Monday, 7 March 2011

Doug Johns - Super Funky

My Thunder Row interview with bassist Doug Johns

Numero Uno

Doug Johns has been playing bass for more than twenty five years. He has worked with Roy Vogt, Victor Wooten, Buddy Miles, Chuck Rainey, Dana Rasch, The LA Mass Choir, Grammy winning producer Aaron Lindsey, Steve Smith, and many others. The Cream of the Crop, to be sure.

All those years of honing his craft on stage and in the studio must have been building like a volcano in this skilled bassman, because his self-titled first disc erupted in 2006 with a rafter-shaking explosion of monster tunes.

Doug Johns opens with a funk-tastic head-bopper called Pimpasaurus Rex, and after leading us through fifteen more killer tracks - including an old school masterpiece called Hippobottomus - he brings the whole place crashing down with a double-barreled bass assault called Big Two Headed Monster, which is one of the most aggressive pieces of funk ever to hit the air. At seven and a half minutes long, it makes a person wanna hide from the beast that’s thundering up the street! Lawd have mercy!

This album re-defines funk. Let’s call it Industrial Funk. Experimental, yet stemming from traditional roots. Industrial - something hammered and forged from raw materials. The perfect sound for a 21st century bassman. You nod your head in tribute to the masters and then have everybody stand back, because you’re going to speak with a voice that has never heard before!

Twice as Funky

In 2008, Johns unleashed his second collection, Pocket Fulla Nasty. This album is a mix of the aggression from Doug Johns and a tendency toward a more melodic approach. The fact that it’s not simply more of the same means that Johns remains a man who believes in the theory of evolution.

The opening song, Scrumpt is rich with horns and some very tasty slap lines. It’s clear his love of soul music was talking during this recording of this album. Listen to Local Forecast and you’ll feel the sensuality of that second voice as it begins to take a more prominent place throughout the album. And what of the title track, Pocket Fulla Nasty? This one reminds the listener that Johns still knows how to bare his teeth!

So let’s see where we are. Industrial funk, soul, old-school, melodic experimentation...I think we’re ready for a new direction.

Generation Three

Johns let loose his third album, Stank, in late 2010. The opening track, Bird’s Back Yard belongs on the disc player in a fast car as it cruises the highway. Not roaring at a hundred miles an hour, but cruising. Maybe ten miles above the speed limit. Smooth and rolling hard, but never out of control. Booty Time is old school all the way - barking horns and enough groove to last all day long. Funk Tree belongs at a country hoedown. What?! Sho’nuff. Talk about experiments! A banjo would serve this song well. A serious toe tapper and fanny shaker, this one! And then of course, there’s the organ-rich title track, Stank, which has so much style that it oughta be struttin’ down Main Street in a fedora and shades...and a black trench coat.

The Voice

Doug Johns recently spoke with us at Thunder Row, so let’s see what the man of mad bass skills had to say.

TR: Thanks for talking with us, Doug. Tell us why you like the bass.

DJ: I love the sound of it, how it’s such a supportive instrument. It seems to me that the bass has such a command of the chords in a group situation. The bass just feels good under my fingers; the strings have such a crisp, taut feeling that I want to dig in and play. And it fits my personality, no matter how much I consider myself a closet drummer.

TR: Are bass players more akin to drummers than lead guitar players?

DJ: I would say yes. The bass is such a rhythmic instrument. That’s not to say keys or guitar aren’t rhythmic, but the bass and drums are almost one voice in that they create a driving pulse in any type of music. And if you need any more evidence, pay attention as the band loads out of a gig: The drummer is always the only one to help the bassist with his or her amp!

TR: No small feat, consider how heavy those things can be. About your choice of musical style - before you started playing, were you always drawn to funk? Did you zero in on the bass lines in songs you liked and say, “That’ll be me someday?”

DJ: No, not really in any conscious way. But I have always been drawn to soulful players - cats where you can hear their life experiences in their playing - and to anything with a strong inner pulse. That’s probably why you’ll almost always find me listening to something funky. And I believe that anything - even classical music - can be funky. Really!

To be honest, it’s always been a little hard for me to zero in on the bass line of a tune. I listen to everything in the song to understand how the parts are interacting, first and foremost. Only after digesting the complete song can I focus only on the bass line, or any other individual part, within the song.

TR: Who did you listen to growing up (bass and otherwise)? Who were/are your musical role models?

