To the vast majority of non-finheads, surfers are the poster boys for slackers-for whom “duuuuude” has become a three syllable word and is defined by hanging out at the beach. Well, it’s not like a job or anything. But for some, actually, it is. Take Jack Johnson, for example.
To the vast majority of non-finheads, surfers are the poster boys for slackers-for whom “duuuuude” has become a three syllable word and is defined by hanging out at the beach. Well, it’s not like a job or anything. But for some, actually, it is. Take Jack Johnson, for example. From connections he has made over a lifetime of surfing, Johnson has become a successful filmmaker, a composer of soundtracks, as well as a musician with his own Brushfire Records label.
Mostly known as that back surfer dude who makes mellow music that mesmerizes legions of ladies, Johnson has just released his third album, In Between Dreams. Raised in the Aloha State on the beach, Johnson learned water sports at one of the gnarliest surf spots in the world-the Banzai Pipeline.
Later, Johnson moved to the mainland and attended the University of
California-Santa Barbara (UCSB), one of the famous party schools from sea-to-shining-sea. Not only did he graduate in a timely manner, but he also found plenty of time to surf-Santa Barbara is on the beach and all.
Since this is the Film & TV issue of this damn fine magazine, let’s go there: Johnson has filmed and scored two finhead flicks, Thicker Than Water (2000) and September Sessions (2002). He’s also working on the soundtrack for Curious George, even though monkeys don’t surf.
A hard guy to track down, being married with a one-year-old son and not to mention all those handy waves, Johnson managed to find time to discuss his current curriculum during a recent phoner.
So you’ve had an interesting life-surfer, filmmaker, musician-how’d you pull all that off?
I don’t know. It’s pretty funny. I got real lucky and it seemed like all three of them sort of had their own path. But to me, it’s just what I spend a lot of time doing. Lately, I’ve been surfin’ a lot and just been getting caught up on home time. But on those surf trips, I had the camera out in the morning when the light was good, then put the camera away and got out the surfboard in the afternoon, then got on the boat and had dinner and pulled out the guitar. That was a perfect day for me when we were making movies on those trips. It was music and film and surfing everyday.
And you get paid for that?
Well, I was breaking even. We paid our expenses and traveled the world, so that was great. And the music has been really great because I get to travel and play live…and I can make a living doing that, so I’m happy.
UCSB is a notorious party school, but you actually did work there?
Well, more or less. That’s where I got into film, but it didn’t really feel like work-I was just kinda making these student films, so that was a lot of fun.
Did you go there originally to study film?
I started out with statistics, focusing on math, but it was a nice switch after the first year in film.
Statistics was fun (-) then?
Statistics was kinda fun, but I started falling behind a little bit. I remember p equals q, but q does not necessarily equal p, or something like that-that’s all I can remember. I kind of lost it, but then I did the film thing, which I actually pulled off in four years. I think I’m the only person to ever do that, and then I started making the surf films right out of school pretty much.
As a film student, what’s the greatest movie ever made?
Greatest surf film or film? One of my favorite movies is The Royal Tenenbaums, and the greatest surf film? I’ll go with Endless Summer probably. It’s what everything else is based on pretty much.
Once upon a time, there was just Bruce Brown as far as surf filmmakers and now there are a lot more of them out there. Have you ever met Bruce Brown?
No, I don’t think I ever met Bruce Brown, but I know his son, Dana Brown.
His music invokes the wild power of the angry ocean and those gnarly board and body-busting waves, but now a lot of surf films use all these crazy punk bands-does it have to be like that?
Not necessarily. There are other sides to it. I was super into the punk music when I was in high school and even when I’d watch the surf films; that was my soundtrack of choice. When we started making films, we wanted to show the other side-sort of the feeling you get when you’re riding your bike home after a long day of surfing, and it feels like slow motion. That’s kind of why we use the mellower music.
So how’d Thicker Than Water come about?
There was a phone call from Chris Malloy. I was just coming home from Europe and I was out of money. I went over there with my wife and we bummed around for four months until we ran out of money, and Chris called at the right time. He was getting a budget together to do a surf film and he needed someone to shoot it, so I was the guy. We started traveling-just breaking even and traveling the world-not getting in debt, at least.
How does that work? Is there an itinerary or do you guys just drive around aimlessly praying for surf?
More or less aimless, but a few months ahead of time he’d give me a call and say we were going to these islands off the coast of India or Australia. We went to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean; we were at Port Blair, which later got wiped out by the tsunami.
