One week before his concert at Vinyl, I interviewed Johnson for the Pensacola News Journal and in our discussion, Johnson talked about the advice given to him by B.B. King, the beauty of Jimi Hendrix’s music, and the most amazing part of the entire Eric Johnson experience.
*** Eric Johnson Interview ***
MS: Between the composing, recording, performing, what is the most amazing part of the Eric Johnson experience for you?
EJ: The thing that’s most important to me is finding a special musical thing that’s a real thrill and brings joy to me that I can bring joy to other people. You surf that wave that’s real magical and it’s just a matter of trying to find it. That’s the best part of all it. You try to learn through the school of hard knocks, you try to learn to let go and get out of the way. We’re always getting in our own way. There’s so many different ways that we can use…we have all these crafty ways that we can get in our own way, either competition and our ego or our insecurity or thinking about it, it’s all just worthless luggage. The real thrill to me, the most important and the greatest part is trying to get out of that.
MS: With the ego. Of all the guitar heroes that I remember growing up, in the early 90’s, you’ve stayed out of that trouble. Is that just a testament to you, your family? How did you avoid getting into all of that crap that some of those guys got into?
EJ: Oh, you mean as far as drugs and stuff you mean?
MS: Drugs and the whole “Greater Than God, Almost” complex some guys have. In the interviews that I’ve read with you, you’ve always seemed really humble.
EJ: It’s kind of an interesting…I’ve met actors, like famous actors before, some of them are really these amazing people and then they bring that into their set and then there’s these other people that are real prima donnas, but they’re still amazing actors. And I was always perplexed how they’re able…it’s like sometimes somebody doesn’t have themselves together very well, but they can just flip a switch and become this omnipotent, selfless thing for their music, art, their acting, or creative whatever. So I don’t know if it really is…different people…people can get to the same place…but I don’t know. That’s always been kind of perplexing to me. But really, regardless, we’re on this planet to try to get ourselves together and not proliferate our own greatness. That’s such an illusion. We build these huge pyramids and we think we live forever and we don’t. It’s here for three seconds and then we’re on to something else. In the big scheme of time, it’s just a grain of sand on the beach. We’re the ones that puff up that illusion. And it’s destructive, it’s an impediment, it compresses your potential, but I don’t know. I guess we do it anyhow. The human condition, with the mind and wanting to grab some talent that you get from some universal force. We’re given this special talent and then we want to grab it, and we alienate ourselves and run off to some corner and go, “This is mine. I created it. Look what I got.” And we pump ourselves up and try to convince people. But really, the reality is that anybody that has artistic talent, it’s kind of a gift. There’s a lot people that put discipline into crafting that gift, but in the big picture, it’s just a gift that’s been given to us, so we’re living in the dark, in illusion when we decide to separate ourselves from the gift and pretend, “Oh, I created this gift. This is mine and I’m this and you don’t have it. And so I want you to honor me.” It’s just kind of like, really not very, I guess it’s just dysfunctional really.
MS: With your career in music, what advice would you give to someone who wants to be where you are?
EJ: In this day and age, it’s a tough business, so really having other ways to make a living is probably very smart for kids. If somebody has an undeniable, unique talent, and they want to pursue it, you should. That’s what the arts are about, but it’s really important that you have something really just, it’s got to be pretty great, pretty phenomenal, pretty unique, pretty powerful and something that really is attractive for people to listen to. To get to that point, you have to look at all aspects of whatever you’re doing and learn how to edit yourself to be all the best you can be.
MS: As far as concerts, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen at one of your concerts?
EJ: I played this Steve Miller show once in Oklahoma. It was a Summer festival and all the girls started taking all their clothes off. It was like, “O.k. This is cool.” It was just totally off the hook. It was “Ok. We’re turning this into a nudist concert.” That was pretty crazy. It was hard to concentrate on the set.
MS: I can imagine; the power of Eric Johnson…taking off clothes.
EJ: It was probably more Steve Miller’s music.
MS: What song or album would you put in a time capsule for future generations to hear and say, “This is music.”?
EJ: Wow. “Are You Experienced”, Jimi Hendrix.
MS: And why so?
