22 October 2010|
Alain Johannes lost his soulmate in 2008 when his partner from the rock trio Eleven – keyboardist Natasha Shneider – succumbed to cancer. While Eleven's work is not widely know, Johannes has made quite a name for himself in production and guitar-for-hire circles working with bands like No Doubt, Live, Eagles of Death Metal and Queens of the Stone Age. He and Natasha also were Chris Cornell's writing partners and backing band for 1999's Euphoria Morning.
Nowadays, Johannes tours as the second guitarist in rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures. He released Spark this month... his first solo effort – a love letter to his lost loved one. WTDP? had a chance to talk with Alain about the new record, his unique gear and the road ahead.
WTDP?: How did the album launch show at Amoeba go earlier this month?
Alain: It went really well... a really nice turn out. It is never easy to play these songs, but it is getting a little easier. It was good. All the boys from Queens (of the Stone Age) were there... a bunch of friends... a nice vibe all around.
WTDP?: Spark is basically a love letter to Natasha. Did you set out on this project with any preconceived notions about the direction or did it evolve more naturally out of the emotions of the moment?
Alain: Definitely the latter. The first song came when we did the tribute show with Queens, Matt Cameron and all of the boys back in August 2008. PJ Harvey came out... a bunch of friends and family. Endless Eyes I wrote for that show... like the day before. The day after the show I got together with PJ Harvey and Jon Brion. We went out to dinner and came back to the house and I played them a couple of more little things on the cigar box and they were really supportive of the vibe of that. One reason being the cigar box guitar has such an intimate sound... such a simplicity to it because it is only four strings. It also allows some of my flamenco early days to come out because it is a very percussive sounding instrument. The next song that came was Return To You, which I wrote right before Brody's (Dalle) birthday. From there on, they just kept coming... kind of underscoring the process I was going through. I found four days in November of last year when I was in the middle of the Vultures touring where I just locked myself up in the control room at my home studio, grabbed three different mics I thought would be complementary to each other, grabbed some instruments from around the house – the harmonium, some toms, a cello, the cigar box and my fretless guitar, an ebow and I just kind of went! Four days later, the record was done. I was kind of in a trance-like state.
WTDP?: For all of the melancholy on the record, Return To You is a great, up tempo pop song... and the subject matter appears to be more of a celebration of your bond and relationship. How did that song come about?
Alain: Every song kind of dictated its own mood and place. That one was definitely more of a celebration and the feeling that you'll meet your loved one again someday. No matter what your beliefs are, you always have that feeling – the eternal aspect of love. There are some uplifting moments there. There are some energetic moments in other tunes, but that is definitely the one – unlike The Bleeding Whole or Unfinished Plan where there is some resignation, anger and melancholy. Fall To Grace, which was a bonus track that I did afterwards... the more recent couple of tunes that I've done for bonus tracks... those are more of a celebration, you know – along those lines.
WTDP?: The centerpiece of Spark for us is Spider... a very passionate song that cannot be easy to perform. How difficult or easy it was for you to write?
Alain: That one has got a very interesting story to it. I went to Natasha's grave. I made this beautiful stone that is Indian black granite and has a beautiful photo of her. It is almost too realistic, you know? It's a black and white photo and her eyes – her endless eyes... We always used to call her 'Spider' because of the way she played the keys. She had the ability to basically be the most amazing grooving bass player with her left hand – a completely separate thing from here singing or comping with her right hand. She always tilted the keyboard forward when she played so everyone could see what she was up to, because people are distrustful of keyboards sometimes. Especially in Eleven... there was no bass player. She was the bass player. People would go 'Where's the bass player?!' They heard this amazing bass playing, but they couldn't figure it out! So she would tilt the keyboard forward and consequently got this nickname – Spider. So I sat right by the grave and this little tiny spider just literally jumped up into my hand, ran up my arm, across my face and down the other arm, then straight up her face on the tombstone. I was like 'Oh my God.' It felt like a communication of some kind. It could be coincidence or whatever, but those kind of moments feel so magical. So I ran straight back home and wrote the song and recorded it straight away. That was actually the last thing that I recorded. Up to that point I had done everything in sequence as the album was going.
WTDP?: There is a distinct droning lead line in that song... what is making that noise?
Alain: That's my fretless. My very first electric guitar. It's an old Messenger. They are pretty rare... aluminum neck. When I bought my SG, when I was a kid – you know, I grew up with Hillel Slovak, Jack Irons and Flea – I gave that guitar to Hillel. That is the guitar that he learned to play on. Then when he got his Strat he gave it back to me. Then I took the frets off. I started getting into more vocal phrasings out of the guitar. I bought my first ebow back in '76 – the early chrome-painted ones that have no juice at all! So what happened was I rolled the tone off on the neck pickup and go DI to get a real in-your-face sound, but mic it as well because it's a hollow body guitar. So all that stuff you hear that sounds like theremins or strings, accept for the cello in Speechless, is the fretless guitar with ebow.
WTDP?: Tell us about the cig-fiddle that dominates the record. Had you been playing cigar-box guitars for long?
Alain: My friend Matty Baratto is a luthier. He made me my first. I think I've got #16 or something from back in 2001. That was a four-string one which I used on Show Me Something, the first track off Eleven's Howling Book. I just always loved it. About six years ago I got the eight-string one. Since then, he has made me a whole bunch other ones. John Paul Jones got one. Dave Grohl, Josh and Brody... I gave Brody my original one. PJ Harvey got one too. They are just really special. There are a lot of great cigar boxes out there, but his are particularly well-made... for playing, you know?
