This 5 and Dime interview was conducted in-person with Johnny Hathaway on May 5, 2016.
Dave: This is going to be fun Johnny. An old school punk rocker interviewing a good friend who’s a musician who’s been accused of playing cow punk. We’re both from Old Bridge, New Jersey. This town housed and supported Metallica when they first arose on the music scene after a move east from northern California. Old Bridge was the home of the thrash metal band Overkill. The now defunct nightclub Birch Hill, which I affectionately call “the heavy metal graveyard,” was in Old Bridge. I can’t forget to mention the infamous Old Bridge Metal Militia, a group of headbangers that continues to support metal music everywhere it’s played. Three miles away in Sayreville, Bon Jovi and Skid Row started their rise. A few more miles south of us, a guy named Bruce stamped a spot for Asbury Park on the musical map.
Dave: Johnny, do the shadows cast by all of the musicians who got their musical starts in our area of New Jersey make it any more difficult for a new musician?
Johnny: The trash metal, even though it’s from here, was never really my scene. But you could definitely say I’m working in the shadows of Springsteen and Bon Jovi. I grew up listening to albums like “Greetings from Asbury Park,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” and “Born to Run.” All of those records had a very strong effect on my songwriting. Bruce as a lyricist paints these beautiful musical portraits. The Old Bridge “reputation” that you mention applies to a specific type of music and their fans. If I play somewhere else in the country and it’s stated that I’m from Old Bridge, New Jersey, I doubt that metal fans into that type of thing would come out to see me. I see myself under a jam band type of cloud so far. I don’t see the shadows you’ve mentioned are a negative, Dave, unless your sound is very similar. If it was, you could get bogged down by it. I don’t think I have anything that sounds Springsteen-like. I’m a big fan of Neil Young, and I don’t think any of my songs are Neil Young-like. If you’re overly influenced by a musician, people will hear it and ask about it. If you’re true to yourself, people will see it. The bands you mentioned were blue collar, they pounded the road and played a hundred shows a year. Times have changed and through social media, people can pick up on that we’re a hard-working band. We won’t have to play a hundred times a year. Social media is a major tool for me as far as getting ourselves out there. It also lets me bring my friends, and people that have become fans, along for the ride. I’d post updates on the writing and recording of “Deep Cuts and Bruises” as it was going on. People could follow along with the process. They could see the work that was going into it. To get the reputation of being a hard-working artist these days, you have to show it in many different ways.
Dave: Your debut release is a full length record called “Deep Cuts and Bruises.” Fans can purchase either a physical copy or a digital download of at www.cdbaby.com/cd/johnnyhathaway. Talk about the challenges of both making “Deep Cuts and Bruises” and now getting it heard.
Johnny: Getting the record heard is definitely the biggest challenge. All the other stuff came pretty easy. I don’t have a lot of trouble writing songs. The recording process was done in my house. Bare bones with me doing almost everything was the only way I could have done the record.
Johnny: Kenny Biedzynski was my drummer. He’s always busy with another band commitment. He brought the equipment to my place to record the drums. Kenny wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The more we got into it, the more he liked what he heard. He was very supportive. His critique and feedback were invaluable. He did everything I could ask a drummer to do in such a short time. Without Kenny, there would have been no album. Kenny was my sounding board. He gave me recommendations and changes that an outside producer could have offered. I was in the local music scene for a while before this project so I saw and heard a lot of different singers. Lisa Barone, Wendy Horn, Sandra Huth, and Laura Catalina Johnson all agreed to help me out with the record when I asked them. Linda King added vocals and Mike Flynn played lap steel guitar on “Real Men.” It gave that song the country vibe I was looking for. There was no budget for this record; there was no Go Fund Me campaign. I had no benefactors lining up to fund the project. I did what I could with what I had and the results are acceptable. The process of making the recordings a CD was just putting the artwork together and sending it out for duplication. Once all that was all said and done I had to figure out what to do with it. My first step was fulfillment, mailing it out to people who had sent me checks. Then I sent it to CDBaby. I went overseas to the Netherlands to play at a music festival. I sold some copies of the CD there. People started hearing it there. A company called Dutch Music Works is going to distribute my record in Europe. That popped up out of the blue. That’s all well and good, but it remains to be seen if people are going to buy the record.
