Johnny Vidacovich is a literal living legend in New Orleans. He has played drums on most every stage in the Crescent City, in pretty much every style of music invented. Over the course of his five decades in the music scene, he has played for every type of audience in the world. However, last Sunday, for the Season 2 premiere of the AMC drama Preacher, Vidacovich got to play for a slightly more celestial presence than usual.
WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the second season of Preacher.
In a cool twist deviating from the Preacher graphic novels, the similarly named television show shows a bit more of what God is up to now that we know he is hiding out on Earth. While the main trio of characters at the heart of the story search for the almighty, it turns out at least part of the Lord’s time on our plane of existence is spent grooving to the beats of the one and only Johnny Vidacovich. Our own Rex Thomson is a rabid follower of the show. When the first episode of the new season featured a guest appearance in the form of the drumming legend, Thomson reached out to the esteemed musician for the inside scoop on what working on the show was like — plus a bit of a history lesson on Vidacovich’s stellar career. Check out their chat below!
Live For Live Music: The highly entertaining AMC show Preacher returned last Sunday and Monday for the first episodes of the second season. Lo and behold, there you were, sir! Did they tell you much about the source material or the plot of the show before recruiting you to appear and create music for it?
Johnny Vidacovich: I saw the first season, so I know what the show is about. It’s constantly evolving. This season is about a lot of things, and one of them is God liking jazz. Modern jazz, too. The scene I’m in is crazy. They told me the scene was gonna be in a strip club. The Preacher is looking for God, but nobody seems to know where he is. So he’s looking for God, and he finds out that God is down here taking a break and seeing a lot of jazz.
There are two songs in the episode that I recorded and appear on the show for. They first come into one of the songs from our recording. Now, we played that song, but in the shot, we are just playing along. When they go to leave the joint, and the camera zooms in and actually ends up on my face, it’s very symbolic. We are actually playing during that second shot.
I did four days’ work for the show. We recorded three-and-a-half hours for the show, and that music will be in upcoming episodes that are set in New Orleans. The sad part is they already used me for the scenes set in Houston, so they didn’t call me back for the scenes set in New Orleans. It’s unfortunate and fortunate. When we shot the actual scene, we spent most of the day sitting around drinking coffee until they were ready for us to reset. But when we were in the studio, we kept at it. That was pretty good money. This isn’t some low-rent production.
It’s was a blessing that Seth Rogan wrote a script where God likes jazz. It was a blessing that they had all this music that needed to be cut for the episodes and commercials. I have been doing this kinda work for decades — since before they had half the technology they have these days.
L4LM: Do you know the names of the songs they used in the episode?
JV: I can’t really remember the names. One we were just calling “Ballad.” Basically, they just gave us real short descriptions like, “This one needs to sound really open.” You don’t give jazz musicians a lot of description. That’s not what you hire jazz musicians for. You hire us to create, to improvise. You give us minimal instruction so we can create. That’s the process, that’s our science, that’s our spirituality.
L4LM: If you found out that God was in the audience at one of your shows, what song would you pull out to play for him?
JV: I would actually wanna play freely — in other words, in an unstructured form. If he was wanting to hear a song, I would wanna plan for it. But if I found out he was there and wanted to hear a song, I would play “Someday My Prince Will Come” for him. If I had a day or two to think about it, I would probably come up with something different. But what I would really want to do is what I do best — make up something right on the spot. I’ve played with ballets, with symphonies, in marching bands, in operas, and in traditional dixieland bands, but jazz is what got me through high school and college.
L4LM: God or not, if anyone ever does want to see you play, they should come to one of your legendary Trio gigs at the Maple Leaf in New Orleans. How long have you been doing that quasi-residency?
JV: All I know is that is has been more than eleven years. You’ll have to ask my wife for anything more than that. I’ve been playing in the joint since 1975. Before it even was the Maple Leaf.
Check out Johnny Vidacovich, Oteil Burbridge, and John Medeski getting loose as a trio down in New Orleans:
L4LM: Nestled up there behind that drum kit for decades on all those different stages, I am guessing you have seen and learned a lot of things. Any of those life lessons you want to share with us?
JV: Yeah, I’ve learned a lot of things. One of the cool things about The Trio is that you are constantly switching people in and out. So you have to read body language. You have to figure out how they feel and what to throw them. You have to look at what you’re playing and decide “Is this making them feel comfortable? Should I play more? Do I need to be pushy? Do they want me to play like that, or would they rather I pull back and play more of an accompanist style?” It’s a trio, and in a trio, you can do a lot of talking without saying a word. Especially the way that we do it. We don’t rehearse, we don’t plan. We just get up there and start playing. If one of us says “Hey, let’s play a song!”, we are still just doing what we do, just trying to unite.
Basically, what I have learned is a whole lot about how to be confident and still have an abundance of empathy. That, and the importance of give and take. Everything is better with give and take. I’ve learned not to let ego-strong people throw me off my game, intimidate my game, or make me daydream. There are two different kinds of people with aggressive egos. One comes from a place of insecurity and a lack of confidence. The other comes from someone who is bold and strong and has that kinda ego. In the second case, that’s good. But in the end, it’s all about listening and trying to have a conversation. Music is all about having a conversation.
When you’re playing music together, you have to make the music the important part. You have to make sure the other players are getting the space to say what they need to say. The goal is to take it all to a higher level, higher than any one of us could achieve on our own. It’s a rare and great thing when we can accomplish something like this.
Watch Johnny Vidacovich and one of his most famous pupils, Stanton Moore, deliver a stellar rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” below:
[Video: Positive Vibrations Foundation]
L4LM: You’ve won praise and just about every kind of drum award there is for your playing. If you look at your career as a whole, it seems like teaching is a big a part of your life as a musician. Which reward is greater — a plaque or seeing one of your students finally grasp something they had been struggling with?
JV: No comparison, no comparison, no comparison at all. People sell plaques. What makes me play today, what makes me still teach, what makes me go out and play gigs of any and all kinds, at my age, is the chance to keep learning. It’s because the guys that I taught twenty years ago are now playing with the best. Brian Blades is playing with Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell , and Herbie Hancock. Stanton Moore is quite popular and skilled. That is the reward. The gratification from teaching is different from the gratification of playing music. When you’re playing, you can look out and see how people are reacting to what you are doing in that moment.
With teaching, you’re waiting. You’re hoping that your student gets it together. If you look at the people I went to college with in the music programs, say there were 500 people, maybe ten percent of them made music as their full-time gig and are paying their bills and supporting their families doing it. Not a lot of people who start off playing music keep at it. It just sorta falls off.
Check out a little of Vidacovich’s signature teaching style in the video below:
[Video: David Bullis]
L4LM: When did you discover your passion for teaching?
JV: I didn’t have a passion for it in the beginning. This passion I feel only came around recently when I became an old man. It started as an obligation. It wasn’t until later that I found out that it was so important, that it was part of the circle. You gotta keep the circle running around and around. Oh, and if you think you don’t want to be a teacher, then you better only play with yourself. ‘Cause I guarantee you that if you play in public, then some little kid is looking at every move you make, not even speaking to you. He’s learning. So guess what mother fucker? You’re teaching, whether you wanted to or not.
L4LM: Well sir, as always, thanks for chatting with us. As a long time fan of the comic, I can personally vouch for the fact that you belong in the world of Preacher and the real world as well. Thanks for all you have done for the music community and the world at large!
JV: Thank you! Happy and proud to do it!