After releasing five albums of chilled-out, summer-appropriate surf-folk, Jack Johnson decided to get a bit more experimental for his upcoming record To the Sea, which hits stores June 1st. The shaggy-haired surfer would normally craft tunes on an acoustic guitar, but he emphasized writing meatier riffs as well as messing around with vintage keyboards like Mellotrons and Wurlitzers. There’s even some audio of a gecko talking on one track. “But don’t get the wrong idea — it’s not my big electric album,” Johnson tells Rolling Stone. While To the Sea features more rock-oriented songs like the Beatlesque “You and Your Heart,” there’s still plenty of laid-back tunes that feature little more than Johnson’s voice and acoustic guitar. RS caught up with Johnson to talk about recording the disc, surfing with Eddie Vedder and being inspired by Jack White.
How did you come to use more out-there instruments like Mellotrons on the new record?
My studio [in Oahu, Hawaii] has just been growing with the band. It’s like a living thing. My brother and I built it with the help of a few friends. When I first started recording there, I had two acoustic guitars, one electric guitar and one acoustic piano. And now it’s to the point where we’ve got an organ, a Wurlitzer and a Mellotron. There’s this one White Stripes song, “Little Room,” that’s really good where he’s just stomping and singing “Well, you’re in your little room/ And you’re working on something good / But if it’s really good / You’re gonna need a bigger room.” That song always stuck with me — I know the feeling.
How did the birth of your daughter influence your approach to writing?
She loves to sing. Anytime I start to play piano or guitar she starts to do this little noise and she smiles a lot. So when you have that kind of energy around it’s a lot easier to write positive songs, you know? The last album I was definitely losing a couple of people who were really close to me and so it was hard to really write anything except songs that were reflecting back on someone’s life. And then with this new little baby in the world — it was definitely more the celebration of life.
Many of your new tunes are riff-based.
Definitely. There’s a song called “You and Your Heart” that’s based around a riff rather than a strumming, chordal thing.
Were you starting to feel limited by your acoustic guitar?
Probably. It’s only natural. I always liked playing electric guitar. In high school, I played in a band that covered Minor Threat, the Descendents, a little bit of Bad Religion. When I started making surf movies after college, it was about four or five years where I just traveled with only an acoustic guitar — we were on boats and camping trips a lot. On my last tour, it was the first time we actually brought an electric guitar on stage. I tend to overplay electric. I bend too far or I strum too hard and it makes it sound out of tune. But after playing it all year, I’ve started feeling comfortable with electric — enough to play it in the studio.
Since you’re getting more comfortable with playing electric guitar, who’s your all-time favorite guitarist?
Jimi Hendrix. The first time I had a job at a pizza place, I saved up my own money to my own Jimi Hendrix tape at this like hippie shop. I picked up Electric Ladyland — it was the only one they had. After I bought it, I went on this camping trip with my dad and just listened to that album over and over. When I hear that album now, it just takes me back to those old camping trips with my dad.
How did you incorporate the sound of a gecko on the song “Anything But the Truth”?
I recorded that outside. You can also hear crickets in the background. In the middle of the song, though, the gecko makes this click, click, click noise.
What music’s on your playlist currently?
I got the new Vampire Weekend record a couple of days ago and it’s great. I like Dr. Dog and My Morning Jacket, the White Stripes. And a lot of older stuff too like Greg Brown and Nick Drake.
You’re buddies with Eddie Vedder. Have you guys been surfing lately?
We were hanging out not too long ago.
What do you talk about?
Just about anything. He’s really good friends with my dad. It’s originally how I met him. They would do a lot of camping and sailing trips together.