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Mike Johnston

Interview by Sean Mitchell // March 28 2014
Mike Johnston

When I explain things to people – it doesn’t even have to be drums, it can be astronomy, physics – I just get so excited.

Mike Johnston approaches drumming much the same as the Dalai Lama approaches life, with little ego and in full service of the passion that drives him forward. I have never met a human being so incredibly in tune with who he is and what he is here on earth to do. Johnston's career and his online teaching website, MikesLessons.com, is the epitome of trusting a higher consciousness and allowing your true self to shine.

In his twenties, as his band was poised to become the 90's next big act, Mike opted to give up fame and fortune to pursue a life of education in the drumming industry. At that point, in an age before social media and the web as we know it, MikesLessons.com was literally an impossible dream, and the best he could hope for was a spot as a drum teacher at a local drum shop.

Some say hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, those who thought him crazy are now humbled by his success. But guys like Mike are proof that when you trust your gut and work toward that dream you just can't shake, there are no obstacles except those perceived. 



Mike, we have something in common in that we both work with our wives. So here’s an odd question Mike; how did you meet Amber?

Wow – that’s definitely a new podcast question! I was at a gym here in Sacramento. I was leaving the gym and she was coming in as I was leaving and it was just one of those things where I was like, “Man, that looks like my wife. That doesn't look like a girl I would date – that looks like my wife.” So I just let her walk past and I got in my car, then I decided if I don’t ask her out I’ll never know. But I also know that a lot of women don’t want to be hit on in the gym, so I didn't want to be that guy. I went to a grocery store and I got a greeting card and I filled it out; I told her how beautiful I thought she was and put my phone number in it. I went into the gym, found her, handed it to her and then I ran—cause I didn't know if her boyfriend was working out on the free weights somewhere and he was going to throw me.

She called me and we started dating and now we've been together for ten years.

I’d say that’s a great story!

Then as Mike’s Lessons was growing it was getting to the point where I couldn't handle the administrative side—the emails ... for our camps we have people flying in from every other country ... so I was getting ready to hire somebody. She was working in insurance and she is just the queen of customer service—she is obsessed with customer service—so it was like, I’m going to pay somebody to do exactly what you do … why don’t you just do it?

When we built our facility, we built her her own office so that we’re never actually working together in the same room to get sick of each other, that kind of thing. It works out great.

Nice to have someone there that’s as passionate about it as you are.

Yeah, invested in it on every level. That’s something I would never expect to get from an employee so it’s pretty rad to have my wife doing it where she really understands how deeply I care about other drummers – she gets the vision.

You’ve been doing a lot of clinics now the last couple of years with JP Bouvet and Matt Halpren how did this develop?

It started at Meinl Fest 2012. We were the three Americans on that festival, so I think just because Americans are not very bright (we’re the only ones there that don’t speak multiple languages). So everyone could talk to each other except for the three of us morons that did well in school. So the language barrier bonded us right away just because we were the three Americans,  but we were also the three guys deeply invested in education. At the time, Matt had BandHappy.com and I had MikesLessons.com of course, and then JP was thinking about doing an educational based site which he has now—which is JPBouvetMusic.com.

We had a great time; it was all three of our first festivals. None of us had played a drum festival, so we were very excitedly nervous and we were there to support each other. JP played first and Matt and I were in the front row. We didn’t even really know him yet but we knew—dude, he’s got to be nervous; he’s twenty-one years old, he’s playing at Meinl Fest with Benny Greb and Jost Nickel—so Matt and I sat in the front row. Then when I played, I looked down and there’s JP and Matt cheering me on and I don’t even really know these guys yet. I was like, “Man, that is so frickin’ cool.” It’s even cool for the fans who are sitting next to JP Bouvet and Matt Halpern.

After we came home, we stayed in touch. JP was talking to me about doing a clinic tour and he was asking for some advice and for some locations that maybe I’d been to and could recommend. I remember thinking, Dude, you know what would be really good for you is if you could do it in front of my crowd. I’ve done enough clinics that I know that I could at least pack a music store. So I was like, “I wish I could just give that to you.” I was thinking of social media ways to tell my students, “You need to go see this!” So then I thought, Why don’t we just do it together? As soon as that happened it was like, we can’t do it without Matt.

What I didn’t plan on was that those two guys and their circle of friends are the two guys that do things and get things done. I’m always used to being that guy ... but then I ask people to do something and they always say yes, but it never actually happens. I wasn’t counting on the fact that they were also the two guys that actually do what they say. So I asked JP and he’s like, “I’m in”; I ask Matt and he’s like, “I’m in; let’s do it.

