On touring and stealing music: An interview with Johnny Lima — part 2

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 part 1)

DGT&G: I want to go back what you said in the Heart of Rock interview about Kiss being the reason that you play rock music, because I also read that in your bio. Do you know Carlos Bates Cruz, lead singer of Stonebreed? They’re a Hollywood-based Southern-rock band. I interviewed him and he said that it was seeing Kiss on the Midnight Special when he was young that made him want to play rock music.

Johnny Lima6 byXX

JL: I think that’s the same one.

DGT&G: That’s what I was thinking.

JL: Yeah, it was in the seventies.

DGT&G: Is that the same show?

JL: I think it is.

DGT&G: Isn’t that cool?

JL: Yeah. I remember. I’m half asleep: “I gotta stay up. I gotta stay up.”

DGT&G: He was six years old and he saw that. That and Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings were the two things.

JL: Aerosmith was a great band too. There’s a lot of great bands in that era. The mid-seventies to late eighties. Music was just so awesome. Music is great today, too. There’s a lot of great bands. But I think the whole romance of music has disappeared as well.

DGT&G: It’s all electronic now.

JL: Not only that, it’s also the whole Internet. I remember when White Lion—all right, next week their album is gonna come out. And you just had to wait. Five more days. Five more days. And then you get there—you skip school, you skip work, you go to the record store. You get it. Ooh! You listen from beginning to end. You read the liner notes, who wrote the songs, who produced it, who engineered it. And now, it’s like you can get this shit before it even comes out. People have 15,000 songs on that little square iPod shuffle. They don’t even know who they’re listening to sometimes. “Oh, that’s a cool song. Who the fuck is that?”

DGT&G: And you don’t listen to a whole album from start to finish.

JL: No, they don’t.

DGT&G: Well, we do, but most people don’t.

JL: I do when I’m on iTunes, because I’m not paying $9.99 if I don’t like every single song. [Laughs] So, I have to do the math. OK, I like seven songs, so that’s—no, I’m just gonna go for the seven songs. [Laughs] It’s been a while since I bought a CD, believe it or not. I love iTunes, I think it’s great. Because I’ve been burned so many times, where you listen to one song: “Oh that’s such a great song. You go out and buy the CD—it’s like, “Wait a minute, that’s the only great song on the album.” That happens a lot to pop music, because they have so many different writers/producers, that you have one killer song and then the rest is like, it doesn’t even sound like it should be on the same album. When Kiss comes out with an album, of course, I go out and buy the CD. I’m not going to be buying the Bon Jovi CD—this one—though, because I didn’t like it. I think maybe it has two songs that are cool and then the rest is—yeah, I didn’t like it at all.

DGT&G: Really? Well, we’re going to see them.

JL: Oh, they’re great live. Oh, shit, that’s one of the best concerts. Nickelback is really good live too. I know it’s cool to hate on Nickelback, but I don’t do the status quo. I love Nickelback. Great songs, great production. They rock live. They’re unbelievable.

When I played in Europe it was fucking awesome. But here, there’s not much of a live scene, and it’s a bar scene and it’s totally different. Our first show—well, it was my first show as a solo artist in the US, that was pretty cool.

DGT&G: Where was that?

JL: In Gilroy. There’s a venue, Nine Lives, that’s a restaurant. The lights would stay on like this. This is a better light show [average lighting in the studio] than they have there. You know, it just sucks. People just hanging around. Why do you have to stand away? Are you too cool or what’s going on? I don’t like that. I think Bay Area fans are kind of weird in that way.

DGT&G: I think that part of it is there so much choice here. There’s so much to do that—

JL: Other than music.

DGT&G: Other than music.

JL: Yeah, I thought you meant so many choices, like so many people to see.

DGT&G: No, no.

JL: Because that’s— [laughs]

DGT&G: The scene is dead.

JL: Yeah, once One Step Beyond, Omni, and the Stone closed down, that was it.

DGT&G: She [pointing to Hazelzworld] used to go to those places.

JL: You came too late. [Laughs] The place here was so awesome. ’85-’92 maybe.

The Bay Area live music scene, back in the day (from Hazelzworld's collection of flyers)

The Bay Area live music scene, back in the day (from Hazelzworld’s collection of flyers)

DGT&G: I got here in ’92.

Hazelzworld: Every weekend there was always shows.

JL: Yeah, and sometimes, it was like, “Oh, shit, well, let’s go to this one and then we’ll just hop over to that one and—it was so cool. It was all ages. Now, it’s twenty-one and over everywhere. And really, who is twenty-one and over and really wants to see a band?

