Eric Johnson Interview with (sic) Magazine
Black Sun Ensemble exists in really three editions in my book. There are the classic records of the Pyknotic and Reckless days (1985-1991). Then there is the difficult Psycho Master El period (1992-1999). This was then followed up by the reinvigorated BSE, which was given a new lease on life by Bryan Kohl (Otto Terrorist) and Eric Johnson beginning in 1999 until their final recording. Tucson and its music scene have plenty to offer beyond the Giant Sand-Calexico axis, but you wouldn’t know it given the amount of press both of those bands generate, which leaves little oxygen for other bands to be noticed. As a follow up to my review of Black Sun Ensemble’s Behind Purple Clouds, I decided to bang out a few questions for Eric Johnson, who has the triple role of producer, ringmaster and musician all at once. Fortunately for us Cobracalia have also decided to premiere a track here to give people a glimpse into what the new album will sound like. Here is the interview in full. Enjoy: What was the idea BSE originally had with the Behind Purple Clouds album? How was this altered by Jesus’ passing? The title for the project was always “Behind Purple Clouds.” Jesus had that title for years; it was very much like him to plan or sketch out, as least in his mind, what the title, artwork, songs would be for a project. Honestly, when Jesus died, he just got back on top of his guitar skills. BSE had taken a 5-year hiatus; in fact we had “broken up.” In recent years, Jesus never really owned his own guitar, so he didn’t even touch a guitar for all of those years away. Because we were a band whose guitarist was struggling, we had a full time electric flute player (Joe E Furno) and a hand-drummer (Scott Kerr); we looked at other ways to develop music that would suit our strengths and weaknesses. We were in the middle of exploring those ideas when Jesus passed away. Of course, the finished “Behind Purple Clouds” would have been different if Jesus had lived, but I don’t think it would have been that different, to be honest. Sadly, we had plans to record versions of “Mandala” and “Blue Thunder” on a Tuesday and he died on a Monday. We recorded them anyway, the way we had rehearsed them with Jesus. I just played an appropriation of Jesus’s guitar parts. Like I said, I think the songs, in the end, would be quite similar to what we ended up with on the record if he had made it to the Tuesday recording session. You’ve created a very beautiful sonic world with this album, production wise how did this album differ recording technique wise than previous efforts? Thanks, I am glad you like it. I have always recorded on tape, so I have always had to deal with the limitations of linear recording, but you know, I see those limitations as challenges. “Behind Purple Clouds” was the first truly 24 track project we did, believe it or not. All of the others in the past have been 16 track. I also got a much-upgraded mixing desk, so the recorded sounds sound remarkably better. I recorded a lot of things in stereo, which I didn’t have the tracks for in the past, which creates atmosphere. And we utilized a lot of “new” electronic equipment that we had used before, ever. So the album certainly sounds very different than the last four studio albums I did with BSE. So quite different than anything I have done before. Given that, I always work very hard at having a balanced mix where every sound has its place and function. Doing all instrumental music for this project and given the new technology available to us helped to create a little world on CD. That is certainly the goal for every project. Can you tell us something about Jesus and the recording of some of his parts for this record? Any interesting anecdotes you can share? Most the time, Jesus was more interested in “hanging out,” talking music or the old days than working on recording. So we all spent energy in “pumping him up” to get psyched about playing. His level of playing wasn’t what it had been in recent years, so I think this was a constant source of frustration to him, but he got most of it back in the end. Sorry getting off topic – so when Jesus came in to the studio and asked if he could record a guitar song, just by himself I said “sure, absolutely.” He recorded two versions of this beautiful “pastoral” circular guitar thing. The two versions were so short and so close together on the tape, we used actually both versions to make the song longer, primarily because it was so nice, connected by stunning violin by Bridget Keating. This song became known as “Behind Purple Clouds” the title track to the project. A couple days later Jesus was gone, this song was literally the last thing he recorded or played. You know, if you could sum up 35 years of guitar playing in one moment – this is a pretty good one. Was Jesus aware of the impact that his early albums especially had? Sure, Jesus was aware of that. He especially liked the “Goldfish” album; I think that was the happiest time for him as a musician back then. He was also painfully aware how much he and others in the band at the time blew their big break – that’s another story. So I think the 80s period for him, was bittersweet. What were you listening to at the time you were working on the album? Did that have any or no influence on your producer side? Honestly, I really used “Axiom Records” era Bill Laswell as a blue print for