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Published: 2010/06/02
by Mike Greenhaus

To the Sea with Jack Johnson

After touring the world and headlining numerous festivals in 2008, Jack Johnson spent most of 2009 hibernating at home in Hawaii with his family and mourning the death of his father. To the surprise of many, including his inner circle of producers and musicians, Johnson also entered to studio to start work on his latest studio album, 2010’s To the Sea. A sharp departure from his usual acoustic-based surf music, To the Sea finds Johnson picking up the electric guitar on a few songs and even channeling his inner Spinal Tap on one track. Earlier this spring Johnson and keyboardist Zach Gill (of ALO fame) spent time with Relix and Jambands.com while in New York for a quick promotional blitz in advance of To the Sea’s release. While working out the live versions of a few of the album’s songs for the first time at Penny Lane studio, the longtime friends discussed their initial meeting in college, how Johnson’s band developed and the dangers of getting too introspective in the studio.

To the Sea is your first album to incorporate heavy doses of electric guitar. What spurred this stylistic change?

Jack: I started playing electric on a few songs on our last tour [2008’s Sleep Through the Static Tour] so I guess that seeped into my songwriting for this album. That was the first time I played electric guitar with this band.

Zach: You used to play electric when we were in college though and always used to listen to music that used heavy electric guitars—like Fugazi.

Jack: That’s true. I’ve always listened to that stuff like Fugazi or even like White Stripes and Radiohead. What we do is pretty light compared to all that, but there’s a couple solos on here. For the song “To the Sea” I got this Fender app that actually has 11 on it like in Spinal Tap. I don’t know if they make more than one of these or if I got some little custom one, but I got this one little Fender app that you can turn up to 11.

Are you writing on acoustic or electric at this point?

Jack: A little of each. Actually, three of these songs began with a drum beat, and then I kind of started making the music up on top of the beat, which is totally backwards compared to what I usually do. Usually, I have the chords and then going from there. So yeah, it’s kind of weird I’ve never even heard them live until today really—of course when I was writing lyrics from the house but I always just pictured the drums. And so I was basically strumming the chords good enough that I could write words but always picturing the drums under it.

You wrote To the Sea during a rare break from touring when you spent a full year at home with your family. Do you feel like this seclusion made your songs more or less introspective?

Jack: Zach and I always joke: “Careful, careful don’t get too introspective” ‘cause I always think there is this danger as soon as you figure yourself out. There is a danger of being that caricature of yourself or as soon as you start believing what other people are saying about you—whether it is good or bad.

I’m not just trying dodge your question—it is just that I just don’t take too much time trying to figure out what’s going on with the record—whether it is outward or inward and all that kind of stuff. It’s hard because nobody really heard the record yet so I haven’t even thought about it much until a friend of mine wrote the bio the other day and he kind of pointed that out as well. So I guess really there is this fine line where you go so far away that it becomes within.

I think about the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through was losing my dad [recently] and when that was going on I was definitely thinking, “OK, I’m not going to do an album for a while” and then I ended up kind of just having a lot of time to be alone like it was real therapeutic for me to go up to my studio and mess around with the four track not thinking I was going to be doing anything with it just to jam out and have fun, be alone. And the next thing I knew I had enough songs and my wife and I started talked about the idea of taking all the kids on the road again, it would be kind of fun. It’s like our excuse, it’s pretty hard planning all those trips, we wouldn’t really do it, we just end up sitting at home, you can’t really justify taking the kids out of school too much. We just decided it would be fun to get on the road again with the family and just decided to put the songs on the album.

How has having a family changed your life on the road?

Jack: It’s totally different. This amazing thing happened where Michael Pollack started bringing our own board with us. Michael Pollack is our sound guy, and I remember we didn’t have to soundcheck anymore. Soundchecking at one time was really great because it’s a time to jam out and figure things out, and it still is a lot of fun to do, but it takes up so much time. Now we have kids on the road Zach has his daughter on the road as well. When we have a day off or an afternoon off, without soundcheck we really have the day off—we don’t show up around dinner time now. Besides just having kids, it’s nice for us to actually see Paris and then play it. I feel like I play such a better show if I actually know where I am, not just geographically, but if I know what the city’s like.

Zach: The vibe inspires you, you know?

You’re not just seeing the backstage catering area—you can sense the vibe of this foreign city.

Jack: Or even on the East Coast—if I go out for a surf, especially in the old days when we were playing the clubs, it was cool because I would go surf at the local beach. I would either borrow a board, or sometimes I would have a board with me. I would surf all day, and then I would come up and play, and when I was at the club there would be a couple hundred people and I would look out and see thirty or forty people who were at the beach that day—I would recognize them because we had a conversation or something. It’s nice to know who you’re playing to. I remember there was this one town, I think it was Charleston, South Carolina, and we were playing this one club a lot. I really got to know the people in that town during the day and played for them at night.

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