Dinosaur Jr. member fine tunes solo career
By Daily Bruin Staff
April 1, 1996 9:00 pm
Tuesday, April 2, 1996
Mike Johnson delves into depression in ‘Mondays’ albumBy Vanessa
Daily Bruin Contributor
Mike Johnson is an unhappy fellow. Playing nightly on his
five-week solo tour, he gets berated by interviews and radio
publicity spots during his time off. To make matters worse, he’s
currently stuck in the snow in New Jersey, trying to get down to
Washington D.C. for a show later tonight.
"I’m watching the snow and ice pile up and hoping that we can
get the hell out of town," he grumbles.
But this moody musician is used to feeling bleak. Luckily for
Johnson, he’s been able to channel his sadness into his work. As
bassist for Dinosaur Jr.; guitarist for Screaming Tree’s Mark
Lannegan’s solo albums; producer for his wife’s band, Juned; and
now creator of his second solo album, "Year of Mondays," Johnson
has more than enough to be happy about.
Still, despite this huge array of musical projects, he considers
his solo work to be his prime concern.
"I’m a songwriter first and a guitarist first, and I only do the
other stuff because I’ve been asked."
Having written songs for more than a decade, Johnson waited
until the success of his bass work in Dinosaur Jr. to release
"Mondays." His first solo effort, not much more than a demo tape,
reached Atlantic records, allowing for the creation of this
downhearted work. With more monetary backing and a longer period of
time to shape the album, "Mondays" proves a very different
experience than Johnson’s previous collaborations.
"I just hope people see it for what it is," he explains,
"screwed up songs that are good. I’m not really into analyzing what
I do, but I don’t have any problem thinking that it’s good."
This positive outlook, however, fails to pervade Johnson’s
lyrics or his music. Instead, he opts for a more string-laced sound
with depressing vocal accompaniments.
"Ever since I started listening seriously to music and since I
started playing music, I’ve liked that. Even when I liked punk rock
what I liked about it was the fact that it was kind of negative. I
like things that are about real emotions, the things that are a
little more important than sunshine."
To achieve this sound, Johnson enlisted the help of a string
quartet from the Seattle symphony. Keeping their parts simple and
straight-forward, the two forces worked together to create a good
backdrop for Johnson’s somewhat downer lyrics.
"I write about what I see or feel. You just try to paint a
picture, evoke something. I’m not very self-conscious about it so
it just kind of happens. I try not to make ’em stupid."
Other collaborators on the project include his wife, Leslie
Hardy, of Juned, and J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. Working with Mascis
in the two different musical settings provides Johnson with a more
"Dinosaur, for me, is my side project and my albums are J’s
(Mascis) side project … (With Dinosaur Jr.) I influence J and
what kind of decisions he makes, but they’re his songs. It’s the
same thing with him playing with me."
Oddly enough, Johnson almost didn’t join Dinosaur Jr., the band
that catapulted him to his solo career. Meeting J Mascis in Seattle
through mutual friends, the two eventually hit it off and Johnson
came around to combine musical forces.
"They’d put out three records," Johnson recalls. "I knew I could
play, I was just more interested in doing my own thing. But, then I
realized that nobody was gonna pay attention to me doin’ my thing,
Fortunately for Johnson, he’s finally able to do his own thing.
Centering fundamentally around "alienation and dislocation and not
being able to communicate with people," his work draws on emotions
held since the dismal years of high school.
"I couldn’t make any connections with people and I felt like a
complete fuckin’ freak. I just could not get anybody to even be in
the least bit friendly to me. I was so completely isolated that I
listened to music, and I just started to act like, you know, this
is the only thing that is helpin’ me out right now. Once I got a
guitar I was like, this is what I’m gonna do."
Moving from his small town of Grant’s Pass, Ore. to college in
Eugene, things improved for Johnson. He became part of a punk band,
Snake Pit, and majored in English. However, he dropped out before
he could graduate, as upper division seminars in his field already
had 200-person wait lists.
Still, life continues to stay on the up and up for the recently
married Johnson. In a Las Vegas ceremony at the Little Graceland
Chapel, Johnson, clad in a blue and black iridescent shark skin
suit, exchanged vows with Leslie Hardy, who wore a gray and blue
’30s dress. Packing the pews with family and friends, it might seem
surprising that such a depressed artist would go in for the boppy
works of the King.
Johnson explains, "We’re both into Elvis. Elvis is a downer.
Haven’t you ever heard ‘If I Can Dream?’ That’s one of the most
depressing songs of all time, or one of the most uplifting,
depending on how you look at it. I think it’s uplifting because
you’re just hearing another voice of despair in the wilderness.
That makes me feel better."
Perhaps married life brings Johnson some degree of joy, also.
Managing to tour as a couple as much as possible, the two find time
to be together. When at home, they enjoy shopping, eating and
playing with their dog. But Johnson affirms that his family unit
will only extend that far.
"(I have) no interest in having a child, none whatsoever. If we
had a kid, we’d adopt. It just seems unfair to bring somebody into
this fuckin’ world Â pretty awful I think."
Still, Johnson admits he’s fortunate. He plans to continue his
work in Dinosaur Jr. and his additions to Mark Lannegan’s solo
albums, but he still manages to find time for his own work.
"I’ve always got songs," he says. "The next record, when I make
it, I’ll think about what concept it’ll be. Right now, I’d like to
make it something that was less rock-oriented. Even more
"I write about what I see or feel. You just try to paint a
picture, evoke something … it just kind of happens."