Renaissance man Jack Johnson faces the music

BY JEFF LEVEN

‘I used to have a punk band in high school called Liver Chicken, and it was just basically a Minor Threat cover band.’

–Jack Johnson

Due diligence. A few months ago my brother tips me off to this album Brushfire Fairytales, by this Hawaiian guy named Jack Johnson. I give it a couple spins — great voice, elegant yet simple guitar, an enchanting and mellow Sunday afternoon sort of album. Play it for a couple of friends — unanimous appeal. Ben Harper has a cameo on “Flake,” and Dave Matthews has a rival on just about every song. So it turns out he’s coming to Boston. I set up an interview. I read up on the guy, and discover that, well, he’s a pro surfer, sponsored by Quiksilver, one of the best in the world. And beyond that he’s a cinematographer whose two surf films, “Thicker Than Water” and “The September Sessions,” are award-winning documentaries in their own right. And now there’s this great album. Filmmaker, troubador, runner of the waves. Renaissance man if I’ve ever seen one ….

For a Renaissance man, Jack Johnson’s a pretty quiet guy. Bundled up against the freezing wind, he makes his way into the Paradise Rock Club with a subdued confidence. He looks around, spots me and my tape recorder gives a slight nod. “Let’s bust this interview” he says with a smile, and so:

RECORD: Did you bring your board on this one?

Johnson: Yeah. I’ve only used it twice. I used it out at Charleston and at Myrtle Beach. I brought my skateboard, too, so I’ve been skating every day. It’s good, I just try to find a hill. I’ve found hills in every town.

R: Where did this album fall between “The September Sessions” and “Thicker Than Water”? Did this come after you finished both of those?

J: Yeah, I did “Thicker than Water” and then I did “The September Sessions,” and then I did the album.

R: Was this something you wanted to do for a while and it was just a matter of timing?

J: No, not really. I mean I always made four-track tapes for my friends and stuff like that, but I never really pictured putting an album out. I guess right before I did “The September Sessions,” I already had that trip all planned and then I hooked up with G. Love and Special Sauce and did that song “Rodeo Clowns” with them. And that’s what jump-started the whole thing of having record companies approach me and stuff. It was good and bad timing. I already had the trip all planned, so I basically went off and shot that film and spent a little while making the film and doing all that stuff and then kind of put if off for six months, and then I did the record after that.

R: So you’d had the songs for a while?

J: Yeah, I had the songs for three years or so. One of the songs, “It’s All Understood,” the last song on the record, I wrote while I was in the studio, just kind of made it up right there, and then one song was written on the trip that I filmed “September Sessions” on. “F-Stop Blues” was written on that trip.

R: It’s interesting, I think that one has the most Hawaiian feel on the album.

J: Yeah, people say it feels like the ocean or something.

R: I’m sure a lot of people have been asking about the Ben Harper collaboration. How did that come about?

J: Yeah, basically, J.P. Plunier who is Ben Harper’s producer/manager is a surfer and I knew him for a while, and he just started inviting me to Ben’s shows and stuff, and I was a big fan of Ben’s so I met Ben a couple of times at shows and like a year after I knew J.P. …. He was just a surfer, and so he would come in when I was editing those surf movies and watch the footage and stuff like that, and so that’s kind of how I knew him, and about a year later he got a four-track tape of mine and gave me a call and — he didn’t even know I played music or anything — just said he really liked it and he was really busy at the time. So it actually worked out — because while I shot “September Sessions” he was real busy, too. I went off for six months and did all the movie stuff and then he did a bunch of stuff — he was on tour with Ben and stuff, and then all of a sudden he had a little break and I had a little break, so we just recorded the record real quick. But I guess in the meantime he had passed off the four-track tape to Ben, and Ben came to one of my shows when I was first just starting to play out live before we recorded the record or anything, and he told me he was really excited to hear it once we had basic drums on it and everything, and then it just happened that he was in town. We spent a week in the studio and he happened to be home for two of the days and came in.

R: Had he worked anything out for “Flake” when he came in?

J: No, I think he just sat down and listened to everything we’d recorded at that point and then just kind of dug that one. I mean, we’d recorded it that way even without him on it and then he just sat down and did that and that was really cool … It’s my favorite.

R: Who else do you listen to?

J: Contemporary people like G. Love and Special Sauce, too. I like their group a lot. And then going backwards, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, that kind of stuff. Light-hearted hip-hop stuff, and then a lot of older stuff like Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens and Nick Drake … Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and John Lennon stuff. Just loads of people, you know? In high school I listened to Bad Religion, Minor Threat and Fugazi a lot.