DGT&G: I think Europe is like a haven for—

JL: Europe is so much different than here. I think anywhere in the world is so much different than here. We’re so preoccupied with our Xboxes, blu-rays, Internet, Facebook, and shit like that. Nobody gives a shit about music. This is my perception, too. I’m not capping on the States, ’cause it’s my country. I love my country, but I think music here is more of a background noise than anything else.

That’s the only reason I can still make CDs, because of the Europeans. If it wasn’t for them, I’d say, “Shit, I’m just releasing this shit on digital,” because even myself, I don’t buy CDs hardly ever. There, music is more—they’re more passionate about music than we are here. They still sit and listen to an album from beginning to end. Even talking to them, it’s like that’s all they talk about, is music. That’s awesome. Why can’t we be like that? Usually, the people that are passionate about music here are the ones that are making it or the ones that are writing about it. That’s about it. Your average fan, they’ve got their 15,000 songs. They’re listening to it while they’re skateboarding to the 7-11 to get their Slurpee. [Mimics skateboarding kid] “Who’s that? I don’t know. I don’t like that one, let me the press the forward button.” It’s like, music, they don’t give a shit about anymore. That’s just my perception.

DGT&G: No, that’s true. I’ve noticed that all these bands, they tour Europe every year. They’re not touring the US.

JL: No. When’s the last time Danger Danger came out here? ’92? They play in Europe all the time. If I lived in Europe, I’d be a full-time musician. I wouldn’t have to work because I could play live.

DGT&G: Could you tour Europe every year to keep up—

JL: I was seriously looking into booking a tour in Europe, at least in England, but the way it’s set up there, you have to pay the club. So you’re basically renting the venue.

DGT&G: Pay to play.

JL: It’s not really pay to play. You’re renting the venue. So, I’m gonna give $300 and I’m gonna charge $10 at the door, but I get everything at the door.

But the problem with that, though, when you’re from the United States, and you gotta fly five other guys out there—so you’re already gonna be in the hole; let’s say, $8,000 in the hole. Plus hotels, food, transportation. We’re talking just to do an 8-show tour in England, would probably cost me $12,000 in expenses. So to do eight shows, I’d say, to make it worth it, I’d have to make at least $1,500 a show. Well, if nobody could guarantee me $1,500 a show, I’m not in this business to go broke. So, it’s difficult. It’s very difficult.

Firefest was a very lucky break for me. It was the greatest experience I’ve had as a musician. But on the other side, though, it also made me realize that “Wow, if I don’t ever get that again, I’m gonna be pissed. Why do I even bother playing live again? Because it’s never gonna be that good anymore.” So, I’m kinda stuck. Do I even want to continue playing live and playing to ninety people here and there? Or should I concentrate on finding other artists, writing for them, producing them, developing them, and stay in the background. Then I don’t have to worry about what my hair looks like or if I gained ten pounds during the holidays or something like that. [Laughs]

DGT&G: Any plans for a tour?

JL: There is no definite plans yet. I am putting the feelers out there, but again, touring is a very expensive endeavor. And I’m not into this business to go broke or be in debt. That’s exactly what the bankers want me to do. [Laughs]

DGT&G: You don’t live for being on stage? Some people, that’s what they—

JL: No, I don’t need that kind of adrenaline rush all the time. Most of the time, it’s not as cool as playing in front of 1,200 people in England. Sometimes, it’s like, “Shit, I got out of bed for this?” And, you also feel obligated— “Well, fifty people are here, I gotta rock out for fifty people.” I never go up and go, “This place isn’t packed, I’m not gonna give it my all.” I always give it my all. It’s after the show, that’s when I get very, “Ah, this sucked.”

Touring is very expensive and if there is opportunities, I’m definitely open to playing them. As a solo artist, I pay all the expenses. We don’t split the expenses six ways. I cover all the expenses. Even here, if someone offered me to do a gig for $500? Well, not really, because we’re only making $80 each, and I’ve got expenses, so I’ll be making a lot less than $80. To me it’s not worth it.

DGT&G: What do you think are the essential qualities of a frontman?

Johnny Lima being a good frontman at Nine Lives, Gilroy, CA (Photo by Kenny Sinatra)

Johnny Lima being a good frontman at 9Lives, Gilroy, CA (Photo by Kenny Sinatra)

JL: I think someone who could interact with a crowd. Not someone who turns their back to the crowd all the time. Because you have to engage the crowd. And I think that’s one thing that I do pretty good—I love to engage the crowd. I don’t just wanna go up there and sing my songs. That’s boring, because obviously it sounds better on CD than it does live. So, if I’m just going there to play my songs, might as well as turn on the CD and just have a beer with people.

Hazelzworld: I thought you sounded great.

