Johnny Walker Interview! Cut in the Hill Gang
* photos: Carl Hoff
Johnny Walker was the mastermind behind the raw blues and punk sound of the Soledad Brothers. The Ohio based guitarist and vocalist, who is best known for mixing delta blues and distortion with a touch of Keith Richards, has a new unit called The Cut in the Hill Gang.
Walker, now a Covington, Kentucky resident has two respected local musicians backing him on a batch of new songs that sound similar to the Soledad Brothers, though the guitar work is now teetering on the edge of Mike Bloomfield.
When Walker is not playing for a crowd of drunken folks at clubs with Cut in the Hill, he is playing his songs for kids he works with at a children’s hospital.
To read more about the new Cut in the Hill Gang 7” record (Little Room Record Co.), and Walker’s ability to beat box, check out the interview below.
Hey Johnny, what is your hometown? Is that where you met Ben Swank?
“Toledo, Ohio. I stayed in Toledo for years. I was from south Toledo, Ben was from Maumee —we formed there kind of by default.”
“Of course I liked The Stooges and Velvet Underground, Negative Approach and the Necros. I listened to Bauhaus and Joy Division, stuff like that was going on.”
Did you play in any bands in high school? If so, did the bands you mentioned influence the sound of those bands?
“Oh yeah, I played in bands. I covered all those songs. It was really arty — it was called Camus Trust, named after the French existentialist writer Albert Camus. When you’re 17, that’s what you go for, existentialist — fucking bullshit. It was really arty, it was kind of a cross between the Butthole Surfers and Joy Division, really confrontational, but arty at the same time. There were a load of other bands that were inconsequential. It was racket, racket and more racket.”
Are there any Camus Trust recordings floating around?
“No, that stuff is long gone, not that anyone would want to listen to it."
Did you play many shows back then?
“Oh yeah, we used to play at this little place on the East side called Kids Town. It was like a shack with electricity. The cops would always show up and once they figured they could shut us down because there was no plumbing in the building, unbeknownst to us because we had been using this toilet for about a year. As it turns out, there was no access to the sewer from the toilet, so it just drained underneath the club the whole time — which was pretty sweet! (laughs), most punk! We had to fix the plumbing in the punk rock club, the only one in town, so we could have a place to play.”
When did you start and finish college?
“I went to the University of Toledo in the late 80s early 90s, after that I guess I never stopped.”
Has all of that college paid off yet?
“That’s the whole cruel irony of the whole thing —I am managing about $150,000 debt on about $16,000 a year income. It’s pretty funny! (laughs) Someone is laughing somewhere!”
Are you currently practicing medicine?
“I’m not actually practicing right now. I work at a child’s psych hospital. I am just doing programming for the kids and music group therapy and setting up all kinds of group therapy.”
How old are the kids you work with?
“They’re anywhere from 3 to 21 years old. There are about 100 kids in the hospital. I set up therapeutic groups and also, whenever there is a crisis, I have to do a crisis intervention. Today was a pretty brutal one, I get beat up pretty good doing it, but I’m pretty tough.”
I bet that job is pretty stressful.
“It is pretty stressful. It can be kind of scary. I was talking to my friend about it — the kids are on psychotropic meds, so to them it must look like I’m in the Matrix or something! (laughs) I’m moving all fast!”
How do you like the job?
“I love the job, it’s the best job I’ve ever had, but I want to be a child psychiatrist. I’m having problems with my licensing right now and I have to do my residency, but we’ll see how it pans out. Worst case scenario is I’ll just hang out with some hillbillies in Kentucky and play some bluegrass and work with little kids in a psych-hospital.”
When did you first get into the blues?
“I always listened to it. I just never had the capabilities. Even when I was in Henry & June I was a horrible player. I used to drive everybody nuts with it. I mean that kind of playing is deceptively simple. It’s not something just anyone can sit down and do. I mean, anyone can sit down and play a Joy Division bass line, but it’s really hard to sit down and play a Rolling Stones bass line. There is a bit of style involved. Me and Ben were the punk rock half of the band and then the other two guys were the stylists.”
Your blues didn’t sound like typical commercial, was that on purpose?
“No, it’s not commercial, unfortunately. That’s why I find myself in the predicament that I’m in, selling CDs and t-shirts from my last band.” (laughs)
Maybe it should be more accessible!
“Yeah! I’m down for some commercialism.”
Getting back to music, was Henry & June the first blues band you formed?
“Yeah, it wasn’t the first rock band I was in, but it was the first blues-based band I was in.”
