The Many Fanastic Colors of
A black door with a crescent window, tucked back around the corner, opens to find the 42-year-old Johnson looking his familiar self: thin, boyish, and smiling. With his dirty blond hair, light-colored eyes, and second-hand-looking attire, Johnson blends into his surroundings like any other creature that inhabits the forest floor. To meet him on the street in this neighborhood, walking, you'd probably pay him no mind. His greeting comes in soft tones.
Inside the house, the foyer is uncluttered. On the right, a breakfast table butts up against a railing that looks out over the sunken living room. On the left, a sideboard stands against the wall. Straight ahead, between the two doorways that lead into the back of the house and kitchen respectively, sits a small table. On it, there's a short stack of brightly-colored CDs. Venus Isle? No. Three-song promotional samplers that will go out to radio. He only has advances of the new album at this point. The artwork is done, though. Want to see it? It's in the back.
The hallway to the back bedrooms is narrow and with its low ceiling, hardwood floor, and white walls, feels a bit claustrophobic and somewhat sterile, like a half way house or convalescent home. The first bedroom on the right is Anne's, Johnson's girlfriend. It's Spartan, save for several dresses draped on the made bed. The bathroom, down the hall just before the master bedroom, is roomy and bright thanks to a skylight that pours sunshine into the walk-in shower. Closing that door, Johnson leans across and opens the one to his bedroom. It, too, is Spartan -- except for the unmade bed. Clean, nondescript, again, nearly colorless. (Well, the shades are drawn. He is a musician after all.) There's only one thing that gives the room any life; a large lithograph straight back on the wall opposite the door. It's the cover artwork to Cream's Disraeli Gears album, and its psychedelic neon burn fairly glows in the dark.
Off the bedroom is the fourth and final door, behind which lies Johnson's small rehearsal space and Anne's computer room. Naturally, there are guitars, but not so many that it's obscene. Obscene, rather, is the wooden wall cabinet full of Johnson's personal recordings. Dig through the miles and miles of reel-to-reel tape and audio cassettes, and you'd probably find the guitarist's unreleased maiden solo effort, Seven Worlds, and several different versions of both Ah Via Musicom and Venus Isle. It's a safe bet as well that every show Johnson's ever played in Austin is on those shelves. There's little doubt of the genius encrypted on those tapes or that the personally modest but musically vain Johnson will ever release anything on them to his adoring public.
Directly across from this musical wall safe are several framed pictures of Johnson. His favorite is the one of him and Tony Bennett, whom I've mistaken as Carl Perkins. He gleams just looking at it; he can die happy now. Did Bennett know who you were? "Oh, 'course not," he laughs. Chet Atkins certainly knew who Johnson was as he asked the Austin boy wonder to play on a song for his '94 release, Read My Licks, as well as make an appearance on the TNN special that accompanied the album. Johnson likes the picture of the two of them together on a yacht (also in the CD booklet), but not the final mix of "Somebody Loves Me Now." He prefers the 10-minute version his co-producer Richard Mullen mixed. It no doubt resides in that cabinet, now. The best photo, however, has to be the one of Johnson, B.B. King -- with whom he toured in '93 -- and Johnson's father, David, all sitting at the bar in King's club in Memphis. The senior Johnson looks -- to use one of Eric's favorite expressions -- "all lathered up."
Back in the foyer, we descend the spiral staircase into the living room. At its foot is a mid-size black Steinway, which faces the wall of glass that looks out into a good-sized yard. On the small, weathered deck outside, two equally weathered wooden chairs sit side-by-side looking out at the cut grass. The living room itself could be anyone's, really; there's a TV, stereo, couch, love seat, fireplace, plants -- all the normal trappings of your parent's house. Nothing seems out of place, not even the large, framed, purple-tinted picture of Jimi Hendrix. Like the Disraeli Gears lithograph, it's the only splash of color in the room. Yet as Johnson settles into the large white couch for the first of our three interviews, one thing is abundantly clear.
This is not where Eric Johnson lives.
