Talks With James Johnson 


James Johnson

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The Butterfly Chamber

HYPNOS Recordings


Lost at Dunn's Lake

James Johnson and Stephen Philips


Entering Twilight









Lost at Dunn's Lake:
Ambient Visions Talks with....James Johnson

AV:  In the overall scheme of things when was it that music began to assert itself in your life as  something other than what you listened to on your radio and stereo system? In other words when was it that it became clear to you that you wanted to play and not just listen?

JJ:  Around 1983 I became really interested in the way sounds were made, particularly speech. I was in high school at the time and a friend and I found an electronic kit project for building a speech playback device that was programmed through the Atari 400XL. Now that I think about it, this was 1983 and my friend and I were building a speech playback device for computer! Boy I missed that patent! It worked and sounded surprisingly well.

If I remember correctly it was partially based on the "Speak & Spell" toy that was pretty popular back then. We programmed it in Atari basic language to pronounce any words or sounds we wanted. At the same time this project was going on, I started listening to avant-garde and industrial music. I wasn't necessarily interested in the statement that these artists were conveying, but more so in the way that they manipulated sound and I saw a connection between their experiments with sound and my experiments with speech. So I thought I'd try to gnash and twist sound the way they did.

This is when I met Dan Burke, the founder of "Illusion of Safety". Actually I was his employee at a pizza restaurant in town. He was also experimenting with sound and invited me to an after-hours jam in the pizza restaurant one night. I went that night and was totally blown away by how easy it looked to get beautiful sounds out of found objects with just a few pieces of processing gear. I especially remember the gorgeous sounds Dan got out of a piece of sheet metal that had a contact mike attached to it. It was played with a violin bow run across its edge, the sound was fed through a Yamaha SPX90, it was absolutely fantastic! I was hooked!

AV:  Tell me about some of your early efforts at creating and performing music? Do both these areas hold the same kind of excitement for you or is there a different mind set that goes along with creating music as opposed to performing it?

JJ:  My first attempts at creating music were very experimental sounding. I had a few effects pedals a couple of tape players and an early Sequential Circuits keyboard that had an onboard sequencer and one of those $15.00 casio mini plastic keyboards. I would sit and play and experiment for hours on end until I got something I liked going, then I would record it to tape. My set-up was to feed the keyboards through the effects pedals and then playback tape loops and perform live with whatever I had found at a construction site that week. It was pretty crude, but I have some really good moments on tape from back then. I was much more interested in experimenting than playing live at that time. I would say that my first real performance was with "Illusion of Safety" at a gallery that my Photography teacher owned in Chicago. It was a lot of fun and I learned that It's a whole different ball game to perform live. I also played with a band that did "The Cars" & "The Smiths" covers one summer. I was such the typical "starving artist/angst against the world/creativity over financial gain" type person back then. I quit playing with them after they started to do weddings. I couldn't fathom lowering myself to doing weddings! Boy was I the "typical artist" back then..(laughs)  I really enjoy both, but for different reasons.  In the studio, the creative process is totally open-ended. I can mix together any elements I want. The studio itself becomes an instrument.

For instance, I can have a midi sequence running on one computer station that's triggering all kinds of things at the same time and then mix in audio tracks on the other computer station with the sequence. I have the freedom to sit back and really "listen" to what the composition is trying to express and then go in and carefully edit certain notes, synth passes and so really fine tune the piece. This can also be a downfall of working in the studio, as too much time becomes wrapped up in finding the "perfect" sound.

It can drain the very life out of a piece. When playing live, the structure is open, but not in the same sense as working in the studio. I would say it's more open to improvisation and creation in the moment. The feel of the room and audience becomes part of the creation process. It's really enjoyable to watch the room begin to react and get absorbed in the performance.

AV:  When did your music find its way onto cassette and disc for the first time? Would those who listen to your music now recognize the James of those early days?

JJ:  The first time my music showed itself on cassette was on Illusion of Safety' s first release "It's a Dead Dog" 1987. I recorded some synth parts that are on the track "Lets Cut the Small Talk". Then I released my first solo effort in 1989 "Exoskeleton". Listeners would probably more  recognize me on the former than the latter release. On my first release I sing quite a bit and it has a more prog/pop feel to it. My second cassette release "What" starts to show signs of the ambient path that I am now following. Although it has more of an edge to it than my current works, you can hear me beginning to develop a more organic and smooth sound.

