List Interview 8
Dec 4, 2004 List Interview
Eric Johnson List Member Interview - Part VII
Conducted by Park Street.
Transcription by Paula Beard
PS: Let's get right to some general questions that everyone has been wondering about. How's the release of "Bloom" coming?
EJ:It's been done for quite a while, and we've been trying to finalize a record deal that will work out. We finally have a deal that's going to work out but they want to schedule the release for much later than we were hoping.
PS: In summer?
PS: How's the recording of the acoustic record going?
EJ: I just started it. I'm trying to get the whole thing on tape so I can sit back and listen to it, see what songs are working and which ones aren't, figuring out who I want to play on certain songs. I'd like to have guests to play with me so it's not all solo. I've got about three-fourths of it recorded so that's the first original template. I'm going to take it home for awhile, listen to it, see where I need to take it from there.
PS: When is the next tour and where?
EJ: I've got a tour in January, we're going to do a week or two in the southern/southwestern US run, and we're going to do the NAMM show which is the National Association of Music Merchants so we'll just do a few gigs around that area.
PS: How far up the coast will you go?
EJ: Mainly southern CA, AZ. We're trying to get a Utah concert because Robert Redford's Sundance is going on there. Salt Lake City... Park City...
PS: NAMM brings up the release of the signature strat.
EJ: Fender said they want to keep that a secret until I show up. I still don't understand why.
PS: It may be a little late for that as far as the list is concerned. The cat may be out of the bag! [laughter]
PS: There are questions about type of wood, neck, lacquer, nut size, pickups etc.
EJ: I can answer almost all those. It's going to come in a maple neck, and it'll be quarter-sawn wood which will be more like the old days when the wood was sawn in a way that the grain translates into the body more. The body's going to be Alder wood instead of typically what you find in the Fenders which is Ash, and the Alder is kind of a sweeter, warmer, more resonant wood. The old Strats were made out of Alder. The neck shape was basically crafted off my '57 Strat that I really like. A lot of components are going to be vintage '50s type stacks (specs?), the tone control that would otherwise go to the middle pickup would go to the bridge pickup. The tremolo block will be more like the 50s and 60s models where the holes are a little smaller where the strings don't go in so deep and you get a little better seating and translation through the tremolo block. Fender hasn't done that since the early 70s, on the vintage tremolo blocks that is. Keys (which will look like vintage keys) are going to be staggered where they start high posted for the E6 and the post goes real low at E first, that way you don't have to have a string-tree to hold the strings down. It makes it tune better. The fretboard radius will be more like a Gibson radius rather than a Fender radius. Right now we're still tweaking the pickups to make them as good as possible.
PS: Size nut width?
EJ: It's like an old 50s model.
PS: Right now it comes in four colors?
EJ: Sunburst, Candy-apple Red, Black and See-through Blonde.
PS: The Sunburst is two-toned?
PS: Here's a question from the list. Would you ever consider a signature 335?
EJ: I'd love to! I don't think Gibson's making very many 335s. My favorite 335 is the early-to-mid 60s, like `64 or `65 with the block inlay and the stop tailpiece. I actually prefer those guitars over the dots. Gibson's not making any guitars like that.
PS: Well, maybe they'd make an exception sometime. Could you even do it (with Fender having the exclusive model electric guitar)?
EJ: Probably not.
PS: Did any of the songs on the album get recorded at home (bits or pieces) and are you more comfortable working there? I'm curious about how much of the crafting process gets written before you walk in the studio doors or are you just bringing in guitars, a bag full of ideas, and hammer to nail it down?
PS: Let me just say that you have your own studio, so it's a little bit different than most people that are working on stuff at home, then taking it into the studio. A lot of what you do is in the studio.
EJ: Yes. A lot of times I'll have a really good idea what I want to do but sometimes when I get in there it just doesn't work out. You have to be open and malleable to change to make it work. Whatever works is the most important thing. Sometimes pre-conceived ideas don't work and sometimes they do. Like on "Souvenir" which was mostly work tapes and demos, a lot of that was done at home on really humble equipment, but "Bloom" was done as a normal studio recording.
