Eric Johnson

Return of the (Texas) King
Return of the (Texas) King

If you just flew into Austin and were to drive around looking at the city, you’d barely have an inkling of the musical talent hidden in these hills. Among other things, you’d see Dell and Intel, as well as the clubs lining the streets below the Capitol. Chances are you’d surmise Austin was Texas’ center of technology and government. And it is.

But what’s not as evident is that Austin also holds the title of live music capital of the U.S. – and possibly the world. In the near orbit to planet Austin are Dallas and Houston; larger, more gravity intensive masses, in possession of far inferior scenes. Even L.A. and NYC’s annual music conferences are dwarfed by Austin’s SXSW, where music dignitaries and hopefuls rub elbows each Spring in the hopes of making the deals that will supply consumers with what they think we want to hear for the rest of the year.

Rising above all the hype, posturing, and clatter is a guitarist and musician at once nearly beyond category, incendiary, and an answer for what’s missing most in music today; substance, character, originality, tone, clarity, truth.

From classical piano as a kid to progressive rock guitar prodigy as a teen and now grammy winning, poll-topping solo recording artist and composer, Eric Johnson now steps out of Austin much more regularly, but sonically never really leaves. The carefully cultivated blues roots remain intact and retain their integrity regardless of venue, country, or language – and like the music itself, speak directly to the soul of those fortunate enough to hear and experience it.

Vintage Guitar: The new record is with Alien Love Child. How did it come about?
Eric Johnson: It’s something that started four or five years ago. We just got together for fun because we were all doing different stuff. We said, “Oh, why don’t we come up with this premise of a band that rehearses for two hours and plays a show and it’s all improvisation,” And we thought, “Well, we’ll kind of make it kind of bluesy,” because that was our roots. One thing led to another and we kept doing gigs now and then, and I guess last November or December we decided to do some shows and we recorded three shows in January.

…at Antone’s (in Austin).
Yeah. Then we went through the tapes and decide which night had the best takes, and put together the record. So it has kind of morphed into a thing where at this point we’re doing the record and we already have a lot of material for a second record and we’re going to go out and do some touring and see what happens, just to have fun.

Do you think people were surprised you were able to do a live record?
No, a lot of people asked me to, and I think that it was a good (outlet).

Was it hard to let go of that without being in control of tweaking every little aspect, like you would in the studio?
It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be, you know (laughs)?

That’s a good sign…
Oh, absolutely. I was talking to somebody the other day and saying this was a very cathartic record for me because I think it has helped me get over some glitches I’ve started in the last few years. It’s kind of good that I’ve averted going that way – being so succumbed and mental.

I think there’s a place for everything, and there’s a place to be perfectionistic, you know? Wes Montgomery’s place to be perfectionistic was when his wife went to bed and the house was quiet and he would sit and he would just work real hard, you know, and that allowed him to walk through that corridor of freedom to where he could go play gigs,

Of course, he had to deal with the fact that the neighbors insisted that he keep it down and it actually became part of his thing, the real sensitivity.
That’s right – the tone.

And he worked like 16 hours a day as a welder – I don’t know how he did it.
I don’t know, either. He slept four hours a day…

Starting at 19, starting that late…
Isn’t it amazing? And talk about intuition. But I think that’s what I was heading toward. I was putting it in the inappropriate place, which is “sit in the studio and fiddle and stuff.” So doing the live record was kind of a reality check for me.

You can really use the studio as an instrument. It just becomes that if you’ve got that much access.
Yeah. I’d like to go in that direction a little more, where you let go a little more.

But this group kind of helped you break out of some habits?
Yeah, I think so. And to take a frontal look at stuff I need to work on, which is try to get to the point where you spend your time practicing and working on your music so you’re more free to do stuff spontaneously, instead of sit in the studio. But I think the moment you make a rule of, “Well, this is how it needs to be done,” the next time you’re gonna need to bust it, you know what I mean? You have to be malleable, but I think the general rule of thumb for me was not to adjust that style of just getting too…microfocused. So it was a good record to make for that.

