Rob Johnson is a guitarist and musician from London, who has spent the last few years making instrumental film soundtrack (esque) instrumental albums. Heavily inspired by a wide array of influences, Rob was initially inspired to make a ‘Tubular Bells’ like record for the 21st century after his previous band ended and there was nowhere to house the new demos he had made for that project. He went on to make his debut album ‘Upon a Painted Ocean’ that was released to a little critical acclaim in 2009. In 2012 he has returned with the follow up, the ambitious ‘Throw The Sun Into The Sea’ which comes in the form of a visual album, as Rob has gone further this time, pursuing another of his loves – film making. Consequently this album comes complete with 10 short films to accompany the music, dealing with themes of heartbreak juxtaposed with a (possible?) alien invasion… Your average instrumental album this is not. 

01. What are your earliest memories of music? 

I can’t remember anything specific, but I have vague memories of hearing music in my Dad’s car when he would take us places – things like Mike Oldfield and The Police that have remained massive influences on me to this day. Steeleye Span and Clannad not so much… 

02. Do you come from a musical family at all? 

My mum used to be a music teacher so she taught me some chords on the guitar when I was very young. My brothers and sister are all musical as well (drums, trumpet, flute, singing), so it definitely runs in the family. 

03. Who are your major influences and inspirations and who do you despise? 

Right now, Peter Gabriel is my biggest influence. Both in terms of music but also the variety of projects he has worked on and the quality he has maintained throughout his career. He is an artist I aspire to be like. In terms of biggest influences on my guitar playing style – it all comes from literally hours of playing along to my favourite albums and almost religiously studying the guitarists of those bands. People like John Frusciante, Tom Morello and Mike Einziger – those are my 3 biggest guitar influences. I think the music you listen to when you’re growing up and the penny drops and you start actually discovering the music you like instead of what everyone else is listening to is massively important, and for me it changed who I was and everything I wanted to be. So when I first heard Rage Against The Machine, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Incubus, it kind of blew my mind you know. The first time I saw the Chili Peppers live, I was 16 and it literally changed my life. I saw John Fruscicante playing and literally thought – that is what I want to do. I still love all those bands very dearly and their music has helped me throughout all aspects of my life. I despise… Maybe bands or artists who seemingly have not worked hard to get where they are, or manufactured bands producing music that is very obvious. A lot of what is played on the radio – whilst the majority is very good and you can understand why it is being played, sometimes you hear a song and it’s just like – ‘are you serious?!’ Those acts I’m not too fond of. 

04. What drives you to make music in the way that you do today? 

I am a creative person so to have this outlet is in many ways a joy. I have a way in which I can communicate my view of the world to the rest of the world. (Whether or not they choose to listen is another matter entirely… ) At the same time I do feel like I am pursuing something with the sound and ambition of the projects that has the potential to be unique and groundbreaking. I feel like I am finding new ways to make interesting sounds on the guitar and I think I have something to say that hasn’t been said before. If I didn’t I wouldn’t do it. And you have to have this kind of self belief because it is not easy, and without it I would not be able to pursue it, because it is madness. I just have a general feeling that this is what I am best at in my life and that I should pursue it no matter what. Time will tell whether or not this was a naive assumption. 

05. What can someone who has never seen you live before expect from your live shows? 

Fire. Danger. Dancing girls. Guitar theatrics and classic comedy. In that order.  

06. What is your song crafting process? What types of themes and subjects do you deal with? 

I am pretty much always writing, however 95% of this will be stuff that I never use, but what I am doing subconsciously is learning what sounds good where, what works and what doesn’t etc. Then every so often I’ll hit a few notes in an interesting or different way and then I’ll know instantly that that is an idea I need to pursue. So straightaway I’ll record it just into my iphone or whatever so it’s not lost in the ether. Then I will keep playing, crafting and chipping away until a song emerges. The process can be sometimes very quick or sometimes very slow. There is now rhyme or reason to it. It’s never the same but it is that constant search that keeps me going. It’s basically like a big jigsaw; working out what needs to go where, and sometimes when you can connect a new part you’ve just come up with to an idea you’ve had for years it’s the best thing ever. Like it was always meant to be or something. It’s basically like connecting the dots. 

