It’s hard to not be drawn into the natural organic charm of Aaron Johnson. A remarkably accomplished guitarist with amazing dexterity and immaculate taste; an infinitely gifted songwriter with 150 original songs under his belt that he has yet to record; and a solo artist possessing the range and fluidity of a one-man band, despite his numerous talents there is nothing pretentious or intimidating about his musical presence, largely due to his affable nature and self-deprecating demeanor.
Twenty years ago Johnson helped re-ignite and re-define the landscape of the Mid-Michigan music scene when he first surfaced along with his brother Brian Johnson and fellow-band mates Steve & Matt Nyquist and Justin Weisenbach to form the ground-breaking jam-band Sprout & the Orange. Ten years ago he also started working as a solo artist and in the process managed to reshape our sensibilities about what the range and possibilities of a single artist performing upon a stage were capable of achieving; and at this year’s 33rd Annual Review Music Awards, he was also honored as the Most Innovative Artist of the year.
A few days after his big wins at the RMA’s, I sat down with Aaron for an in-depth interview covering his past, present, and future.
Review: Let’s start at the beginning - how did you first get interested in music and did you come from a musical family?
Aaron Johnson: My Mom was very musical and played violin in the orchestra, but mostly my early musical training was in church. I started guitar at the age of 11 and it was love at first sight and got me into trouble because I didn’t want to go to school anymore. At that time I knew it was the only education I needed - even though I knew I should do good in school, I also knew this is what I wanted to do with my life, so why waste energy on anything else?
Review: So who were your early musical influences?
Aaron: Well, at that time there was church music and secular music, which was forbidden almost. My brother got his Guns & Roses tapes taken several times because that was Devil music, which made us want it even more. But Brian got it in the doors big time. In terms of early influences I still think there’s no other band like The Doors. For the time it was revolutionary - moody, jazzy, rocky - you don’t hear anything else like it from that era, so they were a big influence. Led Zeppelin came next and Jimmy Page was my first guitar protégé’ that carried an impact. From there it was a PBS Special on The Grateful Dead. I already had a buddy pushing the Dead and showing me this whole culture that developed around it. My first concert was the Page/Plant reunion in 1995 and after that I got huge into the Jam Band scene through groups like Phish.
Review: So tell me about the birth of Sprout & the Orange. I remember when you guys first came out back in 1999, so this is actually your 20th Anniversary as a band, which is also a big occasion.
Aaron: The first group that I was ever involved with was a cover band that never played out. Sprout came about when Jeff Schrems (of Cornpone) and Jeff Shemanski started getting together to write songs not contained to any genre, but had no name for the project. My brother Brian joined up with them and started writing songs and he brought me in for a practice, which I thought was kind of fun but went about my business. They had another practice and I didn’t show up and Brian got real upset about that and called me and said, ‘Hey, man - are you going to do this thing or not - are you in or are you out? He put it that way and I didn’t look at it in black& white terms at the time because I had no sense of responsibility yet, but realized I had to commit myself to something and knew I wanted to write at that point; but didn’t know how to write. I thought some magic moment would happen and at first felt really uncomfortable writing, but after working at it, as with most things, it became easier.
Pat Shaw came into the group and we had a year-and-a-half of making a big buzz, but then hit kind of a lull and didn’t know where to go next. Our best step would have been to play out of town and do more stuff, but because of age differences with the members, everybody had different things going on. Jeff Shemanski had another job and stepped out of the picture, so we continued forward without a whole lot of distraction at that point, but shortly after Jeff left Patrick quit, which was very emotional for me - at the time, his departure was a big deal for me because nobody knew our songs like Patrick did.
Shortly after that Steve & Matt Nyquist came into the picture. I knew Steve was a drummer, as he made an appearance at a couple of our shows; and Matt already was coming out to Sprout shows as a fan. They had a little band together with Joe Bonham and joined the group right when we needed them the most.
Justin Weisenbach came into the picture on the edge of Patrick quitting the band. He and Jeff went to see a comedy show and we’d been planning this party out on the Schrems residence - they had this private lake/pond out in Shields, which was a spot where all the party kids would come out. It had these long trails to get out there and I thought it would be so cool do stage a jam session there, only hauling equipment out there would be painstaking, we would need generators, and there was nowhere to set up equipment.
I’d met Justin recently and liked his personality and just wanted to hang out with this kid and had no idea he even played an instrument; but for some reason, he found out I wanted to do this party so we went out there one day surveying the area and he’s like: “Let’s build a stage and do it!” It’s so funny because I don’t know where in the Hell we came up with the money, but the next thing I know he comes back with all this lumber and drills that he probably borrowed from his Dad, and we actually built a stage for one night of jamming. That’s how I met Justin and he didn’t even play at that point, but he had a good handle on it and has always been a multi-faceted individual - an inspiration, really.
