Leslie Michele Derrough from Glide Magazine recently sat down for a chat with John 5.
You wouldn’t think that a man who plays atomic guitar riffs for Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie would be so “normal”,” but that is exactly what John 5 is. Growing up in an affluent neighborhood didn’t stop him from following his own spark. Moving out to Los Angeles and pursuing his electric guitar dreams, he has become known for his innovatively whiplash-inducing fret work and for conjuring up gory tingle-down-your-spine images via his song titles. With a brand new solo CD hitting shelves this month, I decided to find out who the REAL John 5 was and this is what I found…..
There is a rumor going around that you are a really, really nice guy.
It’s important, I think, that you treat people how you want to be treated. So why not be nice. You know, I’m just like you or anyone else so why not be nice. And I’ve always been like that my whole life, through school and everything. I was nice to everyone in school.
Well, since you’re such a nice guy, and for people who only know you as the guitar player for Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie and your solo music and your songs that kind of have serial killer references, those people may have other ideas that you’re some evil guy lurking in the shadows.
No, no, no. I think everybody has a dark side but it doesn’t have to always be harmful to others. It could be a dark side in other ways but it doesn’t always have to be harmful to others.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and it’s more of an upper scale neighborhood; very safe, very secluded – not really secluded but very safe and very sheltered. I think that’s a better word that I was looking for. Everything was perfect. Like when you see a movie and they show that perfect neighborhood, that’s where I grew up. Like when you go into the little shopping area, there was music playing all throughout the shopping area and everybody’s lawn had to be perfect. We didn’t even have to take our trash to the curve, they did that for us. So it was a very nice, almost dream neighborhood.
What were you like as a kid?
I started playing guitar at age seven and I loved music and I loved guitar and I loved monster movies likeFrankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, The Mummy, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, I loved that. I always had a guitar in my hands and like a toy Frankenstein or something. Most kids have that, you know, and I really enjoyed that. I remember being a little teeny kid and I’d have Guitar Player magazine and Famous Monsters magazine. I just loved playing guitar and I would go see movies. Luckily, my mom would drop me off at the movies and I could go see The Shining or The Exorcist or something at a young age and it was great (laughs). I was just a young kid, you know, and I was lucky I had such a nice, nice childhood. It was so sheltered and safe and just perfect. All I did was play guitar and have fun. It was like a great childhood and a lot of people you probably talk to say, “Oh my childhood, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah” but mine was amazing. I loved it.
What were you like in high school?
In high school I was playing clubs a lot, even starting at my freshman year I would play a lot of clubs. And my parents would say, “Ok, you’re allowed to play these clubs” and you know we would sometimes go on at midnight or something like that on a school night and they said, “You’re allowed to do this as long as you get up for school the next day.” That was the rule. As soon as I didn’t, it was over. That was the thing, that’s what I did, so I played a lot of like nightclubs.
I was in a band not with people from my school, but people that were older. My bandmates were all these long-haired, scary guys from the other side of town. They were like 24, 25 years old, which was like so old when you’re a freshman in high school. And these were the guys I was in bands with. I was like, “Wow, look at these guys. Look at them touching that girl’s boobs” and stuff like that (laughs). I was like, “This is amazing”. So I was thrown in with the wolves at a very young age. But I always got up for school the next day cause that was the rule.
Was it hard to get up after playing most of the night or did being young help keep the energy levels high enough?
Yeah, you had this excitement and it was great. I grew up really fast in those nightclubs.
Who turned you on and made you want to play guitar?
The Monkees. I loved The Monkees and I loved that TV show and Hee Haw. I was very drawn to the guitar for some odd reason. You know, some kids were wanting to be like an astronaut or something, but for some reason I was very drawn to the guitars. Then I started taking guitar lessons right away at age seven and I just loved it. I never put it down.
Do you remember your first guitar and how you got it?
I do. I remember we had a Sears a few miles down the road and I went and got an acoustic guitar from Sears. Oh my God, it was so hard to play cause my hands were so little but I loved it. I played it so much that today one hand is bigger than the other hand from like stretching so much when I was little. It was a very hard guitar to play but then I got an electric and just played it and played it and played it. So yeah, my first guitar was like this Sears acoustic guitar but I never really put the guitar down.
What was the first song you learned how to play?
I think it was a song called “Dirty Water” and it’s an old song, and I forget who it is by, but people reading this will know what that song is. Then I learned how to play “Happy Birthday” for my dad. I remember it was his birthday and I had learned how to play that.
You said you were playing in bands when you were still in school. What was the first band that you joined?
The first band that I joined was this band called Dirty Tricks (laughs). Not the best name but I think I was in like sixth grade going into seventh and we won this battle of the bands. And it wasn’t like this small battle of the bands, it was a big battle of the bands. All we did was practice so we really did well. That was my very first band and it was called Dirty Tricks. Funny stuff. It was really important to do that because it was so life-changing almost. I know it sounds weird but you got a little taste of what it’s like. It was strange.
Were you ever nervous getting on stage playing?
The only time I really get nervous, cause I’m always very prepared when I do anything, but if you’re like going in for a test or you’re going in to do something and you’re not prepared, that’s when you’re nervous. And you have every right to be nervous cause you don’t know what is going to happen. But I usually don’t get nervous cause I’m so prepared. But the only time I get nervous-nervous is live TV. I’m so prepared but like Jay Leno or David Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel or something like that, because it’s so live and if you do one thing wrong there’s no redoing it. It’s there forever. That’s the only time I get nervous-nervous I think.
When did you first start decorating your face?
I think I started in like junior high. I played in this other band called Vampirilla (laughs) and we looked crazy. So I’ve always been doing it but that is when I first started doing it. I used to wear eyeliner to school and stuff like that. It was pretty early on.
What did the other kids at school think? Did they look at you weird or think, “Oh that’s just John”?
The town I grew up in was small but it was big. Everybody kind of knew everyone and ever since I was in pretty much second grade, they knew I was into music. So it was kind of normal and kind of accepted almost; it was accepted because everyone just knew, “Oh, well, John’s the musician, the guitar player” so it was almost ok. But where I grew up, again, everybody was wearing suit coats and bow ties and penny loafers; very, very, very upper-class. But it was ok. I was nice to everybody, everybody was nice to me. But that’s how I was.
What was the first concert you went to?
The first big concert I went to was one of the biggest concerts I have ever been to. I was eleven years old and I saw the Rolling Stones, Santana and Iggy Pop. It was in a huge football stadium and it changed my life. I was doing a show with Slash in Europe and it was called Slash & Friends, and it was me and Slash, Ozzy, Fergie, and Ron Wood from the Rolling Stones was on the bill. I said [to Wood], “Oh, my first concert was seeing you” and blah-blah-blah. It’s just very weird how things happen like that.
Of the three bands that you saw that day, which one did you like the most at the time?
The Rolling Stones. I love the Rolling Stones. I was so into the Stones, even when I was eleven; I mean, it’s so weird to think about but I was really into it. I remember I didn’t care too much for Santana but I remember Iggy Pop just scaring the hell out of me. Crazy, crazy. This was like 1981 and he was a lunatic.
Your solo music has like this atomic feeling. It’s like some nuclear explosion of notes. But it’s very detectable the blues feel within it. Are you pulling in all of your influences when you create or is that just what you’re feeling?
I think it’s an amalgamation of influences and things like that. I think that everything anyone does is influenced from other artists