Ron Jarzombek interview with Matt Johnsen

1. When did you start playing guitar? Have you always wanted to be a heavy metal guitarist?

My first musical instrument was piano. I started that in 3rd grade. I switched to guitar two years later because my friends at school said that guitar was cooler that piano. I don't know if I wanted to be a heavy metal guitarist, but music was definitely in the picture. When Bobby and I were kids, we used to take those bed rails (that keep kids from falling out of the bed) and stick them under the mattress so that the spokes were sticking out like microphones stands. We were Beatles freaks and we would pretend like we were Lennon and McCartney, doing harmonies and shit. I bet it sounded like crap. My first grade religion teacher told me to draw a picture of Mary (who was a sinner), and I thought she said Mary the "singer". I drew this lady with a microphone in her hand. My teacher got mad at me. I guess that was some kind of indication that music was going to be in my life.

2. Your first band was SA Slayer, right? How did you get involved with that band? Did they break up before you joined Watchtower or did they just disappear after you left?

My brothers and I had a little local band going when we were in high school, and we used to gig with Bob Catlin who was in another band that was always playing the same clubs that we did. Bob and I had always had the same guitar and band influences. Years later Bob formed (S. A.) Slayer with Don Van Stavern (bass) and Dave McClain (drums). Their had problems with their lead guitarist, Bob called me up, and I just popped in the band. Dave is now playing with Machine Head. Don is in a band called PitBull Day Care. S. A. Slayer split up when Mark Reale from Riot came into San Antonio, and asked Don and Dave to form Narita. They got that going and about a year later, it fell apart. I think by that time, I had joined WatchTower.

3. Did you play on Watchtower's '87 demo (the one with Plastic Lasagne?) How long was it after you joined before Jason McMasters left?

Yeah, that was originally supposed to be just a recording that was sent to a label in California. We recorded that on a 4 track, along with "The Fall Of Reason". Plastic Lasagna was the working title for "Hidden Instincts", which appeared on "Control And Resistance". The working title for "Mayday In Kiev" was "The Tinkle Machine". Jason and I were in WatchTower together for a few years, I don't really remember.

4. Is Jason McMaster's the singer on the last song of your Ants on my Windshield demo? (If he was ) Was that recorded before or after you joined Watchtower? If before, how did it come about?

"Ants On My Windshield" was never a demo. Probably someone got a hold of it, and did the tape trading thing, and wrote "demo" on it. I just recorded that for fun. I spent over a year on that stupid song. It was a story about me driving home from a date and ants are on top of my car, and they attack me as I'm driving home. Who knows where I got that story from. I don't remember being drunk or anything. Maybe somebody wacked me on the head. I'm not sure which "last song" you are referring to, maybe "Hammer At The Ready"? Jason did that a year before I joined Tower. The sound quality on those recordings is awful. Bobby and I were just goofing off with some ideas, and we called the project "Happy Kitties". We only did two songs. "Hammer" and "In Mind" (Mike Grotheus did the vocals on that one).

5. Is it true that you were a candidate to replace Victor Arduini in Fates Warning? How did you come to know them? Are you still in touch with Jim Matheos?

Very true. I found out that Fates was looking for a guitarist through a photographer friend of mine. I called up Jim and sent him some tapes. At that time, I was having hard time trying to find money to fly up to Connecticut to audition, and I think my amp was blown up or something. As it turned out, Frank Aresti fit in very well with Fates. They played in San Antonio years ago, and I met them and it was very cool. Frank was hilarious, looking at all the chicks and shit over here. Jason (McMaster) and I had to settle him down. I ran into Jim again last year when Fates toured with Dream Theater. I gave Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater drummer) and Jim an Ink tape, and that was the last I heard from either of them.

6. Was most of the songwriting for Control and Resistance done before you joined the band? How much did the existing Watchtower work influence your playing? There isn't really an obvious difference on C&R between the songs you co-wrote and the songs Billy White co-wrote, and a lot of that sound carried over into Watchtower.

