Honor Thy Fathers
A Conversation with Johnny Jones
by Pete Brooks
Images created by Shawn Markert-Jones
Poet/musician/artist Johnny Jones, whose band Johnny Jones and the Suffering Halos is widely regarded as one of Long Beach's hardest rocking live acts, has been here and he's been there. He's been up and he's been down; he's been in and he's been out of fashion… but he's never been 'where it's at.'
And that's just the way he aims to keep it.
I caught up with him recently after the taping of a solo acoustic performance at a local studio, and did my best to get under his skin and on his nerves.
LBC: Johnny Jones...Is that your real name?
Johnny Jones: My real, God-given name.
LBC: Got a middle name?
Johnny Jones: David.
LBC: John David Jones. Mind if I call you J.D.?
Johnny Jones: (laughing) No, those days are over.
LBC: Tell me a little about your background. Where are you from? You don't seem like you're from around here.
Johnny Jones: No. My father was a Baptist minister, third generation. My mom was a psychiatric ward nurse. I'm from the Midwest; I was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, although we didn't live there. We lived in a small town about 40 miles south. And we would move around every couple of years when my Father would get his call. So I lived in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri… What would happen is I'd come home and I'd see my Mom packing boxes and my Dad would say, 'alright, we've got to have a family meeting on Friday.' And I knew what it was about, and I knew it was time to go. And I was like, 'just tell me, are we moving?' But I knew we were. And like I said, I'd see these boxes, and then my Dad would say, you know, 'the Lord gave me his call and my time here is done. I've found another church.' And so we'd move and I'd start a new school.
LBC: So, it wasn't the church moving him around, his orders were coming directly from the Lord?
Johnny Jones: Mmmhmm.
Johnny Jones: So I left home when I was 17. Joined a band. And been kind of moving ever since. I lived in Minneapolis for a couple years, moved to New York City, moved out here to Los Angeles - Long Beach.
LBC: What brought you out here to Long Beach?
Johnny Jones: My wife and I were living in New York City. It was hard, but, you know - we both loved it. She was an artist, a graphic designer, and she got an offer to come out here and design for Virgin Records. We passed at first, and wanted to stay in New York. Then they made an offer we couldn't refuse. I was playing the local clubs - you know, singer/songwriter stuff like this. But I was really itching to put a band together. In New York, it's really hard to have a band… taking your stuff on the subways, stuff like that. But I could just feel it in my heart: I needed to come out here. I have no regrets. I miss New York, but I have no regrets.
LBC: Do you think that you would have ended up coming out here, somehow, even if your wife hadn't gotten transferred? Don't you think you could have done what you wanted to do in New York?
Johnny Jones: I don't think I would have put a band together. I think I would have kept doing this (solo acoustic) stuff.
LBC: What was it about being out here that made you want to put a band together?
Johnny Jones: The idea of having a car - in New York, we didn't have a car. You know, we took the subway everywhere. It's much easier to just pile equipment into a car and go to a show, you know?
LBC: And as regards your band...here comes the standard question. Who are your influences? Who do you look at as somebody who's doing the kind of thing that you'd like to see yourself doing?
Johnny Jones: Well, there's two kinds of influences. As a singer/songwriter, I was always into, you know, Neil Young, of course. Dylan, Townes Van Zant, you know, that type of stuff. As far as the band - definitely Nick Cave… moments of - like the earlier Sabbath, stuff like that. I wanted it to be more song orientated, and the Halos have evolved. It went through its period where we had Lisa on bass, and it became kind of a Smashing Pumpkins-type vibe. Now, it's kind of incorporating all those things, but also more of the heavier 70's type thing. (clears throat)
We started working on this new album and it's kind of taken on a sound of its own. You know, we took a live hiatus, and just have been focusing on recording. And it's just become Billy Blaze and myself, overseeing that. I just talked to Chris Sweeney, though, and he's back in...
LBC: Chris Sweeney does...?
Johnny Jones: Chris is the bass player from Thu Winners. We were rehearsing three times a week, the album was being neglected, and I saw this three rehearsals a week was - I thought, I could make better use of that time. Then we were - I was... I'm not the easiest person to, I guess, get along with. I had a big falling out with the drummer, and Billy had moved to guitar… But I talked to Billy and said - I don't want, I don't, you know… I don't even know if I want the Halos to continue. So I canceled the shows we had booked, and just kind of stepped away.
LBC: …and it was off to Club Med!
Johnny Jones: (polite laughter) No, then we started working on this recording… really focusing on it. And you know, that's coming to a close now. We're finishing this product, this project, and I want to start playing it live.
