~Speaking with former Samhain & Danzig guitarist, John Christ~
June 05, 1999
Santa Monica, CA
Telephone interview - 10am PDT
Its Saturday, the fifth of June, shortly before one oclock, and Im a bit nervous. I mean, come on, its not everyday that you get to talk to one of your guitar heroes. Im just minutes away from phoning John Christ, guitarist and founding member of DANZIG, for a lengthy interview. Having interviewed several other members of this same clique, I really wasnt apprehensive about voicing the slew of questions I had prepared, but rather I was on edge not knowing "who" John was. I felt an incredible honor, knowing that this was the first interview John had granted, regarding his upcoming release Flesh Caffeine. My fears were quickly allayed as John greeted me like an old friend, and, after a few minutes of getting to know each other, we settled down to the business at hand. Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1965, the youngest of five children, John attended Catholic school with his four older sisters. It was during elementary school, to his recollection, that JC began his musical studies, upon a piano bench. Thats right - John Christ, the pianist
TV: When did you first begin playing musical instruments?
JC: Ahh.. I did some piano lessons in the third or fourth grade. Ive got four older sisters, and we went to the same Catholic school. Everybody played piano, and later on as we got older we played other instruments in junior high, and high school. We did eight years of Catholic school, then four years of public school.
TV: How did that affect you?
JC: (Laughing) You know, the toughest part was probably growing up with four older sisters, but looking back, it was really a blessing. As I came into my teens, their boyfriends were in their late teens, so those guys were already "cool" you know. Yeah, I hated wearing a uniform, but at the same time, that's where I got my first exposure to guitar.
TV: So, when did you start to pick up guitar?
JC: I didnt really start doing anything with it until I was in the seventh or eighth grade thirteen or fourteen years old, I guess.
TV: What was your first attempt at joining or forming a band like?
JC: At fourteen, I got into my first band with one of my sister's boyfriends a band called "Blind Ambition". We were doing Bad Company, Ted Nugent, Blue Oyster Cult, Foghat, Ten Years After the heavy stuff that was going on at the time. We just liked to play loud in my fiend's basement. We'd go over there and get drunk and play after church on Sundays, and the funny thing is, two of the guys were in a folk group that played at another church, and they had invited me along to just jam on acoustic over what they were doing. Now, the church thing was kind of "eh.." but the reason I liked the church was that there were some good looking chicks going.
TV: (erupts in laughter) Oh No!
JC: Yeah, it was actually the chicks that kept me going to church, can you believe that!?
TV: So you played pretty regularly with these guys?
JC: Yeah, we'd go to mass on Sunday, then we'd go to band practice afterwards. That went on for a couple of years. It was kind of funny that I was still partying, but still going to church at the same time.
TV: Is that when you plunged headlong into music?
JC: By the time I was fourteen I was like: "I want to be a musician, I want to play guitar." That was it.
TV: Did your family support your decision to become involved in the music industry?
JC: They were always very supportive of it, but they wanted me to have something to "fall back on". (Laughing) The old "something to fall back on" speech. It was a tough time for me, and probably went through a few years of not really talking to my parents just coming in, eating dinner and disappearing to my room to practice. Thats how they recall my teenage years. I said "Ok, Ill get something to fall back on.." and started college. I thought Id just keep taking classes and get a music degree while I tried to get the rock-n-roll thing happening.
TV: Lets move forward in time. How did you land the gig as guitarist in "DANZIG" ?
JC: I was in my junior year over at Towson State University, when a friend of mine told me that there was a band that was looking for a guitarist. They were from New York, and called themselves "SAMHAIN". They had fired their guitarist, Damien, and they had a couple of records out. My friend said " singer from the Misfits.." and I was like "Oh no, not punk rock!!" I hated punk rock I was a heavy metal kid (laughing) and I hated punk rock at the time. Well, six months later, my friend comes back again and showed me a record cover, urging me to check it out. I was on Christmas break at the time, and the guy called up, came over and was sufficiently impressed with what he heard. He asked if I was interested, and I said "sure", so he dropped off a couple of tapes and told me to learn what was on them. He came back again and asked if I wanted to audition, so we set up an audition. That was the first time I met Glenn and Eerie. London May was the guy that came over to hear me play, his parents were my friends employer.
TV: How did things progress from that point?
