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Kraig Johnson on working with Grant Hart, Ray Davies, and his pals in the Program

Kraig Jarret Johnson and the Program

Kraig Jarret Johnson and the Program Steven Cohen

Run Westy Run, Iffy, Golden Smog, the Jayhawks—Kraig Johnson has a long and impressive rock resume.

Tonight, he’ll add nine new songs to his catalog as Kraig Jarret Johnson and the Program release their debut self-titled full-length through Susstones at the Turf Club. It’s their first record since their EP over a decade ago, and it reunites Johnson with his Program bandmates: producer/musician Ed Ackerson, singer-songwriter David Poe, and drummer Peter Anderson, with additional contributions from Jim Boquist.

The new album showcases the band’s extraordinary musicianship and camaraderie, creating a powerful alchemy of psychedelic, power pop, and alt-country. The music is both dark and light—often shifting mood within the same song—and the lyrics display Johnson’s uniquely playful humor and wry word twists.

We spoke with Johnson before tonight’s Turf Club show about the new album, the time he spent working with the Kinks’ Ray Davies, and his friendship with Grant Hart

City Pages: Your songs seem to have a story to them. Do you write from past experiences?

Kraig Johnson: It’s all in the mood, I think. A lot of it does come from experiences. I think “Silent Side of Town” came out really fast. It was something I was doing that morning.

A lot of these songs came together when I was out of town. When I would come back to Minneapolis, I’d always get in touch with Ed [Ackerson], and then if I could get David [Poe] to come and meet us, it would be the three of us. Then we’d spend a day and a half in Ed’s studio, hang out here, all three of us just playing weird—the overdubs on this are weird.

CP: How does it feel to have the record completed now?

KJ: I’m excited about it. I was messing around with it for a while, then it just never seemed like the right time. I was doing different things, other people were doing different things and it’s not that big a deal. I mean, people are putting music up online all the time. I just wasn’t feeling it. Then I started listening, and I was like, “once I do this...” then I started throwing out a bunch more, clearing out the closet of stuff. Also, I was doing new stuff, making room for the new.

CP: So you have songs in the works for another album with the Program?

KJ: Yes. With the same cats, all the same guys.

CP: You’ve got a long history of collaborations with friends, and people from around the world. Could you talk a little about the formation of the Program?

KJ: I met David Poe when he was doing a short stint, when I was playing with the Jayhawks, one of the first tours. We took up a quick friendship. He’d come back through town, hanging out, or I’d go to New York and hang out with him. We stayed friends. I toured with him in Europe, played bass. Then I did another tour with him where I played guitar for him. Then at point I said, “I’ve got a bunch of songs I want to record.” We had just got done doing a Jayhawks record with Ed, and I’ve known Ed forever too, and really liked working with him.

I’d done stuff with Peter [Anderson] before, because he was doing stuff with Iffy. So that was neat. We were like, “Hey, let’s do this.” We did a tour in Spain and some shows in New York and in Chicago. Everybody, like I said, does other things, so it’s neat to get everybody together again and do it.

CP: Tell me more about your artwork for the album cover. It’s beautiful.

KJ: I’m into doing collages. I did the Golden Smog collage for the last couple records, for us. I have books that I take pictures from, and print them out. I do painting. I thought, “Hey, this would be a cool record cover.” Then David’s putting print on it because he’s fast with that stuff and he’s got a good eye. The picture on the back of it is a leaf I found, that kind of looks like a Buddha. Or a pot leaf. [laughs].

But it’s just a leaf.

I’m constantly doing things in books. I have a lot of books, wall art and stuff. I think it’s a good release of whatever. Sit down and draw something, or do a collage. You can be like, “Wow, that didn’t take long and that’s satisfying.”

CP: What was it like playing with Ray Davies?

KJ: That was set up through the Jayhawks, by a friend of mine, John Jackson, who worked with Columbia. He was working on Ray’s record and said this band would be a great backup band. We were done touring with them, when we toured with them in Spain and we went and did a couple days at the Kinks’ studio, demos. Then those guys ended up going back there and doing the whole record, which is awesome. That was great. He was really cool.

I was telling him about at the time I bought tickets and saw him in Minneapolis at the Armory with Robert Palmer, warming him up. I skipped school and got tickets, and my mom got mad. Robert Palmer was touring Clues and I think it was the Kinks’ Low Budget tour. He goes “I remember that show!” I thought, “Come on, no way. That’s crazy.” He was funny. He was a great guy to hang out with. He had a ping-pong table in their studio and there were all these old photos. I thought, “Wow, this is where they recorded all their stuff.” I was a huge Kinks fan when I was a kid. Still am. He was a really great guy, sweet.

