SXSW preview: Duquette Johnston

Showcase info: Duquette Johnston performs at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18 @ The Tap Room on 6th (311 Colorado St)

Other appearances: Birmingham Goes to SXSW, 1:20 p.m. , Saturday, March 21 @ The Creekside Lounge (606 E.7th St.)

I still think of the first Verbena record – Souls for Sale – as one of the greatest raw, garage rock records of the ’90s. It swaggers like a Stones record that was recorded in Alabama. It was full of piss and sweat, of late night jams recorded after a night of drinking, brawling, and crying. Bassist Daniel Duquette Johnston ducked out of the band before they made the jump to Capitol Records and before singer Scott AA Bondy started dating rock stars (Juliana Hatfield) and hanging out with one of rock’s elite (Dave Grohl). Though he wasn’t out of the music biz for good, Johnston was a hard man to track down unless you lived in Alabama where he was fronting a band called Cutgrass. This was in the infancy of the Internet and to this day there are no traces of any Cutgrass songs that can be found by searching deep enough on Google (believe me, I’ve tried).

In 2006, Johnston released his debut solo album, Etowah, full of twangy, southern rock balladry which kind of reminds me of Neil Young’s stuff (though I own no Young records so maybe I’m way off in my comparison).

As a music fan, I can’t imagine anything greater than SXSW – 4 days of non-stop good music, nice weather, and beer drinking. Is it all it’s cracked up to be when you’re an artist playing it and having to compete with 30 other bands during your allotted time slot?

Sure it is. Who would not want to come play and hang out with so many bands. If a band views it as a competition maybe they should be playing some battle of the band thing back home.  Yeah, the music industry is filled with competition, but I’ve adopted the mindset that we’re all trying to make our art. I’m not worried about the other 30 bands playing the same time slot as I am.  Whether it’s three people or 300 that end up at my show, they’re all where they’re supposed to be in the moment.  Maybe it helps that my wife and I are both huge music fans so we look forward to all the craziness that is SXSW.  The great thing about SXSW is that you never know just what to expect.

Do you head to SXSW with a noble purpose (like finding someone who will throw money at you and help release your next record) or is it just a good rock n’ roll Spring Break that you have to “work at” for maybe a few hours over the course of the week?

Are there people out there who will throw money at me? That would be nice. If I was doing this to be a wealthy man I would have stopped a long time ago. I can never stop playing music, and I never will. I think SXSW is a great rock n’ roll spring break even if you have to work some while you are there, but the work is part of the fun. Honestly it would be amazing if someone wants to assist me in this crazy thing called the music industry. Either way I am a lifer and will never stop.

This year you’re involved with a daytime showcase spotlighting bands from Birmingham, Alabama. What can you tell me about the Birmingham scene and how did you wind up with the bands that are on this bill? Are you all friends or was there some sort of committee that chose the bands?

If there is anything I can tell you about Birmingham, it’s that it has one hell of a penchant for grassroots movements.  I think there’s more amazing music being made in this town than ever before, thanks to a good group of amazing musicians, several civilians who bust their humps trying to make something happen, and with places like the Bottletree, Workplay, and even the Nick, there’s a really good energy in the Birmingham scene.  You also have several great labels like Superphonic Records and Skybucket Records who are willing to put their lives on the line for so many bands.  So many of us try to collaborate with each other, with bands like Through the Sparks, Arkadelphia, Vulture Whale, Wild Sweet Orange, Act of Congress, The Grenadines, 13 Ghosts, The Dexateens, Kate Taylor, Taylor Hollingsworth, Broken Letters, John Strohm, King Carnivore, Black Willis,     M.t St. Mtn., Model Citizen, Sunny So Brite, Greg Summerlin, Bo Butler, Great Book of John, and the list could go on and on…  We play in each other’s bands, help each other make records, and try to go to each other’s shows.  Yeah, pretty much, we are all friends.
The bands playing the day party are affiliated in some way with Jeff Tenner (of Tenner11 Management) and Skybucket Records, and that’s basically how the bands were chosen.

