Jack Johnson’s latest record, Sleep Through The Static, is more powerful and thought provoking than his entire back catalogue put together. At its core, two themes stand out: war and the environment. HUCK pays a visit to Jack’s solar-powered Casa Verde, in Los Angeles, to speak about his new album, climate change, politics, family and the beauty of doing things your own way.
On a classic Southern California Main Street, across from a mini mall that boasts a podiatrist and a one-hour dry cleaners, sits a non-descript green house. In front of the humble abode are hybrid vehicles of all kinds, a couple of beach cruisers and a long skateboard. There are no gates or massive locks keeping the outside out or the inside in. It looks and feels like any house in the area – not the home of a record label or workshop of an artist who has sold upwards of fourteen million records.
The smell of fresh coffee wafts through the parlour area, drawing me in and out of the cold dampness of the morning. “Grab a cup,” says one of the record label employees. “Jack is upstairs, go on up when you’re ready.” I take a swig that warms my body and head upstairs, trying not to spill coffee on the wooden steps.
When I reach the top, it’s no surprise to see Jack Johnson stretched out like a cat next to a bright window, absorbing whatever light he can. He’s alone in the room, playing along to ‘Tick, Tick, Tick, Boom’ by The Hives on his acoustic. We greet each other like friends do but right away I’m confused as to why he’s playing The Hives. Jack explains: “I’m going to London to perform on BBC Radio. They have people come on and do cover tunes that are on their playlist so I picked this one. It kinda fits, doesn’t it?”
Armed with lyrics, Johnson gets to the chorus and starts to play with it. He begins to improv John Lee Hooker‘s blues classic, ‘Boom, Boom, Boom’ into the neo-punk of The Hives. “Tick, tick, tick, ahh, a boom, boom, boom,” he sings while looking at his fingers during the minor chord change.
It’s the ‘boom’ bit that reminds me how I watched the beginning of the Iraq War with him as we chatted long distance: me watching in New Jersey and Jack seeing it from Hawaii. “The war began on March 19, 2003,” I tell him. “That’s crazy, isn’t it?” replies Jack. “They had us believe it was gonna be as quick as the first war. They told us a lot of things,” he adds with a smirk.
His fifth release, Sleep Through The Static, shows a different and needed-to-be-revealed side of Jack Johnson. Yeah, he’s still a mellow surfer, a naturally shy and private guy who makes sweet, soothing sounds. But at thirty-two he’s also a smart and educated man who is dumbfounded as to what has actually transpired in America over the last few years. Right from the jump of the title track, Johnson tackles the taboo: religion and politics. But it’s not agitprop. It’s more like the way a beautiful woman with a foreign accent sounds when she’s telling you to go fuck yourself. No matter what she says, it sounds like beauty.
“It’s fun to let people read into it,” Jack says about the title he chose for the album. “Sleep Through The Static comes from this one line in the song that says, ‘And so/ I will cook all your books/ you’re too good looking and mistook it/ you could watch it instead from the comfort of your burning bed/ Or you can sleep through the static.‘
“The other day I saw this car with a ‘Support Our Troops’ bumper sticker, and next to it was one about Jesus,” Johnson says while rubbing his hands. “I thought to myself, ‘What would Jesus think about a sticker with his name on it right next to one that says, ‘Support Our Troops’? There’s nothing wrong with supporting our troops, by the way, but when it becomes synonymous with supporting this war,” he says before changing his thought. “It would be interesting if Jesus could tell us what he really thinks.”
Spirituality oozes from Johnson, and yet we’ve never even spoken about religion. I get the same sense from him that I get from Rastafarians and Native Americans, that same air of being a child of the earth. I have a gut feeling he doesn’t subscribe to the conventional Christian dogma that has purveyed its way into American politics. Maybe it’s because he lives in a bucolic setting and that he, himself, seems to blend in, that Johnson draws a parallel between camouflage and a higher power.
“The line about God wearing camouflage you can read as God is in everything. The idea of camouflage, he’s blending in, he’s always all around. It’s a little biting, ‘God wears camouflage and drives a Dodge‘, but at the same time, you really can’t argue against any of the stuff. None of it is untrue if you believe in any form of God, whether you want to call it nature or the guy with the grey beard.”
