There’s something about great music hitting your ears for the first time. Like a drop of rain hitting your forehead. Emotions instantly stir and a memory creeps in that has been unleashed due to that tune.
When I listened to Justin Johnson and Jim Peters’ new two piece band, The Fog Lights, harmonize on the new single, “Lead the Way”, I instantly got swept up with the song. A bad day became a distant memory and I was happy. It didn’t hurt that the three of us went to the same high school(Brentwood High School in St. Louis county) or that the album title, Manhassett, references an apartment complex where this album came together and all three of us lived in at one time or another. I didn’t care what genre it belonged to because the feeling was enough.
Justin and Jim are real authentic musicians and when I say that I mean the second you hear their music, the connection is established and you understand they do this because they need to. They do this for a living or in Justin’s case, it’s a calling you mix with a regular job because a world without music is a scary place. It’s a part of who they are and that isn’t always the case in today’s commercially driven digital music world.
This Saturday at St. Louis’ famous Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, The Fog Lights will have their album release show along with two other bands and they promise a night of great music. This past weekend, I had the chance to ask them each a few questions. Justin was on the road in Texas and Jim was in Kansas City with one of his other bands, Javier Mendoza. The Q&A quickly became a journey of some sorts.
Buffa-Are you excited about the show?
Justin Johnson-This Texas work trip broke up my anxiety for the release show actually. Regular shows don’t affect me much but release shows are different. I was up hanging posters around St. Louis the day before I left for this trip.
Buffa-What got you into music in the first place?
Jim Peters-I got into music very early, my father was a guitar player and I began playing with his bands when I was about 12 yrs old. Had my own bands from middle school on. Playing music wasn’t really a choice, it is just what I do. I knew right away that I was going to do this for a long time.
Buffa-Jim, you are in a few other bands as well, right?
Peters-I also play with the Provels, Javier Mendoza, Cooter and Hoss, Laser Panther and also do freelance studio and songwriting work.
Buffa-You’ve been in a lot of bands over the years. Do you pick up anything being in so many bands?
Johnson-I’ve learned things from every band I’ve played in but most of what I’ve learned are the non-music things. How to book shows, how to get press, and how to get people to come out. I’ve learned a lot about songwriting, but most of it has little to do with actual music. Especially on the level we are operating on where we do it all ourselves.
Peters-Playing in a lot of bands I’ve learned tons about how to do things- and how not to do things. It is great to be a 2pc group, decisions are much easier to make than with larger bands. I feel Justin and I have made a lot of good friends playing with our respective bands over the years and having a great network of folks supporting the Fog Lights has really helped.
Buffa-Does the need to play become more powerful or does it ever become a wear and tear experience?
Peters-I need to play, if I don’t I feel bottled up. It’s a great tension reliever for me.
Buffa-Sometimes, making the product is easy compared to selling it.
Johnson-Practicing in the studio, playing and creating the music is fun and easy. You put all this work into it and hope people respond to it. You just never know. Any money we make is going right back into the band to make CD’s and posters.
Buffa-Every musician has that moment, most likely on stage, where they know they made it. Do you guys have that moment?
Peters-I don’t know if there’s been an “I made it” moment, I just feel extremely lucky to do music full-time.
Buffa-That poster for The Fog Lights is just great, with you and Jim Peters eating at King Edwards Chicken.
Johnson-We originally were going to have photos of Manhassett Village but the photos were too low resolution. Instead of getting into these costumes and trying to do something different, I thought let’s just go to King Edwards and that became our shot. We had a graphic artist who put our poster, album cover and mixed our media for us. Abby Gillardi took some great photos. We were very fortunate to have a team of people helping us make things look nice and presentable.
Buffa-It’s simplistic and gets the message across. So many bands overdo it with their poster but it’s a perfect shot for you two.
Johnson-We wanted to keep it natural. Even when we went there, we wanted to just show up there like we normally would. Plain clothes and all. Like the music itself, it’s natural and organic.
Buffa-The title comes from Manhassett Village, where I lived for a year myself. How did you two come to that title?
Johnson-You may be one of four people who actually get it. Part of it came from me and Jim meeting up every year or so to talk music but never actually playing together. Weirdly enough, the idea of us playing together sort of came up one night where I had these songs I was working on and I asked him about coming over and maybe hanging out and playing a little. That’s how every band I’ve ever been in comes together. Starts with a hangout, a beer and seeing if it feels right. Right off the bat, when we started putting harmonies together, we knew had something good. That led to recording a whole album and recording it in Columbia through Jim’s connections there. It came together pretty easy. We started thinking about Manhassett and our high school memories there. Listening to Smashing Pumpkins and talking music. Some of those things bleed into the music and we went with this idea of how this reunion came together at Manhassett.
Peters-Justin and I have been friends since high school, we used to go see tons of concerts together but never played music together. We went our separate ways for college but always kept in touch. About 1 1/2 yrs ago Justin asked if I’d be interesting in a little recording project, we sang together and immediately there was something there. We started writing together and wound up with enough songs for a short EP. We then decided that we needed to do a full album and we’ve been playing shows for the last year or so and recording our album Manhassett in Columbia, MO at Centro Cellar Studios with Wil Reeves. It has an acoustic based sound but features lots of other players and instruments as well.
Johnson-It does feel different. Every band has a different feeling and vibe. Jim has done everything in music when it comes to making music and touring. My other bands I was with we were all green and just starting out. When I met up with Jim, we had both been through all the things you don’t want to do as a band. Immediately, we thought about getting a comfortable studio with good sound and booking a couple little shows. All the mistakes you made when starting a band we had already made. We each had our connections.
