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Mike Johnston Part II

Interview by Sean Mitchell // April 14 2014
Mike Johnston Part II

I can’t control how good I am at the drums as far as talent level. I have what I have and I’ll try to get better every day, but I know that I can outwork somebody, I can control that.

We continue this week with part two of Mike Johnston's interview. Enjoy!



Mike how hard was that decision to give up what you had to go and teach?

It was really hard because we actually had a third album coming up and at that time in the industry every time you started a new album you got an advance. Because of our management and our management’s past we had a very large record deal so our advance was the next ten years of my income. So I had to literally decide, do I quit the band right now before that happens or do I go into this next album, knowing that my heart’s not in it and I’m obsessed with teaching and then have to live with the guilt? So I gave up the money. There was no mikeslessons.com – I don’t think Simon Says even had a website, that’s how new the internet was publicly. So it wasn’t even a forethought. It was like, I will teach private lessons in a music store for the rest of my life, I will have a car that gets me to work sometimes but I will live close enough that in case it doesn’t I can ride my bike, and I‘ll have a one bedroom apartment and I’ll be happy cause I’ll be teaching drums.

Just like Pete and Roy said, when I explain something to somebody that is my version of playing to a hundred thousand people. I get chills, I get all excited, I have to leave the room 'cause I get a little misty eyed (you just keep practising, I’ll be back [laughs]). I knew that I’d be happy but it was hard. I was twenty-six when this happened and it was scary. But that’s why guys like Pete and Roy are so important because they gave me that vibe of, “Look, you’re not going to die. You may miss out on this; you may think this was the wrong choice but I’m telling you, from somebody who’s been there and done that, there’s something different about you when you teach compared to when you play.”

I started to realize that in my playing in my past, everything that I ever learned was never for me; it was always so I could explain it to someone else. Even when I was sixteen I would learn something out of Future Sounds and I would run to school the next day and be like, “Dude, have you guys ever thought about doing this – and if you popped every third accent it would create this rolling polyrhythm that goes over the bar line." Everything I’ve ever learned was so I could show it to someone else.

Has MikesLessons.com realized its potential?

Mikeslessons.com is actually a physical building now and that’s something I never planned on. It was suppose to always be run out of the spare bedroom of mine and my wife’s house. As far as where it’s going, my big business step for 2014 is being clearer to the public on what I actually do because it can be a little cloudy sometimes. I want it to be very clear that my YouTube videos are tips and tricks. These are things I don’t feel comfortable charging for, they’re fun. Showing you a lick that will get you fired in your next gig, I can’t charge you for that. I understand as drummers we dig it, but there is always the responsible music side of what we do and then there’s the fireworks side of I-dig-the-drum-set. So that’s what YouTube is for. It’s my outlet and it’s my way to give back to the people that gave me a career in the first place.

The pre-recorded lessons won’t have a lot of personal stuff to them. I want them to be like an encyclopedia where if you type in “the samba” you get the samba –it’s me teaching you the samba in under five minutes and you can do it.

In the live lessons if I’m teaching a samba then I have a half-hour for us to explore the music of Brazil, explore how did that music make its way to America. Let’s talk about the variations I play. I want to make sure that there’s three separate entities.

I imagine the drummer on his way to a gig in a studio and they’ve said they’ve got a couple of samba tracks and then one’s going to be a little bio thing and he’s like, “What the hell is a bio?” He can go on Mikeslessons.com, download it immediately, watch it in the parking lot and walk in and play it and it’s good. That’s what my iPod lessons are for. Then if he’s wondering how the bio is related to the samba and bossanova, since they’re all from Brazil, that’s what the live lessons are for—let’s talk about that. I think 2014 is more about clarity and dividing my three things up – YouTube, iPod lessons, and live lessons – so people know why I make all three of these. There actually very different even though they’re always educational.

The other thing is I have a few people in my life that are very close to me and know how overly emotional I am about teaching and people getting better. I want to let a little more of that show through in my video content. I’m kind of a wise-ass-funny-guy sometimes, but if you were sitting in front of me right now and we were struggling with something you were working on and then I was able to find the one thing that allowed you to break through and it worked for you, if I was in the room for that I would honestly get choked up.

What did your parents do for a living?

Dad was kind of like the travelling sales guy; he was also a Hell’s Angel. (I’m the opposite of my dad.) When you’re a kid you don’t really know what that is. I remember I’d see a mark on his arm and I’d ask, “What’s that Dad?” He’s like “It’s a twenty-two,” and I’m like, “What’s a twenty-two, Dad?” He’s like “It’s a pea shooter.” In his cryptic way he’s telling me, “Oh, I got shot last night, son. But it’s okay 'cause it’s just a twenty-two and when he put it at my head I put my arm up, he shot through my arm and then I fixed the situation.” I’d be six and I’d think, “Oh, Dad got shot with a pea shooter; I don’t know what that is.” That was Pops but he stopped all of that when I was fifteen and he left San Francisco – he lived in San Francisco, about two hours from where I lived – and he just decided I want to be a part of your life; I don’t want to do this anymore.

