By The Gourds News / June 4, 2013
It’s just after midnight and Max Johnston is on a Greyhound bus headed back home to Dallas after a Gourds show…and he has to take a piss…like right now. But another passenger seems to have locked himself in the bathroom, so Max tells the driver what’s going on and shrinks back into his seat. Driver pulls over and walks to the back of the bus. Door pops right open. Nobody inside. My phone buzzes. It’s a text from Max. He says the bus was dark when he spoke to the driver and the other passengers probably didn’t see him. Now he wants to know how long he has to stay put in his seat so when he does get up for the can they won't realize he's the same guy who stopped the bus. He also admits he didn't see what the driver did, so he still doesn’t know how to open the goddamn door. And he's filled with green room beer. I'm 1,500 miles away laughing my ass off...but I'm also trying to figure out a way to share this other side of Max with the people who don’t normally get a chance to see it. With that in mind, I take a chance: “I’d like to do an email interview with you. I know you never do that kind of stuff, but too fucking bad. People want to know what you’re up to”. There’s no reply. I convince myself that it means yes and decide to send him an email a few days later pretending that he agreed to do it. Here’s what happened next…
TheGourdsNews: So, you still feel like doing that interview with me? My style is probably more free-associative than your standard Q&A. Could be fun.
Max Johnston: Okay shoot. Mite take my time as it's not wine 30 yet. Sent from my vanity closet
TGN: Before we start, I just want to say you can look over the whole thing when it's done and strike whatever you want. So please don't be overly cautious when you answer.
MJ: "Let the beatings begin!"--2 Live Crew. I don't want to be overly cautious. I want to be overly witty. And knowledgeable. Wittily knowledgeable.
MJ: http://i.imgur.com/7R70ziI.jpg My first answer is grandpa has coke nails. Sent from la playa
TGN: Ha! My wife's favorite movie. She was horrified just now when I showed it to her, but it's as good a place as any to start. So, what do you suppose it is about that picture that resonates with you?
MJ: Resonates indeed. At one time my favorite movie http://i.imgur.com/u2wGH.jpg And of course everyone’s favorite doodler http://i.imgur.com/t1iz7J7.jpg In all fairness, he used that to etch his paintings somehow. But still, it’s funny. The blue turtle neck resonates with me. Looks like he’s about to sneeze. That resonates because I’ve had miserable allergies of late and I’m constantly on the verge of sneezing it seems. So this shitty therapist is seeing his first client. The client says “Man, I’m so depressed.” The therapist says “So you’re pretty depressed.” The client says “Yeah. Yeah, I think I want to kill myself,” and the therapist says “You feel like killing yourself.” The client runs and leaps out of the third floor office window and the therapist says “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!”
TGN: I have two thoughts here. The first is that I don't think I would've noticed the fingernails in any of those shots without your direction. So I’m wondering if there’s something about fingernails that maybe draws you in? And then the 2nd half of your answer is a variation on an old joke about Rogerian therapy. A professor of mine once told me that Carl Rogers was better than his theory…so you couldn’t just say what Rogers would say and have the same success because there was some quality particular to him that made his theory work. It reminds me now of something Jimmy [Smith] told me years ago when we were talking about The Basement Tapes. I asked him which one he would cover if he had to. All he said was, “Can’t be done…uncoverable”. Are there songs like that for you…songs that you wouldn’t touch?
MJ: Awesome. When I tell it it's like a first grader telling a fart joke. So, nails. I chew the ever living life out of mine. I’ve been bribed and shamed by family and friend to stop, but I never did. Never even gave it a real shot. The pictures of the nails drew me in because I was directed to that exact thing by the title of a post I stole these from. I'd seen legh—how the hell do you spell Princess Leigh fuck it.....anyways. Uncoverable? Man there's metric shit tons of songs I wouldn’t cover right now because I don't know how to play them. Quid pro quo, Clarice. So the joke is funny, but kind of offensive to good old Rogers because heh, only Rogers can do Rogers. I didn't get this at all but when it was explained, I loved it. Two people in a conversation and one says "That's very interesting, I'm going to bring that up in my next psychoanalysis session," and the other says, "Didn't you know? Your therapist died two years ago!" So, what's your favorite musician joke? Sent from Pantalloooon
TGN: Oh, that’s easy. Q: What did the drummer get on his IQ Test? A: Drool. That one always gets me, although it’s probably unfair to a few guys. So, anyway, wow…I guess we’re pretty heavy into the music talk at this point, which means I should probably ask you the question: What are you doing with all the free time you have now that The Gourds aren’t touring as much?