Besides the Alabama bands which, of course, you’re going to pimp, what other bands are you most interested in checking out this year?
I think I just pimped the Birmingham day party bands and then some…

As far as other shows I’m looking forward to, Daniel Johnston, The Delta Spirit, Justin Townes Earle, All the Saints, Superdrag,  Vetiver, Blitzen Trapper, Tom Brosseau, Beach House–as you well understand, seeing every band you want to see at SXSW is just impossible, but the wife and I will do our best.  And there are always those secret shows that you hear about at the last minute, and you end up throwing all your plans out the door.

Your former Verbena bandmate Scott “AA” Bondy generated a pretty decent buzz at SXSW last year. Do the two of you keep in touch? The style of music that you both perform as solo artists differs greatly from the Verbena sound, could you ever see an opportunity to work with Scott in the future on a project that is more in tune with what you’re doing now?

Scott and I speak occasionally.  We’ve both been doing our own things for a while–him with the later outfits of Verbena and now as AA Bondy and me with Cutgrass, which I started back in the 90s and now as Duquette Johnston and the Rebel Kings.  What I’m doing now is an extension of what I was doing around the time that I split with Verbena.  I’m never one to say “never,” I’m extremely focused on what I’ve got going on right now.

You left Verbena just as things were starting to happen for the band. Were you at all jealous when you saw the opportunities they were getting, the tours they were landing, the “cool” friends they were attracting (Dave Grohl, Juliana Hatfield)?

We were doing all those things before I split with the band.  I wasn’t jealous of what Verbena went on to do.  I don’t believe in regrets.  The path I took led me to the point I’m at right now, which is freaking awesome. I’ve been blessed with the chance to make music I believe in with amazing musicians.  I’ve got an incredible wife who plays such a big role in what I’m doing.  Life is real good.

I tracked you down in the early days of the internet and discovered you were playing in a band called Cutgrass although that was before MySpace so I never heard any Cutgrass music. Did you ever record anything and will it ever see the light of day (or has it and I just haven’t stumbled across it)?

Oh, I recorded something.  Like, three records worth of material.  But they’re sitting in a dusty basement somewhere between Birmingham and Athens, GA because I was too busy snorting copious amounts of narcotic substances.  After a drug charge, jail time, and some serious rehabbing, I just wasn’t in the same place anymore.  I chose to let the tracks sit for a while and might one day release the Cutgrass records.  I mean, I’m proud of those songs.  I’m proud that I had the chance to collaborate on them with people from Palace Brothers, Man or Astroman, The Dexateens, 13 Ghosts, and here we go again with the lists…

You also toured with the Blake Babies (another Juliana Hatfield connection!). How was that? Was that the first time you had been back on the road since leaving Verbena?

The Blake Babies was not the first time I toured after Verbena.  I did a couple of acoustic solo tours and a very short stint with my buddy Damon’s band. And I did have fun playing with the Blake Babies. I have always loved touring and being out on the road, seeing a different city every day.

Finally, I know you just completed work on your RPM challenge record. Are you also working on a proper follow up to Etowah and, if so, when might you start recording it?

Yes, I did complete the RPM Challenge.  It only took 28 days, a snow storm, power outages, and a minor mental breakdown.  You know, that whole project, it was about pushing yourself as an artist to not sit around and wait on some muse and to create all the time.  The music is always there.  I started the “proper” follow-up to Etowah over a year ago with Les Nuby (from Verbena and Vulture Whale) producing.  Again, I had a lot of great musicians coming in and playing on songs, but because Les was between Birmingham and Los Angeles, there have been a few stand stills on the recording process.  Right now, there are two tracks that have been mixed by Mark Raines, but the rest of the album is waiting for some of that money that people like to throw around.

That stand still, though, was a blessing because it put me in a position to jump on the RPM Challenge.  My wife called me at work one day and told me to listen to something they were doing on NPR.  She basically said “you’ve got to do this.” I borrowed a four track from my friend Chris Rowell from Warm in the Wake, a couple of mics from Through the Sparks and just started recording.  It was a really fast process and the songs just kind of flowed out like a river.  What began as some personal challenge will probably end up being my next release–It Sings Because It Has a Song.

Photo by Morgan Jones Johnston

One thought on “SXSW preview: Duquette Johnston

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *