Drummer Aaron Johnston has had an extremely busy year. His main group, Brazilian Girls, released new music for the first time in nearly a decade, he was recruited to play with David Byrne for the longtime Talking Heads frontman’s yearlong international tour in support of his new album American Utopia – with a Coachella performance this past weekend proving once again Byrne’s relevance as a performer and bandleader – and debuted a new project dubbed J.E.D.I. (Jazz Electronic Dance Improvisation) at the end of 2017 with a rotating cast of well-known jam, funk, and jazz artists. “Busy” is a severe understatement in this instance.
Johnston is an absolute beast behind the kit—he can lock in and go Mariana Trench-type deep and has a wild energy that makes his performances truly stand out. It’s no wonder that he has befriended incredible nationally and internationally renowned musicians over the course of his career, musicians that are always down to hop on stage and jam with him at any given time.
Along with a Jazz Fest proper appearance with David Byrne’s band earlier in the day, Johnston will bring J.E.D.I. to Maison for a special late-night jam session on Sunday, April 29th, at 10 p.m. down in New Orleans. This particular iteration of the group will feature a formidable lineup that includes bassist Marc Brownstein of The Disco Biscuits, keyboardist Borahm Lee of Break Science and Pretty Lights Live Band, and tenor saxophonist Ryan Zoidis of Lettuce plus guest appearances by guitar virtuoso Eddie Roberts of The New Mastersounds, soulful vocalist Shira Elias of Turkuaz, and Zoidis’ Lettuce/Shady Horns partner-in-musical-crime, Eric “Benny” Bloom. To put the icing on the cake, it was just announced that fellow members of the Byrne percussion section Davi Viera, Mauro Refosco, and Gustavo di Dalva are going to add some Brazilian flavor to the epic session. With an already powerful lineup, and one or two more surprises in the mix, this J.E.D.I. performance is lining up to be the sleeper show of the Jazz Fest late-night schedule. (Get tickets here!)
We had the opportunity to chat with Johnston about his incredibly busy schedule in 2018. Read on below to hear what he had to say!
Live For Live Music: First and foremost, playing with David Byrne must be a trip!
Aaron Johnston: I have always admired his work and love his sense of humor. He is such a smart, funny person. We have known each other and worked together on a couple different things, one being a Brazilian Girls track, but never toured together and performing his music. When we were in rehearsals, we practiced “Burning Down The House”. It was completely surreal—that’s when it completely hit me.
L4LM: Tell us a little about the band.
AJ: This band features six percussionists on stage at once! In general, there are a lot of different influences from around the world. Three of the drummers are Brazilian, and three are American. We essentially make up what would sound like a drum kit with several percussionists if you were to close your eyes. I have a deep love for Brazilian Music, maybe or partly why I ended up naming our band Brazilian Girls even though there is no one Brazilian in the band, and only one girl (laugh) oh well, we don’t take ourselves too serious!
Everyone has wireless mics, and everyone is mobilized, playing at different places on the stage at different points. If you have seen David Byrne before, you know there is choreography, but this is crazy. It’s a big open stage, there are no monitors or amps onstage. It’s like nothing you have ever seen before. Honestly, it’s challenging, but in the best way I could ever hope for. Everyone is singing, playing, dancing. It uses every part of your brain to do this: the left side, the right side, the front, the ass—or back, whatever. It’s a real workout, but at the same time, it’s invigorating. The instruments are so interesting, it’s a blast to play live.
David Byrne – “Everybody’s Coming To My House” – The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
L4LM: How has the David Byrne tour gone so far?
Aaron Johnston: It’s been amazing, I’ve never done something quite like this. Of course, David is a legend, but he’s also just one hell of a cool human being, which really makes it double the fun. Twelve-piece band, all completely wireless and completely mobile is quite remarkable as well. It’s a rock show unlike you’ve ever experienced!
L4LM: Any moments over the last few weeks that stand out in your mind?
AJ: Well, the last few weeks, I’ve been all over South America, did Lollapaloozas in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, and the three major cities of Mexico—just about every moment of that was epic! Hard to pinpoint, to be honest. David will always write or say to us something like, “Hey, I’m going biking tomorrow all over the city, who wants to come?” or “Hey, I found this amazing restaurant who wants to come?”, so there’s lots of hanging and bonding with the band already at an early stage, which always makes for a better show too!
