(with jesse malin)
mercury lounge, nyc
june 24 2004
photograph by kristin angelique
I really love it when people tell me "I want this part to sound like lying in a field with the clouds rushing past you and then a train passes behind you and it starts to rain . . ." So I visualize this and my fingers just move. I don't think when I write - it just comes out - and the first thing is usually the best feel for the song. - Johnny Pisano
When Johnny was playing with The Intruders, Marky Ramone wanted him to change his name to Johnny "Fingers" Pisano. The legendary drummer had never played with a bassist who could keep up with him using his fingers. Since Johnny uses three fingers - he was not only lightning fast - he was kicking ass.
With punk roots and a universal love of music, Johnny Pisano can play any kind of bass lines you need. In addition to his best-known work, with legendary fellow New York rockers Marky Ramone and Jesse Malin, Johnny's often invited - into the studio and onto the stage - to play bass for a diversity of excellent artists, including Bree Sharp, Don Dilego and Ryan Adams.
I first saw Johnny Pisano play with Jesse Malin at Dante's April 2003, in Portland Oregon on their tour for Jesse's debut solo album, The Fine Art of Self Destruction. Johnny, both live and on record, contributes backup vocals in addition to rocking out on bass.
I was so impressed by Jesse and the band's performance, I wrote a feature-length review just to document what I had witnessed. I didn't just want to write about Jesse and his brilliant songs, but also his amazing band. It was after writing that first story that I got to talk at length to Johnny Pisano.
This interview took place over the summer of 2003...
K: Tell me about your background - from the beginning - where you were born, grew up and what you were into as a kid.
J: I grew up and still live here - a few blocks from where I was born - in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. Home of "Welcome Back Carter," "Saturday Night Fever," Son of Sam's last killing and lots of neighborhood guys who did their own business and took care of each other, otherwise known as the Mafia. My friends and I grew up in the street playing skelly, paddleball, tag and stickball (to name a few).
After the Saturday Night Fever days, I got into rock and got rebellious 'cause everyone here liked disco and back then it was ripped jeans and long hair or gold chains and Cadillacs.
K: When did you get interested in music and in guitars? When did you get your first guitar - what kind of guitar?
J: I'd say I was about 14. My first was a $90 Cameo (copy Fender looking thing) I still have it in my garage. A friend and I used to air guitar to KISS records and I was always Gene and he was always Ace. This guitar player - Emil Crisatello - lived up the block and taught us the basics - the rest I learned by ear. He taught me on the bass. I never played guitar. I only pick one up sometimes now when I'm writing.
K: What or who inspired you to be a bassist?
J: Well, when you're 14 and naive... I wanted metal - after KISS it was Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and then that changed to anything with a lot of crazy bass lines. That quickly changed when this guy Billy Buffa, who was 4 years older than I was, introduced me to punk and reggae. Then it was Bob Marley, The Clash, Dead Kennedys, The Damned and Dead Boys, etc. I couldn't get enough.
K: What was the first album you bought? What others did you begin your collection with?
J: I started with the AC / DC and Led Zeppelin - then it was Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello - then it was The Clash, the Head Lickers, The Freeze, the Butthole Surfers, the Ramones etc.
K: Who do you consider to be your influences?
J: Well - there's a question. Learning to play, I swallowed any and all bass that I could get my hands on. Including African rhythms and lots of reggae and old funk like Bootsy Collins. But most of all, I think Paul Simonon of The Clash has the right stuff - his mind is wide open yet he still maintains his toughness.
K: How long have you been playing stand up bass?
J: I always loved the sound - and hell it looks cool as shit - like Jimbo from Reverend Horton Heat, with the flames painted on it - with him beating on it and jumping on it.
K: How does it feel playing such an incredible instrument? Do you have one now? Do you ever play the stand up live?
J: My mother works in an office in Manhattan and this woman she works with had one in her attic. She sold it to my mother for $75 and my mother gave it to me for my birthday. I put some money into it and it plays really good. I'm not half as good on it as I am on the electric - but I can definitely get my point across. I would like to get better, maybe learn how to bow it and slap the shit out of it like Jimbo. But there is a softer side sliding around the fretless fingerboard, it gives me a woody.
Once in a while, Paul Garisto (who drums and is in Jesse's band with me) and I play with Bree Sharp. Just recently, she asked if I could play my upright for a gig and I got real excited 'cause I need an excuse to play it. I'm a bit lazy and too busy. So we did it at Fez (NYC) and it was really cool - I'm looking forward to doing it again.
K: At what age did you start writing your own music? Do you write most of or all of your parts?
J: Yes - I always wrote bass lines even when I first started to play. My first band was an original band (1983) we were called Bundle of Nerves - very "80's" - and I really didn't get into writing full songs for years. I co-wrote stuff all the time - bridges, choruses - whatever. 99% of the time I write my own parts, but I'm always up for suggestions - like Jesse might say: "I need this part to sound like Flaming Lips meets Neil Young."
I really love it when people tell me "I want this part to sound like lying in a field with the clouds rushing past you and then a train passes behind you and it starts to rain . . ." So I visualize this and my fingers just move. I don't think when I write - it just comes out - and the first thing is usually the best feel for the song.
K: Have you ever written any lyrics?
J: Yes - when I played with Marky Ramone - he would give me half-finished songs to complete. It was OK for the time. Juvenile lyrics are fun and easy to write. I've written lots of stuff around the house that probably no one will ever hear. I wrote this one tune when I was with the Intruders, called "Don't Think." I had some problems getting over this girl at the time and I wanted to learn to be alone - it's easier for some than it is for others.