WTDP?: Are they electric?
Alain: Yeah. I basically put a LR Baggs mandolin pick-up inside. Found the sweet spot, which takes a while, then mounted it on the inside. I've been running it through a Fishman pre-amp and micing it as well with a little condenser just to get that sparkle. He makes full stop electric ones too with lipstick pickups. I carry it in my backpack. It is kind of nerve-racking. There are no cases that will fit it and for some reason I haven't made one. But that would mean I would have to check it (on a plane) and not see it. I would rather just have it in my backpack, get it on the plane and have everyone stare at me because I have this neck sticking out of the back of my head!
WTDP?: While we're on the gear subject, we have a pic that we think is one of your Them Crooked Vultures pedalboards. There is a Custom Audio Electronics Wah and Boost/Overdrive, a Zinky True Grit, a MXR EQ and what appears to be a couple of Piggy FX's custom pedals. How did you get hooked up with the Israel-based pedalsmiths?
Alain: They are fantastic. A guitar player here in LA named Dory (Lobel) hooked me up with those guys. They basically sent me a bunch of stuff including The Tank, which is there little single knob plate reverb. I used, for all of the Octavia kind of sounds, I used their stuff. They've been very kind to me. The next thing that I want to do is definitely going to be electric and I hope to put together a nice combination of stuff. I'm looking for some amps now. I've got some great old stuff, but most of it doesn't travel very well... like an old Supro head that can electrocute you if you touch it wrong!
WTDP?: Back with Eleven, we seem to recall you favored Jazzmasters when rocking out. Still the case?
Alain: Yeah. I still have my '62 Jazzmaster, which was actually made – the stamp on it is the day and year I was born. I've had that since like '78. I bought it for around $300. One guy had it before me. It was nicely worn in at all of the proper spots. That guitar is kind of magical, because unless I put it away for a while when I'm using the Motor Ave... the Bellaire... it gets angry and the next time I play it, it doesn't stay in tune. Usually I can go a week or two without tuning it... and I use the hell out of the tremolo bar. There is something really weird about that guitar. It doesn't care what the weather changes are, or whatever. It just stays in tune no matter what. It's a really crazy instrument.
WTDP?: Tell us about that hollow body Les Paul we see you with from time to time.
Alain: That is a one-off that I still can't figure out what the history of it is. My guess is it would be like an early prototype of the Florentine with a more natural finish. It's hollow with the two f-holes in it. It is really light, but really resonant. It feels more like a 335 with how it reacts. I love that guitar. It was really hard to choose which ones were the different tunings. The drop A had to be that guy. Then, my SG – which is a '68 or '69... one of the few that Angus Young didn't find... The neck has never been cracked. It is an amazing instrument. I also love this like Rogue Hofner-copy bass, which was only $200. You know how cheap instruments work. Sometimes you get lucky or play through a few and find a magical one. It is just amazing.
WTDP?: Eleven had some rare tracks that were released via the Elevenworld website a few years back. Is there any finished, unreleased material from Eleven that exists?
Alain: There is. There are a bunch of eight track demos from right before Avantgardedog when Jack had just left to go to Pearl Jam... before he came back from Howling Book. It was right around the time that we were looking for a label, before we got signed to A&M... before we did Euphoria Morning. We did Avantgardedog before Euphoria Morning and had to wait to put it out later. Then A&M disappeared. So it came out in 2000, but really we made that record in '96 and '97. There are about 10 tracks from that are on the little eight track recorder. (Drummer) Greg Upchurch had it and he left it with some friends. I have to pick it up and transfer the stuff and give it a quick remix. More importantly, the most recent Eleven stuff was recorded the month before Natasha got diagnosed with cancer. It was only two days of recording. We did five songs. Wrote and recorded them, but we never got to the lyrics or the vocals. The full instrumentation is there... all played live. It is easily the most rocking that we ever were. The stuff I would say, because the songs weren't fully hashed out... all I know is we found this really amazingly groovy, hypnotic, swampy place that was a bit more understated for us, but so heavy on the vibe. I played it for Matt Cameron and Josh (Homme) and they were floored. Now I'm left with trying to figure out how to finish it. Do I just leave it as is or do I kind of imagine what Natasha and I would have done with the vocals and lyrics and do that? Or do I ask some of my friends how that think the vocals should go? Who knows... but something at some point will happen... and hopefully soon. It's only five tracks. I wish there was more stuff. We were never writing all of the time. We would literally let the energy build up and start writing immediately as we were recording. The example being those 10 songs (on the eight track). By the time we got to do the record, we had already moved on. None of those songs really fit in our minds. So the entire Avantgardedog was all new writing.
WTDP?: Spark is out now... what's next for you? Any plans to for solo shows or a regional tour?
Alain: Definitely. I travel really light these days and I'm just awaiting confirmation on a really cool tour opening up for this new band made up of famous people (ed. note: Looks like it is Ben Harper's new group Fistful of Mercy). Hopefully I will get to do that. Then I'm going to get in the car and just start traveling around. If I can get enough exposure to get into some clubs. I'd love to go everywhere.