I said, “No, I’m not kidding, I will actually do this. We’re not going to get paid cause there is no way that Meinl can afford for all three of us to be out at once.” And they said, “No, let’s do it just to do it.” So we called Meinl and asked if they’d at least help us with the booking and support it which they did – or other companies did.

It was maybe a month later and we just show up in Baltimore, Maryland in Matt’s home town to start a tour. I don’t want to sound like a hippy but it’s been so magical – those moments that we get to share with the crowd are just incredible.

You are all such fascinating and equally accomplished players. How do you guys balance the dynamics of the clinic and not step all over each other? 

Yea, it’s kind of funny. The crowd is allowed to sit in on a three person drum lesson that’s happening instead of it being this performance that’s for the crowd. We’re really learning from each other. That’s probably one of the biggest comments I get from people – they say it was fun to watch the clinic but it was even more fun to watch the interaction between JP, Matt and myself. We are trying to pick up everything. There was probably three different clinics that I actually wrote things down on the snare drum head and I took a picture of it when the clinic was over so I could remember it when I got home from the tour and got back to practice. It was a really cool concept that Matt came up with.

There are two things that I think are pretty original about the tour: one, we never repeat a clinic. So we’re in the drive on the way to the clinic (we’ve just taught three clinics really when we do a night, 'cause we each get twenty minutes), it’s like “Ok, what are you teaching tonight?” We push ourselves to impress each other as educators. We all have our home-run clinics, it’s like, “Dude, if I’m doing PASIC, I’m doing this.” We know it will work and it’s a crowd pleaser. But we don’t let ourselves do that on these tours. Then the other thing that’s really cool is there’s no order – there’s no headliner or no opener. The crowd picks our names out of a hat and that’s how we determine the order every single night. We don’t want there to be any hierarchy – we are equals, we’re best friends, so you guys choose. I’m sure for the Periphery fans when they pull out Matt’s name first, it’s like – wait, Matt’s going first? But no, there is no first; when he’s done then I will go and then JP will go or JP will go and then I’ll go. But I can tell you this, since we all open with a drum solo generally for our clinics, it’s really good when JP goes first because he’ll usually give some wisdom on soloing right before you play – so you’re like, "Yeah, I’m totally going to do that." It sucks when you go before him and then he gives that wisdom. You’re like, “I didn’t do any of that ... like, I’m terrible.” It’s a lot of fun.

JP studied at Berkeley and how about Matt?

I think with Matt it was kind of the same as me which would just be school music program, all the way, and then right around college time getting a signed band and it’s just deciding between touring or college. Also, an insane amount of private lessons. I’ve had private lessons my whole life and I think Matt has as well. Just being that student that was always going to a music store. If I had twenty-five bucks, I never went towards the gear; I went towards the books. Horacio Hernandez has a new book out – I’m totally into that. I’d buy Marco Minnemann’s Interdependence Book and realize I’m the worst drummer that ever lived. I think Matt, JP and I are “that” entire guy just trying to push personally, all the time.

Mike you studied with a guy who wrote all the books I took drum lessons with. How did you end up studying with Peter Magadini?

Here’s how it went down. I was in San Francisco with my band, Simon Says, doing demos for an album and then we were going to go to LA and actually do it. At the time the record industry was awesome so it was well-funded; we had rental cars and everything was great. I’d heard of this place, I think it was called Drum World at the time, in San Francisco, and I wanted to go there, so I took my rental car and went there. When I would tour I was used to popping into music stores and asking, “Hey, is anyone free to give me a lesson? I don’t care who they are; I’m sure I can learn from somebody.” So I did this at this place 'cause I had the whole day off. This was like the all-star Bay-area place for lessons – I didn’t know that. On staff that day they had David Garibaldi, Tony Williams and Pete Magadini. I took a private drum lesson with [Pete Magadini] there at that store.

We were playing and he said, “Dude, you’re actually like a drummer,” and I was like, “I want to do this for the rest of my life; I’m not a guy trying to learn how to play the instrument.” He’s like, “Why did you sign up for drum lessons? You can clearly play and you know your stuff.” I said because I definitely didn’t know everything. I think he was kind of impressed with that and then he asked, “Do you want to study with me and actually be my student?” I was like, “Yes, very much so.” He put me through a little audition process and then he said, “I want to teach you out of my house, not at a music store—I don’t want halogen lights; I want to teach you on my drum set.” I lived in Sacramento so it was a two-and-a-half-hour drive to where he lives but that was nothing to study with Pete Magadini.

