Guitar virtuoso John 5 has just released his live album, It’s Alive, on January 25th with a US tour following shortly.
February 1 will see John 5 and The Creatures take to the road for a 43-date US tour, in support of the new album. We caught up with John 5 to discuss the album, touring and his upcoming ventures with Rob Zombie.
LH: Starting with the new live album, it was interesting to read that it was just a sound guy suggesting when you walked into a show, “do you want to record this?”
John 5: That was absolutely correct. It was very strange, like, you know, a lot of bands, they will prepare for a live record. They will hire a huge crew and all these things that you need to make a live record. You need an actual recording facility, a traveling recording facility. And it’s very, very, very expensive to do that. You know, you have to hire people and you’ve got to get hotels and insurance and the recording stuff and it’s a lot of work, to say the least. So yeah, we were setting up just like we usually do every night and we were in this nice theater in Sellersville, Pennsylvania and the guy said, “hey, would you guys want to record tonight?” and we were like “Absolutely!” And so I said, you know, that we’ve got one shot guys. If we mess up, there’s no redos. A lot of bands have their whole tour to pick from. And this music is so complicated, it’s a nightmare.
LH: If you are recording live, that’s a big ask to do that in one shot!
John 5: Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Luckily, everything went really, really well and it came out great. I even explained to the crowd why we’re not jumping around and it’s because we’re trying to make this live record and I left that on the record because I just wanted people to know how really authentic this really is. It’s such a special thing for it to be something like that, captured without any planning whatsoever.
LH: I think that’s an amazing way to do it. To do it with no overdubs. I know how experienced you are and you did the whole David Lee Roth thing where he said if you can’t do it in two takes, you can’t do it. But did you still feel the nerves stepping on the stage to do this one?
John 5: Oh absolutely! It was very nerve-racking. It was very, very nerve-racking because there was so much going on and there’s some things that I would have liked to have done differently – absolutely, absolutely. But, you know, what can you do? You can’t really do much about that. But I’m really happy with it and really proud of it when I heard everything, I was like “we have to put this out!” I don’t even think there were crowd mics so I wish the crowd was a lot bigger, the roar of the crowd if you will. But, you know, that’s just what we had. That’s what we had to deal with but that’s the magic about it.
LH: I have heard a lot of people say the same thing, and sometimes these days music can be a bit too perfect. Sometimes the little imperfections in there are what make something that bit more special. I always think of Led Zeppelin because whenever I listen to them, it sounds like a live band all the time. They just left in any of those scratchy bits or maybe something that was missed, and I think it always sounds better for that.
John 5: Absolutely, and that is magic. But I’m a complete, horrible perfectionist. But that’s the game we play with each other. We play these shows every day, every single day. So we try to see how perfect we can get it. And it’s a lot of fun to do that and it’s a challenge as well. So we would play these games with each other to see how perfect we can get the show. So we were kind of prepared for this live album without even knowing it.
LH: Because you are competing all the time?
John 5: Yeah, we’re kind of always in competition with ourselves to see how perfect we can get it, because it’s so difficult, you know?
LH: We caught your show at Reggies in Chicago last year, it was such a great show! I think it was the last show of the run and the three of you looked like you were having such a good time up there. Ian on bass and Logan on drums – like you say, the stuff you write is so complicated and also it spans so much different ground in terms of genre. How did you find those guys? How did you guys get together in the first place? They seem to keep up no problem.
John 5: Yeah, it wasn’t easy. I went to MI (Musician’s Institute) to get Ian and they have the greatest musicians at MI, here in California. I was like, “Give me the best bass players you’ve got.” So Ian was first, and he came out and he did his thing, and I was like “oh well, this guy, the first guy, nailed it! So this is going to be great!” And the second guy, no, the third guy, no, the fourth guy, no. Ian was the only guy who nailed it, he was the first one, so luckily that worked out. Ian knew Logan because it’s hard to find musicians like this. The only problem is if they quit, I’m screwed. It’s not like I can get any guy off the street.
LH: It would be difficult to replace either of those guys, I would imagine.
John 5: Right!
LH: The first time I listened to Season of the Witch, and listening to the solo that Ian plays on the bass on “The Black Grass Plague,” coming for a job with you, you would never know what to expect, but then playing on that kind of tune and nailing it like that, is really impressive!
John 5: Yeah, we definitely have a lot of fun, that’s for sure.
LH: The tour kicks off on Feb 1 and you’re doing a huge number of dates. As a fan, one of the things about seeing you in Reggies, Chicago, was the close proximity between the crowd and you. Everyone gets to be up close to the band and it really seems to suit what you are doing up there. I think the fans really love that.
