When it comes to punk, Johnny Wilson thinks of himself as a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. As bass player and backing vocalist for Denver band the Gamits and founder of the popular underground music website For the Love of Punk, that image seems a bit self-deprecating.
But as the forty-something musician tells it, he doesn’t front the Gamits, and he’s a latecomer to the group, which has a vision he aims to support. As for the website, he helped develop the technical end, and when it comes to stories, he puts the music first — not his personality as a writer.
He didn’t even come up with the site’s name.
“My wife, Dawn, came up with the name,” says Wilson. “She said my biggest passions in life relate to punk. I was learning web development at the time and working with WordPress a lot. I did it on the couch and put up the site, and three or four weeks later I started getting e-mails from record labels. It took off and had a life of its own. I don’t think I really tried in the very beginning.”
For his nine-to-five day job, Wilson works as the creative and technical director at a publishing company, but since he was a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, his life has been centered around punk.
Wilson’s family moved from Riverside, California, to Olympia, Washington, when he was in elementary school. By the time he was twelve, he was playing in bands, and in high school, he joined a new band with his friends. One of those, Vern Rumsey, gave Wilson his early schooling in punk.
“He showed me Steel Pole Bath Tub, Mister T Experience and Nomeansno, which is my favorite band to this day,” says Wilson. Rumsey also taught Wilson about punk culture, and how it was about more than fashion and sixteenth notes banged out on an electric guitar: It was about embracing a do-it-yourself creative ethic.
“The thing, growing up in that area, that taught me a ton was that everybody did their own zines. Everybody was community-driven. Our community was a family, and music wasn’t a sound; it was just all about creating your own thing and doing it your own way. So punk doesn’t have a sound for me, and it never did.”
In 1990, his band Uncle Abner, which included Rumsey, played its first show with a relatively unknown punk act he admired, Jawbreaker, on tour with its first album, Unfun.
“Talking to Jawbreaker after the show taught me that they weren’t people on a pedestal,” says Wilson. He realized that he, too, could have a viable life as a touring musician, and so, with his later bands the Glory Holes and Moral Crux, he toured the United States.
Moral Crux underwent a grueling 2001 tour in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Wilson needed a break in order to rediscover why he loved doing music in the first place. By 2004, he and his wife, Dawn, were ready for something new.
Dawn had grown up in Billings, Montana, and often drove to Denver to see shows with local bands like Pinhead Circus, the Gamits, ColdSnap9 and Four on the bill. On tour, Wilson had been drawn to Colorado.
“There’s something about the community here, the people, the sun,” he says. “The only thing I hate is the dryness. I didn’t have allergies or didn’t know what they were until I moved here, and I was sick for the first two weeks living here.”
The couple relocated to Denver in 2004, but it took Wilson five years to discover the punk community.
“You don’t really get the open-arms thing until you really get in and dig in,” he says. “I don’t see a lot of ‘I play punk’ or ‘I play metal’ here; I see more of what I remember from Olympia, which was, ‘Do you want to play?’”
Wilson’s first band in Colorado was St. Fall Apart, and for a few years playing in that band, he learned about the local music scene firsthand, performing in various dive bars and small clubs. When the group’s drummer moved to Portland in 2013, St. Fall Apart went on indefinite hiatus. Around the same time, Wilson noticed that the Gamits, a punk band with strong melodies, were looking for a new member on Craigslist.
“I saw their online post about looking for a bass player,” says Wilson. “I kind of chased them. Chris Fogal was building the Black in Bluhm studio at the time, and I was a bit relentless about helping him to build the studio, talking to him constantly, and I wrote him long e-mails about how much I wanted to be in the Gamits.”
Wilson submitted a video of himself playing and singing their songs “and embarrassing the hell out of myself, just like everybody else did.”
The band brought him on to play bass.
He admired the bass lines Fogal had written, which moved up and down the fret board, with intertwining melodies based on music by the Beach Boys and the Beatles.
“It’s probably the hardest job I’ve had, because the bass parts are a bit complex and you’re singing at the same time,” he says.
With the Gamits, Wilson has toured globally, including a rare twelve-date tour of Russia and across Europe, where the group has found more success than in the U.S.
At the same time that Wilson has been working a full-time job and touring the world, he’s been using For the Love of Punk to shine light on bands that more mainstream publications ignore.
“I wanted to cover music, but I wanted it to be un-influenced by outside forces,” says Wilson. “I definitely wanted to concentrate on the little guys.”
He does write about larger bands, like those represented by Fat Wreck Chords, knowing it improves traffic to his site: “You need to get an audience, and then you can be a benefit to the smaller guys.”
As for the economic model, “There’s no paid advertising. I do barter and trade. It’s more a friend thing,” Wilson says.
In 2016, Wilson established FTLP Records and FTLP Studio so he could shift his focus toward supporting bands through recording and distributing their work, not just writing about it.
The label and the studio are low-key but have helped Wilson retool the website to reflect its original mission: highlighting local artists.
“I think it’s important to support the scene around you,” says Wilson. “I think it makes the biggest difference quicker. You don’t get to see the fruits when you cover something in Chicago. When you impact the life of some young local musician and they tell you, it is immediately rewarding.”
8 p.m. Friday, March 10, Marquis Theater, 2009 Larimer Street, $25, all ages, 303-487-0111.
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