If you’ve been to a Black Keys live show in 2009/10, then you’ve probably seen Dan Johnson. but you’ve probably not noticed him. He’s normally working in the shadows, prowling the stage with his urgent walk (never a run) getting Dan and Pat’s gear ready before the start of the show. As the stage/backline manager he’s the calm and modest guy in black jeans and t-shirt making sure all is in order; the guy who gives the OK for the show to start and sorts out any issues during the show with a minimum of fuss.
It might seem like Dan Johnson is just Dan Auerbach’s guitar technician on stage, but he’s so much more. He’s a crucial cog in the touring machine. He’s got a key role in the placement of speakers, maintenance of the instrumentation, and getting the sound right, and the smooth running of the show night after night on tour.
Dan has also customised and repaired Dan Auerbach’s guitars since 1998. Soon he’ll start building Dan a custom model. He tunes the drums, can dissemble and assemble a keyboard, and has even filled in as a replacement bassist/keyboardist for some shows on The Black Keys tour of the UK in 2010. Clearly he’s a man of many talents.
The Black Keys Fan Lounge recently spoke to Dan about the many roles he plays on tour with The Black Keys, his background and perspective on the band.
(Interview starts after the photo, below…)
Can you tell me a little about your history. You were working with Sigur Ros for awhile I understand?
It’s kind of a, without getting into too long a story, just some history that I used to work for some other bands. I worked for Judas Priest for a while.
A good friend of mine was the singer for a while. And just by meeting some people on the tour, it just led to eventually getting a call about the Sigur Ros tour. It was just the production manager that I worked with, we got to be pretty good friends, and he went on to work for Bjork and then Sigur Ros, and just brought me in because I do guitar repairs in my shop (DRJ Guitars) at home and build guitars. And I also work on violins and stuff, too, and they had a string quartet and some other odd instruments, and I guess he just remembered me, that I did that kind of thing.
When I worked for [Sigur Ros], I took care of a string quartet, the guitar player and his guitars, the bass player and his bass and rig. I also took care of the drums and his keyboards. So that’s seven people, seven people out of the eight that were normally on stage. Because the keyboard player had a giant rig and guitar and percussion set-up; one other guy did that stuff. And they also occasionally would add five to ten horn players, as well. So there would be sometimes fifteen or eighteen people on stage, and only two of us. And the other guy, he just basically had to watch over the keyboard player because he had so much gear that it just, I don’t know. [laughter] Working for these guys and all the problems that come up.
Where did you learn all the guitar-building skills? I can’t imagine there’s a guitar-building school in Akron, Ohio.
No. I don’t have any formal training. There are schools now that you can go to, but there weren’t really when I started doing it. I just built a few as a hobby when I was in school and after I graduated high school. And, shortly after that, I got a job in a local guitar shop in Akron, and I worked there for about seven years, learning the restoration, finishing and the repair, just general repairs, but I did a lot of painting and a lot of restoration of vintage guitars. And that’s kind of what segued it into building custom stuff. I started touring sometime after that, just opportunities opening up in the music business.
And that’s where [the shop] you’ve met Dan Auerbach back in the day? You’ve known each other for a long time or maybe more recently?
No, no, quite a long time, actually. I started my first shop in ’98, and that was when I was working for Priest and did a big break between tours. And I started this shop, and I met Dan through some friends, and he just started coming in with some of his kooky projects. He had some unusual guitars that he was trying to make -- unusually cheap but interesting-sounding guitars that he was trying to make playable, usable instruments.
Which guitars were those?
Well, he had so many different ones. He had a Teisco -- actually, I think that was one of his first guitars. And it had a whole bunch of pick-ups and knobs. It was really interesting-looking, but just not very playable. Those also happen to be the kind of guitars that I like. And I’ve always been interested in vintage guitars that you could still afford but really were never that popular because they weren’t that great. They looked good but weren’t very playable. Because of what I do for a living, I can make them playable and actually use them, so that’s what we did over the years with several of his guitars.
There’s obviously a real, shared love, and that’s something that Dan’s renowned for and probably influenced the market more than many players with vintage equipment.
Yeah. Well, because those things are still affordable where most vintage guitars are just ridiculously priced.
Especially when they’re in really good condition. So what would you typically customise or repair on these vintage guitars for Dan?