He was really instrumental in making me make the switch from leaving the touring life into teaching. Between him and Roy Burns, they were the two people that kind of grabbed me and said, “Look, you’re good at the drums, whatever (I clearly was not great at the drums; I’m not natural at it; I’m not the guy that sits down and it just flows and is beautiful, every note is a struggle), but when you explain something, you light up in a whole different way. You might be meant to do that for the rest of your life.”

At the time I was in a signed band, I have the dream – we’re opening for Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine. It took somebody I looked up to to tell me, “You’re good at something but you might have a talent for something else.” And when he said it, it was such a relief. It was almost like coming out of the closet; it was like, “Thank you, man." I’m trying so hard to be this rock drummer and it’s not where my heart is. When I explain things to people – it doesn’t even have to be drums, it can be astronomy, physics – I just get so excited. It was him that gave me the “it’s ok to like education.” I still studied with Pete for a long time after that and he’s been a huge mentor for me for a very long time.

Now did you study with Roy Burns as well?

No, Roy was just through Aquarian. Pete is an Aquarian artist so Pete hooked me up with Roy and said, “You need to start talking to this guy.” Roy Burns was the first person to ever take out a full-page ad on me. It was five years ago, MikesLessons.com had just started, everyone in the drum industry was laughing at me (This will never work; online lessons is the dumbest idea ever.) He was like, “This is the future; I believe in you, I know you won’t let it fail. We’re taking out a full-page ad.” At that time a Modern Drummer full-page ad was $4,000 and they ran it for six months which was a $24,000 commitment to a drum teacher. That was so unheard of at the time. Roy has been there for me forever and we just did a photo shoot together for an ad that we have coming out in the April issue of Modern Drummer. He’s telling me stories that still just blow my mind. If he’d of had social media, he would have been the coolest cat ever!

What did you see or hear with Aquarian that made you want to become an endorser? 

With my career, what happened was I got a record deal when I was twenty-one. I didn’t even know what endorsements were and I was buying all my gear, of course. My producer at the time was a big-time producer and he was doing Green Day and Chris Isaak—whatever was big at the time, he was doing all the records. He said, “You just tell me who you want to play for and I’ll make the calls.” I didn’t know how endorsements worked so I said, “Okay, DW, Paiste.” Then with heads I went down to the local music shop in Hollywood where we were recording and I bought a full set of Remos, a full set of Aquarians, and I don’t even think Evans was carried at the store I was at yet; I think I got Attack drum heads. I put all those on and when it came to Remo and Aquarian I couldn't tell a quality difference – for whatever reason, Aquarian just felt more like me. That was what I liked the feel of, so no big deal; I didn’t look at their rosters 'cause we didn’t even have social media yet, so he made the call and I had my endorsements – they were entry level endorsements.

Then what happened six years later, after Roy had convinced me that education was my path, I quit my band and I lost my record deal of course. I was going to teach at a local music store so I called all of my companies and said, “Hey, I’d like to be taken off the roster. I’m no good to you right now; I’m going to be teaching at a local music store – there’s nothing I can do for you.” All of them were like, “Sounds good,” and I was gone. Aquarian was like, “Why would we take you off of our roster?” And I’m like, “I’m not signed; I’m not playing with any big bands and I have no plans to – I am going to do this for the rest of my life.”Chris – my A&R– and Roy said, “Dude, we signed you; we didn’t sign your band. You’re with us for life.”

That was when I was twenty-six, I’m thirty-seven now. I have all the respect in the world for Remo; I have all the respect for Evans—I’m a drummer; I like gear—but unless something happens to Roy, my A&R and the entire infrastructure of that company, it’s loyalty for life because they showed it to me. I love it! I think they’re a good enough company that if I went to Roy and said, “Hey, I really like this Remo product or this Evans product,” they’re open enough to be like, “Okay, well what is it that you like? Maybe we can create something that makes you happy.” That’s all you could ever ask for from any company. And they’re small – after you’ve shaken the fifth hand, you’re done with the company so you get to know everybody that works there. That’s really cool.

Read part 2 of Mike Johnston's interview by following this link - http://www.theblackpage.net/interviews/mike-johnston-part-ii



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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