MJ: Oh so now this is only about me? Ok, being broke, being dad, being husband. Pretty heavy into the music talk my bolshoi. Favorite band: REM, Favorite hobby: blocks, Favorite movie: big lebowski, Favorite food: spaghetti, Favorite tool: …you know what? I’m not going to do that because I like you. I really do. I have fun writing and talking to you and I don’t want to write stuff like "Favorite tool: Your Name.” I enjoy your informed company, angelic spirit, and empathic demeanor so much that why your name comes so easily to me after that question, “favorite tool?” makes me wonder who and what I am, as a person. Hahha. Let’s.....start over.
TGN: Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ve been called a lot worse. Plus, starting over would be exhausting. But I am willing to go back the broke-dad-husband part. So (clearing throat)…you working on anything, musically or not, to help pay the bills?
MJ: I'm totally rethinking my first answer. I don't think that's my favorite band. Sent from my water hose
TGN: Wait. Is that part of the interview or your commentary on the interview?
MJ: I’m not sure yet. I sounded kinda douchey. But I’ve been listening to some later REM records and I want to set my iTunes on fire.
TGN: I never listened to REM, at least not actively, but I always loved that story where Peter Buck got drunk on a commercial flight and took a dump in the drink cart. In my mind, it happened right there in the aisle, but who knows. Anyway, maybe my question about paying the bills was too invasive…is that why we’re talking about REM?
MJ: Okay. So I go through phases of music. I listen to one thing intently then I move on. I have been listening to REM a lot lately, but really I’ve been listening to David Sedaris and Lenny Bruce and Red Foxx and Richard Pryor and Louis CK and George Carlin collectively more than anything else. Does that count? I haven’t listened to REM consistently since...I was twenty five. That’s quite some time ago. The last record I heard was Automatic. How much could I really be into them? Why am I defending myself? I need to call [Chicago lawyer] Eddie Voci and let him pro bono this. Eddie? Actually, this whole thing is awkward because I feel like I’m blabbering on like anyone gives a flying hoot. Everything I’ve ever written, every interview anyway, I’ve ultimately been embarrassed of. Every. Single. One. I sound stupid and uninformed. On the other hand, it’s fun doing it because in a sense, I’m dying to share about myself. But ultimately I’m vapid, rude, and unaware. That’s not to say I’m unhappy with myself, but to say anything else sounds egotistical. I suppose I’m hyperbolically self-deprecating. If I make fun of myself, at least I own the context. By the way, I don’t have the will, interest, or the financial wherewithal to get away with deuceing in an airline drink cart (?!?) so I guess I’ll just move on from this whole REM meme. In fact, I think you just ruined the whole thing for me. Damn you. I will get you back for this. What if I told you Chuck Berry used to—wait. No. I’m not going there. Next Question.
TGN: We could probably spend the rest of the interview on that answer, but I think it kind of speaks for itself so I’ll just let it stand and maybe try to move onto something else. Can I ask you about The Gourds movie?
MJ: Yes. Yes you may.
TGN: Okay. Well, I should tell you that I saw it and liked it…but I couldn’t help noticing you were the only Gourd who didn’t take the stage to answer questions after the premier. What happened?
MJ: This question really blows my mind because I ask myself, “Really? Was there an after premier question and answer thing?” But when I asked [my wife] Maleah about it just now, she repeated the question verbatim back to me…only her vocal punctuation was different. I inferred from her inflection that, yes, there had been a question and answer thing and that I had missed it. Because I went to the bathroom. Because...I had to go to the bathroom. One thing lead to another and whoosh, I’m missing the question and answer thing.
TGN: Annnnnd…we’re right back to Peter Buck. Well done. Okay. So you missed the Q&A, but what did you think of the movie itself? If not the content, maybe the experience of seeing yourself on the big screen.
