For Spafford keyboardist Andrew “Red” Johnson the band’s fall outing was all about balancing their live favorites with a slate of new originals. “I could play ‘Electric Taco Stand’ or ‘All In’ or ‘Beautiful Day’ twice every night and I would never get bored of playing them because of the way that we do it,” he explains, phoning in from a Midwestern stop on tour. “They’re always different; they’re never going to be the same two nights in a row. However, it’s fun to keep it fresh.”
Indeed, Spafford kept their setlists fresh all tour long, dropping a new EP (The Gaff Tapes), debuting an additional half dozen or so new tunes and even jamming through an entire show just for the hell of it.
Below, Johnson chats about the state of the Spafford union, his love for Brent Mydland, the potential for a new Spafford studio project and more.
How do you feel about this Fall Tour?
It’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun. We made the decision in Louisville that we were gonna come out swingin’. Ever since, we’ve done our best to just keep our foot on the gas pedal and really attack the tour, and we’ve been having a lot of fun. It seems like we always have a lot of fun and it’s always a really good time out on the road. But this has been a really fun tour. It’s [drummer] Nick [Tkachyk’s] first full tour out on the bus and not to sound too cheesy or cliche, but he’s really falling into place.
The state of the Spafford union is strong.
Absolutely. It was really interesting and fun to watch Nick shake some of the cobwebs off prior to that summer Vacation run. He really started coming into his own and he’s just an incredible talent. It’s awesome playing with him because we did these improv sessions and songs and then every once in a while, like when we were in Bloomington, Ind., we decided “Heck with it, let’s just go improv the whole night.” He always keeps it so fresh; you never know what’s gonna happen on stage left. He’s up there creating with us and he’s absolutely on fire right now. On fire! Killing it.
You mentioned the Indiana show, and obviously I want to ask about that. How did you guys decide to just do two sets of jamming?
[Bassist] Jordan [Fairless] always says that we’ve got this algorithm about how we pick setlists. We always have a giant list of tunes that we have to play and we take into consideration the last time we were at that venue or the last time we were in that town, and then we take into consideration the last three nights of what we’ve played and then we make this giant list of songs and we start piecing together the setlist. I think it might have been Jordan who sent out this big list of tunes that we had to play and then at the bottom of it, it said, “Jam.” And then kind of sarcastically, all of us said, “Well let’s play that on!.” We were like, “Why not? It’s Bloomington, Ind. on a Tuesday, let’s make something up.” So we literally didn’t even put together a setlist, we just said, “Heck with it, let’s go out there and jam. Maybe at the second set we’ll play some songs.” And we got off the stage after the first set and we were all kind of giddy and were like, “That was really fun. Heck with it, let’s do it again.” I’ve listened to both sets now, and I think it came off pretty well.
When you’re jamming for that long are you conscious of every note or do you lose yourself in the music?
It’s kind of somewhere in between. It’s interesting: there’s times where we’ll do some improv stuff and I look down at the clock and it’s like, “Oh, okay we’re about halfway through. Let’s keep on pushing and get creative.” And then other times, it’s like somebody snapped their fingers and it’s like, “Oh crap we played for 70 minutes already.” I feel like when it’s really good and we’re really in the zone, I feel like it does go by like a flash. That’s, for me, partially like the Litmus test; “Is it moving by really quickly?” At Bloomington, I definitely remember the second set going by like an absolute flash. I don’t want to be too out of it and just let everything pass me by, I want to stay conscious of what I’m contributing. But then there’s other times where I’m not lucid at all, I’m just in the moment, free-form. When I say it out loud it sounds kind of weird; it sounds very hippy-dippy, like, “Ah far out. We’re just in the moment, man.” But it really is.
You guys have debuted a ton of new tunes lately, in addition to the band’s new EP The Gaff Tapes. Of the new songs, are there any personal favorites?
Yeah, we’ve put a lot of time and a lot of effort into The Gaff Tapes. That was all us. We recorded it all at our studio in Phoenix and tracked all of it there. Jordan mixed and mastered it and I think he did an amazing job. He absolutely crushed it. He spent days and days and days and weeks putting all that together; I think the mix sounds great.