R: I was going to say, with the surf thing the music runs the gamut from punk stuff to …

J: I used to have a punk band in high school called Liver Chicken, and it was just basically a Minor Threat cover band. That’s all we did. And then a couple of Fugazi songs. I just listened to everything growing up. I got really into Sepultura and Slayer and stuff for a little while, too. Just because I was learning the guitar, and all that distortion and stuff is fun when you’re learning how to play. But then I started travelling a lot, so I’d always have an acoustic guitar with me, and I’d just start writing songs that way.

R: If you could have any band cover a Jack Johnson song, who would you have cover which song?

J: That’s an interesting question. Usually it’s the other way — “whose song do you want to cover?” I’d love to hear Sade sing a song. Maybe this song “Taylor;” it’s a new song. It would be more fun to pick one off “Brushfire Fairytales,” so … let me think … (“Fortunate Fool”) … yeah, “Fortunate Fool” would be nice, “F-Stop Blues” maybe … or to hear the guy who’s playing with us right now, Mason Jennings — we always play each other’s songs a lot, like during soundcheck. Hearing him cover them is pretty fun. Yeah, I like Sade’s voice a lot.

R: Is the plan to go back to the studio and try to cut another album after this?

J: I think so. I’m not positive right now, but I’m thinking I want to do another record sometime this summer, maybe do another surf movie after that, you know take a little break from music after they put out another record. I feel like I have enough material to do another record right now.

R: Do you write on the road?

J: A little bit. No, but to be honest, I just have a lot of stuff that we chose from that could have been on the first record that we didn’t record, and a lot of it I still want to put out. And some of the stuff I’ve been writing along the way. I like to write songs that I can play on a sunny day, you know, sitting out on the front porch. A lot of times when you’re on the road in dark clubs all the time you start writing in a different way. I write songs out here and sometimes they feel kind of silly to play at a barbecue with my friends or something. The context is all different. I’d like to put out another record. I mean, in the end that’s more my personality. These tours are fun, but I feel like I almost have to turn into somebody else for the tour. I get a whole different thing with people looking at me every night and I just sort of change my personality a little bit almost. And then I get home and it takes a few days and I’m like “ah, ok, cool” and I slide b
ack into who I really am. It’s not like I don’t try to write songs out here, but I don’t get frustrated if I don’t. I just sort of wait until.. I’d like to do another surf movie maybe and wait another year and see if more songs come out of that.

R: I imagine it’s got to be sort of crazy to go being playing songs that you play for your friends and then all of a sudden you’re a “rock star”…

J: It’s been a trip. It’s been pretty crazy to come back over here. We kinda planned on doing a tour that was roughing about, playing some shows, but the support on this whole tour has overwhelmed us. It’s been pretty fun, though. There was one night down in Arlington. We played this little club that holds like 200 people and there were another couple hundred outside that couldn’t get in, and so we cruised out to the parking lot and played acoustic guitars for everybody in the parking lot. We all came out of the van and the drummer had a conga drum and we played like six songs out there for everybody. You can tell people really appreciate it. We’re not used to it either, so it’s cool to come to a town and be able to come outside and do something like that for everybody.

R: It’s that thing, though, where you discover and album and you and your friends get into it, and you want them to be successful and all, but it’s also sort of your secret and you want to be able to see them in a small venue …

J: That’s the nice thing about having a musician that you’re into that’s not just so big, not that everybody knows about. That’s one of the scary things as it gets bigger and bigger — knowing that there are a lot people including myself who have this thing where if somebody gets too big they don’t like it anymore and it’s just not that cool anymore. You know what I mean, if everybody likes it then it can’t be that good.

R: I’m sure you get a lot of idle comparisons to Dave Matthews, and of course he started out in small clubs and now he’s selling out Giant’s Stadium.

J: Yeah. Somewhere you’ve gotta draw the line I think. You’ve got to make the choices for yourself. Bigger is not always better. These kind of clubs are the most fun to play and see bands in, you know what I mean? You can kind of choose. Money always becomes a factor. You can always make more money and play bigger places, but you have to decide- “I can make more money, but it sure would be cooler to play this kind of place” … I dunno. Hopefully I won’t be reading this interview in two years and thinking “what a hypocrite!”

And with that he takes the stage for soundcheck. A couple takes of the Meter’s “Cissy Strut,” a stroll through “Posters” my personal favorite and a mellow smile from a mellow genius.

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