The Power of Positive Thinking

"For the most part, the music that dominates the public commercial airwaves seems to be more narrow in its musical content than anything that I've heard in forty years," says Mike Johnson, the multi-instrumentalist and composer who leads Thinking Plague. "But human beings with creativity and a rising level of sophistication are out there. This kind of intelligence doesn't go away. It just goes underground."
That's where Thinking Plague has spent most of its existence. The band sprouted around 1982 (even Johnson, 46, is uncertain of the precise date), but its various incarnations have played fewer live shows in the sixteen-plus years since then than some acts perform in six months. Instead, Johnson and his associates have poured their energy into recordings marked by ferocious ingenuity and staggering complexity. Their fourth and latest long-player--In Extremis, issued late last year on Maryland's Cuneiform imprint--is no exception: Although the disc has alternately been described as art rock or prog rock, it's too incredibly dense and mysterious to pigeonhole. Listeners with a fondness for 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys will likely find the work of the group's latest configuration (Johnson, singer Deborah Perry, keyboardist Shane Hotle, reed man Mark Harris, bassist/accordionist Dave Willey and percussionist David Kerman) to be hopelessly weird. But that's fine by Johnson, who has no interest in being all things to all people. As he puts it, "This isn't meant to be background music. If someone's going to put it on at a party, they'll be disappointed. We've striven to make it the musical equivalent of a good book that you'll really love and that you'll want to go back and read again and again."

Johnson, currently a counselor at the Community College of Denver, didn't begin his music career with such a high sense of purpose. During the late Seventies, he and bassist Bob Drake, a key part of the Thinking Plague story, just wanted to pay the rent. "We were playing with rock-and-roll-type, doing-stupid-music-for-money bands," he says. "We'd play Led Zeppelin and things like that because we wanted to make a living playing music, which we never did. We were wearing big shoes and playing other people's songs and paying a fortune to make $200 a week--and we weren't enjoying the music. We'd be listening to Henry Cow [an adventurous avant-garde ensemble] while we were driving to some ridiculous gig in Delta to play Lynyrd Skynyrd."

After finally recognizing the futility of their labors, Johnson and Drake retired from the cover-group grind, but they didn't give up on music. Drake quickly hooked up with the Metrotones, a new-wave combo that featured Lin Esser, Randy Walters and Geoff Landers, and began recording other outfits on a four-track reel-to-reel in Landers's attic. The quartet later evolved into Crank Call Love Affair, one of Denver's most popular early-Eighties attractions, and even though Drake was out of the lineup by then (Mark Fuller took his place), he gladly recorded the band at Packing House, a studio established by Landers. The facility's moniker wasn't chosen at random; according to Drake, corresponding by e-mail, "It was located right smack in the middle of the no-man's-land around the slaughterhouses and rendering plants in the stockyard district of Denver." He adds, "It's perhaps best not to mention things like the pools of congealed blood and mounds of entrails littered about the region."

During the same period, Johnson and Drake began to collaborate on songs in the spirit of the challenging music they prized. The pair subsequently recruited what Johnson calls "some likely people who were willing to try and learn the parts" to become members of an actual band. Unfortunately, most of the performances didn't go well. "We did a show at the old Mercury Cafe that Allen Ginsberg was at," Johnson recalls. "We played to some pretty strong boos and hisses." Rather than give up, however, Johnson and Drake shelved the live concept and began spending their time recording at Packing House. The result was 1984's ...a thinking plague, a cassette-only release whose covers were individually spray-painted by Drake. Only 500 tapes were made, but thanks to distribution by London's Recommended Records, run by Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler, they reached open ears in Europe, South America and Japan. Today the album is a sought-after collector's item among Thinking Plague aficionados.

By 1987's Moonsongs, its second full-length, Thinking Plague had a whole new look: Johnson and Drake were joined by, among others, singer Suzanne Lewis, Mark Fuller and keyboardist Eric Jacobson (aka Eric Moon). But problems at London's Dead Man Curve Records, which had signed the group, prevented the album from making the impact it otherwise might have. "We're not exactly sure how many copies they put out," Johnson says, "and we never got our master tapes back, because they went belly-up really fast after we got involved with them. They never paid us for anything."  

More personnel changes followed, with Fuller and Jacobson (now a producer in Los Angeles) moving on to other projects. But Thinking Plague benefited from some fresh momentum when Johnson gave Cutler, in Denver to play a concert with Pere Ubu, a tape of his material. Cutler was impressed by the recording and offered to release a new album by the band on his label, which he had renamed ReR.