John 5: That’s one of the things. I always use myself as an example. Because what I mean by that is as a kid I would go see these bands, and they’d be my heroes, and all of that stuff, but then I remember seeing certain acts in clubs, and I was like, “Oh my god, there they are! Right there! Right there!” And sure enough, I really enjoyed that and I never forgot it. So I was like, “Hey, let’s play these small places”. And this is instrumental music, of course, I’m not going to be playing massive places but it’s so fun to be up close and personal with the people. It really is. Because I remember those shows, and I remember how exciting that was. I was like “Woah, this is really something else!” That’s a special thing for me. You know what, sometimes they want a barricade at some of these places, and I’m like “don’t put a barricade.” I want people to be as close as they want to the show. And that’s the truth.
LH: Personally, I’m the same as you. Going in there, and not watching the whole show on a big screen, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of being there in the first place, I guess. It really does make a difference. And I think it works really well with you guys, that proximity really makes a difference.
John 5: Yeah, it’s really a lot of fun and we are having a lot of fun so it’s a great, great situation.
LH: In terms of your playing, you cover such a wide range of styles. There are certain guitarists who cover different genres – I’ve seen, for example, Steve Stevens who does this whole flamenco section right in the middle of a Billy Idol show, which really surprised me because I didn’t know he was into all of that kind of thing. However, I think, of most of the people I’ve seen, you cover more ground. Is it a conscious decision on your part to try new stuff or to keep it interesting, or is it just the music that you’ve listened to growing up? I know Hee Haw was important, which was the whole chicken-picking stuff but do you try and move into new areas deliberately?
John 5: I really have always enjoyed different kinds of music, and different styles of music. It’s always been so interesting to me. I just have been such a big fan of that, and that’s what I like to play when I’m home. What you see, when you come into one of my shows, is exactly what I do home. It’s exactly what I do at home. I love to listen to that kind of music, and I love to play that music because it is very, very, very challenging. And it’s a lot of fun too! I just really, really, really love it. And it’s just who I am. It’s just who I am and what I do.
LH: I follow you on Instagram. I follow a lot of bands and guitarists, but out of everyone, you put up videos of yourself just playing in the house and normally playing to a metronome, just practicing, more than anybody that I’ve seen!
John 5: Yeah, it’s funny because it’s just what I do. And I did it one time, and people really enjoyed it. And I was like “Oh well if they enjoy just watching me practice, I guess I’ll just put some more of that up.”
LH: It is great to watch. It’s a challenge. I play a bit of guitar and so I watch some of that, and sometimes it’s a bit disheartening. It’s like when you go to Nashville and see some of the guys out there. But I enjoy watching you do that, just with the metronome.
John 5: I appreciate it, that means a lot, thank you.
LH: No problem! I was watching your rig rundown and what struck me from watching that video was your pedalboard, and how sparse the effects were. I have interviewed a few different guitarists, I spoke to Paul Gilbert and Davy Knowles and both of them were both the same (in terms of using very few effects). I think there are two types of guitarists, those who use hundreds of effects and then there’s the ones who might have once used hundreds of effects but then cut it back to the really bare bones, and it’s all about their guitars and using their hands to do what they want. Did you start out with a lot of effects, or have you always kept it pretty simple?
John 5: I guess I started out with a lot of effects with Marilyn Manson. And so, you know, doing that I was like I need this, and I need that, and I need this, and I need that and that’s not who I am. To be completely honest, I don’t really know how to use all of that stuff. So it’s kind of confusing to me so I just do what I do with my hands and I really rely on my tech a lot when I’ve got a lot of effects. But luckily now I don’t really do a lot at all. I could just go up and do a show with a cord and an amp, and no pedalboard. Which is really cool for me. I’m really happy about that because I don’t have to rely on a pedalboard. I’m going to go and do this Dimebag Darrell show “The Dime Bash”. Everyone gets up and they jam and they do their thing but what’s really cool about that is that I don’t have to worry about gear or anything. I just get up and I play.
A quick story, this is interesting. A true story. We were playing, we were on tour with Korn, and the night before we were playing in Arizona, and it was so unbelievably hot. My heads fried. They actually melted inside, so we are an hour before we go on. You know, it’s my whole rig, it’s my whole sound. And we’re playing in LA, sold out, 20,000 people, it’s crazy and I have no rig. And I say, “don’t worry”. And I’m the only calm one, everyone’s freaking out. And I said, “Don’t worry, ask the Korn guys if I can use one of their amps.” And they were like, “oh, ok!” It doesn’t matter, I will play through anything, it’s not a big deal. So I love that. I love that I can walk into a music store and just play just anything I want and I could do a show like that. And I think that’s really cool.