People are finally speaking that honestly in America since September 11, 2001. This has led Johnson’s more conservative fans to question his speaking out against the Iraq War. “When we decided to do ‘Vote for Change’ in 2004 [a tour that Johnson took part in that encouraged people to vote], there were a lot of conversations on our website about it. Some people were upset about us doing it, saying that they didn’t like it when musicians talked about politics. It seems so funny to me. Then don’t listen to it. When you write songs it’s not a democratic process, it’s not a group effort. At some point they tried to put up a petition on whether I should play those shows. If enough of the fans decided that I shouldn’t play those shows, then I shouldn’t play it? What’s that? That’s not gonna change anything.” He fidgets a bit then re-focuses his thoughts on the war that’s still raging: “This war has been going on five years now and it keeps going. You do get used to it. It’s like static, like white noise at this point. You don’t have to feel it. Because you can watch it and fall asleep by turning off the remote anytime you feel like it. At the push of a button – you can turn the whole thing off.”
We’re standing on the roof of his freshly ‘greened’ recording studio. Despite the wet surface, Jack is as sure- footed as ever. The one thing he knows about is balance. Balance in the water. Balance on stage. And he’s now finding the balance between being a successful musician and caring for the environment.
“Is the sun coming out today?” he asks looking into the solar panels that line the roof. “I hope so for your sake,” I laugh as we head out of the rain and back inside Johnson’s ‘Casa Verde’, or ‘Green House’.
He recorded Sleep Through The Static in his new solar- powered recording studio. He did it like they used to do it: recording to analog tape using vintage equipment. Even the wood inside is recycled. “The studio runs off of solar power. The wood we used was all reclaimed lumber. It feels better. It feels nice every time you look at that [points at the recycled wall] to think about my Australian friend Luke coming in here and stripping the wood, then building it, doing so many things that are low impact.”
It’s clear that Jack’s ‘green’ studio is anything but a marketing trick to sell records. Johnson does it because it’s the right thing to do. “We make music because there are things to talk about in life. There are songs you want to write, so we get here and forget that it’s solar powered because it is running so normal,” he laughs as he’s leaving the control room. “But it feels good to be able to tell people that you can do something different, even if it’s not the environmental stuff. It’s just showing people that you can go off and do your own thing, to inspire, to motivate and to make change.”
Change doesn’t come cheap, and Johnson has heard a lot of excuses from others who have been resistant to it. Excuses are like elbows and assholes: people usually have at least three of them and Johnson’s heard them all. “They say right away, ‘I’ve heard about that solar-powered stuff but it’s too expensive.’ Thing is, it’s not, especially if you have the money to make the investment,” he says standing in the backyard pointing at the roof. “After a certain amount of years, those things will pay themselves off and you’ll be actually saving money. A lot of it is about what you want to spend your money on. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t need and you put those things you don’t need aside,” he says then asks, “Imagine taking all the money from war and using it to build schools and educational facilities. What would that have done?”
Johnson’s giving me the grand tour of Casa Verde now. We’re standing in the driveway on the side of the house, and he’s showing me the energy meter that counts how much power is being used. It’s quite a set-up and though it may surprise some, this extreme home makeover had to be approved by the state of California. That means it’s got social responsibilities all of its own: if Johnson’s home is drawing too much power to have any left over, the excess goes back to the people of California.
It’s pretty easy to say and do the right things in your home, but what happens when you leave town? How about being Jack Johnson, trailblazing across the globe to play music only to pack up and do it again and again for months at a time? Does he suffer from ‘green guilt’? “The plane flights take a pretty big tax on the environment,” Jack admits. “To get to these places to surf or to play, it’s a reality that you are making an impact – even when you make the effort to use bio-diesel on your buses, recycle and that kind of stuff. But there’s still the impact of flying. We’ve tried to offset the energy using the vegetable oil from catering and exploring other sources of fuel. The next tour is pretty exciting. All bio-diesel trucks, all the merchandise will be recycled or organic cotton – stuff that hopefully will be more and more standard.”