how I wanted the album to sound and feel. I had the same kind of goal in mind when we were working on BSE’s “Bolt of Apollo” record. It’s “psych-rock” or “art-work” or “prog-rock” for adults, ha! For me, if you are going to do this kind of record, it has be about both chops and atmosphere. Laswell was famous for getting the very best session players for those albums, Jah Wobble, Ginger Baker, Jaki Liebezeit. If history had been kinder, Jesus Acedo should have been on that list. What he could bring when he was at full power, was as masterful as it was unique…and simply cool. Listen to Jesus’s guitar solo on “King of the Locust” on “Bolt of Apollo.” That was live in the studio with me on bass and Ernie Mendoza on drums. Unreal. What types of musicians do Tucson and its scene attract? Do the bands help one another or is it just a bunch of disparate parts all working to their own ends? I have to be careful how to respond to this one – Tucson, by nature is a transient community. All of the people I initially worked with here have all left years ago. So given that, and the fact that Tucson has very eclectic taste, it is the perfect place for musicians to come here, experiment and perfect their stuff and move on. A couple of months of playing accordion on a unicycle with juggling monkey and you are playing at Club Congress. I think moving on is the key, I just never did. Of course, Jesus is a native Tucsonan whose family is here so he rarely left the city. Admittedly, I am a little cynical about Tucson, it was difficult for Black Sun Ensemble in town. Most people did not get the band here and Jesus had a less than stellar reputation with the music hipsters. We would play at SXSW and be treated like royalty and come back to Tucson and play in pizza joints – really. Even girlfriends stopped coming. I am really eager to know how Michael Henderson was brought into this project, because he seems to have some serious chops as a musician? Michael Henderson is somebody that has been around since the 1980s in Tucson. He kind of is a guitarist’s guitarist, a little like Jesus. He also has a deep interest in Arabic and World Music and is world-class Oud player. We played gigs with him years ago and honestly, always admired his uncompromising approach to guitar. After Jesus died, we wanted to bring in several “musical guest” to help fill the void on the record left by Jesus’s departure. Henderson was on the short list, actually couldn’t think of anyone else we really wanted to invite. There are lots of blues-based rock guitarists, like myself, and there are lots of wanky, shredy metal guitarists – but Jesus was neither. Neither is Michael – he is a musician with a pretty unique set of skills, so we brought him in, set up and recorded “Valley of the Kings” – in one take with about two minutes of warm up. Pretty freakin’ great. Can you explain how the song ‘Red Temple’ came about? Red Temple was a song that we were working out with Jesus that centered around this particular electronic drum sound that Scotty plays. It was one that we hadn’t got to when Jesus left us so Scotty and I recorded the bones of the song. We decided that a click track might be helpful because Otto Terrorist was coming from NYC to recorded drums on the track in a couple of weeks. We couldn’t find a good click, so we used a syncopated drum loop to play against, not realizing how much of an impact this slight change in feel would have. When Otto Terrorist arrived, he said “love the reggae song.” I explain that it wasn’t supposed to have that feel, but after talking with him and being big fans of Lee Perry and the Black Arc stuff, we decided to push that feel instead of minimize it. So what you get is half Upsetters and Led Zeppelin. I get more positive feedback on this song than any other song on the album. Al Perry’s Jasmine is a beautiful piece how did you get him to be a part of the project? Al Perry is not only what you might call a “Tucson legend” he is one of the few people around in Tucson that actually liked Black Sun Ensemble, so in my mind he is a brother-in-arms, so to speak. When we discovered that he developed an obsession for the Oud too, we knew we had to have him do something for the record. Luckily for us, he was willing to come down and record some jams, “Jasmine” came out of those sessions. For me, it was a real honor to have him on the record. The music on BPC has a very Middle Eastern vibe to it. This influence was hinted at with other BSE releases but seems to have been given wider latitude on this record was that a conscious decision by you or the band, or did it just come out of working stuff in the studio? You’re right. BSE in the past has had arabesque melodies – kinda. I think originally BSE was described as having those qualities by critics as a way to describing a fairly unique melodic sensibility not usually found in rock music. BSE also did “hippie” in a very Tucson way, with hand drums, acoustic guitars and a lot of mythology, which lends itself to desert like vibe, not unlike North Africa. Jesus, while using a proprietary tuning, he used primarily minor and major scales, pulling out the dissonance between the scales in his solos. Jesus never used Arabic or North African scales. As a band, we had a renewed interest in World music and how those influence could fuse with Black Sun’s music. I think that is something that developed in the last couple of years much