DJ: Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny, Weather Report, Freddie King, Earth, Wind and Fire, Tower of Power, and more Ray Charles.

TR: How did they influence your playing? Do they still influence you today?

DJ: When I think about those musicians I might consider a role model, I find they have all had the ability to let me feel and hear their souls come through their music.

TR: How old were you when you got your first bass? What kind was it? Tell us a bit about your first rig - amp, strings, etc.

DJ: I probably got my first bass when I was in 8th or 9th grade - what’s that, maybe 14 years old? I’ve been asked this question before, and as time goes on I am becoming less confident of my answer. But I think it was either a Fender Jazz copy or possibly a P-Bass copy from the Sears catalogue. And I think my brother and I shared an amp, again from the Sears catalogue. Does Sears even sell guitars and amps anymore?

TR: Sure they do. Nothing expensive, though. Just beginner kits.

DJ: I am certain, though, about my first strings: Bill Lawrence followed by Vinci.

TR: How long was it between the time you got your first bass and the time you were ready to play with others in a band?

DJ: I remember it came about because I wanted to play with my brother in his band. He said, “Well, we need a bass player, so you can play the bass.” And that was pretty much my introduction to playing in a band. I wasn’t ready - I just learned by doing, and I am so grateful for that. It’s an experience that I still try to have as often as possible - learning by doing.

I don’t know where I heard it, and I may have the wording off a little, but I remember hearing that Stevie Wonder said music is 50% rehearsed and 50% improv. I’ve always kind of followed that line of thinking. In other words, I work on my craft as much as I can, but I also realize that I’m never really ready to play with others...until I’m actually playing with others. Does that make sense?

TR: Of course. As a member of a team, you may know the game, but you can’t work on your plays by yourself.

DJ: Right.

TR: Did you take music lessons?

DJ: No, but I did get to sit outside the door of my older brother’s guitar lessons when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My formal training came onstage with the many soul and blues bands coming up in the Cleveland area, paying attention and learning how to be part of a musical situation.

TR: Were there any aspects of learning that gave you more trouble than others? What was the hardest song or style you ever mastered?

DJ: I have to stop you and say that I have not mastered anything musically, because I truly do learn something new on the bass every single day. But I can remember learning some Chick Corea piano parts that were very, very hard. And now you’ve got me thinking I need to pull out those recordings of chick and get back to work on ‘em!

My strongest learning style has always been to learn by ear and by feel – the same way I’m going to re-learn those piano parts. My reading chops are something I definitely need to improve, and I’m continually striving to do that.

TR: How long after you started playing for money were you able to start upgrading your gear?

DJ: I’m going to get to upgrade my gear? Seriously, though, I’ve never put too much stock in “gear.” Yes, I do believe that different gear can help you achieve different results, but I’ve always equated instruments to, say, a 9/16 wrench. There are a lot of 9/16 wrenches, but certain ones feel better in your hands than others. And although it may take you a while to find that “just right” wrench, you still have to spend time using the wrench to really know its potential. Same goes for a bass guitar - you have to put time into it, build a relationship with it.

But to answer your question, it was probably close to 10 years before I could afford to spend any real money on new gear.

TR: Describe your perfect combination of equipment for:

- Studio
- Stage
- Rehearsal

DJ: I pretty much use the same gear for the studio, stage and rehearsal. I may use more or less equipment, or make minor tweaks to settings, to fit different musical situations. My current rig consists of:

- DR Nickel Sunbeams. Gauges 40-60-80-100.
- 1986 Pedulla Buzz Bass with frets put in it by Mike Pedulla himself.
- Stock Bartolini pickups with a Bartolini TMB preamp installed. I actually have 2 of these, 130 serial numbers apart from each other.
- Fodera Monarch 6 - used primarily for recording, but occasionally shows up at live performances.
- Jon Hill Custom Guitars; 4-string custom
- Genz Benz Shuttle 3.0, 6.0 & 9.0. Currently touring with 900-watt, 4.5 pound Shuttle 9.0. Cabs: One 4-ohm uber 4x10 or two 8-ohm uber 4x10
- Dunlop Q95 wah wah, Envelope Filter, and Bass Fuzz Octaver.
- Pigtronix EP1 and EP2, Disnortion
- Radial Engineering J48 & JDX DIs

TR: Very impressive. And speaking of gear, let’s switch ‘em here and get to the music. Do you prefer composing your own or tearing it up with some of the great songs already out there?

