Alain Johannes is one of the finest, most sophisticated and classiest musicians I have ever come across. He has a rich history with bands such as Queens of the Stone Age, Eleven, What Is This? and Them Crooked Vultures. He’s been referred to as “Josh Homme’s secret weapon”. On November 11th, his album entitled Fragments and Wholes, Vol. 1 will be released. I spoke with Alain prior to the big date about hot topics such as the new album, the power of PledgeMusic, whether or not “rock is dead”, The Beatles, Queens of the Stone Age and more.
Alex Obert: With Fragments and Wholes Volume 1, what was the development like for songwriting?
Alain Johannes: Throughout four months of 2013, I was caring for my mom, she was living with me. I was her caretaker. I would go outside while she fell asleep and I would start doing little improvisations. And then I would just film ten minutes of each one with the 8mm app on my iPhone. I’d play fifteen seconds and I thought, “Okay, this could be a song.” I would post them and then I had about sixty of these things. When it came time to do the record, I would just sit through and choose one in the morning. I would finish writing it and then record it. After recording it, I would finish the lyrics and then go to dinner. I would then mix it when I came back, then moved on to the next one.
Alex Obert: Did your love for writing begin in school?
Alain Johannes: I think when I was eight or nine years old, I would start writing my own songs and writing little poems. They were in Spanish, I was living in Mexico City at the time. But I’ve always loved communicating through lyrics or songs or poems or whatever.
Alex Obert: Are you someone who writes letters to people sometimes?
Alain Johannes: I write emails, I used to write letters. I guess maybe if it was the 1800s, I would’ve done that. I usually try to communicate mostly artistically. I communicate best through songs and lyrics and poems, even though it might not be as specific. I’ve never really been good at the long form thing. But I love reading books.
Alex Obert: What are some books that changed your life?
Alain Johannes: Well funny enough, when I was really young, I liked Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers and Man in the Iron Mask. And I was pretty big into Tolkien too. Then there’s a bunch of Russian authors I liked too including Bulgakov. And then I got into poetry through Kenneth Rexroth, E.E. Cummings and recently Galway Kinnell, they are incredible. Pablo Neruda. The Transcendentalists. I moved to the states when I was twelve, I didn’t speak English before that. While I was learning the language, there was something about poetry. It’s so beautiful because it’s like having an economy of words with an inherent, exploding meaning that is multidimensional in a very interesting way. You didn’t have to spell everything out, you could put words together and it gave you this whole other holographic feeling. E.E. Cummings was great like that.
Alex Obert: Do you have a specific lyric in music that sticks with you?
Alain Johannes: There’s lots of them. But not just a particular line because with the architecture of a song, the lyric is encoded into a universe or a story or whatever it is. The lyric helps put it together. Of course there’s some great short form lines from songs where you get those chills. But for the most part, it’s just the entire thing that works together. You can’t really separate it. My first love was the Beatles, but I didn’t understand anything that they were saying. (laughs) I was focusing on the feeling, though I didn’t really understand what the story was about. I was really young and I was just falling in love with all the Beatles stuff that was coming out at the time. And I would make my mom get me the singles. I learned them and I would sing them. I knew how to make the sound of English, but I was coming at it from a different way. It was fun to figure out what that was about. Pretty much the feeling that I had without knowing the language was the same as when I actually knew what was being sung about and the story behind it.
Alex Obert: Can you recall which Beatles song or album you were first introduced to?
Alain Johannes: Of course I remember Help! and bunch of the earlier stuff, but I think Rubber Soul was where it became more about the record and not just the singles. I was about six or seven at the time.
Alex Obert: With PledgeMusic, you have a pledge prize of singing a personal voicemail recording, how did you come up with that?
Alain Johannes: Well a lot of songs have come from improvisations, so I thought it would be really fun for someone to tell me something like, “My name is Peter.” And I would write a song and sing something like, “You’ve reached Peter. Leave a message at the tone.” I don’t know exactly how long it would be, ten or twenty seconds, but it’ll be fun. It’s improvisation, something I love to do anyway. I thought it’d be a fun thing.
Alex Obert: Have you done the acoustic house concert before?
Alain Johannes: No, I haven’t. And I thought about that because I very often bring my cigar box guitar with me. For example, one of the New Year’s parties for Josh and Brody, I performed in the living room. I loved the natural acoustics, it has this natural sound to it. Not amplified, no PA or whatever. It’s very intimate. And it’s kind of the way a lot of music is presented like the harpsichord or the string quartet. It’s meant for a more limited audience, a smaller audience. The cigar box guitar and the acoustics lend themselves to that.
Alex Obert: How were you introduced to the cigar box guitar?
