Keeping it “About the Music”: Behind the Scenes with Johnny Cooper
Johnny Cooper is no ordinary 20 year old...he’s no ordinary musician, for that matter. Beginning his musical career at the age of 15, performing at Blaine Martin’s Concho River festival in San Angelo, TX, Johnny has become an incredible success and youthful phenomenon on the Americana and Texas music scene. Born in Phoenix, AZ, and then luckily for the industry, relocating to Wichita Falls, TX Johnny has already released two albums, one of which, “Live at The Pub” earned him “Best live CD of the Year” in 2006, and “Entertainer of the Year for 2006 and 2007" by the “Oklahoma Music Awards.” His second record, a studio album titled “Ignition” has been getting a ton of radio play for over a year now, and produced four singles for Johnny. Produced by Mike McClure and picked up in 2007 by Smith Entertainment, “Ignition” has dropped Johnny smack dab in the middle of the Texas music scene. With all of that on his plate, and a recent line-up change in the band, what does Johnny do to relax? Hang out on his couch, play X Box, spend hours on Facebook like any other 20 year old? Nope, he jumps a plane to Mexico with is family and girlfriend and lays around on the beach for seven days doing “absolutely nothing!” His first gig back on this side of the border was a set he opened up for Mike McClure in San Angelo, TX before which he spent about an hour talking with me. Check out what makes Johnny Cooper one of the coolest guys I’ve spent time with in the last 12 months.
Johnny, thanks for takin’ the time to talk with us today, man.
Oh, no problem, no problem.
I’ve been wantin’ to do this interview for a while, so I’m really thankful that you’re here with us tonight, and we’re just gonna talk a little bit about where you’ve been, where you’re goin’ what’s goin on.
Right on, very cool.
Cool, so I know you’ve been touring a lot, we were talking before I started recording about just having been in Steamboat, and we’re gonna talk about that later, I definitely want to get back to that. But you’ve been promoting your last record, for a couple of years now-“Ignition”-and you’ve enjoyed tremendous success on that, and I know you’ve got another one that’s gonna be available soon. Let’s talk a little bit about “Ignition” and the production of that record and some of the success you’ve had with that.
Right on! Man, you know it’s kind of funny because I was 17 years old and we just got finished recording our “Live at The Pub” record. We knew we needed to do somethin’ a little bit better than that, you know? We had to get in the studio and do a studio album.
“Live at The Pub” also won “Live CD of the Year” in 2006, so it wasn’t too shabby!
[Laughing] Well you know I started writin’ some more songs. Some of the stuff that’s on “Live at The Pub” is on “Ignition” as well. But we really just knew that we had to come up with somethin’ different, a new record. Somethin’ that was worthy of bein’ played on the radio, or somethin’ like that. So we just worked up a bunch of songs, and I got together with Mike [McClure] one night. We were talkin’ and he was sayin’ he was starting to do a lot more producing, so I said, “you know, I’m actually tryin’ to put together a record right now.” So at that point in time we got together and started workin’ and picked a date to go record. We went into the studio and did it! We got the whole CD done in seven days [laughing]. It was pretty crazy, we recorded everything in seven days and we had it mixed down by the next month and had it ready to go on to be packaged and everything within about two months. The craziest part is, you know, the CD has been out for a long time, now. But you know a lot of radio stations didn’t start pickin’ it up until about a year and a half ago, two years ago. Which was interesting, you know? I mean we had this product that, as a musician and an artist myself, we’ve already been playin’ it for like a year [before it got picked up by the radio]. Then some stuff started happenin’ for us. We started gettin’ better gigs, and what not, and the radio had a lot to do with that. A radio station out of Ft. Worth, called The Ranch had a lot to do with that. I remember lookin’ at the play sheet one time that they send in every week of, you know, how many times they spin your song. Out of nowhere one time they had us playin’ like 500 times, and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it and I was thinkin’ “what’s goin’ on?!” And it was our first single, which was “Texas to You.” We ended up gettin’ four singles out of “Ignition,” which I didn’t ever think was gonna happen anyway!
Well, if you’ve listened to the radio at all during the last year, you’ve heard any of these songs. You know “Texas to You” was number 5, “Devil Women” 6, and “Let it all Go” was number 4 [on the music charts].
