R.I.P., Andy Johns: Eric Halborg of the Swayback shares some memories of his friend
Andy Johns in the studio with William Murphy of the Swayback circa September 2008.
It's a super sad day for the entire music world, but especially for the members of the Swayback, who have lost their dear friend, Andy Johns. The legendary engineer/producer passed away yesterday at the age of 61. In addition to amassing a mind-blowing list of credits over the course of his life on iconic albums like Exile On Main Street by the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin IV, Johns spent time in the studio with the Swayback, recording and producing a number of songs for the band's last full-length, Double Four Time.
"Heavy day yesterday," says Halborg this morning, clearly still reeling from news of Johns's death yesterday. Johns was a man he and the rest of the band considered not only to be a mentor but a friend. "It's hit me hard."
Andy Johns with the Swayback at Capitol Studios in Hollywood.
Although the two had been in fairly constant contact over the years since first working together in 2008, and even more so recently, it was something Johns said to Halborg shortly after the two first met that now seems chillingly prescient in retrospect.
"Crazy thing," Halborg continues, "I swear it might even be five years to the day -- I have no idea -- but one of the most amazing things he ever said to me was, 'I will record any song that you write, Eric.' That's how much he dug what we were doing. And he's like, 'But I have about five years left, so you better start writing 'em quick.' And no doubt, he died almost five years to around the day when he said that."
The Swayback came to know Johns thanks to an introduction by Halborg's brother-in-law, who had a business relationship with him. As a favor, he convinced Johns to consider working with the band. Upon first meeting, Johns wasn't all that impressed listening to the recordings of their songs, but the group persisted and ended up winning him over by busting out their guitars and playing the songs for him live. The outfit became fast friends with the producer, a fact that even took Johns's associates by surprise.
"We were blessed to hang out with him," declares Halborg. "He almost left that first day. It was a little song and dance to get him to stay, but once he stayed, he instantly became a friend. His handlers were freaking out that he was hanging out with us. We're in the van going to a guitar shop, and his manager is like, 'He's in your car?' I was like, 'What do you mean?' He's like, 'He got in your van and went somewhere?' I was like, 'Yeah. We're going to this guitar shop. He was like, 'That doesn't happen. He doesn't hang out with people like that.' I was like, 'I don't know. He was hanging out with us.'
"We were sleeping at his house, throwing knifes in his back yard, drinking Jack and listening to Steve Miller records," Halborg goes on. "He was awesome. Just the ultimate cool, awesome person. And wild as all get out still at age 61. You've heard the stories. Or the fact that he came to our shows in Los Angeles and jumped on stage and started twiddling with our amps mid set while we're playing."
The late, great Andy Johns.
That was just Johns's personality, from the sounds of it. Halborg says he and the rest of the band learned so much from him and they hit it off famously, most likely because they were all ultimately coming from the same place.
"He was a total big teddy bear sweetheart and just loved the musicians," notes Halborg. "All the business stuff and the ugliness of making music a commodity had nothing to do with him. But the actual magic of making a take and putting music to a permanent record, that was his bag. That was love and passion, and he'd pull it out of you, challenge you, and if you were slacking off or not focused or not getting into it, he'd let you know pretty quick.
"Getting takes right, having the stuff be soulful," adds Halborg about what else he learned from Johns. "One of the big things with him was, like, 'Man, these days, some singers need to be in a dark room with candles and 'don't look at me' and primadonna bullshit,' and he was like, 'and you guys aren't like that. You step into the vocal booth and rip it and have a beer and on to the next one,' and he loved that. For whatever reason, that's how we're made up. And it was rad to have him confirm that. Being part of some lineage -- I'm not comparing us to the people he's worked with -- but to know that he fancied us in that way, where his big thing was, 'You guys are just cats. You're just musicians trying to get better, and I love that about you guys.' That meant a lot to us.
"And basic things. We did all the drums for Dragondeer at Macy's. But now me and Cole are recording all the mandolin and harp and acoustic guitars. But just mic placement, to have that dude be like, 'This is where you put an SM57 on a speaker cone. Right here, Eric. It's like, 'That's it. That's where I will put it forever. There's no wiggle room as to what's right. That's right if he said it.
The late, great Andy Johns.
"He was scheduled to mix some of this new Dragondeer record that we're working on. It's just a bummer that that's not going to happen," Halborg concludes. "Dude changed my life, basically. To be going down a path of being a musician and being an artist and to have someone like him encourage you and sort of validate all the prepositions you had that you had some sort of ability to...that you were part of a rock and roll cannon, and to have him basically confirm that you were worthy of such things was huge."
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