Interview: Mike Johnson

by - 2/22/2023

Guitarist Mike Johnson reminisces about his solo career, his days in Dinosaur Jr. and his collaborations with Mark Lanegan | Photo credit: Melanie Nissen 

A translation of this interview was originally published in Portuguese on Scream & Yell. Below you can read it in its original form. 

How did you start out in music? Do you come from a musical family or were you the first one to pick up an instrument?

Well, kind of. My brother played guitar. I have an older brother, seven years older than me, and he played guitar when I was growing up. When I was leaving to go to university, leaving my hometown and moving to a college town [Eugene, Oregon] which is a couple hours away, my birthday that year my parents gave me a guitar — an acoustic guitar. That just kind of got me started, I guess. I taught myself to play guitar with the Mel Bay chord book, which most people, back in the day, learned how to play guitar with. That and listening to records, and playing along with, you know, Velvet Underground. 

How old were you back then? 

I was 17, 18, something like that. I think 18. So I didn't play as a youngster, I’m kind of a late starter. 

But you were already listening to bands and interested in music at the time.

Oh yeah, I was a record fanatic, a music fanatic. I was deeply immersed in anything I could find. I come from a real small town [Grants Pass, Oregon] and we had, like, two record stores there at the time. I'd look out for anything weird or different. I was into Creem Magazine, it was the thing back then, early 80s, late 70s. I was really into punk rock, but I was into learning where that came from. I was really into pre-punk, finding out about Velvet Underground, The Stooges, New York Dolls, stuff like that.

Was Snakepit your first band? Can you tell us a little about the band's history — how did it start, the albums you put out (cassette only, right?)...?

Like I said, I had that guitar and went to college and lived in the dorms, which is normal for your first year. And I met a guy named Al Larson, who was in the dorm next door. I'd see him around and we hit it off talking about that kind of music. Stuff like The Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers, bands like that. And some contemporary bands, like Dream Syndicate, and some punk rock bands as well. My first year I knew him, and he had a band called Snakepit. He was in two bands, one band he played bass in, called Cargo Cult, and the other was Snakepit, that he had started with his friend, Robert Christie. So, you know, yada yada, a year later, my second year of college, I moved to an apartment. I was like, ‘hey, you should come over to my apartment, have coffee and stuff’. One day he did, and he saw my guitar, which he didn't know I played. He's like: ‘what, you play guitar?’. I was like, ‘yeah, I kind of wrote a couple songs and stuff’. And we started talking. He was like: ‘dude, you should join my band’. I didn't know he had a band yet, until that moment. The entire idea of having a band seemed completely beyond me. I was like: ‘hell, yeah!’. Because he didn't like the way the band was going with the guitar player that was in it at the time, and we were both into Velvet Underground type stuff, and also bands like Television, The Modern Lovers etc. So I ended up abandoning the apartment I had, my little studio apartment, and moved in with him and his friend Robert Christie, who was the drummer in the band. And the three of us lived together. Doing an album was impossible, so we made a cassette tape and released it ourselves, with a little cover and stuff. That was probably 1985. A little bit after that Al quit and moved out of town, and we got another guy and Billy Karen to play guitar. Our friend Laura McDougall started playing bass. So we had a lot of lineup changes. Anyway, we did another cassette in 86, probably, and then we finally did a 7”, which was a big deal. In our town, nobody did that, even though we had a very vibrant music scene. But doing a record seemed impossible at that time. Eventually we broke up [around 1990]. The sound of the band was very much like other bands at the time, I guess kind of a college rock and punk rock crossover. We wanted to be like The Wipers, but we didn't really sound that way.

Snakepit in 1987. Photo credit: Kathleen Molly

Did you join Dinosaur Jr. right after leaving Snakepit or did you have any other musical projects in between those two? 

