Fleur the Kiwi
Singer/songwriter/producer Johnny Lima has been involved in the San Francisco Bay Area music scene since the early ’90s. After fronting a couple of popular local Bay Area bands, he released his debut solo album in 1996. He’s now deep in the throes of recording tracks for a new album, and in between times producing other artists at Suspect Studios in San Jose, CA, where DGT&G visited him. (Click here for Johnny’s answers to the Heart of Rock questions, and here for part 2 of this interview)
DGT&G: You got your first guitar when you were twelve and you immediately started writing songs. Have you—
JL: Wow, you did your homework, didn’t you? [Laughs]
DGT&G: It’s my job. [Laughs] Have you stopped writing ever since? Or have you just kinda kept going?
JL: Oh, I’ve never stopped writing. I think that’s one of the things that’s sort of therapeutic for me as well. Whenever you’re having a bad day or something, pick up the guitar and write a song. That’s better than any happy pill that a pharmaceutical company can make. But yeah, I’ve never—I mean there are dry spells, obviously, because it’s about inspiration. I don’t just write music just—“OK, I gotta write twelve songs for the album.”
DGT&G: That’s always puzzled me how people can do that.
JL: I don’t do that. That’s why it takes me four years to make an album, because I want an album’s worth of great songs and I can’t write great songs in one week. That stuff takes time. It’s hard to describe, because some songs, when you try to force yourself to write it, it never works. But some songs could just write themselves. And it’s almost like there’s some outside universal power or something that just—“Wow, where did that come from?” And then there’s days where, like, “Shit, I can’t write anything today.”
DGT&G: What were those first songs like?
JL: My very first songs that I wrote?
DGT&G: Did you end up recording any of them?
JL: No, I didn’t record any of them because back then, you know, it cost a lot of money to record. But I do remember one that I wrote. It was my first one. It’s called “School’s Out.” I was twelve years old. The music teacher at the elementary school was like a mentor of mine. Every winter they had winter school concert. The school band would play in front of the whole town in the big auditorium in my town that I grew up in. And he let my band play. And we played the song “School’s Out”—girls went crazy. [Laughs] I was like, “This is cool.”
DGT&G: Did you have long hair then?
JL: It was not as long, but it was longer than every other guy’s in school. I grew up in a very small town, and I was one of the only rockers there. And I was definitely the black sheep of the town, that’s for sure. [Laughs] Yeah, I still remember that day because it was just— I’m sure the song really sucked. I wish someone would have videotaped it. I would have loved to see—how many years later?
DGT&G: Thirty years later.
JL: Thirty years later. I mean, shit, to see that, I’d be like, “Wow! Wow! We sound like shit.” [Laughs] “Damn, listen to the crowd.” Even afterwards, the music teacher said, “Did the Beatles write that song?” [Laughs] I guess I was too—back then you’d probably call it ADD. But we didn’t have ADD back then. I didn’t want to sit down and just sit there and go—[sings music scales]—like most guitar players should, right? So, when I picked up the guitar, I learned some chords, I said, “I’m gonna start writing my own stuff.” Because I don’t have the patience to sit there and learn someone else’s. I think that’s actually helped me though, because I’m not that bad of a songwriter. [Laughs] If I say so myself. I don’t want to sound egotistical. [Laughs] I know a lot of great guitar players who can’t write songs for shit, you know, but they could play leads, and that’s why I have them play leads on my album, because I can’t play leads. Even though I’ve been playing leads for thirty years. I’ve played a nice, pretty lead, but I can’t do the [demonstrates guitar solo]—can’t do any of that Yngwie stuff. Not that I want it on my album anyways, but, you know.
DGT&G: You emphasize songwriting over instrumental brilliance.
JL: Oh, yeah.
DGT&G: What artists are consistently superb songwriters?
JL: I think Bryan Adams is great songwriter. Mutt Lange is a great songwriter, even though he’s not an artist so to speak, but he’s a producer. And you can definitely tell that he had a lot of input into songwriting with Def Leppard or—because if you listen to Shania Twain, it sounds like Def Leppard with tits, right? [Laughs] Because of Mutt Lange. He’s a genius, and that’s somebody that, if I could be ten percent as good as him, I’d be amazing. [Laughs] He produced that Bryan Adams album, Waking Up the Neighbors, which has “Everything I Do, I Do It for You.”
