by Alissa Ordabai
– Senior Columnist —
Driven not by killer ambition, but by a sense of refuge his instrument gives him, John 5 remains one of the most industrious guitarists to have ever played heavy metal. “I’m always working,” he told me the first time I interviewed him back in 2008. “If I am not, that’s when my head begins to go to other places that are not good. If I wasn’t doing it, I’d probably be a real wreck — a real, true wreck.”
Wreck or not, but we owe some of the most staggering moments in Rock guitar to his diligence. The calculated precision of his superhuman chops, the clear and rich texture of his playing, and the speed at which his songwriting unravels narrative after narrative prove how virtuoso technique remains essential to a certain type of temperament. But it also shows how unspontaneous, cut-and-dried delivery can add tons of emotional content to music — precisely through the deliberate artifice which John 5 knows how to strut to appear not-quite-human.
“I work at it,” he told me in 2010. “I absolutely work at it. I work at it harder than anything else in my life, for sure. Absolutely, it’s like training – I work, and work, and work, and work.”
But the narrow focus he deploys to keep his technique sharp doesn’t apply — thankfully — to his writing. Metal, Bluegrass, Flamenco, and Classic Rock fuse so solidly in his centrifuge of styles, it becomes a perfect soundtrack to post-modernity where fragmentation, paradox and pastiche run the proceedings.
This perhaps explains why John 5 can easily step outside of the heavy metal formula and collaborate with artists ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Ricky Martin, both as a songwriter and a performer. Still, Metal remains his main interest. Having started his career in 1987 as a session musician in Los Angeles, he went on to play on David Lee Roth’s 1998 record DLR Band which became his big break. Later that year Marilyn Manson recruited him for a 6-year run. In 2005 he joined Rob Zombie’s band where he stays to this day, touring each year like clockwork and packing areas. Some say his solo albums remain his best work, but being in Zombie’s band gives him ongoing exposure to mainstream metal audiences.
But apart from phenomenal chops there is also the image that goes with the music and extends way beyond gimmicks into the territory of pure art. Death obsession has never looked as compelling and as devoid of any connection to real death as his stark, dramatic style. The Lon Chaney-inspired mime face, a weather-beaten full-length leather trench coat, and a Telecaster in hand — this remains the most compelling rock look of the past decade, a Noughties classic, and a perfect symbolization of John 5’s music.
His costumes became one of the topics we touched upon when we spoke last week, although our main theme revolved around his self-confessed workaholism. Currently on a U.S. tour with Rob Zombie, he also has a Greatest Hits CD and a DVD coming out this month, followed by a solo tour in November, a new solo album in early 2016, and a new Rob Zombie record also sometime in early 2016. Don’t they say that the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary?
Alissa Ordabai: After so many years in a band with Rob Zombie and so many shows under your belt, do you ever find yourself nervous before hitting the road?
John 5: Not really, no. I don’t feel nervous, I feel happy about it. I get to meet up with my friends and have a good time with people I haven’t seen in a while.
AO: I always wanted to ask you — who designs your stage clothes? You know how everyone always says that Rob Zombie and his band have the most amazing costume designers in rock.
J5: Her hame is Cody, and she has a shop on Melrose in Los Angeles. It’s called Forgotten Saints. And I try to just come up with these ideas, and she kind of makes them happen, you know, the ideas for the outfits. Yes, she is amazing. She really is wonderful.
AO: So it’s a collaboration between you and her?
AO: Will you be road-testing any new material from the upcoming Rob Zombie album during these dates?
J5: I don’t think we will be doing any new material because of… you know, how can I say it? You know, with YouTube and everything like that it’s just too difficult when it comes out there. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
AO: When should we expect the new record to come out?
J5: The new record will probably be some time next year. I’m not sure when it will be, I will talk to Rob about it, but it should be early next year.
AO: And I’m assuming the band is still keeping the title under wraps?
J5: Yes, we are keeping it under wraps.
AO: How long did it take you guys to finish this album? From scraps of initial ideas to finished product?
J5: Well, you know, we were doing it on and off for about a year between touring, and then Rob’s been doing a movie, and I’ve been scoring this new movie, it’s called 31. That’s why we just wanted to make sure that we had enough time to promote the record correctly. So it’s been probably like a year, I would say.
AO: How does songwriting work in Rob Zombie? Do you get together in a room and compose together, or do you work on material separately and then bring it to the table?
J5: No, we get into a room. We get to a room and we collaborate. And it’s a collaboration, we just get in there and do it up right.
AO: How difficult — or how easy — is it for you to balance your solo with Rob Zombie stuff? Do you keep them in separate compartments? When you write, do you go, “Oh, this idea would be good for Rob Zombie, and his idea would be good for my solo album”?
