Alain Johannes (Part I): 'I Remember Natasha Shneider Having a T-Shirt Saying 'I'm the Bass Player, Motherf--ker''

artist: Alain Johannes date: 09/01/2014 category: interviews
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Alain  Johannes (Part I): 'I Remember Natasha Shneider Having a T-Shirt Saying 'I'm the Bass Player, Motherf--ker''
When you walk in Alain Johannes' house, it's like you've stepped back in time and just entered the coolest music store you've ever seen. If that music store was tucked away somewhere down a side street in some open air market in Morocco or somewhere else equally as exotic. There are rugs and incense and bare wooden floors and the sense of antiquity. The strangest looking collection of guitars lines one hallway including the signature cigar box 8-string and his Fender Jazzmaster. A drum kit occupies the center of the living room while the control room housing an array of the hippest recording gear you've ever seen is set up in one of the bedrooms. It's exactly the type of place you'd expect to find the musician in.

Alain [this is the French derivative and not to be confused with Al or Allan as he's called by most of his friends] Johannes may have had his name mispronounced all his life but there is no confusing the depth of his talents. Born in Santiago, Chile, he moved with his parents to various places in the world before finally coming to America. Here, he'd play in bands with pre-Red Hot Chili Peppers Jack Irons, Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons and ultimately find his other half in Natasha Shneider. With Shneider - an insanely gifted keyboardist and composer - he'd form Eleven and release several remarkable albums. He would lose Natasha to cancer in 2008 and it would turn him upside down.

He eventually came to the attention of people like Chris Cornell and Josh Homme and would find a career as an engineer, producer, and auxiliary musician with everyone from the Soundgarden singer to Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, No Doubt and many others.

Recently, Johannes has focused his attention on his own solo career and released his second solo album - "Spark" came out several years ago - titled "Fragments & Wholes." He plays every note, sings every word and produced and engineer it himself. It is an extraordinary mix of acoustics and angry electrics and breathless vocals. Here in part one, he talks about his early work right up until his first major production with Chris Cornell's debut solo album "Euphoria Morning."

UG: Being born and growing up in Santiago, Chile must have been one of the reasons why you'd ultimately pursue Flamenco and acoustic guitar, right?

AJ: Exactly. What happened was I must have been almost two when we actually moved to Zurich. I learned Swiss and German and then moved to Panama for a year in '67 and '68 and then to Mexico City. I loved the Beatles straightaway so at five or six I was already demanding the singles as they would come out. I would learn phonetically and pick out the chords.

When did you get your first guitar?

My uncle put a guitar in my hands and showed me a few chords and I must have been four. Then I heard Paco de Lucia in '68 and fell in love with him. "Jesus Christ Superstar" was huge 'cause the movie version played in Mexico and my friend's dad owned the movie theater so we'd go there and watch it after school. Melodically and all of that.

What other types of music were you listening to?

I was very influenced by Prokofiev and some of the classical stuff and I tried to learn Bach on the guitar. I had a Christopher Parkening book and I would force myself to figure out what the hell was happening.

Did you ever take guitar lessons?

I had lessons for a very short period of time but the dude was kind of a bummer. He would hit my hand with a ruler and clearly I was too young for the proper barre chord with a full-sized guitar. So I told him, "I don't think being taught is for me." This kid from Canada moved into the apartment next door in Mexico City and he played me my first Sabbath, Zeppelin and Hendrix.

What did you think?

I was just like, "Oh, my god."

It did something to you?

Yeah, it did something to me straightaway. Especially 'cause I was always so enamored with the human voice and the phrasing and articulation of horns and Eric Dolphy and Coltrane. The Bulgarian Women's Choir and the nah nah nin [sings very drone-like vocal phrase] and I was always trying to get my gut string to do that and I was like, "This is not gonna happen."

Is that when you got interested in the electric guitar?

My uncle had a band that used to rehearse in our apartment and the guitar player dude had kind of a clean sound. I remember it was a cream Telecaster or a Broadcaster maybe in the early '70s. He had this little box and when he stepped on it, I was like, "What the hell is that? That's the sound." It was a [MXR] Distortion Plus, any early one.

