Southside Johnny is sitting relaxed in his dressing room where we meet him, thirty minutes before he will go on stage with the Asbury Jukes to play at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware. The interview that we were supposed to do before the show, needs to be postponed as Southside was tied up with sponsor meet and greet obligations. But Johnny is very friendly and funny, talks to us about a short vacation he once had in The Netherlands, visiting small towns such as Gouda and Edam, and him wanting to see The Zuiderzee. He agrees to do the interview on the next day, his day off, in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
The waitress recognizes Southside Johnny
Just twenty minutes later we see Southside walking onstage, kicking off the show with ‘Spinning’, the opening track of his new album Soultime! It is a very typical Jukes show in an untypical location, the Grand Opera House from 1814, nice seats and balconies, filled with Jukes fans who get entertained by a passionate band for two hours by hearing a mix of their favorites classics like ‘Love on the Wrong Side of Town’, ‘Talk to Me’ and ‘The Fever’ and songs from the new album. Southside and the Jukes display their great form in the performance which is the final one for a week, after they have played a string of shows in Florida, Tennessee and Virginia.
Early next afternoon we meet Southside again at the Americas Cup Coffee Company in Asbury Park. The waitress recognizes Johnny when he walks up to the counter of the coffee shop and says to him: “Southside, your show was the first one I have ever been to, the New Year’s Eve show in Red Bank fourteen years ago.” Johnny smiles and says he just played another one again at the Count Basie Theater a few weeks ago. After we get a coffee, we sit down with Southside.
Be True: The last time we spoke with you was for the Pills and Ammo record which was newly out then, and we spoke just before you did the Bospop festival show in Holland in 2010. Now you just released another new album, Soultime! It’s completely different album with a very uplifting and joyful sound. An exemplary song on it, I think, is ‘Looking for a Good Time’. Yesterday at the show you explained that this is what you are here to do now. You want to entertain people. It that also the sense of this record?
SSJ: “Yes, very much so. Pills and Ammo was an angry record about the financial collapse in America and around the world. And a lot of our fans would tell us sad stories about not being able to pay the mortgage and losing jobs. And it just made me so angry that I wanted to make an album out of that. And that’s what Pills and Ammo is about. But for this album, I think things are better. In America certainly. And I think it is my job not to remind people that things are bad, but to remind them it can be good. That when you get to a show, you can have a good time. Put on music is good for you. And my job in this world is to make people happy, not to remind them of their troubles. Sometimes you get angry and you do that. And of course Bruce does that kind of stuff. And he does that so well. We did a Bruce night just February last year and we did the song ‘Jack of All Trades’. I just think that’s one of his best songs, it’s a fantastic song and it was great to sing it. It really grips you. And he can do that. But I think I am more of a ‘let’s go out and have fun’-kind of guy.”
That was at that Stone Pony show where you did a dedicated Bruce set, and now you have another one coming at the Stone Pony in February?
“Yeah, we try to do these things every February because usually February is bleak and cold. It hasn’t been too bad although we’ve had some snow. It’s just something for fun to break up the winter. Because we do New Year’s, I thought we should do something in February too. And we just try to figure out different things. We’ve done a set with obscure Jukes, we’ve done all requests, we did Bruce. And this year we’re going to do all soul songs because that’s just the mood I’m in. We’re going to do Temptations, Bobby Womack, that kind of stuff.”
Do you have to study those songs or are those in the repertoire?
“Some are, some aren’t. The band has to learn them, I already know most of them. I played them in so many different bands, you know. ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’, ‘Midnight Hour’. That’s what we played back when we were teenagers. The songs that got us into clubs and bars.”
When we get back to the Soultime! record, you even made an attempt to make the breakup songs ‘Don’t Waste My Time’ and ‘I’m Not that Lonely’ sound joyful.
“Yes! You learn that from people like Smokey Robinson. He’s just got these great songs about break up but they still make you feel… That’s just a cathartic thing about soul music and blues and all music, really. You can take your worst feelings and by hearing them out that by Billie Holiday or someone like that, you get that catharsis. When you get the feeling that everybody has had that moment, you feel better. You cry a little bit and then you start to feel a little bit better.”
