Eric Johnson has turned over a new leaf. He has finally decided to shake the reputation – and the reality – of taking as long as six years between albums. He has decided that it is no longer worth his time to worry whether or not the brand of battery in his stompboxes is ruining the tone emanating from his rig.
Live and Beyond changes everything for Johnson. The new release was, uncharacteristically for Johnson, recorded in an Austin nightclub last January after only a few performances with his side-project group, Alien Love Child. The 10-track disc shows a much more relaxed attitude on Johnson’s part, not only for his playing – which is of course stellar – but in his epic quest for tone and his previously unrelenting habit of re-recording (and re-recording, and re-recording) tracks before releasing them to the public.
Johnson scored big with the release of his classic 1990 album Ah Via Musicom, from which the instrumental hit “Cliffs of Dover” became one of the most heavily played tracks on mainstream rock radio. Despite little fanfare for his 1986 release, Tones, the Austin, Texas, guitar slinger suddenly went international in the early ’90s, touring the world and refreshing the entire genre of instrumental rock guitar. It was a long wait for his next release, however. Venus Isle was delayed – mostly by Eric while he overdubbed and re-dubbed track after track – until 1996. And while the album reaffirmed his mastery of the instrument, and his place in the annals of guitar heroics, it was somewhat less energetic than many fans had hoped for.
Johnson has now seemingly overcome his addiction to studio knob tweaking, and has hit the road with a much more improvisational project that should leave guitar fans breathless. In this exclusive Guitar.com interview, Johnson discusses Live and Beyond, his upcoming studio album, a hoped-for acoustic recording in the near future, his gear, and much more. And be sure to catch the web chat with Eric at 7 p.m. CST on Thursday, October 26, right here at Guitar.com.
Guitar.com: What did it take for you to go through with recording and releasing a live album without years of studio tweaking?
Eric Johnson: Just kinda trying something new. I enjoyed the process actually. For so many years everybody has suggested that I do a live record and I’ve always thought, “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that someday.” This came along and I thought maybe it was a good time to do it and I decided if I was going to make a live record, I wanted to really make a live record and not take it in the studio and re-do the whole thing. So consequently that’s pretty much what it is. There is one tune that I overdubbed guitar on, “Once a Part of Me.” I fixed some guitar on that because the vocal performance by Malford Milligan was really nice. Everybody liked it and wanted to put it on the record, but I had to work the guitar on that. But other than that the record really is a live record.
Guitar.com: Has this experience affected your feelings for perfection vs. spontaneous inspiration?
Johnson: Oh definitely. It has been a really helpful record for me to make. It made me realize I should try to go with the flow. I’ll never really feel there’s anything wrong with perfection, because if you think about the lineage or long history of music or art or invention or anything, you can cite, ad infinitum, a benefit to it. I think the thing is, where do you place it? Where do you use it. I think it’s a little of course if I practice perfection making a record, rather than practice perfection rehearsing and try to get better so that I can be spontaneous when I record or perform. My personal feeling is there wasn’t so much a problem with being somewhat perfectionist as it is where do you use it. It’s like a tool. If I don’t use it in the right place, which I have done a little bit in the past, that’s what it’s all about.
Guitar.com: I imagine you have spent a lot of time in the past in the studio recording things over and over until you got it right?
Johnson: Right. And see, the problem with that is that where I should spend the time is rehearsing and practicing on the instrument. It’s not a question of getting better to play faster, obviously, but getting better as far as becoming a consummate musician – a 360 degree artist. If you spend your time undyingly doing that, then you did the discipline to give yourself the freedom to not do that in the studio. That’s what I’d rather see myself doing.
I think this record was cathartic for me in that it made me realize that: Put that tool in a different place, as in working on your playing and your performance level when you’re by yourself or rehearsing, so that later you don’t have to call upon that and get caught in some kind of Pandora’s box. It can happen real easy in that situation.
Guitar.com: So how will this live release affect your musical output from now on?
Johnson: I think instead of taking 10 years it’ll take me eight years [laughs]. No, I hope that it will have a big effect. I would like to think it’s going to make me have more discipline at working smarter – not necessarily harder – at writing songs and practicing guitar. To where I really efficiently utilize my time. If I change the integrity of my playing, I’m hoping that I change it for the better, or the broader. I don’t want to say, ‘Well that’s good enough. This is the new me: That’s good enough.’ And it’s just trashy.
I think that if I do my homework in an efficient way I’ll have an even better integrity, but I’ll have that spontaneity without doing it over and over and over. I think another thing is kind of going with the flow. If there’s 5,000 ways to do something, you don’t necessarily have to try all 5,000 before you make a decision. You can try the others later. There’s always plenty more music to go around. I think it’s going to have an affect on me. I enjoyed doing it. Sometimes some of the stuff that was kind of not quite right, after I listened to it later it didn’t really bother me that much.
Guitar.com: You mentioned doing your homework, or being efficient in the way that you practice. What do you work on at home?
Johnson: I think I tend usually just to play, but in a way where it’s almost more like self-entertainment. It’s kind of hard to choose the words because I don’t want to get trapped by what I might say. It’s not that I don’t want to be self-entertaining or enjoy what I do – obviously that’s the most important thing. But there’s a way where you can get down to business and work on what you need to do to where you can have more fun with it later on. I think sometimes I have a tendency to dally around and just play this or that, and not really be as efficient as I could be.
Guitar.com: Do you or have you in the past worked on different styles, outside of what your fans might expect from you?
Johnson: Yeah. I have a studio record on which I have seven songs totally mixed and finished; I’ve got to do about four or five more to put with it. But there’s one song on that record, called “Hesitant,” that’s real different than anything I’ve ever put out. It’s stuff that I want to learn and kind of grow that way concurrent with whatever else I do, but it’s a real departure for me. It’s a straight-ahead jazz piece with a jazz guitar and upright bass. It’s the first time I’ve ever recorded a real straight-ahead [jazz] piece. It turned out nice. I’m kind of curious about doing some more of that, and some more acoustic stuff in the future.
Guitar.com: Who are some of your biggest jazz influences?
Johnson: I’d say Wes Montgomery. And I like Bill Evans’ piano playing. I like Michael Stern for the fusion thing. George Van Epps was great.
Guitar.com: Does this piece reflect those influences?
Johnson: I think it does. It reflects the Wes thing more than anything. I’ve had songs like “Manhattan,” [from the album Venus Isle] which is kind of Wes-influenced. That’s kind of a jazz-influenced piece, but not really. This piece really is reminiscent of that kind of thing. I’m starting to work on changes and more chord voicing, and the tone. It’s much more in that direction than anything else I’ve done in the past.
Guitar.com: What kind of a chord progression? Something with some I-vi-ii-V changes and ii-V-I’s?
Johnson: Yeah, with a lot of interesting voicings. Some of the voicings are more like Herbie Hancock keyboard voicings. It’s me trying to play through changes, rather than me trying to play over one or two chords.