An Interview with Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson (Photo: Max Crace)
The amps have been cranked to 11 so far this year! This past weekend we not only saw Joe Satriani's G3 guitar experience hit the Fox which featured Satriani, Phil Collen and Joe Petrucci; but on Friday, one of the best bassists in the world, Victor Wooten, performed at the Regency Ballroom. At the end of the month, we'll be treated to a special performance by Eric Johnson who's decided to perform his 1990 album, Ah Via Musicom (iTunes), in its entirety at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz. As of this writing, tickets are still available and can be found here.

Eric graciously took some time out of rehearsals to speak with us about the tour, his classic first album and some of the other music that he's been working on recently. Keep reading for the full interview below!

SFBAC: Eric, thanks so much for making the time to talk with us! As the Blue Brothers would say, you’ve got the band back together and your tour kicks off next week in AZ. I’m assuming you’re in rehearsals now with Kyle Brock and Tommy Taylor? How are rehearsals going?

Eric Johnson: Yeah! Yes, they're going great and it's a lot of fun playing with Tommy and Kyle, I'm actually enjoying it. It's great!

SFBAC: When you guys get together, what does the rehearsal process look like? Has it been relatively easy to step back into that album [Ah Via Musicom (iTunes)] and are you working out new arrangements or just dusting off the cobwebs?

Eric Johnson: Yeah, you have to kind of work out the songs and arrangements and get all the gear together. And it can take some time to get it together... To get it to the point where you can relax about it, and not think too much about it. That's the main goal. They sound great, I don't think I'm ready, but they sound good! So we might do the first few weeks as a two-piece without me until I get it together. Then I'll join the tour! (laughter)

SFBAC: The last time you were here in the Bay Area was almost exactly 3 years ago with Mike Stern when you played Slim’s (review here). This time around, you’re not playing SF, but stopping by the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz. Any idea why you’re skipping SF-proper this time around or was it simply down to booking availability?

Eric Johnson: I think a lot of it was availability. We couldn't work out the scheduling with the venues and they were either not available or had other conflicts.

SFBAC: And in terms of this tour, you’re planning to play through your 1990 album, Ah Via Musicom (iTunes) — why now?

Eric Johnson: We were sitting around talking about bands like Pink Floyd who went out and did their record, and I know the Beach Boys went out and did Pet Sounds. A lot of bands are doing that. And we were just talking about it, and someone said 'yeah, it would be cool if you did that' and I was like 'oh well, yeah, maybe?' and 'what record would you do?' So we polled my website, and asked 'would y'all like to see a tour like this, and if so, what record would you like to hear? And we got a lot of responses. Everybody said, we'd love to see that and do Ah Via Musicom (iTunes). So it was just generated by my fan base and people wanting to hear that stuff. Yeah, so let's do Ah Via Musicom, that's a good reason to go tour!

SFBAC: You also released Collage (iTunes) just a couple of months ago, which is a mix of covers and originals? Can you talk to me about how that album came together and how you chose to cover some of the songs on the album?

Eric Johnson: Well, my process now is trying to get more into recording stuff live in the studio as much as possible. So I just went in with 'here's some new songs I have', and 'you know? I don't have to do all my own music? What would be fun to record? Let's try this, let's try that', and so I just did 'em, and some spur of the moment tunes that might be fun to do. And I recorded "Pipeline" just because a friend of mine said I should, and I said 'OK' and cut it live. But then I went back in and had fun overdubbing a bunch of guitars on it just for fun really. So that ended up being a lot of overdubs, but originally it was us just cut live.

SFBAC: Are there any songs that you wanted to include but couldn’t? Due to ‘fit’, weren’t happy with the arrangement, licensing or some other reason?

Eric Johnson: Yeah, I probably cut ten other tunes that just weren't really good songs or that we didn't get a good version of 'em, or that they needed more work or something. I didn't really want to do over ten songs on the record, I'm believing more in the philosophy that you don't want to make the record too long anymore. Some of my last records were like 'let's put fourteen or fifteen songs on it!' You know? More value for the money. And I thought, well maybe? Not really? Some people don't want to listen to all that sometimes.