J5: Well, it is pretty different because it’s two different world and music sounds very different. So I’ll write my instrumental stuff and I’ll keep it separate from the Zombie stuff because it’s a different thing for sure.
AO: I also know that you have a solo tour scheduled for November.
J5: Yes. I’m very, very excited about that. It starts in Ramona, CA, on the 4th. Ramona and San Diego, then Los Angeles, and so on and so forth. It’s gonna be a great tour. I’m really, really excited about it.
AO: You’ve started to tour your solo material relatively recently. And the reception was amazing. What prevented you from touring your solo stuff before?
J5: Well, I think time… I was so busy with Rob and it’s really hard to get a band together and get it all together. And I just wanted to keep it going because the response was so great, I’m so happy about it. So we just keep going.
AO: I just wondered — the pieces that the audience responds to the best, were they also the pieces that you yourself like the best or are there any surprises in that department?
J5: You know, most of the songs that we play live, I love playing. And it’s really fun because it’s different, you know? It’s like an instrumental show. Think an Alice Cooper instrumental show, so there’s like a show that goes with this. I think it’s very important. Because a lot of these kind of shows don’t have a show to it. But I’m trying to create some kind of a show for this.
AO: When performing your music live, how much do you improvise?
J5: We don’t really improvise that much, just a little bit. Everything is pretty planned out and stuff like that because there is a show that goes with it. But there is a little bit of improvising, but not that much.
AO: Would you say that there is a big difference between the crowds that come to your solo shows and crowds that come to Rob Zombie gigs?
J5: You know, not too much, just a little bit. But I see a lot of Zombie fans and there are a lot of guitar guys that come. And there are a lot of older people that come because of the country stuff. And a lot of younger people that come, a lot of kids. It’s a very diverse crowd which I really, really like a lot.
AO: I’m also being told that your solo album is being scheduled for early 2016. Should we expect an as brutal an album as your previous solo record?
J5: What I’m gonna do, I’m gonna change up a little bit. I’m gonna release some singles first. And I’m gonna have videos with those singles. Because everything is so visual nowadays. So I’ll do it that way, because everything is visual, people want to see what you are doing, and that’s what it’s all about. I’m gonna create these videos with these singles that I’m gonna put out. Which I think will be very exciting because a lot of videos nowadays… People get certain videos online, and some videos — not mine — some videos of pop artists have a billion views. But they haven’t sold a billion records. Which just proves the point — people like to listen to music on YouTube and stuff like that.
AO: On God Told Me To half of the music was acoustic cuts and the other half was electric guitar and heavy metal. And I honestly thought that after that you would go entirely acoustic. And then you released Careful With That Axe and there you sounded more in the vein of Rob Zombie than on any other of your solo records. Was that intentional or was that where your spontaneity took you?
J5: No, I just wanted to keep things very… You know, I don’t want to keep people guessing, like, “Oh, that’s what it’s gonna sound like,” and to keep people on their toes. And I think people really enjoyed it. I just like to keep people on their toes a little bit.
AO: So is the new record going to be a surprise?
J5: Well, it’s going to be really cool guitar stuff. But there will be surprises in there. I think with the videos people will enjoy that too.
AO: The energy of your music is so intense: the fury, and the rage, and the speed, yet the execution is so calculated and so note-perfect. It’s as if you are blowing up and at the same time you keep everything under perfect control. How do you manage to combine the un-combinable?
J5: It’s very difficult in terms of it takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of practice. That’s what it is mostly all about. It’s repetition, it’s practice, trying to get things to my liking. It’s about commitment as well.
AO: Commitment, and discipline, and lots of work.
J5: Yes, discipline and commitment, that’s right.
AO: This leads me to my next question. It may sound goofy, but I always wanted to know: do you ever play for your own enjoyment? Not for practice, not for anybody else, but purely to have fun just for yourself with the guitar?
J5: That is a great question because everything I do — with Rob Zombie and on my own records — I really love it and I enjoy it. I love what I do. That’s true.
AO: I’m also hearing that you have a Greatest Hits compilation and an accompanying DVD coming out very soon.
J5: Yes. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do. There are no hits on it, these are just songs from my catalog that people love and that I love, and it’s just work from all of my records from the very first one to Careful With That Axe. And the DVD is really, really cool. I’m very proud of the DVD that’s in there. It’s a concert that has not been edited, or mixed, or anything, it’s just like you’re at the show.
AO: Oh, wow!
J5: It’s really, really exciting. I really love it.
AO: I’m sure your fans are looking forward to that. I know that I am. What was the principle for selecting the tracks?
J5: Some of them are singles, some of them have videos with them. And I listened a lot to the fans — which ones they wanted to see on there. It’s important because it’s all about the fans, it really is. So that’s what I did.
Visit John 5 online — http://john-5.com/main/