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Jack Johnson: The Dude Abides

With a number one record and millions of fans, the singer-songwriter is one of rock’s biggest stars. So how can he be so mellow?

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson performs on stage at the Australian leg of the Live Earth series of concerts, at Aussie Stadium, Moore Park on July 7, 2007 in Sydney, Australia.

Gaye Gerard/Getty

When he’s away from home during a long tour, Jack Johnson has anxiety dreams that wake him up in the middle of the night. “I get completely haunted,” he says. In his most vivid dream, Johnson is standing on the beach with a guitar, gazing into the shore break. “Our stage crew was there, the band were all set up, it was a normal show, but the ocean was where the crowd should be,” Johnson recalls. “I was thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Johnson and his band played on as the tide crept up. “We were knee-deep, then waist-deep, and still playing. I had a feeling like, ‘When do we stop?’

“You’ve got to listen to your dreams,” says Johnson, sitting at a picnic table in the quiet, grassy back yard of his home in Santa Barbara, California. He’s wearing his usual outfit — board shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops — and talking in a relaxed surfer’s lilt. “That’s when I know I’ve got to take a break, kick back and get out of the public eye.” In the past, when anxiety dreams have set in, Johnson has pissed off promoters by canceling gigs to re­turn home early; these days, he insists on traveling for no more than a month at a time, and never during the winter, when the waves pick up on the North Shore of Hawaii, where Johnson grew up and still lives most of the year. (He went to college in Santa Barbara, ninety minutes north of Los Angeles, and keeps a house there.) “If I could go canoe-paddling or sailing every day while I was on tour, I wouldn’t be itching to get home so bad,” he says. “Just get me out in the ocean, really. Growing up, I would try to surf for three, four hours a day. I’ve become dependent on it. It’s hard when you start an addiction at age five.”

More than a quarter-century later, at thirty-two, Johnson still surfs as much as possible and still values a simple, humble way of living, close to nature, even as the demands of stardom have made life more complicated. It’s the way he was raised, and the way he raises his two young sons with his wife of eight years, Kim. In Oahu, the Johnsons live in a modest single-level home, perched on the side of a hill where Jack can see the surf below. He doesn’t get cable, which means no TV reception at all — “That’s a time-killer, man,” he says — and he happily admits that he lives outside the pop-culture loop. (He says that on a JetBlue flight re­cently, “I got sucked into the show about the bisexual,” meaning Tila Tequila. “I couldn’t believe that was on TV.”)

Johnson spends his days outdoors: fishing, surfing, kayaking, swimming or just doing yardwork and looking at the waves. At night, when his boys — ages four and two, whose names Johnson wishes to keep private — are sleeping and the house is quiet, he’ll stay up late reading The New York Times online or digging into a book. He’s a voracious reader and sometimes quotes passages and life lessons he’s picked up from Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Campbell. The folk songs Johnson writes come to him easily — he doesn’t force them. “A lot of artists fall into a thing where they’re constantly trying to create art,” he says. “But I think you can forget to take things in. You’ve got to fill up the mind. When I get home from a tour, I put away the guitar and surf a lot. After a while, the songs just start comin’. It’s not like some torturous pro­cess that I go through.”

In the days I spend with him in South­ern California (and during the time I was with him on the North Shore in 2006), Johnson frequently busts out a melody, whether we’re riding in a car, sitting on the beach or in the middle of lunch. “There are two parts of a song for me,” he says. “The choruses have to come from some place I don’t really know. It might be something I heard somebody say but somehow morphs into something catchy. I don’t really know how it happens — I’ll just be walking down the street and find I’m singing some little line that somehow snuck in the back.” Then he constructs the verses. “Those are what tell the story, or help convey some idea or feeling.”