So I drove over to Chris' house late at night and I said, "Listen, you know, we're firing this up again, I want you to lay bass on this recording. And I want to do it again. And I apologize to you for the way I handled that situation. You know, I could have handled that better." But I love working with him, and I really think that he has something to offer, as a performer, as a musician.
LBC: Tell me about the new record.
Johnny Jones: The new record is called "The Frequency of Evil." And it's our first full-length release. We've been working on it a year and a half now, off and on. Really hard the last four months. But I would say it's a concept record. We have our own recording place in my house, and it's a blessing but it's a curse, 'cause I listen back and I go, "you know what - that could be better." So we keep recording songs over, and new songs come in. Then we started the last four months just writing for the record.
LBC: Comin' up with some big hits for the radio folks?
Johnny Jones: Well, we've never been a band that was out to write hits. Or, you know, a hooky chorus. We wrote this one for ourselves. And I think it's really, really strong.
LBC: What's it sound like?
Johnny Jones: It has a lot of influences on it. There's a definite Beatles influence, for example, but it has its own sound. There's Beach Boys in it, too, I hear some of that. You know, some of the Pet Sounds stuff. It really let me blossom as a producer. I'm producing this myself.
LBC: You say it's a concept album - in broad strokes, what's the concept?
Johnny Jones: Well, this is an album I chose to carry a theme, a religious theme. (pauses) It's no secret I had a substance abuse problem. And then when I came out of that, my new buzz actually became the clarity of it all, and I had to kind of re-think how I looked at life. Even some things where I started questioning my religion. Do I actually believe this? You know, my father raised us. I sat in the fourth pew every Sunday and sang those hymns, and I believed, believed wholeheartedly in it. But it was a forced belief on me. And then as an adult, after I sobered up, I didn't know if those were just… like, was that like a book of Aesop's fables, or…? And I didn't like how I felt. So it was a real spiritual battle, I had. But I came out of it realizing that, you know, God is - to me, is bigger than anything I could have imagined. And I found myself embracing my religion. And it was good for me, but it was hard, too, because at times I was worried that the album was becoming blasphemous. But you know, it was how I was feeling at the time. And if you listen to the album from beginning to end, you hear me come to terms with that conflict. I mean, I don't know if I believe that a snake crawled out of a tree and talked to somebody. But I believe in the parables, and the message it was trying to get through.
LBC: So when you say that you embraced your religion, you don't necessarily mean you embraced your father's religion, but you kind of came on to a new understanding… a kind of compromise between what your Father had told you and what your new sobriety was revealing to you?
Johnny Jones: Exactly.
LBC: So it's more your own thing, than your dad's thing?
Johnny Jones: Actually, I'd say it's more my dad's thing. The message my dad was always trying to teach is that everybody has a gift, and you use that gift to make the world a better place. You know, as a child you search to find the gift, and as a teen you reinforce that gift, and try to master it, using it as a positive force in the world. Through all that hellfire & brimstone as a Baptist minister, this was the message he was teaching. I believe in the power of parables and the strength of a good message.
LBC: So you're a Baptist in good standing?
Johnny Jones: (nervous laughter) I wouldn't call myself a Baptist anymore. (clears throat) I think that there are… you know, it varies from church to church. But I think that - the churches I was in - they focused too much on not sinning, you know? There's an old joke - Why don't Baptists have sex standing up? So people won't think they're dancing. You know, I think that there's better things to teach than what you shouldn't do. Now obviously, it was all laid out in the ten commandments; the rules. But sometimes I feel that that particular religion kind of made a whole 'nother set of rules.
LBC: Yeah, they all do. That's what they do; that's all they do. Divide and conquer.
Johnny Jones: Well, see, I don't have a problem with organized religion - my problem has always been with the politics of organized religion. I believe in a community gathering in a celebration & fellowship of God. I believe in a community reaching out to help others in need for the sole benefit of doing good. I believe in an organized religion that helps others and expects nothing in return. However, I do not believe in an organized religion that stands on street corners and hands me pamphlets why I'm going to burn in hell. I do not believe in an organized religion that passes judgement on others. That's not what I read. Life is too hard and people deal with it differently. So, yes I was a Baptist, but I'm not anymore. I would say I'm definitely a Christian, though. I'm a poor Christian, but I'm trying.
LBC: Let's change the subject dramatically - let's talk about Long Beach. How long have you been here?