Alain Johannes: Well my friend, Matty Baratto, makes them and they’re really incredible. I took it on the road with me on the Crooked Vultures tour after having it for years. I was trying to heal and come to terms with the fact that the love of my life was gone. I had the cigar box with me and the songs just kind of trickled out. I found it to be an opportunity to make things a lot more direct for me as opposed to the habits on the guitar. It’s got the Octave strings and the Unison, all these cross melodies. It lends itself to Flamenco technique. When I applied it, the stuff came really easy somehow. And it had this interesting way of wrapping between and around my voice, really balanced and pleasing. I almost feel like there was more than one person playing at one time. It was very fulfilling in the moment and also allowed me to build directly into communicating a song. I got hooked on it and now it’s become so second nature, it’s like my preferred way. A lot of the sketches came from the cigar box. And then I recorded them with full instrumentation.
Alex Obert: In the instance that Them Crooked Vultures one day tours again, would you be ready to join them?
Alain Johannes: Absolutely! It was one of the most satisfying and best things to be on stage there. Such respect and admiration for my dear friends, Josh and Dave, but to be on stage with John Paul Jones, I just kept having to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe it. He was so gracious and sweet and incredible. And also, I was really happy that we had this amazing chemistry develop as a live band too. It was pretty amazing, I just hope it can happen again. It was one of the funnest things I’ve ever been a part of.
Alex Obert: And you were also a part of Sound City Players. For the track, Your Wife Is Calling, what was it like to experiment with hardcore punk?
Alain Johannes: Well the funny thing is that when I was a kid, we used to go see Fear all the time. And Lee Ving used to be a bartender at this jazz club that I used to sneak into and he was always super sweet. I was a huge fan of his. As a matter of fact, my first band was What Is This? and Flea quit the band to go join Fear for a year before the Chili Peppers were formed. Fear’s The Record, is one of my favorite records of all time. So that was amazing. He’s so incredible and it was so much fun to play bass with him in all those songs. Believe me, playing bass on Fear songs is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. (laughs) It was just incredible fun. There was just a handful of shows that we did and everybody was so amazing on the tour. I’m a huge Cheap Trick fan and got to hang out with Rick Nielsen and Krist and Stevie Nicks, it was incredible. I am really blessed.
Alex Obert: When you were first introduced to Josh Homme, what drew you to him as a musician and as a person?
Alain Johannes: We met at Matt Cameron’s wedding years earlier. And then we ran into each other at the airport when he was in Screaming Trees. We both ended up on their interscope and we toured together right before Rated R came out. So Eleven opened up for Queens on the West Coast. Immediately after that, we became amazing friends. Not just Josh Natasha and I, but everybody in the band. At the time, the members were Gene Trautmann, Dave Catching, and Nick Oliveri of course. And he asked me to record their B-sides, so we went to Sound City and we did that. We then did The Desert Sessions 7 & 8. Natasha played some keys on Songs For The Deaf I played theremin, e-bow guitar and we both played DJs. So we just had this amazing friendship, saw each other almost every single day and hung out. It was a big inspiration in both directions. And of course following that, he asked me to join Lullabies as the bass player. And then Natasha and I went on tour with them for the cycle of that album.
Alex Obert: How do you think Josh adapted without Nick on stage during that time?
Alain Johannes: Well of course, Nick is incredible. It took a second. But we had Joey and Troy. And Mark was there. Every incarnation and cycle of Queens is badass and perfect for the period. I was a big fan of when Nick was in the band, but once Natasha and I joined, I was a fan of that band too. Michael Schumann and Dean Fertita since then. And now Jon Theodore as well. It’s a kind of family that keeps morphing
Alex Obert: A band can occasionally cover a song and put a new take on it. What interests me and why I brought up Nick is that Josh sings on Millionaire during live performances now, which I feel breathes new life into the song.
Alain Johannes: Yeah, absolutely. I mean you can always just reinterpret a song. There’s always a way to update and reinterpret a song, you just get more versions and more takes on it. It’s different incarnations, each one is badass in its own way. Someone that has never heard the earlier version might just love the current one, it’s all subjective.
Alex Obert: Did you envision Songs for the Deaf becoming the game changer album it was, much like Nevermind was a decade earlier?
Alain Johannes: All I remember about being a small part of that process was that it just felt really, really right. It was really enjoyable and everyone was really proud of what they were doing. There wasn’t too much thinking involved, you just felt it, especially after I heard the whole thing. Once it was all put together, I listened to it like four times in a row. Yeah, it was amazing.
Alex Obert: What is your favorite track off of …Like Clockwork?
Alain Johannes: Oh my god! (laughs) Well I love the whole album. When I’m driving around, Smooth Sailing makes me happy. I love Vampyre too. To me, I look at the whole album as a song. When I put it on, I just go ahead and put on the whole thing. I always loved Sat By The Ocean I recorded a version in the early part of the recording process. And of course My God Is The Sun, especially the live version. But I’ll just say my favorite song is the whole record.
Alex Obert: What did you think of the animation to accompany the songs?
Alain Johannes: I love the animations and I love the way that the live show is able to communicate visually with the music. It’s just great. It always works really organically with the music, which I love. It doesn’t take it over, you still sense the people on stage and the presence of all of the personalities.
