Interview — Martin Johnson

Let`s Play The Night Game

We take a talk on the wild side with Boston-born musician Martin Johnson of The Night Game: a retro-ride to the heart of rock ‘n‘ roll.

5. September 2018 — MYP N° 23 »Instinct« — Interview: Katharina Weiß, Photography: Lukas Papierak

Have you ever wondered where the rock stars have gone? They’re probably buried under an oversized Adidas t-shirt, going under the moniker of “A$AP…” and posting Instagram photos of the geometrical tattoos they got at their last techno rave bender. Observing today’s landscape of pop culture, one might get the impression that the conventional rock star—the leather jacket wearing type that has a passion for guitars and sex—has died out. Martin Johnson, who currently helms the new wave band The Night Game, flew over from L.A. to give us some hope. Johnson sports that ruffled hair-do, rough accent, chest hair, denim, leather, tattoos, and snakeskin cowboy boots, to which he comments, “the heel is like three inches, probably the highest ones I’ve ever rocked”. He embodies all the bad-boy aesthetics that died out about in 2003.

But stop! Some things just never die out. The debut album—also called “The Night Game”—is due to be released on September 7th. Johnson has produced eleven tracks that demonstrate the versatility of his talent. Lovers of upbeat pop music will be into sexy tracks, like “Bad Girls Don’t Cry”. Indie lovers will be inspired by “The Outfield” and “Once In A Lifetime”. Those seeking a little electronic twist to their guitar might like “The Photograph”. On “Back in the Van”, The Night Game throws some funk and country inspired sounds into the mix. We explain who Martin Johnson, the singer with the piercing blue eyes, is today.

»All I can be is myself and there is not much I can do about that.«

Katharina:
You mentioned that “The Night Game” record is about sports, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. There is a certain type of masculinity in your songs that is not often found in the current creative productions. What do you think about masculinity in pop culture today?

Martin:
It is a very strange time to be a white American male—like you almost have to apologize immediately for who you are. All I can be is myself and there is not much I can do about that. Should I dress differently than I want to, just to fit in modern pop culture? Maybe I am not in fashion. It has been in fashion to be a white American male for a very long time, but this ship has sailed.

Katharina:
Although you have great people like Australian artist Kirin J Callinan on the record, The Night Game is basically your solo project, right?

Martin:
Yes. For a long time, the project run under my name, Martin Johnson. But with what my past is, I wanted my music to speak first (editor’s note: From 2005-2011, Martin Johnson was the frontman of the American pop-rock band “Boys Like Girls”. After his worldwide success, he built up a career as a songwriter for artists like Avril Lavigne or Taylor Swift). I am not embarrassed by anything that I have done or who I am. But I wanted the songs to come fist and I fancied a little bit of mystery.

Katharina:
You started your career back then when people played CDs. Today, most people don’t even have a CD player at home. You are still young, but do you sometimes feel the music industry ages faster than usual?

Martin:
I’m fine with the disappearance of the CD. But when you used to buy a record, you invested in this piece of music—so you would be going to like it. You were spending twelve bucks on it, so you were going to listen to it more than once, you would really give it a try. And often, a song that was not outstanding on the first listen, started to grow on you. Now it has to hit you in the first round while the song is streaming. I also compare contemporary music to chains like Urban Outfitters: It is like taking a cool new trend, make it done cheap, and throw it back into the crowd. That is a bit disheartening about modern music.

Katharina:
So, what did you decide to do?

Martin:
Let me say it with a metaphor: if you stay being a broken clock, you show the right time twice a day. But if you’re chasing everything ten minutes behind, you will never catch up. I just gotta do what I gotta do. And this is hard… As a creative, so much of your personal validation comes from whether or not the people like what you show them.

»I had to really rinse myself off former influences. A lot of it was desperation for success.«

Katharina:
A friend of mine once said, “all art is just an abstract tool to scream for love”. To what extent do you agree?

Martin:
Yes, for this record, I had to really rinse myself off former influences. A lot of it was desperation for success. I wanted to know how I would sound like when it was not about that anymore, but just about the music. At the end of the day, I was doing this record to feel something with music again.

Katharina:
It’s been a while since you’ve toured in a tour bus. With a new tour ahead, are you afraid you might get a backache?

Martin:
My back already fucking hurts. There is this illusion of the glamorous lifestyle of the music industry. The reality is more like staying in a budget hotel or entering a venue that smells like piss with a beer-soaked floor.

Katharina:
Are you not drinking anymore?

Martin:
No, I have not had a drink in eight years.

Katharina:
What happened?

Martin:
I probably wouldn’t have made it to this interview if I would still be drinking. But here we are.

Katharina:
Is it harder to live the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle without the high?

Martin:
It is actually easy. I honestly was a pretty unhappy person when I was drinking. I really like to do everything I do to the extreme. I was very good at drinking and taking pills and cocaine. But I wasn’t really good at being a son or a friend.

Katharina:
Have you found other vices to fill the void?

Martin:
Working, sports, playing poker, sex.

Katharina:
“American Nights” is that kind of atmospheric anthem for your late teen years, when you get drunk on Jack Daniel’s and Coca-Cola while making out in the backyard of some countryside house party. What is your connection to that song?

Martin:
A different one. I wrote this track about the disillusionment of the American Dream. I am asking myself like so many Americans ask themselves: what is the dream supposed to look like and what does that mean for me?

»I live right next to the Hollywood sign, it is just a gigantic cloak of bullshit.«

Katharina:
How does living in L.A., the dream machine, play into these thoughts?

Martin:
I live right next to the Hollywood sign, it is just a gigantic cloak of bullshit. When I was making music for other people, it was good to work there, and the weather is okay. But I don’t really find a tremendous amount of happiness there. It is more about fame than it is about art.

Katharina:
You graduated from high school in 2004 and got famous with “Boys like Girls” in 2005. Did you have the time to think about your dream at all?

Martin:
I never was going to do anything else.

Katharina:
Do you think you have now a better connection to the audience? Is your stage performance better?

Martin:
Yes. But on the other hand, very often I still think that I’m faking it. Do you, as a journalist, ever get the same feeling?

Katharina:
Constantly.

Martin:
I forget how to write a song every day. I wake up in the morning thinking, “here I am faking it again, I hope I don’t get caught”. I am waiting for the fraud police to come in, pointing their finger at me and saying, “this is all bullshit”. I will get kicked out of this arena I was supposed to play in, I clearly don’t have a backstage pass.

»As an artist you seek a lot of validation, like a pat on the back.«

Katharina:
What comforts you?

Martin:
As an artist, you seek a lot of validation, like a pat on the back. I tried to flip that game with this album. I want to separate my happiness from direct successes in the entertainment industry. In my experience, this happiness lasts a bit, but gets very empty at the end. I want my life to be more about family and friends, I am trying to be a good man.

Katharina:
What is your best quality in being a friend?

Martin:
I’ll show up. Believe me. I put my dear ones first. For my friends, I am pretty much someone to call when they have a question, because they know I will give it to them straight.

Katharina:
So, you are not a friend of the beautiful lie…

Martin:
No. A lie is always a waste of time.

Katharina:
Has anyone ever written a song about you?

Martin:
Yeah. A couple were nice love songs, and a few were really angry.

Katharina:
Has Taylor Swift ever written a song about you?

Martin (laughs):
Who knows?