What's been your favorite venue?
Hmmm.. The Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado is great – the sound is fantastic, the staff is great, it’s a beautiful space. The Handle Bar (pre-fire) was great for an entirely different reason – it’s where was introduced to music and where I grew up, musically/drunkenly, on that stage. Sluggos #2 (or 3? -- the one on Palafox) is still a favorite, in my mind too.
What do you miss most about Pensacola?
I live in Denver, CO. And the mountains are beautiful. But I often miss the water. I really, really like just staring at Pensacola Bay. Every time I go back, I always find a reason to go sit by the water for a while. Also, there’s just a “thing” about Pensacola’s culture that I haven’t found anywhere else. Maybe it’s just because Pensacola is my home town… But I honestly think there’s something different and weird and great about Pensacola.
What Pensacola thing do you wish you could pack up in your suitcase and take back to Denver with you?
Two things: 1) Pensacola Bay, 2) All of East Hill. And North Hill. And downtown. And Bayou Texar. And 3 Mile Bridge. And Scenic Highway / The Bluffs.
What is your favorite thing to eat at the Fish House?
Grilled grouper + turnip greens + grits + a double tall Ketel One with fresh squeezed orange and seltzer.
Tell us something that we would be surprised to learn about JC&BFL.
Every member of JC&BFoL are former astronauts. We don’t like to talk about it much though, as we are a humble group.
What's on your band's (entertainment) rider? Do you even have one?
We’re not too persnickety or rock star-ish about this kind of stuff. In a perfect world, we’d have the following: a bottle of Jameson, a bottle of Ketel One, towels, water, some tea in the green room, and something to eat after sound check.
What kind of songs do you like to sing?
I was about to answer “lots of different kinds of songs”, but then I realized that I really only know how to sing like myself. So even when I do a cover, it ends up sounding like me. It can be frustrating, but it’s also (I think) a sign that I’m on some sort of right path. One can hope!
A confession: I think a big part of being a singer is listening to other great singers and secretly longing to sound like them… to be able to do what they do. So you end up trying it, alone in your house or in the car or in the shower. And it’s a good exercise, because it stretches you, but you end up coming back to your own voice. Because you can’t be anyone other than you who you are. (You can try, but no one will believe it.)
What’s the last book that you read?
An incredible collection of short stories by Rick Bass called ‘The Lives of Rocks’. His language reminded me of Hemingway in its economy… simple, gorgeous, well-built prose.
What's your favorite movie and why?
I’d have to say my current favorite is still ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’. I really identify with Wes Anderson’s ability to make beautiful, dark, honest points with absurd, humorous, self-aware, stylized stories and constructs.
It’s a story about one guy trying to deal with the fact that he’s going to die. That everyone’s going to die. It’s the classic mid-life crisis story. Looking back… looking forward. But look how he tells that story! I suppose that’s the trick with art, huh – to tell old stories in new ways.
Besides, my early, early childhood included hours of me sitting in front of the television watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries – so I never had a chance to dislike that film.
Case in point:
Tell us a joke.
Q: What did the fish say when it swam into the cement wall?
I got that one from a piece of Laffy Taffy.
Tell us about your musical journey?
O gheez. This (below) is entirely too much information, but it’s from a Q&A I did recently with a magazine out of the UK (Bucketfull of Brains). Please grab anything that seems interesting!
So when did you first take notice of music? And when did you first pick up a musical instrument and think “I can do this”?
Hmmm… I come from a really creative family. My mother is a musician. My father is a singer. My oldest brother Scott is a musician, songwriter and a fantastic storyteller and writer. My older brother Bruce is a visual artist. None of them are “professional” artists or musicians, so if they were here right now, they’d be saying very humble things … but the truth is, I grew up in a very expressive, creative family.
Music and writing both came to me early… I started playing music when my mother insisted that I take piano lessons at an early age. I was good at it, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy playing other people’s music… fitting into that box. I came to writing because I’ve just always loved language and writing. Even as a little kid, I used to peck out stories and ideas on my mother’s old manual typewriter. One of my favorite books to read growing up (and still, to this day) was the dictionary. No kidding. Then I saw my brother Scott playing acoustic guitar and singing songs that he loved – mostly Neil Young songs. When he joined the Navy and went off to boot camp and his tour of duty, I essentially broke into his room and stole his Neil Young guitar/tab/lyric books (Decade, if I recall) and his Epiphone acoustic guitar. I taught myself to play by learning the songs my older brothers loved, on his guitar.
My brothers’ record collection (and to some extent, my father’s too) left a pretty big imprint on me: Neil Young, The Beatles, The Cars, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss, James Taylor, Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Genesis, Jackson Browne, The Doors. Then when I started listening to my own music, I listened to a lot of Velvet Underground, more and more Dylan, more Beatles, really early REM, Jason and the Scorchers, LOTS of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Daniel Lanois, Steve Earle… and then into 50s and 60s jazz… and on and on. The thread running through all of it was the song. I’m still genuinely fascinated by songs.
