by Nick Spacek
What You Do For Money Honey takes us beyond the music and into the cubicles, behind the desks, and on top of what local musicians do to pay the bills.
Tom Johnson is a busy, busy man. He plays in three bands -- Yuca Roots, the Shop, and Son Venezuela -- in addition to his duties as general manager of KJHK 90.7FM and live music advisor for the University of Kansas' Student Union Activities. How does the man balance so many things?
While I'm not the best at balancing everything going on in my life on a weekly basis, I unabashedly enjoy all the jobs and activities I do...caring about everything in its own way is what makes me try to fit everything into a busy schedule, and respecting what I get out of different activities keeps things in line most of the time. I might also forcefully add that I have incredible support from the people around me. So the simplest answer to "How do you do it all?" is "I try to do what I care about, so I have to do it all."
KJHK has been a part of me way before I ever came to work for the station, so I treat it with a great deal of respect - it literally changed my entire life path early on. I remember when I was 14 years old, sitting in my first car listening to KJHK, and wondering what sort of contemporary or popular muscial success I could ever achieve as a fairly talented but dorky trombone player. All of a sudden, Chubby Smith Orchestra's "The Blues Don't Pay the Bills" came on, followed by (if I remember right) a fast ska track by MU330. It was a ska/big band revelation, and it hit me so hard that a single experience from KJHK played into the musical and philosophical parts of my life forever.
KJHK is really the first leg of the tripod of how I came to want to work in music, and I try to not forget that when I work for the station and its students; make it fun, realize the pace is frenetic, and that things go beyond your control sometimes (it took me a while to relax on that last notion when I came to KJHK, and I'd like to think I'm better at that now).
KJHK also introduced me to the entire murky exercise known as 'the music business', so that's undoubtedly helped me in my own process of making records, getting airplay, and setting up shows and tours, which of course applies to my current role as Live Music Advisor for Student Union Activities at KU.
In terms of my musical work ethic, I try to balance out my personal musical interests, and try to schedule them far enough in advance around each other. It doesn't leave very many free weekends, so I owe my wife Corey a huge amount of gratitude for playing along with my musical wanderlust and being supportive enough to come to shows (and most open practices) on a consistent basis.
Each of the bands I'm in offers something different for me. With The Shop, it's the best ska and rocksteady band in the world when it's really clicking, and I challenge anybody to dispute that when the band is on top of things. All the guys in that group have played together for over a decade, and it's just easy to make incredible stuff happen, no matter how many people are in the audience.
Yuca Roots offers a combination of Brazilian and other rhythms fused with modern arena reggae, and that band's just beginning to make some major strides...our New Year's gig in Saint Thomas opened our collective eyes to what the band can be in the right setting, and we're picking up a lot of momentum from that. It's something that's designed to be fun and has happened to be a great thing for everyone involved, and I straight up love all those guys for the enthusiasm and humor they bring to the group each week.
Son Venezuela rounds it out for me, because I get to stretch out on the horn rather than playing bass, and when that band's really getting it, it's a really powerful feeling to sit in the horn section.
Sometimes I get to compose or arrange music for other groups too, and that's sort of the out-of-body thing I like when I'm losing objectivity for the bands I'm actually in. I've been fortunate enough to have a steady outlet through many of Mike West's projects, and it's introduced me to an entire new stable of musicians both in Lawrence and around the world.
All the musical endeavors I participate in provide a lot of gratification for what I hear in my head, and I love all the people I get to work and play alongside. They also understand that I can't do just one thing, and they're extremely patient with my schedule and my sometimes manic approach to music making.
Other than that, my personal life is focused on having routine fun with my wife, my dog (down to one now, the smaller of the two has a new awesome family), and a core group of friends. Our friends are as close-knit as those mafia families you see poolside in the first third of most Scorcese movies...we do everything together, and of course many of them are bandmates as well, so even when I'm not making music with people we're still cooking together, having drinks, going to shows, even vacationing together. It's just another example of that even though there's diverse activities happening, you're still doing stuff with the people you care about.
So I've undoubtedly overloaded you with information on how I like to do things, and I've likely not gotten any more specific than my original idea; the concept is that you should try your best to find things you love doing, find the people you want to work with, keep some personal time to embrace routine and social life, and somehow try to link it all together. I wouldn't claim it to be the art of living per se, and the extent I get to pursue different interests certainly makes me a spoiled individual, but I've definitely found a way to balance all of my passions and get to do something different most days of the week.
Two of Johnson's bands -- Yuca Roots and the Shop -- play the Jackpot in Lawrence on Saturday, May 8. Come see the man pull double duty 'pon de reggae.