Johnny Irion is the missing link between Stone Temple Pilots and Woody Guthrie. A native of North Carolina, Irion has spent the last 15 years making music with his wife Sarah Lee Guthrie, the daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, honing in on blend of folk, country, blues and rock that feels in line with their family’s legacy. Sarah Lee and Johnny have built up their own distinct fanbase too, thanks to a series of choice recordings and collaborations with the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Chris Robinson and members of the indie-rock community. However, a recent conversation with an old musical pal inspired Irion to channel his outside interests in hard-rock and psychedelia into a parallel project, US Elevator, a new alt-country group that owes more to Tonight’s the Night -era Neil Young than his family band. The Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm lent his support to the project and the first US Elevator release has opened some new doors for Irion, including work with mixer Ryan Pickett (My Morning Jacket, New Basement Tapes) and a tour with alt-rock survivors Stone Temple Pilots. While hanging out in California before Arlo Guthrie’s annual Thanksgiving Carnegie Hall show, Irion explained how his various ties to Wilco, The Black Crowes and The Mother Hips came together to form a new musical identity.
Let’s start by talking about the genesis of your new project, US Elevator, which is a slightly new direction for you. What inspired you at this point in your career to put together a brand new psychedelic-rock band?
Basically my good buddy Zeke Hutchins [who currently manages Sharon Van Etten, Deer Tick and Leon Bridges and spent time as a drummer for both Van Etten and Tift Merritt]. My home brew with Sarah Lee has been a little bit of rock and some psychedelic, and then, some folk. It’s this hybrid bio diesel creative car that we’ve made. Sarah Lee and I had made a record with Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone from Wilco, Wassaic Way, in 2013 and I was with Zeke in New York after the album came out. He said, “You know what you should do?” and I was like, “What?” and he said, “You should just put the rock stuff somewhere else—just try that.” This was after we made the record with Jeff Tweedy, which I thought was pretty rad, but it stuck in my head for a while because Zeke and I have known each other all our lives and we had a band together when we were younger and everything.
Sarah Lee and I ended our tour behind Wassaic Way out here in Santa Barbara about a year ago for that album and, right around that time, I met a gentleman in town named Alan Kozlowski. Alan had studied with Ravi Shankar for 40 years and he and George Harrison did all of Ravi’s archives. He’s an amazing cinematographer, but he’s also a big music lover. He’s one of those guys, he and The Dude from The Big Lebowski are best friends.
He lives in Santa Barbara and we’ve just become really good friends and he’s actually in the band. So Alan and I hit it off and I had just had that conversation with Zeke. Alan has an incredible guitar collection, I was writing a bunch of new songs and he said, “You should go get my 24 track tape machine—it’s down at Jackson Browne’s studio,” which is called Groove Masters in Santa Monica.
So he and I were toying with making another record at the time and all those conversations led to these rock songs. I think “Dangerous Love” is definitely a heavy rock song.
Chris Robinson, who actually introduced you to Sarah Lee, is also responsible for putting a piece of US Elevator in place as well, correct?
This is jumping back to 1997 when I had met Sarah Lee. I had moved from Chapel Hill to LA to play in a band, I had just done The Black Crowes’ Amorica tour in Europe and Chris and I hit it off, thank God. [Laughter.] It would have been a long tour had we not. The band was going their separate ways after the tour, and he said, “You should come out to LA, I’m producing this record.” So in 1998 I got in the Toyota, and I drove cross country and—literally my first week there—Chris was producing this band with a bunch of kids from Monterey. We were having a really good time, and the bass player, Nate Modisette, and I hit it off. There was also a great country songwriter in the band named Mike Stinson, who is now based in Austin, TX.
It was a fun band that didn’t make it, but I was writing my own songs anyway so I was ready to get out of that situation. Nate and I remained friends the whole time, so after his ordeals in LA, he decided to move to Santa Barbara and started this woodworking company called BoMo Design. They do incredible homes here in Santa Barbara—12 million dollar homes, incredible, redwood Big Sur kind of vibe. Nate kept saying you should come jam with us sometime and that was last year.
Right around that time Alan said “Go get the 24 track!” So I went over and I jammed with Nate and these guys and they got the songs really fast and it was kind of exactly what I was needing at that moment in time. Everybody can play—they’re not the greatest musicians in the world, but it was more about the attitude and just having fun and having some beers and playing some rock-and-roll.
So we went down and got the Studer [reel-to-reel recorder] and we put it in Nate’s house and we set it up. I knew that I was gonna need to have somebody help set these guys up and to bring their game up, and Tim Bluhm and I had been talking for a couple of years about working together. Sarah Lee and I kept running into Tim on the road and I was actually talking to him about doing a whole Pete Seeger complete folk record, a Pete Seeger tribute. Then I got the tape machine and I was like, “Hey do you know how to run a Studer?” Tim said, “yes” so I asked him to join the project. I told him, “These guys are not the Crosby Stills and Nash band, but they are fun and I think they can do it.” [Laughter.] So Tim came down, it was the first time in 13 years that he said he had 4 weeks off.