Johnson’s casual approach has worked, making him perhaps the most laid-back rock star in history. Since his 2001 de­but, Brushfire Fairytales, he has sold more than 15 million albums, and his latest, Sleep Between the Static, moved more than 370,000 copies in its first week, debuting at Number One. Some tracks, such as “Angel” and “Same Girl,” are simple and direct declarations of love for Kim. But others are moody, somber departures from 2005’s upbeat Between Dreams, dealing with global themes like the Iraq War and personal ones like the loss of his wife’s cousin Danny Riley, who died at nineteen from a brain tumor last Halloween morning. Riley, a student at UC-Santa Barbara and an aspiring songwriter, spent his final few months living with Johnson and his family. Sleep Between the Static is dedicated to Riley, and in the Johnson yard is a shrine where the family members leave rocks and shells they find on the beach. One of the album’s strongest songs, “Go On,” juxtaposes coming to grips with Riley’s death and watching his own son grow up and learn to tread water for the first time. In fact, as Johnson was writing lyrics for the album, he noticed that many of the lines could apply to his children and to Riley. “It’s about learning how to let go of someone you love,” he says, “watching them swim away.”

It’s pre-sunrise on a cool December morning in Santa Barbara, and a big day for surfers all along the coast. A Pacific storm kicked up monster waves yesterday, and today’s are predicted to be even bigger. Up the coast, at the famous Ghost Trees break on the Monterey peninsula, waves break seventy feet high — and the dangerous conditions claim the life of legendary rider Peter Davi. As the sun comes up, Johnson is on his cellphone with his buddies, triangulating, searching for the perfect break for the morning session.

With Johnson’s manager and best friend, Emmett Malloy, in the driver’s seat of a biodiesel Audi, and Kelly Slater —— one of the greatest surfers ever —— fol­lowing closely behind, the posse cruises into a park­ing lot perched above the waves. (Johnson asks that I don’t blow up the spot by printing its name.) “There was a time where I’d go on a surf trip and get filmed and hopefully end up in a movie,” he says. “Nowa­days, I’d rather be off with a couple of friends in a secret spot.”

With every surfer in California calling in sick to­day, though, the lineup is deep, and waves are maxing out at about ten feet. Unlike a lot of the surfers flailing in the powerful swell, Johnson rides the waves casually and with confidence, carving gracefully across the face or slowing smoothly to let the tube curl around him. “He’s charged big waves from a young age,” says Slater. “It’s a very old-school, natu­ral-looking style. His approach is like his approach to music: He doesn’t force anything, he doesn’t try to overpower waves. And he has perfect timing.”

For most of the past three years, since he got off the road after touring behind In Between Dreams, Johnson has mainly surfed and spent time with his family, staying in what he calls his “comfort zone” — out of the spotlight, detached from fans, the pres­sures of performing, the interviews and the photo­graphs. He says his mental well-being hinges on hav­ing privacy, and that’s what he gets in Hawaii, where locals care more about his skills on the waves than about his platinum albums. “If kids saw Kelly Slater and Tom Cruise walking down the street,” he says, “they would be like, ‘Ahh, Kelly Slater!’ Surfing is everything here.”

As far as money goes, Johnson is raking it in, but he has no use for being rich. “It’s a true test of some­one’s character to give them a little cash and see what they do,” he says. He’s happy not to have to work a 9-to-5, and to have the opportunity to travel with his family on the same kind of trips he took with his parents: camping adventures. Recently, they rented a motor home and cruised around Australia. When I ask Johnson why he doesn’t prefer staying at a four-star hotel, he quotes the Kinks’ “Sitting in My Ho­tel”: “If my friends could see me now, they would ask me what on Earth I’m trying to prove.”

Also high on Johnson’s priorities is his dedication to the environment, in particular to preserving the natural beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. In 2003, he and Kim founded the Kokua Hawaii Foundation to support environmental education in schools. When Johnson performs in school gymnasiums, armed with his songs for the 2006 Curious George soundtrack (which features green-friendly tracks like “The 3 R’s,” about recycling), madness ensues. “We don’t even have a curbside recycling program in Hawaii,” says Mark Cunningham, a North Shore lifeguard and longtime friend. “Convincing adults to lobby down at the state capital is an exercise in futility. So Jack and Kim say, ‘Hey, let’s brainwash the kids,’ but in a sincere and logical way. It’s this incredible awareness they’re raising in a generation of school kids.”