During the Snakepit period, that's when I met the Screaming Trees. They came through Eugene and we set up a gig for them. Actually, it was a gig for three bands, Beat Happening, Girl Trouble and the Trees. I think Girl Trouble couldn't play, so we elbowed our way onto the gig. So, that gig happened and the Screaming Trees stayed at our house. Mark and I hit it off and we struck up a friendship around music. We were both into some kind of off the beaten path stuff, at least to rockers, at the time. We were both more into old blues and folk records. Then he called me about doing his solo record, in 88 or so. He asked me if I'd play guitar and I was, you know, ‘hell, yes’. And that's while Snakepit was still going. But then we broke up and Mark was like: ‘you should move to Seattle, and we'll do another record too’, you know? So, playing with Mark became my main thing when I moved to Seattle. That was all I had. I didn't have a job, or money, or anything. And I moved up there and then that was happening, somehow. The people I moved in with were friends with J. He was staying there once, and we kind of met. We didn't really, but then he ended up calling me about playing in Dino. Whatever happened with J and Lou and that whole thing, I didn't know anything about that at the time. I listened to their vinyl records… After Lou, I don't remember who did it first. Donna Dresch, I think, played bass with them, and then it was Van Conner. Anyway, I got the call, and I was like — I didn't really want to join Dinosaur, but it was obviously the right thing to do. It seemed weird to me, at the time, because I wasn't a bass player, and they were over in Massachusetts. But that happened concurrently with Mark's second album being recorded.

Mike Johnson and Mark Lanegan in 1988. Photo credit: Kathleen Molly

So you joined the band merely on your friendship with J? 

We weren't friends yet. We didn't really know each other. I was good friends with the Jasper sisters, Maura and Megan Jasper. I don't know what the true story is of why he asked me to join, because right after Mark died, I had a long conversation with Van Conner, and Van told me it was him that put it in J's ear: ‘you should ask Johnson to play bass’. Because Van was going back to the Trees. But I'd never heard that story before, so I don't know. All I know is, one night, hanging around at the house with Maura and Megan, I think it was Maura who was talking to J on the phone, and she was like: ‘J's gonna ask you to join the band’, and she gives me the phone. I hadn't really even ever talked to the guy before, he'd stayed at the house once, and we exchanged maybe two sentences. Anyway, he just asked me to come out to Massachusetts. Mark had encouraged me to do it. I didn't know what to do, so that just kind of happened. 

Did you do any auditions or anything like that?

I didn't audition, though they were having auditions. They did this thing on MTV, where they were like — ‘Dinosaur Jr. needs a bass player’. It was a promotional thing. I remember I was staying at J's house, and he had a fax machine. He showed me all the people who were faxing in their CVs, their resumes or something. I was like — ‘what the fuck is this?’. As far as I knew, I thought I had the gig. And I did, but this is really weird. And J knew I didn't play bass, and I told him: ‘dude, I don't play bass’. And he's like — and the quote is —: ‘it's two less strings’.

You joined the band around the Green Mind (1991) tour. How was it, you know, being part of that band in those days, and trying to find your space in a band that, at that point, was already together for a few years?

Yeah, it was straight in, it was pretty quick. I really didn't know what I was doing. It was weird, I did not really feel like I belonged at all. They seemed like normal guys to me, you know? But I didn't really think about what it really entailed, and once I got out there to Western Mass, it was different. I mean, people seemed a little different. I just tried to fake it to make it, you know? I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, and I think it shows in some things. Thankfully there were some cool people around that kept me normal-ish, at the time. But it was not an easy situation, it was bizarre. I didn't realize at the time that there was this weird history and these weird personality cults around the band, and stuff that just didn't resonate with me. People acted kind of weird, and I didn't know why.

In the documentary Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. Murph tells the story of his departure from the band, after the Where You Been (1993) tour. He says he told J that he was quitting and J replied ‘ok, if you're not having fun anymore…’. And then Murph just says: ‘Fun? This band was never fun’. Was that your experience in Dino as well?