Review: So your last album, ‘When the Silence Breaks’ came out about 10 years ago now, have you guys been recording and how do you view the evolution of the band over the years?
Aaron: We have been recording and I feel we’ve constantly progressed. We’re always huge critics of ourselves and that’s a good and a bad thing, but for the most part it’s a good thing. We’ve all made it a point to progress and we grew through time as individuals. When my brother moved to Florida for a spell, Steve went to school for music and as far as terminology goes, he’s got the most information. I learned a lot of musical theory on my own developed a lot of head knowledge, and Justin also progressed. That was a big growth period, with everybody wood-shedding and learning theory to make the band better as a whole. When Brian came back to Michigan and re-joined the band it was kind of like music school for him catching up. Overall, we like to know exactly what we’re doing in the music that we’re writing - what the structure is.
Review: Let’s talk about some of Sprout’s side projects. About 10 years ago you put together that incredible series of shows where you re-created the entire White Album by The Beatles, along with the entire ‘Last Waltz’ concert by The Band. There’s a very grand vision for what you seem to be able to do and accomplish with Sprout.
Aaron: Yeah, another one of the foundations for the band is our tendency to outdo ourselves. What’s the most we can put on our plate? Sometimes it’s overwhelming in the moment; but then you look back on the experience and go, ‘Wow - that was pretty cool!’
We did a Spinal Tap show at Shooter’s one time. That was our first experiment. We learned and performed the entire soundtrack for the This is Spinal Tap movie, including songs not in the film because we structured it as more of a concert than a re-enactment. But we did re-enact scenes from the film on-stage. Justin took responsibility for filming, before editing programs were available, and went through the extra effort to edit videos where we re-enacted scenes from the film like the guitar scene where he shows off the one that has ‘infinite sustain’ and the amp that goes up to 11. And we also had a buddy who had a zucchini wrapped in tin foil stuck in his pants and one of the security guys came up with a metal detector to catch him red-handed. We divided out responsibilities and Steve made a paper mache’ Stonehenge - the little one - which was absolutely hilarious. Looking back on that brings great memories and prepped the wave for The Last Waltz and the later stuff.
Review: You also won the honor of being voted ‘Most Innovative Artist’ at this year’s RMA celebration. What are the qualities that you feel make an artist innovative?
Aaron: For me whenever I listen to music I instinctively analyze it. As a general rule if the lyrics don’t grab me as a songwriter, I’m going to be a lot less apt to engage with the music. When it comes to songwriting lyrics and music are equally important. I like a lot of instrumental material, too; but there’s a huge difference between listening to Frank Zappa on one end of the instrumental spectrum and Steve Vai on the other. But as much as I love guitar instrumental material, I’m more drawn to orchestrated progressive rock. I’m a huge fan of Yes and Steve Howe is probably my favorite guitarist or at least one of the highest caliber string players and multi-instrumentalists that I look up to.
In my riper experience over the past 15 years I’ve opened up a lot more so Soul music and Motown - the tastefulness of it. The heart of being an innovative artist is the notion of breaking the rules a little bit - do something that hasn’t been done and hasn’t been heard, which isn’t easy. But I can always hear the difference between manufactured pre-made music and innovative music because there’s much less heart in it - you can’t hear the struggle. The struggle is something you can’t fake.
Review: Last but not least, you secured the top honor as Best Solo Artist at this year’s Awards. Tell me how you got into that and how long have you been doing solo work now?
Aaron: I got serious about that around 2008-2009, so it’s been about 10 years now, although I feel like I’ve really started feeling more comfortable with it over the past 5 years. It’s more strenuous than playing with a band because it’s only you up on the stage. It’s important to have a broad range of material and fortunately I get bored very easy, so I’m constantly adding new songs more out of a necessity to not bore myself to death.
I’m still discovering new music that’s old on vinyl and when I hear something that pops out at me that I enjoy, then I need to learn it instantly and put my own twist on it. There’s a lot of material out there in a totally different vein that hasn’t been done in a long time - like with The Moody Blues. You don’t hear anybody rockin’ them out very often, so I like to make little rhythmic changes and modernize those types of songs.
One of my goals in the next year is to record a solo album with originals, which is something I’ve wanted to do for some time now. I have probably about 150 original songs under my belt, so it’s definitely time to start cleaning out that closet.
16th November, 2023
7th November, 2023