Were you playing live by this time?

I was earning a little money playing weekends as the third guy from the left playing just the rhythms. I never got to solo and so I got myself an SG and Reverberocket and I had to wait a little longer to get the Distortion Plus 'cause those Ampegs even on full were just massively clean. I went for a note and it went, "Ding" and then died away.

You moved to the US when you were young?

When we moved here, the first thing that shocked me was it took me a while to find the music I liked on the dial. I was convinced I was gonna land in rock and roll heaven. But turning the dial it was like, "Oh, that's not bad. Who is that? Linda Ronstandt. That's Helen Reddy. Captain and Tennille." Then finally towards the right it was KWST and I heard the rock and stuff.

Did you live in Hollywood?

I lived on Wonderland Avenue [Hollywood Hills] and the I lived off of Sunset and Larrabee where the Golden Carrot used to be and the Whisky was right down the street. I would sneak into the back of the Whisky and try and hide and listen to Van Halen. I snuck in a couple of times and it was Van Halen before the first album and Xciter with George Lynch. Then I saw Shawn Lane who was playing with Black Oak, Arkansas at the Starwood.

You ran into the guys who would eventually play in the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

At Bancroft Junior High, I met Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons and started jamming together straightaway. We formed our first band with a couple different names and ended up calling it Anthym.

It began as…

Chain Reaction.

And it was Raven before that?

Raven, too. We kept going through names and Hillel digged designing logos and they were all really great. It was just a three-piece and we'd play house parties and at Fairfax High, we started playing around the lunchtime circuit. Which meant you'd go play Uni [University High] and Hollywood High.

What kind of songs were you playing?

In the beginning we would do covers. I remember at the talent show we did "Barracuda" and one of the girls there I thought was really hot came up to me and said [in haughty voice], "Well, Ann Wilson you're not." I was like, "Well, duh." But what a bummer so I thought, "We can't do covers, man. People are gonna keep comparing us." So we started writing our own songs and we already had a few anyway like "One Way Woman" and "White Knight Part I and II." I'd just gotten the Ludwig Phase III guitar, the synthesizer, and I played the part of the dragon and Hillel was the knight so we'd duel. He'd go bwaw duddudud dududle [sings fast guitar riff] and I'd go wowwww wowww wow [sings analog synth sound], which is the only thing the thing did anyways.

What style were those songs?

At first we were kind of a Rush-meets-Beefheart like weird and heavy. I had a Clone Theory guitar and Carvin amps with all this kind of fat, distorted, chorusy sound. We started getting a little bit cleaner sounds and I got a Jazzmaster in '78 and started getting a little angular. A lot of stuff started happening and Talking Heads was coming out and influenced us. Remain in Light and I heard [Adrian] Belew and Gang of Four. We cut our hair and found old suits.

The New Wave look.

I would do a widow's peak and even though I have crazy eyebrows, I would reinforce them going straight up. That was fun. Everything from that time period sounds a little dated now because the aesthetic sonically was different.

It's like that which is old is new again.

It's part of that arc where you're constantly trying to keep moving forward. I always keep going back to the most natural recordings even if they're heavily manipulated in a creative way like the Beatles ones are. Where they're just breaking the rules all the time and putting the mic way too close, which they weren't allowed to do.

You're always going back to listen to older recordings by other artists?

It's always very humbling. I listen to some of those old Rudy Van Gelder or all the cool jazz recordings where obviously the dynamics of the players play a huge part and they know how to balance themselves in the room. Then you put up a bunch of nice Neumanns and Telefunkens through Fairchilds and Poltecs and of course the performance is magical. I listen to those and constantly to this day I'm like, "Eccch." On "Fragments and Wholes" I try to basically go for the same thing with old ribbon mics and very spontaneous the best way I could going on tape.

That early band ultimately became What Is This?

