“Call a couple of stars and they’ll start a feud,” sings Kraig Jarret Johnson on the first song of his new album, KRAIG JARRET JOHNSON & THE PROGRAM, released April 13, 2018 on the Minneapolis-based Susstones label. The record, he says, is named for his current band, which includes guitarist/producer Ed Ackerson (Polara, BNLX), songwriter David Poe, drummer Peter Anderson (Polara, Honeydogs, The Ocean Blue, Ryan Traster) and, Johnson says, “whoever else may show up and play.”
Johnson’s songwriting talents, onstage charisma and waggish poise are well-known to devotees of American guitar rock, and near-legendary in his native Minneapolis. Beginning with Run Westy Run, a band he formed with his brother Kirk in the halcyon days of indie punk, Johnson has been in the center of a steady stream of innovative musical projects since well before he could legally enter a bar. The rakish rocker has spent his life since recording, touring and performing with musical luminaries, from The Jayhawks and Golden Smog to Ray Davies of The Kinks and members of R.E.M.
But his current band will be the first to bear his name. Johnson recalls how the project began when he and Poe decamped to a tiny house in the Joshua Tree desert to write songs. Fueled by Tecate and tortillas, he describes how the pair were stimulated by the unfamiliarity of their environment. Together, Johnson and Poe recorded more than an album’s worth of material onto a cassette four-track, purposefully eschewing the perfection and immediacy afforded by computer-assisted technology. “We had a few guitars, a little keyboard and one microphone, which we duct-taped to the handle of a vacuum cleaner because we didn’t have a stand for it,” remembers Johnson. “We were surrounded by coyotes and cactus flowers … big rocks, the color of rust.”
Johnson says their informal aesthetic carried over to subsequent recording sessions at Flowers studio in Minneapolis. “The desert trip was inspiring. When we came back here to record, we'd play the song once or twice, then David (Poe) would add to it, then Ed (Ackerson) would rip a lead. Somebody would have an idea and play it, and their performance would give the next guy an idea,” says Johnson. “And then I’d be like ‘check out dude’ and go rip yet another lead,” he chuckles. “We didn’t spend a lot of time critiquing it or fixing anything. Recording was friendly and relaxed.”
Johnson released an EP of seven songs from those sessions, which sold out in less than a month. The Program performed in the U.S., then abroad. This new album gestated over a number of years following those magical first sessions. With Ackerson and Poe producing, Anderson on drums, and a variety of musical guests including Jim Boquist (Paul Westerberg, Son Volt) and members from the many bands with which Johnson has played, the sound of the album that took shape — two guitars, bass and drums, with ragtag vocal harmonies, unorthodox keyboard stylings and highly-memorable songs — will ring familiar to enthusiasts of Johnson’s musical history.
But The Program are undeniably doing their own thing. The band flirts with psychedelia, power pop, anthemic rock and singer/songwriter fare on this record, all held together by Johnson’s evocative tenor and thoughtful lyrics, which range from populist and personal to poetic and profound. The album begins with Now Here Nowhere, a dark take on modern times “under the glare of the contraband.” “Sleep on the sidewalk,” Johnson sings in Whatever You Got, “and you won’t get your mail.”
“This record sounds a little like everything, but truly like nothing else. It's one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on,” says Poe, a composer fellow of the Sundance Institute who has collaborated with the likes of T-Bone Burnett and Regina Spektor. Ackerson, who has produced recordings for The Replacements, The Jayhawks, Motion City Soundtrack and Wesley Stace, says, “It’s the producer’s job to translate the feeling you get when you first hear the song. We did.”
As a teenager, Johnson played guitar and sang with Run Westy Run. After signing with the SST label, the band released a few records — one produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, another by Husker Dü drummer Grant Hart — and became known for raucous, often ecstatic live shows. He teamed again with his brother to form Iffy in the late 1990s, a funky outfit that rode the first crest of electronically-inflected rock.
Johnson joined members of Wilco, Big Star, the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum to create a whimsical side project known as Golden Smog, which soon became known as a sort of rootsy supergroup. He wrote and co-wrote some of the most-loved songs from their three albums, including If I Only Had A Car, Frying Pan Eyes and 5-22-02. The popularity of the group landed him on late-night network television for the first of many times since. His songs found their way into notable indie films, including Sunshine Cleaning, Clerks and The Music Never Stops. Johnson eventually joined the Jayhawks for two critically-acclaimed records: The Sound Of Lies and Smile (produced by Bob Ezrin - Pink Floyd, Lou Reed,) and began many tours of the world.
Over the last dozen years, as it always seems to go for Johnson, many other projects beckoned: Joseph Arthur convinced him to throw in with his band The Lonely Astronauts for two records and tours, then Johnson wrote songs with Scottish chanteuse Angela McCluskey, drummer Charlie Drayton and the late singer Chrissie Amphlett, both of the Divinyls. He made another record with his brother and their band. For a few years, Johnson relocated to Manhattan, where he headed a storied residency at a West Village club called Entwine and performed weekly with the likes of banjo impresario Bela Fleck, film composer Paul Cantelon, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group and members of the Foo Fighters, Libertines and Wallflowers.
Be it his knack for writing an infectious pop song, his soulful guitar playing, or his boyish affability, musicians of note seem to be drawn to Johnson. But despite his talent and some good luck, his career to date defines the proverbial notion of the hard-working performer, and the paying of dues. Now, with his supportive bandmates, Kraig Jarret Johnson is releasing an exciting new project that reflects his passionate intensity and formidable talents. So is this the ultimate endeavor for a musician who has played with so many others, carries a phone containing the numbers of superstars and has received accolades from many of them, including that of Sir Ray Davies? “I’ll keep playing as long as they keep showing up,” Johnson says, smiling as he leans his guitar against a bass drum that bears his name. [March 2018]