story by Mark Cunningham
photos by Dana Edmunds
I’ve been lucky enough to know the Johnson family for close to thirty years. I’ve done manual labor for father Jack, a retired general contractor. I’ve paid rent to mother Patty. I’ve surfed Pupukea countless times with oldest brother Trent. Middle brother Petey and I manned North Shore lifeguard towers for years. Youngest of the clan, Jack, was in our first junior lifeguard program.
The amazing success of Jack’s third album, In Between Dreams, has exceeded all expectations. I don’t mean local or regional popularity, I’m talking David Letterman, Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live appearances, magazine cover shots and sold-out shows from Japan to Germany. It was nice to catch up with Jack and talk story. This humble local haole boy from Kahuku High School is doing good… in more ways than one.
MC: Can you give me a capsule summary of the early JJ musical career? I remember those fliers for Limber Chicken…
JJ: Somewhere around age four, Skill Johnson—no relation but next-door neighbor at Pupukea—used to put an ‘ukulele in my hands. They tell me I would strum, get a pretty good rhythm going, and I’d start singing nonsense. That was the beginning. When I was fourteen, a friend of my Dad’s named Peff Eich would visit from California, and he started leaving a guitar over here, a 1930s Martin, a real beautiful acoustic guitar. He’d teach me a few chords while he was here, I would practice those and really want to impress him when he got back. I’d show him that I learned them, and he’d show me how to do some finger-picking. Then he showed me how to play a Jimmy Buffet song called “A Pirate Looks at Forty” and a Cat Stevens song called “Father and Son,” and I started to play more sing-along songs right on the front porch. And I’d sit in my room and try to write songs.
In high school, we had that punk rock band called Limber Chicken. We did mostly cover songs of other punk bands: the Decadents, Minor Threat, Fugazi. I remember one time—I probably brought this up to you before—when I was in my room listening to Sepultura, which was a death metal band from Brazil, and you knocked on my wall, and I peeked out the window and you said, ‘I got a bet for ya: In two years you won’t be listening to this band anymore.’ And I said, ‘No way, I’m gonna listen to death metal forever’ (laughter).
Then I was off to college. We had a party band called Soil, and that was a really good growing experience for me. We started playing out every weekend, getting in front of people, honing the skills, breaking the nervousness. There were a lot of nonjudgmental drunken college parties, you know, and I was just getting up there and playing a lot. Then I took another break and started making surf movies (September Sessions and Thicker Than Water). I’d be out on the boats and camping, and we’d always have acoustic guitars with us, and I’d play and write all these songs. I was never intending to play live again, I thought that was all over. I just enjoyed writing songs. They were coming from a real pure place. That was the big step, I think, to have at least three years where music wasn’t the plan at all; it was just in the background. When it came time to record my first record, I had about twenty songs ready to go…instead of being in a place where I had three or four songs and then had to write a bunch more on the spot.