Gavin Brown Takes On Alain Johannes
Alain Johannes has had a storied musical career both in bands and as a producer. As a musician, his band Eleven (which also counted his wife Natasha Schneider and drummer Jack Irons as members) released a series of brilliant albums, and he has also worked with the likes of Chris Cornell, Queens Of The Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures amongst others since then, while as a producer he has worked with everyone from Arctic Monkeys and No Doubt to Unkle and Mark Lanegan.
Alain has also just released his new solo album Hum and we caught up with him to hear all about it and it’s creation as well as his extensive career as musician and producer including his history with Eleven, touring and working with PJ Harvey, Chris Cornell, Mark Lanegan and Josh Homme and what he has been up to during this lockdown period.
Your new album Hum is out now. How did the creation and recording process of the album go?
The process was very fast and it included the creation of the songs. I had been ill for a couple months and the need to make an album got so strong like a burning desire really that once I was well enough to go into my studio the whole thing took 12 days. I only had a couple musical ideas but I knew those would be songs 1 and 2, so once I started it really flowed. Melodies, lyrics and parts as well as the choices of texture and dramatic arc were all quite spontaneous and self-guiding once I was tuned into that state. I kind of imagined the album as finished and all I had to do was tune in to it playing and copy that haha. Seriously not far from what it felt like.
Was making the album a cathartic experience for you?
Very much so. I was able to communicate and meditate in musical form where my inner life has been and where I hope it will lead. Since my first solo album Spark which was my love letter and thank you to Natasha, it’s been healing and cathartic each time I make a solo album. I’m blessed for that connection to music.
You have just released the video for the album’s third single Hallowed Bones, can you tell us a bit about the video?
Well I’ve been in quarantine lockdown for months here in Santiago so I had to figure out how to collaborate remotely with a video artist. I chose Fernando Reyes because I love other videos he’s done. I filmed myself in my airbnb about 4 takes playing through the song. I sent those to him and we had a zoom meeting where I described to him some of the imagery I felt connected to the song. Fire, forests, pagan dances etc. He did a wonderful job of bringing that to life.
What is the song about?
It’s about carrying your loved ones that are no longer here inside you. Honoring them with your life, continuing a legacy, as well as forging ahead with the inspiration that they have given you.
You also did a video for the sublime song Free, can you tell us about the song and it’s video?
Thank you! It’s one of my faves. I saw desert landscapes in my mind when the song was created. The cigarbox sits alone and has a few textures that accompany it. In the song I’m a lone traveler but not lonely. Searching while walking towards a deeper meaning. Not as burdened by the past but propelled almost by the good memories.
How has the feedback for the new album been so far?
I think there’s lots of positive reactions. People seem to feel a resonance to it. Which makes me happy.
How is life on Ipecac Records and how did you come to join the labels roster?
I love Ipecac. They put out Spark in 2010. They’re about the artist and are always supportive. First experience with them was on the Desert Sessions albums. Plus I love Patton.
You have worked with Mike Patton in the past, will you ever work together in the future?
I hope to, of course. I can see that happening. Either on songs here and there or what would be great would be an entire project collaboration.
How did your solo tour of Europe at the end of last year go and did it shape the sound of the new record?
It was an amazing experience connecting to my audience in such an intimate setting. I’ve done a lot of solo acoustic shows since Spark. Often just a Cigarbox guitar and maybe a 12 string acoustic. This tour was great because it was more focused with more songs and it had a longer arc which taught me a lot about keeping it inspired and focus for over an hour. That definitely contributed to Hum since I’m really attuned to acoustic instruments and the power that they hold in helping to communicate.
Will you hit the road again in support of Hum once live music starts again, whenever that may be?
Absolutely I’ll be out there the second they say we can, haha!
How have you been keeping busy during this lockdown period and have you been working on any new music?
I’ve been working on some stuff. A remix here, a production there. I’ve been thinking about an instrumental album. Maybe guitar based. Compositional. Or improvisational haha, not sure yet it’s incubating.
What are your favourite memories of your time with Eleven?
So many but I think when Jack came back after Pearl Jam and we had 11AD our home studio so dialed in and we recorded Howling Book. We were older, wiser and also more in tune than ever really. It’s my favorite Eleven album. There are great songs in others but for me as a band it’s our best.
How was the experience of Eleven touring with the likes of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden?
We were so happy to be on those tours. And there was a deep friendship and connection making it an incredible experience on and off stage. Plus inspiring to listen to them nightly. Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were responsible for bringing Eleven’s music to a bigger and very cool audience. Our labels at the time never really promoted us and we were not released overseas so those tours were wonderful for us.
Can you tell us about your time with Chris Cornell and working on the Euphoria Morning album and touring with him?
