Mark Johnson: “Stay Creative and Have Fun, Anything Else Would Be Nonsense!”
By Markus Kerren
During the current Delta Moon tour the guitarist and band co-founder Mark Johnson joined us to answer your questions and took time in detail to dive a little deeper into the history of the quartet from Atlanta, Georgia. From the first meeting with Tom Gray, overcoming serious illness, through the change on the drum throne to a broken CD player and of course the new album Low Down the man had on the six strings of his, as always very pleasant manner, much to tell. But read for yourself …
Interview from April 20, 2015
RockTimes: Hi Mark, thank you so much for taking the time. As I see you’re just going to play one last show in Atlanta before heading out to Europe. What kind of accessories do you HAVE to take on the road and is there anything that HAS to stay at home while you’re away?
Mark Johnson: Hi Markus, as far as musical accessories, I always have to have a small pedal board that includes a good overdrive pedal, tremolo pedal, and Crybaby wah pedal. Then I need my trusty Jerry Jones, Danelectro-style guitars. A few real glass bottleneck slides and capos. Those are my basic tools. Then, I need my iPad filled with good books and music. My amplifiers and vintage guitars must stay home. But not my wife because she drives the late night shift on the bus and sells the merchandise!
RockTimes: Right, haha, good point, the ladies are taking care of business after business’s done :-)) Is everybody in the band taking their partners on the road?
Mark Johnson: Vic’s wife, Carly is flying in for the last few shows, then the 4 of us are all heading to Spain for a holiday. Vic Stafford is our new drummer. We are really excited about working with Vic– he can really rock and he also has great feel, so easy to lock in with. Plus, we have all been friends for years. He shared a recording studio space with us in Little Five Points, Atlanta when we recorded Hell Bound Train. Great drummer.
RockTimes: Nice, Spain is a great country for holidays. But let’s get to Vic: It seems you’ve played with a lot of drummers during the last ten years (Marlon Patton, Darren Stanley, Tyler Greenwell etc.). How come you went through so many of them?
Mark Johnson: Actually, It has been mostly Darren. Marlon filled in when Darren had his son. Marlon is full time with Larkin Poe. He is very quick in the studio, so we often lean towards him. We were in the middle of recording Low Down, when we decided to hire Vic, and Vic suggested finishing the record with Marlon because it was going great and he was busy with other projects. You see, this is one big family, we are all friends. Tyler Greenwell, who is now with Tedesci-Trucks Band, did the Clear Blue Flame recording. He is also a good buddy. We are blessed with so many fantastic drummers! You can’t have a great band without a great drummer, so we demand it as well. But, the chemistry has never been better than it is now with Vic. The band has new life and a bunch of new material. It’s a very exciting time for us.
RockTimes: Talking about real good chemistry… that’s what I feel while listening to the new album Low Down as well, almost physically. The playing is great, the songs are really really good and the sound is very organic. Not to say it was any other way before, but what would you say was different this time? What makes this one special for you?
Mark Johnson: Well, we tracked in a studio that had a nice open room where we could set up all together and see each other, like we are live. It was very relaxed. It’s all about getting a good performance. And as a guitarist, it was special for me because I got a chance to stretch out a bit more, like the outro solos on “Afterglow” and “Mean Streak”. I was also combining straight playing with bottleneck playing in the same solo which I haven’t done before. My style is evolving. It was fun also pulling out my vintage National guitars and Rickenbacker steel from the 30s and 40s.
RockTimes: And they sound just great as I can confirm. Where did you find them and did you have to pay a fortune?
Mark Johnson: Well, my old Nationals, Gibsons and Martins, I bought quite a few years back when they were not as expensive as they are now. The vintage guitars that I tend to buy now are all the kinda weird stuff, Japanese and Italian guitars from the 1960s, brands like Teisco and Crucianelli. Those guitars sound great on recordings, really unique and funky, but they are not very dependable for touring. Tom and I have storage space filled to the ceiling with all kinds of cool and funky guitars, amplifiers and stuff. We are crazy about them and have been both playing and collecting for years.
