Salem in Aspen: Give the drummer some (and this drummer gives some back)

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesColorado rock band Salem, led by singer-drummer Todd Anders Johnson, top, along with guitarist Thomas Haupt and keyboardist Stephen Thurston, will record its show on Sunday, July 10 at Belly Up Aspen for a planned DVD/CD release.

ASPEN – Most everything about Todd Anders Johnson lines up quite neatly, as a left-leaning, environmentalist, socially engaged type. Johnson has done work with Bono’s One Campaign, an organization dedicated to fighting poverty, and has been affiliated with the Climate Project Canada. Not content to simply join other movements, in 2009, Johnson formed his own organization, the Risan Project, that links music and sporting events with alternative energy and sustainability efforts. While living in Seattle, in 2004, Johnson started his band, Salem, taking the name from the Hebrew “shalom” and the Arabic “salaam” – both of which translate as “peace.” Late in 2004, Johnson relocated from Seattle to another liberal, Western enclave – Boulder – before he heard the mountains calling and moved once again, this past fall, to Blue River, a few miles from Breckenridge. He is a former snowboard instructor – “Mostly to get the pass,” the 40-year-old Johnson said – and is certified as a wilderness first responder.

There is, however, one piece to Johnson that doesn’t fit in perfectly: He is a drummer, one of those guys who sits back in the darkest corner of the stage, likes to bang things, is more about volume and physicality than beauty and ideas, ornery and obstinate. Or so the stereotype has it.

“I’m sure it’s a bit nonmusical, self-centered,” Johnson said of the standard view of the drummer.

When Salem performs a free show on Sunday, July 10 at Belly Up, Johnson will be behind the drums, slightly hidden from view. But his ideas and his music will be front and center. Johnson is the songwriter, lead singer and bandleader of the group. When logistics permit, Johnson sets up toward the side of the stage, with the rest of the band arrayed in a horseshoe, the better for Johnson to connect with the audience, while still being in position to signal his bandmates. But Sunday’s show may not allow much flexibility. The performance is being recorded for future DVD and CD releases, and Johnson is thus presenting Salem in all its glory – an eight-piece ensemble that includes West African-born percussionist Fara Tolno; Johnson’s brother, vocalist Ryan Sterling; and a two-piece horn section. (In recent previous Belly Up appearances, opening for Public Enemy and Bomba Estereo, Salem was a quartet, built around Johnson, guitarist Thomas Haupt and bassist Zach Antonio.)

(Johnson gets to be a sideman when the Thomas Haupt Trio, a jazz combo with Antonio on bass, performs at noon on Saturday, July 9, at the Highlands Neighborhood Party, in Aspen Highlands Village.)

Johnson said that the typical drummer position, behind the rest of the band, is a good place to be for leading the group from one song to the next, through rhythm changes in a tune. “It’s great for when you’re going to lead into the next section,” he said. But for putting a personality to the music, it’s not a great place to be, so at some point in the show, Johnson usually emerges from his drum kit to strum a little guitar and let the audience see his face.

“It’s not ideal being back there behind the drums,” he said. “It would be nice to be up front and jam with the crowd a little more. A lot of times all people see of the drummer is the drum set and maybe some arms up in the air.”

Which leaves the drummer slightly less than totally engaged with the audience, especially relative to the typical lead singer. Johnson could list only a small handful of notable rock bands that have been led by the drummer: the Band, whose Levon Helm shared drumming and lead vocal duties; Genesis with Phil Collins. (Johnson also mentioned Blink-182, though their drummer, Travis Barker, was merely the best-known member, thanks to a starring turn in the reality show, “Meet the Barkers,” and not the lead singer.) Don Henley shared lead vocals in the Eagles; Ringo Starr was the singer in his All-Starr Band, and sang a few numbers with the Beatles.

“It’s certainly not a common thing,” Johnson said. “In the industry, to have a front person is important. Being behind the drums, with four limbs flying, it’s hard to connect with the audience.”

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As a kid, Johnson sang in chorus and played a bit of piano, but was always more attracted to the less genteel sounds he could make by hitting one thing against another. Among his favorite things to hit were boxes that held “Star Wars” toys. Far less satisfying was the drum pad – a small, quiet, ersatz percussion device that wary parents often give aspiring young drummers. “That didn’t do it for me. So I banged on boxes, a snare drum, borrowed gear, till I got a drum set” at age 12, while the family was living in St. Louis, he said.

As for why he was attracted to the drums, Johnson can’t say. His father played piano, his mother played accordion; perhaps he wanted to provide sonic contrast at home.

After studying regional development at the University of Washington, Johnson became something like a regular drummer – the kind that doesn’t aspire to write lyrics and compose melodies and get face-time with the audience. He drummed in a series of bands, including Tom Landa and the Paperboys, a folky Vancouver, B.C. group that earned several Juno Award nominations.

Johnson can pin down the moment he wanted to be something more than the drummer. Bellevue, Wash., radio station KBCS was holding its annual party at Seattle’s Town Hall; Johnson was scheduled to drum with two groups: Tashkent, which featured a bassist from Uzbekistan; and Forgotten Sol, a jazz/hip-hop group. Also on the bill were several people with activist tendencies: Amy Goodman, host of the activist radio show “Democracy Now!” singers Michael Franti and Ani DiFranco. Johnson had already been doing work on fair trade issues, and had written a song, “Saragua,” that touched on the issue of war and oil in Nigeria. Self-expression was in the air, and Johnson saw it was time to make his voice heard more clearly.

“It all came together for me: I’ve got these songs, these lyrics, these messages I wanted to share,” said Johnson, who released the 2009 album “As It Is Above, So It Is Below” under the Salem name. “Just drumming for someone else was leaving me feeling vacant. I decided I needed Salem to be my main project. My studies and interest in social change, the environment, musical arts – this was a way to do it.”

Johnson has used Salem as a tool toward those ends. He has played events for the Nantucket Land Council; at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, where Salem was on a bill with reggae singer Pato Banton, and he persuaded the venue to add a noted climatologist to the bill. This past March, when Johnson played the annual Blitzenbanger party at Aspen Highlands, the music was powered by a solar roller – a portable device that produces energy from sunlight. Johnson is a frequent visitor to Alaska. He plays music at heli-ski lodges and at skiing and snowboard competitions. When he travels later this month to the Gulkana Glacier, in central Alaska, it will be to gather field data on changes in the geography, so he can use his own data when he makes presentations.

If Johnson, then, is not the classic rock drummer, it might start with the fact that he doesn’t play classic rock drums. He plays, and sings, with rock ‘n’ roll force. But Salem’s music is tinged with funk and jazz; the three core members of Salem beside Johnson – guitarist Haupt, bassist Antonio and keyboardist Stephen Thurston – are all students at university music programs on the Front Range. For Johnson, that begins to put a lot of distance between himself and, say, Led Zeppelin’s John Henry Bonham, who choked to death on his own vomit after a rock star-type drinking binge; or the Who’s Keith Moon, who O.D.’d on pills he took to combat alcohol withdrawal symptoms. His primary influences tend to be songwriters with a message – Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone – rather than drummers. (He also professes much respect for drummers who sing: Sheila E, the Dave Matthews Band’s Carter Beauford.)

“I think the image of classic rock drummers is these irresponsible partiers,” Johnson said. “But when it comes to the music I’m interested in – neo-soul, anything jazz-oriented, hip-hop – you have to be a student of music. It doesn’t involve that stereotype.”