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Planetary Waves

Jack Johnson climbs on a touring bus, eluding the afternoon New Orleans thunderstorms and heat. He and his band — just two guys, drummer-percussionist Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski — are there to play, later, one of the clubs that cater to music fans who visit the city for its annual Jazz Fest. Once he’s inside, an obnoxious repeating beep Johnson thinks is coming from a loud TV distracts him. “Hang on,” he says, “I want to turn this down,” but then realizes it’s not a simple switch-off, mutters “Too complicated,” and continues talking his even-cadenced, midrangy, rarely accented talk.

“Anyway,” he says, “I gave Mario this tape of all these live recordings from the shows that we were doing.” Mario is Mario Caldato Jr., the producer and engineer best known for his work with the Beastie Boys. Caldato produced On and On, Johnson’s top-shelf follow-up to his 2000 Brushfire Fairytales, which has sold over a million copies. “Mario’s comment was, ‘Man, this is cool, you should just put it out.’ He loved the way it sounded, all stripped-down.”

And then Johnson says something that is the opposite of what most musicians and producers, comparing studio to concert work, maintain. “You have more control live,” he says. “Because you’re just playing; it’s coming right through. Whereas, you know, miking something right, using the right room and all that stuff, that’s what we don’t know about. So Mario really helped a lot. There’s not much of us, so we had to focus on each instrument, making sure that the bass is real bubbly and round and fills in all the low end, and then my guitar playing is just like another percussion, and Adam’s high-hat works real good without pulling in too much space. And singing, I just felt more comfortable this time. We recorded in our garage, in Hawaii. There was no rushed feeling.” That last quality, you think, is a precondition for any sort of Jack Johnson–style peace.

Also: no loud TV beeps — which until this second have been bothering him. Then they stop. “I just got on this bus,” he says in a quasi-blurted-out way, in a way that someone who never blurts out things might sound if he sort of did. “It’s like the first day we’re out here, and I just ran to make sure I’d get my phone call, and the TV was turned on real loud and there was this beeping noise, and nobody was on here except me, and so finally the beeping noise went off by itself.”

Johnson’s mood brightens. I tell him that, a couple of winters ago, when I heard him open for Ben Harper on several Midwest dates — way before “Flake,” his hit from Brushfire Fairytales, made him mildly but documentably famous — his renditions of “Rocky Raccoon,” that cooled-out Lennon/McCartney copyright impervious to shrill standard-issue Beatleheadisms, was awesome. I tell him that superinfectious tunes from On and On such as “Taylor” and “The Horizon Has Been Defeated” seem like the work of a guy determined to reanimate the rare unrushed waves of hooks in “Rocky Raccoon.” Johnson doesn’t laugh or anything like that. He does something totally better — he goes all Irving Berlin. Jack Johnson says:

“I grew up in Hawaii, so at 4 or 5 I surfed all the time. The guitar playing came up when I was 14, 15. It was something to do at night, because where I lived, there was no nightlife at all; it was out in the country, on the north side of Oahu. It’s really a beautiful place, and I love it, it’s just that when you’re a teenager, sometimes you start getting a little pissed off, because there’s nothing to do. Me and my friends would sit around with guitars and play a lot. ‘Rocky Raccoon’? When I first started playing, every song I learned was sing-along, because that was the whole reason I learned to play, to lead sing-alongs at barbecues and campfires and stuff. A friend of ours used to come over and visit, and he’d bring his old Martin. He would lead us in ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ and ‘Father and Son,’ all that kind of thing.”

Van Morrison. Cat Stevens. The ’60s. The ’70s. Johnson continues: “These sing-alongs were all I was learning how to play at first. So when I started to write my own tunes, the whole purpose was to be able to still play them on the front porch with everybody, so my friends and family would learn my own songs. And we’d all sing ’em.”

He’s on a tear. Where is Bob Dylan? Not here, not exactly: “I think it became part of the process for me,” Johnson says, “making sure that there were songs that everybody could sing with. You know, they weren’t these ultrapersonal things that only I could sing and everybody would sit and listen to. For me, that was uncomfortable. I wanted to write these songs that were speaking for everybody — you know, personal in the sense that everybody feels like a part of it, but not so personal that people feel like they’re just watching somebody.”

 

In Jack Johnson’s world, if people are watching somebody, then the medium might more logically be movies. A film-studies graduate of UC Santa Barbara, Johnson spun his pro surfing career into documentary making. As a student, he had learned to shoot 15-millimeter, “so suddenly I was in demand with my friends,” he says. Eventually he co-produced two surf features, Thicker Than Water (1998) — for which he traveled all over the world, simultaneously writing most of the songs that would appear on Brushfire Fairytales — as well as 2000’s The September Sessions, shot in Indonesia. “For some, surfing is an extreme sport, and for some it’s like the best part is riding your bike home with the sunset behind, or paddling out, watching a friend ride a wave, just kind of real special moments. It starts to feel like slow motion in a way, and I wanted to present that in the movies we were doing.”

But for Johnson, the surf-film/pop-star continuum isn’t what you might initially guess; if his is a different kind of pop, it’s also a different kind of crossover. “The whole reason I end up playing live,” he says, “is because there are people coming to the shows and singing along. If people weren’t coming, if people weren’t understanding my music, I wouldn’t push it, I would just keep making surf films, and probably record, like, 4-track tapes for friends. The reason it keeps going is because of the energy that’s coming back at us.”

Here’s what Johnson throws out in the first place these days: An intense high point of On and On is a song called “Cookie Jar”; roughly speaking, it’s as magnetically catchy as “Rocky Raccoon,” but in fact it’s a state-of-the-world tune by an open-minded singer-songwriter unafraid to serve up a little, uh, criticism of the now-hallowed pop-cult merry-go-round, the song of a guy unworried that his ideas might stamp him a neocon bore. The song concerns itself with how TV can be more invidious than as a source of loud repeating beeps. “It was magic at first,” Johnson sings, also remembering the early age of silent film. But things have taken a different slant.

“One thing I think a lot about,” Johnson says, “is the sensationalism that’s on TV now, all the reality shows, and you get everybody going, ‘Man, I can’t believe this show, it’s so horrible, you should check it out.’ And everybody thinks that they’re, like, the small percentage of people who are disgusted with it but just watch because they can’t believe it’s on. In reality, that’s everybody, that’s creating the demand, these people who are going, ‘It’s horrible but I’m still watching it.’”

For Jack Johnson, a little calmer equals a little better. Recently, a critic wrote that he couldn’t believe anyone could be as tranquil as Johnson and his music often appear. “His whole thing,” Johnson says, “that I couldn’t be this calm was sort of a compliment to me, you know?” As Johnson leaves the bus and re-enters the ruthless Louisiana heat, the TV is still not beeping.

Jack Johnson performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Monday, August 4.


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