How long did Henry & June stay together?
“Oh, maybe a year, we broke up and much to my chagrin we get an offer to open up for Jon Spencer on tour. But the guys wouldn’t get the band back together, so that was that. We ended up opening for Jon Spencer anyway, like seven or eight years later, but I would have preferred to open up for him when he was really good.”
Like ‘Crypt Style’!
“Oh, god — dude! Some of that shit just blew me away.”
What did you do after Henry & June broke up?
“I started playing more guitar then. I started a band with my friend Doug Walker and we called the band Johnny Walker. That’s how I got stuck with this hideous curse of a name. Basically I got stuck with my friend’s last name — it’s like getting married to him or something.”
Like hetero life-mates?
“Yeah! Something like that. He was talking about it when he moved back from New York and everybody was calling me Johnny Walker and he was like, ‘Hey! That’s my name!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, well, I’m not really happy about it either.’”
Why did Johnny Walker break up?
“The reason that band broke up is because we used to get into fist fights a lot. We’re kind of like brothers.”
What happened to Doug Walker?
"After that band broke up, he moved out to LA and played drums with Brian Jonestown Massacre, that’s a little known fact, I don’t think anyone really knows that. He basically got kicked out of that band for getting in fist fights with Antoine. This is funny because he left Toledo because we got in fist fights. We’re still super tight friends. It was more like we were living together and just like brothers. We have gotten into a lot of punch-ups. He is a good dude though. He’d take a punch for me just as much as he’d give one to me.”
What was one of the fights?
“Once it was my birthday and I was really drunk. I was stepping on my cables on stage and I unplugged my guitar about six times. He got pissed off and he was sitting on milk crates — so he picked up one of the milk crates and smacked me on the back of the head! (laughs) I jumped over the drums and started choking him! We stopped and we looked, the drums went everywhere, I had my hands around his neck, we look and there is like 100 people watching with their mouths open. Then we picked up the drums, set everything back up and finished the set.”
So these brotherly fights were quite frequent?
“Yeah and not just at shows. We had this stuff in the hospital and you spray it, like if someone has a code-brown, you spray it and it’s really smells strong. So I went up in his room and sprayed it all over the inside of his pillow (laughs). Oh, he punched the hell out of me for that one!”
After the band Johnny Walker broke up, who did you kick the shit out of next?
“I didn’t kick the shit out of anybody! I was defending myself. That’s when Ben and I started playing as a two piece. So it was kind of out of necessity. Doug and I were just fighting too much. The last fight we ended up getting into ended up being really bloody. Yeah, it was not as bad as it sounds, but I was wearing a white shirt and it looked really bad. So it was like, yeah, this band should break up, it’s going nowhere fast. I needed someone to sit-in and so Ben played some shows with me.”
How was Ben’s drumming back in the early days?
“It was horrible. He got better. He pounded just as hard but just got better. But we were really bad back then, man, we were horrible. It was bad. I’m not going to lie to you. That was about ‘96 and I had no fucking clue what I should be doing on guitar. Ben was in about the same position on drums, so it was more punk than it was rock.”
You guys tightened up nicely though.
“Yeah, after years and years of practicing, that’s kind of the way it should be I think.”
How did you get a record deal with Estrus for the first Soledad album?
“They sent us a post card and asked us if we wanted to put a record out. That was after we had that single out on Italy.”
Soledad Brothers were a two piece for a long time, why did that change?
“Yeah, for like the first three or four years — until I went to med school and started hanging out with Brian and writing songs with him.”
Didn't the Soledad Brothers officially move to Detroit from Ohio?
“All of us were up here for awhile. Ben was up here for a long time, about four years. Brian stayed up here for awhile, I did for awhile. I also lived in Cleveland for about two and half years. We’d drive all over and whenever we could practice we would.”
How did you guys hook up with the clique of Detroit bands?
“We came up and played at the Magic Stick, but it was well before there was a stage. We played with the Demolition Doll Rods in between all the pool tables and some rock kids came up to the show. First Henry & June show in Detroit was with the Demolition Doll Rods. We played a lot of shows with Laughing Hyenas, too, opening up for them. I’m still pretty tight with John, he should be coming tonight, I left a message for him — hopefully he does, he’s a rock relic if there ever was! He’s a good dude.”
What do you think looking back on those early days in Detroit?
