Over the last 30 years, few bands, such as Thinking Plague, have been so influential on the Progressive Rock World scene. There was no avant-prog band that did not have to face the work of the US band. So we took the opportunity of the release of their seventh studio album, “Hoping Against Hope”, to retrace with Mike Johnson, the band’s guitarist and composer of all the music, all their career and more.
Hi Mike, let’s start from the end: “Hoping Against Hope” should be an album with an optimistic message, at least the title suggest so, but songs as "The Echoes Of Their Cries" and "Commuting To Murder" go in a different way. What is the real message behind this album?
Yes, originally Elaine and I had discussed trying to make an album with a more uplifting message, or at least to try to offer solutions rather than just pointing out problems and injustices. It was Elaine's idea, mainly, and I admit I was skeptical. Our mission is not so much to preach or prescribe, as it is to call out injustices and hypocrisy. We are just artists, not politicians, philosophers or social engineers. However, I was prepared to give it a try. But then later Elaine proposed creating lyrics inspired by the documentary film "The Act of Killing" for one of my pieces. This film is about people who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66. Not an uplifting subject! This song became The Echoes of Their Cries.
And then she and I decided we wanted to deal with the subject of America's use of drones to execute people in other countries, without any legal due process - just a decision by the CIA or whoever to basically murder someone they think is a threat, and without any guaranty that others won't be killed; so-called "collateral damage". We were inspired by articles, reports and the film "Good Kill". And that became Commuting to Murder....we had many possible titles for it, but I chose that one.
So, we gave up on the "uplifting" thing, and went with our (my) usual approach of focusing on societal injustices or problems. And with the advent of Trumpism in America it's impossible to ignore the injustices and problems.
So, to your question, the 'real message' of the album is, as always, in the mind of the listener....but I think it's pretty clear in this case. heheh...
Band members are almost the same as the previous album, the only exception is the addition of a second guitar with Bill Pohl, why this choice?
It was really a simple matter of our needing an additional person, one who could play keys preferably, and who was based near us…for a change, so we could rehearse properly with a full band. Sadly, we could find no such keyboardist, but around 2012 Bill moved from Texas to Colorado, within an hour of our rehearsal space. I knew Bill a little and, of course, I knew what an amazing guitarist he is. Also I knew he was a big TP fan. So, I thought about it and decided that many of the keys parts in our previous material could be adapted for guitar - with a player like Bill. And so I asked him if he’d be interested, and he definitely was.
This was right after we released Decline and Fall, but as I was working on material for the next album, I decided to try to use the guitars along with the reeds, and sometimes accordion or reed organ, as a kind of contrapuntal ensemble, supported by bass, drums and sometimes piano. I wanted to use single instrument voices independently to create shifting chromatic harmonies in the way that certain great symphonic composers did…from Wagner on through Mahler, Shostakovich and eventually William Schuman….just to name a few I’m most familiar with. In rock and most prog music, the harmony is established by some instrument or instruments playing chords. This usually results in a kind of “block” motion usually with a lot of parallel intervals. Whereas in the music I was thinking of, the harmonies are more fluid and move in a kind of “morphing” manner, which is something I love and have wanted to try to do more of for a long time. So, with Hoping Against Hope I think I succeeded. And it was the addition of a second guitarist, as opposed to overdubs by me, that kind of spurred me to try it.
With “History of a Madness” first and then much more with “Decline and Fall”, your music seems to drift away more and more from Rock. The latter album, however, has a much stronger impact like if you wanted to recover a more Rock attitude. Was it in your intent? How important is the Rock component in your music?
For me, all of our albums have plenty of “rock” - drums, hard-edged bass guitars, distortion, organs, etc. And there are “grooves”…well, at least, WE hear them as grooves! But there are also lots of dynamic changes, some acoustic and electronic sounds, and sometimes unusual mixing choices. Perhaps these make it more challenging for people to perceive the “rock” character. But that’s what so-called “avant prog” is all about - making a rock ensemble go beyond the usual limits of “rock” music.
Thinking Plague have never been a prolific band and so I was slightly surprise that I should wait only 4 year and half from your previous album. Has something changed in the dynamics of the band?
Again, the answer is simple. My music has never earned me enough to make a living….I never wanted to be a musical “mercenary” and I’m not especially skilled at creating accessible music for the “masses”, and not for a lack of trying. So, I had a separate full-time career, working in human services, as in being a counselor, coach and case manager for poor and homeless people, people suffering from mental illness, and lots of other issues and barriers. After working for small non-profit community-based organizations, I was hired by the local community (2 year) college, where I used the same skills to help disadvantaged students to succeed in higher education. In both human services and higher ed, I was eventually promoted to management, unfortunately, and became a “director” of various programs. Thus for almost 30 years most of my time and energy was dedicated to my “day job”, and I had to push myself to keep my musical activities going…although, truthfully, I was always compelled by some irresistible inner need to make music.