So your singing and the music that you bring can give people some help with that.
“Yeah, I hope so. I’ve had people over the years tell me that they played my songs at their wedding or when they met their girlfriend or whatever. And that really does make you feel good. When you record an album you are with the band, we’re all really supportive with each other, everybody says: ‘Oh, that sounds good.’ And then you go out and play, and play it to an audience and they go: ‘Oh, that sounds good’, but you don’t know what your music means to people outside of that. So when people come up to you and say: ‘You’re music means a lot to me, I played it to my kids’, that’s great.”
In that sense, I think you made a very comforting song on Songs From The Barn, the Poor Fools record, ‘Gone Underground’, that’s maybe about your mother.
“It’s about my mother.”
That’s really a striking example of a song that can bring comfort to people.
“Well, some songs you write for you, some you write for others. A lot of the songs on Soultime! were written with the idea that we wanted to do up-songs. The song that you mention, I wrote for me. You know, late at night, thinking about my mother and I wrote out lyrics. I gave it to Jeff, I sat down with Jeff and said: ‘This is what it’s about’, and he wrote the music. I think when Bruce wrote ‘Jack of All Trades’, he was really writing for people to hear that. When I was writing the song about my mother, I was writing for me. There is always that give and take about what you really want to say and what you think people need to hear. But sometimes you just write what you write.”
The songs that you wrote for Soultime!, did you write them specifically for this album, during the recording process? Or did you have some songs left also from other sessions?
“We had an idea, I heard ‘Superfly’ from Curtis Mayfield in the store, I said: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I went to Jeff and said: ‘We’re going to write soul songs.’ He went: ‘Great’, because he loves it. Immediately song types came to our minds. And we started to write. We wrote all of these songs in about two weeks. It came right out. It was really what we wanted to do. It started off, I said: ‘I want to do this song and this song and two cover songs.’ And Jeff said: ‘Okay, but if we write something better than that, or something equal, we’ll do those.’ And we just ended up writing a whole album. But we are going to do those songs someday.”
And the recording was done live, I think?
“Yes. Well, the horns have to be overdubbed, because it’s just a nightmare. You know, we sent out mp3’s, the band learned it. They came into the studio, they had their own interpretation of stuff, fine-tuned that and recorded it. It was only a couple of weeks to record, really.”
You wrote in the liner notes also it was recorded here in Asbury Park and you described it as one of the most enjoyable experienced you had in your career.
“Yes, it’s a great studio, very welcoming. And I rode my bike to that, that was great. I guess it was just the idea that I knew where I was. I have recorded in New York, California, I have recorded all over. And I enjoy the studio sometimes. If it’s not 14 hours a day. And I said: ‘I am not doing that, 12 or 14 hours a day.’ I don’t want that. I always think that when you go over ten hours, you are not hearing things. You are making mistakes in the recording and I don’t want to do that. So we did 8 or 9 hours a day, and got it done in two weeks. And that was no rehearsal or anything.”
“Well, I knew the band would hit us, I knew the band would really understand and be able to play this stuff. And they did.”
Talking about the Jukes, we’ve seen some changes in the band over the many years, but I think this formation that you have now lasts maybe for five years or so I think. John Isley is the latest addition I think.
”Yes, three years or something like that.”
Must be comfortable to have a group around you now that sustains for a longer period of time.
“Yes, it is. But they are also that good. John Conte is just the best bass player we ever had. And Tommy is great on drums and of course Jeff is great, Glenn… The whole band is really what I want at this point. So I am happy every night, I am glad they are staying. Occasionally they go out and do other work, John Isley’s been out with Diana Ross. And John Conte plays with this German guy, Marius Muller Westernhagen. I mean, we have subs for them, for everybody, in case they have a better paying gig or that kind of stuff. I’m fine with that. I love this line-up, it’s great, it’s really very comfortable.”
It seems Jeff is your prominent songwriter companion now and also does great singing on the record on the song ‘All I Can Do’. Do you enjoy the process of working with him?