It took us awhile to get our first record deal. It was in '83 but we were playing constantly for three years. Flea had joined the band in high school and about a year afterwards he left to join Fear who we would see all the time. After he had left Fear, he had already been a friend of Anthony [Kiedis] since high school but he was more into drama at the time. They started living together and they just started the Peppers.

Were Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons still in What Is This at this point?

There were two bands sharing members and then we both got record deals the same week - us from MCA and them from Warner Bros. Hill and Jack decided to stay with me and we got a German bass player named Chris Hutchinson.

Ultimately Hillel and Jack would leave?

Hillel left first during the second album ['What is This?'] that Todd Rundgren produced. Dave Jerden [Talking Heads, Frank Zappa] did the EP ["Squeezed"]. It was during the middle of the record and you could already tell he was getting antsy and really concentrating on his songs just to get 'em done. He left in the middle of the record and we became a three-piece.

Was Todd Rundgren one of your guys?

He was one of my guys but not as heavy as the others. I loved "Utopia" and some of his solo records and working with him was actually kind of tricky. I never actually said anything bad [about him]. It wasn't necessarily bad. It was just he was hands offish in a weird way. He would kind of Yoda-ing his way through. He'd be, "Play me the song. It's not ready" and walk out and come back the next day. It's like, "You figure it out." Then at some point he goes, "It's ready" and I could have sworn it was very close to the original arrangement.

Todd Rundgren does have that reputation.

He was really difficult to work with as a vocal producer because he was trying to wear down my confidence. Not that I ever thought about it in those terms but I started singing and then he'd stop me and go, "It was flat right there" and I'd go, "Well, yeah. Let me warm up." We'd continue and halfway through the next two lines he'd go, "Uh, that was sharp there." I said, "Can you just please let me warm-up and get through it?" Then other ten seconds, "Pitch is good but I'm not feeling it," hah hah hah. I wasn't a big drinker but finally I had to get some cheap E&J brandy. I'd be all like, "Dude, just record me, OK?"

Some of the music on that Squeezed EP like "I Am a House" had kind of an Adrian Belew vibe to it.

Yeah. I think it was in 1980 and I don't know if we were still in high school or after where we got tickets to see King Crimson. We had the front table in front of the stage at the Roxy for two shows a night for three nights. They were playing Discipline with Belew, Bill Bruford and Tony Levin.

You were digging it?

Oh, my god. It was just like, "What is this?" No pun intended. Hillel started to turn on the f--kin' fuzz as he swept across behind the nut. All that sh-t and a little more angular. That was definitely a huge influence there along with a bunch of other stuff.

Where did the Spinners cover of "I'll Be Around" come from?

It was kind of an accident, hah hah hah. And it haunted us. I'll tell you why it haunted us - imagine you're a What Is This fan of which there were a few but not so numerous - and suddenly you get new fans from being number 42 with a bullet and mysteriously disappeared from there. I don't know what that whole thing was. Payola.

You did hit 42 with a bullet?

Yeah, and we were on American Bandstand and did an interview with Dick Clark and I was wearing my "Miami Vice" blue suit with the giant shoulders and big pouffy hair. I think someone dressed me and I was so into just being a musician, I said, "OK. You like this? Is that cool?" and no one wanted to tell me the truth. I wore it and now I've got to live that sh-t down.

So it wasn't a positive thing having a semi-hit single?

Unfortunately he [presumably Rundgren] played it for the record company first and they literally walked out of the room after hearing that song. The rest of the record played and they were like, "That's it. We've got the single. We're gonna go outside and talk about how we're gonna push this." We're like, "Wait, there's a whole album. 'Waves in the Sand' and 'Dreams of Heaven' and 'Big Raft.'"

What was it like working with Dave Jerden?

Dave was incredible and we actually worked with him on "Walk the Moon" as well. He kinda spoiled us and was a super sweetheart and became a really close friend [in fact Jerden would call Alain during our interview]. El Dorado was a great studio thought it's no longer there. That was fun.

You already knew Natasha Shneider by this time?

