Mark Johnson Interview – Blues & Co (France)

Delta Moon, a group that has been plying its trade eleven years throughout the States and Europe, except of course in France … Weird huh? … Who knows why we always have to catch up? Delta Moon has distilled profound blues from the South, flowering from the Mississippi mud but also the woods of the Appalachian mountains, music they call “blues infused American roots.” A haunting music, rich in its simplicity, regal with slide guitar punctuated by a powerful and rhythmic throbbing. Winner of the IBC in Memphis in 2003, they now have made nine fabulous albums and thousands of concerts, each hotter than the last …

So before inviting them to come to Terri’Thouars Blues Festival 2014, I wanted to know a little more and thus maybe interest fans in the program ….

B&Co: Delta Moon was born when you entered a music store near Atlanta … Eleven years later, how did this happen to you and why were you musically in tune since then?

Mark: I met Tom at Midtown Music, a great vintage instrument guitar store in Atlanta that is now closed. He had an old Dobro to sell and I thought I might want to buy it before he sold it to the store. I didn’t buy the Dobro. It was a square neck, meant to be played lap-style, and I was a bottleneck player. But we talked about old resonator guitars for a while and exchanged phone numbers. We soon started getting together to play music, mostly old blues and traditionals, Blind Willie Johnson and Fred McDowell stuff. Then we wrote our first song together, “Poplar Grove”, which I was pretty thrilled about because Tom is a respected writer. We like the same kind of music and it has just grown from there.

B&Co: Between the album “Delta Moon” in 2002 and the last album “Black Cat Oil”, in your opinion what was the most striking evolution in the sound of Delta Moon, in its musical approach?

Mark: Well, we have always had the vision of two guitars working together really well in the spirit of Jimmie Reed/Eddie Taylor, Peter Green/Danny Kirwan and Keith Richards/Ron Wood. Our approach is more focused on slide guitar, lap steel against bottleneck, which is a little unusual. I would say that we have just refined that vision along the way by simplifying parts and using more space in our music. We have also concentrated more on deepening the groove, getting more relaxed and behind the beat.

B&Co: Did these evolutions come about naturally or were they linked to particular events?

Mark: Just a natural progression, trying to make each CD more musical than the last.

B&Co: Besides, how would you define your own musical style ? Where would you situate yourself exactly in the Blues universe?

Mark: My personal playing style is based on fingerpicking and incorporating both bottleneck and fretted notes, mostly in open tunings. That’s not a unique approach but I have found my own distinct voice within those parameters. Early on, I learned from as many players as I could, the old blues and gospel masters like Blind Willie Johnson, Pop Staples, Earl Hooker, Tampa Red as well as contemporary guys. Then I kind of just played what I wanted to hear. Writing also really helped me find my own voice. In the Blues Universe? I am just another dedicated guitar player making my own journey along the highway of American roots and blues.

B&Co: For a while you were concentrated on a formula in a quartet where the rhythm is more accentuated, can you tell us about the musicians who composed it?

Mark: Our drummer, Darren Stanley and our bass player, Franher Joseph are both really great players. We are really blessed. These guys have played together since marching band in college in Athens, Georgia, and are really tight. We put these old blues and slide phrases over really funky, groovy rhythms. In the US, getting folks up dancing at the show leads to a big party. We aim for that. Juke joint music.

B&Co: Tom Gray and yourself are Delta Moon, but during my research I found a lot of information about Tom and very little about you …. Therefore, I would like to know more about Mark Johnson? Who are you, where do you come from? What is your musical background? What kind of music do you listen to and which one in particular?

Mark: I grew up in a lower middle class family, actually in a trailer park near Akron, Ohio, with three brothers.  My mom and dad were great, we always had music playing at home and they were very supportive of us playing music.  My uncle owned a record store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and my dad would come home after working construction all week with boxes of demo records and we would just dive in, discovering all kinds of stuff. I have played guitar since around age 10 and have been in lots of local bands in Ohio and then in Atlanta. I listen to all kinds of music, mostly roots music: blues, gospel, rock and roll, country, reggae. But also world music, especially West African stuff.

