Fletcher C. Johnson discusses his earliest music obsessions, recording Lessons in Tenderness, and his admiration for the Burger Records family.
You grew up in Vermont but relocated to Brooklyn a few years ago. What role did your time in Vermont have on your current sound and songwriting? How did it change after the move to NYC?
It’s hard to say what influence Vermont has on my sound. I actually moved away from Vermont in 1999. Then first moved to Brooklyn in 2003. I was obsessed with music when I was a teenager and before. I was the DJ at my school’s dances in middle school. From age 12 to age 14 (1992-1994) I sat in my room from 9 to 10 P.M. when the radio station out of Boston played the top 9 most requested songs of the day. I had lists taped to my wall of all the results and I bought every album the day they came out. This was the era of Peal Jam and Soundgarden and The Crow soundtrack. I didn’t know anyone else who was really into music so I just kept listening to the radio. When I was 14, I started skateboarding and I would try to find every song that played in my skate videos, which was mostly pop punk at the time.
I stopped listening to the radio and tried to get my hands on every punk record I could find. I would go to the record store in our small town and buy random records if I thought the cover looked punk. I had a pop-punk band with my little brother called The Silly Bastards which later became a street punk band called Aristocracy. All I wanted to do was get out of my small town and move to the city, which I did the moment I graduated high school. I don’t really listened to any of that music now. I’m sure it had an influence but I wouldn’t know where to place it. My home town was very small. Very conservative. Very poor. Very redneck. In 11th grade I bought a car and found that a bunch of freaks lived in Brattleboro, about 30 minutes away from my parents house. I spent a lot of time there. I’m still friends with a number of those Brattleboro freaks and love them dearly.
You released Lesson in Tenderness last year. Where was it recorded and who produced it? Is the cacophonous image from the album cover a view into that process?
I recorded it in different bedrooms in Brooklyn, Orange County, and Los Angeles. Actually, my bedroom in Brooklyn, a practice space I was living in in Orange County, and a friend's bedroom I crashed in in LA after I got evicted from the practice space. That picture on the cover is my bedroom in Brooklyn. The room wasn't big enough for more than a bed. In fact, the bedroom door could only open half way because it smashed right into the bed. So I got like 60 cinder blocks, stacked them in 6 piles, and put the bed on top of the stacks so I would have a work space underneath. That work space is what's in the picture. The bed ended up being about 2 feet from the ceiling so that was a little uncomfortable for sleeping. And I had to cut the legs of my chair in half so I wouldn't bump your head on the bed when I worked. The room was $250 a month, which is very good for Brooklyn. Then again, I was paying less than $100 a month to live in that practice space in Orange County...before I got evicted.
Lesson in Tenderness includes sounds you'd hear in indie, country, and sometimes glam rock (no offense, ha!). What were your influences during the writing of this record? How had your songwriting changed from writing your last album?
The tones in glam rock were perfect; both guitar tone and attitude tone. Every song I write, I create the vocal melody first. Not the lyrics, which I actually do last because I hate writing lyrics, but the notes that the vocals will hit. I hum and mumble as I walk down the street and occasionally come up with something okay which I sing into my phone. Later, I go home and figure out what the guitar chords have to be. As a result of this, I don’t have a lot of control over what the songs are going to be like.
When I’m walking down the street, I don’t have a specific genre in mind, it’s just what pops into my head. Sometimes it’s a slow song and sometimes it’s a fast song but usually they seem to be a weird mid-tempo, which is what most of my catalogue is comprised of. My favorite ones are the more folk or county songs but, unfortunately, they come about pretty infrequently.
For Lesson In Tenderness I was playing around with a lot of new tones. When recording Salutations, I put synthesizer or another kind of keyboard on every songs then, when I was mixing it, I removed every one, one at a time. I couldn't find the right tasteful tones. To make a keyboard make a sound is easy, you just push a button. But to do it right can take a lot of practice, like the guitar.
The practice space I was living in in Orange County was less than a mile from Burger Records. I was hanging with those guys most every day. Gabe from Gap Dream lived in the storage shed behind their store so I was spending quite a bit of time with him as well. He was doing amazing things with synths and I was picking up tips however I could. The week I was evicted from the practice space, Gap Dream was heading out on a nine day West Coast tour and, since I didn’t have anywhere to live, I joined them as a second guitarist. They took mushrooms everyday of the tour and it was a complete mess. It makes you too emotional.
