Eric Johnson Says He ‘Just Killed’ Himself Making Breakthrough LP
As Eric Johnson’s 1990 breakthrough album Ah Via Musicom edges toward its 30th anniversary, the Austin guitarist is ready to pull back the curtain a bit in regards to the history of the LP.
“I know it’s probably people’s favorite record I ever did, [but] that record is so beat to death,” he laughs during an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock. “I mean, I killed myself making that record, getting every single little note. I punched in and punched in to get every little riff perfectly played and in tune and perfectly executed. Not that there’s not other people that could do it better, but I mean, to my ability, I just killed myself making that record. It’s weird, because in some ways, it doesn’t really sound like it, but it’s one of the most punched-in records I ever made.”
“Cliffs of Dover,” the mountain-scaling pile of riffs that has become Johnson’s calling card, is one song that had quite an evolution in the studio before finding its way to the version that became a radio hit that reached the Top 5 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart.
“If you listen to the start of the lead at the end, it’s a [Fender] Stratocaster,” he explains. “Then about 12 seconds into the lead, it turns into a [Gibson] 335. Because I cut live, the first part of the lead and then the last part of the lead, I didn’t like it. So I replayed the last part and I used a different guitar -- a totally different guitar in a different studio -- and if you listen to it, you can hear a little bit of difference, but it almost sounds like I just hit a gain switch.”
Listen to Eric Johnson's 'Cliffs of Dover'
Similarly, album co-producer Richard Mullen stepped in on “Forty Mile Town,” helping to bring things home after Johnson got sick as they were in the closing moments of work on the Ah Via Musicom album.
“It’s one of the last vocals that I did. The vocal you hear on that song is only part of me singing on that take,” he says. “I got so sick at the end, just as we were finishing up the record. I couldn’t even go into the studio. I have to thank Richard, who was engineer and co-producer with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he was engineer and co-producer with me. I’d say that at least half of that vocal, he pulled off a demo of 'Forty Mile Town' and flew the vocal into the master, because I couldn’t even go into the studio. I was just completely trashed. So I owe it to him, he saved that song.”
Ah Via Musicom was the first album the pair worked on together. Mullen soon became an important presence in Johnson’s world. “He had a beautiful ear, he played steel guitar and guitar, he sang like Christopher Cross. He was a great musician,” Johnson remembers. “He started working with Stevie Ray on the first two records. When you hear the first record, that’s Richard recording the whole thing, setting Stevie’s tone through the amps -- he basically set everything up perfect and then Stevie came in and played the record. I think that’s fine that people know that, I mean, obviously, it’s Stevie’s incredible playing, singing and writing that made it, but Richard was very instrumental in setting up his career and getting his tone in the studio and the whole nine yards. He’s a very discerning musician, engineer and producer. He was just great at getting great guitar tones.”
The success of Ah Via Musicom found Johnson on the road touring extensively, including a span of shows with Rush, who were touring in support of the Roll the Bones album at that time.
“Those guys were really nice. We had just gotten finished doing six weeks in Europe and we were all coming home from Europe,” he says. “As we landed back in the States, we were like, Oh great, we get to go home! Then we got a call, ‘Well, do you want to open for Rush for six weeks?’ We said, ‘When does that tour start?’ They said, ‘Tomorrow.’ [Laughs] So we never got to go home. We were out for like three more months nonstop. But we did it anyhow and it was a nice opportunity. They had big crowds every night, so it was a very nice opportunity and it was good getting to know those guys.”
Johnson admits there wasn’t too much hero worship going on at the time-- mainly because he wasn't all that familiar with the power trio's music. “I didn’t really listen to their stuff -- not that they weren’t really good. It’s like with the Who -- I never listened to the Who,” he says. “As far as rock stuff, I was really into [Jimi] Hendrix, [Jeff] Beck, [Eric] Clapton and Free with Paul Rodgers -- that kind of stuff. Mike Bloomfield and Electric Flag and then all of the Motown stuff. It’s weird. I think about that sometimes, like Pink Floyd, that was a parallel track -- I don’t even know any of their songs. I kind of know ‘Comfortably Numb.’ And all of these groups are incredible, like Queen. They’re all incredible, but it was all kind of parallel tracks to me, I never really listened to a lot of that stuff, but they’re great -- all of them are great.”
Johnson is now back on the road, performing Ah Via Musicom in its entirety for the first time ever. He’s reunited with longtime touring mates -- drummer Tommy Taylor and bassist Kyle Brock -- who were also on the road with him for the original tour for the album in the '90s. “Tommy’s just a real world-class drummer. He gets a great drum sound on his drums and he knows how to hit the drums,” Johnson says. “He has a balance to all of his drums. He’s got great parts,” adding that “Kyle is just a real magical player. Very original player. He’s got a great approach to music.”
At the same time he’s celebrating Ah Via Musicom's legacy, Johnson has released a new album, Collage, which reflects the more relaxed approach he takes toward recording music these days.
Listen to Eric Johnson's 'Stratagem'
“I’m leaving stuff that maybe I wouldn’t have left before,” he says. “Little glitches or little things. I’m trying to look past that. So when I do that, it makes it more fun for me. Because then I’m just playing music and I’m not judging so harshly. At the same time, I want to try to do the best I can, but I think all of the time that it’s supposed to be for fun and the performance, because that translates to the listener.”
He found, in the studio, when he pulled back his obsessing over every inch of a song, it made a real difference. “It’s easier [now], in so much that I’m trying to have more fun and be a little more relaxed about not being so neurotic about if it’s not perfect," he says. "I’ve kind of learned that the hard way, by making a number of records that were kind of maybe me being too neurotic about the imperfections. In retrospect, when I listen to them, it’s not that the music is bad, but i hear that intention in the music sometimes. It’s like, whatever our intent is, it has a tendency to seep into what we do. So at some point, I said, 'I want to make better music, what do I need to do?' And it wasn’t, ‘Oh, play louder, play faster or play more.’ It was play with more depth and play with more human emotion. To do that, I had to take a step back and go, ‘Well, that means I have to take more of the heart instead of the head.’”
Now a number of decades removed from the start of his career, Johnson can look back on the time he spent working to break out of Texas and make a name for himself. There are conflicting stories about what lit the spark that helped him land his first major-label record deal. Some say that it was a helping hand from Christopher Cross -- which makes sense, considering that Johnson had logged time as a member of Cross’ band early in his career. But it also could have been a little bit of divine purple intervention from Prince, who was reportedly a fan.
“The truth is that Christopher Cross introduced me to Warner Bros. The only other truth to that is that, allegedly, Prince talked to people at Warner Bros.,” he admits. “Chris introduced me to Warner Bros., and I spent a couple of years just being groomed by them, just doing demos, meeting producers and living in L.A., but I hadn’t made a record yet. I never met Prince, but supposedly he called there and said, ‘Hey, this guy has got some talent -- why don’t you sign him?’ Because it went from two years of doing demos to overnight they called and said, ‘Well, we’ve decided to sign you.’ I don’t know -- I never substantiated that with Prince, so I don’t know if that’s true or not. I never met him, but what a genius.”
Top 100 Classic Rock Artists