Johnson also cares about having fans that believe in change and who want to get involved in some way. “The main thing is to help activate the public, make them stewards of their area and make people aware of the groups in their own towns. This year we want to talk about three things: we are going to have ‘Vote The Environment’ on the tour and make people aware that their vote really counts. It’s about policy change so you have to vote the right people into office and you have to vote with your dollar. ‘Climate Counts’ will be there too. It’s a website where you can check out the public traded companies and how they score environmentally, so people can be aware of how they spend their money. The third is to activate people, to use the show to be active in their community.”
We are sitting in the recording studio control room away from the hyperactivity of the house, which is getting ready for a listening party. The scrambling of employees doesn’t concern Jack – he’s comfortable in his own home. With all of the work he’s doing and the music he’s creating (including a valiant turn on Bob Dylan’s ‘Mama You’ve Been On My Mind’ for the Dylan biopic, I’m Not There), it’s a wonder that he doesn’t get caught up in it all. Lately he’s wondering the same thing: “For me, I don’t get enough sleep, so after the family has gone to bed I’ll read the New York Times online and it’s that feeling which is exactly the first line of the first song (‘All At Once’) on the record: ‘All at once the world can overwhelm me‘.
“You get this feeling there’s no coming out of it. It’s a microcosm of the whole record. It starts out a little down, then it lifts you up a little bit and gets you to a place where there is some hope and there is some love. Then I make the statement, ‘The heart is no place to be singing from at all‘, when in the end the heart is a physical thing that will be gone. The beating heart of people you love is going to be gone, but the memories stay and I have to realise that we are all connected together and we are brought together by gravity here. But sometimes, a heart feels like it’s too small of a place to be singing from. It feels like it’s too passing,” he explains before revving up again, further breaking down the song.
“There’s another line: ‘I’ll reach to you from a place where time just can’t go‘. Time will never manage that place where I am singing from. After I’m gone those feelings will still be there because it will live on in children and friends. I’ve been thinking a lot about memories being spirits, somebody who leaves a lot of good memories and goes to another world and has a strong spirit.”
Johnson’s been able to do what great writers do: write about what they know, what they are versed in. He is immersed in his surroundings: the ocean, nature and humanity. But he also knows when it is time to give proper respect to those who helped make him who he is. On the song, ‘They Do, They Don’t', Johnson recognises one of his greatest influences, author and mythologist Joseph Campbell.
“Campbell talks about the expansion of the idea of being present and being in the moment. He talks about the dangers of having your mind in the good ol’ days or referring to things that used to be better. He calls it ‘archaism’. The same goes for thinking that there is some grand solution. It was nice to use those things, what Campbell calls ‘archaism and futurism’, in a song,” reveals Johnson, before singing the line to me. “Archaism is a dusty road leading us back to nowhere and with all this do’s and don’ts the future’s an empty promise unconcerned and so tired of waiting.”
“If I was to count how many times you mention the subject of ‘time’ in your songs, it would be like, fifty,” I say in reply, and in jest, to my serenade by Johnson.
“I always write about time. If I could count the number of times I’ve used that word in my songs it would probably blow my mind,” he laughs. “There are different ways of looking at time. On ‘If I Had Eyes’, there’s a line that goes, ‘Time doesn’t heal, no not at all, it just stands still‘, and on ‘Go On’ it’s about a moment that keeps on moving. The reality of life is that sometimes it feels like it is standing still and other times if feels like it’s not waiting for you, it’s too far ahead.”
It brings him back to a time when life was simpler, when his father, Jeff, would take him on camping trips. “My dad would take me on the outrigger and sail to one of the outer islands and go camping and catch fish. The boat is so narrow that you have to sit in this little space right in front. If you wanted more foot space you bring less things and pack light. Those were my happiest times. To have a fire and cook the fish we caught that day going on a hike and improvising and being away from material objects. That was happiness.”
Now Johnson is in a position to pass on the love and tradition to his children and he feels it when he sees his kids running off ahead of him at the beach. “To me a lot of the record is letting things go. Seeing my kids get to the point where I have to let them become little guys. I already see it. There are times we’ll take a walk down on the beach and they’ll wander off ahead of me and start taking little pieces of coral and driftwood and I’ll want to hover over them and explain things. Sometimes I’ll sit back and just watch them go, they’ll go a good fifty yards up the beach and I love it,” he laughs.
“But I’m gonna have to let them go, so they can do their own thing.”
Just like their dad Jack did.