Demian Johnston Interview

Honestly,Demian Johnston is exactly the kind of person that I'd hoped to come across when I started HSJ:a 21st century renaissance man,doing his own shit,and working hard to do ALOT of it.As a visual artist and a musician,Demian works out his id by designing album art for heavies like KTL and Archive Recordings,while creating music with his bands Hemingway and the Shining Ones,along with plenty of solo music...and thats just what he's doing NOW.So forget the silly intro.Let's have Mr. Johnston tell the story.

Hammer Smashed Jazz:Ok,so first up. You were frontman for one of the more out-of-control hardcore bands anyone has seen in recent memory,Playing Enemy. Do all old hardcore and metal kids end up old droners?

Demian:Hmmm... It's hard to say. I think for me I was always interested in extreme music. Allow me to remember some nonsense here... In sixth grade I never really listened to anything in particular until my best friend's sister gave me a Smiths tape and a Slayer tape. It was real weird but both were totally brand new sounds for me and I played them quite a bit.

I discovered skateboarding and Thrasher magazine and that was pretty much it. We didn't have the internet so I had to pretty much look at whatever was in Thrasher to discover what I wanted to check out. I got some bad stuff and some great stuff. The Accused and DRI became constants for me and through that I got into hardcore and more importantly straight edge. I was straight edge for quite a while. Listened to a lot of Brotherhood and Chain of Strength.
I joined this band called Undertow and started touring but I kept getting bored with the sameness of the music. It was fun but we were playing with these really interesting bands all the time that caught my interest. We would play with Sparkmarker, Don Caballero, Lync, Greyhouse, John Henry West, Deadguy... the more heavy or interesting something sounded the better. I started doing bands like nineironspitfire and getting to play with bands like Spaceboy who were hugely influential for me. They had a bunch of strange noisy segues and then the heaviest noisiest riffs and songs ever. Still a huge fan.

Around that time I got to see Merzbow and Masonna play in Seattle and I was floored. I instantly had to own everything these guys did in an attempt to relive that first night. I joined Kiss It Goodbye and learned a bunch more about extreme music. Keith Huckins hooked me up with black metal and more noise stuff. Then after Kiss it Goodbye broke up I started Playing Enemy with Andrew and got Shane from Indiana. We wanted to constantly try new things in extreme music but it was difficult. We did a lot of fun and violent stuff with Playing Enemy, especially near the end, but I started to get a little tired of the straight up rock band approach to heavy music.

Playing Enemy opened for SUNN when John Weise and Joe Preston were playing with them back before everyone had to wear robes and it was pretty awesome to see what someone could do without a drummer or traditional "songs". I don't even think i enjoyed it that much at the time (they had some serious technical difficulties at that show) but it left an impression. I think that drone and noise is just the next step for someone interested in progressing into new extreme music. Now I am starting to get really interested in minimalism. I love At Jennie Richie and I have been listening to Ibitsu. And my buddy, Andrew Crawshaw is always turning me onto some new way out nonsense... So god knows where I am headed.

HSJ:Alright, so let's get in the waaaaay-back machine. Earliest memories of music and visual art. What did you first start drawing/painting?

DJ:I guess I always drew pictures. It was always more of a fun thing I did as opposed to something I wanted to show people though. I have pretty low confidence in about everything I ever attempt, so it can be like pulling teeth getting work out of me sometimes. Because of that it almost didn't happen but I think the first real bit of art I did in relation to music was the artwork for Kiss It Goodbye.

Before I was in the band I drew the artwork for all of there Revelation Records releases. I worked for Fantagraphics Books around this time and was constantly inspired by comics and the artists that drew them. I discovered Al Columbia (who drew the a Repulsion 7" for Relapse), Los Bros. Hernandez, Dan Clowes, Pete Bagge, Chris Ware, Renee French and a million more. Everyday at work was pretty amazing. I often wish that I still worked there. That is actually were I worked when someone turned me onto Earth 2. That was after I saw Merzbow and it totally lit up that part of my brain. I think the first time I smoked pot I listened to that record with some friends. Totally blew me away. Anyhow, I only in the last couple years got really serious about drawing again. I have been pushed to be better by a few pretty good friends.

HSJ:So,tell me about some of the people that you grew up with and went to school with. I have a strange feeling there's some notable,interesting ones.

DJ:I have had some strange friends. I always seem to be friends with people who are really successful. Kinda a bummer really. One of my friends from first grade through graduation was Chris Walla from Death Cab For Cutie. He was always a pretty cool yet odd kid. His dad was an airline pilot and always came home with the coolest transformers from japan and he had this epic key chain collection. He really dug King Crimson and jazz. I remember I ran into him a couple years after high school and he told me his band was playing on the radio that night and they were doing an Undertow cover. I never listened but I would love to hear Death Cab's Undertow cover. I got to ask him about that next time I run into him.