We’ve been piecing together a lot of stuff and putting it out. As far as a favorite, I think that “Doghouse” is a lot of fun to play. It’s a rock tune. And then Jordan wrote this amazing composition for the afterword, and we call that “Part Two” and that’s a lot of fun to play. It’s a very technical song. We were just talking about how in the jams sometimes I can get into this meditative state and I don’t really have to focus, I can just let the music talk through me. But “Part Two” is very different; I have to stay focused the whole time because it moves around quite a bit. I really enjoy playing that, it’s a lot of fun. “Comfortable” is on The Gaff Tapes and that’s a new one for me. I wrote that with [band lyricist] Chuck Johnson and I think it’s a phenomenal song. Chuck and I have this great relationship where I’m always very tempted to ask him what his poem was about and I always end up stopping myself because I know what it means to me. I think that maybe sometimes if I ask him what these poems were about, maybe it would lose its spark to me. I think that’s the sign of really good writing. It doesn’t necessarily matter what it means to the writer, it just matters what it means to the listener.
A lot of Grateful Dead lyrics are like that. No one really knows what “Dark Star” means, but it makes people cry at every show.
Absolutely. I’m a sucker for Grateful Dead ballads. I don’t know how a human being can listen to songs like “Comes a Time” and not just feel like a broken human being. I don’t know how people listen to “Standing on the Moon” or “Black Muddy River.” I get choked up every time I hear “Black Muddy River.” They’re just beautiful tunes. Rest in Peace, Robert.
I actually just realized that I’m talking to you on Brent Mydland’s birthday.
I recognized that this morning shortly after I got up. He was definitely a huge inspiration to me. I think that he’s fearless. People talk about how he was an amazing keyboard player, and yeah he’s great. He wasn’t the greatest keyboard player in the world, but I will say that he was absolutely fearless. He was one who was able to take his learning in music and then take his life experience, and then take all of that, put it together, and let the music speak through him rather than forcing out the learning.
He was such a performer. He left it all on the stage.
That’s a perfect way of putting it. You knew when the sets were done, when the show was over, he had nothing left to give. He was an amazing performer and a huge inspiration to me.
With all these new tunes that you guys are pulling together, does that mean there’s another full length album on the way? Or is touring the main priority?
We’ll always be out on the road. Sometimes it’s difficult to find that healthy balance of trying to set out time to record a full-length album. I would love to get back in the studio. I’ll tell you this: The Gaff Tapes, by a long shot, was by far the most fun experience I’ve ever had recording. I hope that when we’re ready to put out another full length album, we can record it in that manner because it was absolutely amazing. My other experiences in the studio were kind of pressured, like, “You’ve got to nail this one in a couple takes because we’re running short on time.” They hit record and they’re like, “This is the one!” When we were doing it all ourselves, it was like, “That was a really good take, but might as well shoot for one or two more.” It’s not going to cost us an extra thousand dollars if I spend another minute on it. We’re always working toward having new music and keeping it fresh. Not just specifically for the fans and the audiences, we do that for us too. We’ve got new stuff that we haven’t even released yet, so hopefully we can get some of that and put it towards a full studio length album. Sometimes we get a little giddy on stage and we’re like, “Let’s just play it tonight instead of waiting for the album to come out.” That’s a lot of fun.
You guys chose three Arizona cities for your Halloween run. What is it about hometown gigs and hometown crowds that get you guys so amped up?
What’s fun about it is that Phoenix has really become this melting pot of people. Everybody is from everywhere else, so that fan base is really what helped put us on the map. It’s not a huge group of Phoenix jamband fans, but it’s really tight knit. What’s awesome about it is that we play a show in Phoenix, and people go home and they want to tell their friends about it. It’s unfortunate when we’re out there hitting all these other markets and stuff the whole year and sometimes I think the Phoenix fans feel a bit neglected. We’ll never forget where we came from. They’re the true definition of fan, they are fanatics and we love playing at home. I always feel like I’m looking at family, but it’s a sea of strangers. Plus, it’s really nice to be able to sleep in your own bed after a show.