Natasha and I had met already and she kind of joined the band. As we started the next What Is This record, Jack went back to the Chili Peppers. Losing Jack at that point, I didn't want to deal with any other drummers 'cause we were just so joined at the hips and we were so young. So we just used drum machines for half the record. Sometimes manually because someone had erased the sync track and every time we mixed down I had to sit there with four fingers on the drum machine to perform.

After Natasha joined, you became Walk the Moon?

We became Walk the Moon and started to explore more of the songwriting stuff and different textures that are not usually rock band-based like synths and all that other stuff and I started playing my odd instruments. Well some of them not odd but the pipa [Chinese lute] or sing like a Sufi-inspired Kowali singing and Natasha would do little choirs.

That was pretty odd.

Yeah, but it was great. We were doing it with David Lord in Bath, England. He had done Peter Gabriel's "Security," Echo & the Bunnymen's "Ocean Rain" and XTC's "The Big Express" and I was a fan of all that stuff. With us it was kind of a bummer because he was kind of in a different headspace and it was actually hard and a difficult time. The album never came out 'cause frankly it just didn't work.

It just didn't work with David Lord?

I'm a huge XTC fan and I meet Andy Partridge and I ask him about David Lord. He said he's amazing. God, I hope these poor people don't get mad at me but David Lord wasn't. Or he was and could have been but it was just a funny time in his life or whatever and it just didn't click with us?

Why do you think that was?

Because Natasha is a total musical genius and he came from the classical world but nowhere near her level. So he constantly felt defensive or whatever and pulled some power trips for no reason. But Todd in the middle of the record I played him some XTC and he wasn't aware of them and they did Skylarking after that. I was like, "Check out this stuff."

What Is This became Walk the Moon?

I had met Natasha before we went to the Todd Rundgren thing. We had just met and I had a dream I was gonna meet her and the next day I met her and started working on her stuff with her. I was away for six weeks and had a photo of her and just missing here and that's where "Whisper (to Natasha)" came from.

Ultimately Natasha joined What Is This?

She joined the band and we started What Is This with Chris Hutchinson and even Rob Hotchkiss was in there from Train playing guitar. That all kind of collapsed because Dave Jerden took a break to go do Stevie Ray Vaughan for two months and in that break Jack left for the Peppers and a bunch of stuff happened.

Like what?

We finished up the record just the two of us and it changed quite a bit. Hillel passed away during that time and then I kind of lost my shit and had kind of a breakdown and so did Jack. So we got back to LA and kind of struggled.

What was it like making Walk the Moon?

There are certain tracks that are more live like "Live On" and stuff like "Daddy's Coming Home" and "On Your Lap" is all obviously drum machiney and more expanded kind of arrangements. It was a pre-Eleven kind of move and we started exploring those possibilities.

Walk the Moon was a bit of a blueprint for Eleven?

Yeah, I think so. What it just needed was for Jack to come back. When we got signed and did the first record ['Awake in a Dream'] for Morgan Creek and chose E.T. Thorngren, it was right before grunge exploded and we actually sounded much rawer and liver than that album sounds like. Pretty much everything you hear is live and maybe one dub or two at the most. Much heavier and rawer and darker the way our live shows were.

"Awake in a Dream" had some Zep moments in songs like "Break the Spell" on which Natasha Schneider played left-hand bass on the keyboards.

I got her a t-shirt once with a cheap design and it said, "I'm the bass player, motherf--ker." Because people would be watching us and she'd have the keyboard and I'd usually do a MIDI map of the two-and-a-half octaves and later on it became an Ovation Bass Station or the Wurlitzer. So that would feed into a bass amp and it was onstage and it was a huge sound with that Moog bass in her left hand. She was so independent, she could sit in the pocket with Jack and have a different pocket with the right hand, which was basically a second rhythm guitar and lead lines with me and then sing lead or harmonies as if there were three completely different grooves.

Did you specifically not want a bass player?