When I was in Undertow some of the band lived in this house in Seattle for a few years. We practiced there and hung out there almost every day. A few other cool people lived there as well and one of them was Steve O'Malley. He was a rad kid that we all called "Rocker Steve". Pretty much a constant at all the shows. I have some pretty awesome videos of Undertow with him head banging up front. He did that Descent fanzine and that was really my first education in black metal. After that he hooked up with Greg Anderson (who we knew from Brotherhood and Engine Kid), did Thorr's Hammer and the rest is well known history.

After Undertow I would run into him at strange parties (one where I got to watch him and Brad play Burning Witch and Emperor songs on some dudes equipment. He heard them and kicked us all out of his house.) and random shows like Spaceboy or Merzbow. Good times.

I also used to skateboard and play music with Eric and Jeremy from Modest Mouse. We actually were playing together at Eric's house in Issaquah when Jeremy mentioned having Isaac play with them. I was doing Undertow at the time and didn't really know Isaac very well so I guess I stopped playing. It was a long time ago but I think about how I should have probably shown up to practice everyday if i knew what was good for me.

HSJ: Seriously though. What the hell's going on up in the Northwest?Earth,Melvins,Thrones. I'm starting to imagine these forest villages with black metallers and doom beards jamming around a fire with psyche burnouts.

DJ:The northwest was at that time a very small scene. If you played in one kind of band you probably played shows with every other kind of band. It was very unusual to have more than one hardcore band on a bill. We would have a show with a punk band, a pop punk band, a hardcore band and then whatever touring band was coming through. So everyone pretty much knew everyone. We all got to hear about the cool obscure record someone just rediscovered and learn about the new strange music coming out of Norway. It was hard to avoid.

I think with the rain and the constant grey really sets an appropriate mood for doom. Plus beards work really well here and we have the best weed in the world. Seriously, you know all that great Power D and White Widow that you get in Amsterdam on tour? Those strains were born here and exported there. The scene is still pretty small but not as much. Especially now that those type of bands are getting kinda hip. Last time I saw Earth they opened for Jesse Sykes and the whole crown was yuppies and dot com types. It was fun watching them see a band like that for the first time and then run up to the merch table and buy whatever they had. At least the ones that smoke weed did.

HSJ:I have to admit to having never heard Nothing Left and the Action Suits. What was the sound of these bands? Were either a Playing Enemy precursor at all?

DJ:Nothing Left is a band that never really broke up but we haven't done anything except for one show in the last decade. It was my crust/grind band with the drummer of Undertow, my buddy Isaac Aubrey (of the Arid Sea) and about fifteen different bass players, second guitarists and second singers. Most notably, Dan from Murder City Devils and Modest Mouse, Andrea from Pretty Girls Make Graves, KC from Himsa, Ben from Champion, Dan Dean from Sharks Keep Moving... the list really goes on and on. We recorded a 7" for Orphaned Record in 95 and that was about it. I have a few copies but they are almost gone. I think I may rerelease everything this year.

The Action Suits was a byproduct of my working at Fantagraphics. It was a bubble gum pop band that I joined and made into a more noise pop band. We listened to a lot of Beach Boys and Guided By Voices. The band was two guys I worked with at Fantagraphics and the cartoonist, Peter Bagge, who did Hate comics. It was pretty weird. We got flown to play the San Diego comic con. Got interviewed by big magazines and did a split with Ben Lee with artwork by Claire Daines.Real odd. One day on our way to a show, Pete told me he was quitting the band because I joined. It was awkward. We got this guy Chris Jacobs to play drums and did a pretty cool 7" on Spot On records with artwork by Al Columbia. Neither was really a precursor to Playing Enemy. I think both bands were right after nineironspitfire broke up and a few years prior to Playing Enemy.

HSJ:Looks like you've become Scott Slimm's go-to-guy for designing his awesome stuff. How'd that connection happen?Also,what was your first notable design/art job?

DJ:Yeah, Scott rules. I ended up ordering some stuff from him and dropping him a line since we knew a few of the same people. We ended up hitting it off and I offered my drawing services. He happened to have some work coming up and no one in mind for the artwork so he asked me. I didn't really know exactly what I was doing but I said yes and I designed the 500 mg and the Paul Metzger cd and lathes for him. Both records turned out to be amazing and I was really proud to be part of the project. It really was pretty much my first real design job. I had been doing a lot of corporate illustration at this point so I was pretty familiar with what was needed of me but I have had to learn a lot in a short amount of time. Since then I got to do the Hasegawa/Igler and the Zaika cds. Both are really amazing. Kinda humbling really.

HSJ:When I google your name,my site is #11. Good number for me,and bad number for you?

DJ:No way. 11 rocks. it's like #1 but two of them. Hell, you should mention me more. Get into that #2 position.