07. How did your music evolved since you first began playing? 

It’s become more structured I suppose. I mean it always was, but at the start I think you follow a very rigid verse, chorus, verse, chorus, break, chorus, chorus structure and nowawdays my songs are not at all like that. Some are very simple and come are very complicated structure wise. I think in general it has just evolved across the board – notes, chords, time signatures, musicality, ambition – as my understanding of the guitar and music in general has grown. 

08. What has been your biggest challenge as an artist? Were you been able to overcome this? If so, how? 

The biggest challenge I have as an artist (in my opinion) is that the music I make is instrumental. Therefore it is immediately harder for an audience to find, take on and appreciate because there are no words. However, I also feel that some of the most famous and well known music we all know is instrumental so from that respect it doesn’t bother me. But I do think that these challenges that come from being different and out there and not having words while they are at times overwhelming and daunting, they also give me enough ambition to try and overcome people’s pre conceived notions about instrumental music and what an instrumental album will be and sound like. 

09. Do you play any covers? If you could pick any song, which would you like to cover most and why? 

I don’t live, but I do in private and am always toying with the idea. I worked out a version of ‘Breakin a Sweat’ by Skrillex recently that I think worked pretty well… If I could pick any song I’d probably choose Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel. I think that’s just a genius genius song. I don’t think I could play it in public though as I don’t think anything could even come close to the original. Although the best cover I think I’ve ever heard is the Ryan Adams cover of Wonderwall – which you’d think would be an untouchable song to try and cover but he did a amazing job. Also Hurt by Johnny Cash. You listen to a song you’ve heard a million times and you know ever lyric and they make it sound brand new. Incredible. 

10. Where did you envisage yourself being in five years time? 

Hopefully scoring movies, with a couple more albums on my shelf. 

11. Who would you most like to record with? 

Red Hot Chili Peppers. I am inspired by their music and think they have an incredible work ethic. I’d love to jam with them – Josh Klinghoffer is basically living my dream right now. 

12. What should we be expecting from you in the near future? Please feel free to plug your Album? 

I’ve just released a new album called Throw The Sun Into The Sea, and it comes with a short film for every song. You can check it all out on this site www.throwthesun.com. If you like instrumental music, music in general or sunshine then you should go check it out. It might just be right up your street. I’ll be out and about playing gigs across London and further afield to promote it. So that is my focus for right now. I’m always working on new songs but I have just spent literally 9 months on Throw The Sun, so now I need a little creative break before I attempt my next project – but I have a few ideas in mind…

NERD LIFE: APRIL 9TH 2012

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small town in England called Salisbury. Out in the English countryside a little bit.

Whats your first memory concerning music? When did you start making music?

Not really too sure – I have a distinctive memory of hearing ‘Layla’ by Eric Clapton / Derek and The Dominoes as a kid and just having the urge to play it on the guitar. My early experiences with music all pretty much came from hearing songs in my Dad’s car when he was taking us anywhere. Looking back these bands and songs are still the biggest influences on me today – stuff like Mike Oldfield which really influenced the last album, but now it’s all Peter Gabriel and the Police, and that all came from hearing these sounds at a very impressionable age I think. I started playing guitar aged 9 or 10 at school. Just chords and stuff and then when I started high school my parents told me I had to take up an instrument – so by then Guitar was a no brainer. For better or worse that decision influenced pretty much the next 20 years of my life!

Have you playing in any bands? If so what were they?

I have played in a few different bands and projects over the years. You can probably Google the band I was in the longest ‘Forward Is The Farewell’ and see what turns up. We had a couple of EPs and worked pretty hard on it from 2004-2007.

Do you have a method to writing/recording your music?   

I’ve got to a point with it now where I am quite comfortable in my song writing – in that I don’t put too much pressure on myself. I have basically spent the last 10 years writing songs on and off so I am at a stage now when I know when is a good time to write and when isn’t. Although when I have deadlines or whatever I will just plough through it. But in terms of what actually happens, I try and play/practice for at least an hour a day and normally ideas will just come when I play. (But if they don’t, they don’t) Usually I’ll hear something that triggers something in my brain that says ‘that’s different’ or intrigues me in some way. So then I record it straight away just into my iPhone so I don’t forget it. When I know I have that I’ll either stop playing or play another song or whatever. That way I know if that part was any good when I next pick up the guitar by whether I want to play it or not. Normally if you come up with a new idea that you think is cool you just want to play it over and over. This is one little way in which I can tell if a new idea holds any weight. Then it’s just a case of working on it, chipping away, trying out new ideas and seeing if they work. It can be a very long or a very short process depending on the song. But it’s become something that I am much more comfortable with and understand much more than I did a few years ago.