“Very much. It’s a very close collaboration. We never hit that roadblock of ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ Or ‘I don’t like what you’re doing.’ We’ve had fights, screaming and yelling fights about stuff. But that’s just blowing off steam, nothing else. He understands where I’m trying to go and I understand where he’s trying to go. I trust him. I give him a melody line or something, and he’ll transform it. And I say: ‘I want to hear this kind of chord but I don’t know what the chord is.’ And he’ll find it. And he also comes up with the lyrics. And titles and music of his own. So, it’s easy for me. And the fact that it’s keyboards gives you more options than guitar. You know, I write on guitar. I can play enough guitar to write songs. But keyboards give you the chance to hear what the bass sounds like, to do all the different things that you need to do. And that can inspire more lyrics. So it’s been a great collaboration for me, I’ve been very grateful that he drifted into my life.”
The album is not all retrospective soul, in my ears. I hear also songs that remind me of Into the Harbour, like the relationship songs that you have on there, ‘Words Fail Me’ and ‘The Heart Always Knows’.
“Yeah, I guess you could call them that. ‘Words Fail Me’ is sort of like O.C. Smith or one of those kind of soul singers. It’s more pop soul. ‘The Heart Always Knows’ was written with a songwriter in Nashville on guitar (Gary Nicholson, red.). We tried to trace for some kind of Sam Cooke-ish early soul. But it didn’t point out like that. But still, I liked how it came out, so I don’t care. It’s not a hard and fast rule that everything has to be the same genre. If the song works, it works.”
Of course. Also two other songs that stand out, I think, differently from the rest are ‘Walking on a Thin Line’ and the final track, ‘Reality’. They both remind me of Pills and Ammo.
“Gee, I don’t get that from them. But they are more of that cool… well, more Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack type of rhythm and you play along with the rhythm. You establish a certain tone and rhythm and then you layer things on to that. That’s what Curtis Mayfield was doing. He’s got songs like the one I heard, ‘Superfly’, if you listen to it, it’s that same thing: drums, bass and then the vocal comes in, and then horns. It’s a what is called a groove song. And that’s what both of those two are supposed to be. I don’t hear Pills and Ammo in them, but I have to go back and listen to them again.”
I think they have a little bit more of that edge. And also in the lyrics. In the lyrics of ‘Walking on a Thin Line’ you say: ‘You’re the headless body in a topless bar, never took time to get tight with the Holy Ghost.’ What is that character that you are describing there?
“I have another song called ‘Satan Shoes’ which is about a character like that. A guy who gets a little bit too caught up in the pleasures of the urban life. The ‘Headless body in a topless bar’ is a famous headline from one of our tabloid newspapers, The New York Post, a man was found in a topless bar with his head cut off. So ‘Headless body in topless bar’ was one of the legendary headlines of that crazy newspaper. And I always wanted to use that line in a song and I found a way to do that. But it’s not me! I mean, I have had nights like that, yes. But this is a guy who really… he is just looking for trouble. He finds it.”
Twelve years ago, when we did our first interview with you, you talked about the physical demanding side of performing on stage. The energy absorbing side. How are you coping with that now, because you tour a lot?
“The energy is still good. My muscles are not as good (laughs). I have a problem with my leg, I had the gout, it’s an inflammation. And once you limp around, all your muscles get all twisted up. So when you are out on stage and jump up and down for two hours with all twisted muscles, it gets worse and worse. But my energy is still good, and the voice has been strong. I don’t worry about the other stuff. We did one show at BB King’s where I really had the gout bad. And I sat in a chair. It was very weird. But we are at a point that we made fun of that, we did different things with that too. If you’re not really concerned that much with how you look or come across on stage, but concerned only with doing the music right and making the audience happy, those kind of things don’t bother you. I mean, I know people who won’t get onstage if they don’t have a good haircut.”
You are coming to Europe in May…
“Is it in May?”
Well, I think you will go to the UK first end of April.
“I don’t know, it’s too far away for me to think about it.”
But you will be doing seven shows in Holland and one in Belgium and five in Germany. But I think seven in Holland is the most you have done there in a row, I think in 1992 you played six.
“Is that right, in Holland? Where do we play?”
There are three festivals. And you will play places you haven’t played before, like Maastricht.
“That’s great, I love going to a place I haven’t been before.”