HSJ:Scoring that KTL IV couldn't have hurt as far as exposure goes...and those prints look killer.
DJ:Thanks. Yeah, that was awesome. I reconnected with Steve awhile back. After those first KTL records came out. I loved those records. I really like Sunn a whole bunch but something about KTL resonated with me. I sent him a few illustrations and different KTL logos and he dug them. We did the IKKI cdr, a tour poster and shirt for a poland tour, the Paris Demos cdr and then KTL IV. I hope to do some more in the future. I bug Steve about once a month to bring KTL to the states again and more importantly the west coast. I am really excited for those prints.

Andrew Crawshaw of Broken Press designs is printing those really soon. We are still taking pre orders but I think they should be out soon. Andrew is really the driving force behind a lot of what i do. He is curating a Wolves in the Throne Room tour poster series and is having me do one of those.

HSJ:I just found out about Hemingway,and your solo stuff,about a year ago. When did you start Hemingway,and your solo stuff?Did you have a specific mindset for Hemingway,and has it turned out how you originally envisioned it would sound?

DJ:Hemingway actually started out as my solo project during Playing Enemy. I wanted a big sounding name to go with my own noise and drone type stuff. Although, it started out without a solid idea of what it was going to be. There was some folk and electronic elements at the beginning. It was a bit different. Since Shane started becoming a full time member it has taken a more focused approach. We want to be able to write songs that still have a traditional structure and discipline of rock songs but with a much more experimental instrumentation. And then we also have moments and songs that are almost completely noise. We like to mix it up so no show is ever really the same. We usually figure out what type of set we are playing based on what equipment we are able to bring.
We have a Sunn amount of amps but we only have a 1975 Volvo to carry it all in. We plan and getting a van in the near future. My solo work is much easier in the car. I have been really inspired by Tom Carter and Pete Swason's work and wanted to explore the guitar as less of a riff machine and more of a means in which to make textured soundscapes. I have some help from the analog synth that i had installed in my Les Paul. I have been playing live a lot more lately. It is a huge learning process. Trying to find out what works and what doesn't. It is much harder without someone else to help you move the air. I am moving more and more toward the minimal.

HSJ:Favorite Sabbath song?

DJ:Snowblind. I hum that first riff all the time.

HSJ:Playing Enemy was a well-known,heavy band. Do you ever see yourself revisiting those types of music?

DJ:Yeah, that would be great. Andrew's drumming made that band. He is incredible. Some rock critic once called him the greatest living drummer you've never heard of and I think it's true. He is better at poly rhythms then Danny Carey, more soulful than Neil Pert and more tasteful then either. He has pretty much given up drumming in bands though. He is doing the daddy thing. I think a drummer like him coming along would get me excited about playing more techy noisy metal stuff.

HSJ:On that note,tell us about the Shining Ones,your newest musical project

DJ:Shining Ones is the brain child of Andrew Crawshaw and Dan LaRochelle of Lesbian. It is super duper slow music. I have been just singing for them for awhile now and it is very intense. It's the first time in my whole career that I am just singing and not playing anything. I get to sing about all the horrible shit that travels through my mind. It's very therapeutic.

We just released our first cdr and getting ready to do a cassette on Dead Accents plus another live cdr that was recorded by Randall Dunn and Mel Dettmer. Recording a full length is the next step and that should be happening pretty soon. We are looking into labels and should have some news very soon.

HSJ:So if you can,tell us about the 18 million things you've got planned right now.

DJ:Geez. So many things... I have a label with Shane from Hemingway and Andrew Crawshaw called Dead Accents and we are releasing tons of things. It started out as an imprint to release cassettes and cdrs for our own projects but it has evolved. We are releasing a 2x cs for Mamiffer and Oakeater in the next month or so, a Hemingway/A Death Cinematic cdr, a Ground Tissues 2x3" cdr, a split with Wooden Teeth and my solo work...

Plus with Shane's direction we are starting to make small handmade books from different authors around the world. it's getting to be a lot of work but it's still fun.

I am having a baby with my wife in August so I don't know how much I am going to be able to do for a while but I also have a short tour with Shining Ones and Hemingway next month of the Pacific Northwest and then a tour in July with Hemingway and Mamiffer.

Hemingway is putting a new cassette together this month and we are getting ready to record a full length. Hemingway just released a cdr on Debacle records that is all but sold out and will probably do another cd with them this summer. I have a new cassette under my solo project and a new cdr in the next month or so. Plus the split with Wooden Teeth and a split with Al Qaeda in the next few months. I have the print set and the Wolves in the Throne Room poster coming up plus a new tiny book of drawings. It's kind of overwhelming me just thinking about it.

1 comment:

Eric Reynolds said...

Demian!!! This was awesome. Glad to hear you're still doing what you do!