Jack Johnson


interview: jack johnson

by zachary klein

If you could interview your favorite musician, which question would you ask first?

Jack Johnson: I would interview Taj Mahal, but I have to think a little about what I would ask.

You are one of the world's top surfers, you are an actor, photographer, producer, and a score composer. Now your album "Brushfire Fairytales" is selling very successfully. What is next? What do you want to do when you grow up?

I do not feel grown up, but I am doing what I want to do when I grow up.

Is there anything in life that is impossible to you?

Schedules are impossible to me. I am excited to be on tour, but there are instances when I wish that I wasn't managed. The shows are fun, but six hour drives burn me out.

Jack, do you know how it is to be a man with you around? To every girl, no matter how close of a relationship I have, I will always be the second man in her life; Maybe third, depending how much she loves her father.

It is like that for me too. My wife hears my music all of the time. She gets bored with it. But, she is always star struck by famous people she meets.

If you were to encounter a person who had never heard your music before, how would you describe it?

It is folk music. I am a storyteller. What I like to do with music is make people feel better. Make people realize that all humans have the same problems, more or less. A lot of people deal with the same thing. A lot of times people think problems are specific to them and they if they hear a song about a problem common to them, they feel good because they know that someone else has gone through it.

Are your stories true?

Some are fictional. Some are just based on couples that I see. A conversation at a restaurant. I just make a story about the little bit that I heard. I see them interacting and I dream up a little story about them. A lot of times, I will change he to a she, to distance it from myself. Ben Harper once said, "As soon as you decide to sing a song, it is about you whether you liked it or not." So there is always a part of me in the songs I sing. Most of the songs, where I say he or "she you could easily slide "me" into it. It is easier to sing about other people than yourself.

What are some of the consistent themes intertwined with your lyrics?

On the first album, the songs were all about the idea of how adult go to sleep watching the news. News being an adult version of lullabies. Kids are read bedtime stories, so they could sleep with good thoughts in their heads. When you are an adult, you watch news and hear about people dying.

You must have an obsession with water since you seem to stay
near it. From growing up in Hawaii to moving to California. Do you plan on retiring to a remote island someday?

I am going back to Hawaii.

Your voice makes girls swoon. However, I heard that at first you were not confident enough to sing. Can you confirm or deny?

Yes, especially when I played in a high school punk band.

What was your band's name?

Liver Chicken. A punk cover band. I wrote most of the songs, but another guy in the band sang them. I just played guitar. I never took singing lessons. I guess, I feel comfortable with it now, but I do not feel like a singer. I never want to sing without a guitar in my hand. I consider myself more of a songwriter, rather than a singer. I could never be in a wedding band and just sing Marvin Gaye songs.

Do you cook? Is there any essential Jack Johnson dish?

My wife calls me a garbage disposal because I eat anything. However, I have an avocado tree in my backyard. So I eat them every day. I make a mean sandwich with them: Toasted sourdough bread, avocados, humus, sun-dried tomatoes, and cheese.

I first heard about you in Surf Magazine. I know you are a pro. Could you please teach me some fresh boarder lingo? I know "Rad." But, even that is too extreme for my hometown in Indiana. Fill me in!

Stoked? Sick? Which both mean good things. The language first came from boarding and hip-hop. There was an era where this language was popular, but now surfers do not really want to sound like surfers anymore. No one wants so to be stereotypical.

How many steps would it take you to teach me to surf? Right here, on the couch.

I could teach you to get up on your first time, but on the couch?

Yes, the couch. Just show me the footwork.

I am not standing on the couch.


Surfin' USA

Howard Stein

Jack Johnson is a modern-day renaissance man of sorts. Although he is probably best known for his music (bluesy, acoustic rock that's been compared to that of Dave Matthews, John Mayer, and his friends Ben Harper and G. Love), this Hawaiian-born troubadour was a champion surfer and established filmmaker long before the 2001 release of his acclaimed debut album, Brushfire Fairytales (issued by Harper's label, Enjoy Records). It was Johnson's award-winning surf documentaries, Thicker Than Water and The September Sessions, that combined his three loves (surf, cinema, and song) and drew attention to his musical talents, creating demand for his self-penned movie scores and leading to a burgeoning career as a singer-songwriter.