PS: I've asked this before but will ask again since the answer will change. What music are you listening to now?
EJ: Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Charlie Haden, Pat Metheny...
PS: What's your favorite stomp box? What do you stomp on the most? The Fuzz Face?
EJ: Probably the Fuzz Face is, but they're kind of cantankerous. There are times when it's kind of a love/hate thing. They're kind of a funky pedal but they have a lot of magic. They might be unpredictable but they can be that special magic. I find the most mystique in those.
PS: But you like them to slightly sound broken, as I recall.
EJ: I think that when the transistors inside are not matched, when things aren't quite right that's when they sound the best. When you try to calculate it just right, they don't sound as good.
PS: Do you ever use an Ibanez TS808 tube screamer?
EJ: Yes I do, I have a pedal board that has one on it. I have a jam rig with a bunch of little amps on it and it has an old tube screamer on it. I still use it for the lead tones, I like it. I used that for all the lead stuff on "Tones" but by the time I got into "[Ah Via] Musicom" I had switched to a tube driver.
PS: Many of us write songs that start with an idea. Would you share with us an idea behind one of your new songs?
EJ: I have a song called Columbia on the new record that's a dedication to the Space Shuttle Columbia. It's just one of things that came together pretty quick.
PS: How about "When the Sun Meets the Sky"?
EJ: Just one of those ideas that came to me kind of fast. The ideas come fast...
PS: Then it takes forever... [laughter]
EJ: I _let_ it take forever.
PS: About the pickup in your acoustic guitars, what manufacturer's pickups do you use with the Piezo transducer, and is the mini-microphone soundhole Crown GLM 200 provided with Fishman Pocket Blender?
PS: What type of effect do you use in the Fishman Pocket Blender? I saw the orange stomp box on the table.
EJ: It's an Aphex compressor. The Piezo pickup is an LB6, Lloyd Baggs 6.
PS: Which effects loop did you use?
EJ: I didn't use an effects loop, I just played guitar straight into the compressor and then into the amplifier and PA. The microphone's not on the compressor.
PS: Here's a playing question. Your chording form of the left hand... one of the unique points of your playing is chord form on the acoustic guitar. You use open strings effectively on chording and I was surprised at your index finger's flexibility. Sometimes your index finger is bent almost 90 degrees to the other side from the second joint. Examples: 4th and 6th strings with index finger and other strings with other fingers open. My question is can everybody do the same thing by training?
EJ: I think so. Definitely. The thing to remember is the positioning of the guitar. The guitar needs to be up high enough on your body (whether you're sitting or standing) to where you can reach your hand around and almost have your fingers come down vertically onto the fretboard rather than too sideways where you don't have the full utilization of the stretch of your hands. It's just getting the hand positioning right. Sometimes it works better to have the acoustic guitar put on your left knee instead of your right, and I like to use a footstool. Sometimes it gets the position of the guitar better so that I can do certain chords.
PS: What tracks did you contribute to on Carole King's "Pearls" project?
EJ: Pearls, songs of Goffin-King. I played on the whole record, I think. There might have been a couple of tracks where they didn't use electric guitar and didn't use me on them.
PS: How was it being a backup artist? That's something you haven't done in a million years. Can you remember back? Was it free? Did you just show up, or what?
EJ: It depends on who you're talking about. My thing is I wish I'd done more stuff and would like to maybe do more stuff in the future. I don't mind doing backup for artists that I really respect. Working with Carole was wonderful. There comes a point where whatever you're comprised of in your art, you have to find a place where you can vent that out. It's not a question of getting in the front of the stage or being the star. That doesn't really matter. It's whether you're being put to use, musically and artistically, in some kind of way that is part of your makeup. So, with Carole, I'm not going to play 10 minute guitar solos, but it would be nice to be tapped and utilized in some kind of way that is [part of] what you do.
PS: So you don't mind being a tool as long as you're utilized?
