Interview with Eric Johnson

Photo by Max Crace

I can’t believe it’s been five years since you released your last album, ‘Bloom.’

Yeah. Time goes quick, doesn’t it?

Absolutely. The cover art for your new record, ‘Up Close,’ looks pretty cool. Who designed it?

It was all done by Kelley Toombs and Park Street. They’re a couple of graphic artists and photographers in Austin, TX. It says “Up Close” on the front in kind of a late 50s, early 60s modern art jazz record style. If you look at it real close, you can see it.

Yeah, totally. Tell us a little about your opening track, “Awaken.”

Well, there’s three pieces on the record that were completely unplanned; they’re segue intercuts. “Awaken,” “The Sea And The Mountain” and “Traverse” were all improvised. I just pressed record and made them up as I went along.

Sweet. What about the next piece, “Fat Daddy”? It has a somewhat Bulgarian vibe going on in the middle section.

Yeah, I guess it does indirectly have that. It’s really kind of reminiscent of a lot of Jan Hammer and Jeff Beck stuff from years ago. One of those licks I’ve had forever and ever and never wrote a song around it. Then, while I was cutting the record, I got the ideas for the other parts. That song was the last song I cut actually. I had finished the whole record and it was kind of an aftermath thought. I went in and said, “You know what, I wanna cut one more instrumental rock piece.” So we cut that at the last moment.

You’re a self-proclaimed perfectionist when it comes to your music. Was recording this album an enervating process?

I’m kind of letting go of some of that. Not so that it can fall into a lower common denominator, but more to see what opportunities come up that are maybe better and different. I think the only way to transmute what you’re doing is to let go a little bit and see what naturally flows out. This was kind of the initiating process of not holding on to that regiment of recording as much as I used to.

Kind of like the album title. This is a somewhat closer look at yourself.

Yeah, exactly.

Blues-rocker Jonny Lang sang on a track of yours, “Austin.” How did he get involved?

Well, he invited me down to the Paramount Theatre when he was in town to sit in and play a song. And, he had the day off the next day and said he’d love to come in and sing on my record. I had already recorded the track, so I brought him in and he sang the song. I enjoyed the way it worked much more than how it sounded with my voice. His voice really kinda suited the song better. It was cool.

Yeah, he has a terrific voice. I noticed that ‘Up Close’ has a lot of stylistic variety actually. Another one of your songs, “On The Way,” is a full-fledged country tune.

Yeah, it’s from growing up. I’m a country music fan — not really the radio pop-country music you hear today, but if you go back and listen to a lot of old school country, they’ve got some great musicians. I’ve actually learned a lot about guitar playing from steel guitar players and Jerry Reed, Chet Atkins, Don Rich and Merle Travis. There’s a whole list of absolutely wonderful guitar players who play country. It’s not too much of a stretch to digest a lot of that and then put your own slant on it that might be a little more rock. There’s also a lot of techniques in bluegrass playing that I’ve enjoyed implementing in my guitar style. It might not sound like it, but it’s a big part of my guitar approach and technique.

Speaking of commercial radio music, it feels like the guitar solo is on its way out. Do you agree?

I would say so, definitely. I think people have heard it over and over and they’re hearing the same vocabulary repeated. I’m guilty of that as much as the next guy. It’s a question of wanting to hear something different than the same lines over and over. What we need to do is come up with new unique lines. What I wanna try to do is explore where soloing can go if it’s musical and a little bit different. I want to take a hard, honest look at what I can do. I’d actually like to see more musical soloing in my playing, but not at the sake of it being regurgitation. You’re not going to go to John Coltrane records and say, “Well, we’ve heard it, let’s just eradicate all that and just play the head and we’ll be done.” Part of the package that comes with that kind of musical improvisation is the musicality and uniqueness that you might wanna offer to where the listener will want to hear a solo.

Good point. “Arithmetic” has a few catchy lines in it. It’s also one of the few tracks that features you singing. It reminds me of an 80s ballad tune. Is it a love song?

Well, it can be. It’s a song of gratitude to a friend. It’s about looking at your whole life as a book, what are the merits and treasures you can account for? Someday when we’re asked to account for our life, what will we bring up? I probably won’t bring up, “Well, I collected 5 fuzz pedals that were really great.” At the end of the day, it all washes away and you have to speak of the love that you gave or received. Those are the treasures that make up what we are. The song was speaking to someone else, but it was also speaking to myself about remembering what matters.

Steve Miller and Jimmie Vaughan made a guest appearance on your track “Texas.” How did that song come together?

The track was cut live with Tommy [Taylor on drums] and Roscoe [Beck on bass]. We just kept the first take — we loved it. I went to a show with Jimmie and asked Steve if he would come in to sing on something and he said, “Sure.” So, both Jimmie and Steve came to the studio and basically overdubbed their parts.

Do you have your own studio?

I do.

Have you gone completely digital now?

I still have analog equipment. I have an analog console that can digitally interface and automate. But, basically my recordings are all done digitally. I still have some analog machines I would like to use some more. It’s so hard to find tape now, but when you do use it there’s a sound that’s just really magical. So, I would like to experiment a little more. Also, in the future I’d like to place myself in the confines of analog, where you don’t have options to go back and mess with it so much.

That sounds fun. I recently found out that you also play piano. I didn’t know that.

I do. It was my first instrument. I started playing when I was around five and I took lessons for like 7 years. Then, I took a few guitar lessons from a wonderful man named Wayne Wood in Austin, TX and that got me started. There was a certain point where I just started to transpose what I knew from piano over to guitar. Even nowadays I love listening to piano players and taking ideas from that and putting it on guitar. A lot times when I write my songs I start on piano.

That’s how you get those big chord voicings, right?

Yeah, that’s a lot of it.

Awesome. Lastly, Andy Mckee, Peppino D’Agostino and you finished up the first leg of your Guitar Masters tour not too long ago. When will we see you out on the road again?

Yeah, it was great. We have a second leg in California and Texas in January.

Wonderful. Thanks very much, Eric. Have a great time on tour!

Thanks, Mike.

Pick up Eric Johnson’s new album, Up Close.

  • Claire Sieverman

    Wayne Wood is my grandfather :)