Many guitars like this that we’re talking about were maybe never playable from the time that they were brand new. They were cool-looking and usually pretty good-sounding, but the corners that they would cut to keep them cheap and affordable would be the detail work on the fingerboard for the most part, so I re-fret things or put a bridge on that’s usable or sometimes changing pick-ups, too, to make them sound -- the sound he goes for now is a lot different than the sound he used to go for. The end result is fairly simple or similar, but he used to use different kinds of pick-ups and stuff than what he does now. He’s just into the sound that the guitar creates.
Those early years were all on the Telecaster, and so many fans love that Telecaster. How many repairs and changes have been made to that guitar?
Oh yeah, quite a lot.
He must have really worn it out and re-built it and done all sorts of stuff.
Yeah, that one got several different sets of pick-ups. I put that Bigsby on there for him, too. And then he also ended up putting a tooled leather pickguard on it and just other little details to try to make it look less like anybody else’s Tele because there’s a bazillion Teles anymore.
Dan would probably say, “Well, I’m not the greatest guitar player,” and some people might say to him, “You’re not the greatest guitar player”, but it’s very distinctively Dan whenever you hear him. From where you sit, what’s going on there, what’s the magic?
It’s a combination of -- you know, he doesn’t always play with a pick, for one thing. You know, the finger style leaves you more open to more, playing different strings at one time rather than strumming. I think that has a lot to do with it. And just the way he grew up as a guitar player, digging the blues and stuff, it makes sort of a jerky approach to it, to different note lines if he were soloing. It’s kind of a weirder, jerkier sort of sound rather than the way most players are going after. When they’re learning, they would practice scales or whatever or blues riffs or whatever, but he just plays… not really any -- he doesn’t really do a whole lot of recognizable riffs that repeat, he just kind of makes it up as he goes. It keeps it more creative for him.
Dan and Pat seem like they are now alot more confident to try so many more things.
I think if they’re feeling it, they’ll just go for anything because they’ve developed their styles. And they can free-form a little bit, and it doesn’t come apart.
I think another thing for Dan, as far as what gives him a specific sound, is the fact that he generally plays a hollow guitar. I mean, that’s part of the equation, but it’s also just that he plays really loud, and when he’s playing, especially the really distorted bits with the fuzz pedal on, that gives it a very fluid feel about playing. You really don’t have to pick every note, you can just work off of the sound pressure that’s happening between the amp and guitar and just move his left hand around. So it’s a combination of picking and not picking. [Legato?] and staccato sort of thing.
And the hollow guitar, like the Rickenbacker is now, for the bulk of the show…
I was thinking more of the Harmony, really. That’s currently his, still his first go-to guitar. I mean, he’s just in love with that thing, and it’s totally hollow, as opposed to being partially hollow like a lot of the other ones. When a guitar is totally hollow, it feeds back really easy, in that… well, the sound that you hear a lot during the show, it’s a body roar sort of feedback instead of squeal. And that’s just due to the amount of volume that he plays with. That’s also why the amplifiers are turned to the side, too. I’m sure you’ve noticed that, right?
Yeah, definitely. And obviously he’s playing that Harmony, you especially hear it when he’s bashing it on “Busted” and he’s coming right up on the drum riser and segueing into “Stack Shot”.
Yeah. The thing is if the guitar, if the amplifiers were pointed forward, for one, they would bleed into the vocal microphones so much, and they already do -- it would just be uncontrollable. And also, that ratio of sound pressure volume that he uses to make the guitar-sound happen the way it does, it would be maybe too much if it were pointed right at him. So, he kind of backs into it to get a little more and moves away from it to get a little less.
And so, when you’re setting that whole stage set-up and getting everything tuned or set up, how critical is that to that sound they like? It must be very hard with different venues and different gear. You’ve got everything pretty much controlled now, but there must be some really big sets sometimes.
Lately you’ve got it controlled? [laughter]
Yeah, lately we’ve had it more under control than it has been in the past because he’s totally an experimenter. He would always bring out new pedals and amplifiers and even guitars. But lately, we’ve been just using the same amps and guitars and pedals for some time now, and it’s more predictable. We figured out what works for him, whereas before he was just experimenting to see if it would work, and sometimes it just didn’t work. Sometimes it would be great.
He started using this, one of the amplifiers he started using recently is a Fender Quad Reverb -- it’s like a Super Reverb, only it has 4 12s instead of 4 10s, and it’s also a hundred watts.