In This Life, the Thinking Plague album that came out on ReR in 1989, featured a remix of Moonsongs' title cut, a remastered version of the previously issued "Possessed," and seven new songs from the roster of Johnson, Drake, Lewis, Shane Hotle, Mark Harris and bassist Maria Moran, who's currently making music in the Bay Area under the pseudonym Zipper Spy. The last batch of compositions are a bracing lot. "Lycanthrope," the opener, sports serpentine synth lines, foreboding beats and Lewis's ethereal vocalizing; "Run Amok" sounds like a race between Kurt Weill and Frank Zappa; "Organism (Version II)" opens with a collision of classical pianistics and scratchy guitar courtesy of guest Fred Frith; and "The Guardian" is a beguiling voyage to the East, with words like "The worms that filled faith's abandoned bread/From hills and seas oozed crimson red." Pretentious? That's an affirmative. But the musicians justify such pomposity the old-fashioned way: They earn it.

The well-deserved acclaim that greeted In This Life, including a three-page spread in Option, wasn't enough to keep the late-Eighties edition of the Plague intact: "The nucleus of the band just went kerflooey," Johnson says. Specifically, Lewis moved to New York, where she recorded as a soloist and performed with the band Kissyfur, and Drake became an engineer at Echosound Studio in L.A. "He just walked into the job," Johnson says. "All of a sudden he was working with Quincy Jones and recording Lily Tomlin and Shirley MacLaine, and he engineered some of the music in Boyz N the Hood with Ice Cube." In addition, Drake became part of 5uu's, a band in the Thinking Plague mode that included David Kerman.

Thinking Plague was technically in existence during this period, but while Johnson and Drake were able to largely complete "This Weird Wind" and "Les Etudes D'Organism," two pieces that wound up on In Extremis, via long-distance collaboration, neither much liked the process. "The best way to make this kind of music is to get together and physically learn it, because it isn't stuff you can pick up really fast. Plus, Bob doesn't read a note of music. He learns it by ear, and that takes time, because you have to be able to visualize--to imagine what it's supposed to sound like."

When Drake moved to the south of France in 1995 to help construct a studio in a farmhouse owned by ReR's Cutler, the even-greater number of miles between him and Johnson delayed the fourth Thinking Plague disc once more. But the following year, Kerman's decision to come to Denver inspired Johnson to put the band together again. In the end, he and Kerman were joined by singer Perry, who'd unsuccessfully tried out for the group in 1989; Willey, the leader of Hamster Theatre (an act that also claims Johnson as a member); and Plague vets Hotle and Harris. The sextet supplemented the two Johnson-Drake epics from several years earlier with five more songs that were then mixed by Drake, who's still living in France. "It was like taking your dearest children and sending them off to their old aunt on another continent and asking her to raise them to adulthood," Johnson says. "But I'm not at all unhappy with what he did. He came up with some amazing things in post-production and mixing. He put the final essence on it."

In Extremis was worth all of the effort poured into it over the years. "Dead Silence" is distinguished by almost Frippertronic guitar work by Johnson, herky-jerky rhythms and overlapping vocal lines by Perry that go several steps further than similar experiments by Kate Bush; "Maelstrom" somehow manages to fuse together several Yes-like sequences without sucking; and "Kingdom Come" goes through countless changes over the course of nearly fourteen minutes. "That's my thing," Johnson says. "The music is a journey where you start at point A and let it take you to places where you didn't think it would go."

Reviewers with a weakness for musical intricacies have been wowed by In Extremis: A writer in Guitar World called it "a hands-down classic," adding, "The feverish surfeit of spellbinding ideas investigated here is almost without precedent." Johnson's also been swamped by worshipful e-mail from consumers who've obtained the disc at their local record stores (Cuneiform has a strong distribution network) or on the World Wide Web. "That's why the Internet's so good," he says. "If people want it, they can get it, and the immediacy of the feedback that you get is like nothing I've experienced before."  

This spring, Johnson hopes to rerelease the first two Thinking Plague albums on a single CD, and he's also ready to try touring again: The band has accepted an invitation to perform at Prog Day, a Labor Day festival in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is also considering separate East and West Coast swings. He's hardly anticipating that celebrity and riches will be his for the asking, though. "I'm not making very much money doing this, and I'd like to make more, but I don't think it's very realistic," he says. "The main things I want to do are play, tour and do other stuff so that it will give more people an opportunity to hear the record. And when they do, they'll hear melodies and chord progressions I worked my butt off to make meaningful and to give emotional power.

"This is not an exercise at intellectuality for its own sake. I've heard plenty of music by rock musicians who are trying to do something slick and intimidating and trying to overwhelm you with the intensity and coolness of that. In fact, I think I used to fall into that category. But if music like that doesn't have some kind of emotional or lyrical quality or purpose, I'm left cold by it. I'm trying to give people something more.

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