Some folks were dropped onto this planet to make music. Everything in their makeup, their journey through the world, etc. makes them conduits for translating human experience into songs. Johnny Irion is this sort, a kindred soul to lifers like Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals), Tim Bluhm (The Mother Hips), and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, with whom he’s making a new record due out next year. While perhaps less well known than his peers, Irion offers listeners the same kind of unbroken quality and vibrating verisimilitude – real stuff in an increasingly unreal world – and his rock ‘n’ roll heart beats loud and true throughout his catalog.
His solo albums – 2001’s Unity Lodge and 2007’s Ex Tempore – are under-sung pop-rock gems of the 2000s, and he’s released a steady string of ever-better albums with his wife Sarah Lee Guthrie, most recently 2011’s Bright Examples, which was co-produced by Thom Monahan (Papercuts, Devendra Banhart & many more) and Vetiver’s Andy Cabic. Irion also performs with the Guthrie Family Legacy Band, lead by Sarah Lee’s father Arlo Guthrie and currently celebrating Woody’s 100th birthday. As if that didn’t keep him busy enough, Irion and Sarah Lee have embarked on a new modern rock project with the Rondo Brothers entitled U.S. Elevator, who’ve released three EPs of trip-hop laced cover tunes thus far touching on the likes of Jules Shear, Harry Nilsson, Liz Phair and Joni Mitchell [the newest installment, Handsome Sea, arrived August 2012].
Each project offers a different POV on Irion, who in DI’s opinion is one of the most well-rounded and naturally gifted musicians and songwriters to appear in the past 20 years. And if talent and hard work were the driving forces in one’s recognition and success in the 21st century Irion would already be a household name. As it is, Irion is well loved by his peers, and those lucky and/or savvy enough to have followed his career over the past dozen years already know what a boon he is to music in the larger sense. But traditional societal notoriety and riches have remained elusive for this archetypical working musician who travels to most gigs with his wife and two young daughters. However, the uber-standing of Wilco amongst rock aficionados and critics may mean the new Johnny and Sarah Lee album cut with co-producer Tweedy and Wilco and DI faves Autumn Defense member Pat Sansone (bass and “musical M.D.”), Vetiver’s Otto Hauser (drums), three year Sarah Lee & Johnny band veteran Charlie Rose (upright bass, pedal steel, mandolin, trumpet & more), and Tweedy (guitar) with “just us five holed up in the loft” (as Irion explained) may be just the catalyst for a larger audience to discover the pleasures and riches of his back catalogue and secure him a spot on bigger stages moving forward. It is to be devoutly hoped, if you ask the Impound.
We talked to Johnny about where his career finds him in 2012, U.S. Elevator, the sessions with the Wilco guys, making music with the Guthrie clan, and more. And in the meantime while awaiting this new Tweedy stroked joint, y’all can catch up on Irion’s earlier work here. Trust us, it’s all well worth your time and money.
More than ever, you have your hand in a lot of different projects – Guthrie Family shows, U.S. Elevator, stuff with Sarah Lee, solo work. When you set out to be a working musician, did you want to have a lot of options, a lot of variety, like this?
It’s hard doing one thing all the time. I must say, the U.S. Elevator thing has warped into something I didn’t really see coming. I’d always wanted to have a band called that, where I played all my weirder songs. And right now, I really want to start a punk rock band! And I really want to build a skateboard ramp in my backyard! These are just phases I go through, and I have to just turn myself down every now and again. My friends already know I’m crazy, and I just need to remind myself sometimes!
The U.S. Elevator thing warped into this project, and the name just stuck. I said okay because I’d had the name forever, though I’d originally conceived of it as a project with nobody. But what the hell, I figured we could just go for it. I didn’t think the first U.S. Elevator record I’d do would be covers with beats but it kinda worked out.
What is it like playing with the Guthrie Family? You’re tapping into a pretty long folk tradition.
It’s a different mindset than U.S. Elevator or my solo stuff, I can tell you that [laughs]. At the end of the day, it’s really Arlo’s show and he’s opting to do this family kind of thing. The buck stops with Arlo about song selection, etc. He’s open to things but he knows what that audience – which skews a bit older and you get whole families – really wants and likes. It’s people from 8 to 80, and it’s when we pull out our family card. We’ve made a kid’s record [Go Waggaloo] and it’s more along that vibe. I’ve always wanted to be like Leadbelly, in a sense, where you write a song that sticks around for years and years, but you also have children’s songs and work songs and pop songs. I’ve always wanted to be able to walk into any situation and be able to do it. I have so many friends that say, “Oh, I can’t do that or this.” As fate would have it, I’ve always wanted to be a rounded musician that doesn’t think like that.
