Jack Johnson Tunes in the 'Static' Known for his sunny, acoustic leanings, singer/songwriter Jack Johnson is back with a dark, electric record, Sleep Through the Static. Johnson stopped by to play some songs from the album.
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Jack Johnson Tunes in the 'Static'

Listen to Jack Johnson's complete interview and performance

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  • Transcript

(Soundbite of song, "If I Had Eyes")

Mr. JACK JOHNSON (Singer): (Singing) If I had eyes in the back of my head…


After four studio albums of mostly acoustic rock, including the soundtrack to the kids' movie "Curious George," Jack Johnson is plugging in. His new record, "Sleep Through the Static," comes out on Tuesday, and it's a little more electric, and may be even a little darker in some places to the otherwise sunny, easygoing songwriter/surfer.

Jack stopped by BPP headquarters recently to perform tracks from the new album and to let us in on a secret. Despite his acoustic leanings, he has a long history with the hard stuff.

I put your name in the Google blog search…

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh-oh.

STEWART: …when I was doing - no, it's not so bad.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

STEWART: You didn't do anything wrong.

Mr. JOHNSON: Okay.

STEWART: But there - the first thing that comes up is a blog post - a fan wrote, called Jack Johnson goes to eleven. And he was really excited about a Rolling Stone article where you talked about how you were in a punk band…

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, yeah.

STEWART: …when you were a kid, and you covered Fugazi, and you said about your new album, quote, "I've been acoustic-based and this one is maybe 50/50. There's a little bit more electric on this record."

First, what was the name of your punk band?

Mr. JOHNSON: We were called Limber Chicken. Limber chicken was, kind of, like, this dance move that we have where you, kind of, you grab one of your ankles and you put your other hand behind your neck, and you, kind of - yeah, you got it. Nobody out in the radio world might be able to see that, but…

STEWART: That's a good thing, you know that?

Mr. JOHNSON: …she did a good limber chicken actually from a seated position. And - you had to know, (unintelligible) we were the Spiny Dogfish for a minute, but we changed the name to Limber Chicken. And - as mostly, we were a huge Ian McKay and Fugazi, where the whole band will come but the others - we're really big fan of his lyrics and everything. And they used to come to Hawaii actually and play for us for whatever it was, like, $7 or $8. Like, they'd always make their ticket prices really fair for the fans, and so the kids could come and see it. And so we go to these Fugazi concerts, so it became just - they were our gods, you know, the few people who come to Hawaii, we really appreciated it.

STEWART: So, I'm guessing some people who aren't that familiar with your work - or who, I should say, who are really familiar are - that's a little bit of a mind twist to think about you.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, they were like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONHSON: We should do that.

(Soundbite of song, "Minor Threat")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) We're not the first, hope we're not the last 'cause I know we're all…

It's my friend singing; I don't sing. He'd scream.

(Singing) We're not the…

Well, you'd have to go to a higher (unintelligible) to sing it, but I would scream back around sometimes with this stuff. But - and we played all those, like…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) I don't want to hear it. (Unintelligible)

STEWART: Very nice.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, that was fun.

STEWART: So electric isn't so far away from your - at the heart of your love of music?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, no, not at all. I mean, I've always liked playing electric guitar. When I wrote most of the songs before I started putting out - the first record I got to actually put out, "Brushfire Fairytales," I was making surf movies. And so for the five years before that, I was traveling quite a bit, always on boats, or we were camping a lot to make these surf films and things and, kind of, always often in remote places and pretty far away from any amplifiers or, you know, drum sets or anything like that. So, we, kind of, bang on with whatever was around for drums and then I'd always just have acoustic guitars, so…

STEWART: So this time around, you decided to plug it a little bit.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, you see, I'm afraid I'm, like, deceiving everybody because it really not that - the electric guitar, the acoustic guitar, I could've switched on either one. The songs haven't changed too much as far as, like - I hope I haven't gotten that fan too excited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, like Fugazi's "Minor Threat" thing, it doesn't get that close to that. It's, you know, there's definitely more songs in this record than previous ones too. They're just the acoustic guitar and voice, and then there's more that go off into, kind of, electric guitar with some vibrato, but they're really the same style of songs.

STEWART: Your record's called "Sleep Through the Static."

Mr. JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.


Mr. JOHNSON: A tongue twister, I believe.

STEWART: …the song that goes along with the title of the record - I wrote down some of the lyrics:

(Reading) Who needs sleep when we have love? Who needs keys when we have clubs? Who needs…

Mr. JOHNSON: Who needs please when we've got guns?

STEWART: Oh, okay, good. I couldn't figure that one out. Who needs please when we've got guns? And who needs peace when we've gone above but beyond where we've gone?