RockTimes: You and Franher got two co-credits on the new album but Tom wrote most of the songs. Is he writing that many or did you all just decided in the past that it’s one of his jobs to come up with the tunes?
Mark Johnson: Tom is a song writer. He writes all of the lyrics. He will also often come in with the basic chord changes, an outline. Once he brings a song to the band, it immediately starts changing. We jam on it, put our musical ideas in and develop it until it sounds like Delta Moon. If we can’t make it sound like a Delta Moon song, we drop it. Sometimes, the arrangement will change, or we will just add texture. “Nothing You Can Tell a Fool” and “Jelly Roll” are older songs, from the earliest period of the band. The lyrics are the same, but they were totally rearranged and reinvented musically. On “Mayfly” and “Wrong Side of Tow”n, I just added the slide parts to Tom’s rhythm. We all enjoy the craft of making a good recording.
On “Afterglow” and “Mean Streak”, the songs changed so much that Franher and I got writing credits. Tom kept rewriting the lyrics to fit the music that was developing as we worked on the record. On previous records, some of the songs were written from musical ideas that I had developed, songs like “Black Coffee”, “Jessie Mae”, S”tuck in Carolina”, “Let Tomorrow Be”. Those songs are more groove oriented because they developed from a musical idea rather than a lyrical one. I used to give Tom CDs of my ideas and he would drive around in his van and sing melodies over them, trying to come up with songs. But, now his CD player is broken!
RockTimes: Oh no, that’s too bad, I’m sure he’ll get a new one But that leads me to the cover songs on Low Down. First of all, there’s the title track which actually is a Tom Waits number. It was your version though that almost made me jump up and down my kitchen table, that’s how much I love it. Sounds very much like Delta Moon and to me like the perfect single from the album. Who came up with the ideas for the three cover songs and the title track in particular?
Mark Johnson: Tom was in the hospital. He had just been diagnosed with cancer and was recovering from emergency surgery. I filled up an iPod with a bunch of music and brought it to the hospital to help him through his recovery. I had mostly gospel stuff like Blind Willie Johnson and The Staple Singers, but I also put some other stuff in there, like Tom Waits. The song, “Low Down”, came on the iPod while Tom was eating his first meal of solid food after surgery, which was basically a bowl of jello. But, it was his first solid food since our least meal in Copenhagen, just before returning home, a week earlier. It was a real good memory for him, so we decided to cover that song. The Bob Dylan song, “Down in the Flood” was suggested to us awhile back by our friend Steven Goff of Red Parlor Records. Everyone loves a good Dylan song, right? As far as “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”…..we always put a stripped down, real traditional blues song on our records, usually a Fred McDowell song. Mississippi delta and hill country blues are strong components of our sound. We needed something dark, quiet and slow to round out this CD, so we picked Hard Times. By the way, Tom is over 5 years out from his diagnosis and is good to go with a clean bill of health from his doctors. Cured!
RockTimes: Wow, that’s amazing! What I realised in recent years is that you released the albums on your own, without having a label (record company). The question is why? Was it a concious decision to go this way?
Mark Johnson: Yes and no. The record label in the US was not interested in releasing our live recordings, so we had to put out the 2 live CDs on our own. Live recordings in US market, in general, are not as in demand as studio recordings, with the exception of the jam band world. Our fans in Europe, especially Germany, asked us for a live CD, so we decided to make a couple. The EP was done very quickly, right before our last trip to Europe, only 300 vinyl copies, so we did that ourselves.
But on this record, Low Down, we had initially planned to put this out on Red Parlor, but I basically changed my mind at the last minute. I have a problem signing contracts! Tom agreed once he did a spreadsheet of the numbers. You see, record labels are just a bank, they lend you the money to make a record but in the end you still pay for all the recording costs, the publicity and promotion, before any earnings. Then, they take a big percentage of all sales, including digital downloads, for the next 7 years. In addition, you have to buy your own CDs from the record company to sell at your own shows, at 5 to 7 times the manufacturing cost of each CD. So, in the long run, you lose. It costs about 12,000.00 to 15,000.00 dollars up front to put a CD out properly. We decided to put our own money behind our art!
