COVER STORY: John 5 Returns With New LP, New Tour and Advice for Live Performers

John 5, The Tele-Loving Veteran Returns With New LP, New Tour and Advice for Live Performers

Guitarist John 5 is no stranger to touring, so when we got the news that the axe-slinger was hitting the road in support of a new record, we couldn’t contain our excitement. The Invasion tour kicks off next month in Vegas with special guest Jared James Nichols, and runs right through the spring. John 5 is also releasing the album via a series of unique music videos, set to premiere on his YouTube channel later this month. We caught up with Mr. 5, as we like to call him, as he was preparing to rehearse for the upcoming first leg of the tour.

You’re obviously well-known for your work with Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, but I’d love to know how you approach the creative process when it comes to your own, original music.

I’m always honest with myself. So, what that means is…it’s hard to explain. I love to play a certain way, I love to sit on the couch and play guitar. That’s all that I do, and I love playing different styles of music. If something is done really well, I’m into it. So, that’s what keeps me always playing, and keeps me trying to master all these different styles.

So that’s what I do on my records. If I love Chet Atkins, I’m going to put that on my record. It’s a little unorthodox, with all these different kinds of styles, but I love it and it’s honest. And I think that’s what people enjoy about the records; it’s just who I am. I’m not trying to be something I’m not.

I think for a lot of us, that’s not unorthodox at all. We take what we love, and distill that into our own thing…

Sure. It’s good to surprise people, too. We already have a Steve Vai, and an Yngwie, guys who do those things so amazingly well. We don’t need another guy trying to come in and copy them. I would talk to guys when I was starting out and they’d say, ‘Do something that no one else is doing.’ And that’s the best advice anyone ever gave me. If I’m doing something that no one else is doing, people will want to check it out.

Who are some of the non-obvious influences that people might not associate you with?

Oh, boy. Scotty Anderson, who I love. Speedy West, who’s an amazing lap-steel player. Jimmy Bryant, Chet Atkins…

There’s a definite country feel to a lot of what you do, which might be unexpected for a lot of people.

Right, and it’s not just the bluegrass stuff. It’s also the Travis picking, or the Jerry Reed style. It’s just…different. Which is a good thing.

Especially when it comes to concerts.

Exactly. Especially when you come to a concert. It’s a real experience. I try to make it really special, and here’s the reason why. It looks like you’re walking into a haunted house. There’s all this stuff going on, and monsters come out, and my guitar cabs have TVs in them with all this weird stuff; it’s really fun.

And we’ll play this heavy music, and then knock into, you know, a bluegrass song. And people are like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ And I love switching instruments, playing mandolin and banjo — it’s such a well-rounded show because I want to keep the people who are dragged there [by significant others] entertained, as well. The people who have no idea who I am or what I’m doing, give them a real surprise. Something unexpected — that’s what’s most interesting, I think.

And you hit upon an important word: entertaining. I think one of the problems a lot of inexperienced bands have is doing something on stage that’s not just standing still playing the record from front-to-back.

That’s one of the most difficult things to do, to translate music into a live show. What I’ve been doing is (and I don’t know if this is cheating), is writing these songs so that I can play them and perform them live. Which ain’t easy! I’m writing music, thinking that I’ll put a break in-between songs knowing that I’m going to change instruments there. I can put a little drum solo or bass solo there, so that I can build in the time to take my guitar off and put on a banjo, you know?

So, you write it into the song, knowing what you’ll be able to do on stage?

Exactly!

And because of the fact I want to keep it as real as possible, when I get to the live show, people aren’t saying, ‘Hey, that’s not how the record goes.’ It may sound strange, but it really works.

But you have to know what you’re doing. It’s unbelievably hard when you do it live, because there’s no stopping. If you get off by even a little, you’re fucked. You don’t know where to come back in; there’s so many notes going on. My band is a bunch of terrible perfectionists. So, here’s what happens. There’s a song called ‘Hell Haw’ from my last record; it’s a total Chet Atkins-style song. And we’ll play it live, and our bass player, Ian [Ross], he’s walking the whole time. And he never repeats himself. So, it’s really, really hard. If he’s having a weird night or something, he’ll be practicing the song after the show; it’s all completely mental. You know what’s going on, and you’ve done it a bunch of times, but it’s all mental.

You have to be prepared for people pounding on your foot, yelling things at you during a show, while you’re doing all these crazy things. It’s like juggling chainsaws.

How much rehearsal and preparation goes into your live show?

We rehearse more than any band in the history of music [laughs]. You know why? Everybody has a cell phone, and everybody is recording now. But I encourage the crowd to do it; I’m not going to stop them from recording. I welcome it – they can do whatever they want with [the footage]. I like to have it out there, because it shows that we have it together. And my feeling is, maybe that will help get people to the shows, you know? Or, maybe if someone can’t get to a show, because they’re not well and can’t make it for whatever reason, we try to put on the best show possible so they can experience it, too. I love YouTube for that.

We rehearse all the time, all the time, all the time. Real rehearsal, where it’s all on us [to deliver].

It’s interesting to bring up the YouTube thing. As a public figure, you’re now being filmed every single moment of your life, especially up on stage. That didn’t exist when you started out. Do you feel like fans are missing out on the experience when they’re spending time trying to capture the show on their phones?

It doesn’t bother me, and here’s why. These people who come out are watching the show, and 99% of them aren’t filming the entire [thing]. At least for us. They’re maybe taking the phone out for a few minutes, but for the most part, they’re taking it in as it’s happening. Which is great.

We’ve been talking a lot about your own work. I’m curious as to how much creative freedom you’re given when working with other artists.

I love working with other artists. I do not have all the answers, that’s for sure. I have some ideas, but that doesn’t mean I have all the answers, by any means. I love to work with people who have great ideas that I would have never thought of. That’s why I work well with so many people, because if you don’t like one of my ideas, I have plenty of others that I can try for you, and I don’t have that ego to worry about.

Listen, if I’m working for someone, it ain’t my gig. It’s their gig. If they’re really passionate about [how to play something], then that’s what I’m going to do. It doesn’t say Rob Zombie and John 5, you know? So, it’s their vision. With Rob, it’s the best collaboration ever, it really is. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and he’s so great to work with. He’ll let you do what you do, but if he doesn’t like something, he’ll let you know that, too. And he knows that I have so many other things I can show, and that’s why we’ve been working together for so long. Like 13 years.

When you tour, does anything change from the gear on the record to the gear you tour with?

No [laughs]. When I record, I try to record with the exact same stuff I’ll play with live, down to the same exact guitar I’ll be using [on the track]. Because of the fact that sometimes there’s a string tree that doesn’t sound good, or some other quirk that only that instrument has. Same with pedals. People love those old pedals, but listen, I’m not gonna chance it to take a 30-year-old pedal out on the road. I’m going to take something new that I know is not gonna die on me. Same amps, same everything.

I’ll tell you, though, I use an iso-cab, so the sound man has 100% freedom to dial things in correctly. It sounds like a record each time, it sounds so good. You usually have a cabinet that’s screaming in your face, because you’re playing with a drummer, who’s also loud. But if you have an iso-cab, the sound man is like, ‘This is the greatest! I can dial this in perfectly.’

The only thing is, as far as vintage guitars go, I leave that stuff at home. I couldn’t do it. Never. They stay home, and are treated nice, and put to bed, and spoken to gently [laughs]. Those guitars are so rare — guys like [Joe] Bonamassa have the greatest collections in the world, and he actually uses them, which is great! But I just can’t do it! [laughs]

Follow on Twitter @john5guitarist

photos by Stephanie Cabral

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