JC: I ended up following London May up to New York and doing the first audition, which went pretty well, but it was totally NOT my style of playing. It was a punk-rock all downpicking thing. I was playing jazz in college, you know, I was a snobby jazz musician (laughing) . They called me back for a second audition, which I wasnt even sure if I cared about , but after the first audition, I met Rick Rubin (Def American owner and producer) and he took me down to Electric Lady studios in Greenwich Village, where Hendrix recorded. We talked for a few hours, and after I had hung out in Hendrixs studio for a few hours, I was like "I want this gig!. I went home, nailed the stuff down and showed up for the next audition. Only one other guy showed up, and when I heard him play I thought "Ive got it in the bag"
TV: So, you got the gig.
JC: I nailed the second audition, and they asked me to join, on the spot, but I was told I had to drop out of school, move to New Jersey, and get rid of all your colored clothes. So, I said "Ma I got the gig, drop me out of school, Im gonna be a rock-n-roll star!"
TV: Yikes! Then what happened? When did "SAMHAIN" evolve into "DANZIG"?
JC: Well, shortly after I got into the band, they decided to replace London, which sucked because he was my original "connection" and I was living on the floor at his apartment. That whole thing got kind of ugly there for a while, and thats one of the main reasons that they changed the name of the band to "DANZIG". After we got Chuck Biscuits, it didnt sound like "SAMHAIN", and to avoid any legalities, they changed the name.
TV: Speaking of name changes, is it true that you once went by the name "John Von Christ?"
JC: (in a mocking tone) Yes, it IS true! At the time I was coming up with a name, I lived with Chuck Biscuits in a cheesy little apartment in Garfield, New Jersey, and we didnt really have much to do. We would sit around a drink on this old furniture that we picked up out of the street on garbage night because thats when wed do our "shopping" for furniture. Chuck and I sat around and went through all kinds of names John Black, John Gray, Dresden Wolfe all these wacky, intense kinds of names. It ended up with "John Von Christ", but when the record (Danzig I ) was finally done, and they put the artwork together and Glenn was putting the credits on, it didnt seem right because my name was right there next to Eeries, so they just pulled the "von" and made it "John Christ". I wasnt even in town at the time. I was just told "Oh, by the way. Youre John Christ on the record.."
TV: While were on the subject of the beginnings of the band, did Glenn dictate the "look" of the band?
JC: It wasnt just Glenn. It was Eerie and Glenn. They were pretty much on the "same page". As I recall, Eerie was more the "creative type" dresser at the time He was wearing all these customized t-shirts he had made. One of them was made up of almost all string, he was into making the custom clothing, the jewelry, the makeup a lot of stuff I guess that carried over from the "misfits" days. For me it was black jeans, black cut-off t-shirts, black engineers boots and black hair. That was pretty much the look.
TV: It seemed to me that there was some sort of plan there. If you noticed the symmetry you and Eerie looked kind of like twins with the long black hair and goatees. Was that at all intentional?
JC: Actually, the goatee thing happened for me over one summer when I just go too lazy and didnt feel like shaving for a few weeks. At the time, Eerie was still clean-shaven, and eventually he started growing one and it worked for us. Chuck even dyed his hair black once, but it wasnt working for him it looked so bad that he went back to the blonde. That kind of stuff just happened. There was no intentional plan.
TV: You made an appearance on "Final Descent" didnt you?
JC: Yeah, at the time we were still working on the first "Danzig" record and Glenn asked me to come in and re-do some tracks. The were re-recording some of the old guitarists (Damien) tracks, and we went into Reel Platinum and laid down a couple of tracks, and years later, we did some more stuff in L.A., because it took a while before that came out.
TV: There are several bootlegs floating around with "Danzig" rehearsing Samhain songs like "Descent". Were those tracks intended for release on the first "Danzig" record?
JC: Possibly, yes. Someone from the record company got ahold of our rehearsal tapes and started bootlegging them, but I think that anything that was on those tapes wasnt intended for Samhain. The Samhain stuff that I recorded was never rehearsed. I just went in and did it - rehearsed it in the studio and then recorded it. Any of the stuff with lead guitar work was definitely done back in New Jersey, because we didnt move out to L.A. until 1989.
TV: How was it for you? Moving the band to L.A. , I mean.
JC: Well, the drag was, when I was in Jersey, I could hop in a car or on a train and be home in 4 hours. I was close to my family and friends, and I could still keep my girlfriends. At the same time, when we decided to move, we had already played in L.A. once or twice, and got a look at the women so I said "Lets go to L.A."
