Mike Ragogna: You and Mike Stern joined forces on the album Eclectic. Since both of you have a reputation for bridging jazz, funk, rock and popular music, so you each already make eclectic music, and this collaboration seems like a no-brainer.
Eric Johnson: Yeah, it’s a really good combination. I’ve been a fan of Mike Stern’s playing and also his composition and his writing. It all started when Blue Note in New York said, “Hey, would you guys like to share a bill together and play some shows? Originally it would be one person would play a set and then the other person would play a set and then we’d play a few songs together at the end of the night, but we said, “You know what? Instead of doing that, let’s just get a whole band together and play the whole evening!” That was kind of the beginnings of a band concept of us playing together. We just enjoyed it so much, so it was a nice logical opportunity when we got asked to do a record.
MR: Were Anton [Fig] and Chris [Maresh] in on the live performance?
EJ: Yeah, they sure were. They’ve been in on everything we’ve done. Unfortunately, Anton won’t be able to do some of the touring that we’re going to do after the record release because he’s filming the last part of The Letterman Show but Chris will be there and I think Anton will do part of the touring.
MR: Often, when two powerhouse artists such as yourselves get together, a creative tug can happen. What was the creative experience like with the two of you? You did it in three days, right?
EJ: Yeah, we cut most of the record in like three or four days.
MR: What was the creative process like?
EJ: I hear it in Mike’s playing. He’s all about the composition. He’s a good player and he’ll play these wonderful guitar things but I think they’re infused into the greater vibe of the composition and I try to go for the same thing. I think when we play together we’re being sensitive to that. It kind of puts a little bit of a monitor on getting too bombastic or running over each other or pulling or tug-of-war, whatever it is we’re doing it’s powerful and we’re out pushing it but not to step on the heels of trying to make good music. That’s always in the forefront of my thinking. I think Mike and I share that same thing in common.
MR: Did you discover anything about each other during the recording process?
EJ: Yeah, I think so. I also know that some of Mike’s compositions inspired me to come up with different voices. I thought, “Oh, you know what? I want to use a volume pedal on the guitar/rhythm supporting Mike so it will be sort of an orchestral swell.” That sometimes comes out of a spark of hearing what somebody else does when it’s a little out of your sphere and then it sparks something to dilate your own sphere.
MR: Did you end up having songs on this project that changed dramatically?
EJ: Oh, absolutely. We didn’t really write songs together, per se, but we brought in the songs that we wrote and said, “Why don’t we do this here,” or “Do that there,” or “Maybe let’s change that or take this part out or I’m going to add something.” It was real malleable as far as our contribution to the songs. We both had a lot of freedom to talk about changing this or that or to offer whatever we could do that could pull it a different way. And it was all for the better. There’s this song called “Title” that I wrote, it’s kind of a Wes Montgomery-type deal. I brought that in and Mike rearranged it and after I heard it, I said, “Oh, I like that better now!” He put a chorus somewhere else and put an intro somewhere else. It’s always good to have somebody else’s perspective.
MR: Did you find that your talents melded better because Mike came from playing a more classics-structured style whereas you tend to push the boundaries?
EJ: I think both things would hold true for both of us. I’ve always enjoyed playing with other musicians. I guess my go-to thing isn’t always double guitar. I’ve always done a trio and I enjoy playing with other instruments as well, but as far as double guitar to me it’s like, “Okay, what are we going to do here? Is it going to be like jump in and go nuts?” and there’s the tuning thing and the voicing thing and the tone thing. But playing with Mike is one of my favorite experiences as far as the double guitar thing. I think it’s because of what you’re saying. It’s because he has that approach of the composition of a song, “Let’s have a lot of dynamics here and let’s lay back here” or, “not play here,” or, “Let’s do the melody here.” It’s about the music. It’s our responsibility to figure out a way to play with intensity and bravado as soloists but we don’t want to screw the song up. And that’s easy to do, walk all over the song.
MR: You started as a session player and decided at some point to have a solo career. What was that point? Were there incidents that got you there? Was there encouragement? Did you always want to do it?