(Laughs) Well, I had some fun. But I remember that time, and it seemed different than it does to me now. I remember when Murph quit. J called me up to tell me the news. I think it was harder for J to do it than… I think he wanted Murph to quit, because Murph was clearly miserable. He wasn't having fun. I mean, for me, it was different. For those guys, they started the band together. The thing with me is like, I was kind of just a hired gun. I always thought Murph and I got along, and I thought, you know, I guess we were extremely different people. Things went pretty smoothly, doing the Where You Been record, we got along pretty well. I guess it was the touring for that album that really… We all hated doing Lollapalooza. That was like two months of hell. And I think Murph really hated it, you know? We all hated it, I guess. It's one thing to do a lot of festivals in Europe and stuff, while you're doing your own tour. But when you're doing just a tour that is strictly a festival, that you're just a part of, and it's not really your own thing, and it's the same thing every day, out in a field that isn't in a town, so you can't really walk around, and go any place or get away from people… You're just in a trailer, every day, waiting to go do your thing, and the only release you have all day is your 40 minutes of playing on stage, in the middle of the day. It just isn't conducive to what rock music should be, I think. It's just a big corporate circus, there's nothing organically musical or rock about it. It just kind of sucks. I don't know other people's experience, but that's just me, you know? All of us felt that way, I think, to one degree or another at the time.

Last year I did an interview with Phillip Reichenheim, who is the director of Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. — and also J's brother-in-law. I asked him why you were not in the film, and he told me that he tried to reach out but never heard back from you. Any comments on this?

He did get a hold of me in 2009 or something. I remember because we had just moved to the town we live in now. I've gone back and forth with him and he made it sound like we were going to do something. He was like: ‘okay, we'll film some interviews’. And then I didn't hear back from him, ever. It was like radio silence. Three or four years later I started getting these emails, I was just like: ‘this isn't serious’. This was gonna happen four years ago, then I didn't hear from him, now I'm supposed to do this. I was just, ‘yeah, whatever’. 

Yeah, it took him 10 years or so to finish the film.

I blew it off. I shouldn't have. I mean, it was rude. I blew it off. My bad. Actually, I wanted to speak. But whatever. Also, since the band got back together, I don't really feel like… I don't know, I never heard a word from anybody ever again. It's just weird. I just kind of erased that part of my life. I feel like my participation in the band is not something they like to talk about, like it's not cool or I wasn't the cool guy or something.

At the same time you were in Dinosaur Jr., you were working with Mark Lanegan on his solo albums. Let’s talk about the first one, The Winding Sheet (1990). Mark tells in his book, Sing Backwards and Weep, that he got some advance money from Sub Pop to make a solo album. In order to do that, he had to learn how to play the guitar. He says he wrote songs in a "cave man style". Tracks like "Woe", from "The Winding Sheet", are played by him solo. He's also credited with playing guitar on tracks from Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1994). How much of a challenge was it for you to perfect those songs and create arrangements for them and properly record them and so on?

When he made the first record, he had about five chords, I think. His guitar playing always remained at ‘cave man style’, but he always had a really good instinctual knowledge of music and how it works. And he was obviously a brilliant singer and songwriter. He was able to write a song off of the same three chords, and write something completely different and unique. I think he was insecure about where he was at, at the time, that's why he always tells that story about how he wanted me to write intros and middle parts, to make it seem like they were real songs. I'm a pretty primitive guitar player myself, I am completely self-taught. Maybe I had a little more facility at it than Mark did, but it was a joint process of making the songs into something else. It was a great process. It was really enjoyable, to be honest.

The recordings of Whiskey for the Holy Ghost were marked with a story that's well-known about Mark getting frustrated over them and actually trying to throw tapes in a river, with Jack Endino stopping him from doing it. Were you there when this happened? What do you remember from this situation?

I don't know if I was there. I'm surprised that I wasn't, because I was there during the whole thing. That album took three years to make, it had a lot of ups and downs. Mark likes to tell certain stories over and over again, that were maybe not as important to the making of the album as he made it out to be. It did become a nightmare, and for him particularly, he always would hear things that no one else could hear, usually relating to how his voice fit in the mix. Maybe that’s what that was. But specifically I don't remember that. I do remember Jack Endino turning to me while we were doing sessions and he started telling me the story about the last night Reciprocal was open as a studio. He said: 'we did 16 hours, man’. And I was, like, ‘yeah, dude, I was there. You were really paying attention, weren't you?’. There were like six different engineers, I think. It started at Ironwood with Terry Date. He's mostly known for working with that metal band… The one that did Cowboys from Hell, what is the name of them?


