Editor-in-Chief and A&E Editor
Going in-depth with Daniel Johnson, musician and Panther Creek teacher
Jack the Radio, a local indie-rock band, has been receiving praise for years due to its authentic blues sound and pop sensibilities. They have been busy recently, playing at the Hopscotch Music Festival earlier this month and recording their new album Badlands, due for release on Oct. 20. The group was created by roommates A.C. Hill and George Hage, but it would not be complete without multi-instrumentalist Danny Johnson and drummer Brent Francese. In addition to his work with Jack the Radio, Johnson works as a social studies teacher at Panther Creek High School. The two jobs are very different, but Johnson manages to fully enjoy each of them while balancing his responsibilities. He was kind enough to answer some questions for Legacy, found below.
How did you get involved in music, and what prompted you to join a band?
According to my family lore, I've always been a music kid... My household growing up always had music playing, and I have pretty vivid memories of being very young and putting records on the family turntable. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello... the range of music was pretty wide! On the "playing music" side of things, my dad played guitar when I was growing up. He had an old nylon string acoustic, and I remember learning a few chords on that one when I was eight or nine years old. I got an electric guitar for my ninth birthday, and after six months of trying to learn to play like the "greats" (Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, etc.) I got frustrated and stopped playing. Luckily, I picked up that old acoustic again around the age of ten, and that time, I stuck to it.
If you play music (other than "soloist instruments" like classical guitar), sitting in your bedroom and playing by yourself loses its excitement after a while. Musicians tend to gravitate to other musicians, and when you find a group of people that you click with both musically and personally, it can be one of the most fulfilling elements in your artistic life! Honestly, I can't imagine not being in a band.
Is it difficult to balance your duties as a teacher with your obligation to your band?
Not particularly, though having two jobs that operate on different schedules (teacher = day, musician = late evening/night) can certainly result in a shortage of sleep! The schedule of a teacher is actually pretty conducive to my second life as a musician - as long as you're willing to get up bright and early, you're able to head out of school at a decent hour in the afternoon to get to load-in, or hit the road for a Friday out-of-town show. Summers are also a great time to get out on the road for extended trips... and supplement two months without a paycheck to boot!
As far as my duties/obligations as a teacher, those take priority during the school year, so I've definitely taken my "teacher life" into my "music life" when I'm on a time crunch. I've brought tests or quizzes to a venue to grade in the green room, I've responded to school emails from a van on the way to a show in another state, and updated Blackboard while watching an opening act... Luckily, with technology and access, the lines between the two jobs can become a bit more flexible.
I don't usually take "time off" during the year for musical endeavors, but on the occasions when I've needed to fulfill a musical obligation on a school day, I can use one of my few personal leave days, and my administration and colleagues have always been very supportive of my music! (Ex. I had to take a Friday as leave to go and host my band's Hopscotch 2015 day party, and [I] have a day coming up that I'll need to be off campus for an interview and on-air performance with NPR/WUNC on "The State of Things" - it's an exception, but it's do-able).
Do you think that your students look at you differently because you are in a band? Are you the coolest teacher at the school?
Most of my students don't know any specifics of my band, but over the years, word had spread that I play music in a few different bands in the area. I don't know if they look at me any differently, but it's been a nice way to build relationships with students who might not otherwise want to engage in communication with "a teacher." I've had students who were aspiring musicians, or working on booking gigs, come by my room to ask for advice on promoting a show or emailing a booking agent. I don't usually think of myself this way, but I think I've crossed the line into "old guy" territory in terms of my time spent in the music world!
As far as being the coolest, I can't speak to that, but my guess would be "no". I'm actually pretty structured (maybe even rigid) as a teacher and run quite rigorous classes, so a lot of students that were excited about having "that teacher that's in a band" may change their tune after the first few days in class!
What sets Hopscotch apart from other festivals and concerts? How important is the festival for the music scene in the Raleigh area?
In my opinion, Hopscotch has two big things that help it stand out. First, Hopscotch knocks it out of the park when it comes to musical diversity. I've actually discovered entire musical genres at Hopscotch (Not all of them were necessarily genres that I enjoyed but ones that I didn't even know existed). To me, Hopscotch represents the musical equivalent of a well curated art museum -- there's going to [be] something there for everyone, and you'll very likely stumble across something that you weren't looking for that speaks to you as well!
Second, I absolutely love the setting of Hopscotch. [The] vast majority of festivals take place in traditional "festival grounds" - i.e., a field or park environment, with a variety of stages spread out over the area. Cool, but you're really just walking around a field all day long, going back to a campsite, and eating from various food stands and finding the cleanest porta-johns. Hopscotch is three days in the heart of downtown Raleigh. You can bounce venue to venue, but instead of landing at a hastily erected stage with a mobile sound rig, you can settle in at one of Raleigh's many established music venues and concert halls (Personally, I know I would have probably never seen the inside of Fletcher Opera Theater - an amazing looking and sounding venue - if it weren't for Hopscotch). You've got Raleigh's bounty of excellent restaurants close at hand, and there's not much better than navigating the streets of a bustling city in the wee hours of the night to feel like you're making the most of your weekend!
For local businesses, local artists, and the city as a whole, Hopscotch is a great asset to our reputation as a growing metropolis.
Is it fun for you to see the wide variety of acts at the festival?
Like I said before, the mix at Hopscotch is second-to-none. I love having a chance to catch some "big name" artists like The Flaming Lips, Spoon, St. Vincent, X, Mastodon, etc., but I've also discovered some smaller independent artists through the clubs shows that have become favorites - Angel Olsen, Wye Oak, The Tender Fruit, J. Roddy Walston. And on top of all that, getting to see my friends (and people I've played music with) in the local community work their way up to bigger stages over the years is pretty exciting too - American Aquarium opening for Dwight Yoakam? Yep, pretty cool stuff.
Do you feel a closer attachment to the crowd when you are playing at a local venue like Hopscotch?
There's definitely a "hometown crowd" feel when you play a show at Hopscotch. Everyone is excited for the weekend, and people who might not normally make it out to a club show due to their personal schedule may decide to take a few days off to tackle the festival. Honestly, the whole weekend is a chance to hang out with friends and fans. If you play music in Raleigh, it's a very fun and celebratory weekend for everyone in the community. The only hidden pitfall of playing a hometown festival is that there are a ton of bands playing shows - bands that may only make a trip to N.C. once in a blue moon -and some of your normal crowd may make the perfectly logical decision to go catch another out-of-town band rather than your show since they know they'll definitely get a chance to see you again (That normally balances out, though, with out-of-town festival-goers coming to see Raleigh bands). All in all, I feel pretty lucky, both as an artist and a fan of music, to have Hopscotch in Raleigh! And if you haven't heard yet, MoogFest is making the move from Asheville to Durham in the coming year! We're living [in] a great time (and place) for live music!