Dave: Fingers crossed for you Johnny!
Johnny: I spend a lot of time on social media websites, but I don’t let it interfere. I looked forward to the times when I could let people know what was going on. Mobile devices help because I don’t spend hours sitting in front of my computer. I’m on Facebook thirty or forty times a day, but sometimes only for a minute to see what’s happening. My friends and fans on social media were the ones who pushed for the album. Their support throughout the process was priceless. I’m having my songs sent to publishing houses. There’s always the small chance that somebody in the right place might hear something. I’m hoping to get enough attention that somebody bigger than me likes what they hear. Then there’s the potential of writing something for them. Dave Grohl has been a big influence on me. I love what he does and how he handles himself. He’s a role model. But I don’t aspire to be the next Foo Fighters or anything like that. I’m keeping my ears and eyes opened. Things can pop up out of the blue. The Downtown Red Bank All Stars requested my song "Oxygen" for inclusion on the forthcoming "Magic on the Navesink" compilation album. That’s just one more way to reach new people who probably wouldn’t hear me otherwise.
Dave: As I was listening to “Deep Cuts and Bruises,” I started jotting down words and phrases like a mixed bag, eclectic, a showcase for your range. My website is text only; there is no audio. To entice readers to take the next step after reading this, to give you a listen, I’ll ask you the dreaded question of describing your music.
Johnny: I describe the album as dark, but with a glimmer of hope. I’m traveling some roads throughout life, and you’re either along for the ride or not. We’ll meet some interesting people. We’ll see things we don’t necessarily like and things we do like. There will be some sun and some clouds. There’s different sounds and different styles. I tried real hard to make the next song not sound anything like the song before. You mentioned cow punk earlier. A friend of mine, when she heard our song “Ride Along,” said that it was cow punk. I heard the term before but never realized that I may have written a song that fits the bill. It’s kind of along the lines of Social Distortion or maybe even Johnny Cash. It’s like a horse running kind of beat with jangling guitars. People might hear that the same way. They’ll hear a jam song, an anthem, a ballad, a country song, a classic rock song, and then a hard rock song. That’s how the songs came out when I didn’t pigeon hole myself into one type of sound. Nobody listens to a CD start to finish, over and over, any more. They upload a song or two into their devices. It’s mixed in with everything else from the Stones to Lady Gaga anyway. Having diversity adds to my chances. Dave, how do you listen to music and what did you hear on my record?
Dave: I’m a dinosaur Johnny. I don’t download and I don’t own devices. I hunt and peck for songs I like when I play CDs. After two or three songs, I change CDs. But when researching for an interview, I force myself to listen to a record start to finish, undistracted, in the sequence the artist has chosen. For your record, I sat in my car on a rainy day at a foggy bayfront in Central Jersey. As I looked northeastward, toward the ocean, and eventually toward Europe, I heard a bit of punk rock at the start of your record. The first two tracks hit hard, as I’m sure you planned. But in “Release Me” and “Oxygen” I heard a bit of the 80s British punk band The Buzzcocks. It was the last thing I was expecting from you and then you changed to an Americana type of vibe. When I closed my eyes during “Two Days to Tucson,” your music transported me to the Arizona desert, a place where I’ve been and that I enjoyed. I like to use music for escape and for fantasy, and your record takes me places. “Oxygen” and “Two Days to Tucson” are my favorite tracks.
Johnny: I think each song should be an escape. You are trying to reach people and trigger emotions. Maybe I did my job. My favorite cut is “From Deep Within.” I knew from the beginning it was going to be a “jam” song with a lot of guitar work. I didn’t think that I would be up for the task. I don’t consider myself a lead guitarist. I’m not Richie Sambora or David Gilmour. I found that if I can hear it in my head, eventually I could get it down on tape. That song took a while. I pushed myself to limits that I did not know with “From Deep Within.” I’m most proud of that song. Fans have commented on every song and that’s what you want.
Dave: Most musicians will have twenty or so songs that they’ll pare down to twelve or so good songs when they are ready to record. I’m of the opinion that a good song cannot turn into a great song until it’s been played on the radio hundreds of times or until it’s played live a hundred times where it’s had the potential to evolve.