Oh man it was magic. 7 months locked away almost in secret experimenting, taking our time, having fun, taking breaks, never hurried or pressured by the outside world. Inviting our amazing musician friends to participate. It was at 11AD and Chris was staying there too. He’d fly to Seattle for a week here and there come back and we’d continue. In the end it’s own for my greatest memories the whole process and I’m extremely proud of what we achieved. It’s a timeless album to me. The tour was amazing as well. It wasn’t a large amount of shows but they were special. And the music required tremendous focus and a high level each night. And we brought it.
Did your relationship start when Eleven toured with Soundgarden?
Yes in ’91 when we opened up a few shows for SG in California. From then on we became very close.
You have worked extensively with Queens Of The Stone Age. How did you come to work with the band and what are some of your most memorable moments with them?
Eleven ended up on Interscope in ’99 and we were label mates. Josh invited us to open up for the first leg of Rated R it was just coming out. We connected deeply and became friends. We’d hang out almost daily Natasha, Josh and I. He asked me to record some B-sides for Rated R then invited Natasha and I to be part of The Desert Sessions. Natasha and I then contributed to the next few albums. I think the 2005 tour for Lullabies To Paralyze when Natasha and I joined the band is a highlight for me. We were an incredible team. Every show was soooo intense. Amazing really. Another was recording, mixing and playing on Era Vulgaris. Intense and experimental, that experience remains the most focused and intense recording process of my life.
What were your favourite memories of all the Desert Sessions you participated in?
Oh so many. Well first of all I met Mark Lanegan and PJ Harvey at Rancho. Huge part of my life both since then, Those sessions were so full of spontaneous magic and trust in each other. No egos just working together to make something special. Josh created this amazing environment where that could happen.
How was the experience of working with PJ Harvey and playing live with her band?
I was so happy and honored when Polly asked me to be part of that. We’d been close friends for years but hadn’t played together since Desert Sessions. The Hope Six project was another incredible experience. Meeting everyone and recording the album at Somerset House with an audience watching. To be in a band and recording with John Parish, Mick Harvey, James Johnston, Terry Edwards, Jean Marc Butty, Kenrick Rowe, Mike Smith, Enrico Gabrielli, Alessandro Stefana, Head…what can I say. Incredible. Those shows were something else. Polly is a force of nature. I was in awe of her nightly.
Can you tell us a bit about your time with Them Crooked Vultures?
Well what can I say. I got to play with John Paul Jones! Zeppelin was huge for me. But also there’s Dave Grohl and Josh. And we have great chemistry. And as the tour went on we got into these amazing group jams. It was insane. And off the stage I’m jamming with JPJ, he’s got his mandolin and I have my cigarbox guitar. I’m hearing the stories…Magical.
You have also worked with the varied likes of Arctic Monkeys, Jimmy Eat World and No Doubt. How were those experiences and what did you bring to those different sounds?
All great experiences I’ve been blessed with really. Each one was its own world. One thing in common is they’re all great artists with a high level of commitment to making amazing albums and pursuing that together. I’m good at folding in and to assume the role of what’s needed. Sometimes it’s strictly sonic other times also musical suggestions.
How did you get into the production side of things in the first place?
I’ve been recording myself and interested in that side of it since my early teens. Always had a recording and some mics and effects around. I felt it was part of creating a piece of music, the documenting of it for others to hear and enjoy. When Natasha and I formed Eleven with Jack in ’90 and set off to make albums we learned a lot from those experiences and eventually it led us to wanting to be self-sufficient and ultimately we would up with 11AD our home studio which A&M records agreed to purchase for us with the recording budget which is extremely unusual and fortunate haha. Chris was instrumental in that he invited Al Cafaro the president to our home to hear our music and we got offered a deal.
We recorded Avantgardedog in our home studio and then Euphoria Mourning, From then on I’d often get asked to engineer in other studios which at first I was kinda nervous about but I found my way. I love finding the right source sounds meaning choice of amp, guitar, fx, microphone etc. and also the parts, the arrangement, all of it works together in the studio to make a great recording.
What music are you currently listening to and enjoying at the moment?
Recently lots of Arvö Part, Bach, some new jazz like Ambrose Akinmusire. Also love the new Fiona Apple. Carlos Paredes is in there too.
Who are your biggest influences as a musician?
So many but ok the shortlist is The Beatles, Paco De Lucia, Django Reinhardt, Brian May, Jeff Beck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, Ram Narayan, Kaushiki Chakrabarty, John McLaughlin, Fred Frith, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone…and of course Natasha Shneider.
What has been some of the proudest moments in your vast musical career?
Eleven, Euphoria Mourning, Spark, Desert Sessions, What Is This, Mark Lanegan Band.
A huge thank you Alain for your time with Gavin + Circuit Sweet. What an honour
Words: Gavin Brown