Eric Johnson Interview
SUN ZOOM SPARK â€śThe Secret Sparkâ€ť Interview with Eric Johnson -singer, guitarist and co-founder of Tucsonâ€™s Sun Zoom Spark By Sergio Vilar How did the idea arise to form Sun Zoom Spark, and how did you met the others in the band? Sun Zoom Spark has been through several different eras as far as musicians. In 1995, while we still lived in Madison Wisconsin, I played in a band called Works with two brothers, myself on guitar andÂ vocals,Â Steve Goetz on bass and JasonÂ Goetz on drums. Actually, we just released the â€śWorksâ€ť CD (1994) on SlowBurn Records a few weeks ago! I guess it is about time for it to see the light of day, huh. Anyway, Jason moved away and my old pal Bryan Kohl started playing with us. I played with Bryan in a band in the late 80s-early 90s called Cesareâ€™s Dog. At this time, we did a project called Against the Giant.Â As soon as it was done, Bryan and I moved to Tucson Arizona and played as a duo for a time. In 1996, Bryan and I recorded The Red Planets project.Â It is a good one because it kind of established a direction as far as song writing for the band. I felt that I had finally made it -full circle.Â When I was a teenager, I started out writing pop/folk stuff with a little weird instrumental material to spice up the song-form type songs. As the years went by, the pop/folk stuff got less and less and everything we did was dominated by freak-out jams, feedback, backwards vocals -the weirder the better. After several years of making music that only sounds good on an acid trip when you are 17, I took the best of that era and tried to incorporate that element, in a subtle way with more traditional song structures. This is really what Sun Zoom Spark became. In 1997, my high school chum, bassist Young Arnold moved to TucsonÂ and joined Bryan and I and we started gigging in the area. To make a long story a little shorter; Young lost his way somewhere and left TucsonÂ and was never heard from again by the end of 2000. Bryan and his wife left for greener pastures in New York City by the end of 2001. The band halted and my attention was directed toward my other band, Black Sun Ensemble.Â Then in 2002, I was asked to be the musical director of a stage production of a rock opera that we did the music for a couple years back. So I re-formed Sun Zoom Spark and along with author John Paul Marchand and a cast of 30+ singers and actors, performed â€śTwitch-A Rock Opera from the Earthâ€ť. It was so much fun that the SZS line-up stayed together and continued to perform new and old material. The line-up just completed our 5th official studio release, â€śSaturn Returnâ€ť. Could you explain to us the artistic concept behind Sun Zoom Spark? Well, my original idea was to have Sun Zoom Spark be the modern version of the Pink Fairies. I mean, the Fairies were awesome! "Do it" is the quintessential rock anthem! Too bad rock radio is so clogged with so many over played stinkers. "Do it" should be played a least once a day, somewhere. Anywayâ€¦I think we all just wanted to make interesting music, and the music that I have found truly interesting has been bands from 60s and 70s. I grew up listening to that stuff and I learned to play the guitar in that style. So I take the parts that I like from those bands and mix them up with my own songwriting and the musical contribution of the others in the band and you get something that is not so easily defined. I thought for a while that we were a psych-rock band, but I think a lot of people nowadays think that we are going to sound like "Stoner Rock." The problem is that the "Stoner Rock" genre is kind of mediocre. It is like the only stoner-rock band was Black Sabbath or something. While Sabbath is cool, that really was not the direction we wanted to go with Sun Zoom Spark. Its kind of unfortunate that when you make rock music that is outside the norm, people tend to say, "â€¦ errâ€¦ well, its kind of trippy," with a sort of confused look on their face, almost like it's a way to discount it. Looking back, I am not convinced that was the best choice. When you say "psych-rock" people get an image in their minds that doesn't always represent our direction. Then there is a whole set of people who discount the genre completely, and sometimes with good reason. There is a lot of weak music out there. So in the end, the label does little for us. When people ask now what kind of music do we play, I just say "rock." There have been points in my life where I could have cared less if anyone else found our music interesting, because I did and that was enough. But now it is important to me to incorporate all of the things that I love while creating music that most people will find interesting. Its entertainment, after all. Would you say that experimenting with new forms and sounds is fundamental in your music? Yes and no. I think there is simple perfection to be found in the "pop song" form. A great pop song isn't easy to write, but its impact is so much more powerful than noodlely songs that go on forever. Don't get me wrong -I have a special place in my heart for noodlely songs.