Addicted To Vinyl Musical thoughts from the open road, with headphones on

26Sep/1026

The ATV Interview: Eric Johnson

Austin-based guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson has been one of my favorite guitar players for a long time and it's always a pleasure anytime that I get a chance to catch him in concert. Johnson is currently in the midst of a few different projects, including a newly completed solo CD called Up Close that features a number of guest artists.  Johnson will hit the stage on Friday night in Milwaukee for the start of the Guitar Masters tour, a new package bill featuring Johnson paired acoustically with fellow guitar talents Andy McKee and Peppino D'Agostino.  Each artist will perform their own set and come together at the end of the evening for a nice bit of jamming that will be visual and sonic ear candy for all who are in attendance.  I had the chance to talk with Eric a few weeks back as he was getting ready for the tour and I think we covered some good ground in this one.  Enjoy!

How did this tour come about?

Actually, the booking agency has been trying to put it together for a while, I think. Every now and then I go off and do these acoustic tours, so it just seemed nice to be able to put that together with some other acoustic players so that's kind of how that all happened.

I understand you're also in the final stages of finishing the new record.

It's all done – it's been done for a while now, I'm just kind of waiting for them to put it out. They're talking about putting it out in October, so I'm just waiting for them to do that. I am actually working on an acoustic record too and I want to try to get that out next year.

Talking about the electric album, since I haven't heard a note of it yet, what can you tell me about it?

Well, it's called Up Close and it's a little different than some others because I had some guests come on and play. Sonny Landreth played guitar and Jimmy Vaughan played guitar and then I had several vocalists come in and sing on it as well – Steve Miller, Malford Milligan and Jonny Lang came in and sang on it. It's kind of a mixup of different kind of styles and different vocal treatments and stuff. I think there's 15 pieces of music on it.

Where did the idea of doing a project like this start?

It started two and a half years ago, I just started recording and just kept recording – I recorded about 25 songs and then just tried to figure out which ones were working and through the process got the idea that it might be kind of neat to bring in some different vocalists and guest artists. It kind of just grew on its own from the start.

Who's putting the new album out this time around?

It will be on EMI.

Talking about the acoustic record, a writing comrade of mine is very curious to know what kind of guitars and mics are you using on the album? And also, for you as a person that is on record as being able to hear the difference of the sound of your guitar pedals based on the kind of batteries you're using, how do you account for the wildly varying tonality of acoustic guitars which can have total differences based on the weather and humidity when making an album like that?

Well, you know I'm always kind of fiddling around with microphones. I've cut three songs so far and we've used some Neumanns and AKGs and stuff. I'm going to try some different stuff coming up here with Schoeps microphones and maybe some old [Neumann] KM84s and just kind of fool around with that and try to find the right balance. Some of that lies in the innocent years domain – fortunately for me, I'm not able to take the top off of the acoustic guitar and mess with it, I just kind of have to go with what it is, you know? If I could, I probably would try!

[Laughs] I know you would! Are you working again with Richard Mullen on both of these projects?

Actually, I'm working with an engineer named Kelly O'Donnelly. Actually, Richard cut the three [acoustic] tunes that I already have, because I recorded them a while back. Richard will probably be involved in some of the new stuff as well, but mainly it's Kelly doing the recording of the new stuff.

How did you connect with Kelly?

Well, Richard got pretty ill and was not able to work so I had to go out and find another engineer and Kelly finished up most all of the Up Close electric record because Richard got sick about a year ago. So we've been working together ever since.

Richard's been an important part of recording your sound for a long time – how did the two of you cross paths originally? And more than that, what records and producers were you listening to growing up that made you say “I want to capture that sound on my album,” and how did Richard help you achieve that?

Well Richard's a musician and he plays steel guitar and guitar and sings and he's a very good singer – he's just got a great ear. He played in a group called Denim which actually had a deal on ABC/Dunhill Records, they put out several records. At one point, one of the last records they made, he ended up mixing it and he did such a good job and he realized that he had a talent in the recording business. So he just kind of got in by proxy, he just got into becoming an engineer. He just started doing stuff all around Texas and then of course he started working with Stevie Ray Vaughan. He did the first three Stevie records and was very instrumental in getting Stevie's sound and getting it live as well as in studio and mixing the tapes. We just kind of ran into each other and he came to some gigs. I ended up working on some sessions that he was on and I saw how good he was, so at some point we just decided to work together, on Ah Via Musicom actually, is where we first worked together.

Since we've been talking about the two records that you've been working on, that brings me to my next question. In recent years, you've become more prolific, certainly more so then you were in the time span from Tones to Ah Via Musicom to Venus Isle. I look at the change in your amount of output as being very similar a similar shift in output from Bruce Springsteen, another person who has notoriously been very methodical about the material that he records and the material that actually gets released and when it gets released. For you, how did you begin to loosen up?

