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Music Preview: Johnsons Big Band explores music without boundaries

Nearly a decade after forming, the band finally captures its 'post-world music' on record

Friday, June 27, 2003

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

With T. Glitter exuding a Stones-like swagger on the mike (if Jagger chain-smoked and had shorter hair), a Johnsons Big Band set is a head-on-collision -- complete with horns -- of every style that ever made your body move, from Memphis soul to reggae to the trance-inducing groove of Fela Kuti.

T. Glitter fronts the Johnsons Big Band, which also includes, clockwise from Glitter, Sam Pace, Adam Frew, Chris Cannon, Lars Cleath, Scott Killebrew, Justin Hopper, Stu Braun and Dave Griffith. Not pictured, Brian Dean Richmond. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

The Johnsons Big Band

WITH: Oneida, Midnight Snake
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Brew House Performance Space, South Side.

On the opening song of the Johnsons' first official full-length as the Big Band, "(love taps &) SOFT PUNCHES," they pound out the opening riff -- on loan, we're told, from "No, No, No" by reggae one-hit wonder Dawn Penn -- like an Afrobeat James Brown, then ease into a mellow reggae groove as filtered through a shambling avant-garage sensibility on their way to swinging through a bridge that drops in out of nowhere with Dixieland horns as Glitter sneers, "Ain't no incense and peppermints here."

And it's a tribute to the 10-piece band's "there are no boundaries (or incense and peppermints) here" approach that even when bringing the horns the way McCartney would've done it to the summer breeze of "So Called Friends," the Johnsons can't resist the urge to offset their poppiest hooks with unexpected twists and turns.

As bandleader/primary songwriter/ keyboardist/former guitarist Chris Cannon explains the band's eclectic wall of grooves, "I just eat up music. I can't get enough of it. I mean, I download hundreds of songs a week. Maybe it's bad or good. Quantity, quality ... I have no idea which way to go. All I know is I just have this voracious appetite to hear new music. And maybe that's, in a sense, why we're constantly redefining ourselves and changing. I don't want to be doing the same thing we're doing now three years from now. With each song that we do, I kind of want the band to redefine itself."


The Johnsons first defined themselves as a quieter, smaller, all-acoustic group with fiddle, stand-up bass and mandolin in either 1994 or '95, depending on which member of the band you ask. The early sound was heavily indebted to the Mekons and the country legends the Mekons admired.

Guitarist Justin Hopper often brings a reggae-inflected sound to the band during a rehearsal at their Uptown studio space. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"That's when I was completely obsessed with Hank Williams," says guitarist Justin Hopper. "So we played 'Lost Highway.' We played 'Stripes' by Johnny Cash. And it was really cool, because what we were doing, when I look back on it now, was kind of a precursor to a lot of those 'quiet is the new loud' bands. We were very definitely influenced by old country, as far back as even the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and that sort of thing, but even when we'd play those songs and I was playing mandolin, we probably thought we sounded like those records but we sure as [hell] didn't because we didn't really know what we were doing. And that's what everything cool comes out of, trying to do things you don't know how to do."

Taking their name from the Johnsons, a group of what Cannon describes as "honorable thieves" in William S. Burroughs' "The Place of the Dead Road," the original lineup featured Cannon, Hopper, bassist Adam Frew, fiddler Megan Williams and a drummer named Marky whose last name no one in the Johnsons seems to use.

Glitter, then the vocalist for Cannon's other, louder, way more psychedelic band Step Leftfoot, used to hang out and sing at rehearsals and shows (without a mike, as legend has it, from the audience).

He didn't join officially until after what various members of the band refer to as the first "implosion."

"There was sort of a bad weekend," Glitter says, "where the Johnsons imploded. They all sort of had this falling out while playing Adam's sister's graduation party. The next day, Chris called me and said, 'OK, I broke up both bands' because he'd had this fight with Marky. So we were all depressed for, like, a week or so and then Chris and Adam decided to start getting together again."

Eventually, Marky rejoined and Glitter started singing -- unofficially at first. But this time, the Johnsons extended an offer to actually join.

As Cannon says of Glitter (also known as Terry Carroll and some other less printable aliases), "Terry has been a huge influence on me. He's a real original. He brought to the band from the start an importance on lyrics."

And with time and practice, he became the sort of frontman people think of as natural-born.

As Cannon says, "He's definitely got some moves."

Shortly after Glitter and guitarist Ernie Bullard joined, around the time Sam Pace came in on drums, the Johnsons went fully electric during what Glitter remembers as a "pretty creative time."

At that point, according to Glitter, the sound was more Velvets-inspired (although Cannon mentions Television, Richard Hell, the Fall and Royal Trux as additional frames of reference).

A major turning point was Cannon switching from guitar to Rhodes piano and eventually a Hammond organ.

Suddenly, he says, "I was able to do different things that I'd never been able to do. I kind of relearned or remembered that I could play the keyboards better than guitar. And I had spent a lot of years playing guitar at that point. But the theory of piano is a lot more understandable to me because you can see it right there. I look at a guitar and I just see a puzzle. There's a lot of chance, and there's some crazy things that can happen, and it's very expressive, probably more expressive, in a sense. But the organ -- seeing those guys in 'The Harder They Come' just piping away and the reggae rhythm bands, it was kind of eye-opening seeing how you can rock out on an organ like that."


It was Hopper, a veteran of such local ska bands as the Skablins and the B-3's, who really brought the reggae to the forefront when he signed back on in 1999.

Front man T. Glitter is backed up by Scott Killebrew on sax, Lars Cleath on trumpet and Dave Griffith on trombone during a rehearsal in the band's Uptown studio space. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"When Juddy started playing with us again," says Glitter, "his style of guitar playing is so reggae-inflected that we could be playing the exact same song we had been playing and it would sound reggae with Juddy."