Having said that, Steven Goff, at Red Parlor Records is a really good guy who believes in the band and knows his music.
RockTimes: Alright, how about yourself? What did you do before Delta Moon and have you always been a professional musician? Or do you guys also have to work day jobs back home?
Mark Johnson: Almost all of the musicians I know have some sort of supplemental income, wether it’s real-estate or a wife that has a great job!
My initial professional training was in the medical field. I never had any intentional of playing professionally, it just kind of worked out that way. I have been playing the guitar since I was 12 and been in bands since I was 15 years old. I have always just wanted to play the guitar in a good band. But as people get older, there are more financial obligations and family responsibilities. Touring is a huge time commitment and it is physically taxing. You realize that if you want to keep a great band together, you have to make some decent money, otherwise players will start looking at other opportunities. On the other hand, it has to stay musically creative and most importantly, fun. Otherwise, it just isn’t worth it!
RockTimes: Mark, we once talked about some old, kind of obscure blues musicians like Ralph Stanley for example. Have they always been a huge influence on your playing?
Mark Johnson: Fred McDowell was probably the biggest influence of the early blues players. I bought a vinyl copy of My Home is in the Delta and I thought- this is for me, I can get my head around this music. This primitive, hypnotic, slide oriented music is what I want to do. And of course, Blind Willie Johnson, the greatest of the early slide players. Tom and I would sit in my front room and play this stuff long before we started Delta Moon. Lightning Hopkins and Tampa Red as well. Those were the earliest guys that influenced my style. I combined these styles with influences from folks like Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Lowell George of Little Feat, and Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. Now I just sound like myself. You eventually quick mimicking and do your own thing. Being in a band that plays mostly original music helps you develop your own style.
RockTimes: Is it actually true that it was quite a funny/strange story how you met Tom?
Mark Johnson: Tom and I met at a music store in Atlanta, in the parking lot. It was a great vintage guitar store called Midtown Music. He had brought in some dobros to try to sell to the store and they didn’t want to buy them. I was interested so we went out to his van to have a look at them. My girlfriend at the time was getting impatient, so I left without buying any of the guitars. But Tom and I exchanged phone numbers and got together later to jam. That girlfriend didn’t last. Funny how you can tell if you have a keeper girlfriend by how long she can hang at a music store with you!
RockTimes: Oh yes, in so many ways I guess :-)) You mentioned your iPod with loads of good music. What are you listening to these days?
Mark Johnson: I am listening to all kinds of stuff. As far as guitarists, I am listening to Jim Campilongo, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Rick Holmstrom who plays in Mavis Staples’ band. Also, Rory Gallagher, I love Rory. I always have some Los Lobos and Chuck Prophet. I am also listening to a lot of African stuff, like Tinariwen, Terakaft and Bombino. And hill country blues always, like RL Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and more obscure guys like Joe Callicutt, James Davis, Charles Caldwell.
RockTimes: Okay, and finally: What are your All Time favorite albums, the ones you’d take on an island and being the only person there?
Mark Johnson: All times favorites: The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street; John Hiatt – Bring The Family, Ali Farka Toure – The Source and Talking Timbuktu; Bob Marley – Rastaman Vibration; Peter Tosh – Coming In Hot; Neil Young – Harvest; Steve Earle – El Corazon; Staple Singers – Uncloudy Day.
RockTimes: Alright, thank you very much again, Mark. You’ll get the last word: Anything you want to tell your german fans that I forgot to ask?
Mark Johnson: Man, I love Germany, as do the rest of the guys in the band. The fans here are fantastic. Thank you all for your support and expect to see a lot more shows and music from Delta Moon. We will keep coming back as long as you ask us!