Well, they're in the process of changing and I think this record is definitely a step in that change and I just want to continue with that change more and more. It's really in your attitude and your mind, it's like what you decide you want to develop and wherever you put that possibility and if you focus on that, you can make it more of a reality. I think me deciding that “oh, I have to spend an incredibly long time on a record to make it good,” if that's my belief system, then I'll manifest that. If I decide “you know what, that's not necessary,” maybe there's ways to be focused and as much at the top of your game as you can be artistically, then you go in and you do it and it can happen quicker or [be] more fun and less tedious. If that's your belief system, sooner or later things will conspire to make that so. That's kind of more of my newer belief system now.

Loosely connected to that, I'm reading a book right now by Dan LeRoy called The Greatest Music Never Sold, about famous albums that were shelved and never released. After Ah Via Musicom, you were working for quite a while on the follow-up which initially had the working title of Longpath Meadow and it was supposedly a double album at the time before eventually morphing into what I would assume became the Venus Isle album. How much of that album was left on the shelf and what changed the focus from being a double album release to a single album release?

There were a number of songs that just never really came together. And that's happened on most all of my records – even the last record that I just did. You know, really I think you can streamline everything by just trying to be in the moment and be as good at what you do as you can in the moment, rather than projecting all of this “oh, when I get around to this, I'll put that there, and I'm going to go learn this part and then I'll put it on later.” You get caught in this abyss of potential impossibilities and really you can kind of streamline it to “okay, let me just work on this song until I can play the heck out of it and okay, punch record, let's do it, we're done, thanks, let's move on.” That's the way I think you get stuff to sound better and be more infectious to listen to and you also get more efficient.

A lot of times when I get in the studio, I kind of trip over myself and get ahead of myself. I get all of these guitar ideas or sound ideas for songs and then I'm trying to piece it all together because I really don't know what I'm doing because it's just a new idea that I can't quite play or I don't know how to fit it together. It's a focus thing and sometimes I'd say probably less often, it works out beneficially. Usually, it just gets you where you get to running too many directions at once. It's almost like the more simple you can make anything you do, even if it's a hard piece of music, you just go “okay, here's this I'm going to just cut this and I'm not going to worry about 35 overdubs or what I'm going to do here or this new idea that I just came up with that I can't play right now and I'm married to putting it on.” You just go “I'm going to do this right now with concise focus” and you get really what you're trying to get. It's simplifying the process because if you simplify the process, it's still going to be complicated. Life's complicated even if we try to live a simple life, it still gets complicated but if we don't try to do that, it gets too complicated and we don't get it together.

I was interested in that because Venus Isle is probably still one of my favorite albums in your catalog. I still pull that one out at least a few times a year and it's songs like “When The Sun Meets The Sky” that keep me coming back to that one. After the long birthing process for the album, were you happy with the reception to it?

Well no, it's hard to say about that because I think it's a really good record and maybe in years looking back people seem to think more of it than when it first came out, [because] it didn't really didn't receive the accolades. Although it seems to somewhat get that now in retrospect, which is nice. You know, I listened to it the other day and I hadn't in a long time, I think it is a really cool record. I think that in all honesty that some people, me as an example, you have to be careful when you do something to not be so entrenched in your stress and mental exertion of it that you color your art a little bit with that vibe. You can end up with the greatest thing in the world but it will have a little bit of a patina to it that makes it a little less inviting to listen to over and over. So, I don't know – I think that kind of goes hand in hand with trying to make more music and just let it be what it is and share it. That's stuff that it's enough subject for me because otherwise you sit there and you belabor over something and you play that D note and do it over and over and you get caught in that abyss. I think Venus Isle is a really good record but I think it has a little bit of that labored atmosphere to it. I think in all honesty that if anything, that's one of the things that might have kept it from being more unanimously accepted. Because I do think it's a really good record and I think I did a good job, but I think that that's a quality that some people have to be careful of if they have a tendency to over exert. You know what I mean?

Yeah, and I think that as someone who listened to that Ah Via Musicom record inside and out, one of the most exciting things for me as a developing music fan was that when I put on that Venus Isle album, it was a very different sounding record than Ah Via Musicom was. For the casual fan, they might have been caught a little bit off guard because I don't think there was really a “Cliffs of Dover” type track on that record.

No, there wasn't. I almost can feel and understand what's going on and where the directive is to go, it's hard to put into words, but I think it has to do with people being able to feel that intimate pulse of what you're doing. And if it's cloaked or tucked away too much, I don't think that in the bigger sense that's what music is about. It's not for somebody to play hide and seek with and have to go run for miles to find the pulse of it – they just want to be blown away with it or affected. They want it to open them up, they don't want to have to go chasing to look for whatever the key is that will open them up. The best thing I can do is make records that just open people up naturally and organically off the bat, instead of them having to listen and go “wow, that's really good, let me go find the thing that's going to really affect me emotionally.”