Unfortunately, specialization is what the music industry likes these days, and diversity isn’t always seen by the powers that be as advantageous. But today, artists like you can experiment with self-release, digital downloads, social media marketing, etc. – angles that bypass traditional industry channels. This is where more opportunities exist for something more homegrown like you and Sarah Lee.
I hope so. We do need to make a living doing this. At the end of the day, we’re still struggling on a lot of levels in a lot of markets BUT we wouldn’t have it any other way because it’s what we do and how we’re doing it. Obviously, it’d be great to be able to do specific shows we want to do, but we do what shows we need to do now because this is how we make our living. These projects we work on with our friends are what keep me going. I’m doing this record with Wilco, and it was just another chance to work with more friends.
It makes almost perfect sense in a way that you’d end up working with a band like Wilco at this point in your evolution. Tell me a bit more about these sessions.
It happened very organically, and it definitely happened at the right time – especially as that camp is concerned as well. They’re on such a ride right now. They can’t miss, and eventually, maybe they will, but Jeff [Tweedy] doesn’t miss much [laughs]. I love getting feedback and getting loud guitar and having weirder songs on records, and we got along really well in that sense. There was one point during recording where we came in the next morning and Jeff was singing was one of my songs we’d done. I was like, “Fuck me!” I’ve always wanted to write songs for other people to do. Really, I just want to be a great songwriter. That’s all I want to do. And that was pretty full circle for me. Now I don’t need to go to Nashville or those other things you think you have to do to be that kind of songwriter.
We brought them 45 songs, and I thought they were going to hate us by the time we got there [to record]. I was writing manically to create things that might get picked. There were a couple surprise songs that Jeff and Pat [Sansone] chose out of those 45 songs. They were awesome to work with and we did a second session in June. The album is likely to surface by the spring of 2013.
Given this yen for weirdness, I wonder what your next solo album will be like.
I definitely feel like this process [with the Wilco guys] let the youthfulness back into the next records I make. With my earlier albums with Sarah Lee I’m really trying to craft beautiful things we can play together in an Emmylou/Gram, Carter Family classic style. It is something I had to work at, where there’s other things I wake up in the morning and don’t have to work at and I can slap something down. My buddy Zeke [Hutchins, drummer with Tift Merritt, Sharon Van Etten and more] encouraged me when I first met Sarah Lee to “not lose your indie rock side, bro. I don’t want to lose you on your way, man!” [laughs].
Well, I had to go to school. I had to learn how to make a living with just an acoustic guitar, and then it was me and Sarah Lee doing that…and then it was Sarah Lee and I doing that AND having kids. There’s a certain element where if someone doesn’t walk out of the room and want to buy a CD with one of the songs on it then I’m not doing the job. But that’s because it’s for us. When it’s just me, I don’t care if anybody wants to buy that song – I’m doing this because I have to. I’d deliver pizzas to do this stuff. The other stuff is real blue collar songwriting. This stuff is just picking up an electric guitar and a song will come out of me. And a lot of people may hate that song, but another batch of people will say, “Hey, I love that!”
We all need to make money somehow but there are aspects of us – especially creative ones – that you never want to bend so much that they break for good.
That’s a hard thing to do. For a long time, I’d 4-track songs and play them in the van for people, and everybody would love it and that’d be it. They’d never get played again and that was fine. And I kinda lost that – the 4-track died and the Mac came in and I’d never really embraced the technology to dive in like I used to on 4-track. Now, I’ve gotten over that, and I’ve been Garage Band-ing demos to send to the guys. They sound like crap but I need to do it [laughs]. In fact, they need to sound like crap though because when I tried to do them “right” they had no funk to them.
While rawness is imperfect in the traditional sense, rock ‘n’ roll isn’t about being pretty a lot of the time.
So, I started sending the [Wilco] guys these songs, and Tom Schick, who engineered the last Wilco album and the Mavis [Staples] record, said he really loved the recordings and asked me what I was doing. It was just Garage Band with weird stuff overdubbed in strange places. So, we ended up using some of the demos for the record. So, I’m getting excited because I feel I have some of my groove on with technology and the state-of-the-art stuff while still having a lo-fi mentality.
That’s perfectly phrased. Even if you have access to top-of-the-line studios, keeping that lo-fi mentality will hold you in good stead with rock.
Tift [Merritt] and I talked about how when you start a song on a 4-track type thing it dictates how to write the song. I’m excited to be coming back to that kind of creation and thinking. Really though, these days, I mostly think that this is the job I always wanted to do, the one I signed up for a long time ago, and other than wishing I’d put in some other parameters on deal points, I’m grateful to be able to do what I do.