It didn’t take long before I realized that I could write, perform and sing my own songs… so I did.
When did you first start writing songs and what bands did you have prior to Rainville
I started writing songs when I was in middle school and continued through high school. My first group was a band I started with some friends in Pensacola, Florida. It had the unfortunate name “Bunkhouse Jones”. I know… but imagine, this was the BEST name we could come up with at the time! Think of the names that didn’t “make the cut”. Yikes. We played together for 4 or 5 years, making several forgettable-but-fun recordings and touring the “Southern Shit Circuit”. Bunkhouse started as a cowpunk band but morphed into a psychedelic alt-country/rock band. We were a four piece (2 guitars, bass and drums) until the other songwriter/singer/guitar player ran off with my ex-girlfriend, marrying her in the process, etc. Trust me, it was for the best. Long story. After that, we played as a trio.
All of that happened while I was living in Pensacola, Florida – a dank, humid, charming, oddly inspiring town, my home town.
Then I got the notion that I was supposed to grow up, get a real job and quit this music foolishness. So I sold all my music gear and took a soul-crushing job with a fortune 500 company. I lasted about 3 years until I couldn’t take it any more at which point I quit, loaded my meager belongings and traveled around the U.S. for a couple of years. I ended up playing solo shows, busking, writing and just checking things out in Boston, MA; Atlanta, GA; NYC; Burlington Vermont; a other places. I ended up in working the wheat harvest one summer in Kansas toward the end of my Kerouac phase. (Question: What is the British equivalent of the Kerouac phase?) I worked for a small, family farm operation helping them bring in the harvest and other manual labor types of things.
I remember one day, we were hurrying to put a load of wheat into a silo before a storm came in – if the grain got too wet, it would rot and be ruined. The farmer (my boss) told me to climb on top of the silo to open the hatch – we had to auger the wheat up about 2+ stories to the top of the silo. Well, it started raining harder and harder as I climbed the exterior of this aluminum silo. Then it started to hail. Then the sky turned black. Then it started lightning A LOT. I achieved a “moment of clarity” when, standing atop a 2+ story metal silo in a hail+lightning storm, I realized that the top of my head was, by far, the tallest object in the area – for miles. I tendered my farmhand resignation fairly quickly after that. I decided to head west and find a different way to make a living.
Talk about how Rainville got together and your time with the band touring, recording and the like and why they split up
I never really meant to actually live in Denver. I always thought I was just passing through. But you know how life works… you meet a girl, you get a job, you start a band, you buy a coffeemaker, then a bed. Next thing you know, you’ve lived in this town for over ten years and your basement is filled with broken amps.
When I saw that I’d probably be staying in Denver for more than 6 months, I ran an advertisement in the local Village Voice paper (Westword Magazine) looking for drums, bass and whatever instruments made sense. One thing lead to another and I founded Rainville with my friends Matt Sumner (bass), Steve Richards (drums), and eventually, Ian Hlatky (guitar) as well. There were some additional band members along the way too: Gary Brudos (keys), Dan Merwin (guitar), Paul Childs (guitar), Steve Millin (bass), Larry Joireman (drums).
Like every band I’ve ever been in, Rainville didn’t really fit neatly into any genre. People tried classifying us as alt-country… but we were too rock for that really. And too… well, we called it “gutter jazz”. There were big streaks of Tom Waits influence running through my songs and through that band… in addition to Powderfinger-era Neil Young. And Tom Petty. And Steve Earle. We put out two records that are still available out there: “Collecting Empties” and “The Longest Street In America”. We built a nice following in our region of the US and in Europe (UK, Italy, Germany, Netherlands mostly).
Rainville ended for the same reasons that most bands break up: we all started becoming interested in other things. For me, I just got tired of mining the roots vein. I’d been doing it for 10+ years, and as a writer, I was just bored with everything about the genre. I love roots-influenced music – I always will. But it just wasn’t feeding me as a writer or a performer anymore. I wanted to challenge myself and go in a different direction. So I did.
Talk about going solo and the recording of the first two albums, your use of sampling and the like.
After Rainville, which was very much a “band thing”, I started exploring musical and lyrical territory I’d never explored before. This was a conscious choice. I wanted to see what I could do if I took all notions of genre out of my head and just wrote purely based on what intrigued me and what moved me. It was the best artistic decision of my life. I didn’t so much as “go solo” as I just came to terms with the fact that I wanted to be the driving creative force behind a new project.
I’ve always played solo shows… and most of my records end up with at least 1 or 2 songs on them that are solo or nearly solo. But as a writer and a producer/arranger my ear hears things with more interlocking parts than I can play. Or want to play. There’s too much vibe and density and power inside collaboration for me to be happy as a purely solo artist.
I put out two records, back to back, under my name, made with some close friends: “Good To Be Born” and “Why Birds Fly”. The mainstays on those records were Scott Davies (drums), Kevin Meyer (bass) and Jed Marrs (keys). I played guitars, keys, samples and sang. People seem to really like both records, even though they’re very different from one another… thematically. One is fairly dark. The other is more playful.