Johnny: Radio is so crazy these days, but there’s hope for me yet with satellite radio and the local college radio stations. I didn’t put the Johnny Hathaway Band together until after the record was done. There hasn’t been enough shows or time for the songs to evolve. But my bass player, Lou Perillo, has been steadfast and rock solid with his interpretation of the songs. The band is not tied down to playing the songs the same way as they appear on the record. We’ve already done acoustic songs electrically. That’s something I learned from Neil Young. I have an excellent lead guitarist in the band now named Joey Herr. I am not telling him how to play the songs. He puts his own licks in there. Joey’s respectful enough to have his playing sound close to what I did. He doesn’t take it too far away from the way I did it. Having Laura Catalina Johnson along for backing vocals transforms some of the songs beyond what they were on the album. Kenny has not been available to drum when I have gigs. I’ve gone through three drummers in three shows. I’ve used John Hummel from the Matt O’Ree Band, Johnny DeAngelo from the Billy Walton Band, and Paul Lambert. He plays in a multitude of bands. I’ve had the best people around play drums with me. Maybe one of them can stick around longer than one show.
Dave: Talk a bit about your songwriting process. Are you hoping to write songs for more established musicians?
Johnny: My songwriting comes very easily and very quickly. It’s rare that I’ll start a song and that I can’t get through it for days. Usually a song might pop into my head as I’m driving my car. I’ll start putting some words together. I hear the guitar work or how the melody is going to be. It’ll bounce around in my head awhile until I can get back home to grab a guitar. Sometimes I’ll write the song on my phone and try to keep the melody in my head without having picked up a guitar yet. Some songs I wouldn’t call difficult but they take me a little longer to write. A lot of times the words just fall out in an amazing way. I’m not saying I’m amazing; it just comes that easily sometimes. I’ve always been a good writer and that helps. I have a good imagination. I have a pretty good idea of phrasing. That’s the most important thing in any song. If your phrasing is off, then the song is not relatable or catchy enough. A good example is Mick Jagger. He sang “19th nervous breakdown.” He could’ve never sang “27th nervous breakdown.” So phrasing and the proper amount of syllables in a line is very important. If your melody isn’t catchy enough, it doesn’t matter how good your words are. A good song has both, the right words and a catchy melody. I am hoping to write songs for other people. It’s a small thing but I song I wrote I gave to Pam McCoy. She might include it on her next album. I have a lot of songs and I can’t use them all. I’d rather share them with somebody than have them disappear.
Dave: Dimebag Darrell, the late great guitarist from the bands Pantera and Damageplan, was murdered while playing onstage in Columbus, Ohio, on December 8, 2004. A few days prior, before soundchecking at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, N.J., Darrell let me turn on a tape recorder and we talked about the music scene in Dallas when Pantera was breaking. His death has been quickly forgotten by most. I like to help his memory alive by continuing to talk about him. I feel musicians are very vulnerable during their performance. I know you spent some time recently performing in Europe. Please share a thought about Dimebag and talk about that vulnerability.
Johnny: The fact that Dimebag Darrell was murdered onstage is pretty horrifying to any musician or any performer. I‘ve never felt any type of threat like that but I’m still building on my music thing. I haven’t played in front of bigger audiences but you never know what can happen. Look what happened in Paris, France, last year when Eagles of Death Metal were playing. If you let things like that affect you, it affects your performance. You want your performance to come from the heart. Musicians have to do their own thing and hope stuff like that never happens again. You just never know what’s going to happen in the society we live in today. Hopefully, precautions put in place will make sure that doesn’t happen again. If you want to travel to Europe, you should not let thoughts of terrorism affect you.
My trip to the Netherlands wasn’t for my own music. It was for a Neil Young festival. I’ve been a longtime fan of Neil’s and I’ve done many covers of his music. They were heard on social media. One of the organizers of a festival in Zuidhorn, Netherlands, invited me last year and I couldn’t go. I was invited again this year and another guy said he wanted me to play the following day. With two reasons to go, I felt it was a foot in the door and a good way to get a little exposure in a completely different world. I couldn’t have gotten a better response; people over there love music. They were supportive. They sang and clapped. They were with me every step of the way. They were an amazing audience and they even bought some of my CDs. My situation in the Netherlands came on the heels of the bombing that happened in Belgium. If I would have let that stop me from traveling and performing, then they would have won.