EJ: Absolutely! If you get a good combination for someone backing up an artist it's where, for whatever the auspices are of what they have as a talent, that they're used. With Carole I would have like to have been used more, and it was time for me to move on because I didn't feel I could serve her in the best way, and musically give what I could give to her. That was true of Cat Stevens too, and for both of those people, I really have fond memories of working with them and wish I could have given more rather than just play generically, regardless of whether you're on the furthest back part of the stage or not. That's not really the issue, it's just being allowed to give something to the music. I probably made the decision not to do as much backup work as it would have been nice to do, based on whether I thought I was going to be used.
PS: And you also had things that you wanted to do.
EJ: Yeah, and a lot of it could have been voiced through someone else, like if you got with some fabulous singer and they wanted you do your whole thing with them doing the singing.
PS: What was your favorite Mariani gig?
EJ: We played a couple of gigs down in San Antonio. There used to be this place called Jam Factory. We opened for Deep Purple down there. It's where I met Chris Geppert (Christopher Cross) actually. He was filling in for Ritchie Blackmore that night because Ritchie was in the hospital sick, and Chris knew Joe Miller who was putting on the show and Chris knew every single Deep Purple song backward and forward. [laughter] So Chris shows up with this crazy huge hair and a big beard and a Flying V! Just totally different than what he was like later. He was really a hard rocker and he wanted to play through my Marshall with Deep Purple. I remember at the time, I told him "you have to use channel 2 'cos channel 1 is broken" and he looked at me like I was just saying that to goof him up, but it was really true. That was a fond memory and a great gig. We got to open for Deep Purple and because Ritchie was sick they went on really late, so we got to play way longer than we were supposed to and the crowd loved us! It was fun. It was just a really magical night, then we got asked to come and play Jam Factory again. That band had a lot of potential. We only played a handful of gigs but there was a real magic to it that people responded to.
PS: I'm curious, what was your favorite Magnets gig?
EJ: I liked a lot of them, but I think playing a lot of those Town Hall gigs [in Raleigh, NC] were the most outrageous and wonderful. There were some great memories from there where we were just blowing up.
PS: Those are probably the most traded tapes of the Magnets. I always see them on the internet. Everybody's swapping those Raleigh tapes.
PS: For sometime you have kept the mixing and producing closer to home. Now that you have allowed the music to have a different feel are you happy with the possibility of adding a different perspective to your audience?
EJ: You mean having different people be involved in the record?
PS: I don't have any idea. Maybe it's from what you've said in some of the articles about getting a different feel, a different groove to the music.
EJ: Definitely having different styles of music and different ways it's done. Maybe having more than a 3-piece would help do that.
PS: Alright, now we're getting to the "Val" section of the questions. Have you ever played to a dangerous crowd, and if so how did it work out?
EJ: Dangerous, as far as meaning "violent"? Yeah, I have, a couple of times.
PS: Altamont? [laughter]
EJ: I remember a show that we played out in San Francisco. It was Extreme, us, ZZ Top and Steve Miller I think. This big, outdoor concert in San Francisco and there were 30,000 people there. We went on after Extreme but before ZZ and Steve Miller. It was a hot day, and people were smashed up next to the stage. There was a real rowdiness starting to happen in the audience. I think I was in the middle of High Landrons, and it was getting worse and worse. It's kind of a case in point about the power of music, it got so bad that I could see that there was about to be violence breaking out so I just cut the song short and went immediately into Forty Mile Town. It was amazing! It was a really interesting observation for me because I saw this whole sea of people completely changing vibe just because of what was being issued from the stage. If you get into a drastic situation, try to pull out some kind of medicine that will be helpful for that moment. It didn't have to be Forty Mile Town, it could have been anything that was more soothing to rebalance what was going on. It really worked! I saw this whole thing change and everybody chill out. You _can_ be involved in navigating stuff from more dangerous areas... you won't always succeed... but why not participate in that "if"? You have the option to do so.
PS: Have you ever had someone climb on stage with you and want to sit in?
EJ: Not really sit in, but I've had them climb on stage, kind of rush the stage.
PS: I would think that not many guitarists would really want to come up and sit in. [laughter] Here's another question kind of like that. Have you ever been in the audience watching another performer, and been asked to sit in?
EJ: I think Chet Atkins did that at one show. He didn't recognize me in the audience but he asked if I wanted to sit in. It was before I got to the show, I got there late and didn't know that that happened, so I missed my opportunity there.