LAUNCH's Howard Stein recently met up with Johnson at the San Diego Street Scene, where Johnson played to an extremely enthusiastic crowd--but not before taking some time off to surf along San Diego's sunny shores. Because, as the following interview makes clear, Johnson may have a long musical career of him, but surfing will always be his first love.

LAUNCH: Your music has been described in many different ways. How would you describe it?

JACK: To me, my music just seems like folk music, because I write it all on acoustic guitar. Most of the times when I hear it, it's on acoustic guitar, and then I get together with the band and we just turn it to something else; by that time I'm so used to the songs, they sound just like they originally did to me, with just one acoustic guitar. So I always think of it as folk. But I know that Merlo, the bass player, is really into hip-hop and reggae and he brings that to it, and then Adam the drummer is really into Cuban music and all different kinds of Latin jams and he brings that to it, so it does get into a lot of different styles once we come together as a band. But I guess it's just kind of funky folk--that's what I think of it as.

LAUNCH: Music is obviously one of your passions, but so is surfing. Can you talk a little about how you got into that, and how the two are connected for you?

JACK: I grew up in Hawaii, so it's like when you get your first bike: You get your first surfboard in Hawaii when you're about 5 years old, and everybody starts surfing. When I was about 17 years old, just like all my friends I did a light professional career--just got a sponsor who sent us on surfing trips. That's just something I did when I was 16 to 18, and then I went off to school and started studying film, and then after school I started making surf films just because I knew so many of the guys. And that kind of led into doing the music for the films, and then just music. People started telling me that they really liked the soundtracks of the films and wondered if we were going to put them out, so I just started kind of recording stuff with my four-track and passing it around to friends. Next thing I knew, there were people over in Florida and Texas with my bootlegs--it was crazy! So we just decided to put something out on an independent label.

LAUNCH: So is surfing still a priority for you?

JACK: Yeah, surfing is still a priority. Yeah and no, I should say, because sometimes I've got to go on a trip for months and I'm nowhere near surf. But whenever I'm home it's the main thing--just to make sure to get in the water every day.

LAUNCH: When you're playing music, are you thinking about surfing, or vice versa?

JACK: When I'm playing music I'm usually not thinking of surfing, just because I'm usually thinking about the chords and the lyrics, and sometimes that messes me up 'cause you'll start thinking, "Wait, how am I doing this?" You're doing a hard part on the guitar and that's right when you mess up, 'cause you're thinking about it too much. Or I'll think about how I remember all of these lyrics, 'cause I never write any of them down. So that usually fills my head when I'm playing music. But when I'm surfing, I'm usually thinking about music--whether it's an idea for a new song, or just singing a song in my head that's from an old surf movie. 'Cause when we were kids we watched movies all day, and right before we'd go surfing we'd watch our favorite surfers out of a certain section of a movie we really liked, and that song would be stuck in our head for that day or that week. And I still do that. I mean, a certain song will be in my head, and it will just kind of get me in a certain mood to go surfing.

LAUNCH: Why didn't you decide to go the pro-surfing route?

JACK: I was just like any other kid from Hawaii at that age. I mean, a good percentage of kids turn pro when they're 17 in Hawaii, so I was nothing special--it was just something I was fortunate enough to get to experience, and I was planning on going to school the whole time, so it just worked out that way. A lot of my friends pursued surfing and a lot of people did surfing from the age of 16 to 20, and then they moved on to other stuff too. It kind of was like that for me.

LAUNCH: So you went to UC Santa Barbara--is it true you were a math major before you started studying film?

JACK: For a minute! I was a math major for a minute!

