by Jeni Blue
Ryan “Tater” Johnson, guitarist, song writer and background screamer for the band 10 Years teaches us a thing or two about life from his experience in the music industry. I met up with Tater backstage at Vinyl at the Hard Rock Café Las Vegas while on his tour for “From Birth to Burial,” and we talked about his musical influences, the death of the CD and how fans are an important part of his inspiration and artistry.
Jeni Blue: Who did you learn from musically, whether famous or not?
Ryan “Tater” Johnson: I taught myself. My mother was a single parent, and she didn’t have any money. She supported me and my younger sister, and I used to have to ride my sister’s hot pink bicycle — because mine was stolen — down to the gas station with a pen and paper. I would write down the guitar tablature from books and magazines and then go home and try to learn them on guitar. I didn’t have the money to get books on how to learn to play guitar, so I had to write it all down. I still have all those notes. I kept them. I actually gave some of them to my wonderful wife Rachel, for Valentine’s Day.
Which famous musicians do you admire?
Jimi Hendrix would definitely be up there, along with Kurt Cobain, Omar Rodriguez and Mars Volta. When I started out, I played Green Day songs, Rancid, Offspring, punk rock — I really loved punk rock. Offspring was the first concert I saw that changed my life when I was 13. I knew I would be a stage-right guitar player, because I wanted to be Lars Frederiksen from Rancid. I actually still have the ticket from that show. It was 1994. I got it signed by Offspring when we did a festival with them later, and I have a picture with Noodles the guitar player, who also inspired me.
My admiration has changed over the years. It has varied from blues artists like BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, moving into more progressive music like Mars Volta or Frank Zappa. My music favorites are pretty much all over the place.
Do you write your music as a team, or do you have a designated writer?
When we started out, we all wrote together. After that, we split up and would write individually. There were definitely power and creative control struggles and arguments. You know, brothers fight, and we fought plenty. The only guys left from that original line-up are me and vocalist Jesse Hasek.
We write with Brian Vodinh our old drummer, who was the drummer, because nobody could play the drums. He’s actually a rippin’ guitar player. He’s a Dave Grohl type of dude; he can play anything he puts his hands on, so he’s producing and wrote a lot on the record (“From Birth to Burial”). I wrote a handful of stuff on the record, too. It was fun, because everybody’s heads were clear, and we hadn’t been on the road together. It’s easier to become friends with a band member who you do not constantly tour with. We have a real interesting open-door policy, where some of the old guys who were in the band from Knoxville played a New Year’s Eve show with us. We all get along, we all love each other, and we’re happy that the band is still going. We are doing a 10 Years fan summit in Atlanta on March 7th. Basically, we’ll hang out and have a celebration of what this band has been able to do and still be around. The old guys will be there, the new guys, the touring guys.
Do you ever get nervous before shows and how do you handle the pressure?
Johnson: Absolutely! I used to drink a lot. Now, I don’t drink at all before I play, because there’s a certain endorphin release that you get. It’s like running — when you get to that third or fourth mile — boy, it’s like your brain just kind of goes high as a kite, and when you are drinking, you can’t really get there, and it’s just not good. I will have some drinks afterward, however.
I thought I was having a nervous breakdown the first time I had to go up and play without having a drink, that hour before … we were actually in Nashville, where I’m from, and I was so nervous, but then I got up there, and this was after years and years of drinking before shows, because you’re nervous, so you drink, and you want to do good.
If you don’t get nervous before you play, then you don’t care, as far as I’m concerned. You want every show to be the best show. These people paid money to see you play and give you support, and we’ve been lucky enough to do this for a decade, so you want to make sure you blow their heads off, and they want to come back and buy a shirt, and bring their friends. I think that’s why I have been able to do it, because we have toured ourselves into the ground, and we’ve lost money on tours, have been mismanaged in the past — we have really had to fight through the muck and mud of the music business to still be around and be doing a successful tour.
This tour has been our most successful one yet, to quote AC/DC, “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock ’n’ roll.” You can be one of those jingle bands that has the big hits, but me and Jesse our singer are big into being artists, not just being jingle writers. We are trying to wear our influences from the Deftones, Nirvana and Tool. He likes Bjork. I’m more into heavier music, but I like Radiohead, too.
How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard you before?