AV:  What was your first exposure to what is now called ambient music and how different was it from what the term evokes today? What kind of impression did that music make on you and how did it influence the music that you yourself were creating?

JJ:  That would be the first time I heard David Bowie's "Low" album. I really loved how he and Eno created this drifting and organic feel to the music. Then the topper was when a friend of mine played Eno's "On Land" for the first time. I heard this album and immediately I knew which direction I wanted my music to go. I couldn't get enough of this type of stuff and consequently have just about every Eno release and collaboration he is on.

His early collaborations with Moebius & Roedelius are outstanding. Other works I was listening to were SPK, Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk, the early 4AD releases, and such.  I think that hearing these artists help put the ground under my feet, so to speak.  As I now had a point of reference to look at when I was creating my music. In my heart, I could hear what I wanted to express, but was having a hard time understanding how to achieve this compositionally. I would listen to them to hear how to arrange things compositionally and how to create space and subtle yet powerful expressions of emotions. I don't feel that "true" ambient music today is very far from its' roots. I feel that its' main goal is still to subtlety enhance the listening environment while still remaining engaging, intriguing and emotive. Although, the definition line has become so blurred that you'll sometimes find outstanding "Ambient" music that contains rhythm and song like structure, yet it still sits in the listening environment as well as an atmospheric type piece and can be listened to either deliberately or subtlety.

AV:  What kind of role did your living environment make on the kinds of music that came out of you?

JJ:  When I first moved into a house with a couple of musician friends, It was a free for all musically. Anything and everything could happen at any time. All three of us had our instruments set up in the living main room of the house and frequently a jam would just happen out of the blue. There were no real set boundaries between us and every instrument was essentially open game. Someone would sit down and start playing something and then one of us would come in and start adding something to it and then another would step in.

We would jam like this for hours on end then maybe take a break and then start-up again later. It was absolutely fantastic! Everything and anything happened. Think 3 artist/musicians who were way into the whole dadaist spontaneous improv thing, with a whole room full of instruments at their disposal 24hrs a day, and you can imagine the energy that was in that house.

Living with them really taught me a lot about improv and spontaneity, probably more so than anywhere else. I did some fantastic improv pieces with my friend Thymme Jones where I was in one room with all my gear and he was in a different part of the house with all his gear and the only thing connecting us was our headphones and chords.

We each reacted off the other and created some fantastic soundscapes with tape loops, guitar, synth and found objects. Now I live on about 15 acres of open prairie land. The environments influence here has made my music more open, subtle and given it a breathing quality that I really like. It's also very quiet out here and this has also found its way into my music.

AV:  When was it that the first hints of who you are today as a musician began to surface in your creative process and what music resulted from that surfacing?

JJ:  Probably around 1997 when I began to use the computer as my main source for sound creation and composing. I got into composing via midi and mixing it with live studio performances. In my newly formed studio, I was able to combine midi and audio data into slowly changing fields of sound. Moving to the computer has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me as I can now shape sounds infinitely. Things that I did not have the resources to do before, but always wanted to do, are now possible with the computers help. My release "Unity" is the result of my first completely computer based composing techniques.

AV:  Tell me about the creation and release of your "Unity" CD and how it was received by the public?

JJ:  "Unity" was my first "true" ambient release. I created it solely in the computer using an AWE32  sound card with 4megs of sample ram. I composed each piece via midi that triggered custom samples that I had created for the AWE. For a while I had been thinking about finally combining all these composition ideas I had been playing with for the past few years and finally assembling them into a cohesive body of work. So I sat down and began working the compositions into some kind of recognizable form via midi. I really wanted to express to the listener a sense of the openness and expansiveness of my current living environment, while at the same time reflecting on the past few years of musical experiences I had had. When it was finished, I figured I would just self release it through the Internet and maybe sell a few. I was more concerned with just getting the music out there getting some airplay and getting my feet wet in the genre, as this was my first "real" release into the market. I made a few postings onto various newsgroups about my new release, set up a web page for it and did a lot of leg work to get it out to radio stations. This was more work than I had anticipated, but in the end it was well worth the effort, as it was really well received, sold way more than I ever thought it would and was on quite a few "Best of 1998" release lists.

AV:  Looking back on those days, how would your music be classified by today's definitions?

JJ:  Boy,.if people were to listen to some of my very early material they would probably wonder how in the world I came up with the sound I'm creating now.

