in the laundry room. There, he slapped on a pair of rubber gloves, homogenized the stool in a blender with some saline solution, and poured the mixture into an enema bag through a sieve to rid it of any chunky bits. After a thorough scrub-down of the area, he administered the FMT, which contained between five and 10 fluid ounces of homogenized stool.
“It was quite a confronting thing being sent someone’s shit,” Hosking says with a laugh. “But over time, I got better and quicker at it.”
“For the first time, I started to feel alive, like my nervous system was being turned down a notch.”
Not that he was immune from mishaps. “Every now and then I’d be in a hurry, or I’d just get to a point where I’d be like, ‘I’m so sick of this,’ and it’d be those moments where’d I’d just knock something,” he says. “Luckily, in my career of FMTs, I had nothing completely go pear-shaped, but just getting a little bit of shit flicked on you is going to happen.”
As for Maher, being Hosking’s donor simply required adding some more grains and fiber to his diet and collecting his own poo. And he notes that Hosking never put any pressure on him to always be collecting.
“He was always so nice about it, saying, ‘Never stress if you can’t go or you’re not at home, or you want to go away.’ He always made it feel really comfortable,” Maher says. “But if you’re at home, yeah, you just keep one. It sounds so weird, but you can feel when it’s a good one, firm and healthy.”
As for the ostensibly questionable cleanliness of the whole endeavor, Borody points out that FMTs don’t need to be administered in a sterile lab environment precisely because “poo is not sterile.” Hosking points out that he was told to just use warm water and detergent when cleaning the blender — but never bleach, because it could damage the bacteria in future batches. When asked to confirm this, Borody added, “Yes, and don’t use the blender for margaritas either.”
Hosking compares regaining his health to being born again. It was big things, like feeling at home in his own body, and small things, like being able to drink coffee and beer for the first time in three years. It also meant he could play guitar again. “I found that to move back to the guitar, to stay instinctual and playful and not try to bite off too much, I could play and enjoy and just remember enough that I could come back to it,” he says. “I had to rework coming back to it and it being pleasurable as opposed to something that was just too confronting.”
By the middle of 2018, Dave was playing with Boy & Bear again and contributing to the new batch of songs the band had worked on in his absence. As they regained their momentum, Hosking stopped using Maher for his FMTs and began a new treatment that didn’t require a donor. His condition stabilized enough that Boy & Bear decided they were ready to record their new album. They tapped Collin Dupuis (Lana Del Rey, Angel Olsen, the Black Keys) to co-produce, and booked a stay at Southern Ground studios in Nashville, Tennessee.
Then Hosking’s new treatment stopped working. He had to restart the FMTs. There was talk about asking Dupuis to come to Australia, but Boy & Bear was convinced that Nashville was the best play. So Hosking texted Maher.
Maher remembers: “I was at home studying and a message came through that was like, ‘Hey, man, don’t overthink this, but how would spending a month in Nashville be?’”
He accepted. The timing was perfect too: The sessions were scheduled to take place right after Maher finished finals. Soon, Maher was getting CC’d on band emails, and one, sent by Boy & Bear’s manager, boasted the subject line: “Poo roadie — Harry.”
No one else in the Centre for Digestive Diseases’ DIY FMT trial had attempted taking the process on the road, but the setup Maher and Hosking came up with in Nashville was effectively the same one they’d had in Australia. Maher was put up at an apartment near the house where the band was staying, and Dave would swing by every few days to pick up a new batch of stools. The only major complication, Maher points out, was that the American toilets had notably higher water levels than those back in Australia. “I had to shovel a bit out, so the container didn’t float,” he says.
For Hosking, the Nashville sessions were unsurprisingly cathartic. “After feeling so isolated for so long, to feel like not a lot of people understood exactly what was going on in my nervous system, it was nice to just, through music and art, try and portray what that felt like,” he says. “There’s something nice about going, ‘This has been such a big part of the story. We’re going to make this record. Let’s invite it into the room and hopefully put a close to it.’”
Hosking explores all the contours of his experience on Boy & Bear’s new album, Suck on Light. A song like “Dry Eyes” stares into the thick of the abyss (“There’s no paradise life/In an empty freeze/No kingdom of light/Looking out for me”), but on the album’s title track he’s able to look back and face the future, weary, but alive: “I was in a real dire state/I was in the most awkward of ways/With my head against the earth, I tried just to find peace/And I found some/Hell I found some.”
“I’ve transferred from poo to lasers, which seems to kind of oddly make sense,” he jokes. “It’s never just a pill, is it?”
Boy & Bear released Suck on Light on September 27th, and the band recently wrapped a North American tour, their first major run since Hosking’s debilitating 2016. A European trek is scheduled for next February. When Hosking calls for this interview, he’s in Minneapolis, healthy enough to roam around as he chats, but maybe still a bit foggy — at one point, he accidentally wanders into a schoolyard and apologizes profusely to some piqued teachers. He estimates he’s at about 60 to 70 percent, and says that when the band returns to Australia, he’s going to try a new treatment involving a chemical rinse of the gut before administering the FMT.
“They’ve had a lot of success so far, so if it solves the problem it would be lovely to go for a surf in the morning, walk my dog, work, then go meet some friends, and do all that stuff I want to do,” he says. “If it doesn’t, I’ll just keep rocking up and doing my best to make it work and keep my quality of life as high as it can be.”
At the moment, Hosking is again off the FMTs. In April, not long after Boy & Bear returned from Nashville, Hosking linked up with a doctor who was working with a new kind of treatment called photobiomodulation. He now has a portable device that shoots a beam of light at his gut for two-and-a-half minutes and essentially supercharges the cells. “I’ve transferred from poo to lasers, which seems to kind of oddly make sense,” he jokes. “It’s never just a pill, is it?”
While Hosking hasn’t needed Maher as a donor in months, the two have kept in touch and catch up when they can. Maher recalls a day where Hosking was feeling good enough to surf and invited Maher to join him and his dad in the water.
“I hadn’t been his donor for a while, and we were in the surf with his old man and there was kind of a moment when I realized how crazy it was,” Maher says. “His dad looked at me and was like, ‘Wow, it’s just so good to be in the water with Dave again.’ You don’t really have to tell anyone the context. You can kind of imagine the pain that he went through. To have the phone calls about a pickup a lot less now is pretty great.”