Jack Johnson grew up on a surfboard, majored in film at UC-Santa Barbara and learned to play guitar hanging around luaus in his native Oahu. He’s a mellow dude. A few years ago, he quit his regular job — shooting surf movies — to make a breezy, acoustic record of the songs he’d been singing around the bonfire. He tagged along on tour with Ben Harper, and before he knew it, the irresistibly low-key Brushfire Fairytales was on the charts, sandwiched between No Doubt and Creed. So where’s Mr. Mellow spending his summer vacation? Back home in Hawaii, where he and his brother are building a new studio. He’ll record his next album there, and he promises it will be as laid-back as the last.
How’s the construction going?
My brother Pete’s really building it. He’s a contractor. He calls me a sissy musician.
It’s important to have a brother to keep you in line.
Yeah. Both my brothers are older. They’re the ones who taught me how to surf. They were always taking me out. When I was, like, fifteen or sixteen, our parents would let them take me down to Indonesia. We’d stay down there for a month and a half in the summer. You can live for five bucks a day.
You’re always so easygoing. Does anything get you riled up?
The other day, when we were loading the van down in Australia, one of the guys dropped one of the drums on my toes. That riled me a little. I kind of snapped at him, and my friend was like, “Wow. I’ve never seen you get mad before.” But he dropped it right on my toe.
Did growing up in Hawaii make you that mellow?
Well, my dad’s pretty mellow. It’s so warm over here that you can’t move too fast because you start sweating. Hawaii definitely promotes that “don’t do it too fast” kind of attitude.
And there’s the bud.
Yeah, there is bud around here. No shortage of that.
I heard you eat chicken teriyaki every single day. Is that true?
I used to, but lately I’ve kind of become a vegiquarian. I’ve been eating a lot more fish and staying away from meat. I saw a semi truck of chickens drive by one day when we were on the road, and it had really decrepit-looking chickens, and I felt so sorry for them. I was like, “Man, I can’t eat chicken after seeing that.” It’s been about three months. I love animals, and sometimes I feel like a hypocrite eating chicken or beef, because I know I wouldn’t be able to kill one myself. If I was looking at a cow and I had a gun, I don’t think I’d actually be able to shoot it.
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done?
Trying to play a show in New York when I had food poisoning. The first time I played there, I ate some bad goat cheese or something, and that afternoon I started throwing up in the hotel room. But I played anyway. I got about four songs in, started getting really dizzy and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I was four feet from the microphone. I looked around and realized there was no backstage. Nowhere to go. So I ran over and tried to hide behind a skinny little pole and threw up there.
Do you get to meet many of your heroes?
I got to meet Kirk Hammett from Metallica out in the water the other day. Eddie Vedder surfs. Social Distortion came through, and I saw them surfing.
Can L.A. types surf in Hawaii?
Usually when they come over they hook with a pro surfer who will take them around. Kelly [Slater] and Eddie Vedder hang out a lot, so Kelly’s really good about making sure he doesn’t get into a bad situation. Eddie wouldn’t surf on the biggest day at Pipeline, but he can surf.
What’s the most scared you’ve ever been on a surfboard?
There’s been situations where I thought I was gonna die. Once, in high school, I was riding a wave and everything was great till the moment I smashed my face. I was riding in a tube, and I jumped off because I knew I wasn’t going to make it out, but when I dove through, I hit a rock. I blacked out underwater. It knocked out a few teeth, so it was pretty drastic for a while. I got a hundred stitches in my forehead, and my lip came off.
Ouch. Was that the end of surfing competitively?
I never really pursued it full on. As a kid, you think you want to be a pro surfer, and then you realize that it’s a big compromise when you do something as a profession.
So you’ve always been aware of the dangers of turning something fun into a profession?
That’s my dad in me. He was an eccentric. When he was twenty-one, he sailed from California to Hawaii by himself on a sailboat, and my mom met him over there. You can either look at surfing as a sport or as a spiritual thing, and with my dad surfing was about finding balance. He wasn’t real supportive of the surf contests; he wasn’t the dad standing at the shore break, rooting for his kids. It was good to have him as a role model.
Having a dad like that must have been liberating.
Definitely. In fact, the day I left for college he was trying to talk me out of it. He said, “There are a lot of people over there [on the mainland], and it’s really easy to just feel like a number.” He almost had me convinced, but I went and I stuck it out. But I definitely want to end up in Hawaii myself.