The HouseWhen the Chronicle last checked in with Johnson (Vol. XIII, No. 46) it was July 1994, and already the guitarist had been at work on Venus Isle for nearly two years. At that time, the album was still titled Longpath Meadow -- a phrase that appears in a poem from the liner notes of Ah Via Musicom -- and had been recorded twice over. It had also been scrapped twice. Still, Johnson was aiming for a 1995 release, with the album's second half slated for release the following year. He also talked about putting together a blues band on the side, partly it seemed, because he was going a bit stir-crazy in the studio.
That fall, Alien Love Child came to pass. With longtime friend and frequent musical collaborator Bill Maddox on drums and Chris Marsh on bass, Johnson's trio played a handful of local gigs under the moniker, the last coming in May of '95 when the band opened for Jimmie Vaughan at the Austin Music Hall. This was the last time Johnson was heard from that year.
In all, it would take Johnson six and a half years to complete the album, once titled Travel One Hope (as the advances proclaim), before his label, Capitol, balked on the title as being too oblique. Eighteen songs had been cut down to 11, and plans for a second volume were shelved. But let's not quibble. It was done. Finally. And yet, the first question is obvious. Why did it take so long?
"There's a lot of reasons," says Johnson, already used to the question. "I just wasn't satisfied with what was coming out and where it was. When I was playing, it had kind of a groove that, to me, was a little too antsy. I wanted to try and improve my groove, so it was necessary for me to be honest with myself and go, `Hey, I've got to work on this. It's not very good.' I thought the singing could use improvement, the songwriting too. And I fell into a trap where I just did it over and over and over trying to get it right. But there were other extenuating circumstances -- personal and group things, and family. There were other things involved too."
"Extenuating circumstances" turned out to be the implosion of his longtime partnership with bassist Kyle Brock and drummer Tommy Taylor, the former having worked with Johnson since the mid-Seventies and the latter having come aboard a decade later. The guitarist is reluctant to talk about the split other than to say it came about while recording basic tracks for the new album, during which a backlog of resentment -- presumably over Johnson's snail's pace in the studio -- surfaced. Also figuring in on the long, protracted recording process was Johnson's scaling back to a mere six days a week in the studio, the declining health of his father over the past several years (as well as his own bout with tinnitus), and the dissolution of his relationship with girlfriend Darcie Silver. In fact, Venus Isle is dedicated to Silver, who was murdered earlier this year in Washington D.C., where she had moved to participate in Whole Foods' management program.
More than any one of these individual factors, however, there's perhaps one overriding reason Venus Isle took so long to make: It is one of the music industry's most feared beasts -- the dreaded "follow-up." Whereas his debut, Tones -- itself delayed while Johnson sat out a six-year deal with Lone Wolf -- sold a respectable 50,000 units for the then-unknown guitarist, its follow-up, Ah Via Musicom, which took four years to make, not only sold 800,000 copies, it also won a Grammy for "Cliffs of Dover," and became the first album since charting began in the late Sixties to push three instrumentals ("Cliffs of Dover," "Righteous," "Trademark") into the Top 10. What's that phrase -- tough act to follow? And though he was trying to do just that, at some point it dawned on Johnson that something was gumming up the process.
"It started becoming apparent to me that certain facets of what I try to do musically needed working on," explains Johnson. "I needed to try to cultivate more of a consummate package of what I'm doing, rather than just working on guitar licks. I wanted to start thinking about the way I sing, and the lyrics and the songwriting, and the way that the feel was of all the other musicians as well as myself. And it started becoming apparent to me that I was going through the natural process of trying to evolve."
Bad timing, eh?
"Anytime in life we have to stop and grow usually comes at an inopportune moment. It's like you're driving around and you need gas; it's always at the wrong time. It slowed everything down. There's no question I took too long. It would have been much better for me not to have spent so long on it. But that metamorphosis was at least starting to begin."