They wrote five songs before I joined the band. The last one "Cathode Ray Window" was dropped because it needed a bad rearrangement. It has cool parts but it was a mess. Billy White (ex-Tower guitarist) influenced me a lot since I learned his parts. I'm not sure if we intentionally wrote the rest of the songs to fit in with the others, they just came out that way. At first I didn't want to join Tower because, to me, Billy was WatchTower, and I felt unfortable trying to fill his shoes. I took me about two years before I settled with it. Billy is a smoking guitarist. I don't know where he's headed now, but back then, he flat out smoked.

7. You have said before that Watchtower was in a limbo state. Has there been any recent developments on that front, or can we consider Watchtower to be gone forever?

Not in limbo anymore. Rick and Doug came to San Antonio with their band RETARTED ELF. I brought up the idea of finishing up Mathematics". I told them that the Ink CD was taking off, getting extrememly favorable response, and I was getting non-stop email from Tower fans. Before, WatchTower never could find a vocalist after Alan left. Jason McMaster has always been in the picture but he was too busy (and signed) with DANGEROUS TOYS. I also noticed a lack of drive and motivation during the last months that Doug, Rick and I were writing songs. I didn't care for the musical direction that we were going in. Right now, we are in the middle of figuring out which songs to keep, work on, and drop. We have over an hour's worth of material written, but no lyrics. I hope it happens. Jason is very into doing it.

8. Was Spastic Ink originally conceived as a Watchtower side project, or did you put it together after Watchtower faded away?

SPASTIC INK started up when WatchTower was getting lost with its musical direction. After Bobby and I got "Mosquito" going, WatchTower became the side project. I had always done recordings on my own on 4 track when something didn't work with WatchTower. This time I thought it would be cool to see what Bobby would do with some tunes. Tower and Ink were probably both writing simultaneously for several months.

9. Why did it take so long for Ink Complete to be released? These songs have all been recorded for some years now, right?

Probably about two years. That whole thing was very frustrating. We sent out a hundred tapes or so, and got maybe five replies. I got sick of hearing "Yeah, this is cool shit, but where is the singer?" and "We can't do anything with this, it's a bit too off the wall". We knew people dug it, but we didn't know how to get it out there. At that time, I wasn't on the net, and was very limited. Now I can get in contact with anyone in any country. I wish I would have been on the net before Dream Circle came into the picture, so we wouldn't have to keep bugging them to get things done. We could have done everything ourselves. Now that the CD is out there, I am getting distributors all over the country emailing me, asking if they can carry the CD. I don't know what would happen if I was actually trying to get distributors. I'm thinking that if Ink gets out a second CD, or Tower gets "Mathematics" out, there won't be any outside label involved. We'll have to see when we get to that point.

10. Has Spastic Ink ever performed live?

No. We were supposed to open up for Yngwie here at a club, but he cancelled the tour. That was the only time the question of a gig came up. Bobby, Pete and I were all fired up after we recorded the tunes and started shopping it, and just ran into a wall with labels. Everybody just continued doing what they were doing before, and that's where we are at right now. Bobby and Pete are gigging with bands in town, and doing occasions studio work with RIOT. I am still teaching music 6 days a week and working on Tower and computer stuff. If there is a tour that comes up, great, but we are not going to stop our jobs and go broke touring like I did with "Control".

11. Are there any plans for a second Spastic Ink record or will Ink Complete remain the sum of that band's output? (If so ) Have you begun composing? Will the lineup be the same? Do you have any intention of working with a singer?

Hopefully, Ink will record another CD. I would love to write with Bobby again. I never knew a drummer was capable of writing like that. I am tempted to say that there could be a vocalist on the next possible recording, but the whole purpose of Ink was to go full force instrumentally, and not have to back off for vocals. It would be easier to market, but it's kind of defeating the purpose. As far as the lineup, Bobby would have to be there because he wrote so much. Pete basically just played parts that were written. He did a phenomenal job writing his solos and spicing up sections on "Squeakie" and "Hare". Pete is one of those guys that doesn't really write, but can play anything that you put in front of him.