So back to your question. I was able to retire with a pension from the college in 2010, which allowed me to stop working and spend as much time as I wanted completing the production process for Decline and Fall, and then working on music for the next album, Hoping... Actually, the music for Hoping was basically all written by 2015. After that it was the challenge of getting the band to learn the material, finding the money to record it in a decent studio, organizing the recording sessions, and lots of other details. The album was completely ready by September of 2016, but we had to wait until February of 2017 before the label could release it.
Thinking Plague has had many line-up changes, especially for the role of lead singer. Either way, you have always opted for a female voice. Why? Do you think women’s voice fits better to your music? Have you ever thought about having a male singer?
Can you tell us the differences between all the singers of the band: Sharon Bradford, Susanne Lewis, Deborah Perry and Elaine Di Falco?
Of course we thought about male singers, but we couldn’t find one we liked, and in those early days Bob Drake did not consider himself to be a lead singer. Also, I was always looking for someone with a higher range and that made it even more difficult to find a suitable male singer…plus most of them use a pop style of singing that was absolutely not right for us.
Meanwhile, Sharon Bradford was a friend, someone we knew who had a degree in music. So, we asked her. From then on it seemed more and more appropriate to employ a female voice, one that was not brash or pretentious, a sometimes vulnerable and always very human voice. This seems to provide the listener an anchor in the storm of music we sometimes make, giving it a more human face, and hopefully making it a little more approachable for people.
I know that different people have disliked one or the other of our singers, but I have never worried about that. Their voices were always pleasing to me, although I admit I had to learn to appreciate Susanne Lewis’s sometimes intentionally imprecise approach to pitch. But I became a complete devotee’.
The long period (almost 10 years) between “In This Life” and the subsequent “In Extremis” should have been quite complicated. Bob Drake (one of the founders of the band) quit and you recreated the band with the support of Dave Willey and of a new line-up. Can you tell us more about that period and the genesis of “In Extremis”?
As I said earlier, I was always compelled….driven...to create music, and Thinking Plague was a vehicle that had gained some name recognition, even what you might call “fame”. So I didn’t want to call it something else. It just became even more of MY own project than it had been. I began to write everything, even the entire drum parts eventually.
Interestingly, the ensemble we put together in about 1992 to record “This Weird Wind” - from In Extremis - was thought by Drake and Kerman to perhaps be a different project than Thinking Plague. Frankly, I didn’t realize this or didn’t remember that being established. It was stylistically somewhat different, having a definitely “Yes-y” influence and a somewhat different sound. But for the CD In Extremis I had to pull together various unreleased song-pieces from different periods to make up the album. It really traces my own evolution in writing from the late 80s, when I wrote Kingdom Come, up through 1997. Bob Drake did a miraculous job of making it all sound like an “album”.
How important was the collaboration with Dave Willey?
His influence on TP music has been mainly indirect, through my having played with him in Hamster Theatre. That’s where Dave really taught me to love the accordion and to appreciate it’s range of expression. Despite my encouraging him to, Dave has never actually written any music for TP, although he has certainly adapted the bass parts for our live performances in ways far beyond anything I would have thought of. And Dave totally “gets” the music and knows what it’s trying to express. There have been one or two Hamster Theatre tracks that he thought might be appropriate for TP, but then changed his mind. For example, “Le Sacre d'Merde” from the “Public Execution of Mister Personality”.
I always felt “In This Life” as a significant step in your career and the development of your music. The first two albums are undoubtedly interesting, but the sound was still quite raw. Were you aware of this evolution?
Definitely! I wanted to develop a less DIY, or Art Bears-y kind of sound. I was heavily influenced by 70s prog rock, as well as Henry Cow, Art Bears and others, and especially 20th century orchestral music. So, I wanted us to sound more… ”sophisticated”, I suppose, and my musical ideas evolved towards a bit more complexity and a larger sound, which I think is very evident on In Extremis. This was greatly enhanced by Bob’s mix of it, which I actually wasn’t thrilled about when I first heard it. When you spend a lot of time with the raw tracks, and demo versions of the music, you often develop an unconscious bias or expectation about what it should sound like… and Bob’s mix didn’t sounded different from what I'd been imagining. But that's why one goes to Bob for mixing an album. He employed, among many other things, some ‘artistic’ use of compression/limiting to make the sound bigger and literally more pushed together, and he did it brilliantly, which I eventually realized. And the album received more kudos than anything we’d done before.
Can you tell us how your way of making music has changed since the beginning?