JL: Well, you must have had too many beers. [Laughs] It’s all the alcohol, Hazel. [Laughs]

Hazelzworld: I was surprised when you walked out. I thought, “Who the hell is that guy?” And you get on stage—”Wow! What? Where is he playing next?” I was impressed.

JL: Well, thank you. I like to hear that. Awesome, that’s good to hear.

DGT&G: Who are some good frontmen?

JL: David Lee Roth, Bret Michaels, Vince Neil, all the guys from that era. Jon Bon Jovi—women are all weeping when—[mimicking woman squealing] “He touched me.” Oh, I witnessed it. It got all black, and all of a sudden they started playing “Bed of Roses,” and all of a sudden he’s at this part of the stage. And all the little girls, well not little girls, old ladies, but—[mimics crying women]. It’s so funny to see, because, wow, that’s what Justin Bieber fans have to look forward to right there. They don’t change. They’re still, “OH MY GOD, he touched me.” One time he actually kissed a woman, and she—

DGT&G: There’s the end of her life right there. Paramedics show up. 

Jon Bon Jovi and adoring female fans

Jon Bon Jovi and adoring female fans

JL: I would never do that for fear of herpes. [Laughs] You don’t know where those lips have been.

DGT&G: Maybe he’s got some antiseptic that he puts on.

JL: Yeah, maybe he’s got some rich-band stuff that you can put on your lips and it doesn’t hurt. It’s like a film that covers. It’s like a skin.

DGT&G: Silica.


DGT&G: What’s the biggest crowd you’ve ever performed in front of?

JL: That would be in England, the twelve hundred.

DGT&G: When was that?

JL: Last October.

DGT&G: That must have been cool.

JL: It wasn’t just being on stage in front of that many people. When you have that many people and that many bands playing—if that was here, you’d see fights, you’d see heckling. “Hey, fucking poser!” This metal guy over here doesn’t like that guy with the eyeliner on. None of that over there. No one fought. No bullshit. Everybody is there having a great time. It’s like a family. I heard that before I went there. “Oh, it’s the Firefest family. We’re all family, blah, blah.” OK, yeah, cliché, we’re all family, yeah right. It truly is like that. Wow! Didn’t have one single issue.

Sometimes we do. When Ryan and I would go to a bar, or something like that. We’d always have some asshole that says, “Ooh, are you guys fucking Nelson?” That kind of shit. It’s like, “Who are you? Richard Simmons?” What the fuck? Are we in high school? Just have your fucking beer and leave us alone. But none of that over there. That’s the great thing about it. Great vibe, great energy, great camaraderie. All the bands were cool to each other. I met people like Robin Beck and Fiona. Very nice people.


DGT&G: How did you end up playing it? How did it come about?

JL: Well, I’ve known Bruce Mee, and he used to have a company called Now & Then Productions with another partner in England. That’s how I got into England in the first place—I signed a deal with them. So Bruce and I have always kept in touch. The thing was, they weren’t willing to pay for my whole band to go out there, so I had a German band. I flew to Germany to rehearse and did a show in Germany too, on a Wednesday in Hanover.

DGT&G: So was Firefest the most memorable gig you’ve played?

JL: Yeah, I would say that one. All my gigs have some sort of good memories and some bad too. That was definitely the highlight of my career. I had a gig here a week after I got back, and that was sort of a very depressing moment for me because—

DGT&G: Was that Neto’s?

JL: Yeah, it was our last show. We haven’t played since then. I think all the guys knew that I was like, “This sucks,” and it kinda did, because I really felt “Things are starting to happen. Finally. Shit, after how many years?” And then to come back and play that show, then have the promoter say, “Hey you gotta cut your set.” That kind of thing. Cut our set? I thought we were headlining this fucking thing. But there was a band after us. Because I don’t like to play at 11 at night because all our fans have babysitters. So we have to make sure we’re off the stage by 11 because they need to be able to go back home and relieve their babysitter, right? So that kinda pissed me off too.

DGT&G: What’s your best Spinal Tap moment? this is spinal tap

JL: [Pauses] [Laughs] Well, losing so many drummers. [Laughs] You know, I haven’t really had—well, I guess the show at Firefest is sort of a Spinal Tap moment. Because, before they opened the doors—we’re the first ones to play. And that was another amazing thing. I started at 12:50 in the afternoon and that place was fucking packed. If we would have had a Firefest here and I went on at 12:50, I would have been playing for maybe the bartender and some waitresses.