Yeah, basically because her musical thinking on the bass was just so far beyond. Her mind was like McCartney and if you listen to her bass lines, they have this contrapuntal and second melodic thing and the tension and release she creates against the chords are masterful. We were really into the energy of the three because Jack and I had known each other since we were 14 or 15 and Natasha and I were soulmates and at the time I was hoping lifelong partners. We did tour with our friend Ric Markmann who played on "Euphoria Morning" and now plays with Heart and that was really nice. We played with Greg Upchurch too and did a different thing.

But the core of the band was you, Natasha and Jack?

That was the most successful chemistry. There was one show where this girl comes up to Natasha and says, "It's so rude of you guys. Why don't you have the bass player onstage too?" and Natasha's like, "How old are you sweetie?"

You did the follow-up Eleven album?

Which was produced by Pat McCarthy [U2, Counting Crows]. With Thunk, we took even more of a direct involvement in choosing things and the vibe, which led to us doing the records on our own on "Avantgardedog" and "Howling Book." "Howling Book" is my favorite for sure. We did that here at the house and Jack had just come back 'cause he left again by the way and went to Pearl Jam after Thunk or in the middle of Thunk so Matt Cameron came in and played on four songs. We took four of Jack's songs off, which are the b-sides and really amazing.

But ultimately Jack Irons did come back?

He came back after Pearl Jam and then Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam. It was like musical chairs. "Avantgardedog" came out in 2000 but we recorded it in '97. We had just finished it and started "Euphoria Morning" [Chris Cornell] and A&M asked us to wait so we could finish up the cycle with Chris because we were his band live.

Then Jack Irons returned to the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Greg Upchurch had replaced Jack. We found him at Guitar Center and I remembered him from a fan letter. He goes, "My name's Greg and I'm a huge fan." I said, "Greg Upchurch from Oklahoma?" He said, "Yeah, how'd you know?" I said, "I remember your fan letter." Then things were kind of quiet so Greg left for Puddle of Mudd and now he's in 3 Doors Down. Jack came back and did "Howling Book."

What happened with the record?

We ended up on Interscope and they put out a few copies. The good thing about that was "Rated R" was just coming out and we had met Josh Homme earlier at Matt Cameron's wedding. Natasha and I performed "Ave Maria," which was really sweet. Then ran into him at the airport when he was in Screaming Trees and I loved Kyuss.

You started working with Josh Homme?

We toured at the very beginning of "Rated R" and it was maybe six- or seven-hundred people on a West Coast run and we became really close friends. Eleven opened up for Queens [of the Stone Age]. He asked me to engineer some of the b-sides for that and he asked Natasha and I to join Desert Sessions, Volumes 7 & 8. From that, I wrote "Hanging Tree" and "Making a Cross" and they recorded "Hanging Tree" and Natasha and I became people who were guesting on their records. I played Theremin on this and she played piano on that. I was a Mexican deejay and she was a Russian dominatrix deejay and that's how the whole Queens thing started.

What was that like working with Chris Cornell on his first solo record "Euphoria Morning?"

Basically we did that here at the house for seven months on and off. He would come and go and it was just the three of us [Cornell, Johannes and Shneider] and people like Josh Freese would come in.

Amazing drummer.

Yeah, incredible. We'd met him at Frank Zappa's house when he was just a kid because he used to play in Dweezil's band in the early days.

You obviously knew who Chris Cornell was from Soundgarden?

Oh, yeah. I remember hearing early recordings through Aaron Jacoves [Senior VP/A&R at A&M Records] who I went to high school with. Aaron introduced Natasha and I and Aaron was our manager in high school. He played us early Soundgarden when he was trying to get 'em signed to A&M.

Here ends part one of the Alain Johannes story. Tune in for part two when we talk about working with Chris Cornell, Queens of the Stone Age and making 'Fragments & Wholes.'

Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2014
More Alain Johannes interviews:
+ Alain Johannes (Part 2): 'I'm Totally Happy Walking to the Gig From the Train Station With My Backpack and the Cigar Box Sticking Out of It' Interviews 09/15/2014
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