I see that you're going to be out for another set of dates with the Experience Hendrix tour. Obviously, Jimi is a longtime influence of yours – how did he influence you specifically?

Just that he was such a great songwriter and lyricist and then he had this great playing inside that and the sounds and his parts were so different than what anybody had done before. So it just kind of came out of nowhere and it was so inspiring to hear somebody play great guitar but with great songs – it was kind of the whole package is what really sold me.

I saw Paul McCartney in Kansas City recently and it was pretty great to hear him tell the story of sitting in the audience with George Harrison and watching Jimi open his show with the title track of Sgt. Pepper only a few days after it had been released.

Wow, what did he say about that?

He said that it was pretty mind blowing as a musician to be sitting there in the audience and all of the sudden, Jimi Hendrix, who he had a lot of respect for, starts playing his song which had just been put into shops. That was a pretty quick pickup on Jimi's part to get the album, hear the song and put it into his show shortly after that as the opening track of the set!

That's amazing. Was that the Saville Theater, was that where that was?

Yeah.

Wow.

Your version of “Paperback Writer” from the Souvenir album is one of my favorite Beatles covers. That song was one of the first songs that really sucked me in as a kid with their ability to tell a story in the lyrics that would instantly draw you in.

Oh, I know – I loved that song when it came out because it had that great rock guitar part.

The first couple of times that I saw you play live early on, you were part of a couple of tours that I thought were interesting tours for you to be on. The first one was the first Blues Festival that B.B. King did in 1993 with a bill that featured you amongst a lineup that also included Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor and many others. I was surprised to see you out on the road at that point since you were still wrapped on making the follow-up album to Ah Via Musicom at that time. How did you end up being part of that bill?

You know, we just got a call from B.B.'s manager and I jumped at the chance because he's my hero. That was one of the few tours that I literally stopped recording and immediately did that – I wasn't going to say no to that because it was just such an honor.

The other tour was the first G3 tour that had Satriani and Vai, and then on the quieter side of things, yourself and Adrian Legg. Was that your first encounter with Adrian? I know you ended up taking him out on tour after that.

Yeah, it was as far as knowing him. I was familiar with his music before, but that was the first time I'd ever gotten to play with him and we got to be friends and he's a great guy.

Towards the end of their cycle as a band, you did some collaboration with [Canadian rock group] Big Wreck – how did that come together?

Those guys just called me up and asked me if I wanted to come to Canada and do this live filming deal with them and I just figured it sounded like fun. I actually wasn't that familiar with them at the time when they called me but then I went back and listened to their stuff. It was cool because one of the gigs had an orchestra with it and it was the coolest stuff they'd ever done I thought, having a live orchestra.

My buddy Steve Black does a guitar radio show and I know that he's spoken with you a few times for that, as a matter of fact. I'm going to borrow from him a little bit and do a bit of word association with you and ask you about a few guitar players and have you share the first thought that comes to mind. We'll start with Tom Scholz from Boston.

Well, he's a real melodic player and great inventor too. He's done a lot for guitar technology.

What about Billy Gibbons?

Oh man, Mr. Tone! Those first couple of records, I was listening to that just recently, it's just an amazing sounding great Tex-Mex raw thing. I just saw him play a couple of months ago too.

What about Robert Cray?

He's great – I love him. I love the fact that his vocals and guitar are so intertwined. I love listening to him sing and play at the same time, it's like it's the same instrument.

How about Jeff Beck?

He's the greatest – he just keeps reinventing himself. It's pretty admirable the way he doesn't fall intoa category or playing the same licks. He's not afraid to just go for something bizarre and that's where he finds all of that beauty.

I'm going to throw a potential oddball pick at you – how about Ty Tabor from King's X?

He's a fine player – those guys are great. And he's another guy that has his own unique approach to guitar and he doesn't seem to be pulled into trying to be conventional about what kind of sound he uses or the way he voices his chords and stuff.

The Guitar Masters tour with Eric Johnson, Andy McKee and Peppino D'Agostino opens on Friday night in Milwaukee.  Visit EricJohnson.com for more details about additional EJ performances and the upcoming new album!