And you will play places you’ve been before, of course, like there will be the Paradiso show, The Hague, Utrecht and Groningen. It is more than you have done before. Maybe you can tell us what we can expect from the ‘Soultime! Dance Party’, because that’s how the shows are promoted.
(Laughs.) “Well, I guess we then have to do a lot of soul songs. You saw last night, it’s going to be whatever happens on stage. You saw us in the concert go: ‘What do you want to do?’ You ask the audience, you ask the band. You know, there are times when I know exactly where I am going to. And the setlist is forgotten, of course. And there are times when go: ’I just finished a song and I really enjoyed it, and I don’t know what to do next.’ And I’ll go look, and Jeff will start something, or John Conte or somebody will yell out something, we let it go from there. We’ll be doing a lot of the album, but we’ll also be doing a lot of the old songs too. I mean, I never want to disappoint the audience. We’ll do ‘The Fever’, we will do ‘I Don’t Want to Go Home’, we will do ‘This Time It’s For Real’. I know that people want to hear those. And I have no problem with that.”
Last night, we enjoyed also the changes you made in certain songs that you have played over the years. Some you start acoustically, like ‘Trapped Again’ or ‘All I Needed Was You’. We like those reinvention of those songs also.
“The thing is, I don’t know sometimes that we re-done those things. Some I know, of course. They kind of mutate as you go along. And as I go back and listen to the original, I go: ‘Oh, so that is how that song goes.’ But you know, we are not up there to replicate what we do on record. We are up there to find the night, find the music. Let the audience take us places, take the audience places. It can’t be the same every night. It’s not making music that way. It’s wonderful that the Eagles can go out and sound exactly like their records. But I never wanted to do that. I just can’t do the same thing night after night. I would not be connected with the music and the audience at that point, when I say: ‘I’ve got to do this now, I’ve got to do that now.’ It’s like washing dishes. When you start washing dishes, your mind goes somewhere else.”
As a side step now, a few questions about another project that you are doing. In 2013 you recorded the Poor Fools album. We’ve seen some acoustic formations from you, you have played as a duo with Bobby. You have played in a four-piece band with Rusty Cloud and David Hayes, and also later with Kevin Gordon and Rick Schell. But in my opinion, those were acoustic Jukes shows.
“Yeah, sort of. Rock ‘n roll.”
But this formation that you have now, with the Poor Fools, it is completely different. How did that come about?
“Well, I have always written songs like that, I always liked that kind of music, folk or country. All those different things. When you take a song to the Jukes, it becomes of what we call Jukefied. Because once you put the horns on it and all that, it sounds like the Jukes. And there has always been times when I thought: I don’t want this to sound like the Jukes. We ran into some people and we toured acoustic things, for our only fun I thought, but we said: ‘Let’s make a formal thing with this and make a record.’ It just seemed to be the right time. And Jeff could play the accordion. And of course, John Conte plays everything. Neal Pawley plays everything. So that’s what we did. We said: ‘Let’s put mandolin on this, let’s put banjo on that.’ He plays tuba on one song. It just was a chance to do something different. And we are probably going to make another Poor Fools album, but right now we are in the midst of this whole thing with Soultime!. But I’ve got plenty of songs. I’ve got a lot of lyrics not unlike ‘Yellowknife’ and those kind of things. There is a place for them, it’s not the Jukes. And I’ll get them done in some way with somebody.”
Any chance you will take the Poor Fools to Europe also?
“Everybody has asked me to, and if I could, I would. I don’t know if we could get any money from it. I don’t make any money from the Poor Fools. I don’t mind playing for free, but I don’t want to go into such debt that it is going to be a burden. But I will eventually.”
I was fortunate to come here last year and see you perform with the Poor Fools. I didn’t know you played the slide guitar. I saw you played some good slide guitar on a few songs.
(Laughs.) “Did I?”
You did. Were you never able to show that, you never play an instrument during the Jukes shows.
“I play a harmonica. A semi-legitimate instrument, as I was told.”
Yes, of course. And how well you play it.
“Well, I always played guitar and then I hurt my hand in the late seventies and lost the feeling in my fingers.”
