Christopher Johnson @spkml

From the perspective of music, Christopher Johnson is a musician at heart, a guitarist by preference, though he can tickle the ivories when needed… Recording and Mixing is a passion for Christopher and his catalog of music can back that up…

But how did Christopher get from there to here? In his words;

The first guitar I owned was a plastic “Dukes Of Hazzard” ‘electric’ guitar from the wishbook. It had nylon and bronze wound nylon strings and a piece of yarn for a strap, which my mother made for me. I had saved up my allowance so that I could purchase it one spring around second or third grade. 

I remember my grandmother giving me my first ‘real’ guitar after returning from teaching at a decorative tole painting seminar in the northwestern United States and Alaska. She loved the beauty of the northwestern territories. If memory serves, she actually purchased it in Alaska. 

I began taking guitar lessons when I was in fourth grade, up to sixth in the parochial school, which I attended. I transferred to the school in fourth grade. The only music we focused on were songs for Sunday Mass. I didn’t think that the chords we used to play that music could be used to play half the stuff that was on the radio. I didn’t practice for that reason but also because there was this girl that I met who I was distracted by because I was smitten with her when I first saw her. Needless to say, she was in my guitar class with me and that resulted in my lack of concentration on what we were learning. I quit in sixth grade because I didn’t ever remember what to practice. 

I also played basketball during this time although, I almost never played, however. I was great at free throws in practice, hitting nine out of ten. But, when I got fouled, on two occasions, I didn’t hit any shots. One game, I got three for three in the key. I didn’t know what the key was. I was in the paint but the coach didn’t tell me what it meant. He assumed I knew. I got the ball only once during normal play and it was the only time when I actually scored… for the other team. I quit within the week.

Although I took lessons for 2½ school-years (4-6th), I wasn’t learning what I wanted to. I was learning church music for Sunday Mass. I wanted to learn radio songs that I heard. I gave it up and smashed the guitar the next summer, which was in awful shape anyway. Shortly after, my parents decided to divorce.

When my grandma died in late summer, 1990, I was lost. I had been told by someone that she’d be “the greatest person I’d ever meet.” In many ways I believe that to be true. The following year was tough going to school because I was staying with my grandpa. I was mourning her death also. He remarried the summer after I graduated, in 1992. I continued to mourn her death until 1996. It was a very ritualistic goodbye, with a Native American friend of mine, when I finally broke down to set her energy free. The tears overtook me and I felt the release.

I went to three high schools in four years which, was essentially four in four years because my freshman and senior years were at the same school and everyone that I was friends with as a frosh were gone when I came back. I graduated high school (barely) in Topeka, Kansas in 1992. 

I was 18 and I was ready to pursue my future. It would be some time before I realized what I was pursuing. I decided to move in with my father who was living in Kansas City. I received a ten speed bike for my graduation and decided to attempt the sixty-mile ride. I knew it would be long and rough but I was going to try. I just felt like getting the hell out of that town. I had only spent one year back there for senior year but that was all I needed to realize that I would feel more comfortable in a bigger city. 

The morning that I left, I awoke to find my narcoleptic step-dad awake and sitting at the kitchen table in his bathrobe. He was watching CNN as always and sifting through his meds. I won’t get into my relationship with him because I know that he always meant well and that, most likely, because of my rebellious nature (not to mention age), that we were bound to have conflicting attitudes and views. He was concerned about me riding to KC. He asked if I had talked to my Dad about getting a ride and then he offered a ride, though I wonder if he was just being polite. I said ‘no’ that ‘this was something that I had to do’.

I left early that morning, I think it was Thursday, at about seven. I had my walk-man, a few tapes, some cash that I got for graduation and a few other things, of which I can’t recall. I rode down to forty-fifth street, after stopping to get a couple chocolate long johns. I rode past the roller rink where I had memories of one skating party in particular.