The sleeve of Sleep Through the Static proudly boasts, “The music on this album was recorded using 100 percent solar energy.” Johnson and his three-piece band —— bassist Merlo Podlewski, drum­mer Adam Topol and pianist Zach Gill — laid down Static in Johnson’s new studio, the Solar Powered Plastic Plant. It’s tucked in the back of a house in Los Angeles that is the base for Johnson’s label, Brush-fire Records. The building is a one-stop shop where all of Johnson’s business goes down — from record­ing albums to packaging them, creating and edit­ing videos, and launching his environmental cam­paigns. Late one night, I meet Johnson at the Plastic Plant. He’s running around the studio floor in saggy brown corduroys, beefing up some demos for a Gill solo record by layering drums, guitar, percussion, hand claps. At work, Johnson shows an intensity that might seem at odds with his mellow demeanor, but really, friends say, he’s always been a taskmaster. “Jack’s dad imbued in his sons a can-do attitude,” says Cunningham. “Anything can be built. Anything can be fixed. All three of his boys have this wonderful calm self-confidence about them.”

Salt water has been coursing through the veins of the Johnson family for generations. Jeff John­son, Jack’s dad, grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, and ditched many of his high school classes to surf. His college days took him to UC Berkeley, and he married his child­hood sweetheart, Patti, whom he’d met in first grade. In his early twenties, he salvaged a twenty-seven-foot sailboat and soloed it toward Hawaii. Thirty days later, he cruised into Maui’s idyl­lic Hana Bay and sent for Patti and their first son, Trent. They settled in the North Shore of Oahu, which would become the mecca of big-wave surfing, home of the Banzai Pipeline.

Eventually, Jeff Johnson parlayed his boat-building knowledge into a career as a building contractor. And he surfed. He and his friends shaped boards and be­gan to tame the monstrous waves of the North Shore. “The surfing world was so different then,” says Jack. “He and his friends are true legends in the sense that there were no cameras around in those days — they were just guys who wanted to get away from it all and catch waves by themselves. My dad’s a real character, and growing up, a lot of the heroes and role models I had were these eccentric guys living out on the edge.”

Born on May 18th, 1975, Jack was the third Johnson boy. Seven years younger than Petey and a full decade behind Trent, Jack escaped the rites of torture that usually come with having older brothers. “They really didn’t beat on me too much,” says Jack. “They were more like father figures to me.” Their lifestyles rubbed off on Jack, who’d peek into his brothers’ rooms to see them pimping out their surfboards with stickers and wax. With a porch facing the Pacific, the Johnson pad has always been a gathering spot for world-class surfers from around the globe. By age five, Jack was catching his own waves, another North Shore surf grom. Growing up, he knew exactly how much time he had to get out of the water and rinse off his board in order to make class on time. During the summers, his family would sail or canoe around the islands and camp in the tropical valleys.

Jack also thought it was cool that Trent had his own band, a drum-and-ax duo who rehearsed their Black Sabbath-in­fluenced rock in Trent’s bedroom. Jack’s earliest musical memory is of crank­ing up the reverb on Trent’s guitar amp and creating that satisfying sound that comes from sliding a pick up and down the strings. As he got older, Jack would spin hand-me-downs like Queen’s News of the World and Sabbath’s Mob Rules on his plastic turntable; in his teens, with cash he earned slinging pizzas, he’d make the forty-five-minute trip to the Hungry Ear — a hippied-out purveyor of beads, crystals and cassettes — in the town of Wahiawa. He bought tapes by the Violent Femmes and the Doors, and before one of his family’s epic camping trips when he was fourteen, he scored a copy of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. “That’s a pretty lucky record to stumble across,” he says. “That was around the time I started playing guitar.” He learned songs in his bedroom and showed off his skills leading Van Morrison and Bob Marley sing-alongs.

