Mark Johnson of SNAIL!!
Mark Johnson, guitar player and lead-vocalist from stoner rock heavyweights SNAIL, was kind enough to put quality time into answering some questions for me this week, and here's how it went down:
Ultra: Mark, the first thing that jumps out at me when I look at Snail’s history is the fifteen-year gap between albums, from 1994 until 2009. What were you guys doing in that time: were you still jamming together off and on, playing in other bands, or doing something else?
Mark: When the band broke up we each essentially went our own way. Matt played in a band called Plugusher and continued with his dream of becoming a producer and Marty played in numerous bands, touring all over the world as a professional drummer. I stopped playing music altogether and honestly thought it was all over. During our downtime I became a Web Developer and that is my day-job to this day.
Matt and I stayed in contact over the years and in 2005 I started feeling drawn back to music so he helped me get set up with a basic digital recording studio. I started making demos with him (including early versions of ‘A Mustard Seed’, ‘Come Home’ and ‘Ritual’) by sending tracks back and forth over the internet. Over time we developed a handful of new demos. I also became interested in producing drum and bass music (of all things) in about 2006. Learning how to produce electronic music in Reason (recording software) taught me how to arrange songs better and build synths from scratch, which I carried over into Snail. So around 2008 I was talking to Matt about programming some drums and finishing the ‘Lost Snail Album’ (Blood). He suggested that we just get Snail back together and do the album properly, which was a great idea, so we did.
Ultra: When I listen to your 1990’s stuff, I hear that well-known Seattle grunge sound influence, mixed in with the beginnings of the unique Snail sound that we enjoy today. How influential were those other nineties Seattle-based bands in your development, and how much interaction did you have with the more famous grunge bands from that time?
Mark: At the beginning of Snail – which was originally called ‘Splinter’ – I was very much obsessed with Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’ album, Monster Magnet’s ‘Spine of God,’ and The Melvins. I had also recently discovered the Black Sabbath back-catalog and spent a lot of time smoking weed in my apartment and really absorbing that music. I was also deeply into Pink Floyd.
When I first began creating demos for Snail they sounded a lot like Nirvana to be honest. At first I was very proud of this but over time it became something I hated and wanted to bury. So the self-titled album was an expression of trying to leave behind our grunge roots. I personally tried to focus on the 70’s hard-rock aspects of our sound when we recorded it.
We never got to play Seattle back then so we never met any of the big grunge guys. We lived in the California central valley…we played with Sleep back then though.
Ultra: In my opinion, Feral is your third consecutive truly classic album. Blood, Terminus and Feral have carved out a niche in rock music that is truly your own. When somebody asks me who Snail sounds like, there really is no band I can mention that would accurately hint at your sound. What were your favorite albums growing up, and which bands first made you want to play guitar?
Mark: Ah man what a great question thank you. The first album I remember being obsessed with was Led Zeppelin 4. My dad used to come home after work, puff a joint, and put on albums. We’d sit together and he would explain lyrics while we looked at album covers. He explained Cat Steven’s ‘Tea for the Tillerman,’ Donovan albums, etc. My dad was a bona-fide California hippie in the 60’s, so that was my early experience with music…later he became a fundamentalist Christian and ‘secular’ music was forbidden so all I could listen to was Christian artists. During that horrible time I was into Petra, Daniel Amos, Undercover, Steve Taylor etc. But I was secretly listening to non-christian bands. In about 1983 my cousin loaned me Motley Crue’s ‘Shout at the Devil’ and Quiet Riot’s ‘Metal Health’ and that changed everything. I found I was a born metalhead. There was something about that early metal that just felt like FREEDOM. At that time I felt very alienated, like an outcast. Lost. And I was listening to Metal Health one day, performing air-band in the mirror…and I decided, “I am going to be a rock star.” It was a heavy moment for a kid, but I believed it with everything I had. I come from a family that has deep musical roots so by my birthday I had acquired an electric guitar from my Grandfather.
Around this time (1985-86) I also discovered punk rock and hardcore via KPFA’s Maximum Rock n’ Roll radio show on Sunday nights. I would record those shows secretly and listen to them away from home. Punk rock seemed absurd and absolutely brutal in its honesty and that very much appealed to me. It was like FUCK YOU put to music. By the time I had formed my first band at age 16 all I wanted to play was punk/hardcore/metal. And if you listen to Snail closely, you’ll see that we’re essentially a punk band doing hard rock, like many of our contemporaries.