My first cassette works would most likely be classified by today's standards as post-industrial/experimental. They were heavily processed sounds interspersed with tape loops and early digital delay loops. I remember when the first 3 second digital delay came out and how amazing it was to be able to loop things for that long! They were very up front and in your face type of compositions that contain none of the subtlety and openness that is now found in my music. It was heavily influenced by experimental and industrial musicians of the period and have more of a conceptual feel to Although improv is absolutely fantastic at capturing things in the moment, it needs to be balanced out with intent and these compositions are a little weak in that department.

AV:  Were you surprised by the enthusiastic response that you received to the release of your first CD?

JJ: Absolutely! I started by getting the word out through the Internet and by mailing to radio stations and review sites/magazines. I was really happy when it started getting regular airplay on the web at Music Sojourn. It then started receiving quite a bit of airplay on the radio particularly on the east and west coasts and started turning up in quite a few top 10 lists for airplay. Then I sent a copy to Hearts of Space. I figured that it had a pretty slim chance of receiving airplay since I was a pretty unknown artist and it was my first CD release and on top of that a CDR. Much to my surprise the track "Forward" was programmed on Hearts of Space in 1999, almost a year after it's release. Unity also received allot of great reviews from people on the web and won an award from "Wind & Wire" as one of the best ambient releases of 1998. All in all, Unity turned out to be a fantastic first release for me.

AV:  How did this positive response to your first CD affect the way that you set about creating your next CD if at all?

JJ:  It really encouraged me to continue working at getting my sound out there into the public and to continue producing more works. I was happy to see that there was a pretty significant number of people who enjoyed my voicing and compositional style and that people were enjoying the sound that was coming from my creative process. Rather than being caught up in the "I hope they like it" scenario, I feel very fortunate to have found fans that like how I naturally expressed myself. For this I am very grateful......

AV:  Tell me about the creation of Surrender.

JJ:  Surrender was born out of a power journey that I had taken to Teotihucan Mexico in 1999. I wanted to reflect the experience and teaching I had learned while I was there. The tracks are made to represent the path to energetic freedom as described by the Toltecs of  Teotihuacan. 1st - She Will Shift You meaning- the feminine side of spirit will help you shift your perception. 2nd - Remembrance meaning- once you have shifted your perception you begin to remember who you are. 3rd - Surrender meaning- when you begin to remember you can then surrender to who you truly are and begin to free yourself from who your mind "thinks" you should be. The music on Surrender trys to capture these essences in very subtle yet, palpable ways.

After working on Unity with only the computer, I chose to begin expanding my sound pallet to include some outboard gear and piano. I have been playing piano for about 20 years or so and felt that this was a good time for me to begin to let some of the compositions that were inside me begin to speak.

She Will Shift You & Surrender were completely tracked through midi sequences and then recorded directly to hard disc. Remembrance is a piano improvisation recorded live to DAT and then arranged in the computer. I love the freedom of being able to work on pieces in the computer because I can perform edits and track sequencing that used to take hours, in a matter of minutes and then move on to the next task. It really frees up creativity and allows me to focus on the more important stuff, like texture, mood, and song flow.

AV:  I'm curious, many ambient artists go to various locales to take in the atmosphere and maybe even make some remote recordings at the location, do you feel that places have a vibration or a spirit all their own that can be perceived by those who go there with open minds?

JJ:  I definitely feel that every location has it's own unique "spirit" or energetic resonance and that people are directly affected by it. Sometimes consciously sometimes unconsciously. There are times when it is so strong, that you can actually feel it going through you. For me, where I live resonates through my works. It's a very large open prairie that moves in a great gentle flow of sweeping winds and constant subtle shifts. It's beauty is almost palpable. I can definitely hear it's reflection coming through in my works. When I lived in the city, I was involved in more of a "mechanical" and "emotionless" sound that was based on structure, concepts, and fragmentation of sound. This was a direct reflection of the area that I lived. At times I will purposefully seek out a specific location to record sounds at or simply soak in the atmosphere/resonance of the location because I'm working on a piece that I feel needs that type of location's input.

Other times I stumble upon places, or places stumble across me, that inspire complete works. I always carry a portable MD recorder with me, just in case.....

AV:  Are there any conscious spiritual aspects to the music that you create?

JJ:  No not really......Surrender may be seen as a "spiritual" type work, but it's really more of a "diary" or "sketchbook" of the experiences I had.

AV:  When you create your music are you creating it for you or for your audience? Is there a point that it overlaps or is the music always created for you and the audience just shares your vantage point by journeying with you in your sound world?

