Eric Johnson - Moving Beyond Perfection

Eric Johnson has turned over a new leaf. He has finally decided to shake the reputation and the reality of taking as long as six years between albums. He has decided that it is no longer worth his time to worry whether or not the brand of battery in his stompboxes is ruining the tone emanating from his rig.

Live and Beyond changes everything for Johnson. The new release was, uncharacteristically for Johnson, recorded in an Austin nightclub last January after only a few performances with his side-project group, Alien Love Child. The 10-track disc shows a much more relaxed attitude on Johnson's part, not only for his playing which is of course stellar but in his epic quest for tone and his previously unrelenting habit of re-recording (and re-recording, and re-recording) tracks before releasing them to the public.

Johnson scored big with the release of his classic 1990 album Ah! Via Musicom, from which the instrumental hit "Cliffs of Dover" became one of the most heavily played tracks on mainstream rock radio. Despite little fanfare for his 1986 release, Tones, the Austin, Texas, guitar slinger suddenly went international in the early '90s, touring the world and refreshing the entire genre of instrumental rock guitar. It was a long wait for his next release, however. Venus Isle was delayed mostly by Eric while he overdubbed and re-dubbed track after track until 1996. And while the album reaffirmed his mastery of the instrument, and his place in the annals of guitar heroics, it was somewhat less energetic than many fans had hoped for.

Johnson has now seemingly overcome his addiction to studio knob tweaking, and has hit the road with a much more improvisational project that should leave guitar fans breathless. In this exclusive interview, Johnson discusses Live and Beyond, his upcoming studio album, a hoped-for acoustic recording in the near future, his gear, and much more. What did it take for you to go through with recording and releasing a live album without years of studio tweaking?

Eric Johnson: Just kinda trying something new. I enjoyed the process actually. For so many years everybody has suggested that I do a live record and I've always thought, "Yeah, maybe I'll do that someday." This came along and I thought maybe it was a good time to do it and I decided if I was going to make a live record, I wanted to really make a live record and not take it in the studio and re-do the whole thing. So consequently that's pretty much what it is. There is one tune that I overdubbed guitar on, "Once a Part of Me." I fixed some guitar on that because the vocal performance by Malford Milligan was really nice. Everybody liked it and wanted to put it on the record, but I had to work the guitar on that. But other than that the record really is a live record. Has this experience affected your feelings for perfection vs. spontaneous inspiration?

Johnson: Oh definitely. It has been a really helpful record for me to make. It made me realize I should try to go with the flow. I'll never really feel there's anything wrong with perfection, because if you think about the lineage or long history of music or art or invention or anything, you can cite, ad infinitum, a benefit to it. I think the thing is, where do you place it? Where do you use it. I think it's a little of course if I practice perfection making a record, rather than practice perfection rehearsing and try to get better so that I can be spontaneous when I record or perform. My personal feeling is there wasn't so much a problem with being somewhat perfectionist as it is where do you use it. It's like a tool. If I don't use it in the right place, which I have done a little bit in the past, that's what it's all about. I imagine you have spent a lot of time in the past in the studio recording things over and over until you got it right?

Johnson: Right. And see, the problem with that is that where I should spend the time is rehearsing and practicing on the instrument. It's not a question of getting better to play faster, obviously, but getting better as far as becoming a consummate musician- a 360 degree artist. If you spend your time undyingly doing that, then you did the discipline to give yourself the freedom to not do that in the studio. That's what I'd rather see myself doing.

I think this record was cathartic for me in that it made me realize that: Put that tool in a different place, as in working on your playing and your performance level when you're by yourself or rehearsing, so that later you don't have to call upon that and get caught in some kind of Pandora's box. It can happen real easy in that situation. So how will this live release affect your musical output from now on?

Johnson: I think instead of taking 10 years it'll take me eight years [laughs]. No, I hope that it will have a big effect. I would like to think it's going to make me have more discipline at working smarter not necessarily harder at writing songs and practicing guitar. To where I really efficiently utilize my time. If I change the integrity of my playing, I'm hoping that I change it for the better, or the broader. I don't want to say, "Well that's good enough." This is the new me: That's good enough. And it's just trashy.