“Literally, Jack learned to play around the campfire,” says Slater, who has known him since Jack was fifteen. “His family always had bonfires on the beach, and all of us would be hanging out. Whoever knew a song that everyone could sing, they’d play it.” Though Johnson was extremely shy about singing outside of a group, his mother always told him he had a good voice.

Johnson also got his rocks off trek­king to Honolulu to see bands like Fugazi, Devo and Nirvana, and by playing a handful of gigs in a cover band called Limber Chicken; sets consisted of Minor Threat, Bad Religion and the Fugazi staple “Waiting Room.” People close to him remark about his even temperament, but Johnson admits he was a competitive kid, hungry for the biggest waves and ea­ger to gross out his buddies: On a dare, Johnson once ate a crusty goldfish that had congealed on the hood of a car (he lost the forty-dollar prize by not keeping it down). Another time he ate a friend’s elbow scab, which he proudly says was “about the size of a corn flake.”

In 1992, at age seventeen, Johnson became the youngest competitor ever to reach the finals of the trials of the Pipeline Masters in Maui. “He made the finals against all of the guys we considered to be legends,” says Slater, an eight-time world-champion surfer. “But I felt like that feat, in itself, changed jack a little bit. He saw the competitiveness and the egos and the anger that is involved in competi­tion, and I think that really turned him off.” Johnson was eventually disquali­fied after failing to catch three waves in thirty minutes. “He stood up on two waves — he had the best tube in the heat — but these guys hassled him to death out there,” says Slater. “They wouldn’t let him catch anything. Guys were ready to kill each other to catch the next wave.” Johnson almost feels guilty looking back on this period of his life, when he briefly lusted after the clothes and boards that he saw in surf magazines and fantasized about the money that may have come from sponsorship. (He did receive free gear from Quiksilver from age thirteen through college.)

The Pipeline Masters was Johnson’s last surf tournament. A week later, Johnson was riding a wave after school one day when he fell and was driven into a coral reef, cracking his forehead and mangling his face. “I almost drowned,” he says. “When I got myself up on the beach, there was blood down to my toes, and I felt my lips literally dangling off my face. I was missing teeth, and I looked like a cartoon character afterward.” The prom was coming up — “Everybody knows how high school is, and I was really insecure. People looked at me like I was the Elephant Man.

“Sometimes that gets written up as the thing that made me stop surfing and start playing music,” Johnson says, “but that’s not true. As soon as I got back in the water a couple of months later, I surfed the exact same amount.” He does admit that it had a psychological impact. “It was a personality changer,” he says. “It humbled me, and it slowed me down. I like to joke that I hit my head so hard that that’s why I’m so mellow, but I think it did mellow me out — in a positive way.” Driving Jack to the hospital (where he took more than 150 stitches), Jeff told his son, “Chicks dig scars.”

In 1993, days after arriving at UC-Santa Barbara, Johnson noticed a cute freshman in the dining commons. The night be­fore, in his dorm, he’d been talk­ing to another student from Hawaii, who gave Johnson a piece of advice: “He said, ‘If you get eye contact with a girl, don’t look away.’ ” So Johnson stared at the girl, and the girl stared back. “I didn’t look away from her, and she didn’t look away from me,” he remembers. “Then it got awkward, how long we were looking at each other.” Kim finally sat down next to him. “We both fell for each other,” he says. Johnson is intensely guarded, and he is hesitant about revealing personal details. When I call Kim to ask her to expand on the story of how they met, I can hear Johnson in the background saying, “Don’t tell him that story!” Kim finally says, laughing. “He was the best-looking guy in the cafeteria.”

Johnson started writing songs to show off for Kim. “I was just good enough to put together chords and make melodies, so I’d use that as a tool to try to impress her,” he says with a grin over eggs and pancakes at a Santa Barbara cafe. Kim encouraged him to sing. “He had a great voice, but he was just so modest and quiet,” she says. In his col­lege band — Soil, who once opened for the Dave Matthews Band — Johnson wrote songs and played guitar, but he let someone else sing. By his sophomore year, though, Johnson had written cuts like “Flake” and “Bubble Toes” that would eventually appear on Brushfire Fairytales. “Not once in college did he say, ‘I want to be a musician,'” says Kim. Instead, Johnson focused on his major, film, and took jobs as a cameraman. He shot videos with his friends, including scenes in Foo Fighters’ clip for “Break­out.” By senior year, Jack and Kim were living together on campus. After graduation, they went to Europe and tooled around in a VW van. The Sleep Through the Static song “What You Thought You Need” describes their time in France, where they’d bike into Paris and buy cheap wine to bring back to their campsite.