But anyways, so we get there a little bit earlier to sound check. OK, everything is cool. Blah, blah, blah. Right on. We get off stage, getting ready, blah, blah, blah. My intro comes on, it’s all dramatic. Then the curtain comes down— Oh, no, before the curtain comes down, one of the guitar players run over and says, “The guitar is not working.” But my intro is already going, so it’s not like we could stop the intro, because that would be pretty lame. Stop it and then restart again. So the stage manager said, “Just go.” Luckily, I had another guitar player, but the problem is we start with “Made in California.” We had a talk box—like Bon Jovi—so during rehearsals, instead of you playing the same thing he’s doing at the beginning, just go—[mimics talk box] then the guitar player [mimics guitar sound]. But obviously the guitar that was supposed to [mimics guitar sound] was out, so all you heard was the talk box and then nothing. I was sitting there going, “Fuck! Fuck! This sucks.” Then finally the whole band kicked in, and it was OK.

DGT&G: The guitar started working?

JL: Yeah, they fixed the guitars. It started working. It was all good.

DGT&G: Do you take guitar techs with you or do you do your own?

JL: No, we haven’t taken any techs yet. Obviously, when you play the festival, they have their own techs. They have techs for everybody there. When we do a show here, you just hope and pray that nothing screws up.

OH! No, I got a Spinal Tap moment for you! My very first show at Nine Lives. I’m rocking out, third song, my fucking mic breaks in half.

DGT&G: In the middle of—

JL: Yeah, gone. I’m going, “Oh shit, oh shit.” So I grab the bass player’s mic and I’m singing with that. So now I’ve got a cord, and I don’t typically sing with a cord. Someone had this big bucket full of beers right up on the stage. It had six beers on ice. So, I’m singing.… I didn’t notice my cord kinda wrapped around his bucket. And I’m like [mimes singing on stage]—then all over a sudden—all his beers were open.… I got it on video. The guy who videotaped it, he totally got it.

That whole night was full of Spinal Tap moments, to be quite honest. The first show, the drummer didn’t show up to sound check. It’s always one guy. I haven’t had much luck with drummers. We did audition this female drummer. We’re gonna play with her again. Great energy, and that’s what I like too. Maybe I need someone to come in and spark this shit up again. Instead of getting this old has-been drummer: “All right, I play with this band, I have nothing else to do.” I think that was the problem with our last drummer. I don’t think he really liked the music. I think he saw how many people we drew at Nine Lives that first show and then he wanted in the band after that, thinking that every show was gonna be like that. But it’s been worse ever since, as far as attendance.

That first one we drew 202, which is really good. But we played there again, it was less than that, maybe 170.  If I’m guaranteed $4,000 to play a show, I don’t care if there are two people there, I’m still getting paid. That’s the thing. Anybody can go on tour if you’re gonna get a guarantee like that. That’s why they don’t book shows there, because they all ran out of money. Guys like me can’t get a $500 guarantee in Sacramento, because they’re not in this business to lose money either, and neither am I. And if you’re unproven, they don’t give you the shots.

DGT&G: Like Y&T.

JL: Oh, yeah. Y&T, they can charge twenty grand. Especially here. But they earn it, though. They put on a great show. Dave Meniketti still sings just as great as did. And not to mention he plays killer leads. I’d go see Y&T any day. And shit, they play for two-and-a-half hours. It’s not like some 45-minute set. “Oh, the voice is out. I gotta go.” I could never sing for two-and-a-half hours straight like that, never. So it just amazes me. And he’s hitting a lot higher stuff than I do. He’s amazing, so I’d definitely go see them again.

DGT&G: What else would you like to tell our readers?

JL: Thank you for your support. Also, I don’t think I need to mention it, because everybody knows it, but downloading music off the Internet for free, it hurts everybody, especially guys like me.

Let’s say, for example, 3,000 people downloaded my music for free in Sacramento. Well, I don’t know that I had 3,000 fans there. If I would have known, I could have easily booked a show there. But because there is no paper trail, if you will, there is no data saying, “Hey Johnny, you should book a show in Sacramento ’cause you got 3,000 fans out there that will come see you.” I could go to Ace of Spades and say, “Hey dude, I can bring three thousand—if your place can fit three thousand.”

So, next time someone is downloading, think about that. You might be screwing up your chance of ever seeing that artist live because they don’t know you stole it. I’m not saying I think my fans do that. [Laughs]

In general, it’s definitely ruining the value of music, and I don’t dwell on it too much because there’s nothing I can do about it. It sucks, but on the other hand, if it wasn’t for the Internet, people like me wouldn’t have been able to reach as many people as I have. To me it’s a good tradeoff. Some people steal my music, but hey, I can reach 10,000 more people than I did last year because of social networking. So I guess it all evens out. So go ahead and steal music, it’s fine. [Laughs] Guys like me don’t make a living off music anyways, so just go ahead.

Johnny Lima’s new album is due out in September. “Fill You Up” will be on it (we’re pretty sure). Check out more of his music on Reverbnation:  reverbnation.com/johnnylima

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