Q&A with Joe Johnson of Moore and Wild Game
Although Moore has been together for over a decade, it has garnered very little press, mainstream or otherwise, despite being something of an institution in the local metal scene and having put out a handful of albums during its time together. In the last year and a half or so, Moore has been evolving its sound into a more thrash, power metal and progressive-oriented direction, whereas in times past, the act had even cultivated a kind of glam rock sound.
Moore's new album, Guillotines and Angels Wings, is the result of that new direction and its ten songs run the gamut of power metal, thrash, doom rock and metal, without the need for a subgenre flag preceding it. We caught up with Moore guitarist, Joe Johnson, in advance of his band's CD release show tonight at the Gothic Theatre, and he gave us some insight into his other project, the progressive hard rock band Wild Game, how he became a member of Moore, his take on how to not be a wanky guitar player and the nature of heavy metal's relationship with the press.
Westword (Tom Murphy): You first came to my attention as the guitarist in Wild Game. Can you tell me a little bit about that project?
Joe Johnson: It's one of those things where I'd been sort of searching around on Craig's List to find some people to play with. I'd come here from Philadelphia, where I'd been in a band called Wasteoid and another called Shadowdance. I moved out here with my wife five years ago. I'd been playing pretty heavily in Philadelphia, and I'd taken some time off playing by myself, and I decided it was time to get back into it. Both of those previous projects were fairly structured, in terms of what was in and what was out. Shadowdance was a power metal project, and Wasteoid was a New Wave of British Heavy Metal project.
My musical desires run wider than that, and in both of those projects, I was strictly a lead guitar player, and I decided I was in a place in my life where I could play something closer to my interests. I found some players that were interested in playing that. I didn't want to have an iron fist, I wanted it to be different from my previous projects -- I wanted it to be collaborative.
I answered Steve Sirockin's ad -- he listed Buckethead, and that sold me. He wanted to do something like Praxis -- improvisational, wide open in terms of compositional format. Heavy on progressive style. They'd been playing with other guitarists for a while, previously. Sirockin has a beautiful studio out there and we went out there, literally said ten words, and we plugged in and started playing, and I felt at home. Forest Lauck is a converted guitarist, and we played well together. We played out a fair amount for a while. The typical response was we'd clear out a room, and the five people who remained said we were the best band they'd ever seen. Which is nice, but that's not the overall response you want to get when you're playing out.
The name came from The Red Lion Inn on the road from Boulder to Nederland, near where Sirockin lives, and it fit in with the intentions of the project and the locality. I'm trained as a poet, and it appeals to me because it's a pun. It reminds me of the Herman Hesse book, The Glass Bead Game - the game of putting together ideas that shouldn't be together. Most of the time if it's not to people's taste, hopefully, the conceptual language that's used is strange.
WW: How did you become a member of Moore, and why did you want to join that band?
JJ: I'd actually seen Moore before I moved out here. It was one of those bands that was an institution - a wonderful high profile band. It's strange for me. I read an interview with Duff McKagan, and he said that every time he's in a band, the next instrument over would be the fun one to play. I never had that emotion; I'm not an instrumentalist.
I'm purely a guitarist, but I do have the sensation with genres of music I want to play another one -- I want to twist it. Doing the Wild Game thing, I love it but it's one of those things where you go, "Metal, I miss the metal days. I want to put on the leathers again." That itch starts and grows. I wanted to be in a metal band again.
I saw Moore at the Gothic, and Jim Moore is a terrific singer. Matt Meyer was leaving the band -- he's a great guy and he's been nothing but nice to me -- and I decided it was the right time and the right situation. I learned a few songs, and went to audition. After the first song, Jim said I was in. It's been a blast.
I've been in Moore for a year and a half -- enough time to write the record. We did a trip to L.A. last year, a trip to Des Moines this year and Casper a few times. Jim's great, and we've got Haakon Sjoegren, formerly of Havok, in the band now, and he's about the best drummer I've ever played with. Jim is a converted guitar player, and he has good pitch, which isn't true of all singers. He knows what is possible and what is impossible with one guitar, which simplifies things for me, since I'm not used to being in a one-guitar band. He's also a great team player, and he loads and unloads equipment -- which not all singers do. He's another guy that really checks his ego at the door.
WW: How do you balance being a technically proficient guitarist and writing a song that people other than you might enjoy without also boring yourself?