DJ: Tough choice. On one hand, I love to compose music and try new things. I learn so much when I compose my own music – it’s like a chronicle of your life is unfolding for you to see, and feel, and hear.

And on the other hand, there’s nothing like playing an artist’s beautifully composed song, especially playing it on the bass. And those great songs are all a part of who I am as a person and as a musician, so playing them can be powerful.

You know, I don’t think I can ever answer this question once and for all. I’ll just say I love both.

TR: Does playing other people’s music steer you to inspiration for your own compositions?

DJ: A good follow up to your last question, and my answer is yes. Inspiration comes to me in so many ways, and music is definitely one of those ways. I’ve been inspired by so many musicians.

TR: Whose music inspires the most creativity in you for composing your own stuff?

DJ: The one who’s coming to mind as we’re talking is Tommy Emmanuel. He’s absolutely incredible, and I love the way he constructs a song. Others who inspire me - just off the top of my head: Pat Metheny, Ray Charles, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Trilok Gurtu...there are just so many. But my musical inspiration is, by no means, limited to music or musicians. That feeling comes in a lot of packages for me, and one of the most important sources I know is in nature.

TR: Babbling brooks, the wind in the trees, thunderstorms - it’s all music to a ready ear.

DJ: I’m not sure I could compose a single note without the time and experience I’ve had hiking and backpacking, searching for snakes and hawks, and just being aware of nature’s beauty, strength and power. It inspires me daily.

TR: Best gig and why?

DJ: Oooh, you’re asking some tough questions. There’s one gig in particular I will never forget and for which I will always be grateful. It was with blues legend, Robert Lockwood, Jr. As you know, he lived here in Cleveland, and so from time to time I would get to sit in and play on his gig.

Well, on one of those rare occasions, I got a solo spot, a chance to “stretch,” and it was going good. I felt good. Mr. Lockwood pulled me aside after the song and said two sentences: “Are you from the South?” And when I didn’t answer right away, “Always pay attention to the front man.” It took me years to digest and fully understand what he meant.

What I now think he was saying was “think as a band,” and respect the leader in front. A band’s stage is not intended for any one player’s selfish needs or for any of us to merely show off our chops. It’s about playing as one big fat cohesive unit, and the only exception is for a one-man band. Learning this lesson - at that moment - made my gig with Robert Lockwood Jr. one of my best ever.

And by the way, I still haven’t figured out what Mr. Lockwood meant by, “Are you from the South?”

TR: Worst gig and why?

DJ: This one’s easier, and what’s funny is that it was probably one of my best paying gigs! Once, I was called to fill the bass chair for what I call a “society gig” - tuxedos and fancy-shmancy everything. And good pay.

Well, everything was charted and coordinated to the 10th degree, and as I mentioned, I am not the best reader. I had to find each chart and read it basically sight-unseen on a moment’s notice...Well, I stunk up the joint!

Now, my ears got me through the gig, and the band didn’t seem offended, but I was offended with myself. I wasn’t at all pleased with my performance and especially my lack of preparedness. But, like my “best gig” experience, it taught me another valuable lesson: No matter how prepared you think you are, you’d not prepared enough. There’s always more work to do.

TR: Did a bad gig ever bring you down enough to make you question yourself as a musician?

DJ: Absolutely never. Of course, my confidence has been less than beaming at times, but a bad gig just isn’t worth any baggage. I love playing music, and that’s the bottom line. Love what you play, even if it has some bumps and bruises.

TR: If you weren’t able to be a musician, what would you like to try instead?

DJ: Probably something to do with archeology or geology. I love indisputable proof. Or maybe I’d try medicine - it would be fascinating to be a surgeon. Perhaps mountain climbing or deep sea exploration...

TR: Tell us how you felt when your first CD, Doug Johns, started getting good reviews.

DJ: When I first started to put out my own music, people everywhere told me, “Well, you gotta get some reviews,” as if the music wasn’t viable without them. That line of thinking never really occurred to me, but of course I was very pleased that people felt my groove on that record and had nice things to say about it.

What’s most important to me is that I feel good about every note on any particular recording. My personal “review,” that I’ve created a window into moments of my life, is the only one that makes any strong impact on me personally.