For a while, JC and I talk about his days at college, and what its like coming back home and hearing yourself on the radio. Hearing the campus radio station playing "Mother" and kids coming up to tell him how famous he is around the school were but a few of the other subjects we touched on, when something catches my ear..
JC: The Hard Rock Café just bought one of my guitars, a pair of the old "DANZIG" boots with the buckles on them, one of the big skull belt buckles like Glenn wore onstage on the third tour. Theyre probably going to put that up in the Hard Rock Café in Baltimore its one of the best things thats happened to me in a long time because it means that they do care, and Ive made some sort of impact on the rock world.
TV: Which guitar did they get?
JC: They got one of my B.C.Richs - one of the "Rich Bichs". Its actually the one I got from Tracii Guns (of L.A. Guns). It was a metal-flake lime green when I got it, and actually, Rick Rubin got it for me. We painted it black and put the appropriate hardware on it, appropriate "DANZIG" stickers, and it became one of my main guitars in the recording of "Lucifuge" and "How the Gods Kill".
TV: Is that the one that has about nine ga-zillion switches on it?
JC: Thats it, and with it, the old "DANZIG" case that Eerie silkscreened the "DANZIG" logos on the side. Its all yellowed now, but it looks really cool. I was happy to send the stuff off to them, because if I didnt, stuff like that is just going to rot in my closet. Now its sort of like museum pieces. I just need to keep after them to make sure it goes into a display somewhere, and not sitting in a warehouse forever.
TV: Im in sort of the same predicament. I have a pair of Glenns old gym socks that I cant figure out what to do with.
JC: (laughing) Yeah, right!
TV: Was that guitar used to record anything on "Danzig"?
JC: No, we had done a show with Slayer in L.A. at the Palladium, when a riot broke out because the promoters had oversold the show by a couple of hundred tickets. There were people outside breaking windows, with police and helicopters everywhere, and all this was going on while we were onstage. At any rate, on the flight out there, we didnt have road cases for our guitars or anything, and the neck on my B.C. Rich got broken. They just threw it down the ramp and >bam<, snapped the neck. I got back to the hotel and just couldnt believe it was broken, and the gig was tomorrow. But I had my Les Paul, and also borrowed a Mocking Bird off of Kerry King (Slayer guitarist). When I got back to New York, I only had the one guitar and we were supposed to start recording the first "Danzig" record. The les Paul just didnt sound that good, so I went to Sam Ash Music on 48th Street. They lined up every guitar in the place, and I sat there for hours going through every guitar they had, playing some chords, parts of "Twist of Cain" and "Am I Demon" - just to see what sounded the fullest. I ended up choosing a Paul Reed Smith guitar because it had the overall fullest sound. We rented that guitar from the music store and that was the one that I did all the rhythm tracks with. As far as amps, in the studio, I think we used a "Bedrock" amp on a couple of songs until we blew it up. We also used a couple of rented "Marshalls" with my old cabinet. When the time came to go in and do vocal overdubs and solos, I had the B.C. Rich back. I used that with my old "Laney" amplifier and "Marshall" cabinet for the solos. That was pretty much it.
TV: Those PRS guitaras are rather tiny, arent they?
JC: Theyre thin, but it was a good sounding guitar, and so what I did, was get the same kind of pickups put in my B.C.Rich when I got it back, and they sounded really good. I took out the old "DiMarzios" and popped the new ones in BOOM theres the "Danzig" tone. On the second and third records, "Thrall-Demonsweatlive" and "Danzig 4" were mainly the two B.C.Rich guitars and "VHT" amp with the same old "marshall" cabinet. Ive had that thing forever.
TV: Speaking of guitars, what was your very first guitar?
JC: The first guitar I ever played was my oldest sisters, and there was a chance to take lessons at school from one of the nuns
TV: (laughing hysterically) Thats whats wrong with you!
JC: Yep. My first formal education was all by nuns. They got a group of about twenty of us together, tecahing us "twinkle twinkle little star" and "jingle bells" . Then, my other sister wanted to learn to play and we had to fight over who would take the guitar on what day, so a few years later, I said "Ok, I want to get my own guitar, and take some lessons at a music store." My parents agreed to pay for half of the guitar, and I bought a tobacco sunburst Yamaha acoustic, which is still at my parents house to this day. It was in one of those old soft cases. I carried it everywhere even to Europe when I went there as an exchange student in eighty-three. I was over there for the summer and I took my guitar with me and beat the hell out of the thing, so its done some hard time.