The main thing is that originally, like most rock guys, I just made up things on the guitar. By the time that Thinking Plague got going I had had several years of music theory, history, etc., at university, and had learned how to write out my ideas using notation, although I have never really mastered the art of effective sight-reading. So, my early TP songs were scribbled into blank music notebooks - the kind music students use, all of which I still have. Often they were not complete in terms of form or structure, I usually worked that out with Bob. And I did not write drum parts, with the exception of the occasional drum "theme", like the 9/8 drum part in Thorns of Blue and Red that starts at 52 seconds, or the drum figure in Moonsongs at 5 minutes and 57 seconds. Bob created most of the drum parts for the first three albums after he and I went through and finalized their structures.
Around 1987 I acquired a Casio synthesizer with a built-in 8-track sequencer, which I began to use to laboriously enter notes for multiple parts, so I could hear them played back without having to set up equipment, learn parts, play instruments, and record it all. It sounded really bad, but I was able to "hear-imagine" how the parts worked together. Eventually, I had a suite of three pieces, called Kingdom Come, of which only one, the longest, was recorded by the band and released on In Extremis. The other parts appeared in excerpts in the form of short pieces for multiple pianos called "Marching as to War," performed by Matt Mitchell on A History of Madness. The phrase "Marching as to war" is, of course, a line from the a 19th-century English hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers", the musical theme of which appears in the pieces. The song Kingdom Comes was intended to criticize the narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy of certain strains of modern Christianity - in particular the evangelical protestant kind practiced in North America!
In 1990 I went back to school to get a masters degree - which I didn't complete - but during which time I took a course on Finale music notation software. As a result, I bought the software, an old Mac LC-II computer and a Roland synth module with basic General MIDI sounds. Using these tools, I was able to much more easily enter notes, assign instrument or voice sounds, set and alter tempos, apply dynamics, and hear a much better facsimile of a "band" performing my music. I'm still using Finale, and have become quite skilled at making it do what I need... although some friends are telling me I should switch to Sibelius or other software.
Anyway, as a result of using computer software to compose, I have been able to compensate for the fact that I don't sight-read very well, and do not have the brain of a genius like Dimitri Shostakovich, who could hear all his many parts in his mind when he read his scores. The computer provides the extra brain power I need to be able to get much more in-depth with my music, especially in making it more thematically cohesive and being able to more readily capture and develop fleeting bits of music that drift through my mind. I still often use a guitar to get ideas, but once I get the idea onto the computer I almost never use the guitar, unless I'm wiring a guitar solo, and not always then. It has allowed me, taught me, to listen to my inner ear better than when I relied on the guitar.
Thus, also, as a result of my computer-composing, I have taken more control of the music, in terms of completely through-composing all the parts of my song-pieces, and perhaps sadly, leaving very little wiggle room for the musicians...at least until we play live...when a *little* wiggling is possible. And this is a double-edged sword, because while I can get just what I want, or think I want, from a piece, I cannot rely on the synergy that often propels a band's music.
In the ‘80s, in the US there was a wave of adventurous bands like you, Motor Totemist Guild, Cheer Accident, Doctor Nerve, French TV and many others, who developed a music that ranged from avant-garde, progressive rock, jazz and much more. What were the causes of this development? What was the role of labels like Chris Cutler’s ReR or Cuneiform and persons like Fred Frith who, in those years, moved in New York?
That's a huge question. The main thing about the 80s was that is was the true "Indy" era, with many new, small and truly independent record labels, who advertised in cheap but widely distributed "underground music" magazines, and whose records could only be found in certain "special" independent record shops. There was the sense that one could make a splash in the music world without the major record labels, who had dumped progressive rock.
There was a post-prog, and eventually post-punk kind of D.I.Y. aesthetic, that for us at least was heavily influenced by Henry Cow and even more so the Art Bears, but also various other experimental and just plain whacky artists that were floating around then. For us, living in Colorado, and really not being able to tour hardly ever, Fred Frith and the New York "scene" were all very far away. We were aware of records that came out of it, but we didn't really "feel" the direct influence or the energy of the "scene".
Meanwhile, we had no direct knowledge of bands in other distant cities, like Motor Totemist Guild, 5uus and later U-Totem in Los Angeles - 1200 miles away - at least not until 1989, or Cheer Accident in Chicago - 1000 miles away. We had basically no knowledge of other bands except for what we read about in Sound Choice, Option Magazine, or the like. It wasn't on the radio, and there was no internet. So, ours was a very insular music "laboratory", and our music was the unique result of our specific and sometimes narrow influences.
We were probably more affected in some ways by the 80s "new wave" and "artsy" pop/rock of that time. We were not total dedicated "avant gardists", and never have been. Bob Drake even started playing in original new wave rock bands in Denver around 1980, just after he and I had been trying to make a living in our last rock and roll cover band. And at the same time, we were developing the aesthetic guidelines for what would become Thinking Plague a couple years later.
I know you are also a huge fan of Beatles and, just for fun, you play in a Beatles tribute band. Have you ever thought starting a project playing and composing more easy listening music?