Southside shows us a big scar on his wrist. In 1978, when he and the band were promoting the Hearts of Stone album with a tour across the US, he stumbled over a sound monitor on stage in Sacramento, California, and fell in a shattered glass. At the time, he required a six hour operation to repair the damage to his nerves and tendons.
SSJ: “So I strum the guitar at home. But I knew I was never going to be good enough to play. And the Jukes songs are very complicated, a lot of chords that I don’t know and I couldn’t play them even if I knew them. For these songs, if I know that I can play the chords, I will. If it’s a complicated song, like ‘So Good’, that’s got a lot of chords. I can play it on guitar but not very well. So I play harmonica. And that is the other reason why I wanted to do it. I had ducked playing guitar on stage for all these years. But I thought: no, you got to play guitar on stage. Even if you can’t play it well, you need to be able to say you did it. It’s just a challenge that I take myself. And even that I know I play it badly, at least I know I’ve done it. It’s just one of those things you do to yourself. I don’t know why. But I really enjoyed it. And as far as the slide is concerned, I always done that too, just in my house, you know. Sitting there, drinking a glass of whiskey and play slide guitar.”
It is great that people get to see it on stage.
“I’m glad people like that stuff, but really, it’s more for me. You’ve got to get over your fears. And that’s one of the ones I had for a long time.”
Since you are coming to the Netherlands, you told us yesterday that you also made a trip in The Netherlands, where you visited a few cities. Can you maybe tell us a little bit about that trip?
“My girlfriend and I made this trip, I guess it was four or five years ago.”
Was that when you also saw Tom Waits in Amsterdam, in 2004?
“Yes, I guess that was the same trip. We said, we are going to see him. And we will see all these little places. And The Zuiderzee. I always wanted to see it. Holland is beautiful.”
Did you read about the Zuiderzee?
“I read about it when I was a kid and I just loved the name of it. And my father always said: ‘I send you to the Zuiderzee’, when we did something bad. He thought that was funny too. It’s just something that gets in your mind. I really wanted to see it. And now it’s not there anymore (laughs). You crazy people. But we wanted to go and see the little quaint towns. Calm, you know. Maybe we did just some hiking along the beach, but nothing real strenuous. Not a lot of long drives. Just a week of nice towns, nice hotels. Dinner, talk. And that’s what we did and it was a beautiful trip. It was very relaxing and very soothing and we really had a great time.”
So maybe when you come over again now and have a day off in a nice town, you can spend your day off in the town.
“Yeah, maybe, although what I have seen from the schedule, when I have a day off, I am spending it in bed.”
Do you still go out bird watching?
“Yes, I just went down to Louisiana and Texas, Houston down into Louisiana, looking. It’s not the greatest time of the year for birds in that little area, but I always want to look for old vinyl records too. So I combine the two. Just by myself. Flew into Houston, rented a car and spend seven days, just wandering around the swamps. It’s great, because you learn that when you do those things, you cut everything out. You say: ‘No, I am not going to worry about this.’ Because you made a record, got the tour booked, you got dates. I can spend one week not worrying about music and career. Worrying about if the band is happy. All that stuff.”
Do you have a wish list for birds you want to see?
“Not really. I know there are certain birds I’d love to see. But they are really remote. One group is the birds of paradise. That’s in Papua New Guinea. It’s a two week trip to get to the birds. I don’t think I am really up for that anymore. Hawaii is another great place for spectacular birds, but they are dying off. Hawaii is also just spectacular to hike. All the way up to the mountain tops, on the trails, it’s great. There are volcanoes, you’ve got snorkeling. And we are also going to Alaska. It’s the only state I have never been to. And both of us want to go up there and see the glaciers, the orcas. And also to see birds, there are lots of different birds in that area.”
I have one question left that I have to ask for our Scandinavian friends. They are left cut out of this tour but I think you mentioned also that you want to go to Europe twice this year.
“I think that we are probably going to do Scandinavia in the fall. There have been talks about some festivals in eh…”
Notodden, in Norway, perhaps?
“You ask me stuff that I don’t know. But I know that we have a couple of people over there that want to take us to Norway and Sweden, and I think they want us to go back to Finland too. And of course, I’m up for it, I love traveling. Luckily for me. I go wherever they send me, pretty much.”