Out of the Box
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 Johnsonno relation but next-door neighbor at Pupukeaused 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 timeI probably brought this up to you beforewhen 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.
MC: What inspires you to express yourself as a songwriter?
JJ: You know when you have the chance to write a letter and really get your thoughts together? Well, that’s the same thing for me with songs, this feeling where I’ll see somebodyit might be a close friendand we’ll hang out for the day, and after they leave, if they’re in a hard place in their life, I’ll want to write a song to tell them things that make them feel better. Somewhere along the line I realized that and started really enjoying writing songsfor harder moments or just the pure blissful happy moments when you’re feeling so good, you want to get that down and make people feel that same feeling.
A lot of my lyrics come from watching filmswell, and also just life experiences. But especially films by Kurosawa and Jean-Luc Goddard I was in this class studying French New Wave films from the ’60s and really got into some of those. That helped me a lot, lyrically: I started trying to express some of the things about desensitization and the callousness of humans. There’s this movie called Weekend and it starts out they’re driving along and there’s a broken-down car on the side of the street and you don’t notice it; it’s in the background. Then they’re driving along more, and you see this fender-bender and you don’t really notice, and the next one, there’s a small fire on the back of the car and they still don’t notice, and then eventually, it’s dead bloody bodies lying all over and nobody even notices; they just keep driving and like now, a show like COPS can be on, and you can literally walk into a room and some guy can be getting beat up, and you might not even notice.
JJ: I think that’s a word, isn’t it?
MC: It works for me. OK, going somewhere else now: How does it feel to be the biggest musical influence out of Hawai‘i since the steel guitar?
JJ: Well, if you say so.
MC: I think it’s true.
JJ: It’s nice. I feel real proud. For one thing, everywhere I go, whether it’s Europe or Australia, whenever I see a caption about bringing aloha somewhere. I feel honored to be the guy to get to do it.
MC: Does Hawai‘i or the North Shore play into your music?
JJ: Yeahhhhh .From growing up here, going on so many hikes, being out in the ocean so much, just constantly being out in Mother Nature, that’s a big part of it.
I think about the sounds you hear: a bird chirping, the waves whooshing up on the shore, the leaves swishing I think the organic sounds of Hawai‘i definitely help with the music. And then just getting to hear so much Hawaiian music growing up...like Gabby Pahinui; we had all the records around the house. Going to l¯u‘aus and barbeques, I’d always see music as a couple guys playing acoustic guitar in a corner of the yard, instead of seeing it up on a stage with fancy lights. And the North Shore in particular, the waves and the music in all the surf films were a big influence on my music.
MC: Can you give me a brief recap of the road as of late?
JJ: This year, that new record kind of
surprised us. I was excited about it when we recorded, but when I put it out, I assumed it would do about the same as the other ones, and it’s gone bigger for us, definitely. We went to Australia, New Zealand and Japan, all through Europe and then across the States, because we started getting all these offers from promoters. At some point you start thinking, “It would be nice to get back on the North Shore and catch up on some surfing ”
MC: Which brings us to your family
JJ: Yeah, my whole family lives within a mile of one another on the North Shore, and I always joke that we’re all such momma’s boys that none of us were able to move outside of the one-mile radius. My two brothers are my two best friends. My mom and dad were so supportive. [In high school], the band used to get together and practice and we sounded horrible, and they always told us how great we sounded. The last three years my parents have come on one stretch of the tour. My wife, ever since I was eighteen, she was the one who was always there. She has a real good taste for music, so I’d bounce things off her first. She’s always been a part of the creative process with me.
MC: What’s the concept with 1 Percent For the Planet?
JJ: It’s a really cool deal. Basically, any group or person can sign up and decide to give 1 percent of their earnings to nonprofits; you can either give the money to 1 Percent and they divide it, or you can pick a group that’s part of 1 Percent. We have a foundation, the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation, that’s part of it and we also have signed up to give 1 percent of our record label earnings, our tour earnings and our own record sales.
MC: And on the tour this year you were doing other things that were environmentally friendly?
JJ: Yeah, we ran all the buses and trucks on biodeisel; we had recycling at all the venues. All the merchandise was on recycled paper, organic cotton. Then we figured out how many emissions we were still creating, and we donated that amount to buy wind credits. We thought that would be a fun challenge, to have a climate-neutral tour. We also sold DVDs from the Kokua Festival and donated a portion of that money to other nonprofits and to offsetting the fans’ car emissions.
MC: And what’s involved backstage? How many people are working to produce your concerts?
JJ: We’ve got a load of people doing
different things. I don’t know what they all do, to be honest with you. Sometimes I get to the end of the tour, and I’ll meet people, and they’ve been on the whole tour with us. And I have somebody who that’s their job, to make sure I don’t know what’s going on (laughter).
MC: You mentioned the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation. What’s that about?
JJ: In a nutshell, we support environmental education for the public schools. It’s basically run by my wife and a bunch of friends, and I put my two cents in and play the shows and help raise the money. It’s all people who grew up surfing or hiking or mountain-climbing and were able to have these brilliant moments out in nature. Then you get to where you want to do what you can to save that thing you love. We realized with the kids, it’s not about teaching them about scary issues so much as it is about giving them a chance to be out in nature. The whole idea of the foundation is to give kids a chance to love nature.
MC: Rumor has it there’s a concert DVD coming out.
JJ: Yeah, it’s from the Greek Theater in Berkeley and also live in Japan. It’s a double disc.
MC: How cool. And you’re working on a Curious George movie soundtrack?
JJ: Yeah, it’s been a year in the making. It’s really fun. They hired me to write all the songs and work with the composer ’cause Curious George doesn’t speak, so the songs speak for what’s in his mind. So now it goes in and out of my songs in the score quite a bit in some parts, it’s almost like a musical.
MC: Any last thing you’d like to share?
JJ: One thing that I always try to get across is to show kids that you’re not more special just because you happen to get the spotlight on you. I try to put it on things more important than myself as much as I can, not only other subjects but also other musicians. I’ve been trying to bring up as many musicians that I like and put them in that same spotlight that’s on me.
MC: That really shows in your Kokua Festival concerts, how much local talent you’ve spotlighted.
JJ: It goes both ways, though. It’s so fun for me to play with all the local bands.
MC: Uh huh. I think we nailed it, Buckwheat.
JJ: Thanks, Mark.
MC: This is easy. HH