Power Duo: Eric Johnson and Mike Stern Team Up on 'Eclectic'

The term “super group” went out of vogue decades ago, but the concept is still a viable one, as we’ve seen plenty of times ever since technology enabled musicians to record albums without having to be physically in the studio with their fellow players.

The term “super group” went out of vogue decades ago, but the concept is still a viable one, as we’ve seen plenty of times ever since technology enabled musicians to record albums without having to be physically in the studio with their fellow players. Breaking this mold, the new album Eclectic pairs Eric Johnson and Mike Stern—along with Anton Fig on drums and Johnson’s bassist Chris Maresh—in a setting where they could benefit from the proximity effect of actually working in the same room—a situation that afforded them the opportunity to discover a lot of commonality in the music they created; a rich fusion of jazz, rock, blues, and, well, eclectic sounds that reflect the stylistic reach that both of these guitarists possess. It’s not the first time they’ve recorded in-studio together—Stern’s 2009 album Big Neighborhood featured Eric Johnson on two songs—but this time they’ve not only produced a complete album, but have taken the show live and plan to continue working together.

Asked as to what these acclaimed guitarists with vastly different styles get out of collaborating so closely, Eric Johnson responded, ”I’ve enjoyed this double guitar thing a lot, and I think it’s because we come from different places. Mike is a great songwriter and composer, and I love the ballads he writes. He is very conscientious about tuning and treatment of sections, and working out chord voicings so that the guitars fit together rather than colliding with each other. I think that we’re both trying to be concerned about the composition in the big picture, and I like how he treats his guitar parts to serve the music he wants to play.

Mike Stern had this to say: “I haven’t usually been into collaborating with other guitarists, but ever since we did those songs on Big Neighborhood, I’ve wanted to do something more with Eric. So along came this opportunity to play together at the Blue Note in New York, and it felt so good that we decided to go and record. I like a very live sound in the studio, because with the stuff I do there’s always a lot of interaction. Also, you can get all of these last minute ideas in the studio, which you can’t do when you’re not playing together.”

Did this project afford you an opportunity to expand your own skills in any particular way?

Johnson: Absolutely. Playing with Mike is a learning experience for me because he’s coming from a lot of styles that I’m not as familiar with. It’s not that I’m trying to become a jazz guitarist per se, but I do want to absorb more of that idiom so I can implement it into what I do. Just the effect of learning more about chords and playing through changes has been fun for me, and Mike is a great guy to be around because he knows his stuff backwards and forwards. I’ve been pondering how I can take all that and do something fresh or different in my own music. It’s also good timing for me to open up to that because if you’re serious about being a musician, it’s a process of being nakedly honest with yourself and thinking about how you can improve on what you’re doing and be more meaningful. If you play the same old thing for a lot of years, you run that risk of simply regurgitating your history.

Stern: Eric has all this really cool stuff that I haven’t actually thought about for years, and never really got into in the first place. So I’m trying to learn some of the stuff that he does, but it’s very involved. I’m looking forward to doing some more touring with him and I’m going to be picking his brain like crazy. See I write down things I hear from different players, mainly jazz stuff, and I’m starting to do that with Eric now because it’s just a different way of approaching the instrument. It’s so exciting for me to hear somebody that’s coming from a different place.

Where did the idea of forming a band come from?

Johnson: Working on Big Neighborhood kind of opened the door to that by making me more familiar with what Mike was doing. We didn’t talk much for several years afterward, but when the Blue Note asked if we’d do a gig together we decided to just form a group so that we could play the whole night together. It was so much fun that we decided to make a record together, and we wanted to make as much of a live record as possible too. The budget and the time pretty much mandated that we were going to cut the whole record in three days and spend another week finishing it.

Stern: I really liked that we had a band. The last couple of records I’ve done were with a bunch of different people, but this was basically just two guitars with a wonderful drummer and bass player. It happened so quickly, and with somebody like Eric it’s very easy for me to get into. We all get very self critical, of course, but he was there to help me through my stuff and I was there to help him through his. We fixed a few little things—that’s what the studio is for—but that’s cool when you hear some stuff that might be slightly improved if you punch-in a note or chord that didn’t come out right. Miles Davis had a great way of just letting it go if he got the right vibe when recording. I remember wanting to redo my solo on “Fat Time”—which was also the nickname he gave me—because I thought I could play it better. He says to me, “Fat Time, when you’re at a party you got to know when to leave!” [Laughs.] That really sums it up, because you’ve got to find the balance and make sure you don’t lose the raw energy.

Johnson: Right, that immediate spontaneous human connective thing that happens when you play live is really irreplaceable. No question it makes a big difference. I did a European version of my last record called Up Close, and I basically took half the record that I thought was the most sterile sounding, and re-did the rhythm tracks, playing them start to finish live. I didn’t punch-in anything, and I tried to get first or second takes on everything. It made a profound difference in the way the songs turned out, and that got me thinking, “Wow, there might be a better way of doing this.” So by the time Mike and I got together the thought was to just keep going this way.

Your tones and playing styles are so different. Is that an advantage when working with two guitars?

Johnson: I think musically we try to complement each other, but we come from really different sounds, and I think that it helps with the double guitar thing because if the tones were too similar it would be hard to get them to homogenize. Just the fact that Mike can effortlessly pay through changes in a lyrical way is very attractive to me. He’s got a killer pocket too—even when playing really fast runs—and just by proxy I’ve become more aware of wanting to work more on my timing and pocket. Miles used to call him “Fat Time” because he has such a great rhythm sense in his playing.

