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The Inquisition: Jack Johnson


I’ll agree with anybody that we’ve made the same record a couple of times,” says Jack Johnson, whose latest, Sleep Through the Static, arrives this month. “But this time we wanted to take the road less traveled.” Why? After recording the soundtrack to 2006’s Curious George, Johnson, 32, realized that his signature style had become inextricably linked with a kids’ cartoon — a lucrative if somewhat stifling association. We caught up with the Oahu, Hawaii-based singer at the Los Angeles home that houses Brushfire, his record label, as well as a studio powered by solar panels. He served organic green tea. Yes, some stereotypes exist for a reason.

Sleep Through the Static is a lot darker than your previous work.
All my happy-go-lucky songs got used for Curious George, so I had to start fresh. Also, a really close friend of mine just passed from cancer; a lot of the songs, I wrote with him in mind.

You’ve earned your share of harsh reviews. Do you ever read them?
Not really. I mean, I’ll see press, but I don’t go out there looking for it. The first time I saw a bad review, I’ll be honest, it definitely hit me. I was like, “If this guy says it sucks, does this end everything?”

The most common criticism is that because your music is simple, it must be easy to make.
My music is supersimple — most of the time, it’s just my acoustic guitar and voice. But it has to be inspired. It’s harder to do something really simple, sometimes. You come out with a song that’s just an acoustic guitar with C, A minor, F, and G [chords] that people have done a million times, and if the words don’t mean something to somebody, it’s just gonna be another song that nobody ever hears.

Your records typify surf music to millions of people these days, yet they don’t share much with the music of older surf icons, like Dick Dale or the Ventures. When did surf music get so mellow?
It’s funny, I never listened to Dick Dale or the Beach Boys — it wasn’t stuff my parents ever put on. To me, surf music was always bands like T.S.O.L. in the ’80s or Pennywise in the early ’90s.

But those punk acts are still way more aggressive than you.
Well, surfing can’t be summed up by one kind of music. When I was making surf movies, the music we’d use could be anything from hip-hop to punk to Air to Nick Drake, which showed the other side of that generation.

Are you comfortable with the idea that you’ve had a hand in redefining surf culture?
It’s not something I’m looking for. At the same time, I like the music I make, and I know a lot of surfers do. But there are surfers who don’t. There’s this band called the Goons of Doom that have this line: “I’d rather smoke napalm out of a bong / Than have to hear another Jack Johnson song.” I was so stoked when I heard that.

Brushfire has started releasing records by people other than you. Are you spending your weekends sifting through unsolicited demos?
Not really. I do try to listen, though. I’ve heard good stuff and called people at the phone number on the CD. This one guy didn’t believe it was me — he thought it was his friend fucking with him. I called twice, and he hung up on me twice.

You’ve earned a reputation as an environmentally aware artist. Does thinking green factor into the business decisions you make?
It’s more just a thing of, “Why not?” We got this new office, so why not put solar panels on the roof? Why not use recycled blue jeans for the insulation? I grew up like that. My pops is always fixing things when they’re broken.

You were a part of Live Earth in Sydney. Do you think the event was effective?
I do. How far it helped push things in the right direction I can’t be sure, but I don’t think it had a negative effect. I talked to a lot of teenagers who saw it and thought it was really cool. There was definitely that potential oxymoron of a big event making a huge carbon footprint to fight carbon footprints. If people all flew in on private jets, that’s something to look at….

How did you get there?
We flew on the normal plane. We’re not big-time enough for a private jet.

Now Hear This:
Jack Johnson – “If I Had Eyes” QUICKTIME