12. Have you ever considered recording a solo album?

Oh yeah. I'm in the middle of that. I am trying to write a full CD of progressive Ink type metal, mixed in with filmscore and cartoon music. Some of the songs sound like "Data Race" meets "Edward Scissorhands". Some are just cartoons. I plan on having Jason McMaster do the vocals on it.

13. When you recorded all of the songs on Ink Complete on a 4-track, were you planning to release them, or were they originally demos? Was there ever the plan of rerecording the music in a proper studio? And how did you get such a thick sound out of a four track, especially with so many layers and overdubs?

We first wrote and recorded "178", "Suspended", "Hare" and Mosquito" on 4 track just to see where we were going. A few copies of that got out somehow (I would assume from tape trading), and we received extremely favorable response. Several months later, we wrote and recorded seven more tunes. We had a full cassette version of the CD, but we called it "Preview" because we were planning on rerecording everything in a real recording studio. We were hoping to get an advance to properly record it, but that never happened. I spent nearly six months transferring the existing cassette 4 tracks onto an ADAT digital 8 track, cleaning everything up, reEQing, rerecording tracks that were chewed up on the master cassette tapes, and adding parts on tracks 5-8 that I couldn't record on the 4 track because I only had two tracks for guitars. After all of the rerecording, I remixed everything and burned the master CD.

14. Do you generally write music on guitar or on paper?

If something is complicated, I usually write it out. I make up most of my stuff without a guitar or sheet music. I get a lot of rhythmic ideas while driving, taking a shower, watching a football game, etc.. I have pretty good pitch so I can just figure out what is playing in my head. Sometimes I just sit there with pencil and paper and just play around with pattern of notes, morse code, chromatic alphabet, phone numbers, and assign notes and time signatures. Some of the solos on "Ink Complete" change keys quite often and it's something that I want to keep track of. The "178" solo changes key every 2 counts. I also write notes on paper when working out harmonies.

15. When you write with Bobby, does he generally have a good idea of what you want the drums to be doing, or do you tell him what to play, or do you have some other method? Does he write music? I noticed Pete wasn't credited with any songwriting: did you write his basslines and solos?

A few of the songs I wrote the drum parts on a drum machine and gave Bobby an idea of how I wanted the groove. Most of the stuff was mixed. "Mosquito" for example has some sections that Bobby wrote first on drums, then I wrote a melodic part over it. "Data Race" went back and forth from the very first theme that was written. "178" was originally a minute and a half drum part that Bobby wrote. He came up with the main theme and the end, and handed it to me. He then took off to New York for some RIOT recording and when he came back a week later, I had a 4 and a half minute song completed, with verses, breaks and solo sections. It's cool listening back to that one, because you can't even tell that it was written that way. The melody of "Baking Shuffle" was written by Bobby, sort of. He just wrote out how high and low he wanted the notes to go, not really putting an actual pitch to a note. I then took what he wrote out, and put it in a key. He did a bit of that on "Mosquito". Pete wrote every note of his solos. I wrote the guitar and bass parts to work off of each other, so changing the bass part would have caused problems.

16. When writing songs like "Suspended on All Fours", do you generally come up with the musical concept first or do you recognize patterns in music you've written and then exploit these patterns? Which comes first : the music theory or the musical idea?

Very good question, Matt. "Suspended" was a twelve tone thing that I just worked out on paper, crossing out notes. I wrote out all the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, and noticed that you can construct four suspended chords a minor third apart, using all of the 12 notes, none left out, none repeated. I put a time signature over the four chords, and came up with the rhythmic melody while watching TV, driving or something. I gave Bobby rough idea of where I wanted the snare on different sections, and he wrote a couple of grooves over it and we had a little tune.

17. "A Wild Hare" was originally (as a demo) called as "The Thumper Impersonation" and included movement titles. Did you ever try to use that title officially or did you decide that dealing with Disney would be more trouble than it's worth?

