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Interview With Funkmaster Doug Johns

by Editor Jake Kot –

Funkmaster Doug Johns has just released his third solo effort, Stank, and has easily shown us he is a force in the bass community to be reckoned with. Bass Player Magazine has called him “one of the most credit-deserving bass virtuosos in America”, and I’m in full agreement. Doug is a long time friend, and the term “music for music’s sake” couldn’t be more fitting as I’ve watched him keep artistry at the top of his list with all of his musical endeavors. He strikes a chord for many of us with his impassioned approach to the genre you know after listening to him is so close to his heart. You’ll also find a “real person” behind all of this…humble, honored to be out there, and honest about his chosen path almost to a fault. He’s one of the players that let’s other players know that everything and anything is possible, and that’s a pretty damn good message these days.

Let’s talk about your newest release, Stank. Your love for the pocket has always been evident. As almost clichéd as this question is, tell me about your approach to your tunes such as “Summer Song” and “Up the Funk,” where, shall I say, a traditional groove line would have sufficed, but you always seem to take it somewhere else.

No doubt, the pocket is the whole deal. I grew up in that environment of “keep ‘em moving, keep ‘em grooving,” so you could say that there’s always going to be a forward motion in my music. Which is good. “Summer Song” is a great example of taking a more traditional line somewhere else. By rhythmically playing the chords as the main groove on the bass, you get that feeling of movin’ and groovin. I think that’s part of my approach.

It’s funny that you mention the “traditional groove line.” For me, I’ve always respected the traditional pocket groove and its power to move people. But this probably comes from my years spent with a good number of trios. I’ve always had the detail of playing chords while maintaining the groove at the same time. Done tastefully, it can really make the whole tune swing that much more. “Up the Funk” is a good example of that – I’m banging that low note (to provide the booty shake) along with playing a chord up in the higher register. But in the end, the execution of the rhythm in this approach is really the whole deal.

You’ve certainly opened up more of the lyrical side of your playing and writing with the track, “Namaste.” Is this a side of your musicianship we’ll start to see more of?

I would say a definite yes! But what’s funny Jake, is that I wrote “Namaste” close to 15 years ago. I think only now, at this point in my musical development, am I starting to feel mature enough to pull off a tune like that. Sometimes, you can write a particular piece and it just flows, and it’s done. But in the case of “Namaste,” I needed to understand it harmonically before I could feel comfortable putting it out there – ergo the 15 years.

The goal is absolutely to improve one’s musicianship with each artistic endeavor. Part of the process [of documenting recorded material] is to flat take chances compositionally and stand by them. With each recording, I learn more and more about myself in a composition sense. You’ve got to do what scares you if you’re gonna improve. “Namaste” is a tune I can honestly say came out exactly the way I had it planned in my head – Scary and fulfilling at the same time!

Stank being a bass-driven endeavor, do you ever feel obligated to showcase certain elements of your playing style, or is it all about the composition?

It’s all about the composition. I’ll admit there have been times where I had something under my fingers and I really wanted to get it out there. But, if it’s not surrounded by a beautiful composition, well, it’s just self-serving, ego-driven sound.

Yes, bass is my chosen tool, but I’ve never thought of it as my only voice. I’ve heard my share – and I’m sure you have, too – of “bass” records where there is just this absolutely incredible display of guitar athletics. But you’ve gotta put the song FIRST. Sure, being a bass player lends to elements of my playing/songwriting that hopefully appeal to the bass player audience. But the goal is to touch anybody with these songs, bass players or not.

One of the things I always try to be aware of when taking in someone’s musical efforts is the premise that a technique loses its power when it’s realized as a technique. You seem to have evaded that reality within your slap-based approach. How would you pass that ability or awareness you possess along to a student?

Good question, and a very tough one to answer! Part of the answer is just flat putting in the time on the instrument / at gigs. By that, I mean that I’ve never looked at it as “This is slap bass,” or “This is finger bass” or what have you. I’ve always technically played what the song asked for – which comes from thousands of different musical situations. That’s what’s hard to explain to students.

Naturally, beginning players want to learn the “slap bass thing” or the “Jaco thing.” Everyone’s looking in some way to be like the people they admire. But, we touched on this a little earlier – With that “I can beat him at guitar” or “guitar athletics” mentality, passing on patience and a belief in yourself is paramount for students today.

To support what you said about technique losing its power when it’s realized as a technique, one of the first things I’ll do when sitting down with a student is say, “Okay, let’s play the blues.” As soon as the student tries to “shoe-horn” all their guitar athletic technique into some simple blues changes, well, that pretty much shows the uselessness of building your musical career on nothing but chops.

Tell me about some of the Bass events you’ve been doing (and will be doing), and enlighten me as far as the effort you feel is necessary to keep that alive for yourself, or any player for that matter.

I like the way you put that: “Keeping it alive.” That truly is the climate right now. I always say the scene is what you make it, and I think that applies today more than ever.