It’s very moody, energetic … There’s not one genre. We are always open to try anything new. I don’t think we are grunge. We are more alternative metal, but we are not like a metal band. We play like a punk band. We are really like the Deftones or Rage Against the Machine.
Our friends Nothing More are another amazing band that’s blowing up; I hope we get to tour with them. They are just an amazing influence on us. We played shows with them, before they got signed. They are a band to watch for sure!
How did you come up with the band’s name?
I didn’t want anybody to know what it meant. Yeah, that was my big thing, so we tell people it was a song. But the real meaning, to this day will remain a mystery. I don’t want what it’s about to be glorified, in this world where everyone is into instant gratification. We will just keep this one to ourselves.
Do you have any crazy fan experiences?
Most of our fans are pretty nice. I’m a pretty good judge, and I’ll check somebody if he or she crosses the line. I am more than happy to let someone know — not in a mean way, if I have to, but just because you like our band, doesn’t give you the right to be overly … whatever.
I have had some people just grab me and start crying, and I almost start crying! They have these connections to that certain song that me and my buddies from Tennessee wrote, and it’s powerful! People write on my Facebook and say “thank you for this song or that song.”
Do you have any fans comment on how your music has affected them?
Yeah, all the time. There’s loonies and everything, too, but most people have a pretty genuine heart. Yet this generation of people is a little more “entitled” than in previous generations … That’s the way I look at it.
What advice do you have for the youth of today, musically or otherwise?
Oh man, I don’t know … I got so much flack over going after illegal downloaders. We have a thing called the 10 Years Association, and people would send in a dollar and get a song. But everyone got so mad at me, asking “how dare you ask for a dollar for a song!” People were telling me they couldn’t afford it, yet they would go to Starbucks and spend $6 on a cup of coffee. I get it, I understand, I have stolen music before.
I don’t anymore, because the industry is dying, and it’s unfortunate because the new bands will probably never make it past their home town, and I think there are so many good bands that couldn’t make it.
We were lucky we got in as the hump was happening. Our first record we sold like five hundred thousand! We have way more fans now, but we can’t even give away CDs anymore, and that was how musicians and the record companies made money. Everyone thinks they know so much about everything, but unless you have been signed to major label, you have no idea. The entitled generation sits at home thinking you’re a rich, millionaire rock star. How am I a rich, millionaire rock star, when you haven’t bought anything? It doesn’t make any sense.
So what you’re saying is that touring is where the income comes from?
Touring is what makes us money, but as you can see, it’s a big thing. We pay the people working with us. We pay for the buses, and we could travel in a van, but I wouldn’t last three days in a van. I’d tell them I’m going home; I’ll go back and makes pizzas for a living. We did that for the first year when we were hungry, and now we’re old (laughs), and we don’t get hotel rooms every day. We don’t waste money by any means, but touring is expensive — the driver, the bus, rentals, gas, to get you where you are going. When you make it to the next level, it’s easier to be able to tour. I know a handful of bands so spoiled on tours that they just tour to pay for touring, if that makes sense. It’s like you aren’t even taking any money home.
We were horribly mismanaged in the beginning, and we are on our third manager now. Basically, the tour is a huge funnel of people with their hands out. Good people like our road crew are worth every penny. Some of these scumbags, pieces of shit management that are stealing money … that’s another story. It’s the same old song and dance for most bands, because most artists don’t care to look at the record contract. They consider do I want to keep making pizzas at Papa John’s, or do I want to go make a record in Los Angeles? They sign it. It doesn’t matter what it says in there. The labels take advantage of that for sure.
As an artist, is there anything you would like to accomplish?
Just to keep going. In my opinion, we have accomplished so much, and I’m grateful for all of it, especially the day I got to call my mom and tell her, “Mom, I won’t have to make pizzas anymore. We’re going to LA, and we’re doing an album!” It was great.
You keep referring to making pizza, is that something you actually did?
Oh yeah, I was an assistant manager at Papa John’s. I’m still very close with a lot of people who work there. It was a franchise, but it was good group of people to work for. That job bought a lot of guitars, amps, strings, picks and flyers, because back then you had to make flyers and hand them out yourself. You couldn’t just send out a Facebook invite. It was old school.
Do any of you have any other talents or hobbies?
I enjoy abstract painting, and Jesse our singer is an amazing artist. He sculpts, paints and draws. We all have kids now who take up a lot of our time, though.
