Alan: What are your first musical memories growing up in Wisconsin,
John: I was born in Wisconsin but we moved to California when I
was one, so I don’t remember too much from Wisconsin! There was also
music around our house because my Mum taught piano lessons at the house
and my Dad was a Band Director with the college so we heard music all
the time. It was entertainment for us too, it would be a special thing
for my sister and I to sit with my Mum and listen to Peter and the Wolf
or Carnival of the Animals, so music was always something that was
special, or cool or positive. When I was about four, my grandparents
gave my sister and I a tiny little phonograph and a set of Disneyland
records for Christmas, one of them was the soundtrack to Fantasia which
is of course the Nutcracker Suite and I ended up listening to that over
and over. My obsession probably started then.
Alan: Did you always want to become a musician?
John: Yes. It was normal in our house because everybody did music
and I always played in orchestras and bands and I liked that but there’s
a harrowing audition process that goes along with getting into a really
good orchestra when you have to play the same piece as everybody else
behind the curtain. I just don’t have that temperament, somebody like
Tiger Woods has that kind of temperament but I don’t have it and I
always knew that was something I could not do. But when I started
seeing rock bands play, I thought that was something I could do.
Alan: So what was your first step in getting started?
John: I first begged my parents to give me a guitar, but I was
already playing the piano and the clarinet by that time and they
resisted and were not keen because they wanted me to focus on the other
instruments. But I was not going to be denied and eventually I started
borrowing guitars from other people and that’s when they realised that
it’s not just a fad and he really wants to do this. From that point
on, they supported me and I got a guitar, met some other kids around the
neighbourhood and we had a garage band.
Alan: What kind of material were you playing then?
John: That was Santana, Grand Funk RailRoad, Rolling Stones, some
Beatles, that kind of rock.
Alan: Tell me about how the Hellecasters formed.
John: I met Jerry Donohue in the early ‘80s through a mutual
friend and thought his playing was fantastic. At that time he was
playing in a lounge band with a drum machine and a bass player and a
girl singer. This friend, Kittra, took me to see him and I thought,
“This guy’s really good” and we became friends. There was a scene around
north Hollywood at the time which was kind of country, rocky, punky,
king of thing – Dwight Yoakam, The Desert Rose Van, Highway 101,
Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores, Dave Alvin, Los Lobos all came out of
that scene. It was a very good time, the early ‘80s in LA and Will Ray
was playing with some other bands and I saw him playing and just got his
really unique style. We all became friends and, as lead guitar players,
we never had time to do anything together. Will had an opportunity to
produce an album, a kind of compilation from around the scene that were
still bubbling under, and he decided that he wanted one of the tracks to
be a guitar extravaganza so he invited me and Jerry Donohue and a friend
of ours called Jeff Ross (not the one in our band now, but a different
one) and Billy Bremner, so there were five guitarists on this cut and
everybody just came in and did a bit. It came out pretty good and so we
thought that we should maybe do a live gig. But 5 guitarists is
probably too much so we thought we should just have three, and then we
needed a name to tell people what it is so I came up with the name. I
then said that we shouldn’t just do country and blues jams which is what
people are going to expect but let’s do songs. Jerry was American but
grew up in England so he was well steeped in the traditions of the
Shadows, you know the instrumental melodic guitar music that’s normal
for him and that was our plan. We had only planned to do one show, just
for fun, and at the end of that show people were coming up to us and
saying, “When are you guys playing again? I want to tell my friends
about it. You have to do it again”. At the time, I was still in The
Desert Rose Van and Jerry was spending at least half his time in Europe
and Will was playing in other bands too, so even the ability to do it
was difficult. Maybe six months later we did another one. At one of
our early gigs, Michael Nesmith from The Monkees was in the audience and
he was starting a label at that time and asked us to do an album.
