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More punch to the gut

Image by Tim Fears

Ben Johnson holds the unique position of watching rock shows for a living and occasionally gracing the same stage. He has walked through the door at the Casbah hundreds of times to clock in for bartending shifts, but he has been carried out of the same door on the shoulders of rabid fans only once. That was during the release party for the Long and Short of It’s last album, CAW! Johnson, the group’s vocalist, dove off the stage at the end of their set and the crowd to carried him out of his office.

“That was a hell of a feeling, for sure,” Johnson tells the Reader. It was also the first time he realized the band had really made it in the San Diego scene. At that point they had been active for about five years, with all four original members still in tow. A feat that doesn’t seem as impressive until you find out that their bassist, Brian Barrabee, was paralyzed from the chest down after a three-story fall in 2004.

“It very easily could have been the end of that band very early on,” Johnson explains, “but he was the one who, when he came out of his coma, said, ‘When are we gonna record these songs?’ We were, like, ‘What are you talking about? You just about died.’ For him that was his drive. Our band kept him motivated to be part of something.”

According to Johnson, Barrabee’s bass riffs form the foundation of the band’s songs.

“We kind of sculpt songs around them. Mostly it’s Brian playing a riff and he’ll just repeat it and we [guitarist Matt Strachota and drummer Tim Johnson] try to fill in other things. Those guys generally get it going, and then I layer myself up over the top.”

BURL, the band’s latest album, features a slew of these “progressive, repetitive, complicated bass riffs,” only this time delivered in a more user-friendly package.

BURL’s a little more streamlined and a little less experimental,” Johnson says. “When we first started, we would just do, like, four different time signatures in a song and that used to kind of drive me crazy. I don’t mind math rock, but I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life. So, we honed what we were doing. It’s definitely [our] most straightforward and stripped-down album. The songs are shorter and have more punch to the gut. More rock and roll than what we previously have done. I don’t wanna shy away from pop sensibility, but at the same time I do wanna make a progressive hardcore in-your-face album. I’m totally stoked on the product.”

Johnson’s editorial instinct probably runs in sync with his thinking as a writer. He is a huge fan of the author Phillip K. Dick and has even published a book, A Shadow Cast in Dust, which was released on May 11 of this year. He is meticulous about his lyrics and lyrical delivery on the band’s albums and thinks of his voice “as an instrument, specifically as a percussive instrument, even though there’s more tonality.” Johnson says he has always been a fan of narrative in songs, and writing a book seemed like the obvious next step when some of his ideas got too big for the musical backdrop.

“Over time, my songs just started having a beginning, a middle, and an end and were trying to be little stories. That’s actually what thrust me into trying to write a book. I started writing little stories, and then two or three songs kind of go together in a story and then you’re, like, Now I just wanna write a story. You can put a lot more detail into writing fiction than you can a song because a song has a finite amount of words. In writing fiction, that’s not a problem.”

As a bartender at a popular music venue, Johnson has caught plenty of shows by established and up-and-coming national acts. He cites Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes as the coolest of the cool. “[Robinson] comes up to the bar and talks to you like you’re old friends. He just starts telling stories and he’s so funny, engaging, and rad. This guy just rules. I never listened to the Black Crowes, and the band he had that night was really like the Grateful Dead, and I don’t really like the Grateful Dead, but he was just amazing as a guy.”

According to Johnson, the true magic of the Casbah are those moments found when you catch an incredible band playing to a nearly empty room.

“It’s not like shows that have blown me away, it’s just moments. Like, nobody is gonna ever know what just happened, and nobody is gonna ever see this little, tiny relic of rock that just happened, but it was amazing.... I remember the girl or the guy doing exactly what they did and think, Fuck, that person gets how to work a stage.”

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Ben Johnson holds the unique position of watching rock shows for a living and occasionally gracing the same stage. He has walked through the door at the Casbah hundreds of times to clock in for bartending shifts, but he has been carried out of the same door on the shoulders of rabid fans only once. That was during the release party for the Long and Short of It’s last album, CAW! Johnson, the group’s vocalist, dove off the stage at the end of their set and the crowd to carried him out of his office.

“That was a hell of a feeling, for sure,” Johnson tells the Reader. It was also the first time he realized the band had really made it in the San Diego scene. At that point they had been active for about five years, with all four original members still in tow. A feat that doesn’t seem as impressive until you find out that their bassist, Brian Barrabee, was paralyzed from the chest down after a three-story fall in 2004.

“It very easily could have been the end of that band very early on,” Johnson explains, “but he was the one who, when he came out of his coma, said, ‘When are we gonna record these songs?’ We were, like, ‘What are you talking about? You just about died.’ For him that was his drive. Our band kept him motivated to be part of something.”

According to Johnson, Barrabee’s bass riffs form the foundation of the band’s songs.

“We kind of sculpt songs around them. Mostly it’s Brian playing a riff and he’ll just repeat it and we [guitarist Matt Strachota and drummer Tim Johnson] try to fill in other things. Those guys generally get it going, and then I layer myself up over the top.”

BURL, the band’s latest album, features a slew of these “progressive, repetitive, complicated bass riffs,” only this time delivered in a more user-friendly package.

BURL’s a little more streamlined and a little less experimental,” Johnson says. “When we first started, we would just do, like, four different time signatures in a song and that used to kind of drive me crazy. I don’t mind math rock, but I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life. So, we honed what we were doing. It’s definitely [our] most straightforward and stripped-down album. The songs are shorter and have more punch to the gut. More rock and roll than what we previously have done. I don’t wanna shy away from pop sensibility, but at the same time I do wanna make a progressive hardcore in-your-face album. I’m totally stoked on the product.”

Johnson’s editorial instinct probably runs in sync with his thinking as a writer. He is a huge fan of the author Phillip K. Dick and has even published a book, A Shadow Cast in Dust, which was released on May 11 of this year. He is meticulous about his lyrics and lyrical delivery on the band’s albums and thinks of his voice “as an instrument, specifically as a percussive instrument, even though there’s more tonality.” Johnson says he has always been a fan of narrative in songs, and writing a book seemed like the obvious next step when some of his ideas got too big for the musical backdrop.

“Over time, my songs just started having a beginning, a middle, and an end and were trying to be little stories. That’s actually what thrust me into trying to write a book. I started writing little stories, and then two or three songs kind of go together in a story and then you’re, like, Now I just wanna write a story. You can put a lot more detail into writing fiction than you can a song because a song has a finite amount of words. In writing fiction, that’s not a problem.”

As a bartender at a popular music venue, Johnson has caught plenty of shows by established and up-and-coming national acts. He cites Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes as the coolest of the cool. “[Robinson] comes up to the bar and talks to you like you’re old friends. He just starts telling stories and he’s so funny, engaging, and rad. This guy just rules. I never listened to the Black Crowes, and the band he had that night was really like the Grateful Dead, and I don’t really like the Grateful Dead, but he was just amazing as a guy.”

According to Johnson, the true magic of the Casbah are those moments found when you catch an incredible band playing to a nearly empty room.

“It’s not like shows that have blown me away, it’s just moments. Like, nobody is gonna ever know what just happened, and nobody is gonna ever see this little, tiny relic of rock that just happened, but it was amazing.... I remember the girl or the guy doing exactly what they did and think, Fuck, that person gets how to work a stage.”

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