Ridgecrest, California. Tooleight Johnny steps out of his his brand-new, well-polished Koenigsegg. He puffs his cigar and approaches the abandoned limousine by kicking the red cones that hindered his passage. His private detective announces: “On the driver’s seat there was a torn SAXON T-shirt with traces of tequila and strawberry juice on it and a Killer Clown Vinyl“. Tooleight Johnny opens the suitcase that he holds in his hand in front of the surprised eyes of the detective. “FIND HER WITHIN 24 HOURS AND IT’S ALL YOURS!” Inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s thousands of stares, the detective bends his head thoughtfully to quickly come up with a good idea. His glance accidentally fell on the vocalist’s name of the album he was holding and, without procrastinating, he finds his personal data and visits him. He rings the bell. A Rocker opens the door. “Are you Mr. James Johnson?” Τhe Rocker nodded his head in affirmation. “Private Investigator…I would like to ask you a few questions…”
Hello James! An interview with the frontman of Killer Clown is a great honor for me and for our webzine. Welcome to Metal Invader!
The release of your 2 demos on Vinyl (Killer Clown, Psycho-B Records 2016) seems to have rekindled the interest of old fans for the band but at the same time to have won new fans who did not have the chance to know you in the early 90s. How do you feel that your work, almost 30 years later, continues to attract people from every corner of the globe?
Well, it’s amazing to see the interest and the life in our demo recordings. If nothing else our music is durable (laughs). I would have never guessed that this would happen but thanks to the internet here we are. The coolest part for me is to speak to the people that get into our music and then to realize that even if they’re from Europe or Latin America we’re all basically the same. That’s the coolest part: to realize that our geographical locations don’t matter. We’re all Rockers, we’re all in this family together no matter where we’re from and there’s cool and interesting music everywhere if you go looking for it.
As for our music I think it might stand out a bit because we pretty much played live in the studio and a few of those songs were done in one take. Music should always be about a live performance I think, that’s what gives it soul but you better rehearse your ass off to get it right. It also helps when you’re trying to record on a budget because analog recording time isn’t cheap so you got to move quickly in the studio (laughs). We honestly recorded and mixed down five of those songs in one day. The engineer who ran the little place thought we were crazy but we wanted to get as many songs down as we could in a 10 hour block of time. Today’s musicians have the curse of digital recording and devices to make their music and to rely on those devices more and more. Maybe that’s what attracts people to our music…We’re real and in analog with no apologies, what you hear is what you get. Digital recordings just don’t sound alive to me but I guess it’s a necessary evil to record that way. I just prefer to roll tape and go…
Well, let’s take the things from the beginning. You started out as “Tyrant”, a name widely used by metal bands, playing covers. When and how did you decide to be renamed to “Killer Clown”? Innovative name for a hard rock / heavy metal band, but at the same time somehow disorientining for someone who does not know what kind of music you are playing …
Tyrant ended when we found out there was another more established band with that same name. I think they were more of a thrash metal band and some of our guys were thinking about going off to college and such at that time. We had to pretty much promote every gig and finding places to play was getting very difficult out here in the sticks. So my cousin (Guitarist) Mike Stanley and I started writing original songs more for fun. We had just purchased an old used Teac 3440 4-track reel to reel recorder. We were just jamming and having fun writing songs and drinking beer. Then before we knew it we had enough material for our first demo and it was all sounding pretty good. We then went to an 8 track studio in Bakersfield, California and recorded five of those songs you hear on the album. We experimented with the 4 track because none of us knew a thing about recording music at that time and we still don’t to some degree (laughs). We just played live, punched in the guitar solo’s and backing vocals and that’s all we knew how to do.