I did a lot of thinking about the past year. I thought about if I really planned on ever going to college. I felt that there would be a short window of opportunity to follow that path before it became too difficult to follow. I thought about my lame attempts at writing a screenplay and following my ambitions to become a film director. I received a piece of advice from my step-dad regarding college that to this day, I believe to be the best advice he ever gave me. He said, “Chris, don’t go to college until you’re ready.” I know that I was never that interested in school and that if I were to go, because I felt I had to, I would most certainly flunk out. I didn’t want to blow what may be my only chance. Besides, I have heard time and time again that entertainment is one industry where a degree is not necessary. Talent, vision, determination and the savior faire is all that you really need to succeed, and I felt that I could learn that on my own.

I listened to Rush Limbaugh. I thought he was entertaining back then. I didn’t agree with everything he said but he said things to make me think about the possibilities. The one thing that sticks in my mind is that he was promoting the CompuServe email service. I was struggling with the hills and decided to turn off the radio because of the reception. I popped in a cassette, which is long gone and forgotten. It was probably a compilation that I recorded. 

I finally made it to Lawrence and was so tired, mainly because of the terrain and my lack of conditioning for such a ride. I felt that I had succeeded by making it thirty miles. I called my Dad and as soon as he heard me on the other end he said, “You want me to come get you?” I confirmed his assumption and told him where I was. He showed up about a half-hour later, probably around two in the afternoon. We talked on the way back about this and that. We got back home and I put my stuff in my room. We sat in the living room and watched a movie before he left for bowling.

Anyway, it was around that time that I went over to Ed’s and we were all sitting around drinking Budweiser and doing shots of Jim Beam. Ed pulled out his guitar and was playing some songs. I was listening and playing spades with the others. Ed was playing songs like: “Needle and the Damage Done” and “After the Goldrush” (by Neil Young), “Skating Away” (by Jethro Tull), “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” (by Bob Dylan), “Ramble On” and “Gallows Pole” (by Led Zeppelin), “Horse With No Name” (by America), and a bunch more. I was fascinated. I’d never met anyone who could actually play anything that even remotely resembled stuff I’d heard on the radio.

One night, we were in his bedroom and he started playing “American Pie” (by Don McLean). My Dad used to play that record all the time and, as I watched Ed’s fingers make the chord formations… I recognized them… I mean I really knew them. I was astounded! G, D, Em, Am, C, all of these chords that I thought I could never use to play popular music and here, for the first time, I was seeing the light. I could do it.

The next day, I took what was left of my paycheck, after buying the sack the night before. I borrowed my Dad’s 1976 Chevy Nova Fastback 302 (which only had 17,000 miles on it when my great-grandmother gave it to him), and I went out and bought a classical, nylon string acoustic guitar for $30. I started playing every second that I could.

I was considering giving up pot but, then holding my new instrument in the confines of my own room (stoned as I recall), thought about what would happen if I continued. I gave myself five years to do something with this. I figured that if I were to ever find myself in the professional music arena, that drugs may be there and if I wanted to steer clear of them, then I should know the pitfalls that a person could be subject to before that first royalty check rolls in. It was that night that I wrote my first song. It was “The Night”. It took me five minutes to write it, melody and all.

By the way, I got my first royalty check in the spring of 2000, for 9 cents.

After writing “The Night” it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to put aside my aspirations of filmmaking, seeing as how it takes less energy and time to write a killer song as opposed to a killer screenplay. It also occurred to me that it was not uncommon to have songs accompanied by videos. I figured after a while I would come up with a story that I could then, decently write. 

I started practicing with ‘Ed’, Eric Boyce, on a regular basis and he started introducing me to some of his original material. One night we went out to the lake where my grandparents live and we took our guitars out on the johnboat. He played some of the songs and told me the stories behind some of them. 

One of the songs that he played was called “Moonlight Dream”. It was a beautiful song. It was the first and what seemed would be the last time that I would hear it. However, luckily, Eric just found it a few days before I (originally) wrote this. I know that one of the things that bothered him about it was the fact that there was one line that reminded him of Kenny Loggins’ “Meet Me Halfway”. I don’t believe that warrants copyright infringement. I mean, I heard a quote once that went something like, “There are no original artists, only very talented plagiarists.” If memory serves, it was Saigon Kick’s, Jason Bieler in an article for GUITAR WORLD Magazine. It was a 1994 copy if I’m not mistaken. 

