Coachella Valley music fans have had a front-row seat to watch the evolution of James Johnson.
First, it was through the youthful indie pop-rock music of the infectiously named The Brosquitos. Next, it was via a short stint as the more-experimental-sounding Sleeping Habits. Then it was with the full-on electronic and psychedelic sounds of Rival Alaska. Through all the names, genres and lineups, Johnson has been the frontman—and now he’s embarking on a solo journey.
The singer/songwriter is putting the finishing touches on a full-length album; so far, he’s released two singles, “Purchased Feelings” and “Let ’Em Go (With You),” with the latter premiering with a music video that features Johnson exploring the valley when he’s not loving on his cat. Both are danceable electronic-pop songs that see Johnson experimenting with a number of vocal and synth effects.
“It’s been in the back of my mind for a little while,” Johnson said about his new solo music, over a recent Zoom call. “Rival Alaska is still together; this is just a different project from that. The band is still ongoing. … This is just what I have now since we’ve been growing apart. We all moved to different cities. Max (Powell) lives in San Diego now; Hugo (Chavez) lives in Desert Hot Springs; I live in Palm Springs; and John (Anthony Clark) is living in Cathedral City. It’s really hard to get together, even just to get a picture—something that we can upload letting people know we’re still alive. … Then this coronavirus thing happened, and it kind of gave us even more of a reason not to get together. We all have family members we want to protect, as well as ourselves.
“It started becoming apparent that it would be so much easier to take things into my own hands and do it for my own cause. Overnight, I just told myself I was going to go for it, and they’ve been really supportive of it. When we get back to performing and stuff, they’re going to be performing with this project, and I’ll still be performing with that project. Coronavirus is mainly what made me do it.”
The idea of making music by himself is a brand new concept for Johnson—as is the brand of experimental pop he’s been creating.
“Recently, I started to get into electronic music, more production-wise,” Johnson said. “I’ve always been into listening to it, but I never could’ve seen myself in a studio laying down keyboards and everything else. My girlfriend, who I live with, works in radio, and she was telling me that this is something that will get people’s attention, because it’s such a different tone. People will be like, ’Wow! That’s nothing like you had before.’ That was mainly my idea. It’s not so much an influence; I just wanted that shock value. I love taking on new things, and this is a huge production challenge for me to do. The main influence is just the challenge.”
Johnson is also handling his own production—in part because of some blunt advice.
“The guys and I had an interview; we were trying to get on this agency,” Johnson said. “The dude gave us the best advice ever. … He’s an alternative guy, a big part of the industry, but I’ll leave out his name. We went over to his place, had a rehearsal for him, and it was a big ‘Woo hoo!’ for us. He asked who did our recording and producing; we told him it was this guy, this place, and we paid this much for it. He said, ’Great. You’re getting robbed. … It sounds OK, but I guarantee you know your music best. You need to learn how to do this stuff on your own. If you can figure out how to get laid every Saturday night, you can figure out how to write your own song and produce it.’ After that, it really rang in all of our heads. I went out and bought a laptop and all the equipment I needed, and that was the start of it. As hard as it was, it was like getting back on the bike and trying to ride it again.”
Johnson said he’s willing to help out others with music production, too.
“Because of COVID, I don’t like reaching out; I prefer people to reach out to me,” Johnson said. “I’m probably going to try to step in and help John, our guitarist from Rival Alaska, who’s going to be doing some solo stuff, too. I’m going to be trying to weasel in there and get in my own creative, just as he’s done with me. I would love to produce an artist all on my own; it’d be amazing.”
As artists everywhere daydream about the day when they can play again live in front of fans, Johnson said he can’t wait to perform his solo music in front of a crowd—and he’s even figuring out ways his bandmates can help him re-create the sound.
“A lot of the instruments I’m using are just pedal effects,” Johnson said. “Some of them are my voice with different effects on it, and it’ll sound like a flute or something crazy. We can make it sound just the same because of the effects we have in our system. Luckily, the guys are all multi-talented with instruments, and can pull off whatever they need to. I have full confidence in them.”
For now, he’s planning a string of streaming performances.
“I had the privilege of talking to a Facebook marketing expert, and we’re going to be starting a campaign of me doing some live shows and stuff,” said Johnson. “I’ve never tried it out, but I have seen it’s been working pretty well for some artists. As we all know, we have to find a way to adapt to stuff right now, so I have to give it a try, and I’m glad I got the support from Facebook, who can give me some expertise—because I have no idea. I’m more of the bedroom junkie who sits behind his computer and just writes.”
Johnson said he’ll ring in the new year with the new album.
“I was really aiming to try and release it before Christmas, but I had to push it back to January 2021,” said Johnson. “I want it to sound great, and there are times where I’m sitting in bed at 3 in the morning, and think of something I need to add to or change on a song. I realized that I’m still tearing stuff down and rebuilding it, so I shouldn’t be putting out any sort of release date, but I guarantee January will be the month. It will be a 10-to-11-track album.”
Johnson said the lessons he’s learned with his solo music will help make Rival Alaska better when the group can finally perform together again.
“I personally love bands,” Johnson said. “I realized that I love bands—not necessarily because of the sound that I’m hearing, because nowadays, you can do anything with that. It’s the live value that I enjoy. When I go and see my favorite band, I see all these members onstage with all their different characteristics and elements. … I miss my guys being up there and supporting me, so going back, I want to build a little more teamwork—not that we didn’t have it, but I have more of an understanding of how much we really need each other onstage.”
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