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Eric Johnson

Talking to Eric Johnson

Accomplished guitar ace Eric Johnson is renowned for his varied and atmospheric playing and performances, but now he’s opting to loosen up just a little and his latest album features blues-rock contributions from not only Jonny Lang and Sonny Landreth but roots music alumnus Steve Miller. It’s on Mascot / Provogue and is called ‘Up Close – Another Look’ and even on a first listen displays Johnson’s great playing, a set of interesting and sometimes downright enthralling tunes, with a real blues element that still sounds fresh and cliché-free.    Time to call the man in Austin, Texas and discover where he is at, creatively….

FH : Firstly, thanks for your time Eric – I know you are preparing for the tour dates, which do include the UK

EJ: Fine, thanks for suggesting the article…

I’ve already reviewed the album and put that into the magazine to get it into the next issue so that should be coming out as you arrive here for the shows. (A link to the album review is given to Eric – PS)  I’ve been listening to the album and the way it plays with the guests you have on there as well as your own playing it makes it very much a treat for rock and blues fans. What was your intention in doing this edition?

You mean doing this second version? The first version to me it has kinda ways of my recording habits which I really want to try and get away from. Cooped up in the studio, playing stuff over and over, too many tracks on everything at times.  This second version wasn’t like a complete redo more of an opportunity. I thought well I’m coming over to Europe, let’s just do an experiment. Let’s go back and address a few things that were bugging me which namely were… well, on three or four of the tracks I just played the rhythm guitar straight just to get a performance and then added some of the guitar overdubs. Kinda remix it, a little bit more of an intimate mix than it was. It’s still the record it was, it’s just it was a step to a new approach that I want to do more and more of. Get to more where you just play in the studio. It was a personal experiment for me – just see what it does, how it all sounds. I was very taken with the fact that with very little performance where you go for recording performance the difference in the vibe means that if I did this from the start it would be a real plus.

You’re talking about the connection of the dynamic with your audience, aren’t you?

Yeah, absolutely, Pete. I think it’s hard to think about everything when you are recording. Obviously, you wanna play great, get a good sound, you’ve gotta have a good song for everyone else to play… In recording there’s a lot of things that come into play and I think to be really honest that I’ve been too concerned with all these issues that are important but above and beyond all that, you’ve gotta get a magic thing happening where you have a certain emotional attractiveness I think that some of the recordings I’ve done have not had enough of that purely because I’ve been thinking about everything else. There’s so many aspects to recording that you’ve gotta decide what are the most important and really put those upfront.

The way I look at it is, in my own humble way I do lots of live shows that attempt to connect with the audience and the connection is more important than the technicalities of the music. It’s hard to say that to a very accomplished player like you. But it boils down to moving that audience and maybe it’s sometimes a blend of simpler elements that make that connection.

Yeah absolutely…

Eric, when does a painter stop painting? There must be a point when a painter says I’ve done this picture I’ve got the shapes, the colours, the detail I want.

(Laughs) I imagine with a painter it’s the paint about three inches thick!

I had a conversation with your buddy Sonny Landreth and his last album was a series of paintings for your ears…but not overloaded

Yeah. I think that when you do more you can start losing some of the magic, you pay too high a price. Sure, you can keep going and get all these extra bells and whistles or all these extra tricky things, but the price is too high, you lose something out.

The other corollary is Eric, when sound first became available to filmmakers, all the actors were voluble, they didn’t stop talking! Because they could now use that facility. It was a while before films settled back to people talking at normal speed and not machine-gunning the dialogue.

Yeah, that’s a good point. I guess everybody was caught up in the novelty

You’re a clever lad Eric. You can use thirty two, forty eight tracks… But do you need to?

(Sighs) Yeah, exactly.

Sonny was very honoured to be playing on your record, the reflective track at the end.

He’s great, one of my favourite players. I really like him a lot.

I find him a very nice spirited guy. He was truly very honoured to play on the track ‘Your Book’ wasn’t it? Who’s singing on ‘A Change Has Come To Me’ ?

Yeah, lead vocal is me. Jason, a friend from Nashville is singing background vocals.

I reviewed the record without knowing who was guesting on what I thought that song might have been autobiographical and that few people use flanging as well as Eric does here. There’s that Hendrixy tinge to it, which doesn’t seem to occur till you get to that number. That struck me as very personal, maybe I’m wrong. The record goes through many moods but the most laid-back moment might be the Steve Miller spot there ( ‘Texas’ )

I know him, not super well but we’ve done a bunch of tours together. We had already talked about recording something together. He was just in town to do a show and I was doing a show. So we just managed to cut this blues thing live.

He’s from Chicago isn’t he?

Yeah, he’s originally from Dallas, Texas but he moved to Chicago and was riding a rally good time in the sixties with a lot of great blues artists. He’s a real blues music afficionado.

He’s always wanted to do more blues stuff. I think he tries to pt it in his sets live as it’s his personal love. But then he has to cater to his audience, as well.

