Non-tech Chat with Eric Johnson
by Clarisa Marcee
New Texas Magazine
With sounds like the ones that Austin native Eric Johnson emits via his six string, you would think the man was from the outer limits of the Universe! He swears he's from here, though. The Grammy Award winner has won the hearts, or rather the ears, of the likes of Carole King, Christopher Cross, and Cat Stevens. His playing style can be just as intense as it can be sweet and mellow. As a matter of fact, musician Johnny Winter recalls, "He was only 16 and I remember wishing that I could have played like that at that age."
Johnson had his first major release in 1975 with the jazz fusion group Electromagnets. He later released "Tones" in 1986, "Ah Via Musicom" in 1990, "Venus Isle" in 1996, and "Seven Worlds" in 1998. His latest effort with Alien Love Child, "Live and Beyond" (Favored Nations Entertainment), came out last year.
Rumor has it that after Johnson made his first appearance on "Austin City Limits" in 1984, the artist formerly and once again known as Prince was so impressed by his work that he called his parent label Warner Brothers and insisted that they sign him. Within months, Johnson was signed to Reprise, a Warner subsidiary. Though he can't verify if the story holds any truth, it is an interesting note that Prince collaborators Wendy and Lisa sing unaccredited backing vocals on "Tones," which was nominated for a Grammy!
Presently, Johnson is touring as Alien Love Child with drummer Bill Maddox, who worked with him in Electromagnets, and with hot-shot bassist Chris Maresh. Here is a glimpse into the life of Eric Johnson and the non-technical side of his music.
Clarisa Marcee: What was life like for you growing up in Austin?
Eric Johnson: It was cool. My dad loved music and he was always playing records so I was kind of subjected to all types of music. I took piano lessons and studied classical music. As a little kid, my dad used to take me to classical concerts like Van Cliburn, the symphonies and all sorts of Broadway things and big bands that would come through town like Count Basie. When I was about 10 or 11, I started getting into rock 'n' roll. It wasn't until I was about 13 or 14 that I started absorbing the Austin scene, going out to hear bands like 13th Floor Elevators.
CM: Who were some of your early Austin favorites?
EJ: Johnny Winter was really great. I used to go hear him for 50¢ when he played at the Vulcan Gas Company. When the Armadillo opened up, Ravi Shankar used to play all the time. When I was real young, there was a group called New Atlantis - they were really great. James Polk used to play in those days, and he was great. There were tons of bands. There was even one called the Georgetown Medical Band.
CM: How did you get your start playing guitar?
EJ: When I was 13, I had a friend named Thurston, and we used to hang out. He was a couple of years older than me, and had friends from high school who wanted to form a combo. So we formed a group called The Sounds of Life, and we started playing clubs, fraternity parties, and other gigs - anything we could do.
CM: You said your father introduced you to a lot of music early on, what about your mom?
EJ: My mom kinda taught herself to play piano because she had to make sure we practiced our lessons on piano. When she would try to go over and make us practice like we were supposed to, she would say, "No, this is what you're supposed to do..." and she inadvertently learned the notes on the staffs!
CM: Did your folks have big plans for your future like having you become a doctor or professor or anything like that?
EJ: I think my dad did. Mom was always kinda cool about it. It's understandably so. My dad was an MD and just the pressure of that type of environment and social thing, you know. Probably a lot of it was warranted that I was taking a chance going off and being an artist, not knowing if I would be a starving artist or not. I don't think it was his first choice. Later on, he felt good about it [Eric's music career]. It took a few years, though.
CM: Everyone seems to know the technical parts of your music (i.e., what type of amps you use or strings you prefer), but there is an obvious, deeper aspect to your music - mainly the spirit-tinged feel of Tones and Venus Isle. Is it your intention to set a certain mood with your songs or is it just a matter of your personal style?
EJ: In a broad sense of the word "spirituality," I think it was definitely intended because I try to impart into the music that I try - although I'm not always successful at it - to place in it some type of intrinsic energy that will attempt to touch somebody if they listen to it. That is only because that is kind of the type of recipe I like to hear out of a piece of art. I like to be touched by something. I think it is very important to have documentative-type art where it really tells it like it is and you get a prognosis of what is going on in the world or on the streets. That especially has extra value when it has a bit of a 3-D insight to it to where there is a window which we can use as a shift. Otherwise, if you do not have some sort of momentum within it like that, I just don't know - at least to me - it has a bit of a static value to it. In other words, I like to hear a little bit of something in there that allows something that will provide some sort of impact on the listener. That is the kind of music that has always inspired me and inculcated a passion in me to strive and push the envelope and have the impetus to create. I try to do that, but half the time I blow it, but it is very forefront for me to try to do that. That is the kind of stuff that touches me. Otherwise, it's kind of like reading a magazine ad.
CM: What inspired the rather ethereal sounds and feel of Venus Isle?
EJ: Venus Isle was a really good idea that I didn't quite pull off. There are some parts of that record that are good and there are parts that just missed the mark. It was a strange period in my life where I was going through a lot of things. I was trying to shift to a different vibe that was more of a yin-type energy. Since I was going for that, it was of utmost importance that I pull it off at a very high integrity level to draw the attention away from the other thing I was doing. I did succeed a little bit, but I think I kind of missed it. I think that was because everything was coming too much from the mind and not the heart. I was having heart ideas, but was filtering them through the mind. I spent so long doing the record and beating it up that I lost some of the spontaneity. I said there were some parts of the record where it hit the mark, but unfortunately it didn't sustain enough. I was really trying to create a record with a healing vibe to where it would put you into more of a smooth, well-being place that comes from within the listener - not from the music I'm making. It was intended to be more of a spark. You know some days you can be outside and you see something that just sparks you. It is not what you see that sparks you to get to that place of well-being, it was just used as a catalyst. I think that is why I spent so much time doing it. I had this huge idea of how I wanted to have this catalyst spark that would evoke something that would be completely from the individual. It wouldn't be like, "Oh Venus Isle did this." It would be like you don't really think that much about a match once you build a fire. The match was just something that you used to strike it. It could be any kind of match. It doesn't have to be this match or that match.