TR: I think Doug Johns and your second album, Pocket Fulla Nasty, are both more aggressive than the third one, Stank. A song like “Hippobottomus” is raw and growly compared to the heavy, soulful sound of the title track from Stank. Exploring the different faces of funk must be important to you - to give the listener a wide range of voices to choose from. Is that so?

DJ: I dig your assessment of my three CDs. Each recording is, no doubt, going to have a different “vibe” because the experiences and inspiration behind the songs had different vibes. I also liked what you said about “exploring the different faces of funk.” That’s very well put.

There are so many ways that rhythm can move us and inspire us, and exploring those many ways is a never-ending quest for me. It makes me feel good to hear that my music expresses that to you in a clear way. You mention “Hippobottomus” as having a raw sound. That song was recorded in one, maybe two takes - can’t get much more raw than that!

TR: Who are you listening to right now? What’s on your mp3 player or CD player?

DJ: In my CD player right now, I have Lyle Lovett, Pat Metheny, Donald Fagen, Marcus Miller and Brecker Brothers. A little mix.

TR: On a scale of 1 - 10, where do you rate yourself as a bass player?

DJ: I’m in a good place in my life spiritually, and that’s definitely showing up in my playing. But I’m not going to assign a rating to myself. I’m not a fan of ratings - to me, that’s just comparing my growth as a musician to the very different paths of others. That’s a slippery slope, and it’s better to understand than everyone has moments where they are 1’s and others when they are 10’s. The important thing is to set goals, put in the work, and never give up on what you believe in.

TR: Where do you want to go for your next album? Anything in the works? What’s coming up for you in the next couple of months?

DJ: I’m just beginning to sketch out the next album in my mind, and I want to go in a couple of directions with it. For starters, I’m thinking more in terms of solo bass compositions. Just bass - with maybe a little more bass. I’m also working out some really organic instrumentation; acoustic guitar and bass, percussive instruments, etc. I have a lot of bits and pieces, a few basic sketches, and I’m letting them evolve. When I feel it’s time to lay them down to tape, well, I’ll just have at it.

The next couple of months are pretty jam-packed with shows and clinics. I’ll be in Arizona and New Mexico in April, Denver in May, Tacoma in June - on the road a lot. Many of my upcoming dates are clinics and workshops, something I truly enjoy doing. Talking with people, jamming with them, thinking about and answering their questions - I love the opportunity an intimate clinic setting brings.

TR: Do you have any favorite charities or causes? Why, and what do you do for them?

DJ: Any organization that reaches out to provide care or support and affect positive change has my thanks. The many groups out there protecting, preserving and restoring all facets of our natural environment especially inspire me.

But, if I have to pick a favorite, it would be my local Salvation Army community center. I say this because of the role the organization plays each year in connecting my wife and me to a local family in need. Usually in December, we meet with the Salvation Army Captain, and she puts us in touch with a family she knows through the community center. Each family is unique, and so the things we do for them are also unique.

TR: Nice. Face to face rather than not knowing where your help goes.

DJ: One year, we simply handed the family cash. They needed it. Another year, we provided mountains of clothes for a family’s growing kids. We’ve spoiled kids rotten, provided for basic family needs, and a little of everything in between. But in every case, we meet with the family, spend time with them, and make that all-important human connection.

TR: What advice would you give someone who is just picking up bass for the first time?

DJ: Put your bass down and get behind a drum kit.

TR: Seriously?

DJ: Seriously. I can’t stress enough the importance of rhythm, and there’s no better way of opening up that understanding than by at least trying to play the drums.

Think about it. As a bass player, it’s safe to assume that you’ll spend 99% of your musical existence next to a drummer. Getting an understanding of the drummer’s perspective - and getting that rhythm in your body - is critical. All the rhythmic independence that the greatest drummers in the world possess is exactly what you want to transfer to the bass guitar strings.

TR: On behalf of everybody at Thunder Row, we thank you for talking with us, Doug. Are there any final words of advice for the students of Roy Vogt’s Teach Me Bass Guitar?

DJ: Yes: Listen - not hear, but listen - to what Roy has to say. His knowledge as an educator and player is something you’re lucky to have access to and be in the presence of. The years he’s devoted, completely free of ego, to the pure betterment of the instrument will rub off on you. Just allow it to happen.

Doug's music is available through CD Baby:

Or on his website:

There you can also get a look at the other love of his life: Designing and building race cars!

© 2011 CL Seamus for Thunder Row