Alex Obert: You mentioned working with Dave Grohl earlier while touring with Them Crooked Vultures. It was recently reported that the Foo Fighters responded to a remark from Gene Simmons stating that rock is dead and disagreed with him. What’s your take on that?
Alain Johannes: Well people keep claiming that every once in a while. Jimmy Iovine said it even though he had rad rock bands on his label. I don’t think it’ll ever be dead because rock music is about the freedom and ability to do whatever the fuck you want within this umbrella. It’s all about honesty and attitude. You can bring in anything you want to and you’re not limited stylistically. People can call it whatever sound they want or that version of rock, but it really is totally free. It might go underground a little bit, but rock music could be anything. You can have all your favorite influences show up in it as long as you deliver it with a certain kind of attitude and freedom and fearlessness. No limits. I love music from all over the world. Bulgarian, Indian classical, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I try to do my own humble version of a SUFI chant in a song. In Eleven, we were doing it all the time. It’s kind of a neoclassical harmony inside hard rock music. I mean basically, you just don’t think and you do it. You make yourself happy. Rock music will never go away. People can claim it’s dead all they want, but who the hell is that person to claim anything is dead or alive? I mean of course they can say it, but I can never take it seriously.
Alex Obert: With everything you’ve been through in your career, what do you feel is important about being humble as a musician?
Alain Johannes: Well no one sets out to be humble. (laughs) Sometimes the onslaught of fame reflects a limited version of yourself back at yourself can be really difficult and I can see how being super famous and having what seems to be a fluid process can become frozen in time. And then someone is writing about what you sound like when you had no fucking idea that’s what you sounded like. It can be really difficult. Growing up and seeing my friends get into that position and I admire their ability to survive it, it can be really difficult. I don’t actually feel like I own anything meaning it’s like it’s not coming from me. I don’t want to sound too esoteric, but I compare it to receiving a transmission that’s out there, filtered by my taste and my ability to encapsulate as much of it as I can into a concrete, frozen thing that is now out there and you have to let it go. I’m always interested in the process of who am I now and what is it that I can communicate and then I have to let it go. I can’t worry about somebody saying something like, “They were so much cooler when they did that.” It’ll make you repeat yourself. I’m interested in just continuing to explore as we live and we change. Maybe the essence is the same, but it’s always moving. And that’s what I’m interested in. That’s why I get excited about trying to finish these little improvs that were just sitting there. I try to figure out if it’s a song. And so that’s why I move fast. Don’t overthink it, I’m not even good at overthinking it either. I work best when I can just viscerally react to the thing itself. When I was listening to an improv, I saw it almost finished in my mind. “Okay, this has horns. It’ll have a ribbon mic on a little jazz drum set on the left speaker. And then it’s gonna have a triple-tracked slide guitar.” I just have to keep doing it, I don’t sit there and question it that much. And somehow, I make myself happy. I can’t speak for anyone else, but Natasha and I always used to think about writing as trying to be fans of something that doesn’t exist. There’s a void out there for a particular song that we want to be fans of, so we had to write it and record it. It’s kind of a weird way of looking at it. I actually listen to Eleven stuff all the time, it it helps me to connect to Natasha too. Some people are like, “I can’t listen to my own music.” or “I can’t watch my own movies.” (laughs) I don’t understand that, you should be proud of it. You did it for a reason.
Alex Obert: What do you feel is the biggest advantage doing everything yourself for the upcoming album as opposed to working with a bunch of other people?
Alain Johannes: It’s not so much an advantage, I just needed to do it quickly and I wanted to just get it out there because it was so fresh. So I ended up playing everything on it. I’m not the best drummer or even close, but I understand enough to communicate. So I can listen back to my drumming on there and go, “Well, it’s pretty good for a guitar player.” It was just about doing it quickly. And that’s the reason I’m doing it on PledgeMusic, I don’t want to wait six months or a year to put out this record. I want to make another one in a few months while I’m plugged in and I’m feeling the flow. There’s a period of time every year where I devote myself completely to just being a singer, songwriter and making records because obviously, that’s what I was born to do. And at the same time, I have a lot of experience. If I’m needed more with the arranging than the writing, I can do that too. But I also know how to make a record happen too, having a band or artist fulfill their vision. I was engineered and produced for many, many years and I always saw when it didn’t work. I wanted to avoid that for others that had to go through it.
Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, what are your websites for readers to check out at the moment?
Alain Johannes: Well right now, my website is just a sign-up for my mailing list. And my album is available on pledgemusic.com/projects/alainjohannes I hope to carry on what Natasha and I started so long ago.
Alex Obert: I think you’re doing great with everything, just blowing the world away. I look forward to the album and it looks like big things are coming. I sincerely wish you the best ahead and I would love to thank you for your time for this great interview.
Alain Johannes: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
Credit for this photo and the display photo on the front page of JOAF goes to Tamarind Free Jones