During the last 20 years, Chuck Johnson has developed what appear to be three discrete aspects of musical performance.
The first is that of experimental rock guitarist for Spatula, one of the weirder bands to flourish in Chapel Hill’s indie-rock heyday. Another is as an analog electronics wizard who, under the name Pykrete, uses modular synthesis and other techniques to generate outwardly primitive, inwardly sophisticated sounds. And then there is the fingerstyle acoustic guitarist who gestated in the late ’90s with the improvisational Ivanovich and the trio Idyll Swords. That guise has blossomed most recently on a pair of excellent solo albums, 2011’s A Struggle Not a Thought and the new Crows in the Basilica.
For Johnson, though, all of these practices fit together. That’s a relatively new realization, one that took him a couple decades and a move across the country, from North Carolina’s tightly knit music community to California’s prestigious Mills College, to realize.
Around 1992, Johnson had just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and was living with a band called 81 Mulberry, local journeymen who held down the fort while the likes of Archers of Loaf, Superchunk and Polvo created a national identity for Chapel Hill, a phenomenon then replicating itself in indie scenes across the nation.
“Basically, everyone was starting a band,” Johnson recalls. “Because of K Records and labels like that, a lot of people were inspired to pick up instruments and bang away.”
Johnson was one of them; he learned to play guitar by forming Spatula with roommate and drummer Matt Gocke. Cellist and bassist Chris Eubank joined a few years later. “What we were doing at first was kind of primitive and punk,” Johnson says, “but also very poppy. I sang. We dropped those aspects over time and became more of an instrumental band, getting interested in timbre and experimenting with song structures—things people now associate with the post-rock genre.”
After pushing the rock band construct as far into their esoteric interests as they could, Spatula wound down in 1998. Johnson gravitated instead to improvised music for exotic stringed instruments. By the time Spatula ended, he had already begun to work with Grant Tennille and Polvo’s Dave Brylawski as Idyll Swords, an essential step between Johnson’s rock and experimental stages.
“We had traveled and collected this pretty huge palette of acoustic stringed instruments,” Johnson says of Idyll Swords. “Polvo had these little vignettes on their records where you’d hear some of these instruments, and Dave wanted to flesh out those ideas more. It was an outlet for our interest in styles of music from other parts of the world, primarily the Middle East and South Asia.”
In 2002, Idyll Swords created a limited-edition EP—their final recording—for a CD subscription series released by young label Three Lobed Records, based near High Point. Two Idyll Swords LPs for The Communion Label had impressed Three Lobed owner Cory Rayborn; this was exactly the sort of cerebral, unusual music he wanted for his fledging imprint. Johnson’s increasingly venturesome solo performance style also connected with Rayborn.
“I remember being really surprised,” he says, “by Chuck’s performance at the Transmissions festival in 1999, this kind of orchestral piece for some number of hammered electric guitars.” The experimental and electronic music festival ran for three years in Chapel Hill, bringing in luminaries such as drone band Pelt, guitar-and-electronics dreamer Christian Fennesz and fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey.
“For Chapel Hill at the time, Idyll Swords felt pretty isolated,” Johnson recalls.
He felt the same way during his early electronic phase, but that started changing when he reconnected with Randy Ward, an old friend who had gotten into circuit-bending—that is, tweaking mass-produced electronic gadgets until they made strange, surprising sounds. Johnson and Ward held a weekly gear-hacking meet-up. People brought new projects and shared their knowledge.
“That pulled me into a hands-on way of making electronic music,” Johnson says, “and I connected with a community of younger rock musicians who were expanding their palette with electronics.”
Connections made at fests like Transmissions and his own Shortwave series further immersed Johnson in the world of electronics. He launched Pykrete in 2003. “I became aware of the limitations of my vocabulary and technique as a guitar improviser, and felt like a lot had already been done expanding the guitar as a sound source for free improv,” he says. “I started to discover that with electronics, there were still a lot of sounds I hadn’t heard.”
Though Johnson found new inspiration and camaraderie in electronics, he agrees that his friends from the ’90s indie-rock scene sometimes thought he’d gone crazy. Though Spatula made strange sounds, they did it with guitars in their hands. Pykrete was more likely to be found working the switchboard of a modular analog synthesizer like an old-fashioned telephone operator. But he was committed enough that he eventually decided he needed the chance to fully immerse himself within his music.
“When I had the idea of going to grad school,” he says, “I had two channels I wanted to work in. One was to step up my skills building electronics, and one of my big accomplishments at Mills was building my own touch controller.” The other channel was composition, where Johnson fell under the tutelage of legendary electro-acoustic composer and performer Pauline Oliveros. Johnson completed his MFA in 2009.
“It moved me forward at a pace that would have taken much longer otherwise,” Johnson says of the education. “I learned to see all the things I do as part of a whole. I realized that whether I’m playing acoustic guitar or making electronic music or minimalist drone compositions, what motivates me is what’s happening in the room apart from the sound coming out of the instrument or the melodies. What’s being conjured or called forth by this chaotic system or this series of just-intonated intervals?”
What came next confirmed Johnson’s nascent synthesis of artistic strands: After a productive stint at an experimental music bastion, Johnson returned to acoustic guitar for two albums that have earned him positive notice from NPR, Pitchfork and many other media outlets.
“Going to Mills actually fed back into the acoustic guitar music, even though I wasn’t playing much guitar there. It’s been there for a long time,” he says of his fingerstyle playing. “But it took many years before I felt confident in really putting it out there.”
Much of Johnson’s electronic work is firmly in the lineage of 1960s John Cage and David Tudor, where the musician sets up a system, sets it in motion and steps back to see what happens. But he no longer finds any contradiction between this practice and the more direct interface of his acoustic guitar work. “The acoustic guitar in open tunings,” he says, “is incredibly overtone-rich. There’s a lot going on inside that wooden box, a lot that can happen in the room when you’re exciting the strings and manipulating the overtones.”
Rayborn, who released the new Crows on Three Lobed, offers the perspective of a longtime fan and supporter. “It’s interesting that Chuck was 40 or 41 before his first acoustic guitar record came out,” he says. “He waited until he had something to say. His style now is influenced by everything else he does, not just Robbie Basho and John Fahey. Even when Chuck is inspired by a traditional blues tune, he’s bringing his informational arsenal.”
The atmospheric but rollicking six- and 12-string compositions of Crows draw on all of these influences and more, but they rest on the most elemental through-line of Johnson’s multifaceted practice: emotion.
“When I’m writing this music, I’m not applying a system other than a tuning. A lot of it is about conveying a certain feeling rather than making up an experiment,” he explains. “Even at Mills, with a conceptual or systems-based approach, that’s always been a big part of it for me—I have to feel something when I’m doing it.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Finding the chord.”