King of Castle

Last updated 07:39 08/11/2012
Greg Johnson
Fairfax NZ

Live reputation: Greg Johnson can’t wait another day to get back here for his tour.

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Greg Johnson is celebrating 20 years in the music industry and tells Tracey Cooper how he's managed to survive on the tough streets of Los Angeles.

Fans of the television crime show Castle should keep an eye out for an episode in season five that involves a band.

The band is made up of actors but the music they play on the popular show is 100 per cent pure New Zealand.

It's one of the gigs Kiwi expat Greg Johnson has picked up in the 10 years he's been living in Los Angeles and he says it was fun to host the stars of the show in his home studio while it was being recorded.

Johnson, 44, has also recorded a song for the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, which has been turned into a promo for the museum's new dinosaur exhibit, and has had songs feature on television shows such as The Hills, Party Of Five and High School Reunion.

Not a bad result for a Kiwi boy mixing it up in the tough world of Los Angeles.

Surely, if the museum wanted a musician to write a song for them, they could have got Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters or any number of top performers.

"That's right, you are up against that kind of level," he says.

"Although he probably would have wanted more money than what I got. I feel pretty good landing those gigs in a town like this where it's full of producers, it's full of people with really beautiful studios and a lot of songwriters, so you know, it is competitive."

Johnson is heading back to New Zealand this month for a tour to commemorate his 20th anniversary in the industry and to release his new album, Exits.

The tour opens in Hamilton on November 14 at the Meteor and Johnson says it'll be good to be back in the city.

"I haven't played a proper show in Hamilton for I can't remember how long. I came through with Boh Runga on the acoustic tour about three years ago, maybe four, but that wasn't with my band."

It's been even longer since Johnson first made a name for himself, with 1992's Isabelle, perhaps his best-known song.

With the Greg Johnson Set, he was a mainstay of the early 90s Kiwi live music scene and picked up two Tui awards, eight top-20 albums and an extensive collection of hits including Don't Wait Another Day, Liberty, Save Yourself and It's Been So Long.

There's no secret to longevity in what can be a tough industry, he says.

"It's perseverance as much as anything. Being able to survive the hard times as well as the good," he says.

"It's like anything - peaks and valleys and it's a rollercoaster and all those cliches but it's true. A lot of people aren't prepared for that, they think that once you have some great sales and you're at the top of the charts that it'll carry on that way, but it doesn't. You have to fight your way back up again. It's like any business; you're not guaranteed a spot at the top, you've got to keep doing it and keep writing good music too."

It good, lyrically-driven pop music which has sustained Johnson over the years and although he's based in Los Angeles, regular trips home are good for both personal and professional reasons.

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"I've been here 10 years now and didn't have to flip any burgers. I had to get a bit creative with the music there for a while to get the bills paid, but it's all been music so it's been great. Partly the reason I've been able to do that is because I've come back to New Zealand and toured and kept my business going there, that kept me afloat," he says.

"It's nice to have stuff to do on two sides of the planet now. I've been back every year at least once, visiting family, doing shows, tours and that."

The New Zealand show will be something of a change of scene, with Johnson spending most of his time lately producing other artists' work.

"I've not been doing many shows this year. I played Nashville, plus one or two other private shows and one in the Caribbean, that was cool, but mainly I'm in the studio here. I've been producing this new record, producing all kinds of stuff actually with a couple of singer songwriters here, I've got my own set up quite nice now."

"But I did a show for the Rugby World Cup last year and we kicked it up to the full electric band and it was great so we decided to do a tour like a rock 'n roll band and 20 years is a good excuse," he says.

"Because it's a 20th anniversary I'm definitely going to be pulling out a few obscure ones from the early records. I think that's only fair to the older fans, and it'll be fun to do them."

"We'll play the hits but the other half of the show will be a real smattering of stuff; some new, a few off the new record but it'll be a combination of all those things. We've got a fairly big catalogue now, like 120-150 songs, and it's great to have a catalogue we can draw on and we can mix them up."

He's lucky to have that back catalogue.

"You see some of these bands touring on the strength of one strong album that was 20 years ago and that must be a bit tiresome."

But decent artists who have stood the test of time are still worth backing, he says.

"I saw Morrisey a while ago, actually. He had a new song which sounds pretty good. All those old English bands which we thought had disappeared have all re-emerged. Some are better than ever, too.

"Apparently The Specials were amazing. They played one of the big festivals here, and I'm not surprised by that because they've had 20 more years' experience playing on their instruments and everything. People crave the old stuff and you know what, they provide a great show, those people.

"Certain bands have good live reputations. We'll hopefully have that as well and try and put on a decent show and have a bit of fun. It's not all just standing on stage staring at your navel. We did that in the 1980s."

On stage with Johnson during the tour will be Ted Brown (guitar, vocals, harmonica), Wayne Bell (drums, percussion, guitars), Ben King (guitar, vocals) and Mark Hughes (bass).

GET TO THE GIG

The Greg Johnson 20th anniversary tour kicks off on Wednesday, November 14, at the Meteor Theatre in Hamilton. Tickets are available from Ticketek. Greg Johnson discography As the Greg Johnson Set: The Watertable (1991) Everyday Distortions (1993) Vine Street Stories (1995) As Greg Johnson: Chinese Whispers (1997) Sea Breeze Motel (2000) Here Comes The Caviar (2004) Anyone Can Say Goodbye (2006) Seven Day Cure (2008) Secret Weapon (2010) Exits (released on November 9)

- Waikato

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