Those all spent an amazing amount of time in the top ten, like 15, 16, 17 weeks, in some cases, which is an incredible success for a first studio effort. Yeah, you know, I still can’t...it still doesn’t really feel real! You know it really doesn’t feel real. Just like the other week when we played Billy Bob’s for the first time on the big stage, and it didn’t feel real to me until about four days later [smiling].
Your first live record, “Live at The Pub,” as we were talking about, was recorded at the Iron Horse Pub in Wichita Falls, TX. What about plans for a live album at Billy Bob’s?
Yeah, well they pretty much have been runnin’ a lot of the different artists like Ragweed, and McClure, and No Justice and all these guys through there. And they’ve been runnin’ through there pretty often. And there’s a record company called Smith, oh, what is it, Smith Records?
Is it Smith Entertainment now? Right, yeah, and they have a lot to do with a lot of the “Live at Billy Bob’s” stuff...
And they actually picked up “Ignition.”
Yeah, they have our record, “Ignition,” and we’ve talked about maybe recordin’ a “Live at Billy Bob’s” record at some point in time, but there’s nothin’ set on that yet.
Well with Mike producing “Ignition” for you guys, did he contribute some of his musical genius to the record?
Oh, yeah, definitely! He played some baritone, guitar, on a couple tracks. He also sang some harmony on a couple tracks. And, you know it’s a lot of fun workin’ with Mike because he’s not gonna change your music, but he’s not gonna let ya’ sound bad. You know if somethin’ doesn’t sound right, or you don’t hit a note right, or a guitar is slightly out of tune, he’s gonna hear it. And he’ll make sure that he gets the best out of ya’ that you can get.
What kind of advice does he give you?
Man, you know it’s just like anything. For me, it was my first time to be in a studio, so you know all I was thinkin’ in the back of my head was “I’m gonna listen to what he’s got to say!” You know, he’s done this a lot more than I have. Really, he just makes you feel comfortable. He makes you feel like, you know, we can make your songs really sound the way you want ‘em to. I think it’s the same with any other artist, like a painter, or somebody that designs buildings or somethin’ like that. You know, they have this image in their head of how they want it to be, it’s just a matter of makin’ the right moves and gettin’ it to where you want it to be.
Well, this business is so special because there is that. There is a sense of camaraderie. Basically everybody wants to help everybody else. I think so many of the artists are such big fans, and so many of the fans may be aspiring artists. I was talking with Ryan Bingham last year in an interview we did down in Luckenbach. Mark Ford, who was with the Black Crowes, produced “Mescalito,” Ryan’s last studio record, and he was on tour with Ryan for a little while. He said the wealth of knowledge from Mark was irreplaceable.
Man, definitely, it’s like a big family, you know. And especially with me bein’ young, and especially in this scene. You always hear about it. I remember talkin’ with different musicians that did stuff in the ‘80s and ‘90s and the rock scene and they said that bands in that kind of scene were so competitive. And you know, it’s good to be competitive, but it was competitive in a bad way. You know, “my band’s cooler than your band.” And this scene it’s not like that.
Even within the band itself. That shit has contributed to the break-up of some of my favorite bands.
Exactly! Yeah, yeah, yeah...you know in this scene we all know what we wanna do. We’re all here for the same reason. We just wanna have fun and play the music that we wanna play. And everybody gets that. You know, no matter if you’re playin’ somethin’ a little bit different than what some other band is...
[Really LOUD distracting music comes in through the loud speaker in the bar. Johnny says, laughing, “I think that’s some Sugar Land!”]
Yeah, we don’t exactly play Sugar Land on our radio stations out here!
[Laughing] Yeah we may have to move here in a little bit!
We may be okay for right now. Well let’s talk a little bit about the band. It’s undergone some changes, so let’s talk about who is in the band today.
Okay, well on the bass guitar we have Cody Shaw playin’ and on drums-our drummer’s name is Randy Burch. And our guitar player is actually Cody’s dad his name is Ben Shaw. And I’m playin’ guitar and singin’ and so it’s just the four of us.
