Alain Johannes is a multi-faceted artist. Giving a look on his career now, it amazes me – what a long-winded path. Starting with L.A. 80’s band – What is This? and then, going on through different phases: from cult band Eleven to Queens Of The Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures. After all, Alain Johannes has the reputation of a productive producer. Successful work with Jimmy Eat World, Arctic Monkeys and Chris Cornell, among others, has just became a proof of his ability to drive all of these different artists to their destination.
With his upcoming record Hum (out on 31st July through Ipecac Recordings) it seems that Alain followed Frosts’ well known road “less traveled by”. Much more lyrical then Alain’s previous albums it’s mostly focused on acoustic tonalities – an ideal soundtrack if you want to overthink your career and past. And it seems that going through self-reflection Alain discovered something hidden and henceforth unseen.
Dan Volohov spoke with Alain Johannes about his upcoming album Hum, his lyrics, selected releases, producers work and the processes beyond the new record.
Commenting on Hum you noticed that the record liberated you, to a certain extent. What were the factors that pushed you start writing this album?
I had quite a hard year in 2019 starting in spring. I had decided it was time for a new solo album but some health issues appeared and I had to postpone starting. I think that the past decade or so had caught up to me, a lot of loss of dear ones. I decided to do a solo acoustic tour of Europe in the fall to reconnect and energize and when I got back in November I got really sick. Almost 3 months in bed fighting flu, bronchitis, pneumonia and depression. In the end they weren’t really sure what it was and only after a month on steroids to suppress my immune system was I able to get up and all this energy had built up to overcome and to create. I started Hum and in 12 days it was done, written and recorded.
Over the years of your career, you have built a reputation as a significant collaborator and producer. That’s why Hum sounds as something completely different in comparison with your previous albums. How can you describe the process of work on “Hum” ?
I had the Portuguese guitar arpeggio which became ‘Mermaids’ Scream’ and the main acoustic guitar in ‘Hum’. I set up a few mics in the control room and started recording those in order. On day 3 I wrote ‘Hallowed Bones’, imagining it before it appeared. Each song was flowing from the previous. I wrote and arranged; lyrics and melody appeared, all as I was recording. It wasn’t dissimilar from the idea of receiving a transmission and writing it down. In bed at night I imagined the album in the future already finished and I tuned into that.
And what was the song that you started the record with ?
‘Mermaids’ Scream’ for sure. I knew it had to be first and I had just seen the movie The Lighthouse and was inspired by the visuals. I tried to mimic the pulse of a powerful ancient ocean. And a kind of mythical dreamlike atmosphere. Haunted and full of melancholy.
Music has been a consistent part of your life since you turned four. As a musician you’ve passed through various stages in your career. What do you feel each time discovering something new – a new chord, new element or an instrument you could use?
It’s been a lifelong process and my favorite moments of connection revolve around the mystery and trying to unravel it. One never does, which is beautiful, but you understand a bit more about life and communication and beauty. I listen to so much music from different ages, different cultures and when a new sonic texture grabs me, I must find that instrument, acquire it and learn how to express through it. That’s probably why I have several hundred instruments ( laughs ).
Some of your previous albums were recorded with cigar box-guitar. With Hum you used quite a lot of unusual elements – the world-music-like introduction of ‘Mermaid’s Scream’ or the rhythm group on ‘If Morning Comes’. There are lots of elements of Asian music. What helps you to find the voice of the things you hear in your head, and what drove you towards these tendencies with Hum?
I think the textures came out of the songs and the lyrics and the world they inhabit. I used mostly acoustic sounds. Percussion which I’ve collected in my travels for its unique character. Sarangi I’ve recently started discovering that’s a new one for me. Concert Harmonium appears a few times. Also, wooden drone flute and of course my trusty fretless electric played with Ebow as well as my OG Jazzmaster. In general I intuited the more airy, woody and also gritty atmospheric textures complemented the arc of the album.
When you work on something as producer, isn’t it hard for you to change between roles? To step aside from being a musician and look at the things from a different perspective – listen as a listener, and define what the song really needs?
