A talk with
ERIC WILLIAM JOHNS (Vocals)
(Questionnaire by Stefan)
Eric William Johns has proved in the past that he can reach a very high level with his voice qualities. He lent his expertise already in various bands playing styles varied from Americana to Hard Rock and pure Metal. Especially his contribution to the band Southern Gentlemen did not go unnoticed to myself. Right here, right now we are dealing with a world class - follow your heart by making music, no matter what style it may be - type of front man which is actually the right spirit to me.
The time has come for Eric to walk his own paths and start working out his debut solo album entitled “Smoke In The Sky”, produced and released by Mr. David T. Chastain’s label Leviathan Records. It seemed like a good idea to let the man speak for himself, it’s my honour to have the following conversation with Eric William Johns, a man with a top-notch wide range of vocal delivery!
Q: Well hello Eric, thanks for your collaboration doing this interview, man. How are things going on in the US at the moment? What kept you busy on a day like this?
A: Spring is in the air here in Kentucky, USA. We had a very long and hard winter here, so the return of sunshine and warmer weather has been wonderful. Today was mostly a day off for me. A bunch of friends stopped by and we swapped stories and had a few sips of the ol' moonshine before having a nice dinner. Later, I played some pre-production demos of one of my current projects, the Woolper Creek Mafia, to get my friends' feedback. All in all, it was a fine day.
Q: I'd like to ask how you ended up in the world of Rock and Metal, how the fire was sparked?
A: My parents were very young when I was born. My dad was 21 and my mom had just turned 20. So, they were both rock fans during what I consider the best era of rock n' roll and both played music constantly. Literally from the time I was in my crib, I was being exposed to great music like The Who, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, etc. My dad has a huge record collection, so as I got older everyday was an adventure of digging through records and discovering new music. Black Sabbath's "Heaven & Hell" was probably the first straight-up metal record I really got into. Shortly after that, though, an older brother of one of my friend's turned me on to Iron Maiden and Queensryche. I was a pretty committed metal head for the rest of my formative years...
Q: What prompted you to become a singer, who has inspired you at that time?
A: My mother was a professional session musician and vocal arranger. So, even as a toddler I would hear her warming up and doing vocal exercises and I would try to do them with her. People joke that I was singing before I could even talk. She recognised that I loved to sing and always encouraged me to pursue it if it made me happy. My family made a lot of sacrifices to pay for lessons with some of the best teachers available. I never really had aspirations to be a front man for a band until later into high school. Then, I was into being into a band for the same reason every kid as gotten into a band since the dawn of time: GIRLS... I suppose my big inspirations at that time in my life were definitely Ronnie James Dio, Bruce Dickinson, Ian Gillian, Robert Plant, and Roger Daltrey.
Q: What’s the name of the very first band you’ve teamed up with – what type of band was it Eric?
A: If I recall correctly, the name of the very first "real" band I was ever in was Defiant. (I define "real band" as we actually played paying gigs to real people and not just kids making noise in a basement or garage.) The band played all covers, although we tried to write originals. The problem was that none of us had a clue how to write songs, yet. We were just high school kids. Guys liked us a lot because we played heavier stuff than what was in fashion at the time. Most bands where I grew up played "Hair Band" type stuff and we played more of the heavier stuff.
Q: To show your versatility as a singer, it’s quite amazing to read that you joined forces in many bands with a very wide range of music style. Metal, Hard Rock or whatever… you did it all man. It seems like you haven’t a damn problem switching your vocal style from one extreme to another. What’s the story behind?
A: I have always liked all kinds of music. Where ever I go, I want to immerse myself in the music that is happening. I never liked when people try to pigeon hole someone into just repeating the same things over and over. All my favourite bands did things in many styles. The Who play everything from punk rock in "My Generation" to almost country in "Squeeze Box." Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, and many others also varied their style from album to album. I want to be able to sing what I feel like singing at the time I want to do it. It's fun to do metal because it is so vocally hard to do. But sometimes, I like just the simplicity of singing a song acoustically or along with piano. Life is way too short to just do one thing.
Q: With all due respect to the many bands that you played with, there only one but I’m familiar with and that’s Southern Gentlemen featuring one of my all time favourite guitar players named David T. Chastain. How did you get in this band?
A: I have known David for many years. Growing up in the Cincinnati, OH area, everyone in the music scene knew about David Chastain because he was part of three successful acts in the area: Spike!, CJSS, and, of course, Chastain. I joined a band called Simple Aggression in 1994/1995 that was signed to David's record label, Leviathan Records. After that band ended, David and I stayed in touch. He asked me to send him some music I had been working on. I sent him a cover of "Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin that I was playing with a local bar band. He asked if I was interested in singing on the Southern Gentlemen material, and after hearing it, I was very much interested in the job. We have been working on songs together in some capacity ever since.
