Music and loss sent Alain Johannes on some unexpected paths in recent years, including his newest method of charting the creative highs and personal lows: sharing video of songs-in-progress on Instagram.
A year ago, his mother was in the final stages of terminal cancer, and Johannes would use her precious moments of morphine sleep to step outside and react with the beginnings of a new musical idea. Those moments would be captured by a cellphone camera and sent immediately to the singer-guitarist’s followers around the world.
“I started to use it as a little notepad or a little escape, because my mom was getting worse and worse,” says Johannes, 52, former leader of the forward-leaning rock bands Eleven and What Is This, and a frequent collaborator with Joshua Homme of Queens of the Stone Age.
His mother died Jan. 2, 2014. Weeks later, his father also died unexpectedly.
“When I got back from that,” he says now, “I was ready to basically have a total breakdown.”
Johannes eventually worked through the accumulated songs and emotions to create a stirring new album, “Fragments and Wholes Vol. 1.” Thematically, it shares much with his 2010 solo debut, “Spark,” a raw acoustic collection recorded after the cancer death of Natasha Shneider, his partner in music and in life. But the new album offers a broader landscape of sounds, from delicate folk to layered psychedelia and euphoric hard rock.
Recording in the Hollywood home studio he once shared with Shneider, Johannes focused on one song a day. “Pick one, finish one,” he says. And like “Spark,” he chose to mostly work alone, rather than call on his musician friends as he laid down the album’s foundation. Immediacy was his goal, and he didn’t want any delays for rehearsing or scheduling other players.
“Maybe it needed a little bit more finishing, but the energy of it is so like the way I wanted that I didn’t want to mess with it anymore,” he adds. “It was done.”
Among the new tracks is “Whispering Fields,” a quiet acoustic song of cascading melody written after watching visitors whispering around his sleeping mother. There is also the heavy drama of “Jack of Wands,” during which Johannes rips open a stuttering electric guitar solo, and the swirling guitar pop of “Kaleidoscope.”
His inspiration was the “White Album,” the Beatles’ longest and most wide-raging collection. “I kept thinking of how important that record was to me and how it had the freedom of having a song be its own world next to another world,” Johannes says. “Stylistically they’re all over the place. It’s jarring and yet it’s cohesive.”
That musical scope would be little surprise to longtime admirers of Johannes’ work, which began when he was still a teenager at Fairfax High in Los Angeles. While there, he started the band that would evolve into the alt-rock-funk of What Is This, which at times shared band members with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the 80s and 90s his sound was rooted in a love for classic rock and Stevie Wonder soul, plus a natural fluency in international styles that stretched from Europe to South America.
Later, Johannes (with Shneider) was recruited into various projects with Homme, including QOTSA’s “Songs for the Deaf” album and Eagles of Death Metal. As a player, producer and engineer, he’s contributed to albums by Chris Cornell, Arctic Monkeys, Mark Lanegan and No Doubt. In 2009, Johannes was the touring fourth member of Them Crooked Vultures, which featured Homme, Foo Fighter Dave Grohl and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
In 2013, Johannes also appeared in Grohl’s “Sound City” documentary and onstage in a series of all-star concerts connected to the film. Onstage at the Hollywood Palladium following the premiere, Johannes led the Foo Fighters through a growling folk song called “A Trick With No Sleeve.”
Afterward, Grohl turned to Johannes and said, “Thank you for playing music with me. You're a ... genius.”
Johannes is also the subject of a new hour-long documentary, the impressionistic “Plans Make Gods Laugh (A Drift About Alain Johannes),” made by the French filmmakers Arnaud Maguet and Régis Laugier of the band Hifiklub. In the film, Johannes is seen wandering the Southern California desert landscape in a long black shamanic cloak, a large metal medallion over his chest, face shielded from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat.
The wardrobe was provided by the filmmakers, seemingly designed to present the musician as a kind of philosopher hermit. “I’ve just been around for a while and weathered a lot of stuff,” Johannes says, “but maybe I’m more like the jester.”
Johannes was asked to write and read the narration, telling the story of his life and career so far. That meant recounting his recent losses, he says. “That was really tough to do. I had to get drunk a little bit and do it over a couple of nights.”
The film (making its U.S. premiere above here on Pop & Hiss), is part of a trilogy of collaborative musical films. The Hifiklub filmmakers are also at work on a film with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, following another with lo-fi iconoclastic singer-songwriter R. Stevie Moore called “I Am A Genius (And There’s Nothing I Can Do About It).”
In an email interview, director Maguet said: “In our post-modern world where pop culture rules, I like the idea of intimate small stories trying to talk about the big one that surrounds us ... As a vehicle for this concept, Alain’s personal and familial stories across the music business was perfect.”
In the last year, the musician has been working on a new project in Seattle and Los Angeles for a still-unnamed band that includes Johannes, Soundgarden’s rhythm section in drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd, and guitarist Dimitri Coats of Off! and Burning Brides. Lanegan also sings on one song, and the group is hoping to recruit other guest vocalists (possibly including Cornell) for an album release this summer.
“The band has great chemistry,” says Johannes. “It’s quite different from anything any of us have ever done, yet at the same time you can hear a bit of everything. It has a very raw, psychedelic, bluesy kind of rocky thing going on, but quite different.”
For the prerelease of “Fragments and Wholes Vol. 1.,” Johannes chose to draw on the direct support of fans through PledgeMusic. It’s since expanded to iTunes, with physical product available on Topspin.
He did notice that within an hour of its release, a fan had posted the entire album on YouTube, which can be frustrating to a musician trying to keep the rent paid. But Johannes has seen at least one positive side to his music flowing freely after some surprising crowd reaction to his sets opening for QOTSA last year in South America.
“I was like, wow, look at this: A 15-year-old up in the front is singing along with songs from ‘Spark.’ That’s one of the great things about the way music gets shared and spread around,” he says. “You have a shot at being heard.”