EJ: I think I always wanted to do it. I always wanted to write songs and have a band and do that whole thing. I think it was always a dream of mine. As far as the timing of when to do it I think it all happened when it was supposed to happen. I think there’s a lot to be said for really studying what you do as you go through your milestones to try to sharpen whatever you need to sharpen. I got lost in the moment and just started playing and having fun and got gigs and got offered to do records and I have no regrets at all. I suppose I would’ve loved to be a bit more attentive and sharpened about, “Okay, maybe you’d better work on your vocals a bit more, they’re not the greatest in the world.” There are always things you could’ve done or waited to do later when it might have been better timing, I don’t know. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, I guess.
MR: Alex Lifeson of Rush said that you inspired the guitar solo on “Cut To The Chase.” And you’re a very well respected musician in the field. Do you see a legacy that’s being left?
EJ: Maybe a little bit. I think the sky’s the limit. The opportunity is always there as to what you do with it or how much you embellish it or how far you take it, how deep you make it, how profound and how relevant or impactful it is to people. From that angle, I don’t know. I think I could do more to make it that–not so I can make more dollars or be more famous, not that that could happen anyhow. There are always ways that you could infuse it to make it more impactful or a little bit deeper to where it would be more of that legacy. I think I’ve touched upon it but I could probably contribute more. This side of that deeper contribution, maybe I have, but a lot of what I do is kind of a reinterpretation. I look at the people that I learn from and they sort of invented it and I reinterpreted it. Some of my claim to fame is probably that I reinterpreted from eight or ten people and put it all together in my own recipe to where it’s cloaked and nobody notices it. “Okay, it’s your own thing,” but it’s really just a reinterpretation of all my heroes.
MR: “Cliffs Of Dover” was a major hit, that coming off Ah Via Musicom. What do you think it was about that project that everyone when nuts over?
EJ: Well, I think the timing was just right to where there was more radio viability. I think the songs were strong enough, too. It’s kind of an irony, as we sit here and have this interview I realize that the way to make the best music is to cut it more live, more spontaneous, like the record we did with Mike or some of the live record I made in Europe a few months ago. With Mike it’s spontaneous, it’s live and people resonate with that. The irony is that on the Musicom record the bass and drums were live and some of the guitar was live, but some of the guitar I just killed myself doing over and over just to try and nail the guitar part. I was playing at the brink of my ability and I was pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to get myself to do this, just, “No. Farther, farther,” like an athlete or something. The irony to me is on that record a lot of those guitar parts are anything but live, but people resonate with them as if they were live. Somehow that was a fluke thing, but I think it was just pushing the boundaries.
MR: Eclectic was inspired by your live performances, but on the other hand, it was recorded in a studio. Were there many overdubs?
EJ: Very few, really. There was very little fixes and not very many overdubs. Every once in a while I’d put a little lap steel just in the background or Mike and I put some acoustic guitars on or a couple of guitar tracks or percussion players came and played on them. I put a little acoustic piano in the back just in little spontaneous places. We would fix a lick or two here or there but it was really pretty much completely live.
MR: What were your impressions when you listened back to the project when it was finished?
EJ: Well, I think it’s cool. It’s got some warts on it, but that was our intention, to get in there and play music. To me, it’s an investment in the present and the future which I want to contribute to and be a part of, where not only do you play with other wonderful musicians but you play music in the moment and you learn to play to the best of your ability live, spontaneously where you can feel that thing that’s happening in the present. It’s a little different concept for me than the way I used to make records.
MR: In the end, was there anything you felt was particularly Eclectic?
EJ: I think the combination of Mike and my playing is pretty eclectic. We come from different arenas. We touch on the same thing but we also come from such different backgrounds and histories and careers that it’s all real eclectic. We both like and appreciate the gem of all styles of music. There’s a certain thread in all music that’s good and that’s played well. All you’ve got to do is open your eyes to hear that value. We have a real emotional connection with that, so anything goes. We’re trying to make it good, so we have our ears open to whatever the possibilities can present. I think it was all eclectic, in a way.
MR: Speaking of eclectic, not many people are able to do this, but you took part in thePrimal Twang: The Legacy Of The Guitar project. Speaking of eclectic, that was an interesting approach.