Other songwriters… I would say the guy from Nickelback is a great songwriter. I don’t know how technical these guys are either, so songwriting versus—maybe they’re both, I don’t know. Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. Wow, there is so many. Max Martin, that guy is a genius too. He’s not really rock, he’s the guy who did all the pop bands like Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and P!nk and Kelly Clarkson. He writes for everybody!
DGT&G: So, you mentioned this a little—what’s your songwriting process?
JL: Basically, I’m just sitting there with a guitar and just playing chords, and then I start singing along to what I’m playing. And if it sounds good to me, then I’ll just start singing words and maybe get the idea—OK, what’s the song going to be about? Lyrics to me are always last. I never write music to lyrics. I find that’s kind of difficult to do. Although one of my songs, “Touch of Love,” was like that because the lyrics for that was written by—jeez, I don’t even remember her name—Angela Walsh, I think, something like that. I met her on the Internet at some songwriting website. I think she had a song, “Touch of Love,” posted. I’m like, “Hey, I can write music to that?” And that’s usually the process.
Or sometimes, I’ll be in the kitchen or on the toilet and I come up with a great melody, whip out my iPhone—if somebody stole my iPhone, they’d have a field day listening to all this crap that I sing into my phone. A lot of it doesn’t even—because I don’t have any lyrics yet, so I’m just singing whatever comes to mind, like [sings] “You suck” or whatever. [Laughs]
DGT&G: That’s a good image. [Laughs]
JL: [Sings] “I’m so fucking hungry. Need to make some lunch.” [Laughs]
DGT&G: [Laughs] You should do a—
JL: Like a compilation, and release that as my next album. That would be easy. Demos! [Laughs] Here’s the demos.
DGT&G: Well, speaking of demos. In the mid-nineties, you formed a band called Attitude?
JL: Early nineties.
DGT&G: Was Attitude’s The Shitty Demo ever released as an album?
JL: [Roaring laughter]
DGT&G: I read some rave reviews of that.
JL: Yeah, The Shitty Demo. You know, it’s funny, because I think I burned a copy of that for somebody and I called it the Shitty Demo because I wanted to make sure that, hey, this isn’t something that was officially released. And of course, as the years went by, I guess it got on the Internet. There’s actually a company—I think they are based out of Las Vegas—that illegally printed it and made it look like an official release. And they used the name of a European label. Yeah, I don’t give shit. It’s Retrospective. You know who that is? Retrospective Records?
DGT&G: That rings a bell.
JL: He won’t admit to it, but everybody knows that that those are fictitious companies so people don’t go after him. He’ll say, “Hey, I’m licensing it from them. I thought it was a legal thing, you know, so.” That’s business, but I’m not—I don’t think there’s a million copies sold. If there was, I’d be knocking on his door with a lawyer. But, if he sold a hundred copies, screw it. That’s not even worth my time to go after. So, back to the Shitty Demo, yeah, that was a demo that we recorded to just get gigs, and apparently some people, I guess, liked it. But it’s a horrible recording.
DGT&G: Maybe it’s the rarity of it.
JL: I think that’s what it is though, too. Because I’ve seen my first album on eBay for over $100. I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Anybody who is gonna pay—dude, I’ll make a CDR of it and just send it to you for free. It’s out of print, so I understand if you want the CD. Just get a hold of me and I’ll—well, you’d pay shipping. But yeah, it’s ridiculous what some people—it’s kind of humbling in a way too. It’s like, wow, somebody likes my music that much that they’ve spent that much money to get something that is very rare. But still, at the end of the day, it’s just music. You shouldn’t be paying $100 for—I would never pay $100 for any rare Def Leppard stuff. I don’t even pay $100 to see Bon Jovi anymore. Fuck that—$100? I’m not paying $100 to see that. [Laughs]. I don’t know if I answered though—what was your question on the Shitty Demo?
DGT&G: No, I think you answered it.
JL: Oh, OK. [Laughs] Sometimes I just like to run my mouth and don’t even know what I’m saying.
DGT&G: That’s fine, it’s easier than people who don’t really talk. How did you get started producing?