Sometimes you set out to put a band together and record an album, but we
didn’t. It was just the opposite and it just happened. I feel like it
was a really happy accident and we ended up making three albums and a
compilation album then we came over to England, Germany and France a few
times. The funny thing is that it seems like there’s more interest in
the Hellecasters now than there was when we were together. People ask
me about it all the time and I say, “Well, that’s great but where was
all this interest when we were together?”
Who has influenced you the most in your music?
John: As a guitarist it would probably have to be a combination
between Jeff Beck and Django Reinhardt. Both are really fantastic. In
music in general, it was a lot of the classic late 60s British rock
people like The Who, Beatles, Stones, Humble Pie, Hendrix, Zeppelin. I
learned musical things and recording techniques from everybody, from the
Beach Boys, Duane Eddy, Ricky Nelson – I just listed to everything and I
Alan: Are there any particular songs you play which have special
meaning to you?
John: Yeah, there’s a song called Son Becomes Father and I
wrote it at a time period when I was going through that period when you
quit being the child and start to take care of your parents as opposed
to them taking care of you. He really liked that melody too, so that
one does for sure.
Alan: Of all the music you’ve written, which is your favourite?
John: Maybe Son Becomes Father, some of the gypsy jazz
music too. There’s a song I wrote called Black and Blue that is
about turning the corner after being single for most of my life and
realising that I could get married. My wife loves the song and she had
it played whilst she was walking down the aisle at our wedding.
Alan: I know you play the mandolin, the mandocello, pedal steel guitar,
piano, upright bass, clarinet, bassoon and saxophone. Why did you
major the guitar? Was it just the rock ‘n’ roll aspect?
John: Probably. I noticed when I was kid that I was always
attracted to the sounds of string instruments, not bowed strings but
plucked. Early on I loved the sound of the harpsichord, which is
basically a pin hitting a string. I remember seeing a movie when I was
eight and someone was playing a hammered dulcimer. I didn’t know what
it was, neither did my mother but I loved the sound of it. My parents
took me to see Christopher Parkening, classical guitarist, and I loved
the sound of the blues guitar, electric, country, rock, metal steel,
just the strumming of a nice folk guitar, I love all of it. At a young
age, there was a social aspect too. I think kids need a place to fit in
somewhere and I was not sporty so music gives you a
camaraderie. Some of my friends are solo artists, like Tommy Emmanuel,
the solo guitarist and I’m a little bit jealous of the ability to do
that, but the impracticality of doing it, being by yourself all the
time, soundcheck by yourself, loading by yourself, play the gig by
yourself. I couldn’t do it.
Alan: Which is your favourite guitar?
John: My favourite acoustic is probably my first
a Django style guitar and very rare and I was very lucky to find one as
I think less than 600 were built between 1932 and 1952. I thought it
was astronomical at the time but now it’s worth 10 or 15 times what I
paid. I also have a Les Paul Junior that I really like to play too,
it’s a 1960 and it just has a great sound. I have a lot of guitars and
I just like all of them.
Alan: I understand that Fender produced two Signature guitars. How
did this come about?
John: I was a Signature or endorsing artist for G&L which was Leo
Fender’s company. He sold Fender, then started Music Man, sold Music
Man, then started G&L and maintained that until he died. I worked with
Leo Fender on designs there, and then, when he passed away, the company
changed hands and the new company’s artist relations department was
nearly non-existent, so I was introducing them to other artists but
they’d never call them back, and it just got to be not a good business
relationship. At the same time, Jerry Donohue was already a Fender
artist and he was just campaigning all the time to get Will Ray and I
in. Will was a G&L artist too but Jerry wanted to get us over to Fender
and he felt that they could probably do something for us if they had the
whole group as artists. So, when G&L started not taking care of us so
well, then Fender looked more attractive. As I already had a Signature
guitar at G&L, I wasn’t going to step down so I thought that if Fender
wanted me then they’d have to phone me up, and they did.
They did two, one of which was a limited edition and they did a series
of all three Hellecasters’ guitars which they built for a year in 1997.
