At first glance, Gin Blossoms guitarist Scotty Johnson, known mostly for his six-string chops, may seem an unlikely choice to host a singer/songwriter night Mondays at the Yucca Tap Room.
But, in a way, the popular open-mic night at the Tempe bar — where Johnson not only backs up the many solo performers, but also plays his own material — is bringing Johnson's long and storied Tempe music career full circle.
Back in the 1980s, Johnson fronted one of Tempe's premier power pop bands, The Squares. Now, for the first time in nearly two decades, Johnson again is singing on stage.
After years of being known to a generation of local music fans as arguably the tastiest guitar slinger in town — playing Americana rock and country twang during a two-album stint with Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers and laying down jangly rock with the Gin Blossoms, the most successful band to ever come out of Arizona — Johnson has found an outlet and the confidence to play his original music.
“My mother passed away two years ago, and it just kind of changes your perspective on life,” Johnson says of the impetus to form his own side project. “I realized that I was just letting it slip away, and I had all these piles and piles of songs.”
BUILDING A SCENE
The Squares, fueled by Johnson's catchy songs, were a tight, intricate trio of musicians who found critical acclaim for their crisp power pop, a genre that in the 1980s spawned such legendary local bands as The Psalms (with Blossoms founding members Doug Hopkins and Bill Leen), Jagged Rocks on the Perimeter, Rabid Rabbit, Fourth Generation Rain and the early Gin Blossoms with Jesse Valenzuela on vocals and Robin Wilson on rhythm guitar.
The Squares disbanded in 1989 and Johnson, whose first professional gig was playing country music with his brother at the Pointe South Mountain Resort in the early ’80s, next joined The Feedbags, led by singer/songwriter Jim Swafford, in the early ’90s.
The Feedbags scored several high-profile shows with the Gin Blossoms (who by then had Wilson on vocals and Valenzuela on guitar), and Swafford co-wrote the Blossoms’ tune “Mrs. Rita” with Valenzuela.
Johnson found himself forgoing singing and songwriting with The Feedbags, intent on infusing Swafford's fine originals with tasty guitar work. The Feedbags became a top draw on the burgeoning Tempe music scene, along with the Blossoms, Dead Hot Workshop and Live Nudes (a Mark and Lawrence Zubia collaboration pre-dating The Pistoleros).
REPLACING A LEGEND
In early 1992, when the Gin Blossoms were recording their now-classic A&M debut, “New Miserable Experience,” founding member and main songwriter Doug Hopkins’ alcoholism forced the band to make a change on guitar. After a short, frenetic period during which wild rumors circulated on the Tempe scene about who the band would replace Hopkins with, they chose Johnson.
Replacing Hopkins, whose menacing stage presence and gorgeous, melodic songwriting were the Blossoms’ building blocks, was a difficult prospect, especially after Hopkins killed himself in December 1993.
Thirteen years later, Johnson is philosophical about filling Hopkins' size-13 boots.
“This is how I looked at it: If Doug would have sobered up, I would have been out of a job,” Johnson says. “At the time, it was before the suicide, so it was different. They had a new album out and were going on tour and they needed a guitar player. It was a huge door opening, a huge opportunity, and it was either going to be me or somebody else.
“I was just lucky enough to get the offer and smart enough to say ‘yes’ to it. Then, once I got in the band, I realized they were really hurting from having to kick out their best friend who was this extremely talented, talented guy, and they just needed a dose of somebody being a bandmate, somebody who just wants to play guitar.”
MAKING THE BIG-TIME
Johnson saw his life change dramatically, going from playing in front of 100 people at Long Wong's to touring the States and Europe with one of the hottest bands of the ’90s. He recorded the Gin Blossoms’ follow-up disc to “New Miserable Experience” — the 1.5 million-selling “Congratulations, I'm Sorry” in 1996 — and enduring the band's break-up in 1997.
Despite the band's chaotic touring schedule, Johnson found time to write his own songs on the road.
“It's what I always did,” Johnson says of singing and songwriting. “But when a band has a record deal and says, ‘We need you to play guitar,’ and they have a brand new record — and, of course, like everyone else, when I first heard rough mixes (of Gin Blossoms debut record ‘New Miserable Experience'), it was pretty obvious it was amazing — so I kind of turned into a guitar player with the GB's, but I never stopped writing.”
ALWAYS WRITING SONGS
After the Gin Blossoms’ split, Johnson fell in with a post-Refreshments Clyne, who was getting back on his feet musically after his band fell apart, and began playing happy hours at Long Wong's.
Clyne's new band took shape with Johnson and ex-Dead Hot Workshop guitarist Steve Larson bracketing a rhythm section of drummer P.H. Naffah and bassist Danny White.
Suddenly, Johnson was back in a nationally touring band. But he never stopped writing originals that he hoped to one day play in front of an audience.
“As a writer, not everything you write is appropriate for the band you're in. I didn't want to sing these songs — I always thought that I could get someone else to do it.
‘‘But we learn as songwriters that that never works that way — nobody wants to sing your songs,” Johnson says with a laugh. “So I just wrote songs, and some are more R&B-oriented or jazz than the bands I was in.”
BACK ON STAGE
Johnson left The Peacemakers when the Gin Blossoms re-formedreformed in 2002, and the band is currently busy playing shows and working on the long-awaited follow-up to “Congratulations, I'm Sorry.”
But Johnson is using the down time to play his own material. Since January, Johnson and bass player Troy Dixon (joined sometimes by the Peacemakers’ Naffah to form an electric trio) have been gigging around the Valley as Scotty and Troy.
And, of course, there's his weekly singer/songwriter night.
“I am surprised at how many talented singer/songwriters there are in town,” Johnson says. “There are some real professionals who show up.”
While Johnson may chuckle humbly and exclude himself from that list, he is proving with each gig that he belongs among them.