I've also co-written lots of stuff - they still play "Middle Finger" - which I wrote with Marky - on some stations in Canada. Both those songs are on the second CD called The Answer to Your Problems. I wrote a part of the song "TKO" with Jesse. That guy can write his ass off. He's amazing.
K: You've sung lots of back up vocals - have you ever sang lead vocals in your musical life?
J: Yes - growing up we had a Clash / Dictators cover band called Complete Control. Harry Verderci from the Sic Fuks on drums, and again with Marky. Toward the end, I was sharing vocals (half the set) with the guitar player, Ben Trokan or Alex Crank.
K: Can you name all the bands you've been in and any musicians you've worked with that you'd like to mention?
J: Me, and Michael Buffa, learned how to play together and were in bands for years. His brother - Billy - was a great drummer. I played with him a lot too. There were lots of bands I can't even remember, in addition to Complete Control. I also played in the Rude Boys with Roger Colletti (now doing well working at MTV) and Crispy Brown. I was in a band with Woody Harrelson (yes - the actor) for about a week.
K: That's so cool!
What / When were your first recordings? Which recordings are you most proud of or are your favorites?
J: We always made shit recordings, demos and stuff - and some of it got airplay on college radio or was used on compilations, etc. Obviously I am most proud of the stuff that made it into stores - but there was some great stuff and magical moments that unfortunately no one will ever hear.
K: Where did you record The Fine Art of Self Destruction? What was it like working with Ryan Adams? (Ryan Adams produced this album, which was Jesse Malin's first solo effort.)
J: We recorded at Loho studios in NYC. We did it in about 5 days. Ryan was amazing. Most of that stuff was done in only one take - mistakes and all - for that natural feel. He was like a kid in a candy store - playing different instruments and coming up with stuff right on the spot and throwing it down.
K: You also contribute bass on some tracks for Ryan's own forthcoming* album, Love is Hell. What can you tell me about this production?
[*At that time it was forthcoming... Since then, Love is Hell has been released by Lost Highway Records. First as two EPs, Love Is Hell Part One and Part Two (fall and winter 2003) then again in early 2004 as an LP...]
J: Ryan asked Jesse to borrow his band - I guess he likes what we do with Jesse's music - so we recorded at Globe Studios in NYC about 8 songs in 5 days. His idea was not to teach us the songs, but to show us quickly the basic chords and then go in and record - and the first take - was the take. His reasoning, I believe, was to have the musicians be spontaneous, and like The Fine Art of Self Destruction - the mistakes are there - just like on a lot of the old Stones albums.
K: Who are your favorite bands right now?
J: Well, The Flaming Lips are at the moment my favorite. I also like Bright Eyes a lot and Wilco. The Jayhawks rock, too. But I can't help always going back to the old favorites: Elvis Costello, Motown stuff, Al Green . . .
K: If you had a chance to join any band you wanted to - what band would be your first choice?
J: That's a tough question because the bands I love - I love them the way they are. But Elton John, Rod Stewart or Bryan Ferry - musically that would be awesome.
K: Before we finish, I'm hoping you can tell me more about Bellvue, your first band with Jesse.
J: Well I knew of Jesse Malin from the D Gen (D Generation) days and he was doing some different stuff - more mature - and he formed a band called Tsing Tsing and wanted to change bass players. His drummer at the time - Joe Rizzo - called me and told me to come to a show to check it out and I immediately fell in love with three of the songs they were playing - "Brooklyn" being one of them, "Sorrow" and "Faded Flowers" were the other two. So, I learned the stuff and it all fit.
Bellvue was the same as Tsing Tsing with just a name change (we were never thrilled with that name) and Jesse came up with the new name. I think the true meaning of it is "a nice place" - but we're from NYC - and here it's a mental hospital in midtown.
We played around NY a lot and did a US tour in a crappy van we borrowed from Kitty Kowalksi (of the Kowalskis and L.E.S. Stitches) remodeled with some plywood. Bellvue had some heavy songs - but it was more alternative - and we did some vibey stuff as well. We slept at friends' houses, all across the country. Rizzo would sleep in the van when someone had a cat because of his being allergic.
K: Could you also please tell me about recording To Be Somebody (Goldenseal, 2001) ?
J: I had just joined the band and Jesse's friend Bryce Goggin - who produced Space Hog amongst others - had bought a church in upstate New York. It was really beautiful and Jesse recorded basic tracks there. I was called in later for some bass parts for some of the other songs. I was actually on tour with Marky in South America, while the church recordings were happening, and Sergio Vega was on bass. I played on everything except "My Life," "Solitaire," "Love Streams," "Basement Home," "Sorrow," and "Shades of Grey."
K: What was the transition from Bellvue to The Fine Art Of Self Destruction?
J: Jesse was always playing solo shows even while Bellvue was happening - with Joe McGinty on keys. So one day, Jesse decided to just do that and so he did. He put down the electric and stayed with the acoustic. And here we are.
* * * * * JOHNNY PISANO BACKGROUND CHECK * * * * *
Played and/or Recorded with (amongst others...):
MARKY RAMONE AND THE INTRUDERS
MARY LOU LORD
[for more information about what Johnny is up to and where you can see him play next - please visit the Johnny Pisano page @ myspace.com/johnnypisano]
(with gingersol and mary lou lord)
berbati's pan, portland
circa march 2003
photographs by kristin angelique