As for the story about how we chose the name “Killer Clown” it’s pretty amusing and not what you’d expect, I suppose… So one day after that first demo was completed we were trying to come up with a new band name for the demo jacketing. So there we were in our rehearsal room when our drummer (Ron “Riff” Cram’s) tiny little three year old son comes running in with his long red hair all sticking up in the air, he had one sock up and one sock down to his ankle, he was wearing a little plastic toy Army canteen on his waist and was holding a rubber toy knife in his hand. He runs into our rehearsal room stabbing us in the legs with this rubber knife like a little HellBoy. The little kid was just causing chaos running around the mic stands and it was hilarious. So we started calling him “Killer Clown” as a nickname to cheer him on. I believe it was (Guitarist) Mark Budke that came up with that name. Later that week we were back at rehearsals and we grew tired of trying to think up a good band name to replace Tyrant. So I said “Let’s just name the band after Brendon and be done with it” and the name KILLER CLOWN came to be. Brendon sadly was killed many years later riding his motorcycle so that name has very special meaning to all of us. He was a great kid with a great soul.
You released two demos in 1991 and 1994 on a tape. Many radio stations aired your tracks. What was the general feedback of the Press over those years? How easy was it to promote you work and how did you do it?
With Grunge and some of the ridiculous hair metal bands at that time there really wasn’t much promoting for us at all. Everything was a fight to get noticed and no one was really listening. So we just stuck to doing local shows and spring festivals. We also promoted and funded our own concerts like “The Quake at Little Lake” in 1992 which was a great success but a lot of work went into that. The amazing thing was that night right after the gig there really was an earthquake centered there which freaked us all out. I guess the Gods of Rock were trying to tell us something or they were just messing with us. I’m not sure which (laughs). I really wish that earthquake would have hit during our performance though and not right after the show. That would have been even more epic (laughs).
With the press we always did get surprisingly great reviews, especially when critics came to see our live performances. I think the best complement was hearing us being described as a band that is defiantly not fucking around (laughs). That was one of my favorites. We were featured in “Where It’s Hot” magazine and on the Los Angeles radio station KLOS Local Licks Show. So we were known a little bit at that time around here.
Did you have many live shows those years? Did you play live performances only in the State of California or did you appear in other States too? What was the feedback of your audience? Do you have any strong / pleasant memories from the years of the live shows or some special story from the band’s active years to share with us?
Yeah, we always played locally in Southern California. However, you have to realize we’re small town boys from the far north eastern part of Southern California at the foothills of the Sierra Mountains and bordering Death Valley. So we’re not your typical Southern California band we’re more like a bunch of mountain hillbillies (laughs). So we have a different musical flavor I think. I guess one of the coolest memories at that time was opening up for the old 60’s band “Spirit” at the Pegasus Club and meeting guitarist Randy California. They were mostly known for the song “I Got A Line On You” which I believe was covered by Alice Cooper and Blackfoot as well. Knowing that Randy played with Jimmy Hendrix was pretty cool and he was a great player. Also their drummer Ed Cassidy was turning 70 years old that night and he riff’ed his ass off which was amazing and an honor to have witness.
Why has there been a pause of all those years? Lack of inspiration and appetite or due to various circumstances of life? What was it that triggered you in 2014 and you played live again?
Marriages and children plus we all kept our day jobs. We weren’t about to go out and starve on the road or to put our families in any jeopardy. If the opportunity would have presented itself back then we would have jumped on it but Grunge music from Seattle was getting really big at that time. We weren’t Grunge, we weren’t Hair Metal or Glam, and we weren’t Thrash. So there really was no one knocking on the doors for a corn fed hard rock band from the mountain outskirts of Southern California. So it kind of ended but we periodically got together and jammed for fun. We all played in other bar bands and the inspiration was never lost, we continually write. I mean you never really stop playing music or being a musician.
The 2014 outdoor gig was just to see if we still got it after all these years and yes we do (laughs).
How did the cooperation with the Greek Psycho-B Records for the Killer Clown LP release occur?
Basically, Stavros originally got a hold of me through Reverb Nation and asked if we would be interested. His first venture fell through but Ylas came to the rescue and the rest is history and the old demos got pressed. Pretty cool guys it just wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for them. So a BIG Thanks to those guys!
On the special thanx section of this release, you mention a list of people who are no longer alive, but they seem to have been very important people for the band. Would you like to tell us a few words about them?
