Published on December 22nd, 2020 | by Adam Green and Toby Goodshank0
Adam Green interviews Johnny Dydo of The Johns
Photo: Matt Payton.
Adam (Moldy Peaches) interviews the frontman of the Brooklyn garage-tropicalia band. Toby Goodshank is the moderator. The Johns have a new album Forge out on Concierge Records/Lousy Moon Records.
Adam: I was interpreting this record as a breakup album. It seems like there’s a war in it.
Johnny: This is not a breakup album. I had written all of the songs before my divorce. I started writing them in 2013. A little later when things got crazy in my personal life I went straight to the studio.
Adam: It’s funny because it’s sort of a smoky, world-weary, record, and the vocals are very American and masculine. And then in your persona you’re dressed up like an anime girl with a skirt and a pink wig. Are you performing as a female anime character?
Adam: Okay, so you’re performing as a guy, but with this pink wig and a skirt. It reminds me of, in that movie The Wrong Ferrari, which you, me, and Toby worked on, I have a line that’s like “I’m punishing you so that you can learn how to love me correctly.” You take the audience, and you’re like “I’m gonna test you. I’m gonna wear these anime girl clothes and sing my record this way, and I’m gonna make you come to it on my terms.” You’re instructing the audience in how to engage with it.
Johnny: The costume does demand something right off the bat. And it’s going to play out differently in different places. Doing it in Bushwick it’s like an irresistible gimmick. Doing it in Nashville it might piss people off, which I think I did last time I played there.
Toby: Being your own superhero and having a costume can be empowering. And when you take to the stage like that, and as a very muscular man, it adds to the superheroic vibe. And as we know and can probably attest to, it’s hard doing music. Sometimes you feel bad. Sometimes these songs come from a bad place. So I always viewed that costume as you stepping up.
Johnny: When I started wearing the costume I was thinking about superheroes a lot, and I felt like I was writing superhero music. And when I put on that pink wig and a Princess Peach dress I felt really tough and hyper-masculine. And my approach to writing feels very masculine. And I enjoy that.
Adam: What struck me first about this song was the line about “the length of my chain.” My feeling was like the character in this song is anchored to some place in space and time, and he’s been chained there forever.
Toby: Knowing your life trajectory of the past few years, and feeling like you’ve come out of a situation that you didn’t like so much and landed in a better one, I took the title of the album, the title of this track, as forging a path.
Johnny: One definition of the word “forge” is to work something with fire and hammer. Another definition, maybe you recognize it from the lyrics of the title track, is to progress slowly, with difficulty, by sheer momentum. Both of those definitions are important.
Adam: So it’s like a liberation song?
Johnny: I wouldn’t say it’s a liberation, it’s kind of more of like an endurance than a liberation, like enduring torture. It’s coming from a place of being in love with somebody who’s torturing you by not not being in love with you. It’s about working through that and enduring that pain. And there’s slow and difficult progression in that, and terrible creation.
Adam: But does “Forge” refer to creating a new narrative for your life?
Johnny: As I said, I wrote that song before those seismic changes in my life. But as you can imagine it’s taken on a life of its own.
Adam: Also I think we’re kind of psychic about decisions we’re going to be making in the future. And when I say psychic I mean highly intuitive.
Johnny: I know. I also felt like I was forging a new path in terms of what I wanted to do with songwriting.
Adam: But also the fact that you carried this song all the way to this point, and you’re presenting it to us now and saying “this is my first song, my album’s called Forge, and this is it,” it must have something to do with now.
Adam: It’s a traditional.
Johnny: I used to listen to a lot of Spanish music. I would just go get tapes of merengue and bachata and listen to them exclusively at half-speed, and I really liked this song.
Adam: You would listen to the tapes at half speed?
Toby: There was a period of going over to Johnny’s place when it was like Twin Peaks up in there.
Johnny: A lot of slowed down NES music. I made some good mixtapes.
Adam: Are the other versions of La Vecinita recorded in this style? Because to me, your version sounds like it’s like Afro-Caribbean or Brazilian?
Johnny: The versions I’ve heard have been straight salsa or merengue. The version that I did was a little more rock, with a drum set and distorted guitar. But with polyrhythmic Latin percussion arrangements.
Toby: I’m reminded that I met you as a drummer.
Adam: Yeah, when I first met you, you were playing drums in Turner [Cody]’s band.
