Johnny Walter – SFO > PHL
My move from west coast ska-pop to east coast indie rock and what happened in the ten years between
When I first came to the west coast from Illinois in the mid 90s, I was playing in ska bluegrass pop trio called Yah-Yah Littleman. Not long after arriving, we established ourselves as one of San Francisco’s top live acts. We were probably best known for showing just how much energy and noise an acoustic guitar, a tiny drum kit and a stand up bass (that was me) could deliver.
In 2004, San Francisco’s KFOG 104.5 FM chose my tune “California” from my first record “Haight Street Bus Ride” for their Local Scene record. The station continues to spin the tune.
In 2007, I released my second record, Let It Out featuring the songs “4 Years” and “Coverband,” inspired by my experiences performing in Bay Area cover bands.
In the 10 years since I recorded that album, so much has happened. New city. New job. Marriage. Kids. It feels like the past decade has been my most important life transition. In some ways, it went by so fast. In others, I don’t feel like the same person. I went from being a single guy living off burritos and touring with a ska-punk-rockabilly band to a sleep-deprived suburban dad with steady day job as a social worker. It’s the only day gig I’ve had that I enjoyed. I think there’s a thread of similarity between social work and music. In both gigs, you’re collaborating on something and trying to improve it or make it better. For music, it’s a performance or a song and in social work, it’s to help someone make life changes.
In September 2017, I released a 5-song EP that was recorded in a marathon session during a vacation trip back to Oakland in late 2016. From the trippy rock jangle of “I’m in Love with Everything” to the hipster techno untz of “Chinese Disco” to the Mission District romance of”Only One,” the new EP is like an love song to the Bay Area,
“I’m in Love with Everything” came from being at home with my daughter who was exploring everything. “Chinese Disco” was a song that came from my co-writer, John Bartkowiak about stumbling into a club south of Market Street in SF. I had those chords and melody that were attached to another set of lyrics.
“Old Friend” grew from a Rolling Stones-y riff and lyrics about missing an old friend or lover.
“Only One” is a tune about lost Mission Street love that has been percolating for a while and I finally found a way to finish it without having to come up with a bridge. Bridges are tough. “Underground” is the oldest song of the batch and we ended up recording it at Tiny Telephone because it was a fun rocker that was quickly added to the session.
Almost every song was recorded in two days at Tiny Telephone in Oakland, except “Only One,” which was recorded at Bart Thurber’s studio in Oakland. Recording at Tiny Telephone was a great experience. It was like walking into Abby Road. An amazing room with lots of vintage gear and this giant mixing board that was used by Fleetwood Mac. Jacob Winik, the engineer who recorded us there, was so easy to work with and fast at getting great sounds on tape.
Working with Bart Thurber at his studio in Oakland was awesome as well. Bart and I have worked together on every Walty album. He’s a super creative “recording guy.” Unlike the session at Tiny Telephone, where we all went in and recorded together, the sessions with Bart usually involve building up the tracks with him on my own, then bringing in other players later.
I’ve been writing songs with my friend John Bartkowiak (who co-wrote all the songs on this EP) for over 20+ years. JB usually writes the lyrics but he also has great song ideas, riffs as well. Jacob and Bart were great engineers to collaborate with on this EP too. Both knew when to add an idea or two and when to lay back. I’ve also been lucky to play with some extremely talented musicians, who played on this EP.
I feel like the song “Old Friend” ended up becoming the theme of this EP, about the relationships I’ve had with such great musicians, most of which I’ve played with in bands for the last 20 years or so. Paul Revelli is an amazing drummer who has played on every walty record and is a Bay Area legend. He is a wiz at arrangements and on the spot studio ideas.
Billy Shen is not only an amazing guitarist but is a great engineer too and has great arrangement and songs ideas. Eli Nelson is a creative jack-of-all-trades type of musician. He played guitar, piano and synth on the EP. Tiny Telephone had this amazing vibraphone, and Eli jumped right in and added a cool part to “Chinese Disco.”
I was also lucky to have the drummer I played in 3 bands with starting with my first band in 7th grade, Darren Womack. He played and sent me a brilliant drum track for “Only One,” which really helped me finish the song.
The secret sauce on this EP is David Hopkins, singer-songwriter extraordinaire who lives in Las Vegas. He added an amazing Moog synth part to “I’m in Love with Everything” and synth and keys on “Chinese Disco,” “Old Friend” and “Underground.” David also suggested mixer Robert Root, who did some amazing mixes for this EP.