How do you score a film? Do you watch the footage first, or how does it work?
Yeah, basically I’ll put on a lot of music while I’m watching the footage playback and deciding which waves to use. Something really upbeat, something acoustic-I’ll just try all kinds of music. Sometimes, I’ll find something perfect by another band and I’ll use that. Other times, when I’m just not finding something I like, I’ll just sit there and try to work out something that seems to go with the image and re-edit it. I’ll lay down the music, and when it’s pretty close, then I’ll try to bring up the intensity a little bit for certain parts. Then I’ll go back and move the images around so they hit the beats just right.
I’m assuming you have much more footage than you’re ever going to use, so is your first step to edit the footage down close to what the actual film is going to be like?
Yeah, just do a rough edit, play some music then re-edit it closer to the music I’m going to use.
So how does a band end up being part of the soundtrack to one of your films? Do you watch the footage and all of a sudden think, “Wow, man, I want to hear Bowling For Soup,” is that how it works?
Yeah, pretty much. A lot of times, I’ll just want to watch it 20 times before I’m even able to pick the waves I want to use. Sometimes, you remember shooting a wave that was really good and those are the obvious ones. And other times, there are waves you didn’t think would be so great on film, but then I watch it 20 times and it’s whatever’s on my CD player. If G. Love and Special Sauce works but the song is not quite there, then I’ll start listening to other music in that genre and kind of narrow it down.
So how many different bands have you used besides your own?
Quite a few. We put out two soundtracks for the films and there are probably eight or ten bands on each of those. On soundtracks that I’ve worked on from start to finish, there are probably 20 different bands.
How many of them are punk bands?
None of them are punk bands, actually. It’s pretty mellow stuff like Ozomatli, G. Love and Special Sauce and a lot of obscure stuff that I forget the names of right now.
How is it different doing a studio album as opposed to a soundtrack?
The soundtrack is different because it’s all about the image, so you don’t focus on the audio quite as much. If it feels right, then it’s there-it doesn’t have to be sonically perfect or anything. For Thicker Than Water, I did all the music on a four-track that was sitting on the desk of the editing bay while I was just watching the images. I only had one microphone and we always thought we’d go in and record it better in a studio, but we never did. We ended up using the four-track version in the movie.
So, when is your next surf movie? Do we know?
Maybe when this music thing slows down, but right now, I dunno. I’m having too much fun with the music right now, and the films take a little effort, you know? So I’ll have to decide to take some time from making records, touring and all that stuff, but I am about to do the soundtrack for <i>Curious George</i>. I’ve already written the songs for it, and I’ve been working with the composer and getting ready to go in and record. It’s going to be a feature length cartoon which should be out in February 2006. They’re doing all the drawings by hand-it’s not computer style. Will Farrell is doing the voice for the Man In the Yellow Hat and in a way, I’m Curious George’s voice because he doesn’t speak. So the songs sort of tell what’s in his mind.
How’d you get that gig?
They just called up and asked me if I wanted to do it, and I was real excited about it. There will probably be a record that’ll come out with it-so far, there are about five or six songs from the movie, and we’ll probably put together more kid’s songs and make a record of it.
How is this similar to making a surf film?
Well, they send me the black and white sketches of what the scenes will be like and more or less the timing, so I write the songs lyrically with what’s going on. Then they take my song and go back and actually change the amount of frames, so it lines up perfectly with the beat. So, I’ve done rough versions of all the songs so they can edit and get final pictures, and then I’ll go back and spend more time to solidify all the songs-just kind of add strings and things like that over the top of it.
So making a studio album like your latest, In Between Dreams, is quicker than making a film I’m assuming?
It doesn’t take very long to record it-about a month. I’m always writing songs, whether I’m on a surf trip or touring, just putzing around with a guitar. After a year or two, I have enough songs to record.
Where does In Between Dreams fit in with what came before?
It’s pretty similar, just a new group of songs. We don’t get very sophisticated. I play acoustic guitar, a friend plays bass and another friend plays drums, then we do a little layering with voice and add a second guitar sometimes. It’s pretty much in the same genre: barbeque music.
What’s the coolest thing about your night job?
The best thing about it is the party itself – playing music and all the energy that comes back towards you. The worst thing is going to bed so late. I like to go to bed early because I’m a morning person. Trying to stay up late is hard for me. It’s hard to be a rock `n’ roll guy with the daddy morning hours – it’s tough. My kid is one now.
For a guy just kickin’ it on his porch and surfing all the time, you’re mighty damn busy.
Yeah, I know.