Yes, Pantera. Thank you. We started to make a fully acoustic album with him. It was just going to be Astral Weeks-inspired, and it was really going great. There's a video somebody has put out on YouTube, that says it's the demos for the album, and that's not what that is. It's the first sessions we did with Terry Date. We spent a week or so, and Mark had quite a few songs. It was just me playing guitar and this guy Phil Sparks, this jazz bass player, playing bass — and some rhythm, I think maybe Tad Doyle did it. It was going great. And then Sub Pop ran out of money, and it bounced a check to pay for the studio. They pulled us out of the studio, and it was really deflating. We had high hopes and things were really going well, it sounded incredible. Everything changed after that, because then the Trees had to go on tour for Uncle Anesthesia, and they totaled their van, and that was, like, a death-defying incident that caused Mark to start drinking again, which led to him start doing drugs later. Everything just got crazy after that, and that's when we could only go into the studio when we were both in Seattle. We would get together and do a session for two or three songs. We did one with Ed Brooks, with Dan Peters playing drums, then a session with Mark Pickerel on drums and Jack Endino engineering, then we did some sessions with John — or maybe he just did the mixing. It was just the same thing over and over again, and then we tried to mix it like two or three times. He was always going back to Sub Pop for money, and the money was just going to dope at that point. Then he had some session to do in New York, and he was like: ‘dude, you gotta come down to the studio’. I'm like: ‘what am I going to do? I've done like 100 guitar tracks, bass tracks, organ tracks, and harmonica tracks’. Finally J went down with our friend, Kurt Fedora. They went to the studio and Mark would always tell the story that I had quit on him, which I didn't. I just was like: ‘dude, the record is done. You need to finish it’. I was just trying to get him to finish the goddamn record, which he did after that.

When you and Mark made Scraps at Midnight (1998), I believe it was the first record in which he was clean, or at least the first one he made after leaving rehab. Was it any different to work with him on this record, considering he had quit doing drugs at this point? Did you feel he was a different person by then, or not so much?

It was different. It was enjoyable. We collaborated more on songwriting on that one. Mark seemed more like he was just getting back to learning how to write and be himself. It was really enjoyable. I was in a darker spot in my life, at the time. I was kind of down the road of alcoholism, at that point. I dried out for doing the record, and it went pretty well. It was a good atmosphere, it was refreshing. And we kind of got back to being friends again. It was a shorter process too. We just got together, wrote the songs, went to the studio down in the desert and it was done.

He also says in his book that he had a half million dollars debt with the IRS because of Mad Season royalty checks he never paid taxes for. So, he did the next few records as a way to pay his debts. Did this influence Scraps at Midnight and I'll Take Care of You (1999) in any way? I mean, did you feel any pressure to record and put out those albums because of the financial situation he was in at the time?

No, I didn't. That's the first I had ever heard of that, he never mentioned it. Well, he had told me the story of that, I don't know if that was specifically why but I guess at the time he had to get out from under some stuff. Maybe that's why he didn't pay me worth a shit (laughs). But I mean, musically it was done for the right reasons. It was artistically pure enough, it didn't seem like we were trying to cash a check or anything. It was a good atmosphere for making music.

After working on Field Songs with Mark in 2001, and recording one track on his next record, Bubblegum (2004), you worked with him again on Imitations (2013), which was a kind of follow-up to I'll Take Care of You. How was it to come and work with him again after almost a decade?

We had been in contact after Field Songs. We did the tour and I was the best man at his first wedding. But after that, he had joined the Queens of the Stone Age for real. That's when he started having more drug problems again and we lost contact. Imitations came out of the blue. I had moved over here (France), and we were still in contact all the time, but then I didn't hear from him for four or five years, I guess. Out of nowhere he emailed me and asked me if I wanted to be involved with doing this record, another covers record. I said ‘sure’, but I wasn’t really playing as much. He told me there would be other guitar players. I wasn't the main guy on this one, though. Jeff Fielder did most of the guitars, my role was more of vibe checking the thing, and contributing a little here and there. I really wasn't as involved as I was on those first five records that we did together, where I co-produced. At one point I was like: ‘dude, you don't need me’. But he was like: ‘I just want your presence, just want you to be here’. And I did. We had fun, we hadn't hung out in years. We had some laughs and some good times. But it wasn't the same at all. It was still cool to do it. I was glad he asked me. 