Q: Personal question, how is it to work with a legend like D.T. Chastain?
A: David doesn't come off like a legend, although he has every right to. He is a actually a pretty quiet guy. He doesn't say a whole lot, but when he does, it is probably something that you should be listening to. He is very easy to work with as a song writing partner. I can barely think of any disagreements over song writing in all of the years we have worked on songs together. Honestly, I have been in a lot of bands over the years with a lot of members, and David Chastain is probably the easiest guy to be in a band with that I have worked with.
Q: As far as I know, Southern Gentlemen released five albums… am I correct? Do you have contribute to all these cuts?
A: The complete Southern Gentlemen catalogue is: Exotic Dancer Blues, Double Your Pleasure (both with David T. Chastain on vocals), Third Time is the Charm, Valley of Fire, and My Favourite Disaster. There are also two "best of" collections: The Early Years, and Playing for Pennies. Both of those contain bonus tracks not on other releases.
My vocals can be heard on everything except the first two albums and The Early Years best of collection. While all of the songs on Third Time is the Charm were already written when I joined Southern Gentlemen, everything since then has been co-written with David and myself.
Q: David once stated a remarkable statement, actually an outstanding reaction on your vocal abilities. Back in the days, he heard you sing both Dio’s ‘Gates Of Babylon’ and Janis Joplin’s ‘Piece Of My Heart’ with equal mastery. That’s a remarkable statement from a man who knows like no other where he talks about. What’s your response to this?
A: It's a very humbling feeling, honestly. David was already a rock star and making waves in this business when I was just a kid singing to a hair brush instead of a microphone in my bedroom. That he takes me seriously as a musician and a peer is pretty surreal. He has been a good friend in this business and huge asset to my career. The cover of Gates of Babylon, originally by Rainbow, appears on the album Mayan Logic by Human Cometh. Check the band out at www.HumanCometh.com . I am very proud of that track. Ronnie James Dio was my hero and singing that song was just about the hardest challenge I have ever put upon myself. One day, hopefully, I can put a version of "Piece of My Heart" out there for people to check out.
Q: I think there is a great mutual respect between David and yourself, right?
A: Absolutely; on my side for sure. I can only say from David's statements that it would appear he feels the same. It is not something we have ever talked about. I think there definitely has to be a level playing field of respect for any song writing partnership to endure, and ours has for quite a while.
Q: In days of Southern Gentlemen, you must have seen a whole lotta stages while playing for a live audience I suppose. Which gigs are stuck on your soul – why?
A: Sadly, Southern Gentlemen has not gotten to play nearly as often as I would have liked over the years. Half the band lives in Atlanta, Georgia and the other half lives in Northern Kentucky. The distance makes planning gigs as often as I would like a real challenge.
There are two shows over the years that do stand a little above the rest. Back in 2000/2001, I was fronting a classic rock band. We played a show that summer for the Kentucky Biker Association (KBA) that was their annual summer party. There was something like 3,000 crazy bikers having a blast. It was also the last time my grandmother who raised me from when I was a small child got to see me play. She passed away not long after. She always worried that I would never be able to support myself as a musician, so for her to get to see me being successful hopefully helped to ease her mind a little.
The other show was with the American Rail Council on September 29, 2012. That was the night of my 40th birthday (September 30th is my actual birthday). That night really stands out because there were so many good friends there, both in the crowd and backstage. It was just a night of a lot of good memories and love between old friends. If I had to go and get old, I picked a fine bunch to join me that night. I think someone posted a Youtube video of at least some of that show. You can check for links at www.americanrailcouncil.org
Q: But the time came on you decided to go your own way creating a solo album. Can I infer from this that Southern Gentlemen no longer exists?
A: Southern Gentlemen is to David Chastain what Whitesnake is to David Coverdale. It is 100% his project. It is always been understood that it is his band that follows his whims. If David would like to do another Southern Gentlemen record, I am more than happy to work on that CD. If David chooses to go with another band to fit his vision, he has every right to follow his muse as he sees fit.
Q: Meanwhile that solo album has been released through Leviathan Records, produced by the master himself, D.T. Chastain. First on, is this the ultimate start of your solo career with the eye on more efforts to release from now on?
A: I suppose that is up to the buying public; the fans. If they like the CD and support it with their purchase, or even by streaming it legally on services like Spotify that actually pay artist royalties, then there is certainly a great incentive to make another record. I had a blast making this record and am proud of every song on it. I have my fingers crossed that this record makes enough money for the record label to justify taking the risk of making another one.
Q: Please, introduce the other guys featuring on your new solo album “Smoke In The Sky”.
