"We practiced religiously," remembers Matt Gocke, Chuck Johnson's partner in Spatula, a duo that formed when the '90s Chapel Hill indie rock scene was booming. "I thought his work ethic was prodigious. But I learned that when I wasn't around him, he was practicing more."
Music practice isn't a bad way to describe Chuck Johnson's life's work. Much like meditation, from which he draws inspiration, everything is about the practice, the journey, not "getting it right," the destination. In a career spanning more than 15 years and nearly as many stylistic changes, Johnson has established a reputation for fearlessness in trying new forms and in seeking new collaborators. Later this month, he leaves the Triangle for the Master of Fine Arts program at the prestigious Music Department of Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
Musicians perpetually join or drop out of any scene, but Johnson has been a unique force here. While his work constantly transitioned, from the early rock rattles of Spatula to his more recent experimental electronics, many musicians turned to Johnson both as a partner and as a fount of inspiration. Rock-guitar workouts gave way to folk and acoustic wonderment inspired by Elizabeth Cotten and John Fahey. Johnson made an album of field recordings from India and built drones based on harmonic theory. He explored just intonation, a system of tuning slightly different than that most commonly used in Western popular music.
But it all started back in the '90s with Spatula. Neither Gocke nor Johnson was all that proficient with his own instrument: Johnson was taking guitar lessons, and—when the drum set was in their shared, upstairs Chapel Hill apartment in 1991—Gocke didn't have any drumsticks. "I started playing with some spatulas. Ron Liberti [of Pipe] asked us to play a party and said we had to have a name, so...."
The close-knit nature of the music scene at the time didn't hurt Johnson's musical growth. Musicians gathered around the crumbling Yellow House on Rosemary Street, and the local copy store, a Copytron, was something of a musician's union on the corner of Franklin and North Columbia streets. Kirk Ross, then running his Jesus Christ Records, managed Copytron when Gocke and Johnson worked there.
"I used to always joke that Spatula was my delivery crew," Ross says. Between the click-clack of the copying machines, with homemade flyers and zines spitting out of copier carriages, Spatula was solidifying. "I was getting ready to put out the first Lud record, and Matt and I started talking about putting out a Spatula record, and then Tinsel...," Ross remembers. Even the Thorny Acacia, released in 1994, was Johnson's first full-length. He has now contributed to 12.
Still, Johnson wasn't satisfied with having one record out with one band. He was always tinkering, like concentrating on the low-end of his guitar to accommodate for Spatula's lack of a bass player. While absorbing sounds as a DJ at WXYC, Johnson was the sort of guy, Gocke remembers, who would bring Nirvana's Bleach home first.
"Chuck was always kinda pushing the bounds," Gocke says. He laughs a little. "I was always the opposite, so it used to drive me crazy sometimes, because he would play this beautiful guitar lick, and I would want him to repeat it, but he would move on to something else."
Spatula eventually added cellist Chris Eubank, and it was an important turning point for Spatula and Johnson alike: Gocke says Eubank helped introduce communication tactics for improvising, using themes like colors or "being in traffic" to facilitate listening to each other and responding by playing.
In an area that was quickly becoming crowded with rock bands, that was an important distinction: The local scene was percolating, busy with bedroom labels like Jettison and Jesus Christ, local bands signing big record deals, and the rest of the country suddenly paying attention. Spatula went on tour with Merge's Polvo. They got a following and, ultimately, released four full-lengths.
Johnson was always working privately. He started a tape label, Cirrus Oxide. His projects overlapped. Trials of playing sympathetic-stringed Eastern instruments dovetailed into their rock applications with the band Idyll Swords. In cinematic band Shark Quest, he helped merge the lushness of stringed and bowed instruments. He performed a live film score with Superchunk, and composed and performed for two films by filmmaker Cynthia Hill. Shark Quest did music for award-winning documentary Monster Road and the film Rocaterrania. Johnson was never satisfied.
Even as a child, Chuck Johnson loved hearing the sound of something feeding back. His mother had given him a tape recorder that he would hold up to the family stereo console. He'd press record and listen to the crackly squawk bleating forth.
"Sometimes when Matt and I were jamming," Johnson says, "I would just play feedback, and he would play drums. There's the more populist approach to electronics, guitar pedals, which I got into with all these configurations in Spatula."
But Johnson wasn't just a guitar player with pedals for very long. In 1999, he conducted his composition "For Twelve Guitars," a guitar ensemble piece, and in 2000, he premiered "Comprehensivism" as a guest composer with pulsoptional (then called CSMG), the Durham composers' collective. He was also improvising with the Micro-East Collective jazz group.
"He's been able to be an individual on an instrument that's been so homogenized. I respect that in anybody," says Ross, who continues to play with his band Lud and is now the editor of The Carrboro Citizen. "And he was saying to all of us, 'Hey, here is something different.'"
From 1997 to 2001, Johnson even curated a monthly improv night that hosted traveling players and offered locals chances to try out ideas live. Spatula put out its last record, Despina By Land, the year Johnson started the improv night, but he was also at work with a new, solo guise, Ivanovich, playing unaccompanied guitar while using extended, experimental techniques for the instrument. Others watched Johnson's evolution, valuing the lesson.