LH: You have these people who think if I had that amp and if I had those pedals then I could sound like that guy. And really, nothing could be further from the truth, is my experience of that. If you use that guy’s guitar and that guy’s amp and that guy’s pedals, you’re still just going to just sound like you playing through that guy’s stuff.
John 5: Absolutely, 100% I would say like 90% of it is in your hands and that’s the truth. It’s just all in your hands, I believe.
LH: The other thing I always notice about you, that’s a bit of a signature of yours, is your dedication to Telecasters. I was listening to that rig rundown of yours when you said that came from Hee Haw because you thought that’s what a guitar should look like. I heard that you’ve got a Telecaster from every year, is that right?
John 5: Yeah, a Telecaster from every year and that is true. I used to think “oh well, this is the only shape of the guitar.” I didn’t know there were any other shapes, I was so young. I just said, “oh, I want an electric guitar” and so the Telecaster just burned in my brain. I just thought “oh, this is what an electric guitar looks like.” So that’s why I’ve always played a Tele, I just thought this is just what it is, this is how it is and this is a guitar. And it’s funny it’s our very first solid body guitar. And I love it so much.
LH: It must be nice when you get to your level and you’re in the position where Fender will make them for you exactly how you want them as well, in terms of your signature.
John 5: I’m very honored to have a signature guitar with the greatest company in the world, in my opinion. It is a real, real honor to be able to have that. It’s so crazy to me.
LH: That must be a guitarist’s dream, just to be able to sit with those guys and say I want this and this and this, and for them to do it, it must be amazing.
John 5: It is, it is incredible and I am very, very honored.
LH: So that interview was back in 2013, and I remember you saying you were never able to find one of the Bowling Ball Teles, the original ones. Have you had any luck since then?
John 5: Yes, yes I’ve had luck. Everything comes up eventually, that’s for sure. That’s for sure, everything will come up eventually.
LH: Excellent. I guess it never stops, right? I do play guitar but I do also like just collecting guitars as well, and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. And I guess it won’t for you either. Right next to where we live here in Chicago is Chicago Music Exchange which is one of the greatest music stores I’ve ever been in in my life.
John 5: Yeah, I’ve been there a million times!
LH: Yes, your photo is up on the wall in there.
John 5: Yeah, I’ve been there a bunch of times. I love it there.
LH: So every time you go there are you always on the lookout or just calling into the places that you know?
John 5: No, you’re always on the lookout, absolutely! ALWAYS on the lookout!
LH: I watched the documentary that you are in, Hired Gun, a while back, and I thought your comment in that was interesting in terms of growing up, you never wanted to be a main guy in a band. You wanted to be the sideman, you wanted to be the “Hired Gun’ i guess, in the context of that. Why do you think that was? Did you not want to be front and center? Or was it something else?
John 5: Well, I knew that I didn’t know how to sing. And I was like well, how am I going to entertain a crowd with just this guitar. And it’s funny that’s what I’m doing today. I didn’t even think I’d be doing anything of like what I’m doing and I’m so honored that people even want to talk to me or take my picture or get an autograph. It’s just an incredible dream so I don’t take it for granted. It’s an amazing, amazing situation I’m in so I’m very, very, very, very lucky.
LH: Starting from that point, when you think about your current situation, you know you are a solo artist, you are front and center in respect of your music and you are now a permanent member of Rob Zombie. You’re no longer just the sideman, I guess. It’s evolved into something totally different.
John 5: It really has and again, I never thought that this would ever happen to me. I just wanted to be a session player and would have been so happy with that. I would have been like “my life is amazing!” Just playing guitar for a living and doing what I do, I would have been so content with that.
LH: One of the things I always think about instrumental music and guitar instrumental music in particular, is that it can, if it’s not done right, speaking personally, fail to hold my attention. However, with the wide variety of styles you cover, I think, it makes you unique, and it also makes your solo stuff extremely interesting to listen to because you never know what’s going to come next.
John 5: And you know what? Wait until you see this show. This show is going to be incredible, this coming show is really going to be something special.
LH: We will be at the Chicago show at Reggies again, and we are really looking forward to it. I really enjoyed the laser guitar last time. Was that the first time you debuted that?
John 5: I think I used it for the first time in Michigan and then Reggie’s I think was the next show.
