By Sean Stroh
For Dan Johnson, playing the drums is about so much more than just keeping a beat.
It’s a way of life.
Since moving to Phoenix in 2004 and playing the local circuit with a band called Mo Nasty, he’s traveled the world doing what he knows and loves best — drumming.
In fact, it doesn’t really matter so much as where he’s playing but rather when he’s playing. If he’s not helming the drums for Love and Death, a metal band founded by Korn guitarist Brian Welch, you’re likely going to find him either in the studio or somewhere on the road working as a touring musician.
Johnson is currently serving as the touring drummer for the Grammy-nominated rock band Red as part of the annual Winter Jam Tour Spectacular which consists of a number of different Christian bands.
Coming Up Magazine caught up with Dan Johnson to talk about his early days as a drummer, life as a touring band member and how Country music became his favorite genre to listen to.
As a kid what attracted you to the drums compared to an electric guitar or a bass? Was everything pretty much self taught?
I remember my mom made me try an instrument for a year and said if I wasn’t interested after that I could quit. We went out and saw this local band play and I can recall just being fascinated by the drums in particular. So I figured I would take a stab at it and I absolutely fell in love with it.
I took lessons in high school and was a part of my school’s drum line. I’m a proud band geek! So I’m essentially self-taught but I did get instruction later on but really music videos were my first teacher.
Where exactly would you practice? I know that’s one big challenge for young drummers… you can’t exactly practice drums anywhere.
Right exactly! Nowadays you have the electronic drums which are cool but when I was growing up I would practice in my basement. Luckily, I had two awesome and encouraging parents. I’m always on the practice pad as well. I’m super into the rudiments and always emphasizing the importance of it to other drummers. That’s where you get your practice in when you don’t have a drum kit.
Can you recall when and where your first paid gig as a drummer was and how it went?
Wow…that’s a great question. I mean in high school we would play people’s parties but that doesn’t really count because the pay barely covered the gas to get there. So I guess the first touring band that I really cut my teeth with was when I was 21 called The Sammus Theory. They were from Phoenix and that’s the band I really started grinding with. I was doing some blues gigs here and there as well.
You also landed a gig on MTV in 2007. Could you elaborate on that?
Yeah! It was with The Sammus Theory. It was part of MTV 2’s Bands on the Rise show and it was pretty cool. It made me realize that I never wanted to do anything else with my life than music.
How did you meet your Love and Death bandmate Brian Welch? How did things get started between you two musically?
I was actually working at a nightclub as a doorman and it was attached to a music studio. I met a producer named Ralph Patlin who is one of my best friends and mentors now. As time went on, I got a call from him asking me to come audition for this new band which is how I was able to build the relationship with Brian. So I auditioned and played through three songs and I recorded it as well. We just hit it off right away and the rest is history. I love those guys.
What has the recording process been like for the follow up album for Love and Death?
It’s funny, I’m going to do drums for the album at some point in the next few months but JR Bareis (Love and Death guitarist) and Brian are really quarterbacking everything. For me, it’s a little easier (laughs). I just handle the drums. I’m excited to see how it all turns out.
Does it feel any different to be a “touring member” of a band as opposed to a full time member of the band? Is there really any difference at all to you?
I love this aspect of the business. I love all aspects of playing drums no matter what my role is. I know that being a touring member is definitely cool because you’re able to focus on this one thing–drumming. There’s a movie coming out called “Hired Gun” and it’s a documentary that describes what it’s like to be a touring or session musician perfectly. It’s cool. It’s just a different aspect but you’re still able to play, do what you love and tour the road. I love it.
You have also toured with country rock singer-songwriter James Parks which is a completely different style and genre of music than Red and Love and Death. How does your approach to playing drums change when you go from playing metal to country rock?
James is one of my best friends now. I’m actually playing for an awesome guy from Nashville called Ryan Bexley too. I’ve been able to branch out because of James.
With James it really made me a complete musician because I walked in there for my first country gig thinking it was going to be so easy. However, it really showed me the dynamics of a totally different genre. I fell in love with country and it’s probably what I listen to the most these days.
With Red and Love and Death you’re primarily playing to tracks and playing along with the click and it can be the same thing night in and night out — it’s like hammer and nails almost. With country it can be different every night. After the Red tour gets done I’m going to be doing some dates with Ryan Bexley. I don’t stay still for too long!
One aspect of being in a band that I feel often gets overlooked is the preparation that goes into a live show. Do you have a routine or particular set of drumming exercises you do before each show?
Oh absolutely. I try to make sure I get exercise at least five days a week. I’ll always warm up on the practice pad too. I have a few different routines I do with that. It helps get my head right. Warming up is super important.
How important do you think it is to lead a healthy lifestyle when it comes to drumming? It does seem like such a physically demanding instrument to play.
Definitely. I try to run and get my cardio on point. If you take care of yourself it helps every part of your life and I want to be doing this for a long time.
Looking back on your career as musician, was there ever any moment where you considered leaving music? What would you say was the lowest point of your career and how did you overcome it?
Leaving music? Never. Of course there have been some rough transitions between different bands and gigs. Before Red gig came about I was a bit worried…but what I’ve learned is that you have to keep the right mindset. You have to tell yourself to keep going and not to stop until it’s the end of the road. There’s endless amounts of music out there and someone is always coming up. Music will never go away. There’s no reason not to have anything but a positive attitude.
I read that you occasionally teach students the drums. Is that something you still do?
Yeah I try to as much as I possibly can. I’m a substitute at the School of Rock in Scottsdale, Arizona. I try to do independent students whenever I can as well. I’m attempting to branch out and begin doing it on the road. I love teaching because it keeps you in check. If you want to teach something you got to be able to do it well.
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of learning how to play the drums?
I always learn by repetition. I think a lot of young drummers get frustrated easily. So patience and perseverance is all it takes. You got to just keep putting in the hours and that’s how you get it done.
Are there any bands you are currently listening to that you would like to give a little shout out to?
Both those bands are already pretty big but they are awesome. I’m very much into all the new country that’s out– I love it all. I’m into radio rock of course as well. There’s a band I do work for called Seasons After which everyone should check out too!
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