The couple got married on a beach in 2000 — Jack was barefoot. Around that time, he traveled to Indonesia to shoot his second surf documentary, The Sep­tember Sessions, which was produced by Slater. During that trip, Johnson wrote a song called “F-Stop Blues.” “When he came back, we were at Emmett’s house in Los Angeles,”Kim remembers,”and he said, ‘Check out this song I wrote.’ We were just sitting there with our mouths open, ’cause it was such an amazing song. That’s when we were like, ‘Whoa, you really gotta make an album!'”

Perhaps no one has dealt with an accelerated ride to stardom with less drama than Johnson. His priorities re­main his family and his island lifestyle, his surfing and his music. “The campfire expanded rather quickly for Jack,” says Eddie Vedder, a good friend. “And the flames haven’t gotten too hot, you know?” Adds Ben Harper, who gave Johnson his first break when he brought him on tour in 2001, “The success did start to freak him out a little bit, but he’s grown into it with such confidence and valor.”

Early on, Johnson had a good men­tor: “Jackson Browne told me a while ago, ‘You’re going to have to deal with that feeling you get when the crowd is out there and there’s this energy com­ing toward you. Some of these people think that they actually love you, but what they love is the projection of you, and they don’t actually know you.’ That really helped. It’s something I keep in mind.”

Whether he’s playing for 50,000 peo­ple at Live Earth or in front of a class­room of fourth-graders, Johnson seems cool and confident. He doesn’t jump around or play solos, he just strums his acoustic guitar, quietly drawing fans into his band’s peaceful realm. “I saw him play in Spain about a year ago,” says Browne, a friend who has known Jack and his family for years. “The fuck­ing place was full of kids that knew his music so intimately. There he was, this humble and unassuming cat, standing up there onstage in complete command. It was amazing to see.”

Adds Vedder, “A friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles calls Jack’s records ‘anti-road-rage music’ It creates bal­ance, it can transport you, it’s positive and calming and exciting. At the same time, it’s real. It’s not an act he puts on, like Bozo the Clown being happy to the kids and then screaming at his accountant.”

This year, Johnson will headline both Coachella in April and Bonnaroo in June, as well as a concert in July at Lon­don’s enormous Hyde Park. He’ll tour the U.S., for one month only, in August. Though he loves performing for crowds of all sizes, on tour he still longs for his family and the ocean. “One summer, I came home from tour, and my friend and I were running down the beach, and the waves were real good,” he says. “I felt so much more excitement and so much more joy than I had in the last few months of being on tour. I remember ac­knowledging that.”

He stares absently into the sky above Santa Barbara. “The songs have the power,” he says. “Sometimes, on tour, I feel like I’m in a cover band, and I’m the lucky bastard who gets to sing the songs they want to hear.”

In the back yard, Johnson’s wet suit lies over the clothesline. After taking a leak on the lawn — better than blow­ing a gallon on a flush — Johnson straps himself into the suit, grabs a board and hikes barefoot over a quarter mile of gravel to reach the shore break. It’s late in the afternoon, with a biasing or­ange sunset, and though the mammoth waves have failed to materialize today, nice ones are rolling in. After a while, Kim and their two-year-old cruise down the beach, stopping to pick up a shell that they’ll lay under Danny Riley’s tree. “That’s Jack,” she tells me, pointing toward the break as he cuts up another wave. But he is unmistakable. It’s nearly dark when Johnson reaches the shore, kisses his wife and holds his son. I ask him how it was out there. “It was good,” he says. “But did you see that sunset?”

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