How intense is the anticipation for Prince's Saturday night headlining set at Coachella this year? Even Day One headliner Jack Johnson risked being scolded by security and sneaked around to hear the Purple One soundcheck Thursday night. "It was rad," grinned Johnson backstage a scant hour before his own set Friday night. "They did a Radiohead cover at soundcheck, 'Creep.'"
Though it may seem like Johnson would be more at home at Bonnaroo (where he'll also be playing next month), the laid-back singer-guitarist, who's performed at Coachella twice before, says he's a big fan of the desert fest's mostly rock-oriented lineups. "The last time we played I was right between Sonic Youth and the White Stripes. I felt sandwiched, like we were the ginger between sushi or something," he said after raving about the Raconteurs set. "I'm definitely honored to be up on stage with all these bands," he added with characteristic humbleness. "They ask you way in advance will you headline, then they start adding bands it's like, oh wow, should I really be a headliner?"
Johnson isn't just headlining Coachella and Bonnaroo this year — he'll also be anchoring New Jersey's All Points West and San Francisco's Outside Lands. "We weren't sure if we were going to do a full tour, so we said yes to a lot of festivals," he explained. "We thought that would be the only thing we did, and then we slowly added other shows. But yeah, we're doing a lot of festivals. It's fun, because I don't get to see that much live music — I've got a four and a two year old — so it's nice to be able to come to these and catch up, see Vampire Weekend and all these bands I've wanted to see." (One thing he's bummed he won't be able to catch is Roger Waters' Sunday night set — Johnson has to take off early for a family camping trip.)
So is Johnson thinking ahead to how he'll mix up his sets from fest to fest? "With so many records now, it's crazy for us looking at all the songs and trying to figure out what to play, so I'm sure by the time the next one rolls around we'll be playing a few different songs," he said. "We don't look that far into the future, so we don't have a strategy yet. Some nights I'll slide into an old Cars song, a little bit of Zeppelin. Once in a while a little Jane's Addiction."
After raving about seeing the Pixies reunion in Australia a few years ago, Johnson adds that he loved the Saturday Night Live sketch that skewered him as being, well, mellow. "I thought it was hilarious. It's kind of weird to see someone acting like you. That guy [Andy Samberg] nails me too, he's really fun. He's got a good hum, the head side to side. I never really wear a hemp necklace, though," he said. "I just played a festival with Dave Matthews a couple of days ago and we did the skit onstage a little bit. I said, 'Welcome to the Mellow Show, this is my next guest, Dave Matthews,' and he came out and said into the microphone 'Snickerdoodle cookie.' We were both cracking up."
As far as plans for his most recent Number One album Sleep Through the Static, Johnson says another single may be on the way soon. "I think either 'Hope' or 'Sleep Through the Static,'" he said. "I kind of always tell them I don't care, I like all the songs." While it's too soon to start thinking about his sixth studio album ("I'll probably take a year or two off and then see what happens after that"), Johnson is already making plans for his upcoming tour. "We're going to work with local nonprofits, have groups come and have booths at the show and donate money from the show to the booths," he explained. "We're also having national groups coming with us, too. One's voter registration, there's also Vote the Environment which helps educate people on where candidates stand on environmental issues, and then this neat thing called Climate Council, it's a report card for corporations so you can check out, and the Surf Rider foundation is trying to educate people on the single-use of plastics. It feels nice that after we leave there's a positive thing going on in the community."
While it's easy to suggest bands simply stop touring if they're really concerned about the environment, Johnson disagrees. "Every year we get a little better about trying to green our tour, we've been talking a lot with the guys in Pearl Jam. I feel like if I stop touring, people will keep going. But trying to make your industry better is more important." And as far as the election goes, Johnson says he has his man already: "I'm definitely going to vote for Obama," he said. "Besides believing in what he has to say and feeling like he's someone who really inspires when he talks, he's also from Hawaii, so I've got a little extra soft spot in my heart for the Hawaii boy."