LAUNCH: Do you find that filmmaking allows you to combine all your passions?

JACK: Yeah, I think they all sort of combine in different ways. I kind of switch frames of mind: I play a guitar on surf trips, and going to a new place a lot of times gives me ideas for new songs. I sort of switch off. There's so much equipment and all the maintenance involved with the cameras--I'm not very good at it, actually. That's kind of one of my main battles when shooting films, keeping everything clean and keeping all my stuff in order; when I go on a trip, I really have to focus to do it right. But then I come home from trips with certain ideas for songs, and on the surf trips I do get to surf a lot as well, so they're all interrelated like that.

LAUNCH: Do you love filmmaking as much as you love surfing and music?

JACK: I don't know if I love filming. It's great to have a project to be working and all that, but sometimes filming is a little tedious, as any surfer can imagine; when the waves are perfect, it's hard not to surf instead of film, and what I'll usually do is surf half the day and film half the day. But even then, it's hard to film when your friends are out there surfing perfect waves. So the actual act of filming isn't that great, but it's getting that film back and working on a project to put it together afterwards that I like a lot. The filming, out of everything I do, is the most work--like handling the camera and stuff.

LAUNCH: How did you come to take up filmmaking?

JACK: I had lived my whole life in Hawaii, and then coming over to California [to go to college], I remember during the first quarter I was sure I'd go home. I was like, "I'm going to go back home and surf, this is getting old." But I met my wife the first week of school, so then of course I came back because she was over here [in California], and then I ended up liking it. And I got into film then, and that kept me over here. I worked really hard making films. It was a lot of late nights staying up, working for a whole quarter on these black-and-white independent films for friends, trading off: I'd be in these dumb films for friends acting, and they'd act for me, because nobody else would want to act in your films when you don't know the equipment or anything, so it's just like you're making really bad films for years with a bunch of friends. Which was fun too. And I learned how to use the equipment, which was a lot of work, but still fun.

LAUNCH: How did you end up collaborating with G. Love on his song "Rodeo Clowns"? That's probably how a lot of people first heard of your music. It was sort of your introduction to the music world.

JACK: When I was making surf films, I really liked the band G. Love & Special Sauce a lot; some friends and I were making a film, and I used a bunch of their music. And he was out here making his new album and was excited to see us, because he really liked the film we had put his music in. And we really wanted to meet him because of his music. We got to go surfing, and he ended up coming in and I showed him some of my music and he showed me some of his new songs, and he just invited me into the studio. We went in to goof around for a day, and the next week it was on the record [Philadelphonic], and then it was a single. So yeah, that helped out a little. But it was also just a combination of things: Shelby, a friend of mine, had gotten this bootleg of me and passed it off to J.P. Plunier, who's Ben Harper's producer, and Ben ended up talking to me about producing and signing me to this label that he'd just started, Enjoy Records. And so this all happened about the same time. But that thing about G. Love--yeah, it really helped, and it was just exciting to meet somebody whose music I dug so much.

LAUNCH: I imagine that record labels bigger than Enjoy must be pursuing you by now. Do you feel conflicted about staying loyal to your label?

JACK: Not really. Those guys are just friends to begin with. They started this label right when I wanted to put something out. They were at a point where they wanted to start this label and weren't really sure that they should, and then it worked out that we did this together. They're both good friends, and they've worked with other artists and they know how it goes, but we'll just see how it goes later on. But they'd be all for whatever we do.

LAUNCH: I know that you grew up surfing, but when you were a kid, did you ever dream about being in a rock band? Is there a certain band you fantasized about fronting?

