Alain Johannes has honed his formidable skills while playing a prominent role in acts such as Queens Of The Stone Age, Eleven and Them Crooked Vultures, which he utilizes to the fullest on his debut solo record, Spark, an album we found to be nothing short of a masterpiece.
Dedicated to his late wife Natasha Shneider, who also played in both Eleven and QOTSA, Johannes said that with Spark he “was really just trying to make a record that she would be proud of.” Given how fantastic the album is, as we said in our review: “after one, two, fifteen listens and more, we’ve not a shred of doubt that she would be.”
Alain is currently touring his solo gig throughout South America, opening for Queens on the festival circuit. We caught up with him after his show in Brazil last weekend at the environmentally-focused SWU Music & Arts Festival to have a few words about his projects – past, present and future.
First of all, I know that you were born in Chile, and you recently played your very first gig there. How was it?
Oh it was great, it was really… it felt really familiar, but very, how do you say, alucinante [surreal, extraordinary], you know. It was amazing. I’m going back on Thursday, when the Queens go to Montevidéu [Uruguay], so hopefully I’ll get to play a free show in Chile. But yeah, it felt really warm, really good. It was nice because, with Eleven, it took a while to know how many fans there were all over the world, and it turns out there’s a lot of them in Chile, they were very receptive.
This your first tour playing alone on a stage, right?
In front of these big festival crowds, was it intimidating at first?
It’s a strange environment for it, because the first show I did, was with my friend Jon Brion, I don’t know if you know who he is. He’s an amazing musician, and he plays this one-man-show every Friday at a beautiful theater [The Largo in LA], and when he heard my record he said ‘you have to come.’ I wasn’t even thinking of playing this material live, I just had to make the record, to heal myself, and as a thank you to Natasha. And then the second I went with the Queens to Europe, it was very impressive playing those first few shows. In Chile there was another stage that you could hear, with this pounding sound, while I was playing Spider, and I was like ‘oh, Jesus Christ…’ But Hutch, our legendary guru soundman, he turned up the sound and made it the loudest cigar box ever.
So, were you surprised with the crowd’s reaction?
Yeah, it was really good, and sweet. And of course, it’s music that demands very close listening, so everybody is paying attention.
I noticed that a lot of people in the crowd weren’t really understanding what was going on at first, but when you started shredding a bit they were like ‘oh, now I get it.’
Yeah, I wanted to put some rhythm in there. I was gonna put a tambourine on my leg, but I thought, “Then what? Then more, and more?” I wanted it to be very naked, you know, so I gave up on that idea.
And I think people really enjoyed the gig.
Yeah, there were quite a few that were really listening, really focused.
It felt like you won them over, and they were sad that it was over so quickly.
Yeah, me too. I was supposed to play 28 minutes, and then suddenly I got cut down. I still had two more songs.
What do you think of the environmental purpose of this festival?
I think it’s amazing. When I got here and I saw all the beautiful things made out of recycled material here, I thought it was great. I wish every festival was like this, because obviously it can be done.
Do you plan on seeing any concerts in particular tonight?
Well, obviously, I watch the Queens every time, and they’re playing really, really well right now. In Chile, they played such a fantastic set…
Yeah, I think this is one of their best lineups yet.
[laughing] Well, I like the Natasha/Alain lineup better…
Oh, yes, of course!
…But I’d say both of these lineups are very close.
I heard that there were some songs from Eleven that were recorded but never released. Can you provide some info on that?
Yes, there was a bunch of demos that we did before recording Avantgardedog. But because me and Natasha always wrote in the moment, some time passed, and we got a record deal, and then we just wrote all new songs for that album. So, there’s a bunch of those. But more importantly, one month before Natasha got diagnosed with cancer, her, Jack [Irons] and I got together for two days and recorded five songs, but didn’t finish the words or melodies. So now I’m just getting the nerve to go and try to finish those songs, or maybe just leave them as it is. It’s some of our most powerful, muscular stuff. But there’s a plan to release it at some point.
About your tour with Them Crooked Vultures, I was watching some videos from the last few gigs you played, and it’s amazing how the band progressed along the way. Why do you think you evolved so well?
Yeah, it just kept growing. I remember seeing the Austin City Limits performance on the TV, and thinking ‘wow, we’re so different now,’ because we were still inside the songs. And then little by little we just outgrew them, and it became huge.
Is there any chance we’ll see the band together again soon? And will you be there?
I hope so. I imagine in a year and a half or two. I would love to be part of it again. We’ll have to wait and see.
When you gave me a copy of your album, you said that “it’s OK to share it with friends.” Is that a policy you’re following in promoting this album? And if so, what brought you to that perspective?
Until the album is available physically in South America I like the idea of people being able to hear it. By share I mean turn people on to the music. That’s how most of my fans became aware of Eleven and me since they didn’t have easy access. I want to come back and play shows soon. I’ve had an incredible time.
Order Spark and learn more about Alain at AlainJohannes.com.