Stoney

I was getting tired of the nylon strings on my guitar and when I found out that it was not intended to hold steel strings, I traded it in. I bought a cheap, black Series 10, Strat copy, which had only one humbucker at the bridge (pick-up position). I also picked up a Fender Squire, 15-watt amplifier. It had two volume settings, off and loud. There was a short in the volume knob. 

After breaking ten sets of strings within two weeks, I traded it in for the guitar I have to this day, Stoney. She cost me nothing after the trade in and I got her brand new. She played so nice when I first picked her up. I was astounded that an instrument that inexpensive could sound so clean. I got a really good deal on her. 

The name, Stoney, was given to her that night when I got home. I pealed away the protective layer on the pick-guard and with the oil from my fingers ‘christened’ her, writing the name on the fresh plastic. I later carved the name into the back of the headstock.

Eric and I started forming a great friendship and we both started learning off of each other. I would figure stuff out and he would learn stuff and then we would share what we’d learned. Some of the songs that we started with are songs that may never be released at all. However, some of those songs found their way into the screenplay for “The Other Side Of Blue”. 

The development of the SPEKTRUM CONCEPT began in early summer of 1993. I had the experiences of art to fall back on and I was just starting to play guitar. I knew a couple chords and I hadn’t really played when I was taking lessons, so I was starting from scratch, really. The whole playing in front of church thing, that was pretty much my intro to improv, considering I had no clue what I was supposed to be playing anyway.

So, one day hanging out at the park with Mark Worlein, on the way to Eric’s, I found a four-leaf clover. It’s the only one I’ve ever found. That night, we were all and I started coming up with this idea of painting my guitar fretboard. I think it stemmed from the Optek Fretlight idea, originally. I liked the idea but, it needed color. I had my ‘Guitar Bible’ which I’d just purchased and I was looking over the material. I started to notice the words, chromatic scale. Chromatic, chromatic… hey, wait. Chromatic color wheel. How many notes are in a chromatic scale? Twelve… now, how many colors in the chromatic color wheel? TWELVE!? Whoa, what the…? I found it quite enticing when I found that the twelve notes in an octave are referred to as a chromatic musical scale, while the basic color wheel, comprised of primaries(red, yellow & blue), secondaries(orange, green & purple), and intermediate tertiaries(6 colors), are labelled as the chromatic color wheel. 

The SPEKTRUM CONCEPT was born. Although, originally it was originally labeled Spectrum, I found out that there was already a band called Spectrum, featuring Pete Kember (I heard one of their EP’s and didn’t care too much for it). I worked out the details of devising a basic system for note identification. That was all it ever was and one of the catches that I found was that the major notes did not correspond completely to the primary and secondary colors. So, as it is with music, I improvised. I came up with a system that worked and painted the system on Stoney’s fretboard. 

There was a project that Eric and I wanted to put together, at one point, which we were going to call ‘Scrapbook’ and it was going to be a collection of songs that we had written early on. Both Eric and I had bought Fostex X-18 four track tape recorders. I was the one who initiated the purchases. I rented one, again from Calvin, and showed Eric what it could do. It prompted him to go out and rent, the same one, and he eventually bought it, within about a week. 

My mother and stepfather, in Topeka, were going out of town and I was asked to come up to Topeka and ‘baby-sit’ my brother and sister. I was able to do that and asked Eric if I could borrow his Fostex. He agreed and so, with an increasingly, ever-present baggie of weed, a brass pipe, Stoney, and the four track recorder, I went to housesit and look after my siblings. I arrived and within a few hours after my Mom and stepfather left…

I wrote “The Time of My Life” later that night. The words and music were written in an hour and then I recorded two separate rhythm tracks and both lead and backing vocals for it in the hour following. I have not changed any of that song since, excepting that later on Eric wrote a song “Under the Table, Tonight” which made for a great intro. 

