We sat down with Tom Johnston to talk about the new album, Musikfest, and how the 40-year-old band’s faring without band-mates Skylark and Michael Hossack.
So you’re releasing your first album in 10 years, “World Gone Crazy,” on Sept. 28. Why now?
Tom Johnston: Because it just got done. We started about five years ago fooling around with it but we didn’t really start recording it until about three years ago, and before that we’ve just been on the road all the time. So we took the time to do this record. I mean we’ve been on the road on and off… I think there was one point where we took three months and did nothing but work on the record and that’s – we don’t normally do that.
So we’ve been wanting to do one for a while. Having done one ten years ago, it was okay, but I wasn’t nuts about it. This one, it came out so well. Everybody in the band’s really excited about it. The songs are great, the production is great it goes in places we haven’t gone before which I think it crucial. Rather than doing a rubber stamp of everything we’ve ever done, I did not want to do that. Pat and I wrote all the tunes, and it really came out good. And I’m happy that we’re going to have something new to give to the crowd. I mean we’re playing three new songs every night now anyway off the new album.
What three songs?
Johnston: “Nobodys” is the first one, “World Gone Crazy,” which is the name of the album – it’s the title track, and “Back To The Chateau.”
What makes this album so much better than previous ones?
Johnston: [The] songs are better. The last one we did we produced ourselves, which is not something that is a very good idea. I really think you need somebody around to get rid of the politics and that’s something we had [for this album] – we did it with Ted Templeman. He was crucial with picking some of the songs, crucial on ideas on where you were going with some of the lyrics -- not so much writing it – but just you know, as far as the ideas. [If] you already had an idea, “well, what if you went a little bit over here or a little bit over there” – extremely helpful. If you’re doing it on your own, that never happens. He was great for that, really made a huge difference. And then as far as laying down the tracks, we did all that and then you know a lot of the songs got to a certain point where we just stopped and pulled back and…we listened to them. I did a lot of this sometimes – you know it needs something it really does its not where it needs to be and then I brought in Billy Paine to do a lot of keyboard parts for us. Because I wrote three of the songs on keyboard and it made a huge difference.
Why did you decide to re-release “Nobodys”?
Johnston: That was Ted’s idea. I don’t know if he was even thinking about it as a single he just wanted us to redo the song. It was the record company’s idea to re-release it as a single. So we took it apart. You know we listened to the original and we said, “Well, the drums are bad, the bass is bad… But the rhythm was all over the place. It just didn’t have the drive. Different drum pattern, different base pattern.
John came up with a really cool pickin’ part on the dobro that goes over the top of the “chunka chunka” stuff that’s in the middle part of the song, and it really adds a whole different flavor to it. And there’s a really neat intro that Pat and Jon wrote that weaves into the song that didn’t exist before.
Have you ever played Musikfest before?
Johnston: I don’t know. I’ll tell you why I have to answer it that way its cause we play so many places. I mean we’ve been doing this 40 years. Its like, we could have played [Musikfest], I really don’t know. We played all over Pennsylvania…. I know we’ve played Bethlehem before. It kind of gets to be a blur.
What do you like best about your live shows?
Johnston: I think personally – this is my opinion, I’m not going to speak for everybody but I think it’s probably a universal thing – this band has always been about playing live. I mean since its inception way-the-heck back when. Reacting with a crowd, getting a crowd involved in the show, that’s imperative rather than just sitting up there playing to them we want to get them involved. You know it’s really important. And usually – not usually, every night we make sure we put on high energy show. We don’t even have any ballads anymore. It’s like, “Wham! From front to back.”
Does it change the dynamic when you have new songs?
Johnston: Oh yeah, each year we change it up. Even if we weren’t doing an album we always change it up. We have a huge catalogue to choose from and we find songs to freshen it up for ourselves and for our fans. But having the three new songs, its dicey in one aspect because you never know how they’re going to react to new stuff. In the old days, it was like “We don’t want to go out there and play new stuff.” They’ll kill ya. Nowadays it’s not so bad. We don’t mind, and as a matter of fact, they’ve been responding really well to the new songs, which has been awesome. The first night we played the three songs, I thought “Oh, man this is gonna suck.” We got out there, and [the fans] were dancing. It was really cool. And it’s been like that ever since. Some more than others, it depends on where you’re playing.
One song that gets a lot attention live, you know live is always different from radio, is world gone crazy. It’s just that kind of tune.
And that song, “World Gone Crazy” is about post-Katrina, right?
Johnston: It can be. I wrote it before Katrina if you want to know the truth. It’s basically about a guy who doesn’t have a lot of money living in the streets of New Orleans but he’s got a job and he’s doing okay and it talks about how he grew up on a corner shining shoes and like that. Basically he’s just trying to keep from living in the streets like some folks that don’t have any money. So it doesn’t sound like a happy song, but it is. It’s really an upbeat tune. It’s got New Orleans vibe to it with the right horn parts to it, which is something we haven’t used for a long time – which is horns. We used to do that back in the 70s.
How has it been without Skylark and Mike Hossack?
Johnston: Every time you lose somebody it changes everything in a big way. Everybody in the band has a big impact, and you never feel it as much or notice it as much as when they’re not there. Skylark is an incredible bass player, and he’s also a hell of a showman and to have him gone all of a sudden is very noticeable. But we replaced him with a guy who used to play with us. He’s got an unbelievable voice. He’s a really good bass player. So were okay there. It’s fine, and you know, he’s a great guy. He’s good to have on the bus and that’s important too. That’s a biggy, because we’re on the bus a lot. In Mike’s case, this is the third time we’ve lost him. So it’s a drag, and you know, once again you lost that personality on stage with you. But he needs to be off the road. He needs to be taking care of himself right now because he’s been all busted up in a couple of car wrecks and a motorcycle wreck.
But we just did a photo shoot in LA and he came in did that with us, because he played on the album. He played on a lot of the tracks, and he is part of the band. And we him replaced with a drummer that’s a killer drummer. So were not lacking in the drumming department were just missing different personalities.
Do you have any idea when they’re coming back?
Johnston: I have no idea. In Skylark’s case it’s a stroke and there’s no way to know. And Mike too, his health is a little on the edge right now.