PS: Here are some business questions from Val. How do you go about choosing a record label for a release? Is it based on a royalties split, artist contribution, marketing, proposed advertising budget of the label, reputation of the label, distribution capabilities, or is it a mix of all these things?
EJ: It's a mix of all those things. First of all you want to find somebody who has a passion for what you do, who feels that it's worthwhile or valid. It doesn't have to be their favorite piece of music but you want them to be sparked by it. You don't want it to be just a calculated thing, like "OK, we'll put it out" because you won't get any motivation from them. You need at least one person there who really likes it and wants to get behind it. Then it's got to be all those other issues.
PS: That's what you had with Ah Via Musicom.
EJ: Absolutely! The bottom line is... and this is the truth... I think that a lot of musicians need to hear this, not just guitarists, you can't bank on that whole thing of what's going to happen on the outside, wondering "Is someone going to carry me across the finish line?", "Is someone going to hold my bat at home plate and will they help me hit the ball?". It's not going to happen, you've got to do it yourself. You've got to expect that people aren't going to be throwing you gifts. It's going to be by your own merits and fortitude alone, and whatever you make happen. You build upon that. That's just the way the world works. Then at some point people will turn around and say "I want to get on this boat, I want to be involved in this" and then all of a sudden they're patting you on the back and saying "I'm so glad that we did this". It's just the way the world works. You can either make peace with it or you can fight it, but if you fight it it's like going out in the middle of the ocean and screaming at the waves. What good does it do?
EJ: With Ah Via Musicom, you could hardly get in the door or get anybody on the phone. The attitudes were typical, but there was one guy there named Jeffery Shane, who heard the record and for some reason it touched a nerve in him. It spoke to his heart, and he came up to me one day when I was working on the remastering of it and said "You know what? I don't care what anybody says, I think this record is really really nice and I'm going to work and make this thing a success!" The best way to accomplish anything is to decide what you want, crystallize it, visualize it, put it forth in front of you and decide how to remove the obstacles that keeping you from making it happen. Rather than saying "Well... I'd love to do something but this or that is in the way". This guy had already decided that the record had spoken to him, already decided he was going to make it a success, and went about getting rid of the obstacles. He relentless with radio, etc., and things began to happen because of this one guy coming from a "passion" place rather than a "mental" place. Then the tune changed with the label.
PS: Aren't these record companies continually asking for "something like Cliffs of Dover", instrumentals, etc.? Why not do "Cliffs of Dover, version 2?" Honestly! Bring it out with a reggae beat! [laughter]
EJ: I've spent a lot of years lately working on vocal tunes, and kind of going away from that. I think that what these people want to hear is me standing in my place of power which is playing instrumental guitar. All this other stuff, I think it's nice, people enjoy it and probably think of it as icing on the cake, but I've spent a lot of years making it more important than playing a lot of guitar. What if Barbra Streisand decides she wants to do a sax solo and spends 10 years on that so that it gets to where it sounds decent, and people would say "Well, OK, but now why don't you do your thing?" It's really understandable, but what I need to try to do is re-orient. Like with the Bloom record, I'm real proud of it, I think it's a good record but a lot of fans are going to ask "where's all the guitar?". To me, it has a lot of guitar on it but it's more of a subtle thing, it's not banging you over the head with it like High Landrons or Cliffs. Maybe there's some truth to that, maybe I need to put more of that in because that's what I do.
PS: A lot of fans just want what they want.
EJ: It's a double-edged sword. One way you improve on what you do is you venture out and get better at what you do but it's a delicate balance. You don't want to go so far that you just blow off...
PS: Lose your core audience...