Stern: I thought our sounds and styles really did complement each other. I did a tour with John Scofield recently called Hollowbodies, and in that kind of a thing John and I are more similar. This thing with Eric works in a more unusual way, but it’s great for me because Eric is coming from a whole different place, and yet there’s tons of common ground between us. He’s very musical and he loves playing jazz and swing. Even though it’s not his priority, he’s very open minded, and you can hear it in his playing. The cool thing is that we have pretty different styles but they work so well together.

This album is so full of contrasts. Like “Roll with It” is way funky, whereas “Remember” is classic jazz, and then there’s “Red House.” How did you decide what to record?

Johnson: We didn’t have enough time to write a full record of brand new songs, so whatever old stuff we did we made a point to really redo it to where it would be different. About half the record is new stuff, so I think Mike went off road on a few songs and I did too, and then we just took the ones that we had the most fun playing live.

Stern: Eric wrote some tunes and right away I dug them all. I had some tunes that I had already recorded, along with a couple of new things, but at the last minute we decided to try a new tune that I wrote once we started recording called “Sometimes”. We put some acoustic guitars on it and I like how it came out. So it all came together real quick, and I really dig that because music is such a beautiful thing when you keep an open mind with it.

Stern: Yes, that is part of how I get my guitar sound. Richard Bono—who is an amazing bass player and singer that has done the vocals on a bunch of my records—said to me when I was doing the albumVoices, “You can do this stuff by yourself.” It was hard at first, but I’ve always liked that airy kind of vocal sound that Hendrix got, and I’ve used effects to try and get that sound. “Wishing Well” is actually the first time I recorded my singing, and Christopher Cross sang the melody on the bridge. I wanted him to sing on the whole tune, but when he heard my scratch vocal he said I should just leave it.

Johnson: It’s a cool effect. It adds that kind of airiness like when a horn player plays real soft. I get a kind of joyous, spiritual feeling when soloing over that tune. There’s another tune of Mike’s called “What Might Have Been,” which blew my mind when I first hear it. I mean what a beautiful composition. It has that kind of airy voice thing, it gives a certain dimension to your playing that makes it become more than just the antics of the instrument you play.

How did you come up with the intro to “Wherever You Go”?

Stern: That was my wife Leni doing that vocal part, and she also played this African stringed instrument called an n’goni. She’s a big inspiration for me and lately she’s been doing this African stuff, so when she came to the sessions we decided to have her play a little solo intro on that tune, and it worked so good that Chris asked her to double the bass line on his song, “Bigfoot”.

That’s an interesting tune in the way that it morphs from that Asian sounding “A” section into that “free-jazz” kind of jamming.

Stern: Chris is great player on both upright and electric bass, and he knows my stuff, so I think he kind of had that song ready for me. That’s one of the tunes that we gave a whirl and right away we dug it. But then we decided not to play any solos over it, but just converse with sounds and play off of each other. I thought that was cool. Eric was doing some crazy stuff with a pick and his fingers and I was just kind of following him in different ways.

Johnson:I used a Coral Sitar on that tune. When I was in the Electromatics we had some songs like that. We used to do a tune by Weather Report called “Directions,” where we had that same kind of thing in the middle that was just way out. I haven’t done that in a while and it’s cool. Once you play the head it’s kind of like anything goes.

Your octave melody playing on “Tidal” brings it right into the Wes Montgomery zone. Did you use a different guitar for that tune?

Johnson: That was my Gibson ES-175, and I used my thumb instead of a pick. Everything else was mostly a Strat, although I used an ES-335 on “Red House.”

What was the reason to have Mike solo over just the drum groove on “Dry Ice”?

Stern: I love to do that. It’s about playing around the tonality and it gives you more freedom sometimes. I thought we should do that somewhere on the record just to keep it varied, and it’s one of those things that happened at the last minute. I listen to John Coltrane doing that stuff all the time with Elvin Jones. He’d play a solo for like 20 minutes and McCoy Tyner and the rest of the band would just lay out. It’s fun doing that with Anton because he’s such a badass. Scofield does that a lot too—just blowing over the time—and it gives you more freedom to do all kinds of stuff.

Describe the gear that you used on the record.

Johnson: I mainly used the same stuff I always do, but I just toned it down a little. Bill Webb builds this 18-watt amp that is really wonderful, and I use it a lot for my dirty rhythm sound. I used a 50-watt Marshall for the lead tone and I also used a couple of Deluxe Reverbs instead of my Twins. So it’s really just pared down volume- wise and it’s probably the same rig I’ll tour with, because I kind of dig having it not be so loud onstage. The only thing I did different was using a volume pedal, because it works nice when Mike is soloing so that I can have a different approach for the way I play rhythm behind him.

Stern: I used two souped-up blackface Twins that Eric had. I like to use Twins anyway when I’m on the road because they’re easy to rent. Using two of them gives it that kind of airier sound, and I also used a harmonizer patch from a Yamaha SPX90. It gives it a certain kind of thing that doesn’t sound so chorused to me, but it fattens up the tone and gives it a little more air—especially with some delay. I use two Boss digital delays: one for a long effect and one that I keep on all the time. It’s kind of my reverb because I don’t use any reverb on the amp. And then I use a Boss Super Overdrive, which Robert Keeley modded to make it sound more analog. I was using a Boss DS-1—and I still used it on one tune on this record—but lately I’ve been mostly using the Super Overdrive. I’m not too into pedals, but I figure however you get your tone—whether it’s a certain setup like Eric uses, or whatever makes you more able to play your heart out—it’s all about getting a sound that makes you feel comfortable.