Prior to our conversation, John 5 told me that the new Sinner LP perfectly represents who he is as an artist. Quite an important comment, especially taking into account how much has John tried over the years – from being a staff-songwriter at Chrysalis to joining Marilyn Manson in the mid ’90s and John’s long-term creative relations with Rob Zombe.
Sinner is not a typical John 5 record, in all senses. It discloses the figure of guitarist from various angles; whether it’s distorted technicality of John’s electrified riffs or tapping into mellow acoustic-ness of songs like Georgia On My Mind or How High The Moon.
Louder Than War talks to John 5 about writing Sinner and switching from collaborator to main writer, about challenging himself and covering Les Paul, about performing live and ideas.
LTW: Setting up to record an album, like Sinner do you switch from collaborator\ co-author to a mode when you’re the principal writer ?
John 5: I think, it’s pretty organic. I would be playing a riff or something like that, and I’d say something like: “Oh, I really like how’s that sounds!” I really like how the riff sounds and I think, “I’ll use it for my instrumental work”. It’s the same thing with Zombie – if I hear something, I’d just say: “Oh, that would be good for Rob Zombie” – it is pretty organic, I’d have to say. It’s just comes out of nowhere and that makes it exciting.
You’re one of these types of players who almost sleeps with your instrument. But when you’re constantly working and having ideas, what helps you to sort them out? Why does this riff or that chord progression become a foundation of a song but that riff doesn’t?
Well, I think, if I have a riff and I really like it, I play it over and over and see if I get sick of it. if I keep playing and keep playing and feel “Oh! I really like how this sounds!” – it’s just a feeling and I know it’s a good riff. You keep hearing it over and over, that’s what makes a great riff – just something you can hear over and over and you won’t get sick of it.
As far as I understood, you approached the recording part as a live-performance. Is that correct?
That’s correct. I just sat home and really tried to do everything in full take, from the beginning to the end. If I’d mess up, I’d go all way to the beginning and re-record everything. It was a lot of fun to me. Because we had a lockdown, so I just had a fun time doing it, and trying to improve what I do. So it really worked out well.
How did you get to this idea? I’d say that this practice is not that typical these days.
I was listening to the radio and all that music from the 1930s and 1940s – it was all live music. I thought it was so interesting that everything I was hearing on a radio was performed live – even on the record, because, that’s how they did it! And musicians had to be so great back then, they had to be so amazing, they couldn’t mess up. Because if that one guy messed up back then, it ruined everything for everybody else. So they had to work so hard. I really think that’s how I look at it. And it really worked out well, just doing it that way, thinking if I was in the ’40s and I was doing something, I couldn’t mess up. And I had to give the best performance I could.
That’s a bit of a challenge.
If not for the lockdown, I would probably have done it the other way – just punching and doing things like that. But it was such fun challenge to me, because I had so much time on my hands. It really was a wonderful challenge and something that was good for me and my playing as well.
One of the best things I love about Sinner is, despite the fact that among the guests on the record you have Dave Mustaine and Carla Harvey as featured vocalists, you don’t think about these songs as about something typical. They’re not providing the lyrics or vocals, but adding some textural and atmospheric parts. How did you managed to reach this ?
How I started this was, we had a riff – and then my producer put in that James Brown sample. He was talking to the crowd and saying “Que Pasa, people! Que pasa!” and then we thought it was so funky we added it to the riff.
And the record-company said: “Well, we can’t have James Brown in there! We’d get sued! Who would you love to have?” – and I said: “It would be great to have Dave Mustane!” – I was listening to a lot of Megadeth at that time. And I got it to him and he really liked it. I was so thankful and honoured that he dug it! He’s one of my favorite. And Dave just killed it. With Carla, Charlie Benante from Anthrax’s girlfriend.
And I said: “I really need this one word. It would be so cool. But I really need it in a certain way!” – and she really just got this one word. It was perfect. So I’m very thankful and happy for their participation.
If we speak about Georgia On My Mind – it’s interesting that you brought Peter Criss in on this particular song. What motivated your choice in this musical situation?
I’ve known Peter for a very long time. And he loves jazz; he loves playing jazz and he loves playing jazz-drums, he’s been playing them his whole life – ever since he was a kid. And when we talk on the phone, he always talks about playing jazz; Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich. You can hear that jazz-playing in those early KISS records. SoI thought: “I’m gonna ask Peter if he wants to play Georgia On my Mind” – with nice brushes and a really cool beat on that. He just did it in just a couple of takes, and that feel is something that he always has – it’s in his soul. And he plays it so beautifully and so perfectly; it’s just walking or breathing for him to play like that. He’s such an amazing musician.
Before our interview you mentioned that Sinner, as a record, perfectly represents who you are as an artist. At the same time, being mostly known in the world of heavy music, you have such songs as How High The Moon or This Is How I Do It. What made it so important for you to add these onto the record?
I really like doing it, I’m a fan of music; I just love music in general. It doesn’t have to be all heavy-edgy – I love country music or jazz-music, or anything like that. If it’s done well, I really, really like it a lot, it’s a lot of fun. And that’s how I’ve always been since I was a little kid; I listened to Wes Montgomery or Django Reinhardt or anyone like that. I just love music in general. And I don’t categorise it.
I can’t not ask you about a number of cover-versions presented on the record – why these songs, John ?
With How High The Moon, I’ve always loved Les Paul. His playing and songwriting is innovative, of course, and when I got the chance to play with him, it was really something very special. I couldn’t believe it, I will never forget it. That’s why I covered How High The Moon.
