There are two reasons that a John 5 interview could last for days. The first is that in just more than a decade, he’s already played guitar for David Lee Roth, Rob Halford, Marilyn Manson, and now Rob Zombie, none of whom are uninteresting conversation topics. And if that got old, he could discuss what it’s like contributing songs to Filter, Garbage, Avril Lavigne, Meat Loaf, Paul Stanley, Lynyrd Skynrd, and the friggin’ Scorpions. If he still has a voice, you could next ask him about his somewhat accidental/totally awesome solo career.
The second reason is that John 5 (né John Lowery) is a total music guy. And it’s totally effortless to talk music with total music guys. You could bump into him before a show and end up blowing off the headliner just to continue a breathless discussion of Van Halen at the bar next door. I can also imagine the results if I stopped at the guitar shop on my lunch hour to find John 5 lounging against an amp: We’d innocently start comparing Rob Zombie’s band to Ozzy’s and before you know it, it’d be sundown and I would be sneaking back into the office through a window. A bus ride to the beach would be disastrous ‘cause we’d undoubtedly miss our stop by miles while merrily disputing the merits of KISS. And so on.
Sadly for me but mercifully our transcribers, my talk with John 5 last week lasted but twenty minutes. He used the word “love” a lot to genially discuss his past and present collaborators, his fifth solo album The Art of Malice (get it May 11), this year’s Mayhem tour, and the Ozzy situation last summer. After that, we just talked about Van Halen a bunch – and might’ve gone on all day. But apparently he has things to do. About a million things.
I heard The Art of Malice a bunch of times. It’s awesome! How do you feel?
I love it. With guitar instrumental records, you get one thing and it’s hard to listen to [one thing] all the way through. Even for guitar players it’s kinda tough. I like to put together different styles to keep the listener entertained. It’d be like eating the same meal again and again; it’d get tiresome. I just put some different styles in there, and put a cover of Ace Frehley’s “Fractured Mirror” on the record. It was the first instrumental I heard and I loved KISS so much. It turned out to be one of my favorite songs for quite a long time – and I was only eight or nine years old when it came out. To do a cover of that song was something special.
Since you were eight? Why record it now?
I did a cover of “Welcome To The Jungle” on one of my instrumental records [The Devil Knows My Name, 2007]; that was the song that made me move out to Los Angeles. With “Fractured Mirror,” I was to paying tribute and giving thanks – and hopefully introducing the song to some fans that didn’t even know about it. The reason why now… I heard it and thought “I oughta do a cover of that because it’s one of my favorite songs.” And it’d be kinda special for this album because it’s my fifth – you know, John 5 and the whole thing.
I wanted to make this album really special.
I admire the way, as you mentioned, that you make interesting, entertaining guitar instrumental albums. A listener doesn’t have to be devoted to guitar pyrotechnics to enjoy the records.
They are entertaining and fun. I was really surprised when I put out my first album [Vertigo, 2004]. A lot of people enjoyed it, I think because it was so shockingly different. Like wearing a cowboy hat to a Slayer concert. It’s a little wrong, but still it’s okay to do.
Well, it’s easy to trust John 5 records for that reason. The musicianship and individuality is there, in addition to the freakish guitar awesomeness.
Well, the first instrumental record I just did for my friends. They said “Wow, you should put this out and have people hear it.” So I did and it all kinda blew up. That’s the honest-to-god truth – I didn’t know I was making a record for the public to hear. It’s a cool story how it all came about – by accident!
You’re talking about Vertigo?
By accident? Really?
Yeah, after Marilyn Manson I had some time. I hate to sit around so I recorded a bunch of guitar instrumental songs, which I’d never done before. I got into it and passed it around to my friends. They told me to put it out! It was cool.
Huh. I guess I imagined that you were an old hand at it. It sounded that way.
No, I’d never done it before. That was my first guitar instrumental stuff.
That must’ve been a boost to succeed by accident on your first try. Was it a surprise?
Yeah, it still seems crazy. That album got me on the cover of Guitar Player. It was cool!
Something that I think stands out to a lot of people is your affinity for country-western music.
And this is a small distinction to make, but it occurs to me that you aren’t dabbling or gimmicky. You are a country guitar player!
I enjoy playing it. And I’ve played with some country artists. This is music. There are no rules. There’s no music police. I think that’s why people enjoy it. You will get tired of hearing the same thing over and over again – especially with heavy guitar instrumental music. I don’t care who you are. You will. That’s why I put a little something different in there. It’s exciting. I think that’s very important.
I had a daydream about a pan-dimensional All-Star Outlaw Country band with you, Dime and Vinnie, Steve Earle, and Gram Parsons.
[polite laughs] That’d be great. I love doing it. It’s a different style, a different road to take. If you had a Porche and a bad-ass Mercedes, you’d drive them both!
Something we discuss at MetalSucks is all the weird, exciting artists you’ve played with. Is your current gig with Rob Zombie a bit tame by comparison?
No, it’s not tame at all. The shows are massive. Here’s the thing: I am very tame myself. I don’t drink or smoke or do any drugs. All I love to do is watch movies and play guitar. And I love – love love love – to play guitar. Here it is ten in the morning and I already have a guitar on right now. It’s just something that I do –
Wait. You’re holding a guitar right now?
Yeah. It’s always on me. I always have it around. It’s not plugged in but you can hear it. [strums chord]
Now we can say you gave us exclusive, unreleased John 5 music. Yes!