That guitar is called a Fender Hellecaster which is more of a Strad
style, a Tremelo. Then their custom shop made me a Signature
Hellecaster which is unusual in that it’s a Carina body, the pick-ups
are also unusual in that they are humbug pickups but made of Telecaster
bobbins. (We’re going to get anorak on this). That is a handmade
guitar, very expensive, and they made about two dozen of those between
1998 and 2002.
Alan: You were one of the pioneers of the American Gypsy Jazz genre.
What originally attracted you to this style of music?
John: I was playing Dixieland and Blue Grass music at the time and
I didn’t really know much about early jazz so I was learning about it
and about some of the players like Eddie Lang.
I was playing with a banjo player named Doug Maddox who was a virtuoso
banjo player, he could play 5 string, plectrum and tenor, all different
tunes and techniques, and he was playing a number of pieces by Harry
Reeser and they were show pieces, all t his amazing technique and people
would freak out. I said to him I’d heard guitar players from the period
but they weren’t like that but there must be some, and he said,
“Oh Django Reinhardt”. Too many people had said that same name and
I’d read it in guitar magazines with Clarence White saying Django had
influenced him, Ged Atkins said Django was the only person he ever asked
for an autograph, Charlie Christian used to quote Django’s solos before
going into his own and Les Paul copied Django as much as he could, so I
knew I had to check out this guy and I bought a record. When I heard
the sound, it was electrifying. It was as exciting as Hendrix on
electric but on an acoustic. All this technique and the legend of him
having only two fingers to use and the whole legend of him rising out of
the ashes and the fact that he was the first guy to become famous
leading his band. Before that, guitarists were accompanists, even if
they had 8 bars here or there as a solo. He was just out front, giving
it hell. Because of his handicap and also just because of his
creativity. He was trying to make the sound of Armstrong’s trumpet and
Duke Ellington’s horn section and all these other sounds on the guitar.
So he added all these new techniques to the repertoire and all modern
guitar playing goes back to him.
Alan: You played with an amazingly diverse range of artists, Elton
John, Bob Dylan, Bob Segar, Rob Orbison, Johnny Cash, Benny Goodman,
Sting, it goes on and on; even Pavarotti. You must have memories you
John: When I played with Little Richard, Elton John’s band were
backing all these artists for a big show and Little Richard was one of
the guests. We were having rehearsals and I remember that some of the
artists were coming in for rehearsal and some of them weren’t. We were
taking a break and I heard the beginning of what I thought was the
record of Good Golly Miss Molly. And then it sounded a little
bit different and I turned around to see Little Richard sitting at the
piano. Different piano, 30 or 40 years later, but the way he hit the
piano, it sounded exactly like the record. I was a huge fan of his and
to actually get to play songs with him, was unbelievable. When we’d
finish a song, he’d say, “That was gooood. That made my big toe rise up
in my boot!”
was a big fan of Rick Nelson too. Not just the 50’s stuff as he was the
first guy in mind to do country rock, before the Eagles or Linda
Ronstadt he was doing it in the mid 60s. He had Tom Bromley, the
pedal-steel player from Buck Owens’ band and Randy Meisner from the
Eagles was his bass player. It was really good, very different for the
time. When he passed away in the crash, his drummer, Ricky Intveld, was
also killed and he was the brother of a good friend of mine. He was
named after Rick Nelson; his father was a great fan of Elvis, Jerry Lee
Lewis and all the 50s music. I was then hired to do a session and it was
for Rick Nelson. They took everything off the tracks except for Rick’s
voice and Ricky’s drums and it was really spooky to be sitting there
with the headphones hearing Rick Nelson and Ricky on the drums.
