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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Carl Johns: filling the void

Carl Johns is a man of many hats. In addition to perhaps his most visible position as frontman for local favorite Noahjohn, the country-singed band who he has lead through two full-length recordings and several tours, he also runs his own record label and booking agency, Speakeasy.  




Johns is also involved in the production of Wild Chirp Magazine, a self-described “free music and culture quarterly with circulation in Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis.” Collectively, Johns’ band, record label and magazine have supported and added life to the Madison music scene. With last years death-by-fire of infamous downtown music haven O’Cayz Corral, Johns has stepped up to draw underground bands into the city and give them places to play. 




After moving to Madison from Indiana in 1997, Johns began writing songs out of the boredom and isolation of being the new guy in town, and in 1998 decided to record back in his home state at Farm Fresh Studios under the name Noahjohn. The project, titled Tadpoles, was mainly solo, but Johns received backup from several friends on the recording.  




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Noahjohn continued rehearsing a host of different musicians until Johns hooked up with drummer Peter Kaesburg, who brought Eena Ballard, Stephen Bark (strings) and Lisa Hinzman (bass) on board. The band began playing together exclusively in several coffee houses and formed a cohesive sound.  




Recently, Noahjohn released its second album, Had a Burning, which has seen much more success in the U.K. than it has in the U.S. “I’ve always felt like it’s just gotten into the hands of the right people,” Johns said about the album, “I think it’s partly luck ... I work very hard, too. ”  




The album’s success has obviously gotten things moving for Noahjohn, but unfortunately it may take some steam away from Speakeasy. The Speakeasy label currently houses three bands including Noahjohn, Tormentula (O’Cayz Corral owner Cathy Dethmers’ band) and Aaron Sholes. All have recently recorded new material, but whether it will be released on Speakeasy is still up in the air. “The label is at a little bit of a crossroads. There’s not a lot of money left, and I’m starting to tour a lot more with Noahjohn. All of the bands on the label have albums ready to be released, but we’ll probably be shopping those around (to other labels). It’s become a little hectic now that Noahjohn has had some success,” Johns said.  




While Speakeasy as a label is in flux, Speakeasy as an entity that puts on local shows is stronger than ever. Recently the Speakeasy Foundation has been bringing more bands to Madison and giving them a place to play.  




“It’s a combination of things,” Johns said of the increase. “One, O’Cayz burning down .... I don’t see us taking on the whole load of O’Cayz or replacing it, but I do see us as filling a small fraction of the void that’s there.”  




Additionally, Johns’ deep involvement with the music world has made him many like-minded colleagues. “The more connected I get with different labels, and bands, I hear about bands coming through, and not coming here. I wanted to bring more interesting, sort of underground music to Madison and there’s not really a whole lot of folks doing that.” 




“Also, there are selfish reasons,” Johns concluded. “I know bands that I like, and I want to see them live. It’s part networking and doing stuff for our friends and our band, and part doing stuff for the whole community, too.”  




Promotional posters for Speakeasy Foundation shows have been a series of large, hand-tinted, appropriately surreal World War II-era postcard images from a collection his grandmother gave him. Peppered about the campus and downtown area, they act as the main form of advertisement for Speakeasy shows, as well as reflecting Johns’ fascination with Americana. “I like ironic Americana, and for some reason I’m really drawn to poorly done landscapes of America, like colorized photos .... I don’t know why exactly, but I like that.”  




Besides the transitions that the Speakeasy record label is facing, Wild Chirp is going through some turmoil as well. The magazine was started in November of 1999 and has produced seven issues so far. However, the eighth issue is still waiting to be produced. “We’re kind of in a crisis right now because we switched printers and they went bankrupt. We were supposed to put an issue out earlier this summer, but that didn’t happen. We might put out a double issue,” Johns said. 




As far as the future for Johns, Noahjohn just finished a new album that will be released within a year. “We just finished it up. We’re kind of shopping it around, and if a good situation comes up with another label, then we’ll put it out with them. If nothing looks hopeful by Christmas time then we’ll schedule to release [Speakeasy] in the spring,” Johns said. 




Recorded in four days at Truck Stop Studios in Chicago, Johns says “it’s going to be a summer album, I think. It’s pretty mellow and it’s a little bit psychedelic at times. It’s different then anything we’ve done before.” He elaborates “we’re kind of going through a little bit of a ... transition as a band. We’ve started playing more rock music, for one thing, and less country. The band has kind of learned to play with each other a little better and we can have a lot more subtitles and intricacies to the music.” Explaining the new sound further, Johns adds “it’s rock in the sense that it’s amplified instruments, and the arrangements aren’t traditional country .... If I had to place it it’s probably like an indie rock album but it’s an americana album, too.”  




Johns has definitely come a long way from writing songs out of boredom. He has now successfully gotten into the independent music scene and helped support it through promoting, releasing and booking shows as well as writing about the music scene in Wild Chirp. Look for Speakeasy Foundation shows to continue through the year, and Noahjohn’s next local performance will be in early October.

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