JJ:  That's a really great way of looking at it.....My works are always a direct reflection of something that I've experienced or that I feel I want to express. I've been very fortunate to have connected with an audience that shares my vantage point. I would never say that the audience isn't taken into consideration when the time comes to release a new work, as I definitely want to make the journey through an album as enjoyable and engaging as possible. I guess a good way to describe this is that the individual songs and pieces are created for me and then when it comes time to assemble and name the tracks, I try to take all these personal expressions and assemble them in such a way as to make them as accessible as possible for the listeners. I really work on the track sequencing and titles of the songs so that they not only reflect the feeling of the pieces, but also so that listeners can readily hear what the album is saying and connect with the songs. 

AV:  Do you have some kind of routine that you go through when you want to start a new project and don't have the faintest idea where to begin? Or is your work very much improvisational in nature?

JJ:  My playing style is improvisational, but my composition style is pretty thought out in advance. Usually I have a pretty good sense of what I want to do with a piece and how I perceive it should take shape. Sometimes the piece tells me how is should be formed.... I'll vaguely map out which type of sounds should go where and when and then start experimenting with sounds, textures and playing styles and build the piece up track by track. Other times, I may be designing some new sounds and I'll  come up with something that forms the foundation for a composition. Recently I've been experimenting with self-generating synth patches that evolve and shift over long periods of time. I'll set up 1 to 5 synths to run these self-generating sounds for long periods of time and then add live studio performances on top of them. The results have been really great and have formed the basic building blocks for my next solo release "The Butterfly Chamber"

AV:  Tell me how your relationship with Hypnos records came about and has it taken your music farther than you could have by yourself?

JJ:  I was first contacted by Mike Griffin when he had a call for submissions for the compilation "Weightless,Effortless". I was really flattered to be asked to submit a piece for review for this release. My submission "Closure" was accepted and I suddenly found myself among some of the more notable artists working in the genre! What a gas that was! Mike and I exchanged e-mail every now and then, over the next year or so, and he was selling my works through his mail order catalog. After I released Surrender on my own, I really felt the need to concentrate more on my music, as allot of my time was being spent with radio station follow-ups, review copies being mailed out and contact e-mails being sent. It was really starting to wear on me and I was currently in the middle of composing "Entering Twilight". I really wanted to have "Entering Twilight" go out to a larger audience and I just didn't see that happening with the small amount of time and resources I had.

So I approached HYPNOS with "Entering Twilight" because I felt that the sound and image of the label is a perfect match for my works. Mike really enjoyed the CD and agreed to release it. Mike is a fantastic person to work with, and has a great sense of composition and form when it comes to ambient music. The artwork he created is perfectly in sync with the disc. Having "Entering Twilight" released by HYPNOS and being on "Weightless, Effortless" has really helped me reach a much wider audience that I would have otherwise been unable to reach. It's also help push my music to another level. I hope to have more of my works released on HYPNOS in the future.


AV:  How has the Internet changed the way that you approach marketing a new CD when you have it ready to sell?

JJ:  Relying entirely on the Internet to market new works, I no longer use any printed material to for marketing purposes. It's just to costly and really doesn't directly reach the people that are interested in my music. The Internet has opened so many doors for my works, in that I am now able to interact directly with listeners,DJ's, reviewers, and so on, all from one location (my computer). About 5 years ago this type of direct contact would have been extremely time consuming and very expensive. The Internet has sped up the whole process of contacting radio stations and sending out press releases. In fact whenever I have a new release up-coming, I can very easily and effectively contact fans directly through e-mail with a press release.

In the past, say about 1985, which really wasn't that long ago, it would take forever and a day to send out mailings to everyone, just to let them know about an upcoming release. The other aspect is having my works available for sale directly through Zero Music. Having a web site where fans can easily purchase my works, listen to audio clips, and read up on the latest reviews, has been nothing but fantastic! The web as a resource is absolutely invaluable for niche artists like myself.

AV:  How much further do you see the Internet becoming involved in the way that we listen to and distribute music in the future?

JJ:  I feel that it's going to completely change the way people interact with music. Some examples of this would be:

*the digital download - where people can download individual songs of their favorite artists

*interactive music - where people can actively participate with an artist's composition or create their own

*on-line musician collaborations - musicians across the world collaborating in real time on recording projects via a virtual studio

*on-line performances - artists performing live on the Internet

These are just a few of the many different ways in which the technology side of things is changing the way people interact with music. For the musician personally, I think the biggest change will be the ability to directly interact with their fan base and have direct control over the way their works are accessed. I really think that the days of the "big" labels are gone. That smaller and more focused labels are becoming the norm. the only real snag that hasn't been properly addressed is on-line performing rights and royalties, and usage tracking, but I think those things will iron themselves out over the next few years.