He would take me to the meetings – you’re never really all the way out but they respected where he was going to go in his life. It was fine, it wasn’t like Crips and Bloods. They would all let me know that, “If you need anything, we’ve got your back.” I’m like, “Dude, I’m really metro sexual, I’m not going to need your help for anything – like I’m never going to be in a fight.” It was so cool though because dad was always so proud of me even though I was the weird one in the family. Our family’s all – they’re just all bad-asses on his side. They’re all war heroes and my cousins all went to Annapolis. I was the kid with the bleached hair and earrings and just ‘the drummer.' Oh, I need braces?  Well I’ll get pink, blue, pink, blue rubber bands.” He never was embarrassed of me so that was really cool.

When I was seventeen he said," Look, I can’t afford to send you to college; Mom can’t afford to send you to college, so you have two choices – military (he knew right away, I’m not that guy. My whole family is military and I respect military on a high level) or get a scholarship to Berkley or wherever and do the drum thing." I said, “I don’t know where I want to go to college but I know I want to play drums.” He kind of sat me down and said, “Here’s the deal. Next year you’re going to be eighteen and you have to by that time be making a living with nothing but the drums. I don’t care if you tune them, tech them, build them, sell them … whatever … but drums need to pay for your life if I’m going to go to bat for you with Grandma, Grandpa, my brothers and everybody, 'cause they’re going to ask, ‘What is Michael doing with his life?’ So if I’m going to go to bat for you, you have to be making it work.” So that was that; that was my senior year in high school.

I was teaching at a music store called Drum and Guitar City. I was also working retail. I was gigging and then session work in Sacramento, so I was paying the bills – car, apartment and insurance all with drums. I was eating top ramen (laughs) but I wasn’t asking for handouts from my mom and dad.

My mom was a real estate agent so I was always being taken around to lavish homes and learning about interior design – that’s probably where my metro sexual side comes from. I lived with my mom more than my dad, so she was the one that always paid for the lessons and was very supportive of anything I did with drums. I never got that thing from her or my dad – which I think too many kids get – which is, “When are you going to get serious? When are you going to get a real job?” This is a real job; it may not pay what you think a real job pays.

When I look back on what you and myself have put into drumming – financially – I’ve paid as much as any doctor has for my schooling, private drum lessons from the time I was five years old until right now; I’m still taking lessons with Will Kennedy. So I deserve to make a living. I’ve put in the money. My parents have sacrificed everything so I could make noise. When people are like, “Dude, you’re so lucky,” I am like, “Lucky?" I’ve done everything that a chiropractor did; I’ve trained my whole life for this, we all have. I don’t mind people saying that I’m blessed or something, but don’t call it luck.

Not to take away from a honest days work, but our society imposes a pretty unrealistic belief that we have to hold down a job in order to afford to play music. What are your thoughts about that?

It’s very different in other countries where the very second that you’ve decided that you have a passion for something, they move you to that school. There’s a lot of European countries where they have the music high school. It’s not just that you’re in band for one period of the day. You’re always surrounded with like-minded people. I think it’s just opening up the dream a little. When I’m talking with a seventeen year old and ask, “What do you want to do?,” it’s like, “I want to be a touring drummer.” Now that’s very specific and you are shooting for the stars for something that is based on luck and timing. You need to open up that dream—what is the real dream? And the real dream is usually, “If I could just smell the inside of rack toms on a daily basis and get that maple in my nasal passages, life would be good.” If that’s the case you can totally do this. You get a job at your local music store for minimum wage and you’re tuning and teching drums all day, you’re selling them and learning more about the product, and by being at that store you have technically an endorsement because everything’s fifty percent off for you. So you’re now making money at the place that you were going to spend your money anyway.

Then you start getting pick-up gigs where it’s like, “Oh, jazz sucks,” and it’s like, “Well dude, jazz pays; you might want to learn a waltz. And you might want to make a $125 on Friday nights playing the wedding; if you do that every Friday night that’s $500.” I think it’s very hard to make a living in one specific thing unless you’re really good at it, unless you’re obsessively good at it. If you think about it, I don’t make any money really playing the drums ('cause I’m actually not that great at the drums compared to a Virgil Donati or something) I make money because I’m obsessed with giving education. On MikesLessons.com you cannot buy a video of me playing drum set; you can only buy videos of me explaining things. But when I was trying to make a living as a drummer, I worked at a music store, I taught at a music store, I teched at our local studios. My belief was every recording that comes out of that studio is reflected on the producer, so you should bring me in before you ever start a session and I will tune those drums and get them sounding exactly how you want for that genre of music and your studio will look better because of it. I would just do it for $50 and all of a sudden I’m doing it three times a week, but I’m also doing the soundcheck and I’m playing some deep pockets where they’re like, “Dude, are you free on Saturday to do a session?”

So it’s just outsmarting the system. I can’t control how good I am at the drums as far as talent level. I have what I have and I’ll try to get better every day, but I know that I can outwork somebody, I can control that. When drummer ‘x’ and drummer ‘y’ go to sleep, I can stay up and learn more, soak up more, push harder, learn more about social media or anything to build my brand. I think that’s the key – having young drummers not get upset about the people around them being better 'cause it’s like, “Dude, you’re not really better; you’re just where I’ll be in two years if I keep practising.”



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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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