Metamorphosis. Yes. With Ah Via Musicom, Johnson had finally reached a critical plateau. After promoting it with nearly three years of road work, he'd reaped its rewards and watched the accolades and cash pour in. Yet after the dust had cleared, Johnson suddenly found himself standing on the summit of 20 years worth of work. All those years spent toiling in smoky clubs, all those years spent waiting for the right record deal, all those years spent toiling in studios -- all those years reaching for the success that finally came. The dream had come true. Now, the question was `What next'?
"Oh yeah, definitely," asserts Johnson. "I always had a vision of how I wanted this record to sound. I always kinda heard it a certain way. That seemed to be pretty clear to me. But I knew I wanted to shift gears a little bit in what I was doing, and I couldn't see a clear picture of that. I'm still trying to see a clear picture of that. I can see it clearer now -- I'm starting to get glimpses of it."
What he was glimpsing, however, was not necessarily a "Guitar Album." As an avowed fan of classical music, someone who had taken piano lessons starting at age 5, as well as a connoisseur of world music -- African rhythms, Bulgarian voice music, Flamenco guitar -- Johnson was suddenly dreading more and more overdubs.
"I think that's what was at the real heart of some of my frustration -- the guitar," admits Johnson. "I'm frustrated with the way it sounds. I'm trying really hard to at least refine the sound, if not change it a bit. If I stay in my own personal status quo with my sound -- especially from the past -- it's like building a house with a hatchet: You can do it, but it's frustrating and you might dream of some Frank Lloyd Wright thing and you need special tools. It's true the tools aren't the important facet, but if you get the right tools it'll facilitate your work. A lot of my unclarity about exactly what I want to do is stemming from being a little frustrated with where the electric guitar is now."
Ever wanted to move beyond just being a guitarist?
"If I'm totally honest with myself, yes. I don't mind it. I thank my lucky stars I have a record deal. There's tons of great guitarists and a lot of them don't have deals. So, I definitely appreciate that. But it's kind of bugged me a little bit over the years; it's like people always differentiate. Somebody came up to me once and said, `I hear you're selling a lot of guitar records.' What a strange thing to say. That's happened a lot. You know, it's always that instrumental guitar thing; let's go crazy, play as many licks as possible.
"Actually, every time I see an unedited version of a TV show we did or a live show, I think, `You know, I really should chill out -- economize just a little bit.' Still blow up and go crazy, but just economize just a little bit, bring a little more into the palette so that the other will actually shine more. And ironically enough, that's the way I feel, but when I go onstage, I don't do that. Really, a portion of that perception of me as only a guitarist, I've kind of done to myself. In all honesty, I'm not a real huge fan of [shredding guitar]. That's not really my vision as a musician."
This is where Eric Johnson lives -- in that vision. But what that vision is, exactly, is hard to describe. Hard to describe, and even harder to get on tape.
The Rehearsal SpaceFor any artist, working within any medium -- music, film, theatre, literature, sculpture, painting -- there exists a gap between the vision in their head and what comes out on whichever canvas they choose. For some, the distance between vision and reality is not far; Alfred Hitchcock used to say he had every frame of his films shot in his head before he actually started a film's pre-production. Shoots, then, for the most part were quick and easy -- and he churned out one film after another, most of them uniformly excellent.
For others -- notably, musicians like Lucinda Williams, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel -- the distance between artistic vision and actual output can be a chasm -- as wide as the years between their releases. The vision in their head may be clear, but translating that onto tape is a process more tortuous than even they can describe. Artists such as these are labeled perfectionists, consummate nitpickers who will not send their work out into the world until it's perfect. And yet, because perfection does not exist in the real world, is their belief that they can capture it belie a certain vanity? A vanity that they can create perfection -- even if it's only their own personal idea of perfection?
"That's a really interesting question," says Johnson sitting up straight. "In that light, yeah, I think there is a real vanity to me about my music. But I don't know if that's the complete description of what it is, because you try and do the best you can. I don't know. That's real baffling. I think if it was only vanity, then not only would I want to get it perfect, but then I'd want to sit around and listen to it forever. To me, once I finish my records I never listen to them. I'm not very attached to them. I'm not sure what the driving force is to get 'em as good as I can."