Hopper sees the early country covers and the later Afrobeat and reggae touches as part of the same continuum.

"I wouldn't tell the other guys in the band this," he says, with a laugh, "but my own opinion is that the people in this band are very soulful. And by that I mean looking for music that has that thing that transcends any kind of trend or genre. Someone like Bill Monroe or the Carter Family or Willie Nelson and someone like Fela Kuti or Lee 'Scratch' Perry or Solomon Burke or any of those kind of people, they all have that. Even in the rock world, Jim O'Rourke or Sonic Youth or the Mekons, those are artists who make music out of passion as opposed to fashion. For someone like Chicken [his nickname for Cannon], it's catharsis. He has to write songs. You should see him. He'll go crazy. And I don't just mean he'll get upset. I mean, he'll get mentally troubled when he can't get his songs out right. And those are the kind of people you want to play music with."

The next logical step, to the Johnsons, at least, was adding horns (and subsequently adding Big Band to the name).

The timpani came later.

"I always heard horn lines implied in a lot of the music," Cannon says, "and it really was just a matter of bringing those implied lines to life with the horn section."

As much as the band has come to draw on world music, that's just part of what they do.

As Cannon says, "We're not necessarily out to make authentic world music. We just want it to be an element. It's music we like. And it's something that really suits the horns. But I don't want to be a world beat band and I definitely don't want to be Sting. That would be a bad day."

Glitter credits Hopper with the coining of the phrase post-world-music.

"We needed a nice little catch phrase," Glitter says. "And I liked it because I like to think of it more as what kind of music is played after the end of the world."

As the band has gotten bigger, so too has the audience, although the new direction disappointed many of the fans it had amassed in a lifetime of Rickety Thursdays at the 31st Street Pub.

And Carroll understands.

"The people who liked the straight-up emotional qualities and the intimacy of the lyrics with less instrumentation might have been a little put off by the big band initially," he says. "But the more we've played, the more those two things seem to keep melding together to where we're getting at, I think, almost the same type of purity we had before. And I hope other people feel the same way."

Even if they never win those old fans back, though, they'll still have the Mekons and Neal Pollack in their corner.

The Mekons have taken them out as an opening act (and the Johnsons have actually gone out as a backing big band for Jon Langford and his Mekons partner Sally Timms).

And Pollack? After sharing a stage with the Johnsons, the author was moved to remark (in author-speak), "Like the best Appalachian moonshine, the Johnsons Big Band has long marinated secretly, hidden from the authorities. These are great musicians, producing weird and uniquely American material. They are a walking, breathing Basement Tapes, with a horn section. They are so good, they even make me look reasonably competent on stage."


Although the Johnsons' not-so-big band burned and sold some copies of a CD-R in either 1998 or '99 (again depending on which member of the band you talk to), "(love taps &) SOFT PUNCHES" is the Big Band's first full-length release, following "Wendy," a three-song plus remixes EP that they burned and sold a couple hundred copies of in 2001.

Bandleader/primary songwriter/ keyboardist/former guitarist Chris Cannon. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

As Frew reports, "We've shelved four different recording sessions or something crazy like that -- like full 10-song or 8-song records and out of each session we might pull one out and say 'OK, this is good enough' and do a single. Looking back, it's like we should just put it out and use it as ... whatever, a valid historical document instead of just leaving it in a closet. But it's nice that we're actually finishing something. I think that's a first for this band -- to actually have a real thing out instead of somebody burning it on their computer."

As to why now, Frew says, "I think we were all just sick of shelving everything. And it's been more serious lately. As undisciplined as our band is, I think there's been a lot more invested in it. There's so many people now. The four of us that have been in the band forever are pretty chill about stuff -- even though Chris is pretty determined and everything. But we've all played together for so long that we can say 'OK, this wasn't good enough. Let's try it again.' But with everybody else in there, it's like '... But this sounds great.' You have a lot of new momentum to get things accomplished or see things through."

It wasn't easy, though.

The current 10-man lineup -- Cannon, Glitter, Hopper, Frew, Pace, Lars Cleath, Dave Griffith, Brian Dean Richmond, Stu Braun and Scott Killebrew -- started recording the album at Plus/Minus Studios with Andy Wright in February 2002, for a May release.

As in May 2002.

As Cannon says, "It's been over a year or more in the works. For some bands, that might just be par for the course. But for us, it seemed like an eternity to be honest with you. We spent more money than we ever spent on the recording -- thousands and thousands of dollars -- and definitely labored with it."

Things were going surprisingly smoothly, Cannon says, until he took it home to mix it DIY and hit a wall when he got to the vocals.

"I was having, like, a nervous breakdown mixing it down myself at home," he says. "And there was actually a month or two where I didn't know what to do with it and basically didn't even tell anybody in the band."

With help from Pace, he feels he got it "pseudo-finished," although even then, he says, "To be honest with you, from having a painter background, I probably could have worked on it for another year or two."

The album is being released -- with a show tomorrow at the Brew House -- on Rickety Records, a local label run by people Cannon credits with making the Johnsons what they are today -- in part, at least.

As to how far he's hoping to take it from here, he's pretty chill, as Frew would say.

"None of us want to get big to make money," Cannon says. "None of us want to get big to get girls. It's never been about that or what we look like or how we appear. It's always been about the music. We are proud of what we do and we do think we offer something different than any other band that's out there in the world, basically, to be honest with you. And we want people to hear it. When we go out of town and play for people who haven't seen us before, we either get them scratching their heads or dancing or thinking, but we generally get some kind of reaction from these people, young and old. I don't know what it is. To talk about it and figure it out would probably be lame, but there is an appeal there."

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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