Well, I was in bands in the 80s that were substantially more accessible, at least for the times, than Thinking Plague, and which actually gigged locally quite a bit. I was always open to the idea of a band-project that would make some sort of "progressive" pop music - at least as a side project. In the 80s that kind of idea was not real unusual. Combine new wave-punk and underground with Art Bears and some King Crimson, and voilá! In fact, I am even now involved in yet another such project, although much more "au courant", that is currently working up material and preparing to record. I have no real expectations from it, but the leader is pretty well-connected and we have a phenomenal *woman* vocalist. So, who knows. Maybe I can make a few bucks... heheh.
That’s sound interesting. I am curious to learn more about this project. Can you tell me something more? What kind of music is it?
It's still developing, but the band's leader calls it "Groove, Hope, Outrage, Holiday" music. And he calls the band an "ambitious pop collective". He spent years being an LA drummer, and performing with numerous acts, especially with Nina Hagen. So his musical perspective is very far from mine. But we've known each other since the 80s and have some common roots. It's intended to be a pop band with some unusual 'twists' - that's where I come in! heheheh
Are you involved also in the composition?
Yes, a little bit. It's mainly a group-level composition thing with most of the ideas coming from the leader/drummer and the vocalist, who is also an experienced LA performer and studio vocalist. However I’m attempting to write some rather "inside"...but a little proggy song ideas for it.
Is there a name for this band? …And when will an album be released
It's called Revelator, and I'm not sure when our album will be done, nor how it will be released. It may be a download only release, at least initially. We don't know where it will lead us, and we're not worrying about it, too much. None of us expect, or are interested in, some kind of big commercial success...I think it's a bit too odd for that, but we may make some kind of 'splash'. I'm doing it for fun, so I can play more "regular" guitar, do solos, etc., and play for bigger audiences and better money. So it's like a part-time 'retirement job/hobby', which is kind of how you could also describe my Beatles band, The Rubber Souls.
You collaborated with Italian avant-prog band Yugen, what do you think about them?
I think they're an astonishing band, and Francesco Zago is a genius. We got connected with them because they asked Dave Kerman, still our drummer at the time, to play on one of their recordings. So I listened to their CD and was mightily impressed. Somehow I was able to email Francesco and we had some musical debates. Then we we came to Europe in 2008 we obviously wanted to do a show with Yugen, which we did in Milano. Great gig.
Do you know any other Italian bands?
I am not a big listener with a huge cd collection, so I don't know much about the Italian "avant scene". We shared the bill with DFA at either NEARFest or Prog Day, and they came to see us when we played at a weird local music festival near Rovigo in 2000. And of course there are our Cuneiform label mates, Deus Ex Machina. In the 70s I was a PFM fan...but no, I know almost nothing.
What kind of music do you like to listen nowadays?
I actually don't listen to much music, nothing like when I was younger. My favorite music is modern orchestral "art" music, and has been for a long time. I occasionally look around for new composers that I might like, and I often find one or two pieces, but nothing usually affects me like my old favorites, William Schuman, Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich, Bernstein, Barber, Copland, and many others. An Italian friend of mind recommended Luigi Dallapiccola to me, and sent me some music, and I have to say, I really love some of it, especially his "Frammenti sinfonici dal balletto Marsia".
One artist that I have discovered and who I think is astonishing is Simon Steensland, who is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and composer, who does not read music and who has members of Mats Morgen, among many others, for his studio musicians. His music is the closest thing I have heard to Thinking Plague, although it is very different. But it uses a similar harmonic language. He's on the Altrock label in Italy. I think he's the most exciting "avant rock" composer around these days. I encourage everyone to check him out, especially his latest album, A Farewell to Brains, on Altrock.
Another band of interest is a fairly new, young and highly innovative, American group called The Mercury Tree, from Portland, Oregon, with whom Thinking Plague and Hamster Theatre have performed several times. They are evolving into an amazing super trio, whose leader uses live technology, looping, etc. - not pre-recorded tracks - to multiply himself live, playing guitar and keyboard, and singing...so that it's like they have three extra musicians on stage - all in real time. And their music is at times ferociously sophisticated and fiendishly complex, yet pretty catchy and very colorful and interesting. Amazingly, they are writing "avant prog" rock for microtonal instruments, and it's sounding like 5uus meets Sonic Youth with a little 80s Crimson thrown in. They're pretty amazing. Keep an ear open for them.
Can we hope to see you live here again in Italy?
It is always my hope to return to Italy, and I'm looking into ways to get TP back to Europe. Sadly, the music world has become a more and more difficult place for bands like us to operate, especially if you don't play out -and -out "pop" music. There are fewer festivals who will invite so-called "avant" bands, and while expenses have gone up, pay has gone down. We may need to get a grant from some foundation or other, just to be able to get to Europe. But we're not giving up just yet.