We (my drummer, Chris Ceja, and I) have been staying busy with bass-oriented club dates and clinic shows. I always joke that if you can put a cool word after “bass,” (such as Bassday, Bassquake, Bassbash) well, you’ve got yourself a gig! And we’ve been doing our share of those events. We’ve also been doing a lot of rhythm workshop clinics with bass and drums, usually followed by a club date in town the same night. I really love the clinic setting with the bass and drums – it just makes so much sense to me that the drums should be there.

Coming up in the musical climate I did, it was all about whether or not you could play. But, as I grow in this business, I realize more and more how much the playing is just a small part of it. It feels really strange saying this out loud, but it’s true: Networking, emails, promotion, phone calls, art design, recording, photos, social networking, endorsements…. That’s the shit you’ve gotta wrap your head around if you want to keep your music alive. And nobody’s exempt from that reality.

2011 is going to be another great year! I’ve been dipping my toes into working with management / consulting, and it’s really helping me to define and understand my goals. My duo will definitely continue to be an interesting and economically-sound way of bringing the music to the people, but this year we’re looking forward to pulling together a couple of select dates with a full swinging band!!! Couple that with a live show DVD as well as an instructional DVD – and more Genz Benz and Pedulla clinics – and all I can say is 2011 will be my busiest year ever.

By the way, if anyone wants to know when all this is going down, sign up for my newsletter at dougjohns.com…. Didn’t think I was gonna let you get out of here without that shameless plug, did you?

What’s been on your iPod as of late that’s spinning your musical wheels?

Since I don’t own an iPod, I guess you’re referring to all of those CD’s strewn around my car? I’ve always got a dose of Trilok Gurtu, Jellyfish, old Jaco stuff, TOP, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Pat Metheny, Led Zeppelin, Brecker Brothers, and James Brown. Although I don’t own it yet, I’m really looking forward to hearing Richard Bona’s new CD. And have you heard of Hayseed Dixie?

Not as of yet, but I’ll check it out.

I’ve got a clinic coming up soon, and I find as of late that my focus seriously centers on creativity, speaking about striving to capture more of the “creative” element within us. Where do you feel this mysterious creative element personally sits for you in your overall musicality as a player and composer?

Is “Utah” too short of an answer? Or maybe “the rhythm of life?” We talked before about how some tunes just flow right out of you and some take forever. There’s almost no logic to it, except for one thing: You have to nurture your soul. And everybody’s got a different way of doing that. For me personally, it’s a few different things: Yoga, hiking in far away places, cars, whatever. But the older I get, the more I realize that the soul is where creativity boils up from – and you’ve got an obligation to cultivate that.

As artists, we are sometimes so bent on “Man, I haven’t played my instrument in 3 days! Oh my God!” But somehow, those 3 days spent on whatever – work, play, life’s chores – are part of the enrichment of our souls; so, when we sit down to start being creative, we’ve actually already started.

I think modern culture has a way of screaming at us daily to “Do this,” or “Try that,” or “You’d be better off if…” and, as a result, we never take the chance of just being ourselves. Truth is, being yourself is probably the hardest thing any of us will ever do. My creativity is an ongoing process from the outside – but on the inside, it’s an ongoing process of learning to just allow what at times seems to be unnatural… well, to just naturally come out.

You mentioned cars nurturing your soul? What’s that about?

I get asked about this more and more while out on the road. Cars are “my other life.” I’ve been building racecars my whole life – I do it now and probably always will.

My father taught me about both the love of horsepower and the art of fabrication when I was young, and it’s just something I’ve always done. I build chassis, currently subcontracting for NHRA, IHRA and NASCAR – as well as owning my own drag car. Let me tell you, if you think bass guitars are expensive…. Racecars are money pits! But building cars has always been something I can work out with my musical schedule and vice versa.

To echo a little of our conversation earlier about nurturing your soul, the art of creating and building a better/safer/FASTER race car taps into that creative thing, and believe it or not, it always comes out in my music. Tell you what – next time you’re in town, I’ll let you “drop the hammer” on a 1000+ horsepower drag car, and we’ll get into the recording studio right after. Wait till you see what you come up with! Deal?

Your on my man! With the music business being a bit chaotic for those choosing the path of a more contemporary and challenging artistic pursuit, where do you see yourself going musically, and philosophically for that matter in the near future?

As soupy as it sounds, I’ll always follow my heart. Musically, I’ve still got a lot to say, and I am constantly working on new compositions – I love that process. Like we talked about earlier, this year’s going to bring on a lot of fun challenges. I’m excited to try different musical ensembles and especially to experiment with a variety of instrumentation.

I’ve never been one to contemplate or adhere to labels and genres of music – and I definitely don’t let it affect me in a “continuing to do this” sort of way. I just go by the fact that if it sounds good and feels good, then I’m diggin’ it. Philosophically, it really is about being grateful and opening up my soul to allow creativity to surface.

Visit Online:

www.facebook.com/dougjohnsbass
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www.dougjohns.com

Photo credits, Sandra Benyak

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