Demian Johnston has created some of the most visceral, sonically bludgeoning work you could imagine. With a resume that includes Kiss It Goodbye, Playing Enemy, and, more currently, Great Falls and Hemingway; it goes without saying that he prefers his sonic expression on the "heavy" side of things.
Add to this his dark black and white designs, running a tape blog, and an independent label (Dead Accents), along with trying to maintain a job and family, and well... Demian isn't likely to get bored any time soon.
Playing Enemy was, in my opinion, one the best and, unfortunately, underrated bands of the past decade along with other like Anodyne. Where were you personally coming from, creatively, with PE?
I just wanted to do an extreme band with a lot of subtle bits of song writing. I like the brutal, in-your-face sound a lot of heavy bands of that time had but i also wanted some of the interesting interplay that bands like Spaceboy and Craw had going on. I was inspired to write because i liked that kind of music. I liked all sorts of music but after Kiss It Goodbye died right after i joined, i think i wanted to prove that I could hold my own musically.
Every album seemed to raise the bar higher from the previous one. What are some of the differences that stick out to you, from album to album?
Well, with Cesarean that whole record was written by Andrew and myself. In fact a couple of those songs were Kiss It Goodbye songs that never got finished before we broke up. We wanted an intense guitar driven record. Lots of poly rhythms on the drums and tons of noisy guitar parts. After that we wanted to try some more open and slightly more emotional type songs so that's where we were when we wrote Ephemera. I think i wrote most of those songs on that ep in Mexico.
It was a weird time. We had just added Shane and needed to find ourselves as a band. I Was Your City is a great success and failure to me. There was a lot of compromise to get that record done. I feel like we had a good idea but with a handful of songs we really needed to edit them down.
There were some issues during recording that we overlooked but probably shouldn't have. There was a couple songs too many on that record and i think we spent a long, long time getting the layout done and therefore didn't have it for half our US tour when it was supposed to come out. It was a bummer, but with all that said I still think it's the most honest record I ever recorded.
I meant everything I said and Shane and Andrew played super well. I wanted that record to have the feel and progression of Afghan Whigs' "Gentleman" LP. It was definitely my heart break record and it was very theraputic or cathartic or whatever the term is...
Lyrically, PE songs have a feeling of complete abandon. Completely open, blunt, and vulnerable in a "Here I am; all of me." Were these lyrics all autobiographical or just a way of venting frustrations?
Most were autobiographical. Or all were but sometimes in an abstract way. I was dealing with growing up and breaking up a lot during that band's career. I think I Was Your City is the record where i was the most honest. I was losing one relationship and also getting my heart broken throughout the writing process of that one. I decided to be totally honest lyrically. No metaphors if i could help it. Use my own name if i needed to. Just lay it all out.
Songs like "Jade" are about feeling like i need people to like me and like what i do and how pathetic that is and then i would have songs like "This Happened" are about just getting your heart crushed and not being able to recover no matter how much you try to pretend you are fine. I was a fucking mess and I guess I wanted to let whoever would listen know about it. You get better that way.
It doesn't seem like there is any bad blood between you guys. What lead to the decision to call it a day?
No, we are fine. I see Shane and Andrew all the time. I think Andrew got to a point were he wasn't having fun and wanted to take his life in a different direction. It all worked out for the best but i wasn't too happy at the time.
When I saw you guys play in a DC, years ago, I noticed you had a healthy amount of pedals to help further the discordant guitar attack that I've always loved about the band. So, it seems like a natural progression for you to go from PE to the solo noise/sound based projects you've been a part of since. What made you to decide to take this route after the end of PE?
I think Shane and myself really needed to cleanse the palate musically. We just wanted to really experiment. It as really made all the difference. Great Falls is probably more like Playing Enemy than anything we had done since but we learned a lot working within noise. Pedals can be played like an instrument and songs don't need to have any sort of traditional structure to work. Although, we do still enjoy verse/chorus/verse as much as the next guy.
How has your experience been performing in experimental/noise/etc circles now versus the types of band-oriented shows of the past? Do notice many fans of PE following your current work?
Well, There never seemed to be that many Playing Enemy fans as it werem, but I do hear from a few that are interested in what I am doing now. The move from noisy hardcore to straight up noise is not a big leap so there is definitely some spill over.
Seattle is a weird city, big noise scene but not a very large avant metal type scene. I guess saying "big noise scene" is relative. Probably a lot fewer people than in NYC, Philadelphia or LA but per capita it's pretty big.
I really love playing noise shows though. Generally you play anywhere from 10-30 minutes tops and you do one piece and you are out. It's not about playing a bunch of hits or familiar songs, it's about conveying familiar emotions and ideas. Making soundscapes or soundtracks. There is always a huge chance or shit just going completely south and I like that.
You now run a limited run experimental label, Dead Accents. What made you decide to take on this project, and what are some things you'd like to accomplish with it?
Dead Accents started out as a way to put a label name on the cassettes and cdrs I was putting out. Playing Enemy did a few cdrs at the end and it was a ton of fun so when Hemingway started up it just made sense. The noise world is so over populated with small boutique labels that trying to find someone to release our stuff was difficult. especially since, although people had heard of Playing Enemy, no one cared about some noise band with an emo band name.
Now, Dead Accents has become a bit of a monster. I have a ton of releases that are way behind and a bunch coming up that need to get done and with no money or time (i have a new family and it takes a lot of time). It's stressful but very fulfilling. I have the final Everlovely Lightningheart cs, A 12xcs boxset by KTL (Steven O'Malley of Sunn 0))) and Peter Rehberg of PITA) and tons of other big deals. It's crazy.
How did the first Dead Accents showcase turn out?
Pretty well. I lost some of the bands I wanted to have play. Mamiffer, Shining Ones, Blowupnihilist and Great Falls were all unable to play for one reason or another. I did have some of my favorites play though. Tiny Vipers, Crystal Hell Pool, Ardent Vein, This Blinding Light, Sparkle Girl... well, everyone that played ruled. Dried Up Corpse is something you all need to experience live. All these people have released something or have something coming up with me. It's nuts. I got to do a collaborative set with Chris Negrete of Radiation 4. He is now making really awesome noise type stuff under the name Mink Stole. It's amazing.
Great Falls was recently set to back Eugene S. Robinson's book readings. How did you land that? Eugene has been one of the most memorable of interviews I've done, definitely.
Well, having the drummer from Jesu does carry a little weight. Phil had played shows with Oxbow when he was doing Jesu stuff. He emailed Eugene and he said sure. It went really well. He is an incredible dude. I got to see Oxbow once in a small bar in Oakland with like 15 people. It was crazy but they were mind blowing. There is a short video on youtube of about 5 of the 30 minutes we did together. I am bummed it's so short because the end was nuts. Rumor has it we may record some stuff for Eugene real soon.