Home / Music / Artist Interviews / INTERVIEW: Austin, TX-based cosmic country artist Johnny Dango

INTERVIEW: Austin, TX-based cosmic country artist Johnny Dango

Hi Johnny, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Howdy. I’m doing great, thanks. I’ve managed to stay out of Texas for most of the past 3 months, and that’s a win in my book. I hear it’s pretty warm there right about now.

Can you talk to us more about your new single “Love & War (In All Fairness)?”

“Love & War” was written as a bluegrass barnburner. Steve Collins (co-producer) suggested we slow it way down. I was very resistant at first. I wanted to do a real fast song but Steve convinced me it would be pretty cool to do it slow and throw in the big drums, kind of like a Levon Helm thing. I still don’t like my vocals. I think I picked the wrong key at the wrong time of day or something, because it sounds really strange to me, and not in a good way, but then I hardly ever like the way I sound anyway, so at least I’m consistent.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

No specific incident or event on this one. I just wanted to play with the tradition a little. I’m a believer in the whole “3 chords and the truth” ethos… but 4 or 5 chords and stretching the truth a little is probably more interesting.

The single comes off your new album Recluse In Plain Sight – what’s the story behind the title?

I keep a running list of potential song and album names. Band names, too. It’s growing all the time. This album originally started as two separate 5-song EPs, and I was gonna call it “Life at the Speed of Pleasure/Life at the Speed of Leisure,” because if you say “leisure” the right way, it rhymes with “pleasure.” And that amuses me. But I didn’t like the way 2 of the tracks came out, and putting out 2 EPs with 4 songs each seemed both stupid and expensive, so I ultimately went with a single 8-song album. “Recluse In Plain Sight” was one of the potential names I had written down somewhere along the way, and then when I broke up with my girlfriend last year, I pretty much became a recluse in my room, writing and practicing and getting better at booking tours. But I was right there, you know? Anyone could find me. No one really wanted to all that much, though. So the name seemed appropriate.

How was the recording and writing process?

I could, and probably will, get really longwinded talking about it because I’m a total geek when it comes to process. But I’ll try to keep it brief.

We recorded it sporadically, over a couple of months, as the different musicians we wanted to contribute were available. We tracked bass & drums, with me on acoustic guitar, first, and then added all the other textures afterwards. Lots of overdubs. Except for “Western Front” and “The Ballad of The Memphis Strange.” Those were done with a full band in the room, playing together, the way God intended. Actually that’s not entirely true. God is happy as long as real musicians are making music with real musical instruments, in whatever capacity. God hates DJs.

The writing was even more sporadic, and stretched over a period of years. Some of these songs are really, really old. “Hole in My Heart” is over ten years old. It takes me a long time to save the money to make a new record. I’m not really into Kickstarter and that kind of stuff. Even though I’ll probably have to do something like that one of these days. It’s the damnedest thing–music has been so devalued now thanks to streaming and all the various ways people can get music for free, and then more and more venues now would rather hire a DJ or do karaoke than pay a band, so wages are pretty stagnant–but the cost to make and release a record hasn’t gone down at all. Some aspects are actually even more expensive.

Back to writing, though… I didn’t sit down and say “hey, I’m gonna write a new record.” It doesn’t work like that. Not for me at least. When I’ve tried that, it didn’t work out so well. Although “The Ballad of The Memphis Strange” was originally conceived as part of a larger work. A concept album. A prairie rock opera, maybe. I need to get back to that sometime. Mostly, I write when the spirit moves me. Songs usually come in bursts, and then there is a profound silence while the well fills up again.

Sorry… that was not brief. Told ya.

What role does Austin, TX plays in your writing?