So were you guys thinking ’60s power trio; Cream and Hendrix, that kind of thing, just coming out of that vibe?
Yeah, if I’m going to just like be completely be intuitive and spontaneous and do like a rock thing, it’s gonna have blues roots and it’s gonna be kind of Cream and Hendrix, because that’s what I grew up on.

That’s always gonna be there.
Yeah. And the premise of the band was to do just what came absolutely natural from your roots and your heritage.

It’s being honest.
Yeah. I think what Clapton did at that period, like “Spoonful,” and that effect where you just floor an all-tube amp that has a great tone…there’s a lot of room, more places that can go. I think I’ll be the first to admit there’s some stuff on here that’s very derivative of Clapton, like Wheels of Fire era, and I don’t have a problem with it because that’s what really turned me onto guitar in the first place.

Bluesbreakers and all?
Yes! That’s what got me into guitar! So if you say, “Well okay. Let’s use that as a launching pad, now where can we take that?” I think you can take it somewhere. It’s like there’s a thing where you can listen to Benny Goodman and go, “Oh, what if he did a little of that stuff.” You know, a lot of the acoustic instruments of the ’40s, when they’re really jammin’ out, have an amazing sound.

And you can only hear it under those circumstances.
Yeah. And Clapton had an amazing sound during that period. So there are all sorts of little genres you could put together that could be an arrow that can go into the future, you know?

And what they have in common is the fact you’re pushing those respective instruments to the limit, getting sounds you wouldn’t get otherwise. Like you do with the Marshalls just cranked.
It really is. Its kind of what got me interested in playing.

How do you go about composing? What’s that process like for you? Is it agony?
A lot of times it’s cool. It can be agony. More often than not the agony stuff never pans out because you’re laboring over it. The best thing is to kind of just go with what the muse says and then there will be a bit of post work where you’ll have to kind of put the pieces together. But I think that the most fun is where you kind of just see what happens and then once you can get the biggest section of natural stuff then let the lexiconic part of the mind come in and put the pieces together. But the longer you can hold off doing that, the more of a pure kind of thing you’ll have. And that varies. A lot of times I’ll want to jump in, “Okay, I want to put this here and then we’ll repeat this part,” then if you do that too soon you get too much mentally involved, and you can spoil that natural thing a little bit.

Jerry Marrotta and Trey Gunn were great choices for the recent tour. How did that go?
I thought it was a lot of fun. They are great players and I have a lot of respect for them. They approach it from a different angle, which is really neat.

Have you known Trey a long time?
I haven’t. I just met him on that and I really enjoyed working with him.

Do you kind of allow for some feedback from bandmembers, other people, collaborations?
Yeah, it really helps to do that. You can even get feedback from an audience. It’s interesting, I think audiences are actually very hip because they listen to their heart and what their ears hear, and how their heart feels. And just because they don’t know the ABCs of music doesn’t mean they they’re not extremely hip about knowing simply what they like and what they don’t like, what moves them and what doesn’t move them.

That’s important, the emotional response.
Yeah, and a lot of times, if I do new songs live, some get a lot of response… and others are like, “Aanh,” and you know right there what needs work, or you know to throw it out. And it tells you a lot.

And you can’t necessarily ignore that.
No, you can’t. Well, you can go, “Oh, they don’t understand,” or something, but that’s not really true. You can take a lot of stock in that because people know what their ears tell them. It’s actually a very simple transmission as far as, “Well, I like it or I don’t like it,” you know? And if something’s effective, it’ll effect them, then maybe you can feel you’re onto something.

Talk a bit about “Desert Song” on Tones. How did that come about? It’s just such a beautiful tune…
It’s just a jam. But yeah, it’s got a little thing… It came about by just having the chord changes, and then I just elaborated on them.

Really. Just Mozarting out… (laughs)?
Yeah, quasi-Mozarting out.