So how do you balance your personal life with your career?
It‘s just tough. That’s the thing about technology: it’s a blessing and a curse. I can FaceTime and talk to my family. We try to talk every day. My wife Rachel is a strong woman, because basically when we are gone, she is the single parent. Our partners all have to get the kids up, get them fed and get them dressed for school.
What is your favorite song to perform and why?
Right now, it’s the title track off the new album “From Birth to Burial.” That was the first song Brian and I wrote on an even level with an understanding and being friends again. We were always friends, but, he doesn’t tour anymore, and we still wanted to work together, because he is a musical genius and for the direction of this album. I came in with a riff, and he hit this note, it’s a tri-tone, we call it the devil’s note — it’s actually a really uncomfortable note. We just started laughing, and he told me to “find that note,” because he hit it on the piano.
He and I started 10 Years in 1998. That was even before Jesse was in it. Brian and I have been playing music together and can literally speak our own language the entire time, so it makes the process super fast. In two weeks, we basically wrote the record. Jesse’s process is the slowest process in any music I have ever seen. Although at the end of it, I am always impressed at how serious he takes it, and how he is always trying to be better than the last time. He is always on point. It takes him six months to write the lyrics. He tries every single thing that he can imagine, and he is all about the lyrics. He wants whatever he is talking about to be heard. Brian and Jesse are both super talented guys, and then we have our touring guys who come on the road with us, who we love to death, but we don’t need to write with them. Brian and I could write a record every month if we wanted to.
If you could perform with anyone alive or dead, who would it be and why?
I had a dream one night that I was standing on a side stage at a Nirvana concert. We were all really drunk, and Kurt fell off the stage, and it was a lot of fun. When I woke up, I had that split second where you’re thinking it was real, and then you say “aw, man.”
I don’t know, I would love to go play a song with Rancid or Offspring or any of those bands that I listened to when I was a kid. I actually got to do that in a way. I got to play a song with the Deftones in Knoxville at the same venue that I saw my first show when I was 13 or 14 years old. I got to play Chino’s guitar. I also got to meet those guys over in Germany. We did the “Family Values” tour together. We had a similar interests We just hung out all the time. They were cool.
Are you called Tater, because there are two Ryans in the band?
No, it’s an old nickname. I thought it was so stupid when I was a kid, but then I got older. There was the guitar player Noodles, and then Slash. All these guys had nicknames you remember. Any band you ever met, the first guy you remember is the one with the nickname. It’s crazy when you are walking around the corner and Dean Deleo from Stone Temple Pilots chants “Tater, Tater.” I’m thinking to myself, “Man, be cool, be cool. This is crazy!”
How do you turn a negative into a positive?
I don’t know that I do (laughs). I think my wife has helped me learn a lot about that. We were in a horrible bus wreck; we got hit by a semi truck once. We were on our way to do our last show before going home. This truck hit the back of us. The driver had fallen asleep. We were going 40 mph, and the semi was going about 70 mph. He hit the trailer so hard, it knocked us clear over to the other side of the interstate. It crushed our gear. It rattled us all up pretty good, knocked our drummer Kyle out! With all that going on, my wife Rachel who was out on tour with us says, “Well, I’m just glad it was us and not some poor mom or dad going to work.” So I think she’s taught me a lot about that kind of stuff, because before I wouldn’t think like that.
I work well off of negative energy; I have always worked well off of anger. I think it’s gotten me where I am (laughs). You play music from a spot, especially the way I play guitar. It’s hard, because I do the screaming for the band. It comes from anger and hate, and things that really fueled my fire to play music, but it’s a release. It always makes me feel so much better. It’s still a daily thing, but now, with kids, you start to learn to pick your battles. It’s all just a learning experience. I mean I’m 35 now, and I was like 23 or 24 when we started and were signed. We were babies! We’d never been away from home, let alone LA. Now, I have seen more of the world than my parents ever got to see. I can’t believe I get to travel this much. It was never a passion of mine. My wife loves to travel. I clearly don’t. I like to sit at home and watch my TV and lay in my bed.
If you had to pick a slogan for your band what would it be?
I don’t know … 10 beers (laughs). Or long live rock and roll.
Three last questions for you. Fill in the blanks. One: Without music I would be …
My music makes me feel …
I think the meaning of life is …