J.J. Johnson

by Paul Wells

Among today’s pop stars, John Mayer is unique. Despite his fame and frequent appearances in the tabloids, a deeper listen reveals that the singer/songwriter/guitarist is a real musician. If he hadn’t have been lucky enough to be picked up by a record label and thrust in front of the public at large, Mayer would surely be working away as a musician in some other capacity.

Mayer’s good enough to have pretty much any gig, so it stands to reason that someone like him would have only the best musicians in his touring band. J.J. Johnson certainly fits this bill, and is one of the most musical and grooving drummers you’ll hear on the pop-rock scene. Check out Mayer’s recent DVD release, Where The Light Is, to get a taste of the dialog and affinity this band shares. You’ll also certainly notice a level of groove, energy, sensitivity, and interaction unexpected from a “pop star” and his band. As I said, these guys are serious.

Dig a little more into his past, as we have, and you’ll find a career of remarkable drumming and creative relationships. J.J. also holds the drumset chair with underground blues/rock phenom Doyle Bramhall II, perhaps best known for his work in Eric Clapton’s band. J.J.’s performance on Bramhall’s album Welcome is simply brilliant. In fact, the album as a whole has the kind of passion and energy rarely heard since the classic days of Hendrix, Cream, and The Who. Dig even deeper into J.J.’s history and you’ll discover that he has a background of jazz study, which has shaped his sense of sound and sensitivity.

We spoke to J.J. as he was decompressing after months on the road with John Mayer. Back in Austin, Texas, his home base, he was playing various jazz gigs and getting ready to head back out on the road, reunited with Doyle Bramhall. J.J. started this interview by giving us an in-depth look at his varied roots as a musician and the important influences and mentors he met along the way.

J.J.: I was born in San Antonio and spent my childhood and teen years there. My father is a big music fan, and there were always a lot of records being played around the house. Music was always around, and I was really moved by it.

When I was in junior high school, my buddies and I were getting into different rock bands, and we gravitated towards wanting to play music. Originally I wanted to play guitar. Some of my friends got guitars and I kept asking for one, but never got it, so I would sit around and watch my friends play. I started accompanying them by playing on boxes, and I started to really like the idea of playing drums. I found some other friends who had drums and start messing around playing and falling in love with it. It was something that came naturally to me.

Eventually I started playing in my school’s concert band and in competitions. My dad surprised me one day after I did really well in a contest by buying me a drumset. That was the beginning of everything. I was ecstatic. Now my buddies and I could move forward and start our bands. We were basically playing the rock that was around at the time, and meanwhile my dad was listening to Motown, blues, and jazz music. I found myself playing with anybody who wanted to play music. This continued for a while, and my dad felt it would be a good idea for me to start studying with someone and get educated. We found a teacher at a local drum shop named Jeff Ryder, who really believed in me and was instrumental in me having a professional career.

MD: How old were you at this point?

J.J.: I was about sixteen. Jeff and I started with the fundamentals. Most drummers want to jump right in on drumset, but Jeff had me working on the pad with hand technique. Jeff was a stickler for reading. Because I started on kit without reading, I was able to learn by ear. But Jeff made sure I wasn’t just memorizing things. At the same time, I was becoming interested in other styles such as fusion and Latin. He also was taking me out to jam sessions and eventually had me subbing for him on casuals and jazz trio gigs.

MD: It sounds like it was a real apprenticeship.

J.J.: Very much so. He was trying to expose me to a lot of different stuff, and I was soaking it all up. I started to realize that I could actually make a living doing this. Playing the drumset was an addiction–it’s all I ever thought about. I was playing in four or five different bands as well as working casuals.

I wasn’t interested in being a hired gun or a session guy at the time. I was into the journey of making music. If somebody called and I liked their music, I’d make it work. After I graduated high school I tried to figure out what to do. Most people go to college, but I wasn’t clear on whether I wanted to go, or where. So I enrolled in some courses at the community college while working a hotel gig with a trio. At this point I met bassist Eric Revis, who turned out to be really influential on me. He’s super talented and the kind of person who commands a certain amount of respect. We started working a lot together, and he became another mentor.

At that time my focus was leaning towards playing jazz. Eric and I would talk about groove and note placement, as well as tone color and being detail-oriented. I was getting seriously schooled, and lots of those principals have stuck with me over the years.

 J.J. JohnsonMD: Jumping ahead, when you got the call from John Mayer, were you the only drummer he was auditioning?

J.J.: I had heard they auditioned a great number of drummers, apparently as many as thirty or forty. There was some chemistry going on from the beginning, and we just went from there. It’s been a nice ride–over five years.

MD: His music has gone through a lot of changes over those five years.

J.J.: Yes, and it will probably continue to do so! He’s really driven and super talented. His work ethic is great, and he’s true to his craft.

MD: He’s a very strong guitar player, especially rhythmically. It sounds like he’d be a lot of fun for a drummer to play with.

J.J.: Yes, on a lot of levels. He’s not just another pop star–he’s a real musician and went through the same process we all did.

MD: As a guitarist and a bandleader, will he let the band dictate where a song or a solo is going, or does he like to be in charge of the direction?

J.J.: It’s kind of up for grabs–whoever gets to the plate first. The great thing about this band is that if someone grabs the ball, there is enough trust and everyone will follow. And that goes for John or me or any other member.

When I first got the gig, after the first couple of shows, he sat down with me to have a talk. He said, “Look, you have the gig…I want you to play! Don’t just play the parts on the record. We’re playing live music, and I want you to play this music how you hear it.” He’s listening to everything on stage–horns, keyboards…. Everybody listens, and every night is a very different show. There’s no script other than respecting the integrity of the songs–every night is like that. Everybody respects the music, but we’re all open for those moments of inspiration.

MD: Most musicians in the pop world want things the same at every gig. They need that consistency in presenting the show to the audience.

J.J.: Right, and I understand the validity of that concept. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of gigs, but John’s gig is a place that I enjoy being. Some nights, I may try a different groove on a song just to see if it will work. John likes taking those risks–it’s worth it.

Read the rest of the interview with J.J. Johnson in the April 2009 issue of Modern Drummer, now in print and digital.