Toby: I met you as the drummer of The WoWz. I know your love of Latin rhythms has always been a thing, and on this record it’s bubbling to the surface in a cool way.
I Want You to Love Me the Best
Adam: This song reminds me of The Ramones.
Johnny: Almost no bands have made an impression on me like The Ramones.
Adam: It’s a sweet song, the album doesn’t have that many sweet songs. It sounds vulnerable.
Johnny: And it’s ultimately tragic. That line “I want you to love me the best”, I said it one time. On drugs. And it meant so much to me. But it’s hard to make a line like that feel important in a song, and feel as large as it was in my mind, and take up as much space as it does on the pages where it’s written in my notebooks.
Adam: “COME”, that’s the first of two spoken word pieces. In your development, were there spoken word recordings that you liked that drew you to do spoken word pieces?
Johnny: I’ve always loved the doo wop tradition of putting a spoken word monologue toward the end of the song. I think of Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. Half of the song is just him talking over some sparsely arranged music. And it gets pretty introspective and weird. Since I was a teenager I’ve been playing with that trope and pushing its boundaries.
Adam: So with your spoken-word track “COME”, it feels like somebody analyzing the engine of meaning in their own life and trying to figure out how it works. They’re trying to see what meaning would mean inside of the present moment and where it comes from and how it works. It feels like a really stoned person trying to describe the concept of meaning itself. I was recently talking about this with Jeffrey Lewis and he was saying that he likes when the songwriter or artist, instead of doing some literal, works with the grammar of meaning. And in a similar way “COME” is about the grammar of meaning, the concept or the workings of meaning. It sounds like you’re inside of a clockwork meaning machine, and you’re like “How does this thing work? How does it relate to me? What am I supposed to do? What are you supposed to do? And how does this end up?” Yeah, so like, when I was interpreting that as a kind of unexplainable force that’s supposed to make something happen. There’s this feeling of meaning and destiny to it, but you’re inside the machine. So you’re just looking out through little holes, and you can’t see what’s supposed to cause what. But you wrote it. What do you think about it?
Johnny: Well, our friend Julie Delano was hosting a semi-regular performance and exhibition series called Church. Every event had its own theme, and artists would be invited to bring in a piece of art or do some kind of performance based on the theme. Something that they had created specifically for the event. Julie invited me to participate in one of these and the theme that time was “come.” So that was where I started. And then paths were presented to me thinking about that word, and what it means. I write about meaning all the time. I often have to remove the word “meaning” from songs because it pops up all the time, and I don’t want all my songs to have the word “meaning” in them.
Adam: Meaning is our front facing cursor in a moment. It’s our plan of attack, or the arrow pointing “that way” in the map of the universe. It’s hard to get away from that. It makes sense that the word “meaning” comes up whenever you’re writing songs. What’s notable is that in most songs somebody is trying to express something that they mean. And in your songs you’re trying to find out what meaning itself is.
Johnny: I feel like half of the stuff I’m writing is songs about writing songs.
Adam: Yeah, but in a cool, analytical, romantic, and poetic way.
BLOOD RUN FREE
Adam: So that you said that, that took you years to write the song?
Johnny: I don’t think it took me years. But it probably took me like, hundreds of hours.
Adam: I was interpreting “Blood Run Free” like it was a war chant or something. What are your thoughts on it?
Johnny: the villain who’s the protagonist of the song is some kind of artist. I don’t know exactly what that means. I’m not saying that he paints, but you know, some kind of creator.
Toby: The other night you were saying that for this song specifically, you were inspired by Cormac McCarthy?
Johnny: Yeah, that book Blood Meridian has the best villain. He’s so scary in a very deep way.
Adam: The part of “Blood Run Free” that makes me think of an artist is the end when you say “You scared of me? You should be more scared of the wind that feeds me. And the water that puts me out.” For an artist the wind is more important than the fruit.
Johnny: Yeah, an artist is a medium between all these forces. The object of them. I was writing a press release for the video for this song, and I said something about philosophised violence, which felt true. This villain is violent for almost religious reasons. The violence is to show something. And that’s what artists do. They show people things. And that brings me to Revelation, which is what showing people things is. And then there’s also the book of Revelation, which is called that for a reason, you know?
Adam: A violent condemnation of the Devil, putting the Devil back underground.
Johnny: Yeah, and the apocalypse is God revealing himself to humans. And the violence associated with that is just the other side of the same coin.