So, it’s very loud. It’s like a Marshall half-stack. And he started using that because it’s a favorite of this local Cleveland guitar player named Glenn Schwartz. Glenn is an older guy that’s been playing around Cleveland for a long time, and I don’t think he’s ever had an amazing amount of success, but he’s had a pretty moderate amount of success where people that play in the area, they know who he is, and his sound is pretty awesome. And part of his sound is this Quad Reverb. That’s what led us to getting these amplifiers in the first place.
It’s really interesting how he’s influenced by so many, well, influences that it comes out sounding like Dan. It’s really interesting to hear how he’s so happy to embrace the new technology and new sounds but retain his own sound, is that a fair comment?
Yeah, he’s pretty open to some things. He’s also not into a lot of things, too. Most modern guitar offerings on the market -- he only likes the vintage stuff or things that are designed in the way that vintage gear is made. It’s not just that the things are old. It’s because they were actually made in a different manner. Over time, music companies that make pedals or amplifiers or even guitars, they’ve cheapened them in ways that they couldn’t even think of when they were first designed. They were designed originally, usually, to be, you know, good. [laughter] And over time, those things were all cheapened to where they were designed to kind of deliver that same sound, but with many, many cutbacks or production boosts to help production costs go down and be able to make an enormous amount of product. So, that’s the main reason why he goes after the old stuff, because it was made better in the first place.
Made to last. For you, is it true that that older gear is easier to maintain and also easier to customize?
That’s true. It’s easier to repair and get going again if there’s a problem with it. A lot of new things, this is a very broad statement, but new amplifiers and pedals and stuff, they’re not really serviceable at all. Simple repairs, maybe, but when you get into trying to actually repair the circuit inside, that’s just not possible with new stuff that’s printed on circuit boards.
After a show do you have to sit there, and obviously you’re tuning up, but are there other things from that wear and tear that really take a toll?
Not really. Now that they’re dialed in, they’re pretty rugged. I mean, occasionally, we’ll have to re-polish the frets or re-detail the frets on the guitars because, when he plays with the slide, the slide causes the strings to crash into the frets. And the material that the strings are made of is much harder than the material that the frets are made of, so sometimes we get string-shaped dents in the frets. But that’s only occasionally, every couple of weeks or so. Generally, I don’t even change the strings that often. I mean, he never breaks things. I haven’t seen him break a string in some time. We just change them when they start feeling… yucky.
Is he using a heavier string on his guitars or pretty much a standard type thing or nothing really major?
Heavier than a lot of people. Just .11 to .50. It’s not really that heavy. It’s not like the slinky .9s that you would find on a Stratocaster or something in a music store, but they’re not super heavy.
Update: A cool video interview with Dan that builds upon much that was discussed in this interview.
What’s your biggest fear, on stage, when the ‘Keys are playing? What’s the worst thing that can go wrong for you?
The worst thing that can happen is what did happen, and that’s the reason they actually did hire me in the first place. Like I said, Dan and I have been friends for a long time, and I’ve been basically his guitar tech at home for many years, twelve years, I think. I met him in ‘98, and it’s 2010 now. So, I’ve been working on stuff for him for a long time, and I’ve worked for Judas Priest and some other bands, lesser-known bands, plus Sigur Ros for over a year. I’ve been on and off others, for some time known him, and I know that he’s been kind of -- we’ve always talked about, like, that day when it comes to where he can hire me. I just don’t think it was really in the budget for them to pay for someone to do this job I’m doing until, you know, they’d grown considerably recently.
So, there were a couple festivals where they were playing in front of some big crowds, and they were flying in, and because they’re a two-man band, they can fly in and play rented gear pretty often. At least, they could then. So, they flew in, and they had three amplifiers on stage, the two that he was using and a back-up, and all three of them died. [laughter] He blew them all up. And they couldn’t -- they only got to play three songs. That evening, he sent me a text saying, ‘I think, you know, I need a guitar tech now.’
‘You’re hired!’ [laughter]
Yeah, basically. ‘Are you available?’ Well, let me think about it, because I was -- my wife and I just had a baby not too long ago -
Thanks. She’s a year-and-a-half now, so it’s been a little while. I’ve been touring with them for about a year-and-a-half now. But at the time, I was not really touring and had to think about it a bit, but I loved working -- I have done other shows and have actually worked shows for Dan and Pat before, but not actually being on tour with them.
You also look after Pat’s drums.
