If you hard-pressed me for my personal favorite up-and-coming jam band, the answer would be easy. The one-and-only Spafford. I first saw these guys perform a few months at their debut headlining, multi-set performance at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, and upon leaving the venue I knew we were all on to something special. Everyone in the venue that night felt the exact same way – the excitement was palpable and the music was simply undeniable.
It’s not every day you get that feeling, either. The musical dexterity of each individual player, their completely comfortable sound and stage presence, the humble, professional vibe they exude in concert, and their total love for free-form improvisation is a recipe for a band that has no limits. Add an incredible work ethic and songs with introspective lyrics and meaning, and you have what I’d like to consider a sonic meteor. As long as Brian Moss (guitar), Red Johnson (keys), Jordan Fairless (bass), and Cameron Laferest (drums) continue making new music and working hard on their craft, there’s really no reason I can personally think of as to why Spafford can’t sell out multi-night runs at venues like The Cap or The Fillmore in 10 years time.
Because of this intuition I’m feeling and sharing with a number of music enthusiasts in New York City, it brought me great joy and excitement to get this interview scheduled and on the books. Spafford is currently gearing up and preparing for the first of two performances tonight and tomorrow at the infamous Summer Camp Music Festival. We have a writer and photographer on site ready to document both Spafford sets, but while I’m sitting here in New York City sadly missing Spafford but happily gearing up for a weekend of The Disco Biscuits in Maine (check out our preview), I’ve put together part one of a truly incredible extended interview with Andrew “Red” Johnson, which we did together on Monday. Red and I spoke for well over an hour, so rather than squeeze it all in to one article, I’m releasing two or three parts of the interview throughout the summer. So anyways, enough from me, enjoy a peek into the mind of one of our scene’s hottest keys players.
Sound Fix: Hey Red, thanks for taking some time here to catch up with us ahead of the summer festivities. So Summer Camp is just around the corner and Spafford is part of its star studded lineup. What can you tell us about the festival and what Spafford has in store the weekend?
Red Johnson: I actually have never even been to Summer Camp, but I’ve been trying to go for years now. Partly because I’m originally from Illinois so it’s kind of in my backyard so to speak. This is everyone’s first time playing the festival as well, and everyone in the band’s first time even attending the event. So we’re really pumped, and honestly looking at the lineup, for me at least, this is the lineup of the summer. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great festivals, and I’m also really excited about Electric Forest, and obviously Dominican Holidaze as well, which was just announced the other week. But truthfully, Summer Camp is the one I’m most excited for just because Illinois is my home.
SF: Do you know what stage and what times you’re playing yet?
RJ: I’m not entirely sure of the stages, but we’re playing on both Thursday and Friday, for the pre-party early entry Thursday, as well as the the first official day on Friday.
SF: Great, well I’m always interested to learn about new music. What can you tell us here about new material in the works for Spafford?
RJ: I know that I’ve personally been doing a lot of writing. We’ve had a little bit of off time since our last tour with Mungion, and some of the other guys have been doing a lot of writing individually as well. I personally just took a vacation with my wife which was long overdue and had a great time. Technically we were on tour for a little over three months, just hitting it really hard which was an absolute blast but it was nice to have some vacation time. Now we’re back in action rehearsing on a daily basis.
SF: So you rehearse every single day?
RJ: Yeah man, for the most part. Now that we’re all in the same city we’re doing rehearsals every single day. We took this past weekend off then we’re back at it for Summer Camp tomorrow. The goal is to get together, if not all four of us then you know a couple of us, to work on our live show and new material on a daily basis.
SF: That makes a lot of sense, Red, it certainly shows on stage. And so few bands are able to say they rehearse every day together, so the work ethic is impressive.
RJ: Well it certainly hasn’t always been like that. For many years we were mostly living in different cities. I was living here in Phoenix. Brian and Nick were living about an hour and 45 minutes north in Prescott, and Jordan was living in Flagstaff. So it made getting together for rehearsals a bit more difficult, but we’ve always been a band that tends to get together, lock ourselves away from everybody in a room for multiple hours on end and see what we can come up with.
SF: Shifting focus a bit here, in terms of the songs you’ve specifically written, if you had to choose one that’s dearest to your heart, one song you’re most proud of, what would that song be?
RJ: Wow that’s tough! **laughs**
SF: **laughs** Tough, I know, but we’d all love to hear your thoughts on that.
RJ: Of all the songs that I’ve written individually, I like them close to all the same, but I would say that “Beautiful Day” is probably the one I’m most proud of. It’s an interesting song and I traditionally don’t really talk to people about the meaning behind it, but let’s talk about it here. It’s not the song everybody thinks it is, and I think that’s one of the best parts about music, that music and lyrics resonate with each person differently. That said, “Beautiful Day” is not the song everybody thinks it is – it’s not a happy go-lucky song it might appear to be. It was written in a really, really dark state, and it was created in a very dark time in my life, where it was more or less a song of hope, versus a song of happines. It was somewhere between a song of hope and swan song, kind of almost an “I’m out of here,” type of thing. I really like that one, it seems to truly touch people in a special way, so I’m really proud of that song.