Eric and I were always good at knowing what the other one was going to play. But, there were a few sour notes frequently. As I started learning to solo, I abandoned our normal setup of two rhythms and two vocals. I had gotten a Dean Markley Pro-mag acoustic pickup and the owner of the music store threw in a very old Kingston amp. The guitar brand was a Lotus, which upon looking up the flower’s name in the dictionary showed that the lotus was of the buckthorne family. Thus, I came to dub my guitar, Stoney Kingston Buckthorne or SKB. The amp blew up one night when I was stoned and accidentally fed the output into the input. It was while I was recording with my new four-track recorder and I confused the two chords.

I started recording songs with a four-track tape recorder in probably mid-1993 or later, but I was recording myself to get better and learn songs. I bought my own Fostex X-18 4-track recorder and Eric had the same model and so we shared and collaborated between the tapes we shared. Sometimes we would setup and just jam… Other times we worked out songs or came up with different parts and they would come together in a song. This is the basis for the drawing on the album cover of “Midnight Jam”.

American Pie

I was able to see Don McLean at a free Friday night concert in Hallmark’s Crown Center in K.C. in the summer of 1994. I stood in the front row with my guitar in one hand and a sign in the other which read:”Sign my guitar? PLEASE!?”

I told him the story about Eric playing “American Pie” and stuff but, I got his signature and it’s still there.

In 1995 I met Gilby Clark (ex-G’n’R guitarist) and Zakk Wylde. I also met Gilby agian in the spring with Slash and Snakepit’s lead singer, Eric Dover. I talked for ten minutes with Slash about a number of things and gained a deeper understanding of the illusion and how & when to create it.

I had begun drifting away from Eric and our playing. I was looking for something more. I started playing with other guitarists and various musicians. There were so many different bands and individuals that I found who just really sucked. I guess to them I sucked too. What I was looking for was not clear to me yet and it would take some time for me to clarify what it was that I was really looking for. I knew that there had to be greatness to anything that I was going to put my name on. I attribute that mentality to my upbringing. My grandmother’s artistic ability and my mothers obsessive compulsive nature combined influenced me the most, in this regard. 

My songwriting had started to blossom and I was breaking new ground. I was starting to go into areas that I hadn’t previously explored in my lyrics and in my music. I broke into the Topeka music scene and within a few weeks I had regulars coming to see me play live. I was playing around town and the response was not what I was hoping for but it was more than I had expected. I was told by this one guy, “I’ll keep kissing your ass if you keep kissing mine”, and I thought that was a shitty way of playing together. I felt that you should really enjoy the way that the people around you played. I didn’t want to kiss anyone’s ass. I wanted people who were serious about forming something permanent and great. I originally joined the jam session as just another player and within a few weeks I was the one leading the group, attracting new audience members and keeping the material new and fresh. It was so easy with all the great music that was coming out. 

That brings to mind my mother’s record collection. She played Billy Joel, James Taylor and the Beatles incessantly and that is one thing that I thank her for. She introduced me to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. So many bands, so many styles. My father was also influential in his listening patterns with artists such as The Doobie Brothers, Loggins and Messina, Arlo Guthrie and again, Don McLean. It was these performers that I seem to find myself coming back to. I have gained so many other influences but these are the original basis of my informal preparation for where I was to go. 

I moved to Topeka when my mother and stepfather were in the midst of their dissolving marriage. I can’t say I was surprised. My sister was starting school at Washburn University and I moved into an apartment with her. We were ‘on our own’. I only wish I had known what a crazy time I would go through then. 

In the fall of 1995, I played my first solo gig. It’s also the last time I’ve played a set of my own music in front of an audience. Since that gig, in which I opened for St. Louis’s MU330, I’ve only played one open mike jam where I played two songs. That was in the summer of 2000, when I was busking several nights a week. Busking, for those of you who don’t know, is playing on the street for money as a street musician. In my experience, you have to be prepared to take a lot of requests, especially if you want to make any money. That means you have to know a lot of popular tunes so, you don’t really get a chance to showcase your own music. During the evenings, I would make about fourty dollars for about an hour or two of playing. I even took some smoke breaks during that period. 