Mr. JOHNSON: Where we should have gone.

STEWART: Sounds like you aren't happy about something.

Mr. JOHNSON: I guess not. You know, it's like, sometimes you just write a song and different parts of personality come up. I have a drive for participation, as Joseph Campbell have put it. And I really, you know, I try to be in a moment, just be happy with the way things are and accept things, but, you know, sometimes you just - that was like a stream of consciousness thing where I just sat down and wrote and that's what came out.

And, you know, with that war going on right now, you can't help but be a little bit upset about it. I mean, I can.

STEWART: Well, let's put that set of lyrics in context. Will you play the song first?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Sure, I'd love to. It's - I hopefully remember them all. This is the first time I've actually tried to play it since a few months ago when I recorded it in a live situation so.

(Soundbite of song, "Sleep Through the Static")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Trouble travels fast when you're specially designed for crash testing or wearing wool sunglasses in the afternoon. Come on and tell us what you're trying to prove. 'Cause it's a battle when you dabble in war. You store it up, unleash it, then you piece it together, whether the storm drain running rampant just stamp it and send it to somebody who's pretending to care.

Just cash in your blanks for little toy tanks. Learn how to use them, then abuse them and choose them over conversations. Relationships are overrated. I hated everyone, said the sun. And so I will cook all your books. You're too good-looking and we're spook. And you could watch it instead from the comfort of your burning beds. Or you could sleep through the static. Who needs sleep when we've got love? And who needs keys when we've got clubs? Who needs please when we've got guns? And who needs peace when we've gone above. But beyond where we should have gone? Beyond where we should have gone.

Stuck between channels my thoughts all quit. I thought about them too much, allow them to touch the feelings that rained down on the plains, all dried and cracked, waiting for things that never came. Well, shock an awful thing to make somebody think that they have to choose pushing for peace, supporting the troops, and either you're weak or you'll use brute force, feed. The truth is we say not as we do.

We say anytime, anywhere, just show your teeth and strike the fear of god, wears camouflage, cries at night, and drives a Dodge. Pick up the beat and stop hogging the feast. That's no way to treat an enemy. Well mighty, mighty appetite, we just eat them up and keep on driving. Freedom can be freezing; take a picture from the pretty side. Mind your manners, wave your banners. What a wonderful world that this angle can see.

But who needs sleep when we've got love? Who needs keys when we've got clubs? And who needs please when we've got guns? And who needs peace when we've gone above. But beyond where we should have gone, beyond where we should have gone. But beyond where we should have gone, beyond where we should have gone.

STEWART: And we're talking to Jack Johnson, (unintelligible), his new record "Sleep Through the Static." The studio is solar-powered?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. You don't notice that when you're recording. It's all the same outside, but when you got on a roof and you got the solar panels. It's kind of fun.

STEWART: Why did you decide to do that? Are - is that important to you?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

STEWART: To make sure that you sort of walk the walk and talk the talk about the environment?

Mr. JOHNSON: Definitely. More than anything, I kind of - like I've always liked "The Swiss Family Robinson," like - I love reading books about - I got Pete Kearn's(ph) "Island."(ph) Or there's a book called "An Island to Oneself" about this guy who decides he's going to live on a deserted island and see if he can survive.

I've always been kind of a sucker for that stuff. Like I love not even for sort of, you know, I'm in for the bigger, broader, great reasons to do that stuff. But I like going and buying like - I bought these - they're like 50-gallon drums from this bakery where they still keep the cooking oil stuff and they sell them for $7.

And so I got ten of those and I put them around the house. Anywhere the gutters come off because so much rain and water. We have gutters around the house and I just put these things below there. And I hooked hose-bibs to them and just (unintelligible) it can do all the water in stuff like that for the garden.

STEWART: It's very MacGyver of you.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. MacGyver is another favorite. I love that show. You know, it's like carry the Swiss knife, you know. I always carry it, until they get taken away in airplanes. I always carry a Swiss Army knife around with me and stuff. It's nice to have tools.

STEWART: What do you like about that sort of figuring stuff out and putting where things together to make something that works in a different way?

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm a guy.

STEWART: Oh, you're a dude? Is that what this is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: Pretty much. I think, you know, that is - I don't know. I grew up - my dad is, my dad is an interesting guy and he used to take me on these camping trips all the time. And we would have to just bring a few things around this Hawaiian sailing canoe. We'd go every summer for a few weeks. We'd sail to one of the other islands. We'd go around the island and camp in the base.