Sitting in his cramped rehearsal space somewhere off North Loop, Johnson is clearly intrigued by a discussion about the inherent difficulties of translating artistic vision into something concrete. He stares a moment at the tape recorder on the music stand between us. It is quiet. In the next room, stacks and stacks of black equipment cases, stenciled with the initials "E.J." sit silently by the loading bay door. Outside a steady drizzle continues. In this room, a rather dingy, oblong space where Johnson spends much of his time practicing by himself, is a clutter of shelves, empty amp cabinets, and a series of tall sound partitions so that one might escape the roar from the Marshals that sit behind Johnson. There's a giant effects board at his feet -- as well as the dirty brown rug that covers the floor -- and other than the chair he sits on and the stool on which I'm perched, there's little else -- except another framed picture of James Marshall Hendrix half hidden in the corner. Though faded, it provides a familiar spark to the dim surroundings.
And spark is precisely what the subject of vanity and artistic vision have done to Johnson, who is now "all lathered up."
"I think it was growing up on a lot of classical music, and just hearing the expertise that a lot of those musicians have," he begins. "And somehow or another, I've gotten into this fantasia thing of wanting to try to put as much as I can into whatever kind of music I'm doing. So, I'm having to always reach for something that I can't quite do. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do it. It's a bit of a swimming upstream.
"There are people like [classical pianist] Glenn Gould. They go into the studio, and their level of expertise and what they can do in one night is nothing short of amazing. And I marvel at that kind of thing, thinking `Well, how can I put that in my music?' But in the translation of me putting it into my music, instead of taking a day, it takes forever. All I can do is say, `God, these guys! Not only are they really, really talented, but they're just so focused.' There's not unnecessary filters between what they're executing and that flow. And those filters can be ego, vanity -- too many other things going on in life. Whatever.
"This might be arguable, but, typically, I think pop music breeds more of those liabilities than other styles of music, because in the many faces of pop, the percentile of the art seems to be less than the percentile of the art comprised in the many faces of other music. Like in classical or jazz, a large piece of that percentile is music, and less of it seems to be getting promo pictures right or the make-up right, or getting to the TV station on time. But in pop music, the percentile of music to everything else is dwarfed. So you have all these other factors that come into play. Given that equation, it's just more complicated.
"I think this can potentially cause a psychic erosion on artists eventually, so they have to devise their own ways of weather-proofing against that. One protection for me is to listen to musicians I really admire, like Glenn Gould, and go, `Well, no matter how much I practice my whole life, I'll just still be..." He pauses a moment.
"It's just a reality check no matter how good you think you might get."
But has being a guitar icon caused your artistic vision to erode?
"If I'm honest with myself, it has some. If you have a record that is a little successful. Then it's like, `Well, what am I gonna do now? Will this next one be good? What do I do? Is this right? Am I getting the right sound? Are the songs okay? I'm coming to a place in myself where it doesn't feel like erosion to me. I feel there are issues I have to deal with, but I don't really feel taken off balance by them. To me, it's more of a question of trying to stay true to my vision."
But can the vision in your head ever match what gets put down on tape?
"I don't think so. It's like there'll never be a copy of a picture that's as good as the picture. Or maybe there will, I don't know. I guess a copy will always be a copy and that absolute vision -- when you put it in earth terms or whatever -- I don't think can ever be [captured]. It's probably best that it isn't, 'cause if it ever was then you'd go `Well, I finally did it. Okay, I can stop now.'
The StudioNot only did royalty checks from Ah Via Musicom enable Johnson to buy a house in his hometown, they also made it possible for the guitarist to craft something even more beholden to his standards of perfection: a studio. And like his recording process, building this studio has been slow, methodical, and has taken years. Nearly four, to be exact. "Every time I get some more money, I put it into the studio," explains Johnson. Today, his dollars are hard at work.