TV: and what about an electric guitar?
JC: My first electric guitar was a Les Paul copy a Univox. The real Gibsons were just down the street, but they were just way too expensive. I gutted that guitar, put quot;strat" necks on a gibson body, and all kinds of crazy things. My dad had to help me fix it and put it all back together. That guitar hung on the wall in my garage for a couple of years until the big earthquake back in ninety-four, and I still have it it still works, but it sounds like hell, you know.
At this point we venture off into a long talk about musical influences both present-day, and earlier groups that helped to shape Johnstyle
TV: Tell me about some of your influences early on.
JC: I was exposed to what my sisters had around the house first - Boston, America, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys. The first album I ever bought was "Cat Scratch Fever", from Ted Nugent, and then I think I got AC/DCs "Highway to Hell". Those two kind of "got me on my way". Ted Nugent was the one who really fired me up, though. He was just so raw and so intense.
TV: Didnt you play with him somewhere?
JC: No, I havent gotten a chance to actually play with him yet. Hopefully one day I will. I interviewed him for Guitar for the Practicing Musician. We hung out for a day he was really cool. He was playing with Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Greek Theatre, and doing his "Ted Nugent Bowhunters Association" meeting. Basically, I spent most of the afternoon and evening with him, then, after the show, he invited my girlfriend and I back to the hotel. It was her birthday, so we went out for sushi and sat around telling stories and stuff. He treated me real good. It was cool to interview one of your guitar heroes..
TV: Gee, I have NO idea what thats like
JC: Yeah, I'm sure. It's pretty cool hanging out with him; he was almost like an uncle.
TV: Im going to keep you on your toes John. Lets go waaaaay back. Do you remember your first original composition on guitar?
JC: I used to write songs with one of my Godbrothers. Hed come over, and wed sit in the basement and play air-hockey for a while, then wed go pick up the guitars, pick three chords and just write these wacky songs about getting punished by our parents, or being soccer stars, etc. They were complete songs to us, with probably eight verses and a couple of choruses. Id say the oldest riff that I can actually remember, when I started getting the hang of playing, is the riff for "For Christs Sake". (Note: This track originally appeared on a sampler CD from Guitar for the Practicing Musician )
TV: Now Ill turn it around and skip all the way to present-day. You new CD "Flesh Caffeine" how long have you been working on this project?
JC: Over two years. I didnt actually start recording until last July, but I started writing the songs over two years ago. "Flesh Caffeine" is a bout a year-and-a half old. I was dating this girl, and drinking a lot of coffee and soda, and we were having this intense "thing" going on, and I started thinking of these lyrics during that time, and I decided that that would be the title track. Its this really heavy chugging guitar and double-kick stuff going on, and theres a break with a Hammond B-3 and a double guitar lead before it slams back into it.
TV: Double guitar lead? That wouldnt be reminiscent of "Boston" or even "Think Lizzy", would it?
JC: YES! More like a "Thin Lizzy" / "Deep Purple" kind of thing. Its not a really fuzzy, over-the-top kind of gain like "Boston", with sustain forever. Its almost like an "End of Time" thing, but with more licks on it, and a couple of subtle tap harmonics on it. You know, the goal of this project was just to give the fans a variety of stuff. It started out as a five or six-song EP, when I put a letter of inquiry out on the site, and I started getting all this e-mail, so Im trying to give a variety of everything. Hopefully, Ill be able to get it out to enough of the fans, that they can help me take it to the next level so I can get a band together, start touring and come out and play for all you guys. Im humble enough to know that I need my fans. I really need the help. Yeah, I practiced all those years of playing guitar and worked hard with "Danzig" to put out good records, but without the fans coming to the shows and buying your records, it wouldnt be possible.
TV: I think youll really have the support of all the "Danzig" fans. If youre "free-form" on this record, with no one telling you what to play, Im sure its going to be great.
JC: There arent a lot of really long guitar solos I tried not to be over-indulgent. I wanted to have some really cool guitar parts that were almost "extensions" of guitar leads that Id started on early "Danzig" albums, but never got to finish. I used every guitar I owned, and a couple that I didnt on this record. Theres acoustic guitar, Fender Strats, Byrdlands, B.C.Richs, maybe even an Ibanez stuck in there as well. As far as the guitar, theres a lot of "sing-able solos" on this record stuff thats going to give the guitar tablature guys a hell of a time to try and figure out.
