Interview with Douglas Johnson of Sound of Seventy Three

(c) Dan Depew

Atlanta-based Sound of Seventy Three is the one-man cinematic post-rock affair of NY-born Douglas Johnson. So73 is featured many times throughout A FINE LINE which I directed with Josh Fowler.

Usually when I edit I am speed-listening through literally hundreds of tracks, just trying to get some inspiration. When I heard Sound of Seventy Three’s Shields I was piecing together the timelapse and slo-mo sequences from the Mt. Evans section of the film and it was kind of a revelation. When JFo came over and we watched that section it was like, … dude.

You know what I’m talking about.

That track eventually formed the basis for the introspective and philosophical tone of the rest of the film (love it or hate it).

Frank Lloyd Wright plays starting at 5:20, (“New boulders is what’s now”) and then rolls into Shields for the section in Mount Evans. Later, a chopped-up Spilt Milk tracks the whole Warpath section.

I licensed all the Sound of Seventy Three tracks from Magnatune. Check out Sound of Seventy Three on iTunes here.

Johnson is a multi-instrumentalist, been at it since he was a kid. He teaches yoga for a living here in Atlanta. We got together over joe at Dancing Goats in Decatur.

TBM: How did you come up with the name Sound of Seventy Three?

DJ: I was born in ’73.  I love all that old funk – that era when hiphop and electronic music started coming out, just a really weird time in music.

TBM: What’s your musical background?

DJ: I played music from a very young age in school [at United Nations International School in NY]. We had a very strict music program and the teachers took it very seriously. I was maybe 5 years old. When I was 10 or 12 I took up the clarinet and started playing in the band. I eventually stopped the clarinet and lost interest until I heard U2 and shortly after discovered The Cure. That totally turned my head around [about the guitar]. I had thought a career in music was just an impossible dream, but I couldn’t put it down and I just got more and more into it. So after high school I studied music theory in college.

For awhile there I got really into jazz and classical, but eventually I let all that go and got back into [rock]. I’ve played in instrumental funk bands, blues, a lot of stuff.

With Sound of Seventy Three, when I wrote those first few songs, I thought, “this is what I was meant to do.” Everything I listened to in the 80s: new wave, punk, and everything else showed up there. It just felt like the natural way that I played. It’s what someone would play after growing up in New York in the 80s, after marinating inside you for that long.

TBM: Tell me about how you got involved with licensing through a third party like Magnatune.

DJ: I had read an article that mentioned Magnatune as part of the new music industry “Music 2.0”, saying this was the new model of the music industry, new labels, new distribution models and all that. So I sent them an email and I forgot about it. They accept maybe 5% of submissions, so I didn’t really expect to hear back from them. But then I heard back from them, and I realized maybe I should take it more seriously.

TBM: Are you selling tracks through other sources?

DJ: Nothing is exclusive, so you still have freedom to sell through iTunes, etc.

TBM: Mostly selling or also licensing?

DJ: My albums tent to spike when they first release, then it falls off when everyone downloads them. And then there is the licensing. And that at least has the potential to overtake the sales. If you can produce enough tracks that people want to use in film or commercials, the lump sum per track is far greater than how much you can make per track for downloads. The consumer market is actually very small compared to commercial music licensing, and Magnatune is well aware of that.

TBM: How about marketing and getting exposure?

DJ: Generally people like music they already know. So if you want to connect with people with music, you go to shows, and you get in front of a band you already know. That’s usually how it’s done. I don’t really want to be doing live shows at this point in my life. So YouTube has been really great for that. Up until then I would record a track maybe in a day. Tracked, made a video and uploaded it to Youtube in the same day. I had to really get over my perfectionism to do that. Sort of like the new Blues. I thought about this new cottage industry of music where people can make their own studio at home, and like Etsy where people are buying stuff from people made at home, and the lack of quality is part of the charm. I thought maybe I could be part of this industry but for music, where people who listened to your music actually appreciated that low level of production.

TBM: How else are you using Youtube? Music videos?

DJ: One thing I do is video demos about gear, where I actually use the equipment to produce original music, so the equipment is being used in context, so people can see the equipment but also hear new music from me. I think it’s a unique thing, I don’t see many people doing that on youtube, so I’m hoping it’s a good little niche I made for myself.

TBM: What are you working on now?

DJ: I’ve been really interested in acoustic textures lately. I’ve been trying to incorporate them into what I’m already doing without making it too foreign to anyone who may already enjoy what I’m doing. I can make a track that’s all acoustic and really pretty, but maybe it starts to feel like its something else, not quite this music I feel very close too. So its an organic process, where you get the instruments and start playing them and see what comes out of them and how it all fits in. I might do little singles or EPs where I just combine these instruments and I see if its working or not. The internet has allowed me to do that. I can actually release something and see other peoples reactions and just see how it fits with me. When you release something and put some distance between you and it, you can kind of think about it more objectively. So it’s nice to do that before, say, Magnatune picks it up.

TBM: Do you write for other musicians?

DJ: A little. Musicians don’t make much money, and if you are trying to make money off that, its pretty challenging. Plus I get so tired off of working on other peoples’ material that I have nothing left for my own music. If I found someone I really had a synergy with, I would probably just form a band with them. My music has a sort of cinematic, spacey feel to it, and its hard to find a vocalist that works with that feel.

TBM: How about live shows?

DJ: I’ve heard that we rock the house when we play live! I love to play it live. Usually when you play clubs, no ones heard of you, or they are there for someone else or just want to enjoy their beer. Someone might come up to you afterwards and buy a CD, but you’re home at 5 and you have to go to work that day. Playing in clubs… the closest thing to that is being a furniture mover. It seems very thankless. It’s tough. Whereas I can spend all that time at home and finish a track that could end up in a film. All my buddies who are playing Sound of Seventy Three with me are all family men and that takes up a lot of time right now [so we don’t play live much]. I’m single so I am just married to the music.

(c) Dan Depew

TBM: Tell me about your recording process.

DJ: In my living room, in the middle of the night. I rarely even mic anything, just direct, very lofi, but for me music has never been just about the highest quality. Nothing I use is the highest quality anything. I get on these gear review pages, and these guys are all obsessed with their equipment and it’s like, “Well, where’s your album? You’re spending so much time and money and you’re on these message boards all the time but where’s the music, dude?” You know? I mean it’s good to care about that stuff, it matters, but at a certain point you’ve gotta just knock it out.

Maybe I’ll be leaving the whole shoestring behind some day, but for my first two albums it was more a mindset of, “What can I get away with?” Sometimes it happens where when production quality goes up I don’t like it as much. Something gets lost.

*All photos music and video on this page courtesy of Douglas Johnson

Published on Jan 16, 2012
Filed under: Climbing,Interviews,Music,Video
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