In discussing his latest solo project, Year of Mondays, Mike Johnson offers easy dismissals--"It's no big deal" and "It's natural," for example--which imply that sensationalism can find no foothold here. The flexibility and nonchalance of his even-tempered utterances, periodically muffled by clouds of smoke from unfiltered Old Golds, help one understand how he's been able to temporarily amble away from his day job (as J Mascis's bass player and right-hand man in Dinosaur Jr) in order to pursue his own vision--and how he successfully convinced Mascis to do a turn as his employee for a while.
Johnson denies that he had to twist the Inarticulate One's arm to play drums on his new recording. "He's psyched," he attests. "Drums are J's first instrument. He played drums before he played guitar. He's more psyched to play drums on other people's stuff. Generally, he says he won't play guitar on other people's stuff." (Another luminary--Dan Peters of Mudhoney--is manning the kit throughout Johnson's current travels).
The bassist's membership in the house of Mascis followed the dismissal of Lou Barlow, who went on to spew the lava of his creativity elsewhere. (His primary projects include Sebadoh and Folk Implosion.) Donna Dresch, of the lesbian powerhouse Team Dresch, filled in on the next Dinosaur Jr single, and Mascis recorded the Green Mind album on his own before hooking up with Johnson at a friend's house, where both were living at the time. At first, neither Mascis, who was stunned on painkillers prescribed for an abscess, nor Johnson, who likes to keep to himself, spoke to the other. But the pair eventually discovered peculiar compatibilities beyond the fact that they're loners with poor hygiene habits.
Thanks in part to claims made by Barlow, Mascis has a reputation for musical dictatorship--but Johnson denies that either of them felt odd about the division of authority on Mondays. "Oh no, not at all," he insists. "We've recorded stuff before together where it was my stuff, and we have a pretty good understanding of where each other is coming from." Likewise, he sees the transition from el capitan to enlisted man that will take place during future Dinosaur Jr projects as a non-issue. "To me, it's all music, so I enjoy all aspects of it. In a way, it can be a relief to do things where it's not all you. The thing that's most important to me is doing my own thing, but I've never had a problem with being a supporting musician as well."
As for Mondays, it's a distinct creation, but it hardly exists in a vacuum. The disc was preceded by an earlier Johnson CD--Where Am I?--and by a substantial history of collaborative work. While attending college in Eugene, Oregon, Johnson played in Snakepit (not to be confused with Slash's) alongside future members of Some Velvet Sidewalk, Bikini Kill and the Melvins, and was later afforded the opportunity to assist Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan on two solo projects. "On the first album I did, I wrote a lot of the music," he recalls, "but on the second one, Mark pretty much had the songs done, and I just helped with arrangements and production and the guitar parts." Their friendship, Johnson adds, sprang from a mutual appreciation for singer-songwriters such as Lee Hazelwood and Tim Rose--artists who didn't enjoy a large fan base in the ax-grinding Northwest. "I guess like any music that I like, it's real direct and honest and doesn't have a lot of pretense to it, so it just kind of hits me emotionally," he explains. "That's what I like about it--same with the country music that I listen to, or soul music."
Among his other musical heroes is Charlie Rich, to whom Mondays is dedicated; Johnson considers him to be "the white Ray Charles." He's also enamored of the oeuvres of Tim Buckley, Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen, and he hazards a guess about why their recordings are seldom favored by his peers. "From what I've seen, a lot of people didn't like it because it wasn't punk, and what you're supposed to be into is punk." Yet this genre's emotional palette lacks more delicate expressions of love and loss; as Johnson phrases it, punks seem to believe that "showing any vulnerability is a bad thing." Personally, he notes, "I've never had a problem with that."
Appropriately, Mondays features lush arrangements and the utilization of strings provided by the Sabee String Quartet. "It's the first time I've ever worked with classically trained string players," he notes. "I really enjoyed it. The people that did the strings were really easy to work with--they got the feel of it real quick and laid it down, and it was great. I've always been a real fan of strings on the records that I like. I've always wanted to do it; I never realized how easy it would be to do until I tried it."
In an age when many musicians are clamoring for gadgetry and the effects that technology can provide them, Johnson prefers to move forward into the past. "I haven't liked anything modern in a long time," he admits. "What I do like that's new usually has a classic feel to it. I like things to sound a little more organic, which has gone by the wayside the last few years. Everything I hear that's new seems really antiseptic. It doesn't have any honesty to it, or a genuine feel." To achieve the latter, Johnson just spent five weeks playing tiny venues in a stripped-down acoustic mode; the lineup for these dates consisted entirely of violinist David Krueger and Johnson, sporting his trademark natty suit, silver-squirrel head and painted fingernails as he strummed sadly from the shadows.
Mascis, too, has been cutting the electricity of late, but there's little resemblance between Mondays and the guitarist's unplugged ordeal, Martin and Me. Whereas the latter's voice strains agonizingly in the absence of obscuring guitar fuzz, Johnson's doleful baritone weaves through the orchestration on his compositions like a weary, nostalgically spent transient. Each has recently covered Smiths tunes, with Johnson again achieving greater success; in his hands, "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" becomes a gloomy torch song that's far more interesting than the epiglottal disaster Mascis makes of "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side."
Assisting Johnson these days is bassist Leslie Hardy, whom he married last year. The two met when Hardy's former band--Juned, Seattle's answer to My Bloody Valentine--toured with Dinosaur Jr. Hardy contributed to two Mondays tracks, as did Juned drummer Lenny Rennals, who sings with Johnson on the moody ballad "Left in the Dark," which is reminiscent of one of the Divine Horsemen's more compelling duets. Juned's subsequent breakup has allowed Hardy to join Johnson on the road. He'd like to add her to his permanent lineup, "but that's up to her," he concedes.
In the meantime, Johnson plans to continue bucking the trends in mass-marketed pop music, about which he has little nice to say. He claims that the homogenous nature of so much so-called modern rock "has a lot to do with radio and video, where people want it to sound instantly pleasing. Like the instant hook--real slick, but with a phony alternative veneer. It all kind of seems just like a shtick at this point." When asked if he predicts a backlash to synthetic buzz-bin material, Johnson sighs, "I can only hope."
Mike Johnson. 10 p.m. Friday, July 12, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax, $5, 320-9200 or 830-
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