Can you tell me about your experiences on the G3 project?
Yeah, there’s a live record and video. There was a series of G3 tours, and I did the first one with Steve (Vai) and Joe (Satriani).

Who was the rhythm section?
With me was Brannon Temple on drums, Roscoe Beck on bass, and Steve Barber on keyboards.

How about your instructional videos? Do you pick up from where you left off? There’s so much there.
I think it’s kind of more of the same, it just elaborates.

Will you continue that? Are there techniques you haven’t elaborated on?
The premise on those instructional videos was I tried to cover all the bases, so I don’t know where I would go except to just maybe elaborate more or take a definitive style and elaborate on it, or come up with some certain explicit kind of lessons. I thought about doing one on trying to help people get their sound and how to work on that, but that’s a real Pandora’s box.

How would you go about that?
(laughs) That’s what I’m saying. I’m having enough trouble with that, personally.

It’s tough not to be subjective in ways. What about the studio record?
Well, I have seven songs totally finished, ready to go. But I gotta cut about five more, and I’ve already started basic tracks for them. So I’ve just got to get in there and start finishing them up.

Who’s the group?
Roscoe Beck, Tom Brechlien on drums, from Robben Ford’s group, and Chris Maresh and Bill Maddox are playing on it, too.

How different will it be from Alien Love Child?
Oh, it’s different. It’s more like my pop records kind of thing, my song stuff.

How many vocals?
Probably half. Maybe a little more.

What inspires you? Are there certain subjects that’ll make you write a vocal tune?
I think anything can inspire you. You have to come up with a little inertia. You gotta take a couple of steps. You gotta take the discipline to come up with a little bit of fundamental inertia so that you can get that inspiration. I don’t think it just falls out of the sky. You have to take the necessary steps to be in tune with letting that inspiration happen.

If you’re attentive, inspiration can come from a lot of stuff, because you’ve kind of adjusted to be available to see. The inspiration, actually, is raining down 24 hours a day for everybody.

If you’re open to it…
The thing is to try to get more open to it.

Are people more practiced at disregarding it?
Absolutely. It’s amazing. We’re so asleep, you know?

And then when we want it to come…
Yeah! And then we go, “We don’t have any inspiration!”

You meditate daily?
Yes. I think anytime you’re able to just concentrate and still your mind, it’s always going to help you. That’s why people do transcendental meditation. If you draw yourself in and focus and channel your energy into being one point, and then all of a sudden you’re a little bit more empowered. You’re reaching more for that empowerment in your center to where you can think more effectively, feel more effectively, or see what it is you want or need to do more effectively. It’s not a question of whether or not you’ve succeeded in being clear or not, it’s the fact that you’re attempting to reside in a place that allows you to become clear, because it’s all relative, and it comes in a certain percentage. So if you get 10 percent more clear, you’re still gonna say, “Well, I’m not clear,” you know? If you get hung up and say, “Well, I’m clear/I’m not clear,” it’s more that you’re aspiring toward that, and it’s an ongoing process that takes a whole life.

For you, is it tied into any kind of philosophical/spiritual beliefs, or is it separate? Ways of living, belief systems…?
Yeah, I try to work on being in touch with that energy that’s within us all. I think if you do that…”intuition” is an interesting word, it’s like, “inner tuition.”

You teach yourself.
There’s that thread in all of us – our collective consciousness, and we probably only use about .05 percent. And there’s so much there, so if we just allow it to happen we can really help ourselves. And thereby, help everybody else. I think that’s what appeals to me about trying to work on how you’re living your life.

How much of what you do is intuition?
A lot of it is. A lot of it is a kind of like spontaneity, like improvised on the moment, and then even the stuff that isn’t still, in a way, is intuition because its stuff you’ve intuitively worked out.

The best stuff is intuition, but then you have to be available and adjusted – psychically or experientially – to be available for that. If you do that, then intuitive thinking happens and you make the best music that you can make.

Photo: Ken Settle.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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