JL: Well, for my own stuff I did it out of lack of funds, because I couldn’t afford to have a producer and an engineer and all that, so I learned how to do it myself. But as I continued doing that, I got better and better. I guess the whole producing thing started with the band Dirty Penny. A friend of mine, who is actually one of my guitar players now, Ryan Freeman, was doing a show with them in Sacramento or something. They’re like, “Hey, we’re looking for a producer.” “Aw, dude, I’m the perfect guy for you.” And then people heard that album by Diamond Lane [Save this City]. “Hey, will you produce our album too?” “Alright, yeah, yeah.”
For a while, it was like, Dirty Penny, Diamond Lane, Miss Crazy, did Dirty Penny again, and then Freakshow, so it was a lot of work in a short period of time, which was really nice. And then of course, that well dried out. But I’m getting back into that though too. When I decided to start playing live again, for my solo stuff, I backed off production, because I can’t do all that and a full-time job. It’s hard enough as it is just doing the band thing and a full-time job. Oh, I did just mix an album by an artist named Joey Medeiros.
But I love to be in the studio. I actually love being in here more than—I don’t even like going up on stage. But you wouldn’t know that because—I tell you what, I don’t know if it’s like someone else out there, it’s not the guy you’re talking to right now. Because I don’t like going up in front of people. But for some reason, I don’t know if I’m good at psyching myself out, or if I turn into somebody else. I mean, I don’t even get nervous when I go up on stage. But I don’t like the “How’s my hair? Oh, shit, do I look too fat?” Or, “Are they gonna take a bunch of pictures of the roof of my mouth? Or up my nose? Are my nose hairs sticking out?”
Here, I don’t have to worry about that shit. I don’t. I can create and I could see the reaction from the artist: “Oh, that sounds awesome!” Or giving them the idea about why don’t you try this harmony, and they do, and “Wow, that’s great!” That’s cool.
(more from Johnny below the slideshow)
DGT&G: You’ve touched on this a little—what does producing offer? How does it challenge you that you don’t get from doing your own stuff?
JL: How does it differ? I get paid, for one. [Laughs]
DGT&G: Does it challenge you in different ways?
JL: Oh, most definitely, because you’re working with someone else. There’s been times where I could just say, “Hey dude, I know how to play it, let me just play it.” I don’t typically do that unless it’s a last resort, because some musicians don’t understand that to make an album you have to do whatever it takes to make a good album. If that means, “Hey, guitar player, play the bass part because the bass player is not really getting it,” they need to understand that. I sometimes have that conversation with people if I’m producing. If I’m just mixing, I don’t make any decisions like that.
But if they hire me to be a producer, I tell them, “OK, this is how I produce. If you don’t like that, then maybe you don’t want me as a producer, because I’m not gonna sit here and just patronize and say, “Oh, that’s great, that sounds great,” because if my name is gonna go on there too, I don’t want people to go, “Wow, this sounds like shit.” Or, “Why did they put this song? This song sucks.”
It’s part of a producer’s job to pick the songs that go on the album. Or at least help the bands pick the songs. That’s why I say if you want a 12-song album, write 15 songs, because there’s always—happens to me every time, where you write a song, you’re like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written. Yeah! Fuckin-A this could be my number one hit!” And then after you’re done recording, you’re like, “Oh, this doesn’t sound as good as I thought it would.” Then there’s other songs: “Eh, this song’s alright. Screw it, I’ll just put it on the album.” Once you record it: “Holy shit! This is a great song.”
A perfect example of that is “Hard To Say Goodbye” on my album Living Out Loud. That was meant to be sent to a company in LA that puts music in TV shows and stuff like that. A lot of times they ask for what’s called “sound-a-likes.” So a TV show wants a Bon Jovi song, but they don’t want to pay Bon Jovi money, so they go find an artist like me to write a Bon Jovi song, and then give me a couple grand or something. But after I finished writing the song and recording, I’m like, “I’m just gonna put it on the album.” It’s probably one of the best songs on the album.