Ultra: What bands have you been listening to recently, and are there any recently released albums you’d like to recommend to us?
Mark: I’m currently deeply obsessed with David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ album. I’ve always been a huge Bowie fan and he has influenced my songwriting greatly. I also love Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’ which was released not too long ago.
As far as heavy stuff I really love Akris’ latest album and EP.
I mostly listen to classical Indian vocal music, Philip Glass, old Appalachian folk music, Mississippi Fred McDowell, African folk music, Liliput, Throbbing Gristle….Syd Barrett….The Beatles…Dio
Ultra: What was the first concert you ever went to, and what’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
Mark: When I was very little I saw The Doors with my parents. I remember the blanket we sat on and the stage.
Damn I’ve been to a TON of good concerts…mostly punk bands honestly. The latest GREAT show I went to was to see KLAW play in Seattle. Holy fuck they just brought the house down. One of those small bar shows where your voice is gone afterwards. You gotta see a band in a small venue…that’s the whole game.
Ultra: I appreciate all three of your recent album covers, but the artwork on “Feral” is particularly cool. There is such a cool connection between great artwork and great rock albums over the long history of rock music. What are a few of your favorite rock album covers of all time?
Mark: The world that was created on Cat Steven’s ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ cover always haunted me as a little kid. The cover of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ also really impacted me when I was little. In the 90’s I really like the aesthetic of the Sub Pop album covers…black and white negatives…looked really raw. Earlier I liked the cover of ‘Ride the Lightning’…early Iron Maiden album covers….Dio albums. The early proto-metal covers were always thought-provoking if a little bonehead. I also LOVED the Slayer covers…so evil in a strange otherworldly way…
But I love it when a band puts ‘hidden’ messages and ideas that tie-in with the music on their covers…that’s why we did it.
Ultra: I grew up in a time when you would browse albums in a record store and occasionally be influenced to try a record just because of its cool cover. Have you ever tried out an album just based on the cover art?
Mark: Many times. I think the only time it didn’t work out was when I bought Danzig’s first album…I actually became angry when I first heard it because it was so horrible and I felt the cover had deceived me. But I also remember being drawn to Sleep’s Holy Mountain by the amazing cover art, and that was a big payoff, I loved it.
Ultra: How do you feel about Snail getting labeled as “Stoner Rock”: Do you dislike the term, welcome it or are you indifferent?
Mark: I’ve never had a problem being labeled Stoner Rock, but I think I may think of the term differently than people who got into it later. When I was a kid and started smoking weed I found that certain music sounded better. This was typically slow, heavy rock. Heavy slow shit just sounded sooooo HEAVY when I was stoned. That was my definition of Stoner Rock and included all the old hard rock bands and even Pink Floyd. So after discovering that slow, heavy music was enhanced by weed, I wanted to create music that enhanced the drug experience. This was the core philosophy behind Snail: make slow, heavy tunes that sound great when you’re stoned. It has nothing to do with a cultural style or identity; it has to do with enhancing the drug experience. Not only the weed experience, but also the LSD experience. Obviously over the years that definition has expanded greatly, but I still perform the ‘stoner test’ when we make a new demo. The songs are crafted to interact with you on a deeper level than just listening pleasure. And the lyrics speak directly to your unconscious self.
Ultra: Finally, how often do you guys tour: is there any chance of me seeing Snail in Boston or Providence?
Mark: We try to tour every 1-2 years. We plan to play the East Coast in Summer 2016 for the first time. I think we’re playing a Boston show…
Ultra: I want to thank you Mark, for taking the time to do an interview for Heavy Metal Textbooks. I plan to do my best to spread the word about Feral. “Derail” was my pick for the number one stoner rock tune of 2015, and Feral is my favorite Snail album so far. I selfishly hope to see you get the recognition you deserve, so that I can enjoy plenty more Snail albums in the years to come. Best of luck in 2016!
Mark: Thank you for a great interview and I hope we get to meet soon!
I am stoked on getting such quality answers from Mark. I got some awesome insight into one of my favorite bands. If you have been out of the loop and are unfamiliar with SNAIL, make sure you go check them out here: https://snailhq.bandcamp.com/. It will open up a whole new world for you. Hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed doing this! Until next time -ULTRA