Awe man, I could write a book about our fallen friends and they stay with us forever. To mention a few I’d have to start with our old bass player from Tyrant, Shawn “Bonner” Peek. He was scheduled to play bass on the first demo but tragically passed away weeks before the recording in yet another motorcycle crash up in Chico, California. Mike Stanley ended up playing bass on that first recording and that’s why ya really don’t hear a second guitar on the rhythm tracks. Also Richard Ranck plays bass on the second demo. Shawn was a great bass player who loved Steve Harris from Maiden and played a black Rickenbacker like Geddy. He was a character; great musician, high school valedictorian, accepted into the Airforce Academy, funny as hell, and all the girls flocked to him if ya catch my meaning (He loved the ladies, absolutely all of them) (laughs). He was great and we’ve missed him a lot.
Another was Jim Wallace who was the artist behind the second Killer Clown logo and great lifelong friend to me and the band. The logo where the clown is pulling his head out of the curtain, well, he painted that. He was one hell of an artist and so damned talented but like most artists life got the best of him so he ended it with a rope. Very sad day!
So like everyone we all have those close friends that are no longer here but in a way they still are so ya have to kind of pay tribute to the great memories that they gave us.
All of your tracks are amazing! Considering the comments that you have heard from fans of the band, which song seems to be the greatest success? Which is your favorite track and why?
That’s a really hard question but I think “Gothic City” was maybe the most complete of all the songs that were recorded on those demos. Everyone seems to have a different favorite and “Roll with the Punches” surprisingly comes up a lot as well. That song has everything from a country swing grove bass line under a hard rock rhythm, to an almost southern rock type sound, to guitar lead harmonies and double picking which is kind of a weird arrangement (laughs). My favorite songs though were actually never recorded. We have a song called “Head of the Pin” and another one called “Bastard Child” which both really get it for me when we play them live.
My personal favorite is “Hurtin’ cuz you’re gone”. Is there any real story behind this? Generally the lyrics of your tracks were inspired by personal experiences of life or other peoples experiences?
That one was written to be more radio friendly for KLOS and I have a hard time writing love-lost songs. That’s not really my thing but radio stations love love-lost songs and they are so relatable for everyone lyrically. We’ve all been love-sick plus that song has a good hook riff in there. To tell you the truth, the new live version has a slightly different chorus in it. It’s about the same old story…boy meets girl…boy loses girl…boy cries in his beer. We’ve all been there (laughs). So it wasn’t about anyone specifically.
After searching on the web I found out a Killer Clown track under the title “Where’s a Whip There’s a Way”, which you did not include in the collection you released with Psycho-B Records. Is it an old or new track? Do you have any other old material that you intend to release in the future or do you work on something new?
“Whip there’s a Way” is from the original 4-track recordings and was meant to be a really bad joke between us in the band. We were just experimenting with recording and the overdubbing process at that time as an exercise. We were amusing ourselves with the sexually explicit lyrical content that we were coming up with that day and laughing our ass’es off. That song was never really supposed to be out there. I mean, how serious could we be about that song when it has the voice of a certain cartoon character getting a blowjob on it. Of course like they say “Every sailor loves a good hummer” I know I do (laughs). We’ve never even played that one at a gig. As to other more serious music we do want to get together and record again someday. Our best songs were never put to tape and we have a few new ones as well. So the best might be yet to come.
What are your plans for the immediate future? Would you like the idea of playing a live performance in Europe;
We would love the opportunity to play a gig in Europe. Even though we’re from America all of our musical influences are really from there. So it would be a great honor and privilege for us. Plus it would be cool as hell to try and win over a European audience.
Before closing I would like to ask you a question of general interest. I was recently in California and during an endless road trip I was trying in vain to get a radio station airing heavy metal. Instead of it, I only got “Bad and Boujee” (hip hop hit song in the USA) and several other pop trash. Is there metal / hard rock scene in California today? If yes, do you notice any differences in relation to the great Californian metal / hard rock scene of the past?
In my opinion the metal and hard rock scene has sunk to a new low here in the states. No one seems to take the chance on it. If you ever due find a good metal station here in the states you let me know (laughs). Satellite radio is about it and what rental car company has that installed in their cars? I guess us Yanks are looking to the European’s to start a new wave of heavy metal again.
The closing is yours!
I’d just like to thank all the people from Psycho-B Records, Stavros and Ylas whom made this all possible. If it wasn’t for them the album would have never been released. Thanks so much and keep rocking!