With Crazy Little Thing Called Love – I love check. And doing that checking style of Crazy Little Thing Called Love, that kind of walking bass-line with the melody, is so interesting. It’s kind of a tribute to Elvis. It was really fun to do it that way. But then, when the guitar solo came up I was wondering, how am I gonna do the bass-part and a solo at the same time? Just doing the bass-part and a solo was a bit of a challenge, but a lot of fun!
And Georgia On My Mind is, of course, one of the greatest songs ever written. Just so beautiful, oh my God! So that kind of walking-jazz-stuff, I just love music in general.
Do you think you have a comfort zone, a certain specific set of tendencies you keen to explore over and over again?
I love, of course, rock music; I love heavy rock music. It’s just what I play when I’m on the couch. And that’s why I put out the record; it’s who I am. And that’s why it’s such an honest record. It’s what I love to play and I thought “Ok! I’m gonna put these things on a record!” It’s really what I enjoy.
Your creativity has been tied to theatrical expression. But drawing the parallel between the world of theatre and cinematograph, there are cases when it’s difficult for actors to distance themselves from the images they’re mostly associated with. Did something like this ever happen to you?
Yeah! That’s why I do this. When people come to the concerts they think they’re going to get some heavy-heavy music. And all the stuff. But then I break out the banjo or I break out a mandolin and they think: “What’s going on?” and I just play some beautiful country music. And that’s what people like. Because it’s shocking in a sense. It’s like if some heavy-metal band started playing bluegrass, they’d say: “Oh! What’s going on?”. And it’s a breath of fresh air; it’s not the same thing over and over again. It’s a lot of fun!
Your first solo LP, Vertigo, came out around the same time you were leaving Marilyn Manson. What drove you towards the solo work back then and what were your intentions for that record?
Well, the reason I put out Vertigo was I got fired from Marilyn Manson and I thought “Well, I’m gonna put out an instrumental record and give it to my friends while I figure out what my next move will be!” . So I just did it for fun. As a result, people went crazy for it. My reaction was wow, I didn’t expect that. It was put out for fun and for something to do, to literally pass the time. People really enjoyed it and I just kept on making more and more records. So here I am with Sinner, and it’s 2021. It’s pretty incredible. I’m really happy that people like it, because I just do it for the love of guitar and the love of making music.
A specific point was when you decided to put The Creatures together. What it was like for you to become a front person for a band ?
It was very scary! I was terrified, I didn’t know if people would like it. I’d never done it before. I’ve always been on stage with a singer and I was nervous! But I think over the years, having shows and doing this for a while, there’s such a big following now. It just makes me so happy and so proud that this is going on. I still can’t believe it, I’m so thankful for it. Very, very thankful.
Starting with Season Of The Witch, you’ve been releasing an album EVERY YEAR as John 5 and The Creatures. What allows you to work in such productive way?
Because I always have the guitar with me, I think, I’m always playing and always working. It’s really a comfort thing; it’s like having your favourite toy when you were a kid. This was my favourite toy when I was a kid. So I still have it. It really is very strange, but it doesn’t seem like work, it really doesn’t. I love making records, and I love touring. I’m very lucky.
But back then you were a member of that band, a collaborator, and took some first steps as a solo artist, and now you do all these things. How long did it take for you to get used to having these multiple hats ?
Sometimes it’s difficult. But it’s all communication. I communicate with Rob on scheduling – he tells me when it’s a good time to tour. Or when the good time to make a record is. I check with him first to see what open time we have – we’ve had really good luck with that. I think communication is so important, in any job, or with anything like that – you have to have great communication so you won’t have problems in the future.
These days, what is your practicing schedule like ?
Well, it’s funny. I get up. I answer emails or do something like that. And then get right on to the guitar. I play guitar so much – when I’m sitting, I’m playing guitar. I do a physical every year, and the doctor says: “Oh, your levels are really good, but it looks like you don’t get a lot of exercise!” – and it’s true! She says: “You have to move! You have to get up and move! You have to move!” – because I do sit on a couch all day and play guitar. And it’s all day, it’s all I do.
You’re known as a very disciplined player. And usually, discipline goes with a lot of concentration, at the same time only feeling a certain amount of freedom you can create. Even though some artists tend to limit themselves is this the case with you?
Yes. It’s all about scheduling; everything is about scheduling. You wanna have time for family and time for relationships. You gotta have time for interviews. And you gotta have time to play guitar. And that’s how I do it – I just try to balance it all. And it’s difficult, because a lot of things happen in life and you have to do it.
Before our interview has started, I was listening to Land Of The Misfit Toys. There are two chords at the beginning of the song. Tu-du-dum. And that, to me, sets the whole atmosphere of the song. How did you get this little detail ?
Land Of The Misfit Toys is one of my favourite tracks on the record. I was watching this documentary about this amazing producer and how he’d put a track together. I thought “I’m gonna do that with this song Land Of The Misfit Toys!” I started off with the intro, the riff, verses, chorus, and that huge epic outro. And that intro, Tu-du-dum, that kind of thing; and the main riff over that little melody thing.
I came up with this cool little tapping that has this rhythmic funky thing to it. And it’s an odd song, and all these things happen in the song – they’re really weird. But it’s my favourite song on the record.
A lot of artists try to build the compositional structure around the vocals, choruses etc. How different is the mindset when you’re working on the instrumental music?
Working on instrumental music is very difficult, it’s not easy, because there are no lyrics, no vocals. I didn’t even know how to do it on my record. I thought: “What do I do ?” . I just did what I did by creating my own kind of style and listening to my heroes: Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert – all these great instrumentalists. And I kind of learnt from them, tried to do the best I could. And now, I’m doing these songs and people really love them. If I can inspire some people or if I can influence some people, then that’s good enough to me. I did my job. That’s what makes me happy.
John 5’s newest Sinner LP is out now via Big Machine Records.
Interview by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.
Photo credits: Matt Wilson