[laughs] Yeah, it’s so cool. I’ve never been in such a great band and I never wanna be anywhere else. I love playing with Rob Zombie more than anybody I’ve ever played with in my life. This is where I want to stay as long as Rob wants to do it.
Is that feeling connected to the songs? Is it that you’re a fan of his music?
I was such a fan of Rob Zombie’s music that in past interviews when asked [whom] I’d like to play with, I’d always say Rob Zombie. I was such a big Zombie fan. I’d go see the shows and say to myself “Man, I’d love to be in that band.” If you wish for something, it can come true. I couldn’t be happier.
Do you feel similarly about your gig with David Lee Roth? That must’ve been weird, wild stuff.
That was more of a childhood thing – KISS and Van Halen. I just wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. I loved Van Halen so much. They were untouchable. They’re still kind of untouchable today. You can’t get close to Eddie and Dave – [not] the general public. Those guys don’t really go out.
So, it was so great to get in with David Lee Roth. I knew he wasn’t doing much at the time, and I was really assertive and make sure I got in there. And I did and we’ve had a great relationship for the past 12 years. It’s been phenomenal.
That DLR Band record was when I became a John 5 fan. But it doesn’t feel like that long ago.
[laughs] It’s strange. I’m just lucky because everybody I’ve played with, I’ve had a good relationship with. Dave is definitely one of those people. He’s a great, great guy and a great friend.
You mentioned KISS before. Would you join KISS if they asked you?
If I wasn’t in Rob Zombie, sure. [laughs] I don’t think I’ll join anyone if Rob Zombie is going on. I really am happy. The grass is not always greener. I’ve realized that [from] working with so many people.
If Rob told me he was going to hang this up, then, sure. I love KISS, so why not?! But you know what I’d do? I would not wear Ace’s make-up, I would make my own character. Or you know what they never did? because I’m such a KISS nut. They never did The Bandit. Paul was The Bandit early on, but I think he used it only for a couple shows and did a couple photos for it. But no one really used it. So, I’d probably do that. It is KISStory, if you will.
[laughs] It definitely is. I’ve got to say, I have a suspicion about the whole Ozzy situation. It seemed like a perfect fit, given his desperate need of someone with your songwriting and guitar prowess. So does that mean that you passed on the gig? Did the Rob Zombie gig play a part in that?
No, Ozzy never asked me or anything like that. I was never asked. I think that was all rumors.
What did you feel like after hearing those rumors that you’d be offered the Ozzy gig?
I knew the rumors were not true. I’m in Zombie and Ozzy knows that. I’ve known Ozzy and Sharon for a long time and they’re great people. They knew I was in Zombie. I was never asked. Those were just rumors and I knew they were rumors.
Something I always admired about David Lee Roth, covered in his autobiography, was how protective he was of the Van Halen Experience. Those guys were begged to work on non-Van Halen projects, and Dave felt it would dilute the broth. Conversely, John 5 appears on a lot of stuff. Do you get concerned that you’re too everywhere?
I don’t because I love to [pauses] do things. I love to work and I love to, y’know, expand. If I didn’t, I’d probably go crazy. I love to write music. Now, Van Halen is a whole other thing. It’s a big, crazy piece of American rock ‘n roll history. That’s different. They changed music and did so much. So, I can understand that – they’re like The Rolling Stones or Zeppelin. You don’t see those guys playing on a bunch of other stuff. But I just love to do that! It feels like being in a different band for a day. Whoever I do it with, they know my situation. It’s great to be in a room with some of my heroes for a day.
But y’know, you’re right. I don’t think Alex Van Halen has played on anyone else’s music but Van Halen. I could be wrong. I don’t know of any.
I don’t think so. Let’s see, Eddie did Nicolette Larson stuff and “Beat It.” Oh and his porn soundtrack.
Yeah, and Dave has done solo stuff obviously and Mike has done stuff. I don’t think Al ever has – which is great. He’s so committed to Van Halen. I have such respect for them. I love ‘em.
Me too! And Alex might be the hardest piece to take out of Van Halen. He’s so Van Halen. If he played elsewhere, it’d sound like Van Halen with some other people, not a band whose drummer happens to be Alex Van Halen.
Oh god, Alex is one of the greatest, greatest drummers. Oh! I love that guy. Hoo-weee!
Hey, you could be the first one to borrow him from Van Halen.
Oh god, I’d love to just … you know. He’s incredible. I was at those Van Halen rehearsals –
You attended their rehearsals?!
Oh yeah. He’s so good! Before their last tour, when they were rehearsing, I’d go check it out and hang out. Those guys were so great even back then at rehearsal. No production or anything, just playing. Wolfie was amazing too. The kid was great! [strums chords]
Alex Van Halen wouldn’t be the first huge guest on your records. Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Albert Lee, Eric Johnson. How?
I just kinda pull the whole ‘favor thing.’ Luckily, everybody I ask accepts. It’s an honor. Again, these are my heroes. Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Albert Lee, Eric Johnson, Billy Sheehan. It’s so much fun to do. [laughs] I never would’ve thought! I’ve been having good fortune.
So we agree that your wish list has a lot of names checked off. Whose names are still on it?
I’d love to work with Prince. That would be cool. I’d love to sit with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck someday too. There’s always been tons of people out there I’d love to work with. I’m such a fan of music, new and old. I’m really excited for this tour coming up too. I want to see Lamb of God and Five Finger Death Punch and Shadows Fall. And Korn, of course.