Jim had access to different venues through his other band, Javier Mendoza and I had access through my rock bands to certain things. It made it all really easy to set up shows and get everything started. Every record I make is a moment in time,a time capsule to keep. The first Pretty Little Empire record I made, which is now 7 years old, I can remember that moment when I moved to St. Louis and had some struggles. When I put on The Fog Lights, I will remember Jim and I coming together for this and sharing our love for the same music. Every time I put a record out, it isn’t just about hoping people will listen to it, it’s a marker in my life.
Buffa-Listening to Lead The Way, a load of emotions hit me instantly. How did that song come together?
Johnson-When we started making the album, I had 2-3 songs from before but Jim had all these songs that he had saved. Lead The Way was mostly written by Jim, and I just helped with the chorus. He liked that and started harmonizing to it. Jim brought it to the table and I helped him shape it. Other songs I brought to the table and he helped shape it. This album is the first one where it’s a 50/50 straight down the middle co-write.
Peters-As we began writing for this band, Lead The Way was a song I came up with. It feels like it is about a few different things, but to me it is about not giving up on people. It is about the past and the present existing together somehow. The feeling you get when you first meet someone and yet feel like you’ve known them for a long time. We could tell there was something special about the song immediately, it just seems to make people feel something. That’s powerful stuff.
Buffa-This song felt personal. Is there a personal attachment to every song?
Johnson-Every song feels personal in a different way. There was a time where I was recording a song for a band and my friend was in the hospital and I can listen to those lyrics now and hear myself on the verge of breaking down. For me, if there is ever a time where I lose an enthusiasm, I just wouldn’t do it. I am not the musician that comes down to a studio and just lays out a track. I am more of a songwriter and I try to surround myself with people who are stronger than me in certain areas and help me make a song better.
Buffa-The video, directed by fellow Brentwood alum Justin Hayward, is very low key and simplistic.
Johnson-Justin came up with this thing where we don’t make it all flashy with several cuts but almost frame it like its an intimate rehearsal. The song comes through and there’s only like six cuts. He is a phenomenal director and we have been friends for like 15-20 years so I told him whatever he wanted to do was fine. When I asked him about having no cuts for the first minute and a half, he said if they aren’t into the song by then, what does it matter? You’re hoping that if the song is good people will be patient enough. Watching it at home on a bigger screen will allow people to latch onto it and the sound and look. If one out of 500 people like you latch onto it, that is great.
Buffa-What is your fuel for songwriting? Food, drink or whiskey?
Johnson-I’ve never been able to NOT write songs while drinking whiskey but Jim and I wrote a few songs for this album while eating a pound of Bit-O-Honey candy. Not sure I recommend it though.
Peters-I like whiskey, but for some reason drank Lime O Ritas when we were in the studio. Weird.
Buffa-The sound of the album does bring a certain feeling of Americana to it. Was that the idea or did it just stream out that way?
Johnson-We really tried to intentionally add some other elements so people don’t just see us and think “folk”. There are little elements to it that you will see that keep it from being straight Americana. We try not to write songs about driving down the highway or the weather.
Buffa-The Blueberry Hill Duck Room is perfect for you guys.
Johnson-It’s going to be great. If we can get 100-150 people out, I’ll be happy. The two bands playing with us are very talented and ones we are lucky to have. It’s going to be a good night of friends, music and those are my favorite kinds of shows. Getting on stage and doing what we love.
Buffa-What’s the plan for after the show at the Duck Room? Any roll out tour?
Johnson-We’ve got a couple one off shows. Event shows. In the fall, we want to send the record out to four or five college towns. Columbia, Champagne, and Chicago. Get your music on the local stations. Get it out there. Then see how you feel about it and if you want to keep going. The goal is to not stress yourself out or set the goal too high. I have a full time job and play in another band and Jim is in like four bands so we do what we can. Try to make realistic goals. We’ve been putting this together for a year. Hope it gets picked up locally.
Peters-We have already started writing for the next album. Justin and I have a great partnership going and we are both excited to see how far we can take this. I hope we make about 20 more albums together.
Buffa-Any future songs dedicated to the great Brentwood High School teacher Ken Wolfe?
Peters-I actually did not have him as a teacher… have met him a few times and seems I really would have liked to have had him as a teacher though!
Buffa-When and where can people get this record?
Peters-The CD comes out July 25th, and the vinyl will be put about a month later. We are working on a short Midwest tour for the fall, and expect to see us at your favorite venues all around the STL area.
Buffa-Anything to tell people to get ready for with “Manhassett” and this upcoming show?
Johnson-Spread the music video around. I can’t speak high enough of Justin Hayward for putting it together for us. He came all the way from Chicago to do that. The bands that are playing with us at Blueberry Hill are great. Emily Wallace and Letters to Memphis. For eight bucks, you are getting a great night of music in a great room at a great location. I want to get people in the door and give them a great night. We appreciate the enthusiasm and the encouragement because it’s a nervous time getting ready to release something because there are so many options and competition. If more than 100 people are there Saturday, I’ll be ecstatic.
The Fog Lights may look like a two man folk group on the outside but when you hear their voices and the way their instrumentals mix with their voices and songwriting, something truly original and amazing happens. It’s called great music and once it hits you, there’s no doubt. It’s handcrafted by two passionate musicians from St. Louis trying to give people an experience while also easing their own minds at the same time. If you want a taste, come out Saturday night and have a listen. You will not be disappointed and may feel lucky a year later when the only band people can talk about in The Lou are The Fog Lights.