Part of the reason I stopped playing live was that I’d finally come up with a storyline for a screenplay and so I commenced learning the craft of screenwriting. I started writing “The Other Side Of Blue” in late 1995 before I started “Red: Aries Dawn” in 1998. I then wrote a screenplay called “One On One” which evolved into the fourth chapter in the series, “The Affliction Of Yellow”. After that I filled the gap in the storyline and completed the third chapter, “Going To Orange County”. In late 2000, I began writing the fifth script, “Envy Courts Green”. As of this writing, I’m only about half-way through it but, I really feel comfortable with my approach to this story. I’ve started to learn how to speak out about my beliefs with action instead of dialogue, as well as letting the action tell the story rather than the dialogue.

Just about a month prior to the show opening for MU330, I wrote a long-hand rough draft of a screenplay which I wrote over three or so days at an AppleBee’s in Topeka, KS. The story, “The Overnight Success” was about a band who sold platinum in literally one night over the internet. It was way ahead of it’s time. iTunes didn’t even come out until 2003 and the iPod was only released in October of 2001. Recordable CD drives were out barely and were outrageously priced in 1995 . Windows 95 was only just released in August of 1995 and I saw a story to be told to shape the future. I got on AOL as soon as I could, probably in 1996 and early 1997. I was working on recording with my Multitrack recorder and worked on learning about the content to write a full screenplay with a basic soundtrack which I copyrighted in 1998 as “The Other Side Of Blue”.

I ultimately had to turn down a record deal that I’d negotiated for the film. I feel it would have laid the ground work for a quite different outcome. However, “The Other Side Of Blue” went unproduced and probably just as well.

I followed up over the next couple years with writing two or so more screenplays in a series of the story of SPEKTRUM, the band in “The Other Side Of Blue”. I set to work on a work that was different.

This is the background for the back and front cover for my first book, “<CodeBase />”.
Some more elements are missing here, like the title and isbn barcode…

I had become intrigued by AI, Artificial Intelligence and I started looking into programming in a language called AIML . I’d envisioned a hybrid language called SPKML based in part in the XML structure of AIML with the MultiMedia capabilities of HTML, or then DHTML; now, HTML5… SPKML is an acronym in this case for Specific Purpose Knowledge and Media Language. I call it something different in a book I wrote inspired by the idea in 2003-2004, “<CodeBase />” was written and then published in various incarnations as well as in paperback since 2005.

In early 2005 I began working on a MacBook G4 laptop and it was a dream for the time. I set out recording an album of music that year and started mainly recording midi Karaoke tracks that were more real than midi, at least in my attempt to make good ‘covers’… There’s a selection from those recordings… under ‘Music’ in the menu.

Christopher Johnson with Jewel Kilcher in 2005, backstage at the Orpheum Theater in St. Louis.

I worked on some stuff but not much for a couple years, dealing with life on life’s terms as it were and doing poorly until I got to build my first computer in 2009 and it was good enough to run World Of Warcraft. Though that doesn’t say much since I also was able to get it hackintoshed and was able to not only hackintosh an atom powered netbook from hp but also run World of Warcraft.

I played a few years and worked on music on my hackintosh machines but I had to come back to windows and then back to a real mac. I’d run my website and ran a podcast for a while and have run SPKML.com and SPEKTRUMCreations.com for years, perhaps since 2003-2005?

One of the reasons that I thought a Mac works better for me is that Apple bought Logic, they slimmed it down to make Garageband and include it as an app in a standard install… Now Garageband is a full-fledged app that is more than capable and though I like Logic, I find with 24 bit audio master mixdowns, it is plenty good enough for my needs… On top of that I now share on blend.io/spkml where you can download my actual Garageband sessions to remaster or remix yourself.

I’ve recorded on an iPhone in fact to the point that I’ve actually done entire albums worth of material on my iPhone 4, 6 and now 8. I’ll eventually upgrade but that’s not the point of this… I guess I’m a nerd still… But I’m a music nerd, so I think my 4th grade self would think that’s pretty neat…

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