JJ: That's a terrific question. It's especially difficult for guitar. When you go to a piano, and you press a note as a rank beginner, you get the same tone as Rachmaninoff did and as anybody else did. There's a lot more to stringed instruments in general, and I would say, electric guitar, for rock in particular, that you have to have a certain amount of studying to make a good noise.
Many guitarists better than me have said that if you're a good guitar player you can hear it in one note. I absolutely believe that that's true. It's all about fretting technique -- do you fret it with the right pressure, do you fret it close enough to the fret? Is your picking technique good? Do you have good vibrato? If you have those things done, you can begin to worry about what you're playing. I read a column where Pat Martino said that after you've been studying for about ten years, you can start to worry about what you're playing. I'm happy with my technical proficiency, so I spend my time worrying about what I'm playing.
I'm very lucky to be friends with Bobby Smith of The Mighty 18 Wheeler. We talk about these issues all the time, and he's wonderful resource. If you're a serious guitar player, it can be lonely. It's nice to have other serious guitar players to discuss very technical issues with. One of the things he and I talked about is that if you play a melody, which you have to do now and then, you have to play diatonic. If you're playing hot guitar player licks, what people want to hear is pentatonic. They want to hear the funky stuff that's easy to play on guitar but very difficult to play on saxophone or piano.
People tend to have the misconception that you learn pentatonic to start, and then get to diatonic, and then you play exotic scales and once you can play Phrygian major third -- that's all you should play, and that's how you get to sound like George Lynch. That's incorrect. All of the best players, in my opinion, are able to go back and forth easily and frequently between those two concepts of playing melody and playing hot licks. The hot licks are the stupid things that are easy to play. It's a mistake bands to think, "I'm slightly better than Johnny Thunders; I'm done with my guitar playing." It's also a mistake for the players that say, "I'm slightly better than Ritchie Blackmore; I've just begun with my guitar playing."
You're never done, and it's better that you never forget what got you excited about guitar playing in the first place. It's very difficult to do. I'm thrilled that you want to talk about Wild Game, because key to what I try to do is even when it's written out guitar solos, as it mostly in is Moore, you have to show up and convince people that it's made up on the spot -- you have to play with an improvisational note and inflection. In the words of Zappa, you have to put eyebrows on the notes.
The key to improvisation is that you listen to what the rest of the band is playing before you decide what you should play. The second thing you do is you have to listen to yourself as if you are an accompanist with the rest of the band -- like an out of body experience. You have to listen to what you're playing and honestly evaluate whether or not it matches what else is going on. It's a nearly impossible task that happens maybe a dozen times in a lifetime perfectly -- for which you may or may not be on stage. But that's the project: to be able to do what you're talking about.
WW: It seems to me that a lot of local press ignores or dismisses what your band and metal bands in general are doing. Is this something you even think about?
JJ: I want to thank you for showing up today. It's not something we're oblivious to. It somewhat comes with the territory of metal, in general. The whole point of metal is to be strident in being an outcast or not fitting in. I know that's true of several types of music. But in metal, it is imbedded in the musicality. Originally it was music designed to repel things. It's designed to repel women, it's designed to repel your parents, it's designed to repel anyone who would ask you to behave with any sense of standards. Which can be empowering, and it can be a detriment. It's designed to repel the press. Led Zeppelin got bad reviews on all their records -- who cares? Black Sabbath too.
I remember seeing Jay Leno doing a thing on Dave Mustaine. He [Mustaine] was going to retire - obviously he didn't -- and he said they ran out of songs they could play with three chords, which is hopelessly wrong about that band. They're a highly technical band. That's what you say when Dylan is going to retire. I think metal fans like it that way. That's what it's supposed to be. That said, it's difficult being in a band in that situation. Of course you work really hard and you want some form of recognition. I can't complain because metal is more mainstream now than it has ever been. You can't have your cake and eat it to.
I go see rock bands that fill up clubs I have a hard time filling up, and I think, "Really? It's that easy? You just play rock?" If I try to play like that, I have to subvert it, mess with it. I can't leave it at that. If it's rock, it has to be Indian raga rock, it has to be George Harrison, it has to be something it could never be. That's lead to me where I am. I want bigger and better things for the band, but for myself, I'm really happy right now.
The press is going to do what the press does, and it's not their business to sell metal records, and that's fine. The bands that see us, the fans -- they know what we can do and what we're about, and that has to be enough. The times when you have a band show up and say, "Wow, you guys are awesome!" That's what it's all about. The press doesn't say anything up and down about any of that. If you really want to be an artist, press is wonderful but it can't make or break what your project is.
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