I think for me I’m always ultimately the listener. All the choices conscious and unconscious are made towards the moment I can enjoy the music as a listener. I’m not fussy about perfection at all. The second it comes alive as a song that communicates it’s done. All the roles, the producer, the musician, the composer are all fluid and present and in the service of the piece of music so that I, the listener, can enjoy listening to it.
You started getting into production side of things as a member of Eleven. And after a while – as full-time producer – what drove you from being just musician-collaborator or do you see these things kind of tied together?
In the beginning Natasha [Shneider] and I always produced together, unless I went off on a recording engineer gig. After she passed, I started to do more producing sometimes also playing and arranging on those projects. She taught me so much about how to reach in and make the song the best it can be. When I’m producing and recording each project is different. Sometimes it’s full on and sometimes I simply create a conducive atmosphere for creativity and fun to take place. I think decades of being produced and engineered help me to have resonance and empathy and I know never to get in the way and try my best to be assistive to the process.
Talking about the process of work on Eleven records, you noticed that within your debut album, you were quite happy to capture live-manner of presentation. With each record, what gives you an understanding of how it should sound like and what components you should add to it?
I think that as I get older I’m more in tune with what a song wants to be and how to help it manifest. I also prefer the energy closest to creation so I try to grab that as much as possible. I’ve improvised musical bits on my Instagram almost daily for years and I keep track of those seedlings as a staring point. Even a few bars, a few notes can point to a finished piece of music. Its inner logic is there to lean on.
But as producer, do you tend to capture these natural organics of the band, or are there also some tips in your producers’ methodology?
Well each artist and project has its own approach and I observe and resonate until it appears. I don’t have a bag of tricks or something I try to fit the artists into each time. In the end everyone is in it together to serve the music. It works best this way almost everytime.
While working with such artists as Queens Of The Stone Age or PJ Harvey you were pretty much focused on rock-oriented records. But it always seemed to me that it’s much harder to capture energies working on something like you did with Hum – do your producers’ goals depend of a style of music or all the factors are defined by circumstances ?
Not so much the style more like you said the circumstances. Obviously, the tonal palette is sometimes tied to a genre maybe it defines it. But I love to express “heaviness” with instruments not usually associated with rock and vice versa.
A few years before, you noticed that you should find what the rest of your life is. Listening to the lyrics, I can’t help but notice that you’re using the images of path, road, doors, ways quite a lot. What did you find at the end of this journey which Hum became for you?
My hope is that I’ve gotten to a place where I can move forward and the past is no longer weighing but lifting and helping me forward. The blessing of having lived what I’ve lived giving me strength to carry the torch and preserve the legacy of what Natasha and I started.
You’re one of the artists that usually focus on visual side of things while working. Are the visual images still important for you ?
Absolutely. The aural and visual are kind of fused in my mind’s eye. When I listen the music inhabits equally in both. Textures, height, depth…in the fog, on the ground, behind me (laughs ). Yeah, it’s dual!
In your own words, at the beginning of What Is This?, Hillel [Slovak] and Jack [Irons] drove you in a direction you didn’t expect – in what way did your approach change at that point ?
We lifted each other. We were young and, in our union and friendship discovered things together. I had quite a few years head start playing my instrument but the feeling of family, of connection, of a common goal, is something that became vital to me. Even when I’m alone in a room making a solo album, they’re all with me.
While passing through different changes and obvious artistic evolution, isn’t it hard for you to maintain your artistic voice or with each record is there also a process of re-discovering yourself following your work?
I just document where I’m at that moment. I don’t see myself from the outside as a static thing that is categorized. It’s funny when I listen to my music it’s like its someone else. Maybe because I’ve evolved into just instinctively, in the moment following the muse where it may go. I’m not good with over-thinking or planning. It doesn’t work. I just live and wait for the moment when it’s time.
Interview by Dan Volohov
Photography by Tom Bronowski
Hum will be released on 31st July through Ipecac Recordings