What bands and/or artists inspire you? Are there people outside of music that inspire you?   

I am inspired by just about a million different things! Music, art and the world in general. Bands and musicians than inspire me right now are people like I’ve mentioned before – Peter Gabriel, in terms of musical output but also everything else that he does – his studio, the film soundtracks etc. I’ve had an idea for a while about an interactive album, (I am always thinking of new ways to engage an audience with the music, mainly I think because I am an instrumental so don’t have the benefit of words to get a point across) and anyway I just found out the other day that in ’97 Peter Gabriel released this interactive cd-rom album called ‘eve’. I watched it on Youtube and it was pretty cool, kind of out there but so forward thinking. That’s what inspires me. And incidentally I have a new song called ‘EVE’ as well! So I guess I am inspired by forward thinkers – people / artists who do things that are so far ahead of what is expected and so therefore become a massive influence on everybody else. Bands like Brand New, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan – they basically have the whole world holding it’s breath waiting to see what comes out of their heads. I find that inspiring and exciting to me.

If you had to pick something about your music that defines it, what would it be?

Hopefully the fact that the listener doesn’t necessarily know what is coming next. Or the fact that it comes from my head. Other than that I can’t really answer that – tough question!

What’s your favourite part of being a musician?

Even though it can at times be exhausting I think I’d have to say the recording process – when one idea spirals into another and before you know it something has been created that you could never have possible imagined initially. That happened for instance with the intro to EVE on the new album. When we put that sound at the start I was bouncing off the walls. But I also love playing the guitar, it is always there for me you know, rain or shine. And with my music now and the film I’ve made for this album it’s sort of becoming this outlet for a whole host of ideas that I have, which opens it up in terms of possibilities of what I might do in the future.

What do you do in your spare time?

Play guitar, watch movies, the usual. But I haven’t really had much spare time in the last 7 months, this has been an all consuming project!

What kind of TV shows/Movies do you like?

I loved LOST, The Wire, Dexter, 24, the addictive TV boxsets, I haven’t actually watched one in a while. Need to get back into it! My favourite movies are Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight, Fight Club, Transformers….

What do you hope to accomplish with your newest release?

I am just trying to get it out to as big an audience as possible. Ultimately I’d love to score movies or something like that. We’ll see…


ALTER THE PRESS: AUGUST 2009

ATP: Tell us how 'Upon A Painted Ocean' came together?

R: After I had decided to make the record I spent probably around 6 months writing it. That literally consisted of me coming home from work every night and sitting down in my room in the dark with two lava lamps, my guitar and my 8 track recorder, just going over and over all the ideas I had, before turning those ideas into songs. Then when I knew that I had enough music and the running order was sort of in place I got in contact with Geoff Swan who has always recorded my bands before. He was really into the idea so we did a few evenings of pre production and then got stuck into the recording process in april of last year. The idea was to do it all on acoustic guitars - with a kind of bare bones approach to the programming - I only booked 10 days of recording to start with! A year and a bit later we finished the album - it was clear after the first few sessions we were onto something (we just didn't know whether it was any good), but also that it was going to take a lot longer than 10 days. Mainly because of the depth of the programming that was involved but also all the additional parts that we had to work on, test out and record. We exhausted alot of ideas to get to the recorded songs you hear on the cd.

ATP: What aims did you have when making the record?
R: It really is an attempt to create something completely different, something that will hopefully get people interested and want to hear more. There are themes, stories and whatnot placed throughout the songs and I hope that if people choose to listen and to delve in further there are many layers for them to read into and interpret in whatever way they choose. On some of my favourite albums of all time I can almost hear something different every time I listen to them - be it a bass line or to hear it differently if you listen on headphones, that sort of thing. I definitely want this cd to be one of those albums where there are different layers and you can hear different things the more you listen.