On the final day we played in Reno. After the show, we went to the casinos and saw that they had one dollar beers all day everyday and the Gap Dream guys decided they were gonna just stay there forever. Luckily, we were traveling in my van so I could leave whenever I wanted. I got back to LA and started crashing at a friend’s place and playing the synthesizer from morning into night. For two months I just smoked weed, sipped five hour energy drinks like they were brandy, and played synths with my headphones on. Somehow, during that Gap Dream tour, I figured out what I was missing before. They sounded great! Once again though, while I was mixing, most of the synth and keys were removed from the record but, the stuff that stayed, I think that made a big difference in the tone.
Can you explain where you came up with the title?
I have a lot of lucid dreams, where you know you’re dreaming and you can control a lot of what’s happening around you. I'm always trying to figure out something to do in them besides flying around or having sex. I was in the middle of a lucid dream and I was trying to see if I could skateboard (which I couldn’t) and then I heard some singing in the distance. I flew over to a big field and there was a bunch of people singing in a circle and they were singing the chorus to "Lesson In Tenderness," lyrics and all. I flew around them and listened to them sing for a long time then I started singing as well over and over and over again. I wanted to make sure the song was completely stuck in my head because, upon waking, everything from your dream quickly starts slipping away. I felt this was a good song and I didn’t want to lose it.
This kind of thing happens to me a lot - songs in dreams. Unfortunately, when I wake up they are almost always reeeeeeeeally terrible. They sound perfect in the dream and then they end up being the worst Chuck Berry rip off, or worse. Lately I keep hearing songs in dreams then recording them into my dictaphone, then realizing that I’m still asleep and I’m recording them into a dream dictaphone - and they sound amazing! Then I wake up and record them into my real dictaphone and they’re shit. The chorus to "Wasted Boys" I also heard in a dream. But not the lyrics, just the vocal melody.
You've put a couple of records out on Burger Records - including your newest. What do you like most about working with Burger?
Those Burger boys, Sean and Lee, are just supernatural. They work day and night. And, if you go by the store, you’ll be working too. First they’ll pass you a bowl then they’ll pass you a box of tape covers that need to be folded and inserted into tape cases. They do all that shit by hand! Every dollar they make they just turn around and put it back into the label. Last I knew Sean was still living in the back room of the store and Lee was sleeping in his van in the parking lot. They would rather spend the money to put out my 12-inch then spend it on an apartment with a shower and other basic human requirements. They love music more than you love music or I love music. The only thing they like more than freaky, fuzzy jams is Mystery Science Theater 3000.
You've been in the scene for a few years putting out consistently great songs. How do you stay motivated to keep writing and be creative? What helps you maintain focus and continue to make interesting music?
I don’t know how not to make music. It is the most fun thing I do. If I go a week and don’t create anything, musical or otherwise, I get depressed. I’m not good at vacations. For me, an ideal vacation would be going into a recording studio and working 12 hours a day.
Lesson in Tenderness was released in 2016 but I actually finished recording it in early 2014. There’s just a lot of time that can get lost in mixing, mastering, and physical production. Between February of 2014 and April of 2016 I didn’t write a single song that I thought was good and that fucked me up - really dark days. But, like I said before, I don’t seem to have a lot of control over what kind of songs I make. I did create a lot of bad music during that period that no one will hear.
What are you some things you hope to accomplish in 2017 either personally or musically? Any tour information coming together? We're hoping a North Carolina date will sneak in there somewhere!
I wrote two albums in the last year. Over about nine months I wrote a new rock record and recorded demos for the entire thing. As we got studio time together and practiced the new songs, I started working on a second record where every instrument on it is an acoustic instrument. I had become very bored of the electric guitar but, doing solos on the acoustic guitar lit a new fire under my ass. I wrote and recorded the entire acoustic record in a month and it has, by far, the most guitar shredding of anything I’ve done before. That acoustic record is about to start getting mixed and it will come out first. And a tour will follow which will definitely take us through the Carolinas. We went to Diamond Studios and recorded three songs for the other album which are pretty piano heavy. I’m very excited about both records.