I think that if I do my homework in an efficient way I'll have an even better integrity, but I'll have that spontaneity without doing it over and over and over. I think another thing is kind of going with the flow. If there's 5,000 ways to do something, you don't necessarily have to try all 5,000 before you make a decision. You can try the others later. There's always plenty more music to go around. I think it's going to have an affect on me. I enjoyed doing it. Sometimes some of the stuff that was kind of not quite right, after I listened to it later it didn't really bother me that much. You mentioned doing your homework, or being efficient in the way that you practice. What do you work on at home?

Johnson: I think I tend usually just to play, but in a way where its almost more like self-entertainment. It's kind of hard to choose the words because I don't want to get trapped by what I might say. It's not that I don't want to be self-entertaining or enjoy what I do obviously that's the most important thing. But there's a way where you can get down to business and work on what you need to do to where you can have more fun with it later on. I think sometimes I have a tendency to dally around and just play this or that, and not really be as efficient as I could be. Do you or have you in the past worked on different styles, outside of what your fans might expect from you?

Johnson: Yeah. I have a studio record on which I have seven songs totally mixed and finished; I've got to do about four or five more to put with it. But there's one song on that record, called "Hesitant," that's real different than anything I've ever put out. It's stuff that I want to learn and kind of grow that way concurrent with whatever else I do, but it's a real departure for me. It's a straight-ahead jazz piece with a jazz guitar and upright bass. It's the first time I've ever recorded a real straight-ahead [jazz] piece. It turned out nice. I'm kind of curious about doing some more of that, and some more acoustic stuff in the future. Who are some of your biggest jazz influences?

Johnson: I'd say Wes Montgomery. And I like Bill Evans' piano playing. I like Michael Stern for the fusion thing. George Van Epps was great. Does this piece reflect those influences?

Johnson: I think it does. It reflects the Wes thing more than anything. I've had songs like "Manhattan," [from the album Venus Isle] which is kind of Wes-influenced. That's kind of a jazz-influenced piece, but not really. This piece really is reminiscent of that kind of thing. I'm starting to work on changes and more chord voicing, and the tone. It's much more in that direction than anything else I've done in the past. What kind of a chord progression? Something with some I-vi-ii-V changes and ii-V-Is?

Johnson: Yeah, with a lot of interesting voicings. Some of the voicings are more like Herbie Hancock keyboard voicings. It's me trying to play through changes, rather than me trying to play over one or two chords. There was a short tune on Ah! Via Musicom called "Steve's Boogie" that was in a country boogie style. That kind of fingerpicking takes most people years to accomplish, yet you learned it, recorded it once, and then never revisited the style again. Why?

Johnson: It's weird. Kind of as a footnote as to what I practice: I think one of my things is that I'm not really an aficionado in any style. I kind of dabble in a million different styles. I think that's musically challenging, but maybe in a way it impedes your efficiency. I kind of go from one flower to another. I'd actually like to do some more stuff like that. There's a producer from Nashville who has a small budget to do a country record, so we've been talking about that to do a whole album of that kind of stuff. I might do that, but it's hard to find a way to do it all. I might get some co-producers to help me with that, to get some people involved. It would be nice to do. That's a really fun style to play and you really tore it up. I wonder, how can you learn a style so well, and then just set it aside?

Johnson: I've played that all along. I didn't put it on the first record. Actually I have a piece on the upcoming record that's like that as well. The record that has this jazz piece has a piece like that as well. You also mentioned an acoustic recording. Is that in the near future?

Johnson: I hope so, yeah. I've got the songs. I've done some gigs and recorded the gigs. I have all the songs cataloged and I've got an albums worth of stuff. So hopefully I'll get together sometime. How does your acoustic playing differ from your electric playing?

Johnson: It's more folk-classical. I don't play with a pick very much. It's all fingerpicking. Is there anything that you've learned from acoustic that youve been able to apply to electric?

Johnson: Yeah, the fingerpicking thing. And also the use of playing chords and lead at the same time. I can kind of get two parts going at the same time, contrapuntal type stuff. If you're playing solo acoustic a lot of times it's really helpful to get the bass and the melody going at the same time. That Chet Atkins kind of thing.