MJ: I think I enjoyed the movie. I should say I enjoyed that which I saw of it. Is that...a logical phrase?
TGN: It seems a bit stuffy for you, but I get what you’re saying.
MJ: Right. I didn’t see the whole thing, but the part that I did see, I did enjoy.
TGN: And yet, you bailed at some point.
MJ: Well, I’d seen myself earlier in the film and was feeling quite pleased. I remember imagining a hush of reverence washing over all the women in audience.
TGN: Of course.
MJ: But when the narrative began to turn on me I became very nervous and fidgety. My nails became bleedy and throbbing and I considered moving onto my toes, but decided that would be gross and awkward, removing my shoes and socks while sitting next to Duck[taper]’s wife. I remember a gentleman in front of me turning around asking me to please be quiet as he would like to hear the movie. I also remember Keith saying something [in the movie] that was very kind and meaningful and then the screen began to tunnel, like when the Millennium Falcon made the jump to light speed, and the exit signs just grew to Jurassic proportions.
TGN: Oh, okay. So you basically got out of there when the segment about you came on. I can’t remember how far into the movie that was, but you probably caught more than half of it. You know your dad ["Dollar" Bill Johnston] shows up at one point and says some really nice things about you.
MJ: Yeah, my dad’s good people. He’s liable to say some good things about me, truth be damned.
TGN: I was wondering, now that the two of you live in the same city, do you get to play together more often? And do you think you might ever play out?
MJ: We do. We play together quite a bit. Not as often as he’d like, but anytime he’s having a party or something there’s always music. He plays almost every night at home and has gigs every now and again. He plays with his girlfriend and a few others, anybody who feels like joining in really. But he has parties and get togethers a lot and Maleah and me and the kids will go over there and I’ll play and the kids will bang on a bodhran, blow pennywhistles, or argue or whatever. We’ve played out before a lot, but not lately. I think we have a July 4th party to play. I’m not sure when it is though.
TGN: That’s a nice scene, the family all together like that. Can I ask what kind of an influence he was on you as a musician? I’m assuming he gave you your first guitar?
MJ: My dad’s influence was pretty much the total reason I’m doing any of this. I mean, perhaps I would have stumbled into all this anyway, but I don’t know. He loves playing music. It wouldn’t be very hyperbolic to say it’s his primary life joy, and that it infected almost everyone around him...although my younger sister has held out in that regard as she’s more of a writer kind of person. It’s odd, not knowing whether or not I would be doing this without his encouragement. This is all I’ve ever really done that could be considered a career. I’ve worked alongside him as a carpenter my whole life, too, but I only ever thought of that as something to do to make extra money in the slow music time. That’s changed more recently as The Gourds have had to slow down a little for their side projects. Nowadays we work together almost every day on various projects around the rental houses he owns. There’s always a room that needs to be painted or someone has flushed a condom down the toilet clogging the whole building and it’s my job to fish that out. And I love it.
TGN: Well, of course…who wouldn’t? And your first guitar?
MJ: My dad’s actually never given me a guitar. He has given me almost everything else I play, though. He gave me a banjo first, a hundred dollar no-name model when I was eight. When I actually showed interest in it and took a few lessons he gave me the banjo I play now, a really great workhorse of a banjo that’s seen as many road miles as I have. He gave me a mandolin and my square neck resonator. My grandmother gave me my fiddle for my fifteenth birthday. All these things were so great that I’ve never really even considered replacing them. I’m not a gear guy at all, so I don’t need to have seven different mandolins or whatever. Just gimme somethin’ I’m used to, as the saying goes. That attitude has freed untold dollars that I can throw at a war-gaming habit I’ve had since...forever ago. David Childers knows what I’m talking about. He’s a hero of mine…an outflanking-overwhelming-application-of-superior-force-at-a-given-point-dice-rolling hero. But my guitar, or the guitar I’ve played since I was fifteen to be more accurate, is actually an indefinite loaner. I don’t want to divulge the true owner of it as they may decide they want it back, even though they’ve said time and again they don’t like it at all and have left it unplayed and unappreciated lo these twenty eight some odd years. You would think there would be some statute of limitations on this, but my dad did purchase the guitar and only shrugs and says if they ever want it back, I guess I have to give it back. Let’s not talk anymore about my—I mean, that guitar.