Besides producer Mullen, and manager Joe Priesnitz, contractor Brian Hernandez, and acoustic engineer Ken Dickensheets are at the site today ("Just say that it's somewhere in South Travis County," says Priesnitz.) Everyone seems to be happy with the acoustics in the cathedral-like main room of the studio, but there are questions about the air-conditioning ducts -- the number, their locations, and their role in the acoustic alchemy that makes up the room where Johnson will do the bulk of his future recording. Dickensheets, who's responsible for the crystalline sound in the University of Texas' Bass Concert Hall and the P.A. in Texas Stadium, assures Johnson everything will be fine. But Johnson hedges.
What about the lights? And the rug? How will they affect the acoustics? Priesnitz looks a little worried, but Dickensheets answers each one of Johnson's questions with confidence and ease. By now he's used to the musician's attention to even the most minute details. He looks up at the ceiling, and smiles. Everything will be fine. Now, Johnson looks worried. Though soft-spoken and mild-mannered, he's also persistent. For every answer, there are two more queries, and each one seems to test a different law of physics.
Next, it's Hernandez's turn. What about a cabinet for all of the guitarist's gear? Will it be inside or out? Wood or metal? And the alarm system? What's the response time from the police out here? The group moves towards the heavily sound-proofed drum booth just off the main room, discussing 100 different things that have to be taken care of by September 1, the day Johnson would like to move in for band rehearsals. The G3 tour, featuring Johnson, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai, kicks off October 11, leaving just six weeks of rehearsal time for a new band and a guitarist who has not played out in over a year.
Mullen, meanwhile, sits on the long work table in the middle of the room, dangling his feet and looking up at the two large scaffolds on which sit acoustic tiles that still need to be imbedded into the ceiling. "I'm still wondering whether they're gonna put a window in the console room, so I can see what Eric's doing," he says motioning towards the back wall, which separates this room from what will ostensibly be his room. That room is in more disarray than the main room, and as for the living quarters that will be in the back of this self-contained building, they haven't even started building the second floor. That's going to have to wait until royalty checks from Venus Isle need cashing. The question is, how large will those checks be?
Venus Isle, besides being only his third album in 11 years, is also Johnson's most challenging. More ethereal (some will say `New Agey') than Ah Via Musicom, it's actually closer to Tones in feel, reaching for some gossamer vision of beauty that will undoubtable challenge the AOR air guitarists who pushed Johnson's last album to its near platinum status. Clearly, Johnson is concerned about this, but what's done is done.
"Obviously, this record's not sincere in the fact that I overdubbed -- well, I won't say `not sincere.' It's not spontaneous in the fact that I really worked at it for several years," says Johnson, now sitting cross-legged on the work table. "There's no question about that. But musically, I feel it's one of the most sincere records I've made, 'cause it's more of what I really feel. Maybe me trying to get in touch with myself, and what I really felt was what was hard for me to do and took me so long. But a lot of what I really want to do is not just be funneled into that guitar thing."
In fact, guitars are what Johnson spent the least amount of time working on for the new album.
"On Musicom, I spent a long time doing the leads -- over and over, trying to get them just right. On this record, one of the shortest things on the whole record was the lead guitars. I just ran out of time," he says laughing. "I ran out of time, and the record company said, `Look, you've got to turn it in on this day or else.' So I just did all the leads. So, I guess I could do a record quicker, but as long they'll let you, why not take five years?"
He bursts out laughing again. "No. Just kidding."
Despite their apparently getting short-shrifted in the studio, however, guitars are still the dominating force on Venus Isle -- particularly on the instrumental numbers such as the album's first single, "Pavilion," or "Manhattan," and "Camel's Night Out." And the best of the lot is perhaps the simplest, "SRV," the one that pays homage to another guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"I think I started working on that really soon after Stevie died," says Johnson. "I was just thinking about him -- just kind of paying a tribute to him." When I suggest that the tune's simplicity and lyric melody might well transform "SRV" into one of his signature songs, a la "Cliffs of Dover," Johnson, as always, searches for the truth in his answer.
