We've reviewed two of bassist Vail Johnson's albums now: COME TOGETHER. and FLOW, so I thought it was about time that we actually learned a little about the man behind these wonderful works! Vail has graciously agreed to answer some of our questions.
TR: What is your background in music from an educational standpoint? Lessons? Self-taught?
VJ: I started on trumpet in the fourth grade and learned to read music pretty well; played through my sophomore year in high school. I started playing bass in Jr. High and by 9th grade was playing bass in the school stage band; I taught myself how to play bass and read music with the help of a couple books. Played in the high school jazz band and in 'garage' bands; starting playing actual gigs my sophomore year; never a lesson on bass; I took some theory at university and also played in the jazz lab there (Univ. of Washington)
TR: Why the bass?
VJ: I heard the bass more than anything when I first heard the Beatles and I was hooked! I play drums fairly well and enthusiastically! Never liked guitar or piano so I never got into either.
TR: As you grew up, who were your biggest musical influences?
VJ: Certainly my family was a huge influence; we were all musicians (five older brothers and our Mom) There was always music in the house, somebody was practicing at any given time.
TR: So your parents were supportive.
VJ: Our parents were completely supportive of our musical adventures; my dad bought me my first bass and amp. It was a Sekova Telecaster bass copy and a blue tuck & roll Harmony single 12" cab and head. I eventually got a Univox 60 watt tube head with a pair of 2x10 cabs. Awesome!
TR: And your first gig was... ?
VJ: My first 'pro' gig was with two of my older bros, Randy and Gareth, in their Bluegrass/ Dixieland band. We eventually moved on to playing lots of 50's and 60's music. They had a great run playing Friday and Saturday nights in Seattle's Pioneer Square for years and years.
TR: How have your influences changed over the years?
VJ: I have been influenced by almost everyone I've played with over the years, to some degree. I have been in probably 100 bands.
VJ: Seriously! When living in LA, I would be juggling at least a dozen groups and they would change over time, Kenny G being the primary constant.
TR: How were you influenced by the Beatles (in reference to your album, Come Together)?
VJ: The Beatles were the first pop musical influence; I remember having the Let It Be album and a small stereo turntable with built-in speakers. I would stick my head right down onto the turntable so I could hear the stereo spread on the intro to The Long and Winding Road, when the strings enter; I would play that over and over. I was fascinated with the stereo aspect and beautiful orchestral sounds emanating from those four inch speakers! I had Rubber Soul on cassette and a small cassette player, again with a built-in speaker. Over and over I played that record.
TR: Do you keep up with the technologies of music recording?
VJ: Absolutely, I am Pro Tools geek, for sure! I love the editing capability of DAW technology. The sound is pretty darn good but since so many people listen on crap playback, I'm not sure the sound quality matters to most end users. :-(
TR: How do you think technology is affecting the music industry in general?
VJ: Certainly the ease of creating sound without instruments has changed popular music forever and that's a sad thing all around. I like being able to 'be the record label' and I have made more money on my own releases than I did on my first 2 CDs on a record label. Selling online and downloads are great for lots of people. Not so great for the artists that used to sell millions of records, those days are largely gone.
TR: Where do you see things going in the next ten years?
VJ: I wish I could see ten years ahead! __________________________________
TR: Do you think instrumental music reveals more of the artist’s soul than does music with lyrics?
VJ: I think it can, for sure. It really depends on the artist how they can express themselves be it voice or instrument.
TR: I’ve spoken to people who noodle away at their instrument as a way of drawing out inspiration. Others keep note pads with them to jot down musical thoughts and ideas. Can you give us an example of how you compose?
VJ: I'm a noodler for sure! Usually I will have a chord structure and groove in mind before a melody comes. I like to record ideas and come back another time to make more of it. I write strictly from the bass, nothing else.
TR: Do you write/play for your tastes or the potential listeners'?
VJ: I'm mainly playing to my own ear, and to the people I am making music with at any given time. ________________________________
TR: Would you call Flow a concept album?
VJ: Yes, Flow is a concept album. The title is fairly literal in that way.
TR: What were you looking for when you put this album together?
VJ: The songs were arranged and produced to create an experience achieved by listening straight down the track list. I realize most people don't listen this way but there was a lot of 'old school' thought put into this CD.
TR: I really enjoyed the mental images I experienced from Cerulean, Midnight, and One Man in Paris.
VJ: Cool, thanks!
TR: They were the songs that moved me the most. Can you tell us a bit about these three little jewels?
VJ: One Man in Paris was conjured up from the images and sounds in my head after a month long tour of Europe with Keb' Mo'. Midnight started out as a thought "what groove would Sade like to sing over?" Cerulean started out with the 3 chord chorus part, it sounded somewhat 'blue' but not depressed; more 'mellow' than sad but reflecting on perhaps, happier times…
TR: Why did you include Amazing Grace?
VJ: That's a song that can mean so much to so many people; I worked up a solo version of that song for the Keb' Mo' tour, and I have played it here in Nashville in clubs many times. It seems to have an impact on people as it does for me, in my private life. ______________________________
TR: What’s next for you? What do you have coming up?
VJ: I am still touring with Kenny G. We will do a week or two each month for the rest of 2014; I am playing and recording a lot in Nashville. I will be writing more tunes for my next CD which will be country vocals. I'm also writing with some great folks here in town.
I ride my motorcycle often, as that has been a solace for me my entire life! :-) I come up with ideas as I'm riding, and have to stop and record into my phone; I have started quite a few songs that way!
TR: One last question: what are you listening to these days? Anything special have your ear as of late?
VJ: I listen to classical music all day long in the background, whether in the car (XM satellite is so cool), or classical radio at home. It's so refreshing and never gets in the way of what I may be writing or recording in the studio at the time.
I make myself listen to the radio for pop music as I like to know what's happening and enjoy some of it very much. Country and rock, mostly. When I need to flush out all the clutter in my head, I will play some Beatles or Earth, Wind & Fire and just go "ahhhhhhhh".
Thanks to Vail Johnson! Please visit his website for more info on this amazing bassist.
Music available on the site, Amazon, iTunes, and wherever else GOOD music is sold!