SF: Thanks for sharing that. In a similar vein, do you have a favorite song to perform?
RJ: I’d have to say “Slip and Squander” is slowly becoming one of my favorite songs to play, partly because of all the help I received on writing that one. Our bassist Jordan Fairless helped me write some of the music on that song. And then our lighting designer, Chuck Johnson, actually wrote all of the lyrics, and he wrote it as more of a poem. I made a very minute amount of changes artistically with the lyrics just to make it fit in with the song, and then it was complete. I really enjoy performing that song because again that’s another one of those tracks where lyrically people can interpret it any which way that they want to, and who knows what it’s really about! I never even asked Chuck, but I know what it means to me and that’s what makes it special to me.
SF: While we’re on the topic of creating music, how does the band in general create and write new material? Is their a process or step-by-step method Spafford typically applies?
RJ: Sure, there’s a very specific process that goes into us writing new material, and it’s best described as complete chaos. **laughs** Sometimes somebody will have a song that’s really really close to being ready, for example Brian Moss just wrote a song called “Minds Unchained,” and I absolutely love playing that one. It has this huge free-formed jam section in it that we can do basically whatever the hell we want to, but he wrote that song off something he had just learned from one of his guitar teachers. He also started writing the song over our light designer Chuck Johnson’s lyrics. So when he brought the idea to the song to the table we worked on it a couple times in rehearsal and we all thought it was ready. Brian, on the contrary, did not think it was ready yet, so he came back a week later to add a new section, and bam, it was done. Other times collectively we’ve all built a song together from scratch, so there’s really no exact specific way, really, but for almost every Spafford song each band member makes a contribution.
SF: Looking back at the previous tour, every band builds their own storybook from the road. If you had to take a page from Spafford’s book that was your favorite moment or story from the previous tour, what would that be?
RJ: Favorite moment would be stepping onto the stage opening for Umphrey’s for the first time in Richmond, VA, just realizing this train was really rolling, and that we’re doing something pretty meaningful. Another favorite moment was the opportunity to sit in with Umphrey’s in San Diego.
SF: Right, I was going to ask you about that, so please describe how that performance felt for you.
RJ: Right before Spafford was going on stage, Joel came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said “hey, we’re going to pull you up on stage for the first set tonight so you can come and jam with us.” So right then and there I literally had to go walk on stage to play with Spafford. I mean, I thought I played awful with Spafford just because I had that in the back of my mind the entire set, and I was kind of freaking out about it just because of the magnitude of the opportunity. Funny story, I was standing on the side of stage and there was this giant rat’s nest of cables right where I needed to walk out on stage, and I started to think to myself, “oh god I’m going to trip over these wires and fall face first on stage before even sitting in with Umphrey’s!” If that had happened I would have literally just stood up, walked off stage and flew directly home! But then I finally convinced myself if I can get over these cables and avoid tripping, everything will be ok, and the performance ended up being pretty cool.
SF: Congratulation with that, Red, wish I could’ve seen it myself. So Spafford’s from Arizona, and I’m always interested to learn about a specific area’s music scene from the perspective of a musician knee-deep in it. Could you take a moment to talk about and describe the Arizona / Phoenix music scene, and maybe tell us about a few bands you respect from the area?
RJ: Sure, It’s kind of like a two-part answer. So the band was originally formed and is from a tiny little mountain town in Arizona called Prescott. It’s such a great live music town – any given night you can catch a dozen different types of live music. You can go and see anything from country music to a hip-hop show to DJs to hard rock, you can catch anything on any given night. We wore the Prescott badge for a long long time and now we all live in Phoenix, and in my opinion Phoenix is a sleeper town for live music, in a good way. In fact, one of the guys I give a lot of credit to for the musician I’ve become today is the guy Mikel Lander, he plays with a band called The Sugar Thieves, and those guys are international. They’ve toured Europe a number of times and they’re a blues band. It’s kind of the 40’s and 50’s style blues, and I absolutely love those guys. There’s a lot of phenomenal rock bands as well, for example this band a while back called Mergence, The Black Moods as well, and then up in Prescott there are a number of original bands, for example Don Cheek and The CheekTones. We’ve actually been covering a lot of their tunes recently just because they’re a phenomenal band. Brian actually used to play in The CheekTones, and we have a lot of respect for Don Cheek. Arizona is so tight-knit, and people really support and talk about the bands in the area, so we attribute our growth and a lot of our success to Arizona.
SF: Stay tuned for part 2 in the next few days!