Grateful Web recently spoke with Spafford keyboardist Red Johnson between soundcheck and dinner at Terrapin Crossroads on March 4th, 2017 (review). Red offered plenty of Spafford insights and motivations.
Grateful Web: Have you played the Bay Area before?
Red Johnson: We played the Independent in San Francisco last fall, a great little spot. Not quite the history or vibe that Terrapin Crossroads has, though. This is a legendary spot. We’re honored to play here.
GW: You sold out the place. What do you think of the venue?
Red: I went into the restaurant, and a band was onstage and was killing it, just for the lunchtime crowd. The outdoor venue is great, and I understand that occasionally Phil will go back there read stories to kids on weekends and stuff. That’s great!
GW: For people who come tonight that aren’t that familiar with Spafford, but know there’s live music here at Terrapin Crossroads, what do you try to offer them? What should they expect?
Red: We are now and will always be unapologetically Spafford. We kind of just do our thing. We played festivals that were specifically designed more about the DJ and electronic thing, and we do have some of the electronic vibe to us. We don’t try to change our sound or our set to match anything. We love it when people show up that have maybe heard one show or a track or two of us, they don’t know necessarily what to expect, or they expect to hear something similar to the track they listed to on YouTube, or a show on Nugs or whatever.
GW: And then they get a variety.
Red: We all come from such different backgrounds of music and preferences, and it shows in our music, and one song to the next can vary so much. You’ll hear bluegrass then funk then electronic and then you’ll hear a real-deal rock ‘n’ roll song.
GW: You were all born in the mid-‘80s. So, none of you saw The Grateful Dead, but you carry it with you.
Red: I’m the old man in the group I was born in 1980. I grew up listening to The Dead. My dad was into The Dead, Allman Brothers, Little Feat, bluegrass, and Old and In the Way and all that stuff. And both my brothers saw The Dead a couple of times. We all appreciate it for sure. I’m a big fan. If I’m home for a couple of weeks, there are a couple of Dead bands in the valley that will hit me up and say, “Hey, I saw you’re in town. Come over and hang out and sit in.” So, I love it, absolutely love it.
GW: So, while you are “Unapologetically Spafford,” you have that as part of your DNA.
Red: Absolutely. There’s parts of The Grateful Dead that show in every note that I play. There’s parts of Phish, that I absolutely love, in everything that I play. There’s part of all kinds of music. <Little Feat keyboardist> Billy Payne is one of my biggest heroes, and I’m still every day striving to be the player that he is. He can do anything honky tonk, funk, R&B; he can do blues, rock. He was bringing out crazy synthesizers at a time when no one was except for Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. And killing it on them.
On the other hand, there are parts of ska/punk that I absolutely love. I find it fascinating ska goes way back in the old dancehall and stuff like that. I’ve been to 100 heavy metal shows and loved almost every single one of them. Back when I was young it was still called techno, now its EDM, but I’ve been to a million different rave/techno/ EDM shows, and I absolutely love it. I grew up in rural Illinois, so there are parts of Country I absolutely love.
GW: How many songs tonight will overlap with what you performed last night?
Red: We do our best to keep it fresh. Not just the set list but we want to keep the music itself fresh. So even if we did play the same setlist night after night after night, everyone would be satisfied. We can play “Electric Taco Stand” three nights in a row, and it’s gonna be completely different every night. And that’s our goal.
GW: What was the song you just played at the end of sound check? It’s a real rocker.
Red: The song was “Eternity,” and it’s a great one. Jordan wrote that. He’s a great songwriter and extremely talented lyricist. Everybody in the band brings something incredible to the table. (Note: the show opened with “Eternity.”)
GW: You work hard, and it shows, and you improvise at very high levels.
Red: We work really hard at our craft. When we are not on the road, we are in the studio and rehearsing and writing every single day. When Cameron joined the band, the newer drummer, we did our best to stay in the studio, working on old stuff, learning how to play together. Jordan, Brian, and I have been playing together for seven years, and we all have a really good idea that If I do “this,” Jordan and Brian will respond this way and vice-versa. However, Cameron’s coming into this fresh off the street, so we’re still trying to hammer things out and learning how to play together; not just the songs, but improv.
So, the song “Abaculus” – we had burnt ourselves out a little bit. We went into the studio for rehearsal. Jordan just hit “record,” and we ended up going for an hour and six minutes, of completely improvised music. We knew that we had something special when we finished playing and hit “stop” on the recorder. We took that piece, one track, and pressed it and released it to our fans. And the response we got was great. We were fearless regardless of what everyone else thought of it. We absolutely loved it. To us, it was something brand new and fun and a break from the normal. I think it was a real turning point in the band. We’ve done it 100 times before and 100 times after. As far as the improvisation goes, it comes down to trusting your bandmates. I trust Brian, Cameron, and Jordan implicitly and I like to think they trust me. We’re having a lot of fun doing it and were learning a lot about not just music or being a musician were learning a lot about each other and ourselves in the process, and it's really a lot of fun.
GW: Tell us about the group of keyboards up on stage.
Red: I’m touring with five keyboards. For piano, I use a Roland RD-800. For organ, I have a Nord C2D run through a Leslie 760. There’s nothing that can ever come close to moving air. I’m using Nord Electro 3 for clavinet tones. My third board is a Roland Giana synthesizer, and I use that for some pads and some sweeping ambient sounds, and I have an Axis Virus TI that I use for synths.