Now Cody did have his own band, how’d you two get together.
Yeah, he did. It was actually about six months ago we were talkin’ and me and Cody have grown up together. He was one of the first people that I ever got to see play music. So we got to talkin’ one day and we finally came to the conclusion that we should just do it.
Made an executive decision.
Yeah, we did! He had a band that was called Cody Shaw and the Rhythm Boys, and they’re not broken up, they’re still gonna put out some records and stuff like that.
But some of these guys [your band members] actually played in that band.
Right, right, Randy, our drummer, played with Cody and Cody’s dad did too. And so it’s pretty much Johnny and the Rhythm boys now, I guess if you wanted to put it that way [laughing]. But it’s pretty funny. And it’s really good and it’s been the best thing for me, at this point in my life, for what I’m tryin’ to do, it needed to be done. It’s like learnin’ somethin’ new, you know, you get excited about it again. Where as before you kind of get stuck doin’ the same thing, and after a while you gotta change it up, you know.
Well talking about the collaboration of the two bands. When you’re getting to hang out with a lot of other musicians, and you know as you said, a lot of ‘em are your friends. Getting to do that, and playin’ and then also considering what’s spinnin’ around in your own cd player, or on your radio and all of the things your listening to, does that affect your own sounds?
Oh, yeah, I definitely think so. Man, of course it does. You just are always growin’ and learnin’ new things and tryin’ new things to make kind of your own identity. At least I feel that that’s what the goal is. To make your own identity and your music. So that way when somebody puts on a record, just like for instance, say somebody like Lynard Skynard or Prince. You hear a Lynard Skynard song come on, it’s not like you have to wonder who that is. You know what I’m sayin’? Or same with Prince. And I think any musician, that’s what they strive for, to be able to get what they can. Get the best out of themselves. That’s kind of me and my guys. Our goal right now is just always takin’ a step up, no matter what we do.
Well that next level should always be where you’re trying to go, but I know for sure, I can turn on the radio and in the first few licks, I always know right away, “that’s a Johnny Cooper song.” Whether I’ve heard it before or not, you know it may be a bootleg cut or something from a show or something I’m hearing for the first time, but I always know. It’s great because it works, and you’ve found a sound that does work, but it’s not the same song every time.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. You know you’ve gotta keep the listener excited, you can’t play the same thing all the time. And you know in our live shows, we try to switch it up so that way you get a rock song, you get a pop song, you get a country song, you get a folk song. You almost get, you know some hip-hop. We try to give you a little bit of everything. Just so that way the last song did not sound like the song before that.
That’s the nature of this music, by whichever name you want to lend it, the borders are so wide, and the spectrum so large. You all are very fortunate in a way, because of the loyalty of your fans, and because of the immense respect there is for the music. You can kind of do what you want to do, with an album or with a show, and you can do that and make whatever sounds you want to make and it’s accepted...nay, adored.
Well, like you say, you credit that to the fan base. It’s almost like they’re not fans. And if it makes any sense, the people that come to my shows-and I see ‘em up front, rockin’ out-they’re there to be a part of it. To be a part of the show, for just the feeling. You know they’re there because they love it just as much as I love it. And you can tell. They’ll do whatever they can, you know eight dollars, ten dollars, whatever. They just want to be there for the fact that it almost feels like a place for them that they can relax, where they can forget about all the things that they had to do all week long. And that’s what’s kind of cool. That’s what makes it exciting for me, that I can make people forget about the crappy week they had.
Ah, well, music is healing. I was talking with an artist about a concept that he was explaining to me in which he thinks the music is at a crucial, but special place. In large part because of what you guys do, touring and playing your asses off three, four five nights a week, that it is reaching the rest of the world in a way that maybe didn’t seem possible ten years ago.
Man, you’re seein’ it happen. It’s happenin’ day by day, that’s why you know, people like Ragweed are getting to play in California, and playin’ in New York. And not just playin’ in New York and California, but drawin’ crowds in New York and California.
“Mission California” [Cross Canadian Ragweed’s last studio album] was recorded in California, actually produced by Mike McClure.
