Chuck Johnson is one of the pre-eminent players in the current crop of solo guitar practitioners that includes Steve Gunn, James Blackshaw, Daniel Bachman, and many others. Since 2011 and the release of A Struggle Not A Thought on Strange Attractors Audio House, Johnson has released two more records of solo guitar on closely-watched underground labels Three Lobed and Scissor Tail Editions. His latest album Velvet Arc (streaming in full below) is a refinement and expansion of his signature style, adding a rhythm section on some tracks and instrumental flourishes such as violin (played by Marielle Jakobsons) and synthesizer (by Johnson himself). The result is a relative departure for Johnson—particularly the languid, toe-tapping B-side of the record, which slides comfortably “in the pocket” and recalls the Bakersfield country sound.
We spoke with Johnson on an unusually quiet Super Bowl Sunday a few blocks from the studio space he has occupied for years in downtown Oakland.
Velvet Arc is out February 19 on Trouble in Mind. Chuck Johnson plays a record release show at the Starline Social Club in Oakland with Young Moon and films by Paul Clipson on February 28th and Three Lobed Records’ 16th Anniversary on March 26 at King’s Barcade in Raleigh, North Carolina.
How did you get together with the rhythm section, Alex Vittum on drums and Ben Bracken on bass?
They’re all good friends of mine who I see all the time. They’re in my community and I know a lot of them from going to Mills College. When we recorded the tracks that have the rhythm section, those were recorded very loosely with very little rehearsal. We went in the studio, I showed them the tunes, we went through them a couple times, and then we recorded them. They have a pretty loose feel because of that, which I like. Alex the drummer feels really fresh and loose, playing around with his parts, almost a jazzy feel.
Alex’s main project is called For Now with his partner Zeina Nasr who is the vocalist. In that he plays drums and plays synths, there’s a lot of samples. He’s played in Ton Trio, an improv group. He has a group called Papa Snap which is a Fela Kuti cover band with a huge horn section. They’re a lot of fun. Ben and I didn’t overlap at Mills but I moved into the warehouse space he was living in my first year. That was a place that used to have a lot of shows—the Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut. Ben hosted shows and started sharing that responsibility when I moved there. That’s how I initially met Ben.
Who plays the synthesizer parts on the record?
That’s me. I came out here to do the electronic music program at Mills, so I’ve done that stuff for a long time. I haven’t done that much live music with synths, I probably will again it has just been a little while. [Johnson released a cassette of electronic music last year on Drawing Room Records.]
“Anamet” revisits the track “Private Violence” on your previous LP Blood Moon Boulder. What was the timeline for recording the two albums?
I recorded Blood Moon Boulder and Velvet Arc at about the same time. I played around with doing a hybrid of solo guitar and band stuff record but realized I had enough material and it would work better to break them out. I still think of them as companion pieces. “Private Violence” has its roots in the soundtrack work I do. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to do soundtrack projects where I’m making music I would actually want to release. It’s a production team based in North Carolina that Cynthia Hill heads up—she directs A Chef’s Life and she directed Private Violence. That song was based on the theme for that film. A lot of times I’ll form ideas that I can then take further and make releases out of.
Most people familiar with your records or live performances know you as a solo guitar player, but you were in proper rock bands throughout the nineties. What was the impetus to go for a full-band sound on Velvet Arc?
Part of this was an experiment to see what would happen if I put a rhythm section to music I’d been playing on solo guitar. The interesting thing that came out of it was that some of it sounds sort of country and some of it sounds like German Kosmische musik. There’s a lot of repetition and drone, but there’s also a syncopated rhythm that comes from the fingerstyle thing that I do on the acoustic guitar. Recording with the band with electric guitar I realized I needed to pull way back on the kind of embellishments that I would do on acoustic and simplify the rhythm. I’m still fingerpicking like I would as a solo guitarist, but I really stay in the pocket and refrain from pushing and pulling on the tempo.I played in bands for a long time in the 1990s, what you would call indie rock or post rock. For the most part i was playing with a flat pick and doing harder rock playing. Now I’m just trying to dovetail the two things and see how they fit together and I like how it turned out.
How much rehearsal and development of the songs with the rhythm section was there before you cut the record?
None before we recorded at all. We have been playing recently to prepare for the record release show and any other shows that might come up. We recorded this material a year and a half, almost two years ago now. We practiced a couple of times recently and we’ll do it more. A couple of the songs are now platforms for doing extended jams.
The recording quality on Velvet Arc and your previous solo guitar records is very clean, up-front, and “live” sounding. Can you talk a bit about your approach and philosophy to recording and engineering?
It’s all about the context of what the project is. For acoustic guitar I wanna hear what the instrument sounds like. Recording a band, I come out of that ’90s aesthetic of Chicago recording engineers. Not pristine, just live-sounding, accurate, what it sounds like in the room. I happen to think that works for rock music. There’s also a kind of a Bakersfield country influence that comes through on this material.
Where did you record?
Paul Dresher is a composer based in Oakland, and he has an ensemble with a big rehearsal space and a giant warehouse in West Oakland. I did all the recording myself for Velvet Arc and Blood Moon Boulder in that space. There was no engineer, just hours of setting up and then tracking a couple songs and tearing it all down again.
Velvet Arc has very distinct moods between the A and B sides. What is your approach to sequencing?
There are so many factors that come into play, especially when you know it’s gonna be a vinyl release. A lot of times it’s what fits on two even sides. It worked out with this stuff that there was Side A, much more atmospheric and darker, and then Side B was more country. Side A is for heads, Side B is for dancing.
Can you talk about that country atmosphere that is especially prevalent on the B-side. Were you surprised at all to hear that coming out in your music?
I was a little surprised this turned out the way it did when I added Ben and Alex because none of us are country musicians. My folks are from North Carolina and I grew up listening to country music all the time, I watched Hee Haw every week and Buck Owens and the house band so it’s definitely in my DNA in that sense. The fingerstyle picking, that comes from growing up there as well. It’s not surprising that they’re related—and I can hear how they’re related now in my own music—but it wasn’t that intentional.
You have been a working musician in the Bay Area for eight years now. Can you discuss your own attitude toward how the changing economics of the city are affecting artists?
This place is gentrifying faster than any other city in the country, so artists are leaving, that’s definitely part of the dynamic. But there are also people who for whatever reason have established themselves in a way where they can make it sustainable. I know a lot of people who are hanging on, and may or may not be able to stick around depending on what happens. You know, it’s extreme and disgusting what’s happening here, but it happens to cities. It has happened in New York, but it’s just more noticeable here cuz it’s a smaller place. I do know people who have moved from here to New York because they figure “I might as well,” it’s just as expensive. During the aughts I feel like there was more going on here but there was a lot more going on everywhere. That was just a fertile time, there was an explosion in underground music.
What’s next for you?
An ambient record for VDSQ. Steve Lowenthal asked for something that was specifically pedal steel based. I’ve been gradually adding pedal steel to these last couple records, so that made sense to me. If I was gonna do a record based around that instrument it would be an ambient record that picks up where the Eno-Daniel Lanois stuff left off. That record is pretty much done and will be out by the end of the year.