EJ: I think it’s one of the greatest rock records ever made. The Beatles are kind of in their own niche’ because they created this amazing thing, right with it, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” because those guys, they were forging all this at a play that had never been used. It’s not rehashed. It’s like they…I mean it was taking stuff from the 50’s obiviously, but the whole pop sound. They had to forge something relatively very new. And in that same place is, to me, is Stevie Wonder with the records he made in the 70’s. They’re right up there with The Beatles. It’s some of the greatest pop music ever made as far as the musicality, the songs, the performance, everything is such a high thing. And then right there is Hendrix. If you have to look at all aspects, proficiency of playing, the uniqueness of the songs, the vibe and it’s just such a departure, such a creative departure compared to those others. And the “Are You Experienced” record, it just blows my mind how that record is…what is it almost 50 years old? I mean, it’s unbelievable. That record is so fresh and so timeless. You listen to it and it’s like, whenever a song of it comes on the radio and it’s just as fresh as what they’re playing right next to it. And there’s so few records in pop music that are that timeless.
MS: What is it like for you? I know you regularly perform on the Jimi Hendrix Experience Tours. What is that like for you playing his music in front of those large crowds?
EJ: It’s great. I love it. It’s like going to school for me. I get to study his music and then present it to people that maybe didn’t grow up with him or hear him all the time. It gives me a chance to say, “Hey, here’s some of Hendrix’s music. These are the songs I like. I’m going to try and do the best I can here.” And some people go, “Wow! That’s cool.” It has to be remembered; I think it’s important, there were three records that Hendrix really worked on and wanted out. And “Band of Gypsies” he did…I guess I should say four records. “Cry of Love” is a great record, but it was finished after he passed away and he didn’t get to quite finish it. You could consider those five records, but there is hundreds of records on Hendrix since then. And there is some interesting stuff there, but when kids, many, many years later hear those records-maybe they don’t hear the ones that Jimi really did himself, you know, those five records-and then they get a completely, “Oh, wow! I get it” It’s not so much a jam that somebody had a tape recorder on.
MS: Speaking of future generations and kids in music, how do you want the future musicians to see you and your art?
EJ: Oh, well, you know, just a student of the electric guitar, just trying to figure out a way to make it sound elegant. I don’t know…electric scientist, I guess.
MS: Awesome. I love that. I love your music. Last two questions. We talked about advice before, but with all the great musicians you’ve played with, I mean people in general, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
EJ: Sometimes it’s the most humblest, simplest advice. I was doing a tour with B.B. King and I went out to his bus and I was visiting with him, which was really a special moment for me and I just finished doing soundcheck and I was playing this blues thing and I can play blues guitar and I can play…I’m better at blues rock, but I can completely play blues because I grew up on it, I studied it and everything. I don’t play blues guitar like B.B. King does..you know..and really the thing is, is there’s 24 hours in a day, we’re here, maybe, 70 years, or 80 years or whatever if we’re lucky, B.B. said to me, “Do what you do.” “Do what you do that’s unique and the most…that shines you.” Like if I did that song “Cliffs of Dover” that’s more me than me trying to be a great blues guitar player, you know what I mean? His advice to me was “Find that niche’, find that light that you’re unique in the world and try to develop that”. Be that rose that you are and don’t try to be the dandelion and the dew love and the violet, if that’s not you. Regardless of whether you do it well or not, there’s a certain spirit spark of what you do unique and that’s what you need to find that frequency. That was the best advice I ever got as far as musically.
MS: From the legend himself. Last question for you Eric. Time flies. This is a crazy one; Do you prefer crunchy or creamy peanut butter.
EJ: Oh man! Crunchy probably.
MS: I’m a crunchy man myself.
EJ: I actually prefer almond butter over either one.
MS: Oh wow. Almond butter. I have not tried that yet. Stephen Perkins from Jane’s Addiction said the same thing. Almond butter.
EJ: Oh man, yeah. Almond butter is and it’s much better for you than peanut butter. Plus they made some great records in the 70’s (total deadpan and I laugh like crazy).
MS: You know Eric. I didn’t know you had that kind of humor. Thank you, I appreciate that. I didn’t know what to expect.
EJ: You’re welcome, man.
MS: Before we wrap it up, is there anything you want the fans to know about your show next week or your tour coming up.
EJ: We’re just happy to come back to Florida and do some playing. I’m looking forward to it. I’m just delighted to be able to come there and play.
MS: I will be there. I’m pretty excited. I’ve listened to your music and I’ve even read your interviews. I’m a guitar geek from the 80’s and 90’s so I’m looking forward to my first Eric Johnson show next week.
EJ: Well, thanks. And bring your earplugs because I’m bringing the big wooden amps this time. (a piece of advice for the fans that are coming out to Vinyl Music Hall…
– Michael L. Smith