B&Co: Did the Blues influence you immediately, or like for many others, did you start with Rock beforehand? What did you find in this music which convinced you that this was the music you preferred above all?

Mark: I listened to Rock and Roll first, but favored the bluesy stuff like the Stones.  However, living in Ohio, we had all these great FM stations coming out of Cleveland, Akron and Detroit, so I heard all the Stax, Motown, R&B stuff  and early funk as well. I was born in 1961, so it was a great musical time in a great area. Cleveland was the Rock and Roll capital of the US. I didn’t dig into the old blues until college when I started to really study bottleneck guitar.

B&Co: What do you think of the Blues situation at the moment? Its evolution? Its public audience?

Mark: I think it’s thriving. I am amazed at how many players and fans all over the world are into RL Burnside and Hill Country Blues for instance. Lots of players and bands are doing their own interpretations of the blues, making it their own. I think it is important to be original. Look at how different the first generation blues guys were. Skip James didn’t sound anything like Mississippi John Hurt!

B&Co: I know as well that you are a very great fan of Ry Cooder, did you meet him? Did you play with him? Who are any other musicians who may have inspired you?

Mark: I briefly met him. I went to see Little Village at The Center Stage in Atlanta several years ago. The band I was playing in opened for Johnny Winter there the week before so I knew a way to sneak backstage. So, before the encore, my brother Kevin and I ducked backstage and found a room full of food and drinks. We helped ourselves to a few beers, hoping to fit in and join the party when it arrived.  However, when the show ended, Nick Lowe walked in and kindly asked us if he could have a moment alone in his dressing room!  We hurried out and I ran smack into Ry and briefly told him what a big influence he was on me.

Lowell George, Mick Taylor, Sonny Landreth, Jimmie Vaughn, RL Burnside and lately Rick Holmstrom, Marc Ribot and Daniel Lanois’ guitar playing have been very inspiring to me.

B&Co: 2002 – 2013, eleven years on the road, nine albums, a career well filled and certainly lots of memories? Can you share with us some of your memories, good and bad?

Mark: Once In Canada, I was driving the van on probably the most beautiful, scenic highway in North America called the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. We had just stopped to let a small herd of bighorn sheep cross the road, and it was starting to snow pretty heavy. Then, about 30 meters on the side of the road I see this pack of wolves! I stop the van. The leader of the pack, this big white wolf, comes down the hill and stops about 2 meters from my window. I rolled down the window and we just stared into each other’s eyes!  I don’t know what it meant, but it was really cool. The locals told us that seeing even a single wolf in the wild is quite rare.

Once in Florida, we blew a tire on the trailer, spent the night on the turnpike, got into the hotel in Fort Lauderdale at 9:00 in the morning, woke up at 3:00 in the afternoon to go to soundcheck and our van, trailer, all our gear except guitars and merchandise was stolen. That was a real bummer. But the promoter called the local blues society, rounded up some gear, bought us an incredible meal and we played the gig that night. These are the folks that keeping the blues world turning!

B&Co: During your career, you have traveled many countries, where did you feel the best and where do you think your music was most appreciated? And why, in your opinion?

Mark: I really can’t say. Everywhere we go, people love our music and we have great fans in many countries. For me, the greatest part about playing in a traveling band is developing friendships in different places.

B&Co: What would you like to say to the French people, so that they would invite you to play in France?

Mark: Well, we have played in every country in western Europe except France. I know the French have great taste so I think if we get the opportunity to perform, we will be well appreciated! The French have been long supporters of good Blues and Jazz.

B&Co: And last but not least, what are your present and upcoming projects?

Mark: We just released a live CD entitled “Life’s a Song, Live Volume 1”. We are beginning work on a new studio record and plan on recording more live shows and releasing those. We hopefully also have enough good footage from the last tour in Germany to have a live DVD.

B&Co: Thanks a lot, Mark, for taking the time to answer all my questions!

Mark: Thank you!


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