Adam: You get the Chernobyl and you also get the Paradise.
Video by www.ericaschreiner.com | Instagram: @erica.schreiner
Adam: In “Blood Run Free” you think like the guy’s going to end up killing somebody. And then when “Wistful Part I” comes next it doesn’t make you feel any better this guy’s also going crazy. “meaning is born as a contrivance of the engine of essence”. I don’t know what he’s gonna do. Like, maybe like he’s gonna find some meaning with a knife. It sounds like somebody who is riding the waves of reality at that moment and wants to bring something back to the shore. But then, when “Wistful Part II” comes, it’s the end of the album, and all of the sudden we’re waltzing down the road on this kind of drum machine cowboy waltz. It feels optimistic, like riding off into the sunset or something. I don’t know if it’s a sunny kind of optimism, maybe a nostalgic kind. But it begins with this part of brackets around parentheses. It actually reminds me a little bit of something that Mike Rechner would write. You know Mike Rechner’s music?
Johnny: Yeah, of course.
Adam: Okay. It reminded me of something – he has a song called “Adjective”.
Johnny: I didn’t know that.
Toby: I think he calls his album that too.
Johnny: Is it Prewar Yardsale?
Adam: It’s pre-Prewar Yardsale. And it has the feeling of somebody looking at a dictionary. A lot of his songs have the feeling of somebody who’s never seen language before analyzing words. “Wistful Part II” reminds me of that. Do you have any thoughts on Mike Rechner?
Johnny: I love Mike Rechner. I tried to get Prewar Yardsale to play our last single release.
Toby: Dufus showed me The Sidewalk Cafe, but Prewar Yardsale… I wanted to be down with them so bad. They are who I would go to see initially. Highly influential.
Adam: Actually that’s funny cause [David] Berman from The Silver Jews and Mike Rechner were both guards at the Whitney Museum, right? It’s funny how these museum guards are making better art than what’s in the galleries.
Toby: This is a digression, but you met Berman, right?
Johnny: Yeah, a couple times. Yeah, once when me and Sam (James) were like 19 or something. And then again around 2015.
Toby: I think I just remember you saying that he seemed pleasantly surprised at how much you expressed enjoyment with what he did.
Johnny: Yeah, when we were talking about my Silver Jews cover band he said something like “it makes the stuff I did feel alive.”
Adam: His new album, Purple Mountains. Excellent.
Johnny: The Silver Jews, I don’t know if I have a favorite band at this point in my life, but if I have one it’s probably them.
Adam: [Purple Mountains] is a sad record. It has some really, really good lines. It’s like another stop on the way of David Berman’s brain. Whatever, enough Silver Jews. They’re cool, and Johnny does really like them, and his record reminds us of some of the really good Silver Jews music.* Okay, there’s “Wistful part II”. You’re reminded in the song of the sort of nostalgic memory of this sort of dance, and it makes you nostalgic for something, but it’s a little mysterious what that is.
Johnny: Yeah, in the chorus “the kind word she whispered/as i was dancing with her/still makes me feel so wistful/it makes me want to whistle”.
Adam: You don’t know what the word is.
Johnny: Being unnamed it takes on its own meaning.
Adam: So you’re nostalgic for a half-remembered nostalgia.
*David Berman has tragically passed away since the time of this interview.
JOHNNY: it’s kind of a void. And it’s a question. And the listener is like “hmm… I wonder what that word is. What would it mean? What word could be so important?”
Adam: The way the parentheses go, is that like the expansion of different chartings of narratives of a relationship? Or the various attempts to rebuild it or to redefine it?
JOHNNY: I’ll tell you a little bit about what I was thinking. I don’t know if it will answer your question. If you put something in parentheses you’re kind of diminishing it.
Adam: You’re making it subservient to the bigger thing.
Johnny: And then to put the brackets around those parentheses, you do that because you’re like “No, I want this word to not be in parentheses.”
Adam: You can’t take the parentheses away, so you put brackets around them.
Johnny: But then the brackets around those parentheses kind of melt into parentheses. And then you make new brackets around those former brackets. It’s like an attempt to do away with the parentheses to give more weight to the actual thing inside the parentheses. And continuing to do that again and again creates this kind of flowering process in a way that love might. And the whole time you’re maintaining that x in the middle, which could be the word.
Website: The Johns | Instagram: @thejohnsnyc