Johnny Jones: I have been here three and a half years. When I first got here, I was working temp jobs, and this place we're at - Steve McNeil's Mambo Studio - took me in, and then I met Mike Martt. I heard his stuff, and I was like, man I'm really into this, and handed him a cassette of some music I was working on. And then about a month later, he and Steve Zepeda approached me about doing a songwriters' workshop at the Blue Cafe. It was with David Bearwald and Bill Bottrell. It was like, four chairs and you rotate songs. And I was really honored to be playing my songs, in that league - a league of that talent. That gig was really a breakthrough for me. By then I had been working here doing live sound and stuff like that, and had found a bunch of bands that I really liked - not just their music, but as people. So I started the thing over at Jillian's (Overhead Projector), just focusing on one songwriter a night. I had them write out what they were about, and my wife and I would print out these postcard-size flyers. And I like to think it kind of brought the community together. And then through that I was able to meet the Bong Leach crowd. They were sitting on a bunch of songwriters, so I approached Nick Orlando's, and said, "Can I have some of these guys?" So we did a Bong Leach night, and a lot of us became involved with the Bong Leach movement. And from that, the music just kind of - it became Dope America. Then we did the Dope America cd last year…
LBC: Of all the bands on that disc, are there any that have made it since then, or are right on the jumping off point to making it, or are we still strictly a struggling local musicians community?
Johnny Jones: Actually, a few of them have. When Dope America started out, we were going to do a series of CDs. So when we at first had 31 bands or whatever, we naturally couldn't put 'em all on the first disc. Of the bands on the first CD… well, the Dibs have gotten some heavy industry interest…
LBC: Right, didn't they just do a industry showcase?
Johnny Jones: Yup. Yup, so it looks like they're going to go off somewhere. I heard a rumor circulating that an indie label is approaching Thu Winners. Of course, Greg Coates - who played with Mickeys Big Mouth, twelvehourmary and the Dibs - left to focus on his band, Bird. And now they're out on tour with the Cult. They're going to be on that for a couple months, and then they leave and go out on tour with the Vans Warped Tour. So their CD just came out, and they kind of exploded onto the scene.
LBC: So what about Johnny Jones and the Suffering Halos - you gonna write a big hit and get on MTV and, you know, make all the money in the world?
Johnny Jones: Well I'll be honest with you, we'd love to pursue that. But I don't know about writing a big hit.
LBC: Well, in a town and a time when everybody else is trying to have attitude and be 'edgy' while they write the next big pop hit… your work seems to have more in common with Johnny Cash and Steve Earle than uh, Puff Daddy, or Ricky Martin.
Johnny Jones: That show, when you and I went to that Steve Earle show, that was a show I needed to see. Because I was gettin', at that particular time with the Halos, I was forgetting about the songs and trying to be this all-powerful thing. You know, I always like to be an artist and have it visually look like something. But I was neglecting the song. And seeing all those musicians standing gathered around that one microphone… that seemed to present the song in its purest form. It was really important to me. Because I had started to kind of shy away from that, forgetting that it's supposed to be about the song. Not the hit. You know, hits are great if they come. But I'm done trying to write hits. I tried when my old band (the Nixon Pupils) had its deal with Polygram. There were songs I wouldn't even bring to them, because it was like, you know, that's not a hit. And they're like, "Oh, you need the hit." So I was shutting off all this music that was coming, and trying to focus on writing a hit. And I lost some very important music doing that. And subsequently, I had music that I'm not proud of. It was bad 'cause I was so busy trying to sell out. And I don't want to do that anymore. I don't need to do it.
LBC: How do you balance the demands on your time, when you work all day (as a sound engineer), and you have friends playing out every night? If you work all day and network all night, when do you find time to create?
Johnny Jones: I do support the clubs, you know, quite a bit. I always try to make an appearance at my friends' shows. I think that's important, to support the local scene. Unfortunately, I don't do it probably as much as I should. Because there is that time that I need for myself, for the music. And it just so happens that, you know, I have an awful problem with not being able to sleep at night. And I'm the most creative at night, right around ten or eleven is where I'm coming into my thing. And it's hard for me to break away from that, if I'm on a roll. If I'm on a really strong roll, I don't. I stay there and finish what's coming to me.
LBC: Well, I think our time here is about done. Is there anything you want to get in that I haven't asked you about? When do you think the record's coming out, if you had to guess?
Johnny Jones: I would say fall. I think fall's the perfect time for it. We start mixing in two weeks.
LBC: It'll be out for the Christmas buying season?
Johnny Jones: Yes. That's a promise. It has to be out. You know, we have two - three albums of material now. But this one needs to get out.
LBC: Well, thank you very much for your time. I know you must have many glamorous, celebrity-filled events to attend today...
Johnny Jones: Thank you.
View Johnny's LBC page and events
Learn more about Pete Brooks
Do you know an artist that we should feature in LBC CenterStage? We'd like to hear from you.
Send us your LBC CenterStage suggestion
View Previous CenterStage Features