Austin definitely plays a role in the writing. I’d be such a different musician if I hadn’t moved to Austin 16 years ago. I might not even still be a musician if I hadn’t done it. But Austin has changed a lot, especially in the last 6 or 7 years. Not all change is bad, you know? Growth isn’t necessarily a negative. But Austin hasn’t been particularly wise about the ways it’s grown and changed. Artists get squeezed in the big money plays, and Austin is on a greed trip like I’ve never seen in my life. Our former governor opened the doors to corporations to relocate to Texas, giving them big tax breaks, and lots of companies took him up on his generosity, and so a ton of people have moved here and it’s changed the culture. “No Way Out” is all about Austin. I’ve written several songs specifically about Austin, even if the city isn’t mentioned by name.

You are known for giving a spin to the Americana genre – what new elements did you choose to bring to the table for this album?

That’s what I’m known for? I had no idea! That’s funny… I don’t know if I brought any new elements to the genre. Or if it even is a genre. I’m really bad at labels, or at least ambivalent towards their use, even though I know labels help people find the music they like. But I call it rock & roll. That term has sort of lost it’s meaning now, though, hasn’t it? Rock & roll started when some visionary folks like Chuck Berry took the various American musical traditions and put em all together to a beat, making it groove. I don’t think I’m doing anything all that different, really. I love country music, but I have no desire to be a traditionalist or purist of any kind. I have to throw a diminished chord in there when I write, or some kind of odd lyrical thing, because, really, it’s all been done before, right? So it’s the only way I can feel even a little bit creative or original at all, even though it probably isn’t. But “Americana”… it’s not new. Dylan and The Band and The Grateful Dead were doing it 50 years ago but it wasn’t called that. It was just rock & roll. To me, it still is. All these groups and associations have kind of seemed to form as their own little exclusive clubs, to give themselves awards and pat each other on the back, maybe since they’re relegated to second-class citizen status in the Grammy world? I don’t know. Everyone wants validation, I guess. I feel like I’m still planted pretty firmly in the traditions. I’m just doing it my way. It hasn’t been very good for my career, from an economic standpoint, but I pay my rent, I’m obviously not starving, and I see a lot of wonderful places and meet some great people along the way.

Any plans to hit the road?

I’m on the road right now! I’ve only been home for about 10 days since the start of May. I’ve spent way more time on the road than at home so far this year. I thought I was getting kicked out of my place in May, so I just started booking like crazy, figuring I’d be a homeless for awhile, throw everything in storage and just hit the road. I did a couple of acoustic duo tours in April and May with my pals Doug Strahan and Jason Cornbread Daly. In June I went out with my backing band The Stinking Roses. I’m out for all of July with The Memphis Strange, which is the band I’ve been in since 2009. It’s a 3-headed monster, 3 different lead singers, all of whom are songwriters. I seem to be in one of those periods where hardly anyone in Austin wants to give me a gig, so being on the road is better. It’s definitely healthier for my mental and spiritual well-being. And I do believe it’s a good thing to be out there in America right now, in all these different places, in this strange political climate. It’s such a ridiculously stupid slogan–make America great again. It was already great. It was great before Europeans got here, and it will be great after humans are gone from Planet Earth, if it ever comes to that. It’s a beautiful, magical place. I hope we’ll get off the greed train as a species, though, before we do too much more damage to these special and sacred places.

What else is happening next in Johnny Dango’s world?

Next up… most immediately, we’re putting out a video for “Hole In My Heart.” The record release date is September 1st. Then there will be more touring and saving up to release the next record, because that one is already in the can and was supposed to come out this year, too. So I’m way off schedule. But it’ll come out in January. Then there will be more touring. I always toy around with the idea of moving somewhere new, too, jumping into a new scene, just to change things up. A new landscape would probably do wonders for my writing, even if I wasn’t writing specifically about Place. Although I’d probably end up writing about Place a lot at first. Austin’s cool, I love it and hate it, equally most of the time, but it does see-saw a little here and there. One day it may finally tilt too much the one way and then I’ll be gone. Probably when I simply can’t afford it anymore. That day feels like its getting closer and closer, and that’s just the nature of the market and our made-up money system. It doesn’t do me much good to get too worked up about it.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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