Â I guess we try to do both. As far as new sounds, I love ambient music and that element is important to me to incorporate into what we are doing. Growing up in the 80s, I really hated guitar synthesizers, and I still think they are lame because they remind me of the worst elements of 80s rock music. The sounds I go for on the guitar are decidedly more retro, I guess. How would you say that the sound of the band has evolved over the years? I think the sound of the band has been allowed to evolved due to the technology that is available to us. For years, we were into low-tech recording, if fact everything that predates 2000 was recorded on a 4-track recorder, and proudly that became our aesthetic. Because there is a limit to what you can record on a 4-track, we invested in our own multi-track machine and a whole new world opened up as far as options. Now backing vocals could be layered, each track could be effected individually, we could compress tracks individually... so it really let us expand our knowledge of what was possible. Because of that, I think the way we conceived the songs changed. Also, it always depends on they talents of the musicians in the band. In the early days, we were a much louder, garage-style power-trio with long guitar solos and more improvised "jammy" sections. Now the band is a bit more refined, parts are a more carefully considered. The addition of organist Bobby Hepworth has really revolutionized the sound of the band, it has changed what I do on the guitar. Bobby is an additional lead voice so there are so many more possibilities then before. What method do you use to create Sun Zoom Spark's melodies? When I am writing the songs, I usually come up with guitar parts first and then sing nonsense over the top of them to try to establish a melody. I found if I write the lyrics first, the different pieces are harder to fit together into a finished song. Once I have a melody with "blah blah blah" lyrics then I try to come up with some words to fit in that melody. What importance do you assign to improvisation in the band? I think improvisation is the key to being a total musician, because you are not only playing you are listening and reacting to others. Listening and reaction is what separates guitar players from musicians. You arenâ€™t really a complete musician if you play in a box, so to speak. If everyone is listening and reacting to each other, then it can be pretty exciting. However, for the record, we are not a jam-band, nor have ever been a jam-band! Improvisation, in of itself, can lead to some really lame-o music, where everybody is waiting for everybody else to do something -not good. Honestly, I like the king of the jam bands -The Grateful Dead, but at times, they were a bit sleepy in concert. In the past, improvisation has played a larger part role in Sun Zoom Spark, currently we use improvisation within certain sections, although I donâ€™t want to sound too holier-than-thou because we do have a 13:00 improvised song called â€śNocturnumâ€ť on our new CD! Ha! Is there some limit when composing material for Sun Zoom Spark? I think we are all at a stage in our musical development that if we can imagine something, then we can make it happen. It is a pretty exciting place. I think the only limit is a kind of complacency in thinking.Â Sometimes we donâ€™t think outside-the-box enough, in my opinion. The only limit is our own imagination and having enough energy to make it a reality. Tell us about the new album, â€śSaturn Returnâ€ťâ€¦ â€śSaturn Returnâ€ť is a nice achievement for us. Each project that we do kind of moves us along this evolutionary line, this one moving us a bit further from the last. Itâ€™s almost 70 minutes of music, featuring 13 songs, 4 or 5 instrumentals and a big freak-out song at the end. The â€śfreak-out songâ€ť at the end of the record has been a tradition for SZS and the ending sequence here is perhaps the best yet. We also do covers of Camper Van Beethovenâ€™s â€śThe Foolâ€ť and Freddy Kingâ€™s blues standard, â€śHideawayâ€ť. Lyrically, the songs are fairly personal testimonials about life, I guess, and surviving life. To me, its sort of a dark record, about and recorded during somewhat turbulent times. I donâ€™t think the music always reflects that, which is nice. I am happy to say that it is a recording that is easy to like, yet does not skimp on the creative blood that has fueled our other projects. In general terms, which is the future of Sun Zoom Spark? Thatâ€™s hard to say. I didnâ€™t think the band would be around for this long. There have long periods of inactively, and honestly after Bryan Kohl and Young Arnold left, I just assumed it was a chapter that had closed. Strangely enough, it got open again and produced this recording. So I guess you really never know. Well Eric, it was really a pleasure talking with you.Â Do you want to add something? I would like to say a sincere thank you to J. Ratcliff, Brian Maloney, Bobby Hepworth, Steve Goetz, Duane Norman, Young Arnold, John Axtell, Bryan Kohl, John Paul Marchand and Jesus Acedo for their support and talent in and around Sun Zoom Spark over the years, --you too Aiden!Â It has been a blessing or maybe a wonderful curse - not sure. Peace.