We could kind of camp in these valleys that you can't get to by a car. That's a very nice experience, but we'd always have barely anything with us and so. I don't know, a lot of the day just been trying to make a little hut or, you know, trying to go, you know, catch fish so we could have food at night. I don't know. I just grew up loving that kind of stuff.

It wasn't like I live like that all the time and everything. It's was, you know, a few weeks out of the year that we'd go do that stuff. But even around the house, it was like, my dad was always kind of, you know. We just have too many toys and things and letting our imaginations go and so I don't know. I love that stuff.

STEWART: You have a son, yeah?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. It's - actually I got two little boys.

STEWART: Two little boys now. Do they follow you around and pedal around behind you and want to do this kind of things, as well, or…

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I know. They definitely do. It's fun. I hate those toys where you push one button and it sings a whole song or like, just like all that noises they can make and everything. Because you got these little fake plastic guitars, where you just push one button and it does the whole deal for you.

So I like to just either give them a stick. You know, just like giving something and they can pretend like it's a guitar. I think it's better for their imaginations. You know, how all that plastic on your house and stuff anyways so it's - so they end up being like that. They're pretty good. They got good little imaginations or do anything.

STEWART: How is being a dad changed your songwriting?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I just what I think about, you know, mostly a lot of is when my older will ask me why, you know, why is that, why is that leaf bigger today than it was yesterday, like, a tear a plant or something in the garden and kind of explain about, you know, why plants are crawling and he's like, well, why that? And it's say, well, because (unintelligible) ask and why that.

So it's nice of all my conversations with my 2-year-old son now. It makes me realize what I know and I don't know and a lot of times you kind of keep explaining why until you get back to the point where it becomes a spiritual question of like why is there even anything that exist and, you know, you have to be kind of, well, that's you got to kind of figure that one out, trying to point around the things of nature and show him what I'm thinking.

So anyway, it's been a nice period for me of just thinking about a lot of stuff that I might think I know, but I should be learning things. So it helps with the songwriting I think put me in a place where I'm seeing the world through fresh eyes again.

STEWART: You have to be hugely popular with the little knee-biter set after the "Curious George"…

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes, it's fun.

STEWART: …soundtrack. Did you go about writing their songs and thinking of the songs differently than when you sit down and decide to write for grown-up people?

Mr. JOHNSON: Somewhat. Yeah, definitely, especially, on that record there's kind of, there's a few song. It's actually a song about divorce on that record, which is funny because it's a part in the film when a Man With the Yellow Hat and Curious George have to go away from each other and the feelings they're having and there's - when they get reunited.

So the song is about that stuff, but then there's also - there's a lot of kids songs on there that I would definitely write lyrics that I wouldn't put on normal songs. And it's nice. I got like this whole set of songs now I can go perform at elementary schools and I got like this.

There's a set of hit songs for, you know, 5 to 10-year-olds or whatever. And It's pretty funny because now I play them like I played that at the opening of "Who's to Say."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: And as soon as you play a line, it's like being at a costume for just little teeny people and they're also jumping around, I love this part and those.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: It's pretty cool. It's fun to have that set to be able to play at elementary schools.

STEWART: Before we let you go, I do want to ask you if there's any other song aside from "Sleep Through the Static" that you really like or you want to share with us or tell us a little bit more about?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, a lot of them and this one, we kind of - a lot of them would be more comfortable if I had the whole band. There are few songs that has acoustic guitar on it and I'm going to play one of those.

This one's kind of a love song that - a lot of them starts as jokes, mostly all the looks, yeah, in a way like I'm trying to make my wife laugh or just no matter how much, you know, we love each other and things and, sometimes all this just come from one funny line that I'll just sing to her to make her laugh at the house. And this is one of those ones where the first line of the song, you kind of know what I mean when I start to play a bit of.

(Soundbite of song, "Same Girl")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) If you could read my mind, you'd say, baby, you were right. And I don't want to fight anymore. You're usually righter than I am and I'm not a very good fighter. And my, no, neither are you.

So let's be through with this one because some things never change. And I know you're still my same girl who builds her own frames for the pictures that she paints, the lots on Moneray come in across to be right back to my same girl. Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm.

How can you be so calm when the truth sometimes living in the eye of the storm? With everything going on around us, I feel comfort in the sounds when you say it will be okay, like a star guiding me to the light of the day, that no troubles could follow me. But not with my same girl builds her own frame…

STEWART: Jack Johnson's new album "Sleep Through the Static" comes out on Tuesday, and we have an exclusive podcast of this performance available on our site at npr.org/bryantpark.

(Soundbite of song, "Same Girl")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) With all that being said if I admit I was wrong, can we just call it even since I wrote you this song.

STEWART: This is the BPP from NPR.

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