A: David T. Chastain was my writing partner for the record and the executive producer of the whole project. What that really means is besides writing the songs with me, he also took on all of the headaches of trying to coordinate and manage the project. I am forever in his debt. Dave Swart not only played bass, he also worked tirelessly as both a collaborator and as an audio engineer and producer. He wears many hats well. I don't think this record ever would have gotten finished without him. Mike Haid played some hellacious drums in almost no time at all because he is a total professional and one of the most in demand session drummers I know. I was lucky to get him to be a part of the record. Steven Taylor came directly endorsed by David Chastain, himself. That was good enough for me to ask him to come aboard the project.
Q: In my review I described the songs as a mixture of Classic Hard Rock and Blues Rock. In what ways you’d like to make a description of the genre?
A:That is an accurate description to me. I am a fan of both and both are certainly intertwined. If you loved rock music, there is a pretty damn good chance you will also love the blues.
Q: Which topics the lyrics are based on… feel free to guide us through a few of the songs.
A: The tracks "Bleed the Blues," "Death of Me," and "M.I.A." all deal with the pretty standard theme in blues songs of relationships gone bad. "Aces & Eights" which has been the first track of the album to get any significant radio play is based on a true story from many years ago. I ended up playing strip poker with a girl I had just met after a gig who didn't bother to mention she lived with her boyfriend. I had to make a hasty retreat very early in the morning by jumping off a balcony.
Q: Best song(s) to you are… why?
A: My favourite song on the record is "Fireflies." It is a song that continues to speak to me personally long after I wrote it. I see the message of the song as being a reminder that even though most things can get pretty dark, there are moments of light that shine through. "Bleed the Blues" is another track that stands out to me as does "Aces & Eights." I just remember having lots of fun recording the vocals to those tracks.
Q: Who or what has influenced you to record an album like this?
A: I have always been a fan of bluesy, hard rock. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Whitesnake, The Cult and Badlands were all huge influences on me as a kid. It is a style of music that doesn't seem to get heard enough anymore, at least here in the USA. Making this record was more about making songs that I would want to listen to for my own enjoyment than trying to make a "hit record."
Q: I assume you're a happy man with the release of “Smoke In The Sky”, right?
A: So far, things have been really cool. The record has gotten radio play in a few markets and it has gotten some good reviews. All I can do is hope that translates into enough actual sales to make it worthwhile to make another record.
Q: Where to order your new album brother? Please give up an address.
A: You can find links to purchasing the CD right here: http://www.ericwilliamjohns.com/buy/
Q: Based on all the previous bands you’ve played with so far, do you have a preference?
A: I have great memories and fondness for every band I have played with over the years. Being in a band is a lot like being in a marriage, except that it is with 3 or 4 other people instead of just one. It would be impossible for me to pick one project out of all the others and say it is my favourite.
Q: How would you describe your musical career so far and if you don’t mind, mention a few unforgettable moments.
A: I always refer to my musical career as "a work in progress." I just keep on working and plodding along because it is what I love and what I do. I really wouldn't know where to begin doing anything else. There have been lots of great moments along the way. Getting to record on a Neve mixing console onto 24 track two inch tape when we made Simple Aggression's "Gravity" record at the legendary Audiocraft Studios in Cincinnati, OH was pretty amazing. Touring as the opening act for Wrathchild America the first time I ever went on the road was really special, too. Writing, recording, and mixing the American Rail Council record all on our own at our own studio without any outside help was very satisfying.
Q: Do you have other pursuits besides making music?
A: Honestly, making music takes up most of my time. I love writing, performing, and recording and spend as much time as I can doing one or another. I love to read in my down time, though. I have also been playing billiards my whole life. I try and play at least one day a week if there is time.
Q: We are approaching the end of our conversation and would have like to know how your own vision of the future looks like.
A: Right now, the future is looking pretty bright. I have two projects that I am working on that will hopefully be released by the end of the year. An alt-metal project called Graves Road that I recorded with Glen Cook from Lethal is being mixed right now. I am very anxious to hear how the record turns out. It has been a long process of writing and recording it, but I am very happy with the songs. My other current project is a band that Dave Swart (from both Southern Gentlemen and American Rail Council, as well as my solo CD) and I founded called the Woolper Creek Mafia. We are joined in that band by Keith Murphy on guitar and piano and Eric Race on drums. It is some of the most unique and hard to describe music I have ever co-written. It is somewhere between rock and jazz. We are starting to lay down tracks for that album this month and hope to have it done fairly quickly. I think most of it will be recorded live in the studio without a lot of overdubs.
Q: Finally, perhaps a few words of wisdom focused to our readers? Thanks very much for your precious time Eric.
A: The best words of wisdom I have ever heard are: make good art. Long after we are gone and are nothing but memories, what we made and left behind is a window for the whole world to look into and see a little of who we were. Try and make something you would want someone to look at or hear, as the case may be. Thanks to you all for inviting me to do this interview.