[I keep] his drums in tune because he beats the hell of them, and each day, they have to be, uh, put back into working condition, too.
It seems like the biggest issue for him would be hitting the things too hard. Do you ever tell him to calm it down? Or that’s his style, so you can’t really do that, but it must play havoc.
Yeah, that does -- well, he goes for a lower tuning on the drums in general. They’re tuned just about as low as they can go, and that’s just to give them a big, beefy sound. But because of that, there’s not the tension on the rods to hold that pitch. And the heads get all stretched out, too, so that has to be re-tuned every day. I’ve been corresponding with a friend that is, Matt Cameron from Pearl Jam, his drum tech -- he’s actually working for many other people, too, but we’ve been talking a lot lately about drum tuning and his approach because Matt is a much more clinical kind of drummer than Patrick. Patrick just kind of does -- he plays for what’s best for the song and he bashes away at it, and Matt is just a nerd about the drums.
[laughter] A drum geek.
Yeah. I wouldn’t call Patrick necessarily a drum geek. He plays the drums and plays them well, but he also plays other instruments and is into producing. He kind of plays the drums out of necessity, I think, rather than because he’s so all about the drums. And he does it well, of course.
Anyway, yeah, I’m spending a lot more time on trying to get the drums tuned real regularly and specifically.
He’s playing Ludwig drums now?
And on the Brothers recording session at Muscle Shoals, they were using the vintage Gretsch set-up?
Was there any reason why they didn’t want to tour with that more Gretsch set-up or it doesn’t work in a live environment or he just doesn’t like that set-up?
Mainly, when you go into a studio, with someone like -- well, you know Mark Neill, obviously.
Mark has a vast array of vintage gear. So does Dan, but Mark has all the old standards, you know. And he basically brought a lot of stuff with him to the studio for them to try, and Patrick’s drums -- the gold sparkle kit that he’s been using lately? He only got that recently, since the record was done. He didn’t have it before that, so before that he had another set of Ludwigs, but they were cheaper. So he was open to trying anything. Mark showed up with these sweet Gretsch drums, and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll use those.’ [laughter] That’s just kind of how that worked.
A lot of people probably don’t understand the sound checking that goes on and the set-up and you’re moving every day. What’s an average day for you in terms of that stage management and gear set-up? How much time is spent getting all the stuff right and ready?
I take some time. We, Jason Tarulli -- he’s the production manager -- and I spend a lot of time doing the sound check before the bands show up so that we have the monitors and everything tuned before they even get there so that they can just step up and make some fun adjustments and start playing. Because the band usually want to run through a couple of songs or just try out new stuff sometimes, too. So, we do spend most of the day getting it ready before they show up. It’s a combination between me playing the instruments and tuning them and stuff, and then the monitors, then Jason tuning the front-of-house PA system, which is huge and so many variables involved with that because of different rooms or environments that you’re playing with. Sometimes you’re playing outdoors, sometimes it’s in a cavernous club, just so many things to deal with in that situation. It takes kind of a while.
It must be hard to get the sound right in terms of where you sit with instrumentation and Jason all working together and then Dan and probably Pat wants his drums louder or he’s not hearing it. There’s a really interesting dynamic between all of you to set things up for different venues.
Yeah, and that mainly comes down to consistency on my end, for example, what I was saying about how we’re using the same guitars and amplifiers, recently we’re sticking with the same line-up of guitars and amps, and trying to get the drum tuning consistent. Mainly, all those variables that you just mentioned, those all fall in the hands of Jason. He’s the one that has to make educated decisions on how to keep it sounding good out front. Because he has to compensate, like in terms of Terminal 5 when there were no people in it, it was just a cavern of concrete. You can imagine what it sounded like when I hit the snare drum on stage with no people in the room, it just goes on forever. And electronically, he compensates for that by how he adjusts the gear out front.
Tell me about when you played with The Black Keys on stage, those gigs over in the UK recently. Was that the first time you’ve played with them or filled in?