EJ: Oh yeah, I remember that. It was interesting. It was a cool show, I actually enjoyed that a lot. They had a really fine sitar player on there and some good flamenco players, it was really cool.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
EJ: That’s a really good question. It’s a broad question insomuch as trying to answer it, but it’s still a good question. I was just listening to a brand new band on a CD recently that was really, really great. I did a blues tour with B.B. King once and I was out there trying to play this B.B. lick and that B.B. lick, and I can play blues guitar but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should try to make a career of playing blues guitar, there’s plenty of people who can play it better than me, but I love the blues. But I’m out there doing this tune and that tune and he brought me into his tour bus to talk to me once and he said, “You know what? You have this special, unique gift. As an artist, you should find that pulse that’s unique and that nobody else can do that way and just resonates in your own certain way. You should grow that and make that strong and really appreciable and people will then resonate to that.”
What happens is no matter how good we get, we put on this generalized suit of what we think we should adorn ourselves with. This band is really great but it sounded like this other band and the production sounded like another band it was all cleaned over and polished. It made me think about my own records where you can’t reach in and feel the person inside. You see the aura and it’s all beautiful, it’s all great, but you can’t reach in and feel that thing that you have that’s unique and you’re really expounding on then you don’t have as much esteem to do what you really want to do. That would be my advice. Actually, I’m talking to myself as I say this.
MR: That’s terrific because I was going to ask what you would have told Eric Johnson when he was starting out.
EJ: That’s what I would say. I think many times, I get seduced by the recording studio. “We could do this, we could do that, let’s put this effect on that,” and it all just gets this Doppler effect to where the listener is reaching out with his hand to try to catch it but it’s out of reach so they just admire it from afar instead of having it assimilated into their cellular structure. I need to think about how people assimilate things into their heart. I guess what I’d like to do is try to make music that resonates with people and has an impact on them. I want it to create something in themselves. It’s like the difference between a knick-knack sitting on a table and somebody giving you a card that has some words that go into your soul.
MR: A lot of musicians are inspired by things other than their favorite artists. Do you have things like that?
EJ: I try to learn more about spirituality and think about what’s really important on a long-term big-picture field. Try to treat people right, including trying to treat yourself right, and trying to leave an open door to what the possibilities are. I think it’s us in our mind who decide, “This is real, this is not real, this is possible, that’s not possible.” The whole funny thing you can laugh at is twenty years from now we can say, “Oh, we used to think this wasn’t real, now we know it is. We didn’t think that was possible, now it’s possible.” Well if it’s possible now, it was possible back then. The only difference is that our minds didn’t think it was. Our processes and our abilities weren’t able to embrace or enact or make it happen but it still was real and it still was possible. That’s true and it’s always evolving and it’ll evolve again in the next twenty years and twenty years after that. In other words there is an incredible possibility in reality to non-reality that we just haven’t stepped into yet. To me, that’s invigorating, that’s inspiring. “What if?” Leave the question mark to float around you and then all of a sudden little time capsules can be released in your life and you say, “Oh, okay,” and you get inspired or you get an idea or somebody says something or you see a sunset. Just leave that open.
MR: Yeah. I have a feeling that “What if?” has been a major factor in your creativity.
EJ: Yeah, I think so. But then we all have our chains to the balloon. My chain to the balloon is the studio, or not believing enough in just playing in the moment. “Let’s go in the studio and we’ll do this fifty times and try to get this right.” I used to read about The Beatles going into the studio and disappearing for weeks on end and I kind of went, “Oh, that’s great. Bigger is better so let’s just go into the studio and disappear for years on end,” which is ridiculous. It’s not better, it’s like that was my own little illusion of, “Oh yes, I’ll just turn into Howard Hughes in the studio and it will be great,” but actually it’s not. It’s all in moderation. We learn from our digressions, I guess, and then we get back on the path and go forward.
MR: Beautiful. What are the “What ifs” that are coming down the line for Eric Johnson?
EJ: Well we have two tours to do with Mike, we’re going to do one this fall on the East coast and then one on the West coast in January. I’ve got another live record from America that I’m planning on releasing in some fashion and then I want to work on this acoustic record that I’ve been trying to work on for two years.
MR: Right. I wish you luck with that. As far as Eclectic, do you see another collaboration down the line?
EJ: Could be. I love playing with Mike, it’s a real nice experience so there very well could be.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne