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John 5: The Hardest Working Demon in Show Biz

October 23, 2013
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JOHN 5 IS OBSESSED WITH MUSIC. BEYOND OBSESSED. HE IS FANATICALLY and passionately python-gripped in its embrace. He practices so much that it’s hard to imagine him having the time—after all, every human has to cram his or her life into the same 24-hour cycle each day—to write songs, record tracks, produce instructional videos and books, devise marketing strategies, release solo albums, play with others, and, well, eat, drink, sleep, and get dressed. But he does all of that stuff and more, and he does everything with laser focus, a heightened sense of creativity, and absolutely burning intensity. It seems there are no such concepts as “it’s okay,” “time to relax,” “that’ll do,” or “that’s as far as I can take it” in John 5’s world. He is like a flesh and blood altar to Type-A personalities. (And I’ll wager that high-output, multitasking project managers such as Richard Branson and President Obama still take many more vacations than John 5 even conceives of.)

Of course, leave it to John 5 to join creative forces with another obsessive workaholic in Rob Zombie. John 5 plays in Zombie’s band, contributes to Zombie’s records, and, a few months back, did his first full-length film score for Zombie’s latest movie, Lords of Salem. Wondering how the two impassioned heavy-rock overachievers work together, we asked John 5 to share some insights on scoring Lords of Salem, as well as playing on Zombie’s new album, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor.

LORDS OF SALEM

“This was my first official full-length film score. I accepted the gig because I did a couple of scenes on Johnny Depp’s From Hell film, and I thought, ‘Okay, I think I can handle this.’ And then, when I started getting all the cues I had to write music for, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ It was like doing six instrumental records! It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sometimes, there’s no time signature, no key signature—just a cluster of noises—and other times, there are huge orchestras and things like that. It was definitely a big, big challenge.

“I composed 95 percent of the score on guitar—even though the music didn’t always end up being performed on guitar. For example, if there was a little string quartet that I had to write for, I’d take my acoustic guitar and an EBow, tune the guitar to a high Nashville tuning, and use the EBow to emulate a violin. Then, I’d tune down for the viola and cello parts, and use an acoustic bass to write upright bass parts. It sounded incredible, and it was a lot of fun. I ended up using anything with a string on it to craft parts—even mandolins.

“Rob gave me great direction on every cue. He signs off on everything. Without his input, I would have been totally lost, so he was incredible in that way. I mean, there were times when I’d work all day and all night on something, and then I’d play it for Rob, and he’d say, ‘That’s exactly not it.’ It was wild. And I have to tell you, because a lot of the film music doesn’t sound like a song—the medium I usually work in, of course—I would be nervous most of the time. ‘Will Rob like this? Will this work for the cue?’ But when he did give a thumbs up, and you heard the music against the movie scene, it would be so rad!

“There is so much music in this film— something like 62 cues, which is a lot. But Rob was there for every cue, every word, every edit. He is so hands-on. He gets up at 5:30 in the morning and works until he can’t work anymore. His stamina is incredible.

“The other nail biter is that things happen so quickly—especially because I didn’t know much about making movies. I’m good at watching them [laughs]. The editing is the thing that takes the longest time, so I’d be on the hook to turn around a cue as soon as they’d edited a scene. It was like, ‘Here it is. Let us know when you have the music.’ And Rob would also do some re-shoots that had to be scored. It was a real freak-out thing at times. Again, there wasn’t always time to make ultra-simple demos to see if I was going in the right direction—to get Rob’s approval before I committed to something— so I’d just have to dive in and move on. Scary stuff.

“But this is also where I was glad I learned to read music and took a lot of theory classes, because, compositionally, it all went very smoothly. The studies do pay off. I could harmonize clarinets and strings, and none of the orchestral stuff threw me curves I couldn’t handle. So back in the day when I was asking myself, ‘Why do I need to learn about oboes and all this music theory and stuff?’ Well, I found out.

“Another lucky thing was that I didn’t have to sync to timecode to do a lot of the cues. They’d often do that during the edit process, which kind of freed me up to be creative and not stress about whether the timing of the music hit the cue right on the money.

“I got asked to do some other film scores after this, and, at least for the present time, I turned them down. To be completely honest, I always looked at film scores as music people don’t listen to, because of the fact you’re watching a movie, and you don’t want the music to distract you from the film. The music is just there for atmosphere. So the music is there not to be listened to, and that is something that runs opposite to my usual approach to music. Of course, I’d do it again for Rob in a second if he asked me.”

VENOMOUS RAT REGENERATION VENDOR

“For this record, we were getting off one of the tours, and Rob said, ‘I don’t want any distractions. Let’s make the record at my place in Connecticut.’ Now, this is a huge compound in the middle of nowhere. It has amazing living arrangements—all the musicians had their own houses—but I didn’t have internet, and my cell service was bad. Restaurants? Forget it. In Los Angeles, if you get a craving for Thai food, you just walk down the street and hit 20 Thai restaurants. Not here. We were way out on the edge of the world. If we wanted to eat, we had to get into one of the rent-a-cars and go exploring. It was really funny. We had to make grocery runs every couple of days to stock up on food.

“But the process really worked. With zero distractions, we got so much stuff done. I think we wrote two albums’ worth of material—something like 24 songs. I’d get up, walk 100 feet to the studio, and record in my pajamas, because Rob likes to work really early.

“I brought all my Telecasters, of course. Shipped them in. My red, white, and blue Buck Owens-type Tele, the gold Telecaster which I’m holding on my Guitar Player cover— thank you very much—an old ’69 Thinline Telecaster, and a baritone Tele. I also had a Lava guitar made by this guy Ken Meyer. It’s kind of like a lava lamp. Then, I brought a couple of pedals—my Boss Super Overdrive and an Electro-Harmonix Bass MicroSynth. I didn’t use a lot of effects. My amps were some teeny micro Marshall heads—I use them backstage a lot to warm up—my Marshall JCM 900, and a ’50s Fender Champ. We wanted live-sounding takes, so we just played. It was raunchy, dirty, and aggressive— really, really good performances. There aren’t a lot of wild solos on a Rob Zombie record, but he asked for some crazy stuff for the song “Lucifer Rising,’ and it was done in one take. I can do that stuff all day and all night. I love just going for it, and improvising off the cuff. Still, it was great when Rob said, ‘Perfect!’”

THE FUTURE

“I’m in the studio now, working on a couple of Jerry Reed songs that are going to go on my new record, and I’m going to double everything with banjo. I never stop.”

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