Monday, November 14th 2011
Interviews: Alain Johannes
As I transcribed this Alain Johannes interview last night, I was watching a real-time live performance with Alain (trademark cigar box in hand) at Brazil’s SWU festival, providing support to Chris Cornell on an achingly gorgeous rendition of Temple Of The Dog’s Hunger Strike. His accompaniment took the song in an entirely different direction, adding a depth of haunting warmth and classical flare to the track that’s become the signature sound of the man involved in more projects & bands than Jack White and Mike Patton put together.
That’s just the kind of magic Mr. Johannes makes. Having cut his teeth as a cofounder of Eleven with his late wife Natasha Shneider and former Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons, Alain would go on to leave his mark as a contributor to such acts as Queens Of The Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Eagles Of Death Metal and Mark Lanegan, as well as his own stunning 2010 solo record, Spark.
In our latest conversation with Alain, touch bases on several exciting issues, including the 20th anniversary of Eleven’s Awake In A Dream and the new music accompanying, as well as his new band Arthur Channel, his work on Chris Cornell’s latest (and arguably best) solo album, and, of course, updates on the future of Queens Of The Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures.
It’s great to get in touch again, how are things?
Good, good man, thank you. Just getting some coffee… We had a late night with Queens again.
Ahh, how’s that coming along?
Really great. Just putting in days, super top secret, but it’s going to be amazing. I’m really excited about it.
Really looking forward to that. Is there any sort of finish line visible on the horizon?
Oh yeah, definitely. Once we start the process, it goes to completion. So I can’t say exactly when, but it’s a really good start.
With the 20th anniversary of Awake In A Dream on us, you have the Eleven single This Little Finger going to radio on 11/15. What are your feelings involved with reintroducing it to people?
There’s so much good music left unheard, you know? I was riffing a little bit with the fact that with the demos and songs left out, and at the time it seemed like the thing to present to the world. There’s some amazing songs. Some of those 8-track demos were the trickiest ones, technically speaking. The machine that it was recorded on is rare, and I realized that I was running away from it, because it’s still hard to hear hear Natasha’s voice. Making Spark was this trance… this focused thing that just kind of happened to me. This was very much a conscious, ‘alright, let’s go relive this stuff.’
What happened with a lot of 8-track recordings was that Jack (Irons) had left for Pearl Jam, and Greg (Upchurch) was joining us for the first time. We didn’t have a studio yet, and we just did these recordings. By the time we got signed… Natasha and I were very much in-the-moment kind of writers. We started a whole bunch of songs and recorded them in this format very quickly, and then it came time to do Avantgardedog and we said alright, we’ve got all these new songs and ideas. So we left almost an entire record behind. (laughs)
And of course, there was a lot of growth there because of the studio, and time had passed. But listening to them now, there’s some incredible songs. And I’m just trying to bring them forward, but not too much. At first it was difficult, because I’m too much of a perfectionist. It needs to sound the best it can possibly sound! But really, no, this only has to document where we were at, and it doesn’t really matter.
So it was less about the trepidation of going through the material than the task of honoring the sound?
Yeah, just trying to change it so that I can have more access to it, but after all is said and done when I pulled up the tapes and started putting it all together, I realized ‘Oh god, there’s no keyboards here.’ We had locked it up with a sequencer which was like a recorder if you want to use it that way. Who knows what that machine was in the mid-90s – I can’t even begin to imagine what it was. So it became about taking the original demos and enhancing it a little, and going through the process of bringing out all these separate things.
I think that’s what happened with This Little Finger. It was probably from the Howling Book sessions, as the first song we recorded. And then by the time we were done with the Howling Book record, it really didn’t fit the architecture anymore. But it’s a great track.
There’s also unfinished stuff that I’m still trying to figure out what to do with. It might even be part of Rarities but those last recordings we did, a couple weeks before Natasha got diagnosed. There’s five songs that are really amazing, that have quite a heavy live and rocking kind of vibe to them. I’ve been thinking of asking some of our dear friends to finish them, to get Josh to sing.
That would be a dream come true for fans. As for the new single, This Little Finger, those drums sound awesome. Is that Jack playing?
Yeah, that’s Jack. That’s crazy Jack with his ability to make everything seem like a beat, even when he’s going mental. It’s actually Jack on all three songs, and Greg is going to actually be prominently featured on the “long play” (laughs), if you can still say that. And we had just gotten back together, he had left Pearl Jam, and had been kind of hibernating for a year or two.
It’s kind of fascinating how the Matt Cameron / Jack Irons thing tends to work. They seem to lead and follow one another through various projects, despite the fact that their styles couldn’t be more different.
It’s kind of funny, because there’s four songs on Thunk that we had to take out so that Matt could come in. They’re great songs, but we didn’t want to have a super long record, and it was our way of telling Jack ‘Well, there you go, you leave, that’s what you get.’ (laughs)
It expands outward incestually, with Jack and Matt both in Eleven, then Pearl Jam, and now Matt’s back in the fold with Soundgarden as well. And you’re working with Chris Cornell, mixing his new album and touring, right?
