It’s Thursday, March 26, 2009 at the Bowery Electric in New York City, minutes before Electric Black’s first show, the show that could make or break them, and their drummer is late. Band members mull about the crowded underground space anxiously making small talk with people who have never heard of them, and have only come for the open bar. Their manager, Andreas Zettmeissl, is eager to take his mind off the concert starting late. New York is a competitive town: Bands that fail to acquire a fan base quickly tend to die fast, and Johnny B., lead singer/songwriter/driving creative force of Electric Black, has had a few amazing breaks in the process of getting this. There is the melancholic fear that maybe his luck has run out before the very first show.
Johnny B, as MySpace refers to him, is standing off stage right, leaning on the wall, curtained in shadow and aviator sunglasses. He doesn’t bother to talk; it seems useless amidst the club chatter and the distant rumble of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” He seems placid, until nervously he touches two fingers to his lips, remembers he no longer smokes, and shoves his hand in his pinstriped suit coat pocket. Somewhere underneath the glitzy rock star garb is (probably) a nicotine patch.
It’s not that he’s trying to save his voice—Johnny’s singing is always thick and full of rubble, drawing all-too-easy comparisons to Tom Waits. Restraint is his primary mode of operation. It’s why his suave but beat-up leather jacket, comfortable as his skin, doesn’t fit quite right.
“I’ve been there, man, all the cliché rocker addictions. It was hard, but I had to give them all up to get where I am now.” That struggle has colored Electric Black’s music. “My favorite was mixing everything together in a big brown pile, getting a bottle of Jameson’s and two sixers and locking myself in my room for twelve hours getting high as a kite and writing. ‘Weary Path’ [the fourth song on the debut self-title record. Electric Black] was written like that.” The same weariness of combating loneliness and addiction seeps into his work and his words—carefully chosen, cool.
Electric Black’s sound has the heart of an acoustic folk band in the body of a 1970s hard rock band, blending old school Americana songwriting (their only cover is a crushing run-through of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that feels completely in step with the remainder of their set), and instrumental complexity. “We’re a group of virtuosos,” Johnny states matter-of-factly.
Johnny once spent his time living alone in a New York loft, where he began to master guitar and stage performance in front of his friends. The loft days are over for now; his apartment, a short walk from Avenue B, is sparse, and he sleeps on a twin mattress on the floor. There are two folding chairs and a low table; most visitors, and Johnny himself, prefer to sit on floor cushions—a reminder of his Iranian heritage. There are also neatly stacked posters, advertising cards, and T-shirts all branded by hand with the Electric Black logo. Johnny has made many of them himself, and they take up more space than his personal possessions.
Johnny seems nothing like a typical musician about to release a debut album. He is not cocky, overconfident, disrespectful, or egotistical despite his formidable songwriting chops. Rather, he and his lyrics seem to breathe from the very act of living; weary, yet still kicking. Johnny spent a year’s worth of bleak economic times working on Electric Black, finding musicians to play and write with, and polishing his songs. It’s a gamble, perhaps the kind of fool’s errand that typified the Cobain-worshipping teenagers of the 90s, but there is a gravity in the way Johnny talks that conveys something deeper than confidence, an almost religious faith. “Electric Black’s almost a survival mechanism. I need to make music to live.” That vibrancy and urgency permeates the gypsy-rock Electric Black plays, giving it a dark, neoclassical edge.
Not surprisingly, Johnny loves vintage singer-songwriters with a taste for the dark and moody. He paraphrased Leonard Cohen after passing a sleeping, possibly dead, homeless man in a Manhattan gutter: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
The Sunday before the show, his other side, the performer, took to where the music comes from: the streets. To promote the show, Johnny took Electric Black’s accordionist, Melissa Elledge, and lead guitarist [former lead guitarist], Tucker Rountree, out with acoustic instruments, and one hundred balloons emblazoned with their logo. They marched through the streets jamming, and stopping traffic. The music, and the bulbous mass of multicolored rubber and helium drew peoples’ attention but Johnny kept it with a steely confidence. Women stopped in their six-inch heels to look at him, an old man clapped along to provide the drum beat for a few moments. He became like a sort of crazed pied piper once the band reached a small park, attracting a crowd of small children.
Andreas told Johnny that giving too many balloons to kids was a poor choice: children can’t pay to see rock bands in clubs. There was a guilty pause, and Johnny decided to play a song for the kids in the park anyway. This caused some debate amongst the band—isn’t the music a little bleak for children, the exposed love and liquor lost? After a minute of convincing, they played one song, “So It Goes.”
Johnny plays the same song, dedicating it to his stepmother, who was nearly barred entry to her son’s big debut—on her birthday no less—when the drummer returns from his extended nap and cigarette break. The crowd is dancing, booty grinding, intoxicated by strains of electric guitar and accordion running in with the gentle nihilism in the words. It seems Electric Black is coming alive into its own, not purely out of Johnny alone. The crowd likes it. I’m fairly certain many of them will follow Johnny and Electric Black to the next show.
Johnny stopped his mighty holler, and handed a balloon to a passing toddler in the space where the guitar solo is supposed to be. “Think he’ll remember the jerk who gave him a balloon?” Johnny asks to no one in particular. When Johnny sings it without a microphone in the park, he and Electric Black are reaching back to the early history of rock—the traveling bard, the man with no name who has seen more than we know. It’s a hard world for that kind of rock star, it just doesn’t jibe with the internet-driven corporate thing rock has become. Johnny does not compromise, if the black leather jacket, which gestures towards 80s hair rock, doesn’t fit right, then it will be the one to change before Johnny does.
Joseph Schafer is prying open his third eye at: http://www.extrememusicportal.blogspot.com