ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 21, 2003
Jack Johnson has spent a large part of his life riding the waves in his native Hawaii. He was only 12 when he started surfing the universally revered stretch of beach known as the Pipeline, and before he was out of high school he scored a contract with leading sportswear and pro surfing company Quiksilver. But it’s not as if melodic surf-rock instrumentals by Dick Dale and the Ventures were echoing through the youngster’s head as he balanced on the roiling swells of the Pacific.
“That was sorta the surf music back in my dad’s day,” explains the 28-year-old filmmaker and folk-pop sensation from a sound check in Phoenix, Arizona. “I don’t mind some of that stuff, like ‘Pipeline’ and ‘Wipe Out’, but surf music’s changed a lot. As we grew up, watching the surf movies that we’d buy at the surf shops, there was always a lotta punk stuff—like Pennywise, Bad Religion, and Sprung Monkey. So to me, good surf music has always seemed like punk-rock music.”
Anyone who’s heard either of Johnson’s chart-topping CDs—2001’s Brushfire Fairytales or this year’s On and On—knows that his music isn’t anything close to either punk or surf. It’s extremely mellow, easygoing, slightly blues- and hip-hop–tinged balladry, the kind of thing you’d play on a sand-encrusted ghetto blaster the morning after an all-night beach party. It’s a sound that was introduced to devotees of the surfing scene on Thicker Than Water, the feature-length 1999 surf film shot by Johnson, a graduate of the film department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “That’s when people first started hearing my music,” he notes. “Surfers would start to paddle up to me out in the water and ask if I was gonna put out a CD, and it was kinda the first spark that led to gettin’ to make my record.
“And also I got to meet G. Love and Special Sauce,” he adds, “because we’d used some of their music in the films we were makin’. Garrett, who’s G. Love, is a surfer, and I ended up writing a song [“Rodeo Clowns”] they wanted to use on one of their records. That was kinda the big jump that started the ball rollin’.”
The snowball effect of Johnson’s musical endeavours has resulted in a platinum-in-America (one million copies sold) debut CD, a follow-up that’s gone gold in the States (500,000 copies sold) after only three months, and a coheadlining tour with popular L.A. soul-rocker Ben Harper, which hits UBC’s Thunderbird Arena on Friday (August 22).
“We both had records comin’ out about a month apart,” explains Johnson, “so we just started talkin’ about goin’ out on the road together. The first tour we ever did was opening for Ben, and we had a lotta fun. The sound guy, Michael, does sound for both of us, and we share a monitor engineer. A lotta the guys who set up the drums and all that help us both, so it works out good.”
Although Harper’s music is definitely edgier than Johnson’s, the two singer-songwriter-guitarists share a soulful, spiritual vibe and aren’t afraid to touch on important issues. “Symbol in My Driveway”, the final track on On and On, opens with the lines: “I’ve got a symbol in my driveway/I’ve got a hundred million dollar friends/I’ve got you a brand new weapon/Let’s see how destructive we can be.” To these ears, those words resemble a veiled bash at George Bush Jr. and his bomb-happy Pentagon pals.
“That’s one way to read it,” replies Johnson. “I was basically just drivin’ along down in L.A. and I was kind of noticing… You know, there are a lot of cities you drive into where you go a few blocks and you see the type of cars that are in certain driveways, and then you go a few more blocks and the type of cars change. They’re all sort of symbols for the status of people livin’ in those homes, and that just got me thinkin’ on the first verse. I hadn’t really thought of the George Bush interpretation myself, but I don’t mind it.”
Some of Johnson’s songs appear open to sociopolitical analysis, but he’s more prone to come up with what he describes as “love songs that are goofy”. When he calmly sings and gently strums his guitar, the fluid accompaniment of bassist Merlo Podlewski and drummer Adam Topol helps conjure a laid-back vibe that echoes ’70s soft-rock king James Taylor. That could seem either great or awful, depending on one’s musical standpoint. “I have never really looked at it that way,” says Johnson. “I’ve heard people joke about ‘the Jimmy Buffett of the millennium’, ’cause he’s always into sailin’ around, you know. And I actually cover one of his songs, ‘A Pirate Looks at 40’. But I take all the labels on, and I’m just happy I get to do music, you know. It’s fun.”