Yeah, the live record, which is absolutely fantastic. I got to join him onstage for a couple tunes here in LA, and I got to experience the show, which really helped me approach the mixing of it. I just went after trying to capture the feeling of being there, in the hall. Also, being a huge fan of his and a friend, we hadn’t really spent much time together for almost ten years. It actually started with The Keeper, a song for the Machine Gun Preacher movie.
That’s a great song.
Yeah, so we did that together, and we both performed on it. So we’d been texting and chatting over the past year, which led to the Songbook involvement, and now I’m gonna go join him for a week in South America.
You’re in a new band called Arthur Channel, but there’s not much info out there just yet – John Greene on vocals and guitar, and Greg Richling on bass. How’d the first show work out at the Viper Room?
It was good, you know. Those guys started it – Greg, Jack and John – and they came to me to mix it. Once I mixed the record, Jack said ‘Hey, come play with us.’ So we’ve done two gigs, and when I get a little time I’m gonna play some guitar on it. So conceptually it’s just those three guys. Greg produced the record, and I’ve been in the middle of crazy since I got back from South America, working on so many records. Lanegan’s record is done, and I produced a couple other really awesome things. So I was kind of unavailable when the inception really started, so I’m kind of a late-comer, as it were. But it’s really exciting – John’s a great songwriter. He has a beautiful voice.
That Vapor track is tremendous.
Yeah, it’s kind of cool to be in a band where I can just show up to play guitar. Jack and I have plans to do something as soon as there’s some time. But obviously I’ll be tied up here for a little bit. I hear a second record in the works already in my head, that I’d like to get to by the end of the year.
A follow-up to Spark?
Yeah, another solo record.
That’s really great news. Do you have a dry erase board somewhere at home, just to keep track of all the chainsaws you’ve got juggling right now?
Well yeah, kind of. (laughs) Artistically, Natasha and I have always had that forward motion… at the time, the way the business was structured, it didn’t allow for output at the same rate we were into. So it was frustrating, so what we did was actually turn it off, whether consciously or unconsciously. It’s not possible to just work on records and release them as you were going. There’s labels, and studios are expensive, and you always needed to get other people involved… I mean, that’s the reason we became autonomous down to the artwork.
Any discussion of Spinnerette coming back to life in the future?
Oh definitely, but not the next record. I’m working with Brody whenever it’s time – she just had a beautiful baby boy – for her solo record. I think that’s just going to be pretty much a solo record.
So it won’t have the Spinnerette name…
Not this time. And that’s coming out great too. It’s really a matter of, ‘I’ve got a couple of hours… Oh, I have to mix this thing,’ then whoever calls with a ‘Where’s my… so and so?’
And then in the middle of all that you’ve gotta run down and play guitar with Chris Cornell in South America.
That’s going to be so much fun. I’m just keeping the boat afloat, taking care of [family]. Just gotta keep it going so I can take care of what I need to. But I’m really blessed that, somehow… I don’t really solicit so much as people just come to me. And then when I resonate with the music, like Black Box Revelation, then off we go.
And it’s good to have a studio in the house so if shit happens, it can move quick.
Has there been any conversation beyond speculative about a new Them Crooked Vultures record?
Oh yeah, there definitely has. But as you can see, the way that the cycles happen, you know Dave jumped right into Foos, and then Josh toured more than a solid year with Queens for the self-titled album. So I expect at some point after the Queens cycle that there will be. And I think JPJ’s been busy…
He’s been all over the place. It’s been really great to see him play with Seasick Steve.
John actually takes his daughter to bluegrass camp every year. He’s really way involved with it. We were in Nashville and had a day off, and he said ‘Come on, let’s go.’ I asked where, and he said ‘Don’t you know? We’re in Bluegrass town!’ And we went over and hit the town, and I sat out to absorb for a little bit. I wasn’t about to just jump in and start smearing the wrong thing all over the place. But it was incredible, it was more like a rhythmical function, and you just have to feel where the changes come. There’s never more than three chords, but there’s just thousands of songs, and you just have to feel the pull of when to change. It was really cool. I felt very honored that he invited me.
There’s no better way to learn than immersing yourself around people who have that edge of ability.
It’s always good to push yourself. You become a little less defined. You’re just more of a musician, here’s the musical situation. You always have to listen first. What world are we living in? What are the rules? And what are the freedoms within the rules? And you jump in, and hopefully you do a good job.
I’m very excited about the Lanegan record that’s coming out next year.
You’re definitely not the only one… (laughs)
Yeah, and Black Box Revelation have just been touring and building their profile as well. They’re such great players, and they have such great chemistry. Jack Irons’ son Zach has a band as well, Irontom, and it’s really incredible. We recorded it here, and the production is done. Hopefully we’ll find a home soon there.
Photo by Cord McPhail.