Mike Johnson of Glass Ghost
By Andy Doerschuk Published September 24, 2009
Hometown: Southboro, Massachusetts
Previous Bands: Flying
Ever since their fateful meeting in 2001 at a wedding gig in Boston, keyboardist Elliot Krimsky and drummer Mike Johnson have played for kids at community centers and high schools, real estate agents and lawyers at parties, department store shoppers, and ex-cons at a college. In 2004, after the demise of their ambitious, but ill-fated, jazz band, Best Of Boston, Krimsky and Johnson rejoined forces as part of the New York outfit, Flying. With Flying they recorded Faces Of The Night and toured the U.S. for two years. The two formed the duo Glass Ghost after leaving Flying and, excited about the freedom and space they had to work with as a two-man group, they quickly began work on what would become their debut album Idol Omen, which will be released in October on Western Vinyl Records.
Do you play drums any differently in a duo than you would in a band that had more members?
There’s a lot of space in a band with just two people. This allows you not only to play more, but also allows you to create more unusual drum parts. In a larger band it’s often good to play familiar parts that sort of fit into what is happening with everyone. In a band with two people, though, there isn’t much of a general texture of sound to fit into. We can create it, in a sense, straight out of the silence. We use familiar sounds too. For example we use a lot of sounds, in the drums especially, that you might hear on a rap track. But even those often sound pretty unusual in the degree of exposure that you deal with in a duo.
Is there anything you miss about playing with a larger band?
One thing that’s really nice about playing in a larger band is that you can rely on other people a little more when it comes to creating energy and interest when performing live. When it’s only two people it’s almost impossible to get away with slacking on practice or being tired or not feeling like playing for some other reason. I also like the challenge though. It forces you to really be prepared for every performance.
What is your favorite drum part on the new album?
My favorite drum part on the album is the part on “Like A Diamond.” I remember playing that part pretty straight off when Eliot, my bandmate, showed me the chords and melody. And it seemed to work well right away. It was at a pretty sad and lonely time for me. I had recently quit my former band, which took up most of my time, and around the same time broken up with my girlfriend. Then I found out that the band that I had just quit, which Eliot was also in, was asked to go on this amazing tour with one of my favorite bands: Deerhoof. We were both pretty overwhelmed by that. Also I had recently watched the movie Dancer In The Dark with Bjork in which I remembered a dance scene that had a bunch factory workers doing this dance in the factory, which seemed really mechanical and sad, kind of like the sadness of nature or time, that stops for nothing. Anyway, I remember all of these things happening around the time when we were first playing that song. I think the drums reflect some of that and bring me back to that time.
Did you record to a click track?
Someone told me a story recently about the drummer who played on the Michael Jackson track “Billie Jean.” I’m not sure if it’s true. Apparently the drummer wanted to do the drums without a click. Quincy Jones said that he had one shot to get it. Well, if the story is true the drums you hear on “Billie Jean” are a first take without the click. Now if it’s possible for him to do “Billie Jean” that way why should we all get lazy and use the click track? It seems to me that the times when I feel most into the idea of using a click track are the times when I feel unsure of my time. Is the click track then just an instrument that coddles us in our mediocrity? Does it really make music sound better? It certainly can. When the time is better the music sounds better. We didn’t use a click track on our record. I think the rhythm feels pretty good. But I’m still unsure about whether or not it’s good to use, or whether we’ll use it on the next record.
Describe the worst gig you’ve ever played.
The worst gig I ever did was a jazz gig in Gloucester, Massachusetts at a place called the Rhumb Line. I was probably 19 or 20 years old. It really was, and hopefully still is, a cool place. It was like a fisherman’s dive bar in a fishing town. We were playing the standard jazz repertoire. One patron became exceedingly drunk. He was wearing a nice shirt and tie and looked like a pretty all right guy. And he seemed kind of interested in the music, which was a rare occurrence back then. A lot of the time nobody cared what we played. He started dancing to the music. And he was putting one and five and ten dollar bills on the saxophone player’s music stand, draping them over the stand as part of the dance. Then he would get mad at us sometimes, for instance if we didn’t know a song that he requested, and he would take some of the money away. It was really weird. Anyway, the part that I remember most was when I was loading my drums out at the end the night. I was carrying a really heavy load and I was super exhausted. And then a car came rolling by real slow and the window came down. The dancing man’s drunken head came out of the window and he said, “Suck it up, sweet bitch!”