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Q&A: Jack Johnson

The chilled-out Hawaiian reveals his new jam band, starring members of the Mars Volta and Metallica

Jack Johnson, performing, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Jack Johnson performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 28th, 2005.

Clayton Call/Redferns/Getty

Some bands like to take chances. Jack Johnson wants to create a positive vibe. “For Queens of the Stone Age or the Mars Volta, there is the thrill of getting out of their safety zone, to push the boundaries,” he says. “What we do is play feel-good songs. Our whole thing is about providing a party.” Johnson’s funky-mellow vibe first made him a star among the surfing set, and now his third album, In Between Dreams, has gone gold less than a month after its March release. This summer, the native Hawaiian will hit the road with his three-piece band for a two-month tour of amphitheaters, where, in addition to strumming his tunes, Johnson will spread his mantra for environmental protection, touring in ecofriendly bio-diesel buses and sharing part of his earnings with the charity 1% for the Planet.

You learned guitar at fourteen and performed at beach barbecues. What was in your repertoire?
The first songs I learned were “Father and Son,” by Cat Stevens, “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” by Jimmy Buffett, “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Hey Jude.” My dad taught me the riff from “What’d I Say.” When it was just my friends hanging around on the front porch, I’d do acoustic versions of a lot of Minor Threat songs, and a lot of Fugazi.

Your older brothers must have turned you on to tons of music.
They were into rock, so I’d get their hand-me-downs. Queen was one of the first records I ever listened to. I had a little plastic “my first record player” sort of thing, and I’d listen to Black Sabbath, Devo, Men at Work and the Kiss record where all the girls are almost naked, crawling up toward the band’s feet.

Do your folks listen to your music?
Yeah. Every time I borrow the car, I see that my mom always has one of my CDs in there. She’s always studying the words, asking me what certain things mean. When I was about sixteen, me and my friends had a punk band, and we used to record on a little four-track. I’d play the tapes for her — just really loud punk — and she’d always say, “It sounds so good, honey! You guys are great!” We’d be screaming, and she’d say how nice our voices sounded.

What was the band called?
Limber Chicken. Our logo was this guy who was doing a disco dance move, grabbing his ankle with his other hand behind his head.

Did you play any gigs?
Yeah. We did three gigs — house parties around our graduation.

Did you dress punk?
Not really. We were still in our flip-flops and surf trunks.

What possesses you to dance, and what do you dance like?
I’m not a great dancer, but I’m not one of those guys who’s like, “Yeah, I don’t dance.” I like getting down to a little Sly and the Family Stone, like “If You Want Me to Stay” — that song is so good — or “Family Affair.” And James Brown and Ray Charles. Old soul stuff. I like Eighties dance stuff too, like Madonna. We’ve been playing a Madonna song in our set lately: “Holiday.”

What’s your favorite Pearl Jam song?
As far as their later stuff goes, I really like that song “Soon Forget.” We played that together at their show at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Sometimes I play it at my own shows. But on their first record, Ten, there’s that song “Black.” I pissed my brothers off so much playing that record constantly.

Do you jam with Eddie Vedder and other musician-surfers when they’re in Hawaii?
Sure. I know Mars Volta’s drummer, Jon Theodore. He’s amazing, and he’s a surfer. He comes out and stays next door to me in Hawaii, so we’ve hung out a bit. We have a funny band that we’ve been talking about putting together. We’re gonna try to jam. It’s him, Kirk [Hammett from Metallica], Jon on drums and myself. Should be fun.

If you were forced to get baked and listen to an album: What kind of weed? What album?
Let’s see. The weed doesn’t really matter — I’ve never been a weed aficionado. It’s either there or it isn’t. It’s tough just picking one album. Radiohead is pretty amazing to check out. Kid A might put you in a funny mood, but that’s definitely one to put some headphones on and listen to all the crazy layers. But some of those songs can be really dark, so I’d follow that up with some early Bob Marley stuff, like African Herbsman, to get you back into a good state of mind.

Have you ever hung out with Don Ho?
Not yet. That’d be a good hang, though. He’s got “Tiny Bubbles,” and I have “Bubble Toes.”

But you’re tight with Jackson Browne?
I’ve known him since I was a teenager. He’s a bodysurfer and really into the ocean. He was a friend of my family, and we’ve kept in touch. After I made my first record, Jackson contacted me and was really supportive. Out of everyone in the music world, he’s been the most helpful, and it’s cool to see what a normal guy he still is.

Do you lose your mind being away from the ocean when you’re on tour?
I can go about two weeks away from the ocean without getting cranky. I don’t know how else to exercise, so I get all chunky and out of shape. Luckily, at some point we’re stopping in Wisconsin, where there’s a water park with a wave pool. By then, I’ll be jonesin’.

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