David Byrne – “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” – Lollapalooza Santiago De Chile
[Video: Amazing Live Music]
L4LM: You recently played a four-night tour in Colorado with a so-called supergroup called Big Brazilian Cheese with Michael Kang, Avi Bortnick, Dom Lalli, and Jesse Murphy. How did that all come together?
Aaron Johnston: Haha, yeah, “super” group, right. That’s kind of a weird thing to say. Some of these guys have been my best friends forever. Dom [Lalli] was brought onboard by Michael [Kang], and everything clicked. So no, it wasn’t a supergroup. That’s a typo—it’s a “supper group.” Friends getting together and doing what we love.
L4LM: A four-night run though, with lots of driving and not having played together, was there ever concerns that maybe you were in over your head?
AJ: Sometimes, when you try these things out, it doesn’t always work out like it did. The audience might not always recognize it, it might not appear like a train wreck, and it can even sound good, but this was something special and I think the audience could feel the fun we were having. We hope to play together as this band again someday. We will definitely be putting these guys back together in some capacity in J.E.D.I., so we can catch that vibe again. I can’t wait to play with them again.
L4LM: So, explain J.E.D.I. a bit more to us?
Aaron Johnston: J.E.D.I. is a brainchild of getting best friends and friends of friends together to play music we have always wanted to play from all different genres and backgrounds. It’s like “Hey, you know who would sound cool here, so and so. Oh cool, do you have his number? No, but blah blah does. I’ll call him right now.” That’s how it’s happened so far.
L4LM: So if you’re not a supergroup, you aren’t saying your all Jedis?
AJ: Not with regards to music at least. But J.E.D.I. is Jazz, Electronic, Dance, Improvisation—and we are using jazz probably the loosest of all those terms there. I mean, we usually have a horn, maybe two in the near future (wink), so we draw from great jazz players too. I mean have you ever listened to Stevie Wonder play “Giant Step”? Stevie plays jazz like a muthafucker, but he’s still thought of as a pop star. It’s about blending and coming up with something original.
L4LM: Why have you choosen J.E.D.I. to be a new project when you have so many things happening?
AJ: I wouldn’t be happy playing in one band, even if it made me uber rich. One guy might totally suck at most instruments, but he is killer at one thing. I want to play with him while he does that one thing. That way, I can learn and we can hopefully make something great. Maybe someday the J.E.D.I. thing won’t work out, but we have eight concerts lined up with three different lineups, and every show has worked better than expected so far.
J.E.D.I. – Ardmore Music Hall – 11/30/2017
[via Bud Fulginiti]
L4LM: Who else has been has been in the band?
Aaron Johnston: We did a quick impromptu run in the Northeast, starting in Philly, then New York City at American Beauty late night (RIP)—which was really fun because our buddies like Eric Krasno and a few other locals got to come out and hang—and finished up at the Hollow in Albany. But that group was Ryan Zoidis, Nate Edgar, me, and Borahm Lee, who came and played with the Big Brazilian Cheese group in Denver for our final night. He’s incredible!
L4LM: So Big Brazilian Cheese was a J.E.D.I. show, just under another name?
AJ: Yeah, we came up with the Big Brazilian Cheese band concept before J.E.D.I., but then once we did, we realized how much fun we could have and that we needed to make this a thing. It’s never going to be about the money with J.E.D.I., because it can’t be. It’s not a steady line up. The promoters and club owners don’t really get it yet. Maybe someday they will, but it’s for us and the crowd. An opportunity for us to connect on stage with our friends—who we are fortunate enough to have some of the top musicians around today—and play the music we want to play and experiment with and hopefully really connect with the crowd.
Big Brazilian Cheese – Public House – Crested Butte, CO – 1/12/18
[Video: Crested Butte Public House]
L4LM: So moving forward, we should be looking for J.E.D.I. shows?
AJ: There are definitely some J.E.D.I. shows coming. Some I can’t talk about yet, but there are going to be some old friends and some new. And we are going to spread them across the country. The great thing about touring with David Byrne is that I get play in all these amazing cities, but we should be done by 10 p.m. most nights, which leaves a lot of time to hang after and play a gig. We will be able to grab some of the big local players and do some late night shows—give the audience some music and surprise guest lineups.
