Duquette Johnston has had what many would describe a colourful existence. Or in his own words, “a wild incredible life”.
Having being a part of ’90s Birmingham, Alabama indie outfit, Verbena (which also featured A.A. Bondy), the band released their 1997 debut album, Souls for Sale via Merge Records to great acclaim. A support slot supporting the Foo Fighters ensued, with Dave Grohl producing the band’s second record – 1999’s Into the Pink. By this stage, Johnston had split for pastures anew.
After releasing a swathe of solo albums, including Etowah (2006), Rugged & Fancy (2010), and Rabbit Runs a Density (2013), Johnston has since been occupied with concerns outside of music.
Since 2016, alongside his wife and fellow artist, Morgan, Johnston has run the clothing store/art gallery/ performance venue, Club Duquette. Then there’s parenthood (the pair have a young son), and alongside his music, it’s seemingly a world of spinning plates and putting out fires.
Johnston seems to thrive in it, though, and it’s all highlighted on The Social Animals: his new album and finest yet.
With these songs taking shape in 2013, between his hectic lifestyle Johnston has spent years tinkering and refining, eventually with the assistance of producer, John Agnello.
On The Social Animals Johnston is backed by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley (drums), Emil Amos of Holy Sons, Grails and OM (bass), David Swatzell (guitar) and Seth Brown (keys) in what is an album tailor-made road trips.
The Social Animals is one of those rare albums that has no weaknesses. Carefully plotted and wonderfully arranged, everything is where it should be. From the breeze-laden opener in Year to Run to the closing arms-aloft delight of Tonight, Johnston delivers an album brimming with cosmic energy and outlier anthems.
In between the aforementioned bookends lies even more majesty. The multi-layered dream-gaze of Whiskey and the Wine. The lonesome road crawl of Baby Loves A Mystery. The slow dance swoon and ode to his children, Holy Child and To My Daughters. The hazy neo-psychedelia of Forgive Me and locked-in grooves of single, Mystics. Songs that belong in the upper echelon of the songwriting brethren.
At the end of the last week, amid his busy schedule, we had the opportunity to ask Johnston some questions.
Sun 13: The Social Animals really does feel like your most accomplished album yet. What would you say to that?
Duquette Johnston: “Thank you. My hope is that every album shows growth and evolution as an artist. I rarely think about previous albums and try to be completely present with a release. I do not always sit down to write a specific album. I am always writing and the songs that evoke a certain excitement and emotion are what I lean into. Then see what is possible in the studio.
“With The Social Animals I did more demos than I ever have before, trying to achieve as close as I could to the sonic nature I was aiming for. Having a producer like John Agnello and all the musicians who played on the album is what takes that foundation to another level. The most amazing thing about the album was that during the recordings there were no egos coming out of anyone. Everyone came in and just played their asses off and did what was best for the songs.”
S13: It’s been waiting in the wings for some time. Do you think the songs needed to breathe and morph into different shapes before going into the studio and adding the final touches? For instance, I read that Tonight ended up quite differently to its original guise….
DJ: “Tonight is the oldest song on the album. I have tried recording many versions of this song, from full band with a few different backing bands to just me and my acoustic. The closest it ever came to a release before was with a project called the Gum Creek Killers. I did not totally love my vocals on that version, though. Once I was in the studio with Steve and Emil and John I brought this song up and we just instantly had a groove to it locked in and John fully understood my desire to take my love of sonic textures and layers blended with my songwriting and it worked and fit with the resort of the album.
“I started doing demos right before my son was born. Once I connected with Agnello I started sending him demos and getting feedback. I did this all the way up to the sessions for the album. So there was a lot of work that went into the songs prior to recording. Once we hit the studio we just went. One week at Sonic Youth’s studio for all the rhythm tracks, then a week at Communicating Vessels in Birmingham, Al for overdubs and vocals, then a week mixing at Water Music (RIP) and then mastered. Then nothing changed. It was done and I waited for the right home and partners to release it with. Some things need to move slowly and you have to learn to be cool with that and be ready to go when it’s time to do it. Learning to trust the universe is a wild ride.”
S13: Steve Shelley and Emil Amos feature on the album. They played together with Emil’s Holy Sons project. How did the meeting with Emil come about?
DJ: “I met Emil through Agnello. Steve and I had met before back in the ’90s, but it had been a while. John was the common thread that brought that together. I had honestly not listened to Emil until John told me about him.”
S13: John Agnello really captures what you try to set out with these songs, I think. How did that collaboration come about?
DJ: “I worked with John Agnello briefly while I was in Verbena. We were doing pre-production for the second Verbena full length, post Souls For Sale. John came down to Birmingham and spent a week with us. It was a crazy time with that band and I am not sure much got done on our side, but John taught me a lot and we shared a lot of meals.
“Then I left Verbena, he ended up not doing that record and then I did not see or talk to him for almost 20 years. When I started doing demos for The Social Animals I found him online and reached out. I started sending him demos right away and shared my last album with him. We met up at a bar in Hoboken one day while I was up in NYC picked up like no time had passed, he is a deep cosmic friend and collaborator.