I think he gets the balance right. The best shows are when you play for your audience but you also play for yourself. I think we are all allowed to do that in a live setting. The other thing, my son wanted me to ask about  the album track that really blows our heads off being ‘Austin’ with Jonny Lang singing.  This powerful, sweeping sound behind him… Please tell me about this one.

That was just… I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan, so is Jonny..I constantly listen to Stevie Wonder a lot of the old stuff… and Jonny sings so well on that track.

Wonder, yes…‘Innervisions’ ? ‘Talking Book’ ? With Jeff Beck.

Absolutely. What song was it that he played on?…

He made a whole album over at Motown, with James Jamerson et al, but they never released it.

Really? I didn’t know that… Oh man have you ever heard it?

The nearest he came to that sound on a release was in the JBG era with Bobby Tench e.g. ‘I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel for You’

Oh yeah, that album…yeah

Obviously, your friends with all these singers… I found it strange that on one of the tracks you didn’t have a female vocalist with you. It was ‘Arithmetic’. Would have been a great duet.

That would have been nice with a female voice. I’ve got a number of songs I would love to have some female vocalists on. But yes that could have been done with a female vocalist.

I’m not your producer!

( Pondering) …It would be cool.

When you’re playing live here soon what’s your intention in terms of lineup and material, Eric?

Well probably just play stuff off all the records and a number of new things. I have some solo acoustic ideas so it’s not all electric guitar.

Acoustic sets work well in the UK because people do like to see that different side of you and hear the more reflective side of what you’re doing. Who’s in your lineup?

Chris Marsh on bass, Wayne Salzmann is playing drums and we’ve been playing a couple of years. I’ve known Chris for a long time and Wayne and I have played together for a while.

This just came into my head and it may be a myth but it is said that you can tell which guitar cord or cable your playing through without looking !…?

No not really, it’s just the direction of the chord will make a difference. Someone’s misinterpreted that!  I’ve always used that George L cable, I think it just sounds good.

Someone slightly exaggerated it somewhere. But that is why we talk to you guys to get the real deal! When you’re playing live do you record your shows? Zappa used to do this.

We have been lately. Like doing a video and digital recording. Sometimes just to review it and listen back

It’s not a bad thing to do. Frank said everybody plays their best when they know they’re being recorded. They wanna get their chops together.

Interesting. I think that’s quite true. Some people do get more inhibited when they’re being recorded. I appreciate it can go both ways.

Mind you, the standard of his musicians… he’s still the guitarist that frightens me the most.

He was amazing. I saw Dweezil Zappa play last week. He really gets better all the time. He does a wonderful job with his band , doing his dad’s music.

As did the Brubeck kids, playing dad’s music around the world… You live in Austin don’t you?

I do. I was born here then I moved away for a while.

But when you speak you sound like Iggy Pop than a Texan.

Oh really? I guess it’s just travelling and stuff.

The only trouble with ‘Up Close – Another Look’ is that I can’t pick a typical track to play to people. If someone asks to hear an Eric Johnson track I struggle to choose just one. There just isn’t a typical track of yours is there?

Yeah you know sometimes I think if you have a more of a focus maybe its better fir your career because you can have an identity that way. Maybe my biggest identity is just playing guitar. I think the reason I don’t establish myself hat way is because I have too many other things I’m interested in. It’s never been an agenda of mine.  I’ve never set out… it just happens by default because you know ‘Cliffs of Dover’ came out and all of a sudden it was like that’s what you do. It’s always been my focus to just play music. At the sake of maybe having less career focus I’d prefer just to enjoy playing music.

I think you make better music if you just stay a fan of other artists.

Yeah it keeps that passion alive.

What I like about you is that you’re not just a play fast merchant.

Well thanks. I come over to me speed is a dangerous area because it can get one-dimensional.

Exactly right.

With Jimi Hendrix for example it wasn’t at all one-dimensional. It was about the songs and the lyrics with the extra thing of the guitar playing. It was really… When I think of Hendrix, the first thing I think of is songs like ‘One Rainy Wish, or May this Be Love or ‘Voodoo Chile the slow version

If I think of Jimi when I have a guitar on – and I did see him play live once – I think of ‘Wind Cries Mary’.

Yeah! Great song…that’s why he’s so timeless. Like Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. It’s because it’s music… It was definitely the Hendrix records like ‘Axis’ that set me off playing. And really the Cream records, especially ‘Wheels of Fire’. That was huge for me, I played it over and over again.

‘Deserted Cities of the Heart’… I’ve told Jack (Bruce) and Pete (Brown) that’s the one for me!  Anyway, thanks for this chat. Enjoy your tour, we may be at the London date

You’re welcome, thank you very much and it would be good if you could come to the London show

Pete Sargeant

Eric Johnson’s new album “Up Close – Another Look” is released by Provogue Records on Monday April 1st.  UK tour dates include London o2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (April 3), Harrogate Theatre (April 4), Edinburgh Queen’s Hall (April 5), Manchester R.N.C.M. (April 6), Birmingham Town Hall (April 7), Salisbury City Hall (April 8).  24 Hour Box Office: 0844 478 0898,  More info: .

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