JACK: I don't think I really every thought about it much, but I was really into Jimi Hendrix for a long time. Then I got into punk for a while, like Fugazi, Minor Threat, Bad Religion. But I didn't really think about it much, because I didn't get to see many live shows out where I lived--it was just mostly acoustic music at parties. There weren't a lot of rock bands where I lived, and there definitely weren't a lot of clubs out on the island, so you didn't get to see a lot of shows. I think a lot of kids get to grow up seeing fancy shows and dreaming things up, but I didn't get to see that until maybe at the end of high school, when we'd go out of town and see a band, maybe Fugazi. Not a lot of bands come to Hawaii, and Fugazi would come over every year, so they were one of my biggest bands in high school.

LAUNCH: Did any of these bands inspire you to pick up the guitar?

JACK: I started to pick up the guitar just to be able to play at barbeques and do Jimmy Buffett songs or Van Morrison or Cat Stevens--things everyone could sing along to. Just learning the chords on acoustic guitar, that's all I had growing up. My Mom and Dad eventually bought me an electric guitar and distortion pedal and everything, and I started making a lot of noise. Then we got a punk band called Limber Chicken together in high school; it was fun just getting to make a bunch of noise in the garage. But I guess at first it was Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan and a lot of the folk singers for me, when I was 14, before I got into punk; I didn't get into punk until a few years later. So at first it was all acoustic music and learning chords, nothing flashy. I was more of a singer-songwriter from an early age. Friends taught me--I never took any lessons or anything.

LAUNCH: Is there anything in your record collection that would surprise people?

JACK: Yeah, you know who's really underrated? Harry Belafonte. You know, a lot of people don't know that he has so many good records, and somehow he's the guy that when you go to the thrift store you can find about 10 records by him, and I'm always listening to him.

LAUNCH: You're very lucky to be able to pursue all your creative outlets successfully. Many people never get such chances.

JACK: Yeah, I think I've been really lucky, to be honest. I always feel really fortunate to get to play music. It's something I've never wanted to force on anybody, so it's really exciting for me that people have been so behind everything I've been doing. Because if people weren't coming out to the shows, I wouldn't try to play music live. So I really feel lucky to do that.

LAUNCH: You do seem to have a charmed life. Which reminds me: Tell me about your album title, Brushfire Fairytales. What's the meaning behind that?

JACK: Sometimes I don't like to explain things because it's like a joke--sometimes you tell somebody a joke and they say they don't get it. Not that you should get the title. I was watching the news one night, about to go to bed, and I was thinking about how it's funny that when you're a kid you get read a nice story and go to bed with nice thoughts in your head, but when you're an adult you watch the news and then go to bed with all those horrible things. And there were a lot of brushfires on the news that night, and so that was kind of the idea for that song, one of the songs on the album. And it kind of went well--"fairytales for adults," that group of songs--and so that's kind of how the title came about.

LAUNCH: So, which has the best groupies--surfing, music, or film?

JACK: Groupies? I'm married, I don't know about that! Everything's fun. It's great going down to Minnesota or the South and finding people are into [my music]; it's just amazing to me. Everywhere I go, everyone is cool and amazing--and I haven't gone everywhere yet! There are places where you hear the crowds aren't good there, but even in L.A., which gets a bad rap for really bad crowds, at the last show we played everybody was so cool.

LAUNCH: If you had to choose between surfing, filming, or music, which would it be?

JACK: It would definitely be surfing. Surfing at this point in my life is something that brings balance and good feelings--if I go away from the water for too long, I just get cranky and it throws me off. It's just like an addiction, like anything else somebody's done every day since a little kid. I just have to go surfing. I can go for a week without a guitar...I mean, I could go forever if I had to. You can go forever without anything. It's exciting to get to play guitar after a month, but it's not even funny if I don't get to surf for a month; it's just bad news. I think anybody who surfs would know what I mean--it's the most amazing thing to be able to do. It's the only thing I can do in life that can make me feel that I'm not a human at times, you know? Just the act of surfing, just watching friends when you're out with them surfing, just watching the things that we can do, it's surprising that we can actually do it. Nothing else can really do that. I play music, and it's a lot of fun, it's expressing ideas and things, but it doesn't make me feel inhuman or anything.

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