more so than earlier in the decade. How long did it take to mix the record? Jesus passed away in early March 2013 and we released “Behind Purple Clouds” on December 1st 2013. A pretty quick turnaround for a bunch of Tucson zoners. What was the hardest track to get to where you wanted it? I think the hardest track to mix was the opener “Black Temple.” There is always an expectation that the opening song be pretty killer. And what was challenging was that Jesus couldn’t come back and do his part again. The song has a 2:00 minute intro, gets established with flute, then evolves into Jesus’s solo then takes another step up with Bridget Keating violin part. Blending all of those parts seamlessly – was hard. I know that you are working on reissuing the BSE classic “Goldfish” Record, can you tell us about that project and what we can expect of the new remaster? We are in place to do the cassette project release featuring most of the material from the Reckless Records “Goldfish” album plus a lot of unreleased material from 1986-1988, however I need to make sure that all parties, including former band members and the Acedo family are on the same page with this. It’s clear that this is what Jesus wanted, but losing somebody so suddenly like Jesus, it’s very hard on everyone and often in different ways. I think we all want to honor the Black Sun Ensemble legacy, but how we do that best is not always clear. That is a big factor why “Behind Purple Clouds” was so difficult. In the light of day, the recording is as much my music and/or the other members of the band music. However, history, family, friends, Tucson will always see it as Jesus’s last record. I very much want to do the right thing here, to both honor Jesus’s wishes and to also be sensitive to the fact we lost someone special here, know what I mean? How long did it take you and band to decide to continue on as Cobracalia? We pretty quickly found a way to continue with Scott Kerr and Joe E Furno and myself, because of the memorial show that we organized. We added Fonda Insley on percussion and she brought along about a dozen great belly dancers with her, so we began to explore creating music with and for dance. Fonda also brought in her friend and master dumbek player Carl Hall. When “Behind Purple Clouds” was completed we geared up for doing a big event at Tucson’s Rialto Theater to celebrate the release of the CD. We added Darin Guthrie on drums, Jillian La Croix on violin and Michael Henderson returned to play both electric guitar and Oud. This rolled seamlessly into the recording session for the Cobracalia record last spring. We are hoping to release that project this October. Cobracalia is the name of an early BSE song so even though your not BSE will you be playing any BSE numbers live? Yes, we decided since Jesus left us that we would not continue with the Black Sun Ensemble name for obvious reasons. We chose “Cobracalia,” a song title from the first record, as a tribute. We will continue to play some of the material from “Behind Purple Clouds” but much of Jesus’s playing was done in his own tuning, making those songs impossible to reproduce in the same way. He really had his own musical language on the guitar. Would love to try to learn to play “Dove of the Desert” – I really miss playing that song. In terms of the line-up is it basically the same cast of characters recording the debut Cobracalia album that were on BPC? No. Like I said, we added both Darin Guthrie on drum set and Jillian La Croix on violin for the new record. Michael Henderson returns to be featured on the Cobracalia record too, delivering some serious guitar parts. What’s the vibe of the new stuff you’re recording? I think that the Cobracalia project is a logical next step from the “Behind Purple Clouds” project. I think it may actually rock a bit harder than BPC. We re-recorded a couple of songs from BPC with completely different versions, for example we do another version of “Egyptian Magician” that is really unrecognizable from its BPC counterpart. The Cobracalia project may actually sound even more hi-tech than BPC. Again, I have gone with that psych-rock for adults approach. Having said that, it’s also a very unashamedly psychedelic. We walked that line with Black Sun Ensemble, never really getting into “space rock” kind of stuff because that really isn’t what BSE was about. But this album, all bets are off. Is there a track you can share with our readers so we can hear what you’re working on? Sure the opening track, “Dandyloin” is completed, would be glad to share that to give people an idea of where we’ve gone from the BSE days. Does your daughter dig the music you guys have made? My six year old, Helen, does like the band in fact. We played a gig a couple of months ago and got a pretty good recording of the show. Strangely, she likes to listen to the recording of the show as she is falling asleep – weird. Will Otto Terrorist be on the new Cobracalia Record? Man, I wish Otto Terrorist could be on the Cobracalia project and every project that we do. Unfortunately, he lives in Manhattan and is currently playing with an old friend, former band mate in Sun Zoom Spark, Bobby Hepworth. Bobby has even done some keyboard work for Black Sun Ensemble from time to time. Who knows what 2015 might bring….
[sic] Magazine thanks Eric and the Cobracalia collective. New recording Dandyloin can be heard, via the Soundcloud player.