L4LM: Sounds like a busy year between touring with David Byrne, Brazilian Girls releasing new music and playing some gigs, debuting J.E.D.I. in the last few months, and having a beautiful baby girl—congratulations!—and it’s only April! How are you able to make it all happen?
AJ: It is indeed a totally crazy time right now and loving every minute of it. With J.E.D.I., the idea had been brewing for a year or two, and I was able to get some shows in before my tour started with David. The David Byrne tour actually was pushed back almost ten months to time better with the release of his record, so that actually really helped with the new baby, Vera Victoria (ViVi) Johnston, and for me to get some quality Papa time in! She’s exactly ten-and-a-half months old now. Brazilian Girls have had our record done for some time as well, but finally found a home for the record with 6 Degrees, so now that’s underway and the full length will be out very soon. It’s really all timing from the work put in!
L4LM: You will be pulling double duty on Sunday, April 29th, at Jazz Fest with Byrne at the festival proper followed by a J.E.D.I. show, which is looking to be an epic jam session. What can we expect from that?
AJ: It’s gonna be a blast! I know, I can’t wait! In David Byrne’s band, half of the band is made up of drummers/percussionists, six of us! I’ll be getting the three Brazilians to join me that night which will be a real treat. They’re incredible! Looking forward to having some new blood in there too and not knowing what to completely expect, but trust it will rock! Looking forward to having a couple of vocalists this time, Shira [Elias] from Turkuaz and Davi Viera, who I’ve been working with on David Byrne tour. With all the talent there, I like to give everyone their moments to shine and do their thing.
L4LM: Tell us about the future of J.E.D.I. and what we can expect moving forward? More shows? An album?
AJ: Absolutely more shows! My plan is to get a studio recording to happen as soon as possible, as well. So, for that reason, the plan is to develop the music more and put time in writing and collaborating. We’d start with an EP, I imagine, but I’m cool with releasing a full-length album if all flows well in the studio. I’m really hoping to have my studio done in upstate New York soon and working there on most of it.
L4LM: Congrats on the new tunes from Brazilian Girls, sounds great so far! Looking forward to listening to the new album. What can we expect from your longtime group?
AJ: Thanks! Well, we have a couple of new music videos: one is out now I believe, and another is on its way. There are a few promo shows coming up in May. Unfortunately, that band hasn’t really wanted to tour over the past years, so it’s harder and harder to catch us live. But, still, such a unique group of individuals and the music just flows effortlessly when we’re together.
L4LM: Aaron Johnston seems to be on the move. Anything else coming down the pike for this guy?
Aaron Johnston: I bought a new camera the other day and plan to shoot a lot of photos and video of this tour. The drummers and percussionists are all on one tour bus, which gave me the idea to shoot a documentary-style video about the drummers/percussionists in the band. They’re all characters anyway, so why not?!
Don’t miss J.E.D.I. (Jazz Electronic Dance Improvisation) featuring Aaron Johnston (Brazilian Girls/David Byrne), Marc Brownstein (the Disco Biscuits), Ryan Zoidis (Lettuce), & special guests Eddie Roberts (The New Mastersounds), Eric “Benny” Bloom (Lettuce), Shira Elias (Turkuaz), Davi Viera, Mauro Refosco, and Gustavo di Dalva at The Maison in New Orleans on Sunday, April 29th, during Jazz Fest. For more info, click here; to purchase tickets, click here; and for our full guide to Jazz Fest late nights, click here.
Thanks to Rob Munro in assisting with the interview!
The J.E.D.I show is sponsored by Denver-based company, Pure CBD Exchange, which creates and sells a number of CBD/cannabidiol products (What is CBD?) from concentrates, tinctures, extracts, lotions, creams, and more. The use of CBD has gained much notoriety as of late, for use as both a health and wellness supplement and to treat conditions such as epilepsy, PTSD, cancer and a number of mental disorders and is also used for anti-inflammation, nausea reduction, sleep aid, and more. Pure CBD Exchange was co-founded by Gregg Allman Band organist/keyboardist Peter Levin back in 2017, and
Pure CBD Exchange focuses on low-THC cannabis products with high CBD content. We work within the Colorado Industrial Hemp pilot program to distribute non-psychoactive tinctures, extracts, lotions, and more all over the world. The company has featured by companies like VICE, High Times, Leafly, and more.