Although, it didn’t help me shake off the whole Bon Jovi thing. And you still hear a lot of it, but again it goes back to—we’re talking about Nickelback. Everyone says, “I hate Nickelback.” Why do you hate Nickelback?” “I don’t know!” It’s because everyone is saying, “I hate Nickelback, I hate Nickelback.” So you find yourself saying the same thing. I think the same thing is happening with the Bon Jovi comparisons. You hear my very first album, yeah, you can hear a kid that’s trying be Bon Jovi. But you listen to Living Out Loud, one song, maybe, sounds like Bon Jovi; maybe two out of twelve. Come on. Give me a break. It’s time to—
DGT&G: Move on.
JL: Yeah, move on. Especially after listening to Bon Jovi’s new album—there’s no fucking way I sound like Bon Jovi. [Laughs] I mean he’s great, I’m not harping on him. But we sound so different, that how can you say I sound like Bon Jovi, because I don’t.
DGT&G: You also teach? Music technology?
JL: Well, not as a full-time job, but yeah. I do. I do some presentations at schools like—
DGT&G: Foothill College.
JL: Foothill College. How did you know that?
DGT&G: I’m good online. [Laughs]
JL: What else do you know about me? Now I’m nervous. Do you know my criminal records too?
DGT&G: No, give me time. [Laughs]
JL: You know why you don’t? Because I don’t have one. AHHHHH!!! [Laughs] There you go. That was a trick question. Never been in jail, never got in trouble. I’m a good boy.
DGT&G: That’s good. So, do you enjoy—
JL: Oh yeah, I love it. Anything to do with music or recording production, whether it be teaching, whether it be mixing, whether it be a recording engineer or producing a band, I love it all.
DGT&G: Have any of the kids you worked with gone on, or worked with you since then?
JL: Gone on to better pastures? [Laughs] Everybody has. They all left me behind.
DGT&G: Gone on and done something in music.
JL: I’m trying to think. Most of these classes are guys who are more behind the scenes kind of thing. Sometimes someone will come in here because we have a connection with Foothill College because one of the instructors, I think he is the music director now, Bruce—
DGT&G: Bruce Tambling.
JL: Yeah, he has a little studio in the other room. So, there’s that connection there.
DGT&G: Bruce calls you a “master at layering hundreds of tracks and vocal overdubs into cohesive masterpieces.” Is that how you would describe yourself?
JL: Wow! I gotta go pay him right now. [Laughs] Yeah, I do that. That’s how you get that vocal sound is you stack the vocals. That’s probably one reason why my voice is kinda shot right now, because we just did three songs. Me and Danny, my keyboard player, were here Thursday night and we did three songs. So it’s like 40 tracks of one part, and then 40 of another part, and 40 of another part.
DGT&G: So, you’re singing forty times—
JL: Yeah. So the background vocals—Living Out Loud, most of it is just me. So, you’re hearing me like 100-something times.
DGT&G: On each song.
JL: Yeah, it makes it kind of difficult when we play live. [Laughs]
DGT&G: Why doesn’t it sound the same? [Sarcastic joking tone]
JL: Yeah, I can’t fit a 100-piece choir. And besides if I did, then I’d be like, “OK, here’s your dollar, here’s your dollar, here’s your dollar, here’s your dollar, here’s your dollar.”
DGT&G: Here’s your quarter.
JL: Here’s your dollar. A dollar if we’re lucky. But I am entertaining the idea of playing the backing tapes live, because when I listen to recordings of my live performances, it’s like, “This sounds like shit.”
DGT&G: So you like the richer, more full-bodied—
JL: Yeah. It’s hard to reproduce what I have on the album with six guys. And that’s a lot for a band, a six-member band—two guitar players, a bass player, keyboard player, drummer, and me. And I can play guitar too. So yeah, a lot of bands play—especially when I was playing in Europe. Most of those bands had backing tapes.
DGT&G: How would you describe your forthcoming album?
JL: That’s a good question. I tackle some topics that are sort of political, which I don’t typically do, but lately I’ve been very much into going on YouTube. Especially with this state, you can’t really trust what you get on the news, or what your politicians are saying. I’ve never seen this country so divided in my whole life. So I like to get into the dirty stuff about politics and the elite, oligarchy. So, I have a song called “Tell Me Lies,” which is sort of about that. Oh, I have another song that’s very, very dirty. [Laughs]
JL: It started out as sort of a hip hop beat that I was writing. I was gonna pitch it to some hip hop artist or something like that. And I was in the kitchen one day going, [sings] “I’ve got something in my pocket, I know for sure you can rock it, grip it tight, and then cock it. I wanna fill you up.” [Laughs] So I’m thinking, “Ah, I wonder if that could fit with this piece that I wrote”—and this thing was written probably four or five years ago. So I go to my hard drive and find it. I had to change the key a little bit, but I was like, “Wow, this fits like a glove.”