That was all Disney. The chick that gave me the mechanical license for that was just flat out stupid. She said that nobody had ever done a remake of a Disney tune. I went to a record store and found over 50 recordings of "Some Day My Prince Will Come" from Cinderella. I just played by her rules and had to change the title. We couldn't use the words "Thumper" or "Bambi" anywhere on the CD. I had all of the sections in the song broken down. The last section "Twitterpated" was even copyrighted. I spent so much time working on the song and didn't want to drop it, so I just played along. For a while she said we couldn't even use the illustration. She said it looked too much like Thumper. At the last minute, she showed it to another girl in her office and she said it didn't look enough like Thumper since in our drawing he has a leather jacket on, so then we could use it. It was ridiculous.

18. You designed the official Spastic Ink webpage yourself : what do you think of the Internet in general and it's affect on the metal scene in general? Do you get a lot of response from the webpage?

I though it was important to have a cool web page. When I first got on the net, I checked out other bands sites and it seemed like a great opportunity to reach more people. I stayed up till 4 am for about a week and a half learning HTML coding and wrote the page. Being familiar with computer programming, it was just following commands. I used to get pissed at all of the internet people and ads because it's one of those things to where some loser will do it just to say he is "on the net" so I was avoiding getting online. I have gotten totally into computers over the last few years and thought that maybe I was missing out on something, so I gave it a shot and realized that I should have done it sooner. To all the obscure metal bands out there trying to get exposure or a CD out there. You really need to take some time out and get a web page going. I get email from Japan, Norway, Holland, Germany, Spain, Australia, everywhere.

19. Do you use your computer to compose music?

Yes. It's cool, but very time consuming. If I make up a tune in my head, I can usually pick up my guitar and play it. With computer, you have to add accents, duration, and a lot of techniques that are just naturally done on guitar that require no time at all, you just play it. You also have to select the appropriate instrument to play the part. Also, my hand gets very tired pressing and clicking on a mouse for hours.

20. You've told me before that you might collaborate with experimental musician / composer David Bagsby. Any developments there?

Yes. I am doing a remake of "Celebration on the Planet Mars". It's a progressive metal version of the tune. I just finished writing additional rhythmic patterns for it. I still need to practice it and record it. On some sections I'm tuning down to Bb. I'm syncopating the shit out of it. I hope the Bagsby CD happens, because I am digging what I'm doing with the song. Dave Bagsby is a nut. He once put out a full CD with musical interpretations of bird noises.

21. As a guitar instructor, do you get many students who want to learn metal or specifically Watchtower tunes and other stuff you've recorded?

Not really, they just want to learn Bush, and Nirvana. I end up showing them crappy songs with power chords, and try to brain wash them into listening to something else where there are actual guitarists in the bands. I have converted quite a few of them. For the students who have brains, I use a lot of the Ink music to explain time signature changes, key changes, and other theory concepts.

22. What bands do you like right now? What are a few of your favorite records, or records that have especially influenced you?

Any Rush album before Power Windows. Just about every Yes or UK album. I use to like Metallica but they lost it with Load. Puppets is great. I really like Dream Theater, but I guess everybody says that now.

23. Do you ever get offers to play in less experimental bands? Something a little more straight forward? I mean, although the market for metal is really bad now, even if it was really strong, a band like Spastic Ink would have limited appeal. Can you only be satisfied making esoteric music?

No, I haven't got any offers to play in any straight-forward band. I'm just not into it. I would have a hard time getting motivated for that. I can't imagine doing anything that isn't progressive. Getting a gig scoring cartoons or films would be cool. If anyone thinks that Bugs Bunny isn't progressive, tape an episode of Sylvester and Tweety scored by Carl Stalling, and try to figure it out!

24. What's Bobby been up to since Riot? Planning a Juggernaut reunion? Is Pete still with Riot?

Bobby still does studio work for RIOT, but he is not in the band anymore. He steadily gigs with local bands, and teaches. He hasn't mentioned Juggernaut in ten years. Pete is still with RIOT.

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