LH: It was really awesome. That side of things – the show, the costumes and the masks – has that always been a part of it for you? I know you’re a huge KISS fan, do you think it comes from that or is it more just the horror side of things and the horror movies? Was it always important for you to put on a show like that?
John 5: I think it’s all of those things. It’s entertainment. People want to be entertained. To get people out of the house, off the couch, out of their cozy clothes that they wear when they go to bed, and to get them out in the cold to do this, that’s asking a lot. So I’m going to give them a lot. And it’s important to me, so I’m going to give them a lot. Speaking of that, how’s that weather over there?
LH: It’s warmed up a little bit actually. This last week has been brutal. You might be ok for February. We went back to the UK for Christmas and returned here on the 28th and it was like the Arctic here. It was unbelievable.
John 5: That sounds miserable.
LH: It’s brutal. Its a strange city in that respect, Chicago, in that during the winter months, people kind of hibernate. So you go to work and then you either head to a bar or head home at the end of the day and try and stay out of the cold.
John 5: Yeah, it’s rough, man. it’s a lot. And to travel in that it’s crazy. I usually do this in the winter because of the fact that I’m touring with Zombie.
LH: It must cause havoc sometimes, being in rooms that are freezing cold or the guitars are traveling in the freezing cold, with getting things tuned up and ready for the show.
John 5: It is not easy, it is very, very difficult. It is not easy by any means. It’s difficult. We love those space heaters, cause I love to be warm all the time. I just love to be warm all….. the time. That’s my jam!
LH: You are so busy, you constantly seem to be on the road with the solo stuff or with Zombie. When it comes to the solo stuff, how do you write? Do you have to put yourself time aside and go away from everything, or is it just something that’s constantly ongoing?
John 5: What I do is that I’m always playing guitar. Before I was talking to you, I was playing guitar. So I’m always trying to come up with things that are interesting and luckily, if something hits me, I’ll record it on my phone and do it that way, but that’s what’s important to me. I’m always trying to push myself, I’m always playing guitar so it’s wonderful.
LH: Are Ian and Logan involved in the writing process now as well?
John 5: Not really. Of course, they come up with their parts and stuff but not really. It’s so hard to write this stuff. it’s really difficult. That’s why there’s not that much of it out there because it’s so difficult to write. I send it to them and they just put in their parts, when I’m all ready for them.
LH: With Zombie, how does that work? You seem to be such a fixture and an integral part of that band. Is that more of a collaborative effort? Do you guys get together or do you just share ideas?
John 5: Yeah, we definitely get together. I’ll get together with Rob and we’ll work on music and we’ll do that stuff. But this is Rob’s best record by far. It’s unbelievable, it’s incredible. I cannot wait for it to come out.
LH: I’ve heard you talk about it and you seem so enthused about it. I can’t wait to hear it.
John 5: Oh my god! It’s unbelievable. It’s so great! I’m so excited, I cannot tell you.
LH: We caught you guys at Chicago Open Air last year, and you were on right before KISS. It was such a good lineup that night. It was funny because on Instagram, on yours and on Rob’s, there were pictures of you with KISS. I always find it funny when you see pictures of people you are a fan of, acting like fans. You guys looked so stoked to be getting your photos taken with KISS.
John 5: Absolutely. It’s not just that we love KISS, but that KISS loves the Beatles. And the Beatles love Little Richard. And Little Richard loves ….. and you know, it just goes on and on and on, and that’s just how it goes. Everybody is inspired by someone, and everybody is someone’s hero. That’s for sure!
LH: Absolutely. I always think of that clip of The Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan Show I think it was when they got Howlin’ Wolf on there. And you could see the guy was trying to interview The Stones and they were just like “Let’s just let Howlin’ Wolf play guitar” because they just wanted to hear that guy play. I really liked that
John 5: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s what it’s all about. People love it.
LH: Thank you so much for taking the time, and we are really looking forward to seeing you in February.
John 5: Thank you very much, I really appreciate it.
LH: No problem at all. I was pleased to see that the new album is on vinyl as well, right?
John 5: Yeah, it’s on vinyl, first time.
LH: I’ve caught the vinyl bug the last couple of years. We started two years ago and I’m about 400 albums in now. It’s a little bit of an addiction.
John 5: Wow, it’s that collective soul you have!
LH: It certainly is! Thanks for taking the time, I appreciate it. I’m really looking forward to seeing you in February. Good luck with the live album. I will be buying it.
John 5: Thank you, Buddy! Thank you very much.
LH: No problem at all.
John 5: I’ll see you soon!
You can order It’s Alivehere, and check out the upcoming tour dates here.
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.