The Other Side Of Things: An Interview with Communist Daughter’s Johnny Solomon

Johnny Solomon

When talking to Communist Daughter’s Johnny Solomon, a phrase that’s often repeated by the Twin Cities-based singer/songwriter throughout our conversation is the idea of finally being “on the other side of things.” Despite the buzz surrounding the group’s 2011 albums Something Wicked This Way Comes and Soundtrack To The End, the previous side of things for Solomon was a serious struggle with addiction that at its worst resulted in the alienation of his closest friends and bandmates and temporary incarceration. After a brief stretch last year at Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota, Solomon has regained footing both in life and music; grateful for his sobriety, his engagement with bandmate Molly Moore, and the release of the band’s newest EP Lions and Lambs.

Similar to the relief that accompanies the end of a long hangover, the album’s half dozen tracks paint a picture of recovery with an unguarded earnestness. Before performing at the High Noon Saloon on November 7 with Caroline Smith & The Goodnight Sleeps and Quiet Corral (tickets here), Solomon opened up to True Endeavors about touring and recording post-recovery, and how a feeling of discomfort may be the key to his music.

True Endeavors: This year has been the beginning of “serious” touring for the band. How has that been going?

Solomon: We started pretty seriously after our EP [Lions and Lambs] came out. We’ve sort of been going crazy. Twin Cities is awesome, and with the following we’ve got here, we could sit here for years without leaving town. But it’s really nice to get out and see more of the country.

What kind of schedule do you keep? Are you playing a show a night?

I guess that’s what I’d call it. We do about twenty shows a month, which kind of takes it out of you. We did 15 shows in 14 days all along the west coast. That was pretty rough. The driving is terrible. We had another drive from Denver, CO to Missoula, MT which was like 13 hours. But it’s what we’re willing to do right now, because we’re new and things are going on now as opposed to five years from now.

Have you had good luck with your van? It seems like tour vans always decide to quit on you when you need them the most.

[Communist Daughter] has a really old van that we own and use, but because of the distances involved, we’ve been renting from a company in Chicago that rents out vans specifically for touring. It makes it way nicer when there’s a TV. Since I’m sober now, I don’t particularly like hanging out in the bars. There’s just a lot of down time, and there’s not a whole lot of other places you can go. But the van that we’ve been using has a Playstation in it. I’m not much of a video game guy, but man did I pick up a mean FIFA 2005 habit on this last tour.

Now that you are sober, has it been difficult playing shows in bars?

Man, I couldn’t…that first year was just…I’m almost at two years [sober] now, and even though it felt good to be sober, the amount of anxiety and stress that goes on in that first ninety days versus the first year is unbelievable. Half my band is sober, so that’s kind of a plus. I’ve ended up reading a lot more, too. I used to read a lot, but now I’m the guy who sits at the back of the bar and reads his book, which looks weird enough. [Laughs.] I started doing some sugar-free Red Bulls with pineapple juice, and would sometimes find myself drinking three or four of those, and that can get you as sick as anything else. But now that I’ve had some time, [playing in bars] is way easier. There are a lot of people who don’t drink, but for those first three months I don’t think I was even out among the living.

Are fans respectful of your sobriety? I’m thinking of all the concerts I’ve been to where I’ve seen people lining up to buy band members a drink after a set.

Yeah, one of the things I have been kind of vocal about is my sobriety. For the first six months, I’d tell people while on stage that I was sober. But before that, there were a lot of shots and stuff waiting when we got off stage. After a while, one of the things you start to get used to are all those memories of shows, and how awkwardly drunk people are sometimes. It sort of reinforces my sobriety and makes me glad I’m on this side of the fence. But I’m way more comfortable now, and touring isn’t hard anymore. It’s actually a lot easier. I still drink a lot of Diet Dr. Pepper, though. [Laughs.] But I guess it’s the lesser of two evils

A lot of your music seems to be drawn from personal experience, but I don’t want to make the mistake and assume it’s all autobiographical. How much would you say is inspired from your own life?

It’s hard to say. A lot of my stuff is pretty autobiographical, or at least with [Lions and Lambs] it was. It’s hard to not incorporate my own experiences and what’s going on in my life in my music. For me, though, when I write a song, I only want to capture one feeling or moment. So even if [the song] starts out as autobiographical, people’s lives change from day to day. So it’s different parts of my life that I’m writing about. I’m not necessarily even feeling that stuff anymore or in the thick of it. It’s almost like writing about someone else.

It reminds me of the Atmosphere line where he says, “I need to start writing pieces about other people’s problems/because strangers are starting to get worried.” The EP has a darkness about it that people might assume you’re still struggling.

In my opinion, when I’m writing and people say things like, “Oh, you’re writing about your addiction,” I wasn’t specifically writing about myself. Parts of it are, but everyone struggles with stuff. So I write about struggle and personal demons.

You have said that your previous album Soundtrack to the End came about almost by accident. Was there more of a feeling of intent behind Lions and Lambs?

Soundtrack to the End was definitely not something I expected. When I set out to put out Lions and Lambs, just knowing that people were listening affects the way you do something. For a long time, Soundtrack to the End was just a collection of songs that I had. I didn’t even have a band, and nobody cared. I was just a dude who’d say, “Hey, come listen to some songs I did in my basement.” There was more of an intent with Lions and Lambs to put it out there, so in a lot of ways it was a lot harder for me, knowing that people were going to listen and be thinking about what I was saying. And because I was newly sober, a lot of what I was going through was getting used to writing again and trusting myself. I struggled a lot with Lions and Lambs. I wasn’t comfortable with it pretty much at all. Now I’m looking forward to the second LP. We’re starting to go into the studio and I feel way better about things.

Lions and Lambs as a title has the metaphorical connotation, but there is also the Biblical sense. Are you a religious person?

I guess with getting sober, you kind of have to find a spiritual sense of where you are. I definitely started to struggle with the idea of finding a spiritual sense. I think a lot of people, especially at our age, don’t want to talk about that. I hate when people say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” I struggled with a lot of that stuff, and I think I’ve found comfort in finding some sort of spirituality and religion, and trusting something bigger than myself. The song “Ghosts” has some references to that. It’s funny to hear people who are just getting to know our band asking: “Are you guys going Christian?” [Laughs.] That’s not exactly what we’re doing, but I’m glad people can hear that I’m singing about real emotions in my music.

You’ve also said in a previous interview, “I’m always fighting the urge to play loud and bang drums. I will always want to be in a rock band.” What is it about rock music that makes you feel like you’re fighting the urge to get loud sometimes?

I guess there’s something happier about playing loud music, and what I want to say artistically is not loud, make-noise-kind-of-stuff. I mean, I still do. I don’t want to be too melancholy and put out some navel gazing stuff. But there’s something to be said about not hiding behind a lot of noise and frustration. With loud music, you can use anger to say things, but anger is based off of other stuff.

With anger, you’re not necessarily expressing what the root of a problem is.

Yeah, and when it comes down to it, it’s more comfortable for me to be loud or make music you just want to jump around to. Whereas playing less comfortable, when it works, I feel like it was more what I wanted to say.

–interview by Austin Duerst


Related Content:  Revolution Of Love: An Interview With The Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn

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