EJ: Yeah, and you might lose your core audience because you're not as strong as when you you're doing what you do. It's a delicate balance, and maybe that's why the record labels would be screaming for that. If I were to come up with a "Cliffs 2"...I don't know... I want to figure out a way to stand more in my element, my place of empowerment as far as guitar in my music and not just doing vocal pop tunes but having said that I don't think that if I did it the form of a Cliffs 2 that the radio would play it. It's a different age and radio is totally different now. If people listen to guitar, they want to hear something that turns their heads and what I did then was just different enough to turn your head so it's up to me to put in a new recipe that once again turns their heads. If I just repeat that, people will just say "I've already heard that". There's always some new gimmick, for lack of a better word, that makes something enticing. The best gimmicks are the ones where they come up with a new sound, like Miles Davis did or even Louis Armstrong or Jimi Hendrix. The gimmick was so valuable and organic, but then 99 percent of the other gimmicks, to achieve that turning of the head from the listener, they'd wear these outrageous clothes or have this look or shoot the camera from this angle, there's a myriad of ways you could use that they can push the button of apparent freshness to the ear when it might just be freshness to the eye or some marketable combination that gives you that thing. The ones that really touch the heart are the ones that give you aural freshness. It's a tall order. I've been thinking lately, what can I do, where can I go with the the guitar to make it new and fresh? Not so much to be successful but to make it fresh and interesting to hear. If you use the same amps and the same tone you can purify it so much to where it gets so pure, but then where else can you take it? I think that would be a good task for me to try to do.
PS: I'm sure that when these companies are asking for Cliffs of Dover, what they're really asking for is this, because let's face it. It's gotten so much more corporate.
PS: It used to be that people had their own record companies, I mean individuals actually ran record companies. Now it appears that it's conglomerates. Much more corporate.
PS: How many copies sold would it be for you consider it a success, and if sales are lagging do you tour more, spend more on advertising? How do you bolster lagging sales? Some of these questions are more oriented toward Joe than to you because that's (with a lot of musicians) a management decision. I would assume that copies sold depends on your expense and the time you've put into it.
PS: Alien Love Child [Live and Beyond] is completely different from Ah Via Musicom or Venus Isle because it took a much shorter time, the expectations are lower and same with Souvenir. As far as spending more on advertising, that's more of a record company decision. That's not something that you're really involved in. As far as touring more is concerned (and I don't want this to turn into my interview) but I keep hearing from the fans that they want you to come someplace. I've gotten to the point where I say "get him a gig". It's not like the band can just go someplace. You have to be invited! [laughter]
PS: One of my questions is "what countries would go you like to go play?"
EJ: I'd like to do some European tours.
PS: I know, but the key to that is you need somebody to book you in Europe. It's not like you can go over as a tourist... with the band! The whole key is getting bookings. There is a loss leader situation where you go expecting to take a loss to open up a new market, but that usually in the past involved company support, which I don't know if is available for a lot of artists and you could have substantial losses in going to Argentina, for example, in trying to open up the Argentinean market. I assume that you've got to get a promoter, for example like the guy who took you into Australia, something like that where you've got someone who wants to bring you in. I remember Bette Midler had gigs when she was starting her career where she guaranteed a price, and she guaranteed a price coming back too. She hit it big, and people made lots of money bringing her back at the same price, and she considered it to be a "thank you" for taking a chance on her. I didn't mean to do a soliloquy, but I think that a lot of the fans don't understand the complexity of you coming to their town. Solo it's a lot easier, but I wonder if you're worried about solo disappointing people because you're not electric?
EJ: Maybe in Europe... certain places where I've established myself as being electric. I supposed they wouldn't mind hearing the acoustic thing but in places where they haven't heard you much they want to hear what you mainly do and then you could do some other stuff. We're trying to get this European tour together for Spring, so...
PS: Great! That's going to make everyone on the list from Europe very happy. There are some fans, especially in England, who would probably pay if they could just to have you come and play for them. Some dedicated members on the list!
PS: Would you consider selling your CDs through websites other than yours?
EJ: Oh yeah, like the Starbucks thing? Sure! Big time! Love to. I'm really hoping that will be part of the new program to sell the record because obviously that's crucial.
PS: Do existing labels that put out your previous releases hold all rights to those albums or do you retain the rights?
EJ: They do except for Alien Love Child [Live and Beyond]. That was with Favored Nations and was more of a 50/50 deal.
PS: Are there genres of music that you'd like to explore but cannot because there's no market there or you're afraid to lose the audience that you have?
EJ: No, I don't feel any hangups about it, the only hangup is whether I can play it well.