TV: Do you spend a lot of time trying to plan these solos out, or do you just go with gut feeling?
JC: I dont always sit there and plan out every exact note that Im going to play, because a lot of times, its the performance that has some mistakes in it that ends up being the best one. On one song, "Silicone Valley", the lead is really laid back. It's so far back that its almost getting kicked in the ass by the beat behind it, and it creates this real sexy feel. I thought, "Well, I could change it. I could tighten it up a little..", but then I figured Id just leave it. A lot of times thats what you want the instrumental section to do is take the song to a different place to make it unique.
TV: What about the vocals?
JC: Theres a lot of anger, you could almost say, but nothing like the "Danzig" stuff. - I wouldnt even compare it. The only one I would even say would be close, would be "Slow Down", which will inevitably be compared to "She Rides", but that's mainly because of the beat and the guitar riff. The vocals are a different thing.
TV: Any other surprises in store for us on this disc?
JC: My obligatory "backwards track" called "Cancer". We were just warming up to do solos for "Silicone Valley" and the engineer was playing around with some sounds. I just started jamming along to it playing some sort of classical changes. The engineer turned the tape around and played it backwards and I thought "Thats cool!". When we played it back, I could hear myself talking through the guitar pickups, so said "Roll that back Im going to talk through the guitar pickups.." and it made this really loud hum with all the fuzz boxes going. Theres also some laughing in it, so it has this "insane asylum" feel to it. It was really disturbing. My girlfriend was in the studio, and she said it made her feel like she was in the radiation room, sitting around with people who are dying of cancer, and I said "Thats it. Its called cancer."
TV: Did you have any apprehensions about doing vocals at all ?
JC: (in amazement) Hell yeah! Ive been a backing vocalist my whole career. The one thing that makes me feel ok about it is, one of my all-time favorites Jimi Hendrix hated the sound of his own voice and would only record with just an engineer in the studio. Im not like that, but at the same time, Im making all kinds of adjustments. Im trying to sing different ways for different songs its a new thing for me. I thought these songs were done nine months ago, but after you get the bass and drum tracks down, you realize some of these words are stepping on that drum fill or on that guitar lick. Sometimes when you drop out a word, you can actually strengthen a line or the meaning of the song.
TV: Keep the harmonies Im a big fan of them!
JC: Theres a lot of harmony, but I dont think anybodys expecting the harmonies - I dont think anybodys expecting to hear any vocals on a John Christ album! But, I think the CD shows a lot of depth. I dont expect the fans to pick out all the subtleties I just want them to think it rocks.
TV: How can we order the "Flesh Caffeine" when it's ready?
JC: The first pressing will be sold through the website, and maybe also through a distributor, so theres more than one way to buy the CD up front. I wanted to give the hard-core fans first crack at it. All of those copies will be autographed, and probably numbered and dated so that each and every one is a collectors item. If it really flies, then I can continue to do it myself, or get a distribution deal with somebody. Im open to any and all suggestions from the fans on that. I may even put out an entire single for download once its mixed and mastered. Well see.
TV: Well, the best of luck to you with the new CD. I appreciate your time it's been a real pleasure for me.
JC: Me too. I appreciate the interest, and the call. It was nice talking about some of the old stuff. I havent been on the road for almost four years, and I cant wait to get back out there and do it again. I have a bunch of great ideas for the live show I want to do a lot of cool things. Things that people only see in a live show, things that I really love to see. That brings the people out so they want to start going to concerts again. It costs a lot of money to go to a show, and I think that if you pay that money, then you should get the best that the performers have to give, and its always nice to get unexpected stuff. Thats what you remember. Id like to change it up constantly, so that the band has fun from night to night get that musical magic that comes out from night to night, and you only get it if youre there. I think thats really lacking in music today. There arent enough really good creative concerts going on today. I mean, theres a lot of big shows with all the lights and pyrotechnics, but I dont think the bands bring the audience on stage with them enough, musically. Thats what I really want to do, but at the same time just play "balls out" loud music and just pummel you guys!
With that, our conversation came to a close. I felt as though I had known John for years after that conversation. He seemed genuinely interested in my opinions, and didnt hesitate to talk about anything I asked. John had nothing to hide, and everything to give. I highly recommend getting "Flesh Caffeine" as soon as its available. I'm sure you wont be sorry. Thanks, John, for a great afternoon.
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