Eric Johnson Interview with Tucson Weekly
Black Sun Ensemble finishes the album started with late guitarist Jesus Acedo and relaunches as CobracaliaBy Gene Armstrong When Tucson guitarist Jesus Acedo died unexpectedly last March, Black Sun Ensemble, the band he had led since the mid-1980s, had completed about two-thirds of a new album, Behind Purple Clouds.The remaining band members, shepherded by producer and multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson, soldiered on to finish the record.
Thanks in large part to a grant from the Tucson Pima Arts Council,Behind Purple Clouds was released about a month ago on Johnson's SlowBurn Records. Acedo's playing appears on six of the 13 tracks—most of them drawing on BSE's signature blend of psychedelic rock, Middle Eastern styles and subtle Southwestern motifs—but his heart infuses them all. Behind Purple Clouds was intended as BSE's comeback album; now it serves as the band's swan song. A group of the remaining members will play a CD-release concert, featuring many other participants, this Friday, Jan. 31, at the Rialto Theatre. In a recent interview, Johnson said BSE had reunited about a year before Acedo's death. "The band basically took a five-year hiatus. Jesus started to assemble it again in the spring of 2012. He had come up with a new direction for the band, with Joe E. Furno on flute and Scott Kerr on hand drums. And we'd started using a lot of electronic equipment that had kind of been piling up. "We were all very pleased with the new direction, and Jesus' playing was getting better over time. We started recording casually at the beginning of 2013, and then Jesus suddenly died. So many times over the years, I didn't think he was going to make it, and then when things are starting to go better for him personally and for the band, this happened." Acedo, who had struggled at times with substance abuse and mental-health issues, died of a heart attack at age 50. The surviving members of BSE were confident they had enough material to finish the recording, but they weren't sure whether they should. Or could. "We don't have a big label supporting us, and SlowBurn Records basically exists as my publishing entity," Johnson said. "But we applied for a New Works grant from TPAC, which I thought was a long shot. But after we completed the proposal, rationally it started to make a lot of sense. "I mean here's a band that has been around for almost 30 years. It's one of the few internationally known musical groups from Tucson, and it's worth preserving the final work of its leader. They ended up giving us the grant, and it was amazing to have that support." A veteran of local acts Sun Zoom Spark and Bread and Circus, Johnson played with Acedo in Black Sun Ensemble for several years before its hiatus. His journey, too, has not been without its trials. "I did four records with Jesus, and we went to South by Southwest three times. But when he asked me to come back in 2012, I wasn't sure about it. My wife had passed away after a very long illness, and I was going through a lot of personal trauma. I had pretty much stopped playing. "But I saw this as an opportunity to get back into music. And even though it sounds like a cliché, music can really be a healing force in your life. It was clearly the right decision to come back, and we had a great time while he was still here." Completing Behind Purple Clouds not only serves as a tribute to the brilliant, mercurial Acedo, but it also inspired the remaining members of Black Sun Ensemble to form a new band, Cobracalia, named for one of the tracks on BSE's 1985 debut album. "We chose that name as kind of a tribute to Jesus, and it's a good name," Johnson said. "Black Sun Ensemble is the coolest rock band name there is. It's hard to replace that, but it comes close." Friday's concert is being billed as a Black Sun Ensemble show, but it will mark "the last real time we use the name," Johnson said. The future looks bright for Cobracalia, and it has grown to become an octet. In addition to Johnson (who sings and plays bass, guitar and keyboards), flutist Furno and percussionist Kerr, Cobracalia also features Michael Henderson on oud, Jillian LaCroix on violin and still more percussion by Fonda Insley, Carl Hall and Darin Guthrie. Local legend Al Perry also will sit in, playing on his composition "Jasmine," which appears on Behind Purple Clouds. The concert also will feature opening sets by local bands Burning Palms and Leila Lopez, as well as film projections and belly dancing. Some of the film projections will be abstract, mood-setting pieces. But Acedo also will appear on screen. The show will open with a video of Acedo performing in 2001, and he'll "collaborate" with the band on the song "Captain Wormwood." "We were lucky to have videotaped Jesus playing his part of that song before his death," Johnson said. "And we were able to put his guitar track on the video, and we—the band—will play along with the video. It'll be his Tupac moment." Adding to the visual element, no fewer than three belly-dance troupes will perform on the Rialto stage with Cobracalia, Johnson said. The dance performances are being coordinated by Insley, herself a belly dancer. The interactions between dancers and live rock bands can be unpredictable, Johnson said, but he is looking forward to the opportunity for improvisation. "We have worked with Fonda a lot over the years. Doing these multimedia things is challenging, and we'll see where it takes us. But I think Jesus would've loved it." Also released in conjunction with Behind Purple Clouds is a split 7-inch vinyl single: BSE's "Captain Wormwood" on one side and "Drop of Sweat" by Tucson metal band Dead Chiefs on the other. At the same time, Johnson has released his debut solo album, Action Figures, a power-pop gem on which he sings and plays every instrument. Johnson said he knows Acedo inspired complicated emotions among Tucson musicians and the community at large, but no one can doubt his talent. "Jesus was a misunderstood character about town. He had a wicked sense of humor, which sometimes people maybe took a little too seriously. He was a little crazy. He definitely struggled with a lot of issues and circumstances throughout his life. ... He had burned a lot of bridges at different times. "But he was the catalyst for so many good things happening in Tucson, and for good things that have happened since his passing.