Guitar Masters Tour Itinerary:

Oct 1 Milwaukee, WI Northern Lights Theater
Oct 2 Indianapolis, IN Clowes Memorial Hall
Oct 3 Ann Arbor, MI The Ark
Oct 6 Salina, KS Stiefel Theatre
Oct 7 Iowa City, IA Englert Theatre
Oct 8 Kansas City, MO Uptown Theatre
Oct 9 Rochester, MN Mayo Civic Center
Oct 10 Evanston, IL Space
Oct 13 Phoenixville, PA Colonial Theatre
Oct 14 Lebanon, NH Lebanon Opera House
Oct 15 Bethesda, MD Music Center at Strathmore
Oct 16 Westhampton Beach, NY Performing Arts Center
Oct 17 Ridgefield, CT Ridgefield Playhouse
Jan 14 San Luis Obispo, CA Spano Theatre
Jan 15 Mission Viejo, CA Norman P. Murray Center
Jan 16 San Rafael, CA Marin Center
Jan 17 Visalia, CA Fox Theatre
Jan 19 Arcata, CA Van Duzer Theater
Jan 20 Chico, CA Laxson Auditorium
Jan 21 Napa, CA Opera House

About The Tour:

Three of the most popular, talented, innovative and musically rich guitar players and composers in contemporary music will bring their acoustic guitars together to perform and interact on stages across America this October and January 2011 when Eric Johnson, Andy McKee and Peppino D’Agostino meet on the Guitar Masters tour. The 21-date two-leg run of theaters, colleges and clubs will feature individual sets by each capped with a finale where all three interplay and collaborate for the first time together to offer an engaging and enlightening aural feast of acoustic six-string mastery and melodic brilliance.

The trek is sure to be an unforgettable musical experience for concertgoers that unites guitar virtuosos not just known for their awesome skills and technique but a mutual gift for song composition and melody and drawing out the full musicality of the solo acoustic guitar to near-orchestral dimensions. Creative sparks, one-time only stunning improvisations and mutual inspiration are sure to abound as they come together at the end of every show to offer a value-added concert bill that appeals to fans of many musical styles as well as guitar aficionados.

Grammy-winner Johnson is one of the most respected and renowned guitarists playing today, celebrated for his electric six-string playing and songwriting gifts, but also his acoustic talents that have graced his albums and which he has showcased on a number of previous solo tours. He is enshrined in Guitar Player’s Gallery of Greats and was named one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century by Musician magazine, took three instrumental songs from his 1990 platinum album Ah Via Musicom into the pop Top 10, and boasts a total of five Grammy nominations. “He's an extraordinary guitar player accessible to ordinary music fans,” raves the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Andy McKee is an Internet phenomenon whose solo acoustic six-string performance videos and compositional flair have racked up an astounding 78 million-plus plays on YouTube, where he has also held the three Top-Rated Videos of All Time. His creative and innovative use of altered tunings, syncopated rhythm guitar taps, partial capos, and his textural use of polyphonic tones and drones won him Acoustic Guitar magazine’s worldwide Silver Medal award for fingerstyle playing in 2008. With six strong-selling and critically-lauded independent albums to his credit, McKee is a popular and engaging live music attraction who plays some 200 shows a year internationally. As the Lawrence Journal observes, McKee has “forged a distinctive style that proves eye-opening and ear-opening to many."

Native Italian Peppino D’Agostino “plays steel-string guitar with virtuosity and complexity… Influences as far-flung as the flamenco work of Paco de Lucia and the pop sensibilities of the Beatles, evident in the songs he’s written, which brim with memorable melodies,” raves the Chicago Tribune. Now residing in the San Francisco Bay area, he was voted Best Acoustic Guitarist in Guitar Player’s 2007 Readers Poll and won Acoustic Guitar’s Players Choice Award the following year for Best Acoustic Album Of All Time. He has nine previous U.S. CD releases, including collaborations with electric rock guitar star Stef Burns and classical guitar expert David Tanenbaum, and also adds his steel string playing to eight nylon-string savants in the United Guitar Ensemble. The San Diego Reader hails D’Agostino as “a giant of the acoustic guitar.”

The tour will be the first time that McKee has met Johnson, whose hit “Cliffs of Dover” inspired him to play guitar. “He’s really musical.” McKee observes. “It’s like hearing a song but rather than having a vocalist he covers the melody and all the bases at once with his guitar. I still listen to his music all the time and even make references to it in my playing.”

D’Agostino has opened shows for Johnson and notes, “When he plays he really puts his special knowledge in it.” He is also an admirer of McKee’s talent. “What he does with techniques like tapping and his compositions is fabulous. He’s an amazing player.”

“Andy is a great player who puts it all these guitar technique into songs he writes and plays that make them quite interesting. But it’s still all about the song,” Johnson observes of McKee. “Peppino is a really emotional and very soulful player. And he comes from a little bit different background than Andy and I do, so it’s really nice combination for all of us to come from our different sources and mix it all together.

The tour will coincide with the release of Johnson’s new album, Up Close, on his own Vortexan label via EMI. McKee issued his latest recording, the CD/DVD package Joyland, on Razor & Tie Records in March. And D’Agostino’s latest album, Nine White Kites, comes out on his own label August 24.

  • Anonymous

    Great interview!

  • Matt

    Shucks. Thanks!!

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