Johnson: Yeah, right. You've done some playing with him too.

Johnson: I have. I worked on one of his records, Read My Licks. That was really great. He's a really interesting guy. Very funny. He sent me the tapes to play on and one of the songs went fine, but on another song, all I could hear was this acoustic kind of thing. So I spent a whole day putting this part down and I was real proud of it. I sent it to him and he sent the tape back to me and said, "I don't want you to sound like me, I want you to sound like you." So I re-did it on electric. How would you say your playing has grown since Venus Isle?

Johnson: I'm trying to learn more chord changes and more melodic playing through changes. And also just trying to refine my sound, where it's a little more pure. And to play a little more spontaneous. The live record is all improvised solos. I'm trying to get a larger percentage of that. And your next album is mostly done?

Johnson: Yeah, seven songs are done. If I had my choice I'd like to have 14 songs on that studio record, which would be seven more. But if that ends up taking a long time, I'll settle for 11 or 12, I guess. And I have four or five of the basic tracks on those already cut, so it's just a matter of getting off the road and into the studio and finishing it up. So that album is moving along more quickly than the last one, Venus Isle, did?

Johnson: Yeah, it really has. I spent about a year, off and on, on the seven tracks. I haven't really touched it since December because we did the live Alien thing in January and then mixed and mastered that, and now we're playing gigs. Now I'm getting to a place where I can get back and start working on it. You've mentioned the jazz piece and the country boogie piece. Can you give us a description of the rest of the record?

Johnson: It's more guitar oriented than Venus Isle. But at the same time I'm trying to pick up on something I tried to do on Venus Isle, though maybe I didn't quite hit the mark. I'm trying to just work on the songs. I'm still trying to figure out a way to marry the songs with the guitar playing. This studio record is definitely going to be a song record, as opposed to the Alien thing, which is more just blowing solos. I'm trying to make sure there's plenty of guitar on it, but in a way that's supportive of the songs. It seems like you've come to a point in life where you're feeling more free and easy about your equipment and your recordings and your performances.

Johnson: Yeah. I'm still getting out of a place where I spend an exorbitant amount of time fiddling with my stuff, trying to improve it, trying to always make it sound better. But in the last month I'm kind of starting to get out of that. Partially because I'm finally starting to be happy with what I'm getting. If what comes out of the speaker is not absolutely great, then you spend a crazy amount of time trying to deflect all the problems and get the mic at some bizarre angle where it doesnt pick up the rubbish and only gets the tone, which can be a real nightmare.

Most guitarists will agree that they'll be in a room playing their guitar, then they'll listen to the playback and ask, "What happened to my sound?" Some of the reality is that if it doesn't come out of the speaker right we hear it bouncing around the room thinking it's sounding better than it actually is. The mics picking it up right out of the speaker, and the sound isn't actually as good as we're dreaming it is because were listening to the room. So I've been trying to purify it to where what actually comes out of the speaker is more usable. But I'm trying to let go of that because I'm finally happy with it. You have used the input of visitors to your website in choosing your musical direction these days. Is that so?

Johnson: I like to hear what people have to say. Audiences or fans or whoever respond from the heart. Does something move them or touch them or inspire them, or does it not? It's a simple equation. You can never underestimate the power and the beauty of that. That's more sublime than somebody that went to eight years of Julliard. The audience doesn't know the cadence or the incredibly complicated this or that, but that doesn't mean that they're not extremely hip and have a good ear, and a good suggestion that should be considered, at least partially, in what you do. So, if I play a show and the audience claps real loud on one tune, and then the next they clap half as loud, there's a reason for that. There's a reason for me to go home and think about that. It's not so much, "Why didn't they?" so I can sell more records, but maybe it wasn't that good a piece of music. Maybe it needs some work. When you take Alien Love Child on the road, how will your set differ from what your fans have seen in the past?

Johnson: Well definitely incorporate these songs, which will be more of an improvised thing. This whole thing is pretty much just set up the tune and then improvise. And were going to try to do a cross section of a whole bunch of stuff. I've gone back to do things off Tones and Ah! Via Musicom that I haven't done for awhile. We might even play a couple of new tunes that will be on the new record.

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