And that’s a lot of it. Slowly day by day, we’re all gettin’ a chance to be a part of that. To be able to have an opportunity to have our music on a wider spectrum. And it’s thanks to guys all the way back to Waylon Jennings, and then all of these guys who are from the same kind of feel. And then your Jerry Jeff Walkers, and your Roger Creagers, you know all these people. It’s like one big team, and we’re all tryin’ to get one point across, that we do have something here that can be a national kind of deal.
You and I were talking about the camaraderie, and the sense of “team”, and I just got back from Steamboat-I know you just got back form Steamboat-and that is one of the places that I feel that the most. It’s my favorite week of the year, because there is absolutely more music than you know what to do with, and not just music, good music. And the people that are there are there for no other reason than to hear it, and to be a part of that experience up there.
This was our second year, and it was great. We only had one gig this year, and so we pretty much got to hang out most of the week. I got to go skiin’ for the first time; I didn’t go skiin’ last year so that was a lot of fun. And Steamboat is another one of those deals where, you know, all week long everybody’s trapped [laughs] up there.
Everybody’s in the same boat all week!
Yeah, so you get to see everybody that you don’t get to see very often. And it’s fun, because you get to see bands we used to open for, and stuff like that. And people we hadn’t seen in a year. Since the last time we were in Steamboat. And we get to all hang out that week and all get together and play music and jam and there’s always all kinds of late night hotel jams goin’ on. I mean it happens all week long.
Oh man, it’s basically music from sunup to, well sunup!
As much as you can handle. And honestly, still, I didn’t get enough. I sure do feel bad for Steamboat, though! For seven days they get tromped with a bunch of Texans, man!
Damn straight! Well, Johnny, I just want to mention the new record. Is it still in the works for possibly a release date of spring of this year?
Yeah, we’re goin’ to record, hopefully at the end of February, definitely gonna be able to start by the beginning of March. So we’re gonna have that goin’, and then hopefully gonna try to have it out for sale and on shelves and stuff like that right when summer rolls around.
Now as far as production on that, will Mike be in there for this one?
No, actually Mike is not doin’ this next one. I have two guys that are helpin’ me out with this one. A friend of mine named Dexter Green and then another guy that’s from New York that has done some work with people like Ziggy Marley and he’s worked with U2 and stuff like that too.
Ah, get down. And so you’ll have that perspective on it. That gets me stoked to hear it!
Oh, yeah! And his name is Glenn, Glenn Rosenstein. He’s from New York, Dex is from South Carolina, and they both reside in Nashville now and I met ‘em through my manager. And man we hit it off and they really understand what we’re tryin’ to go for with our next album, so I’m really excited about it.
Man, that’s awesome. So then, you’ve got most of the material for it already.
Yeah, we have about 80% of the material. We have a couple other songs that we’re finishin’ up and then I have about six other songs that I’ve been writin’ for the past three months that may make it on the record, may not. Either way we’re gonna put out this record and about six months after that we’re gonna put out an acoustic album and it’s just gonna be all the stuff that didn’t make it onto the first album.
So a title for the new record?
Man, we don’t know yet! That’s like one of those things that just comes to ya,’ you know when you’re in the studio, while you’re recordin’ the album. Or, it may be in the production phase of it, two weeks later after you record it. It’s just one of those deals that you can think about it, well I’ve been thinkin’ about it for three months now, you know! But, it’s just one of those things that it will hit ya’ out of nowhere and that’s when you’ll know.
The studio that you’re in is gonna definitely have its own creative energy, and its own stamp to put on it. Well, awesome I’ll definitely be looking forward to that, looking forward to seeing you on the road. What’s in store for the future? More touring?
More tourin,’ puttin’ out more albums, just you know tryin’ to get our music out to anybody who’ll listen.
I hate to mention your youth, I know you hear about it a lot, but there are a lot of guys out there doing what your doing, and I have to say that I think I can speak on behalf of anybody who loves this scene, that you are absolutely a breath of fresh air. And to see a guy with so much talent and so much drive and success, but as honest and humbled that you are, and especially at your age, is just the coolest thing in the world and I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me.
Oh, man! [A little embarrassed-as I said, he’s very humble] I appreciate it as well! I’m just so glad to be able to be a part of all this.