The use of samples on those two records came from wanting to use a more democratic approach to sound… I like the idea that sounds of any kind – not just those traditionally deemed as “musical” – can be just as valid and affecting if they’re used in the right way.
Here are a couple of reviews of those records:
Talk about the song writing process.
For me, everything interesting about music starts with songwriting. Everything that comes after the song – arranging, orchestration/tones, recording, playing live, even promoting the record, all of that stuff – is set into motion by that little blueprint of thoughts, feelings and sound.
Songwriting has two parts for me… the first part is completely mysterious and ineffable and frankly, I don’t want to analyze it too much. It’s that first part… the inspiration. The moment when I start to leave my body a little and I just start writing a phrase or playing a melody or singing a rhythmic part… It just happens and I don’t feel like I can take any credit whatsoever for that part.
The second part of songwriting is much more pedestrian and often, outright boring and difficult and nerve-wracking. It’s the editing phase. It’s all of the culling, cutting, cajoling and gnashing of teeth that comes after the muse has left the room. Then it’s just you and the pre-song – a very rough, partially-finished puzzle that’s in pieces on your desk. And you just have to work the puzzle until it all comes together in the right way. You know when it happens, because it’s done.
Once or twice a year, a song comes to me fully formed, requiring zero editing. Those are rare, beautiful moments indeed. But most of the time it’s a brief out-of-body experience followed by a tough winter slog in wet boots. Not to complain though. I’ve been utterly addicted to songwriting – to that creative process – for a very long time. And that addiction doesn’t seem to be getting anything but worse.
Besides your music you seem to be involved in other media ventures
I’m interested in mixing up the different forms of art. It seems obvious to me that filmmakers and painters and photographers and musicians and sculptors and actors and writers and other artists should hang out and collaborate all the time. And maybe they do in other towns… but in most of the towns I’ve lived and worked in, it isn’t the case.
So I’ve been trying to remedy this by pulling filmmakers and visual artists into collaborative project for the past couple of years. With the release of Beautiful Empty, we collaborated with filmmakers and visual artists who created unique works of art all inspired by songs from Beautiful Empty. Here’s a short description of each:
BEAUTIFUL EMPTY SHORT FILM PROJECT
Earlier this fall a collaborative short film festival was organized for this event, named the Beautiful Empty Short Film Conspiracy. A call went out to Colorado-based independent filmmakers who shot and submitted their short films, all inspired by and incorporating songs from Beautiful Empty. A handful of the most interesting short films will be shown at JC&BFoL shows . All of submitted short films will be screened at www.johncommon.com. For more information about the film festival, visit www.beautifulempty.blogspot.com. Here’s a video clip explaining the project:
THE COMMON BOX ART EXHIBIT
This summer 60 artists from across North America, were invited to create unique works of art inspired by what would eventually become the new record, Beautiful Empty. Each artist was sent a simple wooden box, along with early stage lyrics, images and music. They then mixed it all together into a beautiful collaboration called the Common Box Project. For more information visit www.commonboxproject.blogspot.com.
See pictures of the Common Boxes here:
Talk about the band you’ve put together, the new album and future plans.
I started thinking about what eventually became Beautiful Empty on a flight to Prague in late November of 2007. I ended up hotel-hopping and walking around that very old town by myself in the snow for about three weeks and then came back to Denver and started the process. I wanted to start exploring a different direction – away from electric guitar-driven, indie/alt/whatever rock and more toward... toward something that breathed more. And something that used orchestral sounds and arrangements. And something with a lot more vocal harmonies. Less head, more heart.
So I put together a band of what Miles Davis called “motherfuckers”. The band includes a bunch of artists and friends of mine from Colorado’s indie music scene. Everyone is ridiculously talented. Together, we’re called John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light. Here’s the current lineup:
Jess DeNicola – backing vocals
Wes Michaels – cello, saxophone
Adam Revell – piano, Rhodes, organ, samples
Casey Sidwell – bass
Daren Hahn – drums and hand percussion John Common – vocals, guitars, piano, songs Various other friends – various other things
Beautiful Empty. That’s the new record. I wanted it to sound like musical conversation. I wanted it to sound like it was patiently recorded in wooden rooms. I wanted it to be the kind of record you could listen to on a snowy Sunday morning or on a late night drive from one town to another or while you cut vegetables in the kitchen… I wanted it to be the kind of record that immediately affects you, but unfolds the more you listen.
Future plans: we want to connect through this music to as many people as will have us.
Here’s a recent Westword article about the new record and the band:
Talk about the music scene in your area.
Colorado’s music scene is completely blowing up. I’m going to avoid doing the name-dropping thing… but if you want to get a sense of some of the amazing art/music being made in these parts, check out Westword.com, DenverPost.com/Reverb, TheFlatResponse.com, goDonnybrook.com/.
January 27th, 2013 3:22 pm
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John Common and Blinding Flashes of Light at Red Rocks.
CAN YOU HEAR ME
by John Common and Blinding Flashes of Light. Directed by David Dyster/Umbrella Brigade.