“John is absolutely amazing. He understands songs on a pretty deep level and is not afraid to experiment and get noisy and build depth and layers, or to even just remove tracks and let the songs breathe. I just had total trust with John and his ability to take the songs where they needed to be and guide the band too. From Steve and Emil to all my friends in Birmingham Alabama who are part of this album.”
S13: Year to Run is such a perfect opening song. It feels like it really embodies the whole spirit of the album. Can you tell us about the song?
DJ: “Year to Run was one of the first songs I wrote for this album if I remember correctly. Year to Run, chasing the sun, coming out of darkness, choosing my family and how we want to live about the noise and demands of this world. Written in the deep hours of night time, this song is finding the good. Being your own light when there isn’t one anywhere else. That was and is the tone of the album.”
S13: Sonically, Whiskey and the Wine and To My Daughters remind me of The Church’s latest material. How big of an influence were they to these songs?
DJ: “I am so fascinated that people are gearing the influence of The Church, for several reasons. For one I have loved The Church since I saw them when I was 15 at a place called Sloss Furnace here in Birmingham. So much of what I listened to as a teenager up until my early 20s really took my love of ’60s and ’70s songwriters and exposed how I could add so many layers and depths to songs. I did not realise this at the time, but it has become apparent to me over the years.
“Also my dear friend and sometimes collaborator Jeffrey Cain (Remy Zero/Isidore) is now a member of The Church. He and Steve [Kilbey] have the project Isidore together. Just wild how the universe works. Jeffrey is the one who helped make The Social Animals project get made before I found a home at Single Lock for the release. Small World indeed.”
S13: Baby Loves A Mystery actually has a Holy Sons vibe to it, both in sound and theme. How much did Emil influence these recordings?
DJ: “Interesting. I love Emil, but overall I am not sure there was an overarching influence on the album. His bass grooves make this album outstanding, but lots of the vibes were set on a path before I met with him and Steve in the studio.”
S13: On Forgive Me and Mystics, it feels like the stakes have never been so higher. Can you tell us about these song?
DJ: “I think I have had lots of moments where I thought the stakes were pretty high. But, after all my wife and I had been through before our son was born, to her being super ill and almost dying after he was born the stakes felt even higher. I was working through so much in my life for the first time ever, trying to dig in deep and forgive myself for being lost for so long and figuring out how to be a good father after not being the best one when my daughter was born. You know just some light hearted heavy shit. Also figuring out where I fit in the Universe and cosmically among the folks trying to make this place a better world.”
“Forgive Me – A long, long time ago I got messy drunk after being on a cocaine bender and broke my now wife’s great grandmother’s antique crystal soap dish. Naked and bleeding in the bathroom floor, that woman loved me in spite of the mess I made. Twenty years together, we’ve both made lots of messes. We still love each other.
“This [Mystics] was a hard one, twelve verses and no chorus for years. This was written in the sleepless delirium of middle night while my son was not sleeping yet. There is a state of love that exists beyond this physical plane, out in the cosmos. It’s complicated but it’s so easy, too.”
S13: How much did Birmingham, Alabama influence these songs?
DJ: “I think on some subconscious level because my life has been based here for so long I am sure it influenced me. Though during the writing of most of these I was a recluse with my family. I had produced a song for a TV commercial and we just took that money and lived off of it until it ran out. Then shit got real scary (laughs). But our community in Birmingham and closest friends stepped in and helped and saved us from losing our home and more. So yeah in that way Birmingham influenced, but the songs came from our home and the wildness of that time.”
S13: You’ve been around for a long time now. Have your song writing methods changed over the years?
DJ: “I think the biggest change is the commitment to the time of writing. Showing up every day and just writing and trying to be disciplined about it. For me though I try not to think too much about what I am doing, not sure if this is good or bad, maybe both. I just write until the song grabs a hold and won’t leave my mind. My hope is that the songs always evolve and get better.”
S13: You also run a store and design clothes as well as having a family. Other than chaotic, what’s a typical day in the life of Duqeuette Johnston?
DJ: “Chaotic sometimes and most times for sure. There are times that are very still and purposely so, especially after COVID showed up. Then times when we know we need to move on a lot of projects. My wife is a full time visual artist and owns and runs Club Duquette with me.
“I start most every day with a meditation, if I can I do it before my feet even hit the floor. After that is coffee, get my kid up, breakfast as a family, and then depending on the day I could be in my home studio writing songs, I could be doing administrative work for Club Duquette, I could be running the shop that day, or working out bandana designs.
“Behind the scenes I have been working on more of our basics collection design. We are going to get it off the ground later this year, if the Universe deems it so. Sorry, I got lost in my thoughts… So yeah I am either working on Club Duquette, music, or picking up my kid from school and doing stuff with our family.”
S13: With your work as a designer, do you feel as though it influences your songs?
DJ: “I am heavily influenced by images and stories and the connection between it all. I am just getting going on designing, but have been influenced by fashion since I was a kid. I think anything you are drawn to creatively can influence the other aspects of your life. It may not be completely literal, but there is the crossover, for sure. I love the intersection of fashion, music and art and where they can all meet and elevate each other.”
The Social Animals is out now via Single Lock Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.