Before I started Desert Rose Band, I had a band before that called The
Cheating Hearts and Steve Duncan was the drummer in Desert Rose Band,
The Cheating Hearts and in The Hellecasters. The first time I’d seen
him play was with Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band. I was a big
fan of Tom Bromley too and after JD Manus left the Desert Rose Band, Tom
Bromley came in and played pedal steel for a while. And Sneaky Pete was
also steel player in the Cheating Hearts, so there was a kind of a
Tell me about the making of your latest album, Ultraspontane.
John: This is my gypsy jazz quintet. My first proper solo album
was back in 1987 and I’d been playing Django-style music and Dixieland
and Swing back at that time but it was about the time that Desert Rose
Band started taking off and I felt that I probably wasn’t going to get a
chance to play that kind of music again so I made the album at that time
mainly to have a record of what I used to do. As the years went by, I
always loved that style of music and I ended up being able to go to
France and see it first hand, learn more about it and develop that style
and I always wanted to do a follow-up to that first record. So, it’s
taken me a long time but I started working on the songs back in 1993 or
1994 and back in 2003 I got a call from a music supervisor asking me if
I’d like to recreate two of Django’s tracks for a film. I said, “Yes,
I’d love to do that” so I produced some recordings and the Director
called me and said “Django makes a particular sort of racket on this
guitar and you make the same sort of racket”. He also said they wanted
to show Django on screen and I wanted to let him know that I knew a lot
about the music but not that I was a crazy psycho Reinhardt fan who had
no other life. I didn’t want to scare him away but I said I’ll do
whatever, I’ll cut my hair, grow the moustache, whatever. He said,
“Great, we’ll have to get the prosthetics department to make you
something special for your hand”. I said, “Yeah, that would be great”
and he said, “Oh. I was just joking. How could you play?” So I had
to say, “Well, I’ve already learned his songs with two fingers”.
with that opportunity, it really kicked me in the ass to finish the
album I’d been working on and it was called Franco-American Swing.
The interest in Django’s music had grown to the point where there
were music festivals, Django-Fests so I got booked for some of those and
I started to put a band together to start promoting the album. It went
really good and we started touring quite a bit. We’ve done about 100
shows a year for the last 5 or 6 years and I realised that people really
liked it when we started doing my own compositions with flavours of
other Eastern European, Arabic, Flamenco and other gypsy elements rather
than just the straight gypsy swing like Django played and I started
featuring those a bit more in the show and that’s how the latest album
Alan: I understand you are a patron of the Guitar-X Music School in
London. Can you tell me a little about that?
John: It’s a school where guys can go and study guitar and learn
all kinds of styles, as well as there being a drum division and a vocal
division. One of my friends is the Head of Guitar Studies there, John
Wheatcroft, and I’ve been to lecture there a few times and I just
support the whole idea and curriculum. There was nothing like that when
I was learning and I think it would have just been so helpful to have
been around other guitarists and other musicians but I felt like I
learned in a little void.
Alan: What are your current plans?
John: I’ve just finished a new album with my quintet, of gyspy
jazz, and I think my line up is the best I’ve ever had. I have Kevin
Nolan on rhythm guitar (his brother is Robin Nolan who is very well
known in gypsy jazz circles.), a bass player from Holland named Simon
Planting who is excellent, and a young protégée violin player who has
just graduated and is scarily good, and my percussionist is Rick Reed
who also plays with Shelby Lynne. We did most of the album live in the
studio and it’s a lot of hard-driving swing and I also added the
bauzouki. That should be released in January 2010 (see below).
I’ve also just finished an album of orchestral music with gypsy
guitarists as solo instruments with a full orchestra. It’s called
Istiqbal , which is a Romany word meaning “welcoming in the
future”. To my knowledge this has not been done like this before with
new music specifically written for this. One of my father’s dreams was
for me to play more with orchestras so I think he might be pulling some
strings from the other side! I’d love to do more with an orchestra and
bring in the energy of the guitar. I hadn’t thought of it before but
it’s probably got something to do with the classical Russian music I
Alan: Thank you very much John. It’s been wonderful meeting you and I
really appreciate your time.
Albums available from John's website:
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