I was talking about how sometimes songs just come to you from somewhere else; that was one of them. I wrote that song in five minutes. And it sort of has the same vibe as “Porn Star Dancing.” Have you heard that one? [Sings a little of “Porn Star Dancing”] “What can I write about?” So I decided to write about ejaculating into someone’s mouth, because I’ve never written a song about that before.
DGT&G: [Busts out laughing] All this time, you’ve never written about that?
JL: Yeah, I’ve never written about ejaculating into someone’s mouth. So, I was like, “Cool, it’s not about love, it’s not about breaking up.” Cool. Cool deal.
DGT&G: What’s it called?
JL: It’s called “Fill You Up.”
DGT&G: Can’t wait. [Laughs]
JL: [Laughs] You know, it’s one of those songs that—people who’ve heard my past music, my past stuff, they’ll listen and go, “Oh, I don’t know.” Then after a while, they’ll go, “Dude, I can’t get that song outta my head.” They’ll keep listening and go, “I LOVE THIS SONG.” So, it’s one of those. It’s either, you’re gonna love it, or if you don’t love it right away, just give it some time, because after the third or fourth spin, you’re gonna go—[sings the lyrics to song].
DGT&G: I can’t wait for spandexpanda to hear that one.
JL: It’s got some dirty words in it. It’s not really cussing, but it’s very—
DGT&G: It’s like Steel Panther.
JL: Well, it’s not as bad as Steel Panther.
DGT&G: They’re graphic.
JL: They’re funny at first. After a while, OK, I love the songs but I just can’t, it’s not—
DGT&G: Who are your musicians right now?
JL: Ryan Freeman and Pete McCallum on guitar. Then there’s Danni Theodosis on keyboards, Jack Grossman on bass. I have no drummer because he quit. We’re in between drummers. It’s like Spinal Tap. This is like my fourth drummer now. [LOL]
DGT&G: Have you heard of Suzanne Slair of Glyscian? She had a two-piece band, her and the drummer, and the drummer quit. Now, they’re a three-piece. She flew out to LA to interview drummers.
JL: That kinda sucks if it’s just you and the drummer and the drummer quits, ’cause fifty percent of your band is gone.
Hazelzworld: [pointing to Fleur] She’s learning the drums.
JL: Hurry up.
DGT&G: Give me three or four years.
JL: Three or four years? I’ll be retired by then. I’ll just produce your album then, how’s that?
DGT&G: There we go. God, it will be all drums.
DGT&G: Has there been a collaboration that was really rich and productive?
JL: Yeah, actually, when I went to Sweden in 2011. I went there to write with a guitar player named Christian Wolff. I was there for a week and we wrote ten songs. He actually played on Living Out Loud; he did a couple of solos. He’s a great guitar player. Then we were talking about, hey, why don’t we just do an album together. Sort of like a duo album. Not a solo, not a band, just a duo. Not like Donnie & Marie or anything like that. Just the two of us. Because we’re both studio guys too. We don’t need a drummer, a bass player; we can do it all ourselves. So that collaboration was probably the best that I’ve been involved in.
DGT&G: How did that come about?
JL: I met him on MySpace.
DGT&G: It seems like a long way to go.
JL: I love Sweden. Have you guys ever been to Sweden?
DGT&G: No, not yet.
JL: Talk about a great energy. It’s just fantastic. I was in Stockholm. Great city, great food. They speak English better than they do here. You guys have to go to Stockholm, especially if you like rock & roll. That’s like the new Hollywood. Stockholm is like the Hollywood in Europe. You got CrashDiet. You got H.E.A.T.
In part 2: Johnny on Europe as a haven for rock ‘n’ roll, why you should (maybe) steal music, fabulous Firefest, his Spinal Tap moment … and more!
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