ATP: Did you play every instrument on the record or were you assisted?
R: I don't play every instrument. I play all the guitars on the record and wrote all the songs. Most of the additional parts that I hadn't already brought in to the studio were created on the day we recorded it and Geoff laid those down - most of the keyboards and bass is him. Drew Shipsey played drums on the record and there are also parts by Steve Bega on bass, my brother Duncan on percussion, and Gavin on trumpet. Mary Spender provides guest vocals along with Max Bemis. It was a very collaborative process and I was there in the background kind of directing everything.

ATP: What musical influences have inspired 'Upon A Painted Ocean'?
R: There a few albums that were specific influences on the record. I would say that these are obviously Tubular Bells; in terms of what is possible with an instrumental album and the potential effect that music can have on people. We listened to Tubular Bells 2 alot infact, and while no song sounds anything like tubular bells I think that that feel is there throughout the record, particularly on tracks like 'Cloak+Dagger' and 'Maimed Titles'.

There are a couple of songs on John Frusciante's album 'To Record Only Water For Ten Days' that showed me early on in my guitar playing what could be created just by having guitars on a track. The tone and feeling on some of his songs particularly on that record are incredible.

'Chroma' by Cartel - While I'm not a huge fan of the band I think this album is really good. Every track is great but its towards the end of the album when each song flows into the next perfectly that really struck me first time I heard it. I love albums that do this and really appreciate albums that do it and it works! Upon... is an album that is really meant to be listened to as a whole and having tracks that run into each other is something we have tried to emulate.

Other than that I am a huge fan of bands like incubus, rage against the machine, brand new, the police - these are bands where each guitarist has heavily influenced my style of guitar playing. I also listen to things like nin, mastodon, blink-182, say anything, peter gabriel, boys night out, minus the bear etc. Alot of soundtrack music influenced the cd as well, people like Thomas Newman, Daniel Licht, Hans Zimmer, Steve Jablonsky, Michael Giacchino - artists that have to create mood and feeling without the benefit of words which is exactly what we were trying to do on this record.


ATP: On the record, you seem to cover various genres. Were there any specific genres you wanted to include?
R: No - thats just the way it came out. There was absolutely no attempt to write in a genre, but definitely an attempt to create certain feelings, a mood and a tone. For me the record has a definite atmosphere and I hope this comes across to listeners. As for any genre we do cover - i think this just comes from my guitar playing and influences in general. I think the album is quite angry and aggressive in places though - the next one will be a bit quieter!

ATP: It has been well publicised that Max Bemis of Say Anything and Two Tongues makes a guest appearence on the record. How did the collaboration come about?
R: When I had the first meeting with Geoff about the album and my ideas for it I talked about how I wanted a spoken word part in one of the last songs - kind of as a shout out to the end of tubular bells, but also for a bit of narration to end the album, to add to the drama of it. At that point having Max Bemis on it was completely out of the question. He is one of my favourite singers and I love Say Anything but it seemed like just one of those ideas that will never materialize. Then luckily enough my brother started working for Say Anything on tour as their drum tech - right around the time we were recording the record. I asked him to ask Max and he hooked it all up. Max recorded his parts backstage in London at a Say Anything show last July. I think that that part came out really well - its kind of the crux of the record and we worked really hard on just that part of the song to get it exactly right. Then after he finishes speaking the song just goes nuts with guitar and the album ends. I'm really happy with how that came out.

ATP: What do you have planned in the future?
R: I'd like to do a painted ocean 2 at some point. And a third but we'll see what happens. I have alot of ideas about what to do - and how to distribute music nowadays but without the funds behind you its not that easy. Whether I'd record another album at this point I'm not sure. I think everyone has to see how the future in terms of music distribution pans out. It seems the only way artists can make money is by touring as that experience is something that can't be downloaded. So on that front I'm really keen to get a band together and see if we can pull off the painted ocean experience live!

ATP: Do you have anything else left to say?
R: I hope some of your readers will be intrigued enough to take a listen to my music and see what they think.

Also I have a new website that I've been working on www.apaintedocean.com to support the record. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

'Upon A Painted Ocean' is released on September 1st.

Visit Rob Johnson's Official Website for further details.

Sean Reid