Michael Johnson isn't your usual University of the Arts music teacher. At 35, the native Floridian, during his time in our fair city, has been many things, from a member of the Lilys (a Philly shoe-gaze legend) to the one-man band that is Ape School. As an Ape, he has made deeply psychedelic music that has gone from absurdist electronica (as in the 2009 album Ape School) to glam-laced love songs (the newly released CD Junior Violence) and, in the process, taken advantage of his university's ownership of the fourth modular synthesizer Robert Moog ever made.
"When I arrived at U.A. in 2005, that Moog was in a state of disrepair, which was an absolute shame," says Johnson, who got it fixed and learned its intricacies. "The sticker on the back says '1965.' It doesn't even have Moog logos on the modules, just an 'R.A. Moog' stencil. I'm lucky to have such access to such historic importance, and I never take that for granted."
Only a studio whiz like Johnson would say that.
Though both of his Ape School albums find Johnson going it alone, Junior Violence (and its coming release performances) features the work of, among others, drummer Eric Slick (from Dr. Dog), bassist Scott Churchman (Chubby Checker), and players from Johnson's time in the Lilys, a wonky Philly band that he recalls fondly.
"The first three people I met in Philadelphia were Kurt Vile, Adam Granduciel [of the War on Drugs], and Kurt Heasley," says Johnson. "I love them all dearly to this day." Heasley, the boss of Lilys, took multi-instrumentalist Johnson under his wing and in 2006 recorded the album Everything Wrong Is Imaginary. "He gave me so much more confidence and awareness of myself in relation to music and life in general," says Johnson. "He's an absolute genius." That says a lot, coming from Johnson. On both of his Ape School albums, a Dadaist lyrical sensibility coexists with a deliciously complex but contagious musicality. Junior Violence, in particular, has that feel while delving deeper into merry melody and glam-rock slickness that never eschews the rawness of his first album.
"I was very conscious of sticking to pop structure in terms of the songs themselves, albeit a slightly warped interpretation," says Johnson. "The first record meandered quite a bit. I've always jokingly referred to my genre as 'nonsense glam for the deaf.' Typically, my songs just kind of form themselves quickly and occupy whatever musical headspace I'm in at the time."
While Johnson cops to an obsession with the Sweet, Prefab Sprout, and Julian Cope, this writer hears locally grown wizard Todd Rundgren in more than a few Junior Violence songs. "Yes, indeed," says Johnson. "I'm especially fond of the sound of the War Babies record that Rundgren produced for Hall & Oates. Guitar tones and hooks and old-style studio trickery are all things I've tried to absorb from him."
To hear Junior Violence at its slick, raw, and glammy finest, focus on the album's heart-stopping centerpiece, "Marijuana's on the Phone." Johnson certainly does. "I knew I was on to something as soon as I heard what Eric Slick and I recorded, that the whole album could really become special. I knew I was on a roll and made a point to squeeze every bit of creativity and productivity I could out of summer 2011. It worked, and here we are, confusing the hell out of listeners."
- A.D. Amorosi