Something about Dax Johnson is very typically Spokane, and I don't mean that as an insult. Maybe it's his look -- tattooed, with long hair and an interesting bunch of facial stubble. Perhaps it's his disposition -- he didn't appear to mind that I spilled a latte on his cellular phone (although he did make me apologize to the phone). Perhaps it is his Spokanesque philosophy on life -- Dax Johnson goes by his middle name, plays multiple pianos for a living and doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks about his job.
"I've had three jobs, for three days each," he says. "I'm horrible, I just don't know what to do. When I was in college, I would try to get hired [playing venues] during the summertime. I had a bunch of original material, but no one would hire me. I had dreadlocks, I would pretty much just wear whatever was the style. I didn't feel like dressing up [for job interviews]; I just wanted to be whoever I was. Nobody would hire me."
This attitude on the part of potential employers, and some discussions with street musicians, led Johnson to realize that he could probably manage to eke out a living as a street pianist.
So eke he did.
Johnson related an anecdote about how his first bit of encouragement actually came from a guy who watched Dax and his buddies hauling his piano out of the van. "Here's five bucks for the effort, dude," said his anonymous first benefactor. The rest is history.
Johnson soon built a custom pulley system to assist in getting his piano -- at that time a Wurlitzer upright -- into and out of the back of his van. He drove around Spokane and played his piano in various places -- High Drive, downtown and so on. Fame was quick in coming, and rightfully so -- who hauls a piano around and plays for tips, anyway?
"I played on street corners in the mid- to late-1990s," Johnson recalls. "I played across from the Bon for about two days before Doug Clark came down and did a huge article on me. Two days after that, Q-6 News came down and did a huge story on me. Three days after that, I was hittin' the road. It was like, bam, bam, bam. I put some shoes on somewhere in there. I didn't play the piano in Spokane very much -- probably about two weeks, actually. But playing on the street is something everybody focuses on."
Dax Johnson's Saturday performance at the Met marks the first time he has played Spokane in three years. The setup of the show is unique -- Johnson will play his pianos as a local puppetry troupe, Spokane's underground puppeteers, Panacea for Hirelings, will perform a shadow puppet show on the stage behind him. Johnson is stoked about the show.
"These guys do really interesting, elaborate things," he says. "They'll do different stories for every song of mine. We've been rehearsing this for a month -- a month and a half, probably."
Johnson also feels a connection with this troupe of local artists who are up to something odd, something way out of the ordinary.
"We're both from Spokane," he enthuses. "We're both from a 'different' scene, but the scenes that we're in are different -- opposite -- from most people. For instance, I might be a piano player, but my approach towards piano is completely different from someone who went to school, who learned how to stand up straight. My chair is an actual rocking chair. Same with these guys, they're from the Spokane punk scene, they have a punk mentality, but shadow puppetry is one of the oldest forms of entertainment in the world. Their approach towards it is kind of like my approach to piano -- very intricate, very bizarre, very ass-kicking."
Need a Ride? -- From Athens, Ga., the college town that gave us REM, the B-52s and Pylon, comes a wholly different kind of homegrown electric sound. A sound that manages to freeze-frame a moment in the last century when shoegazers roamed the Earth, unfurling tinseled tendrils of amplifier drone and shards of shimmering, ephemeral guitar-imagined vistas on a massive scale. When ambient textures collided with songwriting sensibilities weaned on punk -- and tuneful chaos miraculously emerged.
From that same nebula comes Maserati, an instrumental quartet that grasps what bands like My Bloody Valentine, the Cocteau Twins and Tortoise had accomplished in the creation of such soundscapes, yet manages to infuse its own work with a healthy dose of now. The band is on a collision course with Spokane for a show at the B-Side this Saturday night with Mean's Machine and local math rockers Chinese Sky Candy.
Lovely saturation, orchestrated feedback and jaw-dropping manipulations of dynamics and space are the band's trademarks as recorded documents such as 2002's Language of Cities and Confines of Heat, a new split EP/DVD on Kindercore with kindred spirits, the Mercury Program, will attest.
Live, they kick it dirtier and with even more force and feedback. The band (guitarists Coley Dennis and Matt Cherry, bassist Steve Scarborough, and drummer Phil Horan) reportedly blew plenty of jaded minds a couple of weeks ago at the Kindercore showcase portion of the CMJ New Music Marathon in NYC. Instead of hiding the drummer behind the guitar squad (the way most bands do), Maserati sets up with wildman Horan right up front where his flying sticks and giant Afro-ed 'do literally take center stage. Yet cohesion rules the day whenever this band achieves ignition and as Maserati's deceptively simple (and often sublime) instrumental songs expand with surprising emotional and melodic content.
Through Thick and Thin -- The past year has seen the Five Foot Thick camp soar to stratospheric highs and suffer desperate lows. But the fellas have weathered it all and are back on top of their game. The year of 2003 will be deeply embedded in the minds of the band and its fans.
The band signed with New Jersey-based Eclipse records and piloted the Five Foot Thick machine to new heights on the local scene and prepared for their shot at the big time. All cylinders were firing when in September a devastating fire at the group's practice space wiped out the bands gear and nearly their entire cache of merchandise. Defeat was never an option for Spokane's hardcore heroes. Rising up from the ashes of disaster, Five Foot Thick soldiered on, putting together a string of benefit shows at home and around the region that helped them return to form and get over the mental anguish associated with such a setback. Cut to the present: The second album from the group, Blood Puddle (Eclipse) has just been released nationally, and their label is pushing it in a big way.
The press accompanying the release is staggering. There's a pile of clippings associated with the band, its huge regional influence and a real slick poster of the boys that looks like it could be hanging in any national music store chain. But Five Foot Thick's success hasn't come easy. The band has a work ethic rare among bands, independent or otherwise. It's that drive that has landed them onstage alongside such successful metal acts as Drowning Pool, Godsmack and Slayer. Pretty good company for some homeboys from the Lilac City hood. In many ways Blood Puddle has the potential to be a huge jumping off point for the band. The heavy-handed deathblow of the music is undeniably intense and incorporates hardcore ethics, mixed with just the right amount of eyeliner. The presentation of the album has had a wicked makeover. In this business, image counts for probably more than it should, but Five Foot Thick has harnessed that visual element and used it to expose themselves to the masses. Highly professional cover art now adorns the outer casing of their disc and it even contains bonus material in the form of a raucous video for the song "Unfounded."
In true FFT form, the band has left nothing out when it comes to quality and attention to detail. Blood Puddle has undergone a complete remastering of its already 10-megaton sound, and the results are a bludgeoning spectrum of dissonant dirty guitars, two turntables and a volatile microphone. If you thought the original mix on Blood Puddle was impressive, the updated version will blow minds. The band is now left to translate this record into their signature maniacal live show, which has never been a problem for them in the past. It is this live show that is largely responsible for their success up to this point. Newcomers to the band can expect a thorough schooling in FFT live insanity 101. In the coming months, the guys will be crisscrossing the Northwest to promote the album and convert new followers.
Time has proven that Five Foot Thick is no fluke. This band has been hitting it hard for seven years and has been relentless in their pursuit of success. They walk the walk and are on the edge of success at the next level. As their record company notes, "Only the scope of that success remains in question."
Unsus-Staind -- Listen up Staind ticket holders: The band, which was slated to perform with Sevendust at the Spokane Convention Center last Tuesday but had to cancel the show due to lead singer Aaron Lewis' tender throat polyps (yuk!) and severely strained vocal cords, has rescheduled their Spokane show for January 17, 2004. All previously purchased tickets will be honored.
What can we say but, dude, learn how to sing.
Publication date: 11/13/03