AV:  Tell me about your website Zero Music and what you hope to accomplish with it.

JJ:  I started Zero Music originally as an outlet for my releases and it has grown over the years as an outlet for other artists who are creating very fine ambient/ethereal/atmospheric works. In the beginning I had hoped to create a one stop home for my music, where fans could listen, purchase and read about my latest works and goings on. Now it has become more of an on-line store, supporting new and relatively unheard of artists that are creating great works. Artists such as Darshan, Numina, Stephen Philips etc..... I guess I hope to shed more light on a style of music that really is an essential part of my life and hopefully along the way, people may discover something new or different than what is considered mainstream. In such a hurried and quick paced world, perhaps they may find something at Zero Music that will help slow down time for a little while.

AV:  I've seen on your site that you have a new CD coming up soon entitled The Butterfly Chamber, what can you tell us about the creation of this new CD and what can we expect from it in regards to the music you are presenting?

JJ:  Over the past few months I've been experimenting with "self-evolving" sounds in the studio. The sounds are generally created in one of two ways. #1 - one single instrument playing a single patch that simply plays continuously for minutes at a time, continuously evolving and shifting without repeating upon itself for about 2-10 minutes. #2 A mixture of 1-4 synths running their own separate "self evolving" patches at the same time, but not in sync. The resulting soundscapes never quite sound the same and always surprise me when I just set them off running and let them do their thing. It's sort of a play on the generative music concept. With The Butterfly Chamber, I've incorporated these "self evolving" soundscapes as base material for compositions, and then mix them together with live studio performances. The resulting tracks vary from soft flowing,shifting sounds, to almost song like structures. There will also be a piece or two on The Butterfly Chamber that incorporate some violin performances from Susan Johns. The general feel of the CD will be open and melodic.

AV:  What are your feelings about MP3's and the future that they will play in the release of your own music?

JJ:  I see it as another tool with which to reach fans and give them access to works directly through their computer. For me personally, I plan on using the MP3 medium to offer recordings of live performances and possibly other works. I think that as the web begins to go wireless, and MP3 playback devices become more and more accessible and are incorporated into vehicle receivers, then the real fun is going to start. That's going to open a whole new ball game for independents, such as myself.

AV:  Are you a real equipment and software horse or are you willing to stand pat with equipment that is just a tad older but gets the job done for you?

JJ:  As far as computer equipment goes, I'm quite happy to stay a couple of years behind the state of the art devices. With that said, I am currently running two self built computers in the studio. One for tracking and one for software synth and sampler. They both are running just fine (knocks on wood). I really feel that some people keep buying new equipment, simply because they are looking for "the holy grail" of music making devices.

Devices that will transform their sound into something spectacular. At least that's what all the manufacturers want you to think, so that you'll buy all their gadgets. For me I've got both new and old synthesizers that are going to keep me busy for the next 10-20 years exploring their programming depths. To be honest with you, I really see no need to buy another piece of synth hardware in the future, because I've hardly even scratched the surface of the programming capabilities of the ones I have now. Beyond the hardware, lies the way that the hardware gets USED for compositional purposes. This is really what I like to focus on and until I've exhausted all the possibilities of my current set-up, I don't plan on purchasing any new gear in the near future. Heck I'm just starting to get a handle on MIDI!

AV:  What other projects are you eyeing in the near future? Anything concrete enough to let our readers in on?

JJ:  Well, I've just completed a long form project "Lost at Dunn's Lake" with Stephen Philips and a project with Ma Ja Le titled "Seed" was just completed a few weeks ago. The one I'm really excited about is a collaboration release that I've been working on with Robert Scott Thompson over the past year titled "Forgotten Places". Our sound styles mix together as if they have been in conversation for years. We're both very excited about it's upcoming release and are looking forward to a follow up release. I've also got a live performance coming up this spring at The Gathering in Philadelphia. I'm really looking forward to performing out there. The ambient/space music scene  there is unlike anything else in the U.S.

AV:  Any final thoughts or words that you would like to leave with our readers?

JJ:  I really enjoyed this interview, thank you for having me here Michael.