CM: Who and/or what is the biggest inspiration in your songwriting?
EJ: If I try to write a piece of music that makes me feel good or that I feel has some kind of value if it could have any kind of constituency that could provide that value. It has to have some kind of value or merit to be there in the first place.
CM: Do you have a special place where you go to find inspiration or to get in the "right frame of mind" to let your creativity flow?
EJ: No. I think it is more of being in touch with what you are really feeling. Everybody feels different things at different times. So consequently, different kinds of music comes out of different times and feelings.
CM: What do you do when you are not recording or touring?
EJ: I'm trying to think of something wild to make up like sky surfing! [laughter] I do that, I guess, in my dreams. I really like to go anywhere there is water. I like to jet ski and water ski, sometimes just hang out with friends or go down to the coast.
CM: If you had to describe your music to someone from another planet, how would you describe it?
EJ: I guess it is just my own brand of Earth music. It is kind of a hodgepodge of different things that I have picked up from other people.
CM: Are there any new musical acts that have caught your attention?
EJ: I like Rage Against the Machine and some of the energy stuff that they do, Massive Attack, some of Verve's stuff, Stone Temple Pilots. As far as brand new, for the last several months I've been touring and haven't paid much attention. Jill Scott is interesting. The new Doyle Bramhall record is interesting, too - I really like the song "Green Light Girl."
CM: Is there anyone you'd like to collaborate with that you haven't?
EJ: Maybe Ethel Merman? [laughter] Just kidding! I'd like to do Third Stone from the Sun with her. I think that would be out of sight!
CM: That's kind of scary!
EJ: It is kind of scary. Hopefully, it will never happen. I love collaborating with people, period. I'd love to collaborate with Neil Finn. I think he is a great songwriter and singer. I like his voice. I like playing with anybody. Obviously if I want to play with Ethel, I'd play with anybody. I obviously don't have much shame at all!
CM: How did Alien Love Child come to be?
EJ: After being in the studio for so long, I just wanted to get out and play clubs, just to do gigs just for fun while I was still recording. Bill Maddox came up with the name and we just did this anonymous thing without any advertising. Chris Maresh got involved. We did it for fun and it kind of grew out of that and turned into its own thing.
CM: Is Alien Love Child a temporary diversion?
EJ: I think we will continue it. It is a nice outlet. The three of us are getting a bit of a better rapport all the time. It is just getting better and better, and it is fun. We really enjoy it. We are going to keep it up and see where it takes us.
CM: Would you say that this style of blues is something you've always wanted to do or do you prefer rock?
EJ: I think I just like everything. The blues/rock thing is just something I grew up on and used to jam and improvise with a lot when I was a kid, so it just comes kind of naturally to play that way.
CM: Are there plans to release another rock album in the future?
EJ: Yeah, hopefully. I'm just taking it as it comes to see what kind of music comes out.
CM: Are you touring as Alien Love Child right now?
EJ: Yes, we are.
CM: Being the perfectionist that everyone says you are, how did you manage to put together a live album? Was it easier than working on a studio recording?
EJ: It was easier. Once we decided to do a live album, I wanted to make sure I did a live record, and not take it into the studio and overdub it forever. It was easier, too, because once I resigned to that mindset, we recorded three nights and we used the best takes of each night.
CM: How is "Live and Beyond" doing now?
EJ: It is doing pretty well. It is doing better than we expected. It is kind of a quirky, improvisational record. It was never intended to be a well thought-out thing to where it was formulated to do this or that. It was more of an improvisational thing.
CM: Where is your current tour taking you?
EJ: We have been all over the US and we are finishing up in the Southeast before we head overseas. We might go to Europe in the Fall. Right now, we are going to Japan, Hawaii, and Australia.
CM: Any Austin shows in the near future?
EJ: We are going to try to play sometime in June when we get back.
CM: Do you have any words of wisdom for budding musicians?
EJ: Just keep trying to make music that is meaningful. That valuable space on a CD or that wonderful opportunity you have in front of a crowd, try to make the most meaning out of it. Keep the window open. Don't get hung up in just one way of thinking. The quality and integrity is all that is needed. Other than that, the sky is the limit.
CM: When can we expect another album from you?
EJ: I have a studio record that is well on the way I just have to get home to finish it up.
CM: How would you like to be remembered when you are gone?
EJ: Somebody who tried to make a sound that pleased somebody or touched somebody. One of my favorite guitarists of all time is Wes Montgomery, and I think that - more than how wonderful and how great he was - I will always remember him by the faculty that he had. He would play one note and it would touch my heart. That is such a sublime value for making music in the first place. There can't be any better reason for music for me. Everybody has their own reason for music, whether it be just to party or to get their energy up or whatever. They are all valuable reasons. But then, maybe there is this big giant space and above all of that is a place where something really touches you and makes you a little wider person. I don't see how it could get any better than that, as far as the reason for it. That is what I feel like Wes did. It is an emotional feeling for me whenever I hear any record of his. It doesn't matter what he is playing, I could hear just one note.