CP: The style of your new music is beautiful—psychedelic, power pop, ethereal, haunting. Would you talk about your approach with your guitar and the styling?

KJ: I think whatever comes out, is what it is. Some of the songs I did myself, in a Dictaphone or something. But I knew what I wanted and a lot of it just needed space and air to breathe. There’s a simplicity to it, but also then there’s a thing where none of it is a box kind of thing—not like “here’s four, and here’s four….” You listen and go, “Why did he go to that thing and didn’t come back to that thing again?” Or “Why is there only these two things?” I like that about it. I took stuff back and listened to it and was like, “eh.” Now, I was “Oh, I like it a lot,” when I start actually physically playing it, as opposed to just listening to it. It made sense to me then.

CP: The ethereal, mysterious, haunting elements...

KJ: There is a dark side to it, I think. And a light side to it too.

CP: It’s got your humor, dark humor...

KJ: Yeah! [laughs]

CP: Your song, “Somebody’s Wasted” is humorous but takes a bit of a dark turn.

KJ: I think “Somebody’s Wasted” is a good closer because it’s interesting to listen to with headphones. Remember the old days when you were younger and you listened to things with headphones? And you heard things that you didn’t hear when you just listened without headphones? And you’d go back and listen again and would be like, “Wow.” It’s not overthinking it, but something you can listen to and space out to while you’re making a collage or something like that, it makes you happy. [laughs]

CP: You started playing as a teen. What were your first experiences like?

KJ: The first bar I started playing at was called the Yukon Club. I wasn’t even old enough to be in there—I was 17 I think. That was a 3.2 joint on Lake Street. I started playing at the Uptown Bar when I started playing with [Run Westy Run]. I was a little older then, 18 or so. But I played with a couple bands at the Uptown before the Westies too. It was the Tusslers, that Terry [Fisher] from the Westies and I played in. Me and Terry had this other band called the Portables for awhile. We’d play at Duffy’s and stuff. That’s probably when we were like, 19 or something. Then my brothers came back from New York and San Francisco and I started playing with them.

The Uptown Bar—that used to be a fun place to do a lot of crazy shows. We had a lot of crazy bands. I remember Smashing Pumpkins opened for the Westies there, when they were just kids, too. It was really crazy. We had these shows where we’d bring in bags of leaves and open up the back door behind the stage, and have a leaf blower there, and blow leaves all over the audience and stuff like that. [laughs] The janitor didn’t like that.

CP: Let’s talk about Kraig Jarret Johnson and the Program live show. What can we expect?

KJ: Just a lot of good vibes and a lot great music. A lot of fun. It’s going to be cool. There won’t be any flash pods or fog machines, but I think we’re gonna make up for it with the music. You never know, I might come up with a lighting scam at some point but I’m not going to go too crazy. I can’t find my fog machine.

We haven’t gotten together for a while, just a couple rehearsals. So we haven’t played in a while. That’s always fun, when you take a step back and do it with somebody. Then everybody can feed off that and that’s going to be awesome.

CP: Friendship seems like such a strong element in Minneapolis music, with friends forming bands together and starting new collaborations, and you’ve always a strong collaborative spirit throughout your career. What would you say about this element?

KJ: It’s always great doing music. I’ve been fortunate to do it with my brothers and my friends throughout time. I’ve always made great friends with the people played with. I stepped away and was doing Iffy and different things and was in New York and then came back. They reissued the Jayhawks and I we got together and did that. We’re still friends.

Not to sound corny but it’s a great thing making music and then when you all get along too, it’s a great thing too, hanging out with people and doing things together. You always hear about “We couldn’t stand each other. After the gig, he went to his room and I went to mine! We rode in different cars.” Who wants to do that? Life’s a little too short.

CP: Do you want to say something about working with Grant Hart?

KJ: When Run Westy Run first started hanging out with him, he started a label, just to put out our first 45, and he didn’t have to do that. It was crazy. He’s like “OK, I’ll put out a single.” It was “Dizzy Road” on Tontine Records, a little thing we did at a two-track recording studio.

Grant was also friends with Peter Buck and told him, “Hey, let’s produce this band together.” Then he played us to Greg Ginn and that’s how we got on SST.

I mean, he was just like... till the last thing we did together, when I was singing a song and I turned around and he was there. He crept on me. I loved him. He was so cool. We toured together. We did so much... it was another one of those things that... hopefully he’s up there and he and my brother Kyle are laughing, you know? It’s all groovy. He was a gem, that’s for sure.

Kraig Jarret Johnson and the Program
With: The Shackletons
Where: Turf Club
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri. Apr. 13
Tickets: $12/$14; more info here