"I don't know. It's hard for me to say. From feedback I've gotten on the record, some people have gone, `Yeah, I like that, it's pretty nice.' Other people are like, `Yeah, that's my favorite track.' I wish that it turned out a little bit better than it did. To me, it didn't quite turn out the way I wanted it to. I mean, I think it turned out fine, but to me, it didn't turn out as strong as, say, `Manhattan.' For some reason, it was kind of slippery to hold on to -- getting it to turn out the way I wanted. Finally, I just did the best I could."
Not quite as slippery was Jimmie Vaughan, who contributed some licks to "SRV" even though Johnson hadn't planned it that way. "That was never the planned intention -- `We'll get Jimmie on "SRV,"'" explains Johnson. "It just kind of worked out that way. Initially, it was a completely separate idea. It was just, `I'd like Jimmie to come in, 'cause I admire his playing...' He's a fine player. His inflections in his signature style of how he plays the blues is very admirable. More than that, he's such a great pocket player -- rhythm player. He really knows how to set a groove. That's a lot easier said than done."
Johnson may soon find this out for himself as he plans to do a "spontaneous" recording of his own blues project, Alien Love Child, as soon as he gets off the road. It will be the first project in his new studio, and the beginning of what the guitarist hopes will be a whole new approach to his standard operational recording procedures.
"Ever since I was a kid, it was a dream of mine to have a studio to work in. I think one nice thing about getting in a recording environment where I can stay is that when I want, I can just go and record a song or two. It won't be that fatigue of, `Okay, let's all of a sudden come up with 15 songs.' For me, it'll be better. I'm hoping to have things set up here to where I can look forward to recording, because I'm only going to do one or two songs. Then after that, when I'm tired of doing that, I can go on the road or take a break. It won't be that inundated feeling of carrying the U.S.S. Nimitz on my back."
A Slight ReturnThree weeks later, Johnson's studio no longer resembles a construction war zone -- not the main studio anyway, which has been transformed into rehearsal space for the guitarist's new road band. Even the faded picture of Hendrix from his previous rehearsal digs has made the trip and sits in the corner.
Gathered around Johnson are bassist Roscoe Beck, keyboardist Steve Barber, both associated with the guitarist since the mid-Seventies and the Electromagnets, and drummer Brannen Temple. The four are conferring on one of four or five new songs that will get their debut on the G3 tour. After a few minutes, consensus is reached and each musician takes his chart and a place in a semi-circle around Johnson, who sits in a chair with his red Gibson. The new tune is a languid, Wes Montgomery-type piece with odd, yet lulling, rhythms. They run through it several times until Johnson is satisfied.
"Wanna try `Soulful'? asks Barber, referring to "Soulful Terrain," the first cut from Tones. Nods of agreement. Johnson plays a few quick bars of "Communication Breakdown," as the band settles itself, and Temple clicks off into the start of the song. The band erupts into a controlled roar, but by the end of the tune Barber has lost his way. Let's try it again. Take two. Barber is still having trouble. "You want power chords in that middle section?" he asks. The guitarist confers for a moment with his keyboardist, this time dashing off a quick flash of "Crossroads," and the band runs through the song again. No good. Barber can't quite nail it.
Finally, Johnson steps over to Barber and starts describing what he wants, and it's then that a line from one of our previous interviews echoes back: "Certain notes have certain colors." I can't hear what Johnson is saying, but I'm certain that in his head there's a rainbow of colors he's trying to put into words -- a rainbow of colors that are in direct contrast to the rest of his world. Are those bright neons on the Disraeli Gears lithograph the colors in Johnson's head?
Now, I'm hearing Jack Bruce: "Many fantastic colors makes me feel so good. You've got that pure feel, such good responses, got that rainbow feel, but the rainbow has a beard." A beard? What the hell -- artistic vision is unique. We will never know what any artist's true vision is, leaving us, perhaps, with a line from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid: "I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals." n The G3 tour arrives at the Austin Music Hall October 17.