“It was just something to do. There wasn’t anything else to do, really. No one really cared. No one in Detroit cared about the bands, besides the bands. If we were playing here (Lager House) eight years ago, it would be us, about 25 other people that were in bands and maybe some of their girlfriends. It was basically just a bunch of bands that hung out and played together at home or at bars. We would make bands up for shows. A scene that sticks together will do good things, but the competition you see in other towns between bands is just stupid — you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
Did the Soledad Brothers get a lot of attention when you were featured in NME and other magazines like that?
“A little bit, but not loads. Yeah, we were in a lot of national magazines but I don’t think it really translated to success. I mean, a lot of people thought we were making loads of money, but I mean, dude, I was barely able to fucking eat.”
I recently heard a Soledad Brothers song on the TV show Dog the Bounty Hunter, how did that go down?
“Yeah, that didn’t pay so hot. No, I got lunch for about a month on that one. That’s kind of funny because he ended up being a racist, how weird is that, a band called the Soledad Brothers on that show.”
How did the Soledads write songs?
“I wrote all the songs and Ben would pound out the beat. Sometimes I would do a beat-box to give him an idea what I was going for. I remember the first time I taught Ben how to play a Bo Diddley beat, I did a beat box! I listened to a lot of hip-hop when I was a kid. I liked Dougie Fresh, UTFO, RUN DMC — Boogie Down Productions, I like that shit a lot. I rip that stuff off a lot on harmonica. A lot of my harmonica playing is mimicking people on turntables, believe it or not.”
You should put out a hip hop 7” record!
“I’ve already thought about it. I’ve got a bunch of 12 inches at home that on the A-side is the actual single, then on the B-side is an instrumental — just take that and just layer stuff over top of it. You could take ‘Rock the Bells,’ that’s pretty fucking known, everybody knows the instrumental version of that song with some hand drums over top of it, with an upright bass.”
Why did the Soledads break up?
“It had run its course. I just felt that we should move on to new things. It’s OK, all things must pass, you know.”
Did you think you’d keep playing music after the breakup?
“I’m always going to play music; it’s like meditation for me. It’s very therapeutic. I do it at work all the time for the kids. They dance around in circles and say, ‘Play that ‘tiger’ song again!’”
As in “Cage that Tiger”? So, you play Soledad songs for the kids?
“Oh yeah, they go nuts for it. I do therapeutic music group at this hospital.”
When and why did you decide to move down to Covington, Kentucky?
“I headed out to Kentucky well before the Soledad Brothers broke up. There are really good musicians there, that’s why I moved.”
Is there a decent music scene down there?
“Oh, yeah, I live in a Masonic lodge and there are musicians in and out of there all the time. I live in a ballroom in my apartment that’s basically a recording studio. I have been recording lots of country and bluegrass in addition to what we do. There are some good rock bands, too.”
*Bang a drum: Lance Kaufman, Cut in the Hill's back beat.
How did your new band Cut in the Hill Gang form?
“I was playing bluegrass down in Kentucky and this kid Brad is a super bad ass on mandolin and he’s totally screaming on guitar. I just plugged him into one of my amps and turned it up all the way — I turned on my amp and turned up all the way and we started rolling tape. We went through about three drummers before we arrived at Lance. No one in town really knew Lance is a drummer because he sings in a rock-a-billy band and plays an acoustic guitar. When people saw him setting up drums they were like, ‘What?’ You’ll see — you’ll see what they do! It’s sick. It’s nice to be the weak link in the band. If anybody ever fucks up it’s me! (laughs) They just do their thing. It always sounds good, it’s always tasteful, they’re really good dudes and they’re really reliable.”
How far do you plan to go with Cut in the Hill Gang?
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really think about that stuff too much, I just want to enjoy it for what it is. I’m not so ambitious anymore. I’m pretty jaded on the music industry right now. I think it’s filled with a bunch of bottom feeders and a bunch of opportunists and a lot of really fucking fake people. The last record label that I was dealing with was like, ‘Oh, your stuff is just too lo-fi.’I was like, ‘Wait a second, you told me that you didn’t want it to sound like I recorded it on a computer? Now you’re telling me it’s too lo-fi and you’re worrying about it not being licensed?’ It’s like, what are you a shill? Or are you a rock-n-roll label?”
So you’re pretty much fed up with that side of music?
“I’m not really down with record labels too much anymore, but these Little Room (Record Co.) kids are pretty awesome though. They are just doing it for fun; I’m just doing it for fun, so it works out nice. I’m thinking about just releasing all of my stuff on vinyl and just fuck everybody else. If they want to listen to it on their iPods, they really have to work hard to do it.”
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