TGN: Fair enough. Not another word. There’s something else I want to ask you about anyway…your sister. When you mentioned the younger one, my mind immediately drifted to the older one [Michelle Shocked] and all that trouble she stirred up a couple months ago. Part of me wants to skip right over it, but I’m afraid if I don’t ask, people might assume you were okay with it because you’re family.
MJ: I’m barely okay with myself, much less that malarkey. She has her own version of whatever went down and, sure, I read all about it for a week or so…really tried to keep up with it ya know? Because, it’s her, my sister, and I kept hoping this would break in some reasonable direction, but it really never has. It’s sad, it’s ridiculous, and really just hurtful. Maybe she was pulling some kind of Lenny Bruce shtick but I never got that. I got it when Bruce did it but, I don’t know. Maybe she’s just too clever for me. I’ve heard her go off on this or that rant onstage in the past and though it was never as cringing or hurtful as her last bit, it always struck me as awkward and fairly yawn-worthy. But I’m not her, I didn’t have the experiences and issues that she’s had. And whether she’s into that whole bigot thing or not, I sure as hell don’t feel that way.
TGN: Well, that’s good to hear. And I’m glad we survived that question. I guess the only thing left is to take another pass at the music thing. I’ve noticed some Facebook posts & tweets lately from a guy named Eric Jarvis who says he’s working on your solo-record? Can you talk about that a little bit?
MJ: Talk a little bit? Yes. I could talk a little bit. Okay, so the Jarvis clan of Houston and the Johnston clan of Dallas, or at least the respective ones that we belong to as I’m sure there are others, go back many, many years and are related by various marriages and miscarriages of justice. My best assessment is that he’s a cousin of some sort with various other possibilities in the mix. Our families seem vague on the matter, though. If pressed, I’m sure some elder might be induced to elucidate more fully. Right now the prospect of explaining it further makes my eyeballs look like those x-ray glasses you would have seen years ago in the back of a comic book, so I’ll just leave it at that. What I can say is he’s a great musician and producer with thousands of projects behind and before him…and it’s really taken someone with his talent and ability to put a metaphorical firearm to my head and shoehorn me into some sort of project that we both hope will emerge as a record.
TGN: So you weren’t exactly looking to make a record?
MJ: No. I would never have set out to do this on my own because I’m just not that sort of person, really. I enjoy music. I enjoy playing it. But the thought of having a Max Johnston Project or Experience or Album or whatever has always been as far from my mind as a scorpion shower. People have asked me when I was going to do this and I would just say “Hhhmmmmm...” and use the opportunity to offer them a beer or comment on their shoes. I’m a band guy…like, all for one and one for all. I don’t have that “hey, look at me!” chain in my DNA, really. Well, I say that, but of course I have it…it’s just not in the context of wanting my voice or banjo to be heard so much as it is to be generally appreciated for being alive. Anyway, I do have some songs, and me and Eric are piecing them together. I’ll bring in something like a four-year-old’s play-doh expression of angst and he’ll hew it into something melodic and tangible. My street corner end is nigh rambling to his Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And what else can I do? Kevin [Russell] and Keith [Langford] are be-bopping around the country. Claude [Bernard], Mark [Creaney], and Jimmy [Smith] are grinding out their scene. Goodfellas. “One dog goes one way and the other dog goes another way and this guy’s sayin ‘What do ya want from me?’”
TGN: Well, I'm pretty sure I got everything I wanted from you. Thanks again for your time and for being so open about things.
MJ: Okay then.
Editor’s Note: While testimony in the Peter Buck air rage trial did, in fact, include a discussion of his bathroom habits and his use of an airline cart, at no time did those two elements converge. It is also worth noting that Mr. Buck was eventually cleared of all charges. Upon further investigation, it seems likely that The Gourds News conflated aspects of Mr. Buck’s story with a separate incident involving Girard B. Finneran. Special thanks to Will Johnson for bringing this to our attention.