"I came to Chapel Hill already a big Spatula fan," says Ben Goldberg, who moved from New York to work promotions with Merge Records in 1997. Now he's the owner of Ba Da Bing Records, a successful label that—like Johnson's career—runs the gamut from more orthodox, rock-oriented music to improvisation and noise. "Chuck was my guitar hero. He was known as being one of those guys who was straddling between two scenes ... experimental stuff and more straight up rock, and highly admired in both."
Another person who admired Johnson's work was Robert Biggers, a Chapel Hill drummer, guitarist and improviser who's a full decade younger than Johnson. In 2003, Biggers was playing in the band Cold Sides and interested in starting his own improvisational night. Johnson gave him advice.
"It was good to get feedback from him [on] what was reasonable to expect or hope for, as far as interest within our scene went," remembers Biggers, who would later collaborate with Johnson in The Nein. "As a musical 'elder' of mine, I find it very inspiring that he's open to new ideas. And most importantly, his interest is both youthfully enthusiastic and yet very workman-like and analytical."
Johnson's interest in Biggers' improv night, which came to be known as Recess, paid off. It's there that Johnson began working with Randy Ward, another local musician who was interested in constantly reinventing himself. With a lust for making pure noise first and for understanding the noise later, Ward inspired the next phase of Johnson's experiments.
"I bought a Moog synthesizer from Brian Huskey for ten dollars, before he moved," says Johnson of a mid-'90s score. "Yep, ten bucks," he says with a chuckle. "He's still kinda pissed about that."
In 2003, Johnson's latent interest in synthesizers bloomed: He started circuit-bending with Ward, tweaking the actual guts of electronic devices. Ward, who died of cancer in 2004, created an arsenal of electronics, while Johnson started his Pykrete alias, foraying into progressive techno and more rhythmically oriented music.
One summer night in 2003, he and Ward played a party, setting up quadraphonic speakers in the center of a field. Loops, chirps, cut-ups—they were all propelled like a mesmerizing din into the open air, the nearby pond's crickets and frogs seemingly in tune. In retrospect, it was reminiscent of "Alien Bog," a piece by minimalist composer and Mills alumna (see "Music at Mills" below) Pauline Oliveros.
That was the first time Aaron Smithers had seen either Johnson or Ward perform, having just moved here from Texas for UNC-Chapel Hill's graduate folklore program. He was blown away.
"It's inspiring for people like me to see someone who has interests in lots of things and is actually trying them out in his own work," says Smithers, currently completing his master's thesis, a study into how music scenes sustain themselves. Smithers academic interest gives him a telling perspective on Johnson's importance to the Triangle: "The local scene has benefited from him still being here all this time. Some kid might benefit from seeing a Chuck Johnson set, and wondering what might change for them, or change in their own music."
Similiarly, Johnson continues to find new inspirations. Oliveros, one of the first composers to introduce the principle of incorporating the sounds of a piece's real-time environment into the composition itself, will teach an online class during Johnson's first semester at Mills. After Johnson attended a retreat at her Deep Listening Institute last year, Oliveros inspired Johnson to apply to Mills. Deep listening involves exploring a hyper-awareness of sound around you.
"It's a sound practice for musicians and composers," Johnson says, "but it's essentially a mindfulness practice. Your focus is on sound, instead, so you're focusing on sounds or thoughts externally, and your own internal sounds." He says it's improved his ability to improvise.
As Johnson's "keen ear," as Ross calls it, is only getting more acutely aware of its stimuli, he has left an indelible imprint on musicians in the Triangle. His journey continues. As he puts it, "I sort of realized this is already what I'm trying to do with music. Even when I was 22, I was still trying to connect to something other than myself. It's a way to connect to those other things that are outside."
Listen to streaming MP3s below, or DOWNLOAD "Free Infusion Across the Blood-Brain Barrier" (MP3, 3.3KB). To buy a copy of any of the Transmissions albums, e-mail Ethan Causet.
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Mills College's Music Department has long been a fertile environment for experimentation by its students and faculty alike. As a testament, the school produced a three-album set of recordings in 1986, sampling many bright lights from the pool of Mills' graduate department. On those discs, pioneers of minimalism, radicals of free jazz and advocates of avant-garde composition convoke: There's Eastern-influenced minimalist Terry Riley; jazz innovator Anthony Braxton; composer Robert Ashley, whose operas redefined song performance; muse-to-many Prandit Pran Nath, whose use of the Kirana vocal tradition also influenced La Monte Young and Riley; electronic composer Morton Subotnick; even Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist who wrote "Take Five."
Pauline Oliveros, the first director of Mills' Center for Contemporary Music and an influence on Chuck Johnson's own approach, lends an excerpt of her 1967 drone piece "Alien Bog" to the recording. Awash in pulsing rhythms and chirping delays, Oliveros notes it was deeply influences by her surroundings at Mills: "I was deeply impressed by the sounds from the frog pond outside the studio window at Mills. I loved the accompaniment as I worked on my pieces. Though I never recorded the frogs, I was of course influenced by their music."
Johnson is fully aware of the school's rich heritage, but he's eager to work with the contemporaries there now. "I am excited about working and learning with electronic music pioneers Chris Brown, Maggi Payne and John Bischoff," says Johnson, "as well as improvising composers Roscoe Mitchell, Zeena Parkins and Fred Frith." —Chris Toenes