SFBAC: I'd probably argue otherwise, but back to Ah Via Musicom (iTunes), considering it’s one of your classics, I’m sure you’ve talked about nearly every aspect of that album over the years. But looking back on it now with nearly 30 years of perspective, are there parts of the album that were overlooked, or that you feel differently about now than you did when you recorded it? What resonates with you today vs 1990?

Eric Johnson: I think what I enjoy now is just the ark or the flow of it. Which I've never played it back to back, and it's interesting that it seems to flow nice. And it does seem to have, a certain thematic kind of continuity and thing about it. And it's a lot of fun to play with Tommy and Kyle. We have room in it to improvise so we're not going to play it note for note, exactly every night the same. It'll be a bit 'liquid' but having said that, I'm trying to play as close to the record as possible. But yeah, it's actually been fun rehearsing and stuff. I worked really hard on that record originally. If only because I'd record this stuff over and over while trying to get a good performance, and so I think it kind of forced me to get a vision of where I wanted to be integrity-wise for my career.

SFBAC: "Cliffs of Dover", "Trademark", and "Desert Rose" are some of your more popular Ah Via Musicom (iTunes) tracks to play live. I know "Cliffs of Dover" is a fan favorite, but what about "Trademark" and "Desert Rose"? Fun to play? Show fit?

Eric Johnson: I think they're ones that people want to hear, and they fit the live show I guess. I think it's a little bit of both. You definitely want to play what you enjoy, because if you're having fun, the audience has fun. But at the same time, if there are certain songs that have become identified with you, and people really want to hear, then it makes sense that if people are going to pay money and make the effort to come out, that they get what they want as well.

SFBAC: Throughout the years, I’ve read about your perfectionist tendencies and how they might have impacted the timelines involved in recording and releasing new music. Would you agree with the perfectionist label and has that softened or evolved over the years?

Eric Johnson: Oh no, I don't agree with it all, but I happen to be wearing some Kleenex boxes on my shoes right now just so I don't touch the floor, and mittens as well, you know? Nah, I'm just kidding. I think I have tendencies that way, but I think I'm letting go of a lot of that. I think it's following the realization that doing something piece by piece by piece by piece... that you end up with something that's absolutely great without being any good at all. I mean, I'm over emphasizing this just to make the point. But you can make something really great, but it might not, does it have the same meaning as the emotion or the event or the moment? So the best way to capture a moment, is to capture the moment as you play it and perform it. So if I'm getting more into performing, and less into building piece by piece, then that's going to create more of that emotion. And the more of that you get, you don't want to start going in and taking pillars out of the foundation to replace them with something that you think is in your mind more perfect. So it's just the realization that to get to another phase or chapter, another octave maybe, of the integrity of music, that I needed to let go of some of that and replace it with something more important. Which is just capturing a vibe.

SFBAC: Because albums represent songs as snapshots in time at the time they were recorded, are there any songs on AVM or across your catalog that have evolved or changed over time?

Eric Johnson: Oh, there's a song on Ah Via Musicom (iTunes) called "Nothing Can Keep Me From You" that I  have some fun changing up a lot. Actually on this tour, I've been playing it more often exactly like the record. But in the recent past, I've been doing a totally different version of it. So yeah, it's kind of fun sometimes to take a song and rearrange it, and do it differently.

SFBAC: Separately, Fender’s going to be releasing a new signature ‘Thinline’ Stratocaster at any moment. What can you tell us about the guitar and will you have it on tour with you?

Eric Johnson: Yes, I will have it on tour. It's basically the same as my signature strat, except it's a hollow body and has a F-hole in it, and it's a semi-hollow body which I think will be available later in March.

SFBAC: Because we’re based here in the Bay Area, I always ask if there are favorite venues, performances, or memories that you can share? What comes to mind when you think of the Bay Area?

Eric Johnson: Oh, I think about Bodega Bay, and Napa Valley, and hanging out down on the San Francisco pier. Or how cold it is at night! I mean it's 'wow, I didn't expect this!' But, I love it there. I love that area, it's wonderful. Yeah, it's great!

SFBAC: Well Eric, thanks again for making the time to speak with us today and we're looking forward to your show at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz on January 30th! (tickets here) Best of luck on the tour and thanks again!

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