TRF Magazine: Johnny, welcome! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Let's start with a little background...
JOHNNY CHOPS: I’m glad to chat! I’m a musician from Austin, TX, with a passion for songwriting and anything that involves being creative. I play guitar, bass and attempt the harmonica and also have been singing since I was just a little guy. I’ve spent parts of my life in Lubbock, North Carolina and Corpus Christi, but have been calling Austin home for about 12 years. I met my wife in 2008 and after being friends for a while, I finally convinced her to date me and we got married in Kauai, Hawaii in 2013.
TRF: Last fall, you released a new single called “Believer.” It’s a powerful song, lyrically and musically, and has a clever companion video that’s an homage to superstitions. That must have been fun to shoot! Was the song born out a specific event in your life or how did it come about and who's idea was it for the music video?
CHOPS: The song started with a guitar riff, like a lot of mine do. I’m a big fan of Robert Johnson, Skip James, and the element of the supernatural in blues music. It's a fun subject that I enjoy writing about because it demands some imagination and allows me to conjure up scenarios or people that are a little more than normal. I mostly just wanted to tell a story of someone who is really driven by their belief, despite what the world might tell them is right or wrong. I came up with the idea for the video as an expression of that idea. It’s a leap of faith story. I shot the video with the help of some good friends of mine in a small town northwest of Austin, Bertram, TX. The Globe Theater there has been restored to its 1920s era glory that provided a great backdrop for the performance shots and the owners were generous enough to allow us to use it on a limited budget. It was just three cameras, two big lights, a fog machine and some friends being creative.
TRF: You just released a super soulful song called “Taking A Chance On Me,” which has a Commitments/Otis Redding vibe and features some Gospel singers. What was the inspiration for the song and who’s the adorable Basset hound that makes a cameo at the end of the music video?
CHOPS: My wife and I rescued two Basset Hounds, Emmylou and Reggie a half dozen years ago and I partly wrote it about them. Mostly Reggie, because when we got him, he had a tough time adjusting to our place. He was just this beast of a dog who barreled into our lives and kind of messed up our house and our schedule. But we stuck with him and after about six months, he seemed to go “Ok, i like you guys. This is my home now.” and he really showed us his personality, which is very funny and loyal. He even thinks he is a singer and tries to accompany me when I practice at home. Since its him howling at the beginning of “Believer” we didn’t want to leave out Emmylou, so she got the cameo in this one. There is also a rough correlation to my own marriage and my gratefulness to my wife for taking a chance on me. I was a bit of a mess when we met as well…
TRF: I’m a big fan of your cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Wanna Make Love To You,” which you do on the album as a duet with singer Brandy Zdan. Why did you pick this song and what was the inspiration for turning it into a duet?
CHOPS: We were at the end of our tracking session for the album and had a couple hours left in the studio. My lead guitarist Eric “Ebo” Borash (John Fogerty, Radney Foster, Jack Ingram) asked if there was a song we did live that might be fun, just as a bonus or to have as a backup. We’ve been playing that one at shows for some time so we banged it out in a couple takes and stashed it away. After listening to it in post-production, David said, “Let's get a girl on this and make it a duet. It will give it a new twist.” We immediately thought of Brandy for the duet partner because she has this great husky, sexy voice that would really add to the vibe. When she hits that chorus, it sent chills up my spine. No one else could have done that. He also thought it might be cool to turn the roles around in the song and have her sing the verses about “wash my clothes, keep my home,” which makes it a much more modern version.
TRF: These songs are from your new album, Johnny Chops & The Razors, which is being released March 23. Who are The Razors and how has their addition affected the music/live show? Is it like Tom Petty with the Heartbreakers, Neil Young with Crazy Horse or Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band? Did everyone contribute to the process, and live, do things get kicked up a notch?
CHOPS: I’ve always been a fan of the way a band sounds in the studio. There’s something special about it. 5 guys kicking off a tune together has a power and an immediacy that is difficult to manufacture. The Heartbreakers, Crazy Horse, the E Street band all took great songs and made them something more. They are the gold standard. So that’s what we shot for and hopefully got as close as we could. We cut most of the basic tracking live, all together with minimal overdubbing to get a real, authentic ensemble performance. There were even a couple of spontaneous moments we managed to capture that I think would be impossible to create alone.
The Razors are actually a rotating cast. Up to this point in my solo career, I have to plug in shows and projects in between my “day job.” It’s difficult to keep the same lineup when you can’t keep everyone on salary, but luckily I’ve been able to keep most of the players around for a little bit. Drummer Chris Compton has been playing with me since about 2015, and instinctively knows how to hold down the right groove. “Ebo” played on a bunch of the Randy Rogers Band records and we’ve been musical brothers ever since. I met Aden Bubeck (bass) when he was playing with Miranda Lambert and we were the opening act for them. Bukka Allen played keys on my first solo project and is pretty much the best studio keyboard player in town. Those guys played on the record and I get them on the road when I can. Luckily there is a wealth of talent in Austin so when we tour I have lots of options. Notably Scott Davis has been filling in on guitar as well as Todd Stewart on keys and vocals.