PS: As a building, considering size, acoustics, etc., what's your favorite venue to play? I would imagine this would be separated by electric/acoustic.
EJ: Actually it's both. I like playing theaters, small auditoriums.
PS: Something like Laurie Auditorium?
EJ: Yeah, anywhere from a 500 seater to 1500-2000 seater. but I don't mind the real small theaters. They're set up with a nice big stage, they sound good. I like that.
PS: Is there a specific venue you've always wanted to play but haven't had a chance yet? Carnegie?
EJ: Yeah, I'd love to play Carnegie Hall, sure. I used to feel that way about the Fillmore and I got to play that.
PS: Would you consider adding another musician to the road crew to have that extra guitar or keyboard while playing live?
EJ: Yeah, a multi-purpose kind of person.
PS: So a keyboard/guitar player? A clone! [laughter]
EJ: Somebody to play keyboard, guitar, and sing.
PS: Somebody with a high vocal, like Chris Cross, or possibly a woman?
EJ: Yeah, I guess I'll just go ahead and hire Sarah McLachlan.
PS: Ohhhh, alright... actually I like the Shawn Colvin stuff on the new record.
EJ: Yes. She's great!
PS: As time goes on, do you think you'll stay more with the loud electric club band format or do you think you'll expand to do more of the acoustic/piano shows and do more engagements that way? Are they compatible? Can you play 50/50 shows in a noisy club?
EJ: In other words, half-acoustic half-electric? Yeah, I think I'd like to try that some, where I could do more "an evening with", more of a complete show.
PS: That's the way you used to do it, do 2 or 3 songs acoustic in the middle of sets to kind of break it up.
EJ: Specifically the acoustic gigs are in little performing arts centers, electric are in clubs.
PS: It's kind of hard to break it up, because in the electric gig you want them jumping up and down, and with the acoustic gig you have to bring them back down to where they're passively seated and not screaming.
EJ: That's true.
PS: Do you adjust your show based on feedback you get from the audience that night, in other words, change your setlist depending upon what people are responding to?
EJ: Sometimes I do. If we're in a situation playing, like I did a show with John Scofield up in the Northeast, and we changed the show a little bit there.
PS: Did you ask him?
EJ: Yeah. I don't think we did a jazz show at all, we basically just rocked out but I tried to make it a little more eclectic.
PS: Was that pre-conceived or was that in response on the spot?
EJ: No. Sometimes it's pre-conceived, you sum up the situation. If there's not going to be enough time you shorten the set or if you need more time you make it longer. Usually we kind of go out with an idea what the set's going to be like on the tour.
PS: But it's not exactly like the Blues Brothers and "Rawhide".
EJ: No. [laughter]
PS: Though the Magnets used to play "Bonanza" the same way.
PS: How do you determine whether you will plan a tour through a certain country. Say you wanted to play Brazil? How would you prime that market in order to be able to sell tickets there?
EJ: Well, G3's playing down there right now.
PS: When you sign with a label, are you able to sign with other labels to cover other markets that are not served by the US label?
EJ: Yes, unless it's a world-wide contract.
PS: Since selling your music and selling tickets to your shows are all part of your business and since you want the business to be successful, have you ever sought the image of a consultant to help with image-marketing, show design, timing, etc.? Do you think that would be a good idea?
EJ: We've been hiring people for the last 3 or 4 tours, getting marketing people involved.
PS: So, any funny stories to tell?
EJ: How about the Abilene Christmas show? It was in an auditorium, and 3 people showed up.
PS: We had tickets made and everything! I still have a bunch of the tickets. One of the guys who showed up, I was sitting there playing Hendrix before the band came on, and this guy came up to me, leaned over and said [Tommy Chong voice] "Wow man... I really like the band" and the band wasn't on stage! He pointed at the stage! I can only assume that we was on LSD or something.
EJ: Steve Barber and Kyle Brock broke into the costume closet and put on dresses.
PS: Oh that's right! Steve wore a dress with an extra head, a mannequin's head, and Kyle played in a lovely frock.
EJ: That was great.
PS: Anything you want to say to the list?
EJ: Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday Season, Happy New Year, thanks Paula for doing this, hope to see you all on the next tour.