Did you have any other projects in mind by the time he passed away last year?

No. I wish, you know? We had been in contact again, though, thankfully. I had heard about his Covid ordeal and emailed him, and told him I was glad that he made it through that. I was shocked and devastated when I heard that he was gone. We didn't have any plans and really talked about music that much. Though he had, at one point, he did ask me to send him any demos and music scraps that I had. And I did, but he didn't end up using anything.

Around the same time you were in Dinosaur Jr. and making records with Mark Lanegan, you released your first record, Where Am I?, which you also made with Jack Endino. And in terms of style, I believe it inhabits the same zone as the work you did with Lanegan. What are your impressions and memories from making that album?

That was almost done as a demo. I had finally started to write songs again, which I had trouble doing when I first moved to Seattle — I kind of hit a dry spot, but I had stuff laying around. I had done a demo — with J, actually, playing drums, and Kurt Fedora playing bass. And I started playing with Barrett Martin on bass and my friend David Kruger playing violin. I just used my own money to pay for the studio and got Jack to do it — I guess because of meeting him through Lanegan. We spent three days or something doing it. It was very quick and it was kind of a demo, to try and see if I could get somebody to put it out. In the meantime, my friend Chris Takino started his label, Up Records — he was my roommate at the time. And he started the label because he had friends who were making music and he couldn't get Sub Pop to release their stuff — he kind of had a connection at Sub Pop, but they didn't want to put out Built to Spill, or my records, or Violent Green. So that's how that got made. It was very quick, it was really meant to be more of a demo. It's almost short enough to be an EP.

Mike Johnson in 1998. Photo credit: Stanford Wilson

I'm a big fan of What Would You Do (2002), your fourth record. And I think that listening to this record, one can fully realize that the sound in Mark Lanegan's records have a lot of your influence and input, because — and I say this as a compliment — this sounds like it could have been a Mark Lanegan record in a way. Or maybe the Lanegan records should actually be credited to both of you guys as a duo, you know? What are your thoughts on this?

I appreciate that. That's a big compliment. The sound on What Would You Do, there's something to that. When we were making I'll Take Care of You, I remember the recording of the song “Creeping Coastline of Lights”, a cover of The Leaving Trains song, and Mark really was enamored of the sound we were getting with that, that kind of style. I don't know how to describe it, but there’s a certain something about the sound, and that was kind of where my head was at when we were doing What Would You Do. That was the sound I was kind of thinking of. It's just my guitar sound at the time that I was enamored of. There is definitely a connection between that and Mark’s work. One big regret I have is that Mark was never involved in making my solo records as much as I would have liked. Though he was always my musical barometer. As my friend, I would always give him my demos and I would always run songs by him to hear, just to get what he would like. Because if he said something — like, he was into a song — I'd always be, like: ‘okay, I'll do that one’. That's his nod of approval, and he did that often for me.

Your last solo record was Gone Out Of Your Mind (2006) and the collection of outtakes The Uninvited (2016). Are you currently working on new stuff, do you have plans to release a new record or other music related stuff?

I wish I could. After doing Gone Out Of Your Mind, one of the reasons I moved was that I could not get any interest at all, and I couldn't get shows. I did a couple shows, nobody showed up. I took it as, ‘okay, there really is no audience for this’. My wife's from France, so we just moved to France, thinking maybe it would be a little better over here. It was better for our life, but not for my music. I'm certain there probably is music still in me, and I hope to come back at some point, but it's not happening right now.

That’s too bad. I hope you are able to return soon. Thanks for the interview. Any final messages?

I wanted to say sorry I didn't get back to you before. The day that I got your email was the same day that Van died, that was really devastating for me. I'm glad to get anybody actually paying attention to what I did, I'm humbled and I appreciate it.

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