Yeah, that was the first time I had filled in. Typically, they have never really had anyone played with them, it’s only just been the two of them until Leon and Nick recently have joined to help support the new record’s songs live. But those two are old friends, by that I mean Nick and Leon, they’re old friends, and they’re in many different music ventures themselves, and they had some previous commitments to gigs that they just couldn’t get out of, and I guess there was just an overlap of booking that fell through the cracks, or they went ahead and booked -- these were two giant festivals. It was Oxygen and T in the Park festivals, and the band’s management probably saw that and said, ‘Well, there’s are important. We’ll just book these, too.’ And those guys couldn’t make it because they were already committed to a couple of shows. So, at the beginning of that tour, we were sitting at dinner, and the subject came up, and Dan looked at them like, ‘Uh oh, I didn’t know that. What are we going to do?’ [laughter] And the next thing was, well, I can play bass. So, they talked about it, we talked about it, and then we were shopping in London for guitars -- Dan’s been looking for a specific bass for a while, and he found it and bought it, and I got to be fortunate enough to play it before he took it home to his studio. He only intends on using this bass in his studio, really. It’s a really nice Rickenbacker.
So, it was just that, really. It was just like, oh shit, these guys can’t make it? Well, I can do it. Okay. So, I started practicing during the day and the evening, before and after I had to do work, on the bus, sitting on the bus with the bass and headphones, trying to learn the songs and get them right, and that was just it. And on the day of those shows, I still did my regular day’s work of setting the stage, building the risers, positioning things, tuning everything, making sure the show went on, doing the guitar changes during the set, and then when it came to those songs, I just walked out there with a guitar and played the bass. [laughter]
Wow. And what a thrill, what a privilege.
It was. It was very thrilling. It was pretty awesome.
You’re one of three people who have ever played on stage with them.
It was a little bit… I don’t know, stressful, I guess. Because, well, it was in front of a lot of people and everything -- it was a big show. But not only was I the fill-in bass player, but I was also the keyboard player because there was, you know, neither one of them could make it, so I went out and got some gear to help cover the gig. I bought this thing called a Loop Station pedal, which is kind of a recorder basically, and I recorded some of the keyboard parts, had Leon play some of the keyboard parts that were doable, and I also triggered those parts, too, when it came to that part in the song, so I was the bass player and the keyboard player, basically. [laughter] Well, I didn’t really play any of the keyboards. I just worked the volume pedal. Pretty cool, though.
Really cool, but that sounds incredibly stressful.
Well, I did have enough time to prepare. We rehearsed maybe two or three times, a couple of songs each time, at soundcheck in the days leading up to that couple shows.
I mean I do take care of the bass and the keyboards, too, but those guys are pretty easy, really. I just set their stuff up. I mean, I have had to do some intensive repairs to the keyboards because they, Dan and Leon both are insisting on using vintage keys. Not modern stuff but vintage stuff.
What’s the keyboard that he’s playing?
Sound City. I believe it’s English or Italian? It’s Italian. Sound City. And the other one is a Farfisa. And these things are kind of delicate, and we’ve had some proper road cases made for them, but because they’re kind of delicate, there’s been a couple of incidents where they’ve taken hits at the airport, and when I got to the show, I had to disassemble them and, you know, put it back together.
We opened for the Flaming Lips recently, which was an amazing show, that we blew into. And, I believe, while we were coming into the airport, something happened to the Sound City piano. It just came apart totally inside, and I had a two-hour panic on my birthday to put it back together before the show.
And there was another incident where I had the Farfisa apart and all over the back lounge of the bus, trying to make it work again. But, in general, I’m not really a keyboard tech. I’m basically a guitar tech that does drums, too, or whatever. I’ll just do anything, basically. [laughter]
I’m also working on a very unique custom model guitar for Dan right now.
Can you spill the beans on that one?
There’s not a lot to tell. It’s going to be a combination of the features of all the guitars that he likes. So it’s going to have similar tremolo, pick-ups, body shape probably somewhat similar to, you know, I’ll try to make it a little bit unique-looking, but it’s not going to be anything wild or radical. It’s just going to be something that meets all his criteria.
The bottom line is…that I’m more into building guitars and starting a line of custom instruments that you can’t -- just not normal stuff. I’m not trying to compete with Gibson or Fender or anything. Just trying to make unique guitars for special players. Like the guitar I made for Jonsi from Sigur Ros, he bows the guitar with a cello bow, he doesn’t strum. So, it was a very unique construction to make that thing happen.
And for Dan, well, Dan’s requirements are very classic.
He just needs a guitar he can play maraca on.
Yeah… maybe? Yeah, it’s just more about -- I’m going to try, with Dan’s support, launch building some guitars and get -- less repair, more building.
DRJ Guitars in Akron map and other Black Keys points of interest:
View The Black Keys Points Of Interest, Akron, Ohio in a larger map
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