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Telegraph Canyon

Ran Out Of Money, Kept Singing On My Own

I met Chris Johnson -- and shortly thereafter saw him and his band, Telegraph Canyon, do their thing -- in a bar in Fort Worth, Texas while on assignment on tour with an act from Lawrence, Kansas called The Roseline. Chris was sitting off to the side before the show fiddling with a steel pedal and trying to balance a precarious but formally interesting array of CDs that were for sale. We got to talking, about Tex-Mex and the price of gas in nearby Denton, and eventually he handed me his group’s album, All The Good News.

A few minutes later he and a handful of others stepped out from various shadows and corners of the crowded bar and strolled into the limelight to start making music as Telegraph Canyon. Theirs is a layered, complex symphony of sound that weaves in lyrics not quite obscure, but by no means greeting-card easy. Now, a couple years since, Johnson and company are coming to California to play the coast. Via telephone and email, we talked about mining eBay for rare instruments, writing songs in twenty minutes, getting arrested and packed in a paddy wagon, running out of money for voice lessons and whether or not living in Texas is scary.

SF Station (SFS): One of the first things that strikes me is the size of the band. Nine people—how does that work? What are rehearsals like? Are things difficult to coordinate? Do you guys like each other?

Chris Johnson (CJ): There are really only 7 members that tour right now plus Todd Perttle who plays pedal steel on our records but doesn't tour with us. Even still, 7 members is a lot to manage at times. Lots of group text messages and planning every thing an hour and half beforehand seems to be our MO. We all pull our weight and we get it done. I personally really enjoy having so many band mates. Who wouldn't love getting in a van and traveling across the country with friends? I think this is a big reason why we do what we do. Most all of us had been friends long before Telegraph Canyon was formed so it's made it pretty easy. This is about as drama free a band as can be. Rehearsals are very focused for the most part and we do them all together and in smaller groups depending on the situation. Full band practices are a lot of fun. There always seems to be a moment where everyone goes "yep, that’s it" and we go with it. The smaller group sessions are normally a little more down and dirty as far as putting songs together and so on. But there really isn't any of it that I don't like.

SFS: All these many instruments give your sound a very orchestral feeling, kind of shimmery when it’s all blended. How did that develop?

CJ: The band was formed on the idea that we would use any instrument that the songs called for regardless of whether we already knew how to play that instrument or not. We spent a couple of years acquiring instruments, learning them and putting them to use. Andrew has a real knack for getting a hold of any instrument and learning it in a short period of time. Early on we would work on songs for hours only to end the night with digging around on eBay to find whatever new instrument we thought we needed at the time.

SFS: Tell me about a song like “Low”—where do these lyrics come from?

CJ: I wrote “Low” in about 20 minutes, which is about 6 months faster than most songs come to me so I know it was all very heavy on my heart. It still is for that matter. At the time that I was writing the songs for this record I was pretty broken hearted. I saw all these images and read all these stories about what our country was doing across the world in regards to bombings and human rights abuses. I had to get it out on paper which turned into songs. In places like Darfur and Sudan where we weren't the ones perpetuating the violence our inaction has been just as shameful.

SFS: You got arrested on the White House lawn protesting the war. How’d that go down?

CJ: It was a time when public opinion as a whole had not yet begun to shift (especially in Texas) and I felt I was living in a land of blind fools. I could barely have a conversation without getting angry. I didn't join in on any of the protest that had taken place before the war began in New York or DC and I felt sick over not doing something to try to stop it before it began. So when I found out that there was a huge war protest in DC scheduled I booked a flight. I went with the intention of getting arrested as part of a non-violent civil disobedience action at the White House. I met with the group which included some people whom I admire like Cornel West, Rev. Seiko and about 200 other people. As part of the plan, clergy from 12 different religions including Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and more tried to deliver the names of all the Iraqi women and children who had been killed in the conflict to Bush. Since the U.S. does not keep track of these numbers we thought they would care to know. They refused to take the names and asked us to leave. We didn't. So after hours of back and fourth they loaded us up in paddy wagons and took everyone to jail. It ended up being a minor offense in the end and I was released late that night.

SFS: It’s your voice, Chris, that we hear—and like so many bands with a distinctive vocal sound from a regular front-man or -woman, that’s the sound we come to associate with the music. Are you trained as a vocalist? Did you enter music-making as a singer or as a lyrist or an instrumentalist or some combination?

CJ: My family always sang gospel songs when I was growing up but my sister gave me a hard time about not having a good voice so I didn't sing from as early on as I can remember until around age 18 when I seriously started writing songs. Before then I wrote lyrics and music for songs and would give them to someone else to sing for me. At some point I just decided that maybe I could sing if I tried and so I did. I took a couple of voice lessons to learn how to breathe and warm up my voice but I ran out of money so I just kept singing on my own. That was about 7 years ago. Don't tell anyone but I still don't know what I'm doing. My favorite artists are not great singers. They have soul and can express themselves in beautiful ways that don't require hitting crazy notes.

SFS: You guys aren’t far from the grungy indie rock Mecca of Austin -- is there a lot of Texas in your music? How does being near Austin matter (or not) to you guys?

CJ: I don't think there is a lot of Texas in our music. I'm sure we are influenced by the music we take in but honestly we don't spend much time listening to "Texas" music. There is an insane amount of good music coming out of Fort Worth and Denton where we live and I think some of that music has had an impact on us but I don't consider most of it to be Texas music anymore than a band from Delaware would be playing Delaware music. The term "Texas music" here at home is generally thought of to be on the same playing field as top 40 country is today. Austin doesn't affect us all that much either except that it's a great city that we all love and we are making our new record there. It's nice to have it so close because it's a nice place to visit but in the long run I don't think it influences what we do at all. I've always loved Texas and like to play here but no more than playing in Kansas or um...Delaware.

SFS: What’s it like to live in Texas? Is it scary?

CJ: Like anywhere I think it has its ups and downs. Fort Worth is a great place to live. There are lots of artist, musicians, writers etc here and my neighborhood on the south side feels like a real community. I've never really experienced living in an area where I knew so many interesting good hearted people. Sure, we have a lot of close minded folks all over this state that would be happy enough to have GW stay in office for 8 more years but I think things are getting better. If you asked me 5 years ago if I'd still be here I would have said no way. Now it's hard for me to imagine uprooting. I think it's a testament to how far things have come.

SFS: All the Good News launched you, recording-wise. Tell me about this album and then tell me about what’s on the horizon..

CJ: All the Good News was recorded half way between Fort Worth and Austin at a place called the Troubadour. It was done in about 6 days of recording. The record for me was the first time I really enjoyed the process. We recorded most of it live with minimal overdubs. We had a fair amount of music which I wrote in the studio and which we then arranged there track by track. I like doing it both ways. I like having some newness to all of it while also having some songs that have been worked over really hard, pulled apart and put back together with out the time restraints of being in the studio on a budget. Good News was a jumping off point for Telegraph Canyon and we knew that. We are really proud of it while also very excited about the new record we have started.

This as of yet untitled new record is an expansion on what we started with Good News but we are incorporating many new elements into the music. Also we have set out to make this record reflect more of the bombastic energy that our live shows have become known for. Don't get me wrong a good part of it is soft and very ambient at its core but thick arrangements make up the majority of the recordings so far. With the help of our new management team along with new booking agent and publicist we are looking to release it in the fall-2008. We plan on touring as much as possible while finishing the record and from there we hope to live in hotels across the country for the next couple of years.

Telegraph Canyon at Café Du Nord w/ Birds & Batteries and Social Studies. Thursday, April 3rd, 9pm. $10