TRF: David Abeyta from Reckless Kelly produced the album. How did that relationship come about and how did he shape the songs?
CHOPS: I’m a big fan of Reckless’ sound and David’s guitar playing and production work on their albums as well. We had been casual acquaintances for many years, sharing stages at festivals and clubs but had never worked together. I had a hunch he would be a good production partner so when he invited us to his annual Christmas party, I stalked him a bit and casually brought up the fact that I was getting close having enough material for a new record. We met for coffee a couple weeks later and just chatted music, life, what we like in records and songs and struck a up good rapport. He’s an easy going dude that really has a knack for sonic detail. We started whittling down the material, really trying to hone in on a coherent sound that would work with a band and also lend itself best to what I was capable of singing. A couple of them changed quite a bit for the better after our conversations, enough so that he earned co-writes on them. I enjoyed working with him so much that I was a little sad when we finally wrapped up. I hope to continue to work with him in the future.
Pictured: Johnny (Right) with the Randy Rogers Band
TRF: You’re also a member of the successful Texas red dirt group, the Randy Rogers Band. What exactly is red dirt/Texas country and what’s the latest with RRB? I see you’ll be touring most of 2018, including a show in Chicago.
CHOPS: The term Red Dirt comes from the Oklahoma soil, which is, literally, red. I’m not from Oklahoma but along with RRB and few other acts it's become a moniker to describe the scene that exists around Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana and beyond. It's the natural extension of the “outlaw country” sound started by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in Texas in the 70s. Those guys didn’t fit the Nashville mold of what country music was supposed to sound like, so they left, came back home and made their own sound. That’s basically what's been going on in Texas since then. We have this great group of loyal fans that allow us to tour our region and even into the rest of the country without the help of mainstream country radio. We just finished tracking an album with Dave Cobb at historic Studio A in October, so we’ll be gearing up to release that probably in the fall and playing shows all over up to it. Chicago has been a great supporter of our band and we love playing Joe’s Bar (Joe’s on Weed St. on Feb. 2) when we come to town. The Midwest has really embraced us and bands like us and its always a blast to head north to the big city.
TRF: Based on my rough estimate, I’m guessing you’ve probably played 2000 shows in your career. As a road warrior, what are the Top 3 things you can recommend to artists that might just be getting ready to get in the van for the first time?
- Get ready to poop and shower in less than desirable locations.
- Make friends with everyone. It’s all about who you know, but don’t be a douche about it.
- Take care of yourself. Sleep, exercise and a decent diet will keep you playing music a lot longer than the extraneous stuff we sometimes get caught up in. That’s why you’re doing it, right? To play music forever? It should be.
TRF: In addition to writing/recording music and touring, what else do you like to do?
CHOPS: I love to read, watch movies and hang out with my wife and dogs. Hiking, traveling for fun and baseball are also good stuff. Someday I want to write a screenplay, a novel or a book of short stories. Or make a film.
TRF: Are there any charities or organizations that you support that you’d like to give a shoutout to?
CHOPS: Yes! The Humane Society and Adoption Center of Rockport, TX (http://rockportfultonhumanesociety.org). They were pretty messed up after Hurricane Harvey and are an entirely volunteer run animal rescue group so they could always use a little help. A portion of our pre-order campaign with Pledge Music will go to them if you need a little extra incentive to donate to them.
TRF: And how about we end it with the Desert Island question. What are your Top 5 albums of all time?
CHOPS: Tough one.
5. Led Zeppelin II
4. Elvis Presley - Sun Sessions
3. Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street
2. Waylon Jennings - Honky Tonk Heroes
1. Robert Johnson - Complete Recordings
Catch Johnny on the Road - Tour Dates:
- Feb 01 - Sioux City, IA @ Hard Rock*
- Feb 02 - Chicago, IL @ Joe’s on Weed St*
- Feb 03 - Kansas City, MO @ Uptown Theater*
- Feb 09 - College Station, TX @ Hurricane Harry’s*
- Feb 10 - Donna, TX @ Chisholm Trail Festival*
- Feb 14/18 - Kansas City, MO @ Folk Alliance International
- Feb 23 - Nashville, TN @ Marathon Music Works*
- Feb 24 - Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre*
- Mar 14 - Austin, TX @ SanJac Saloon (5PM) [SXSW]
- Mar 30 - Helotes, TX @ Floore's Country Store*
- Mar 31 - Helotes, TX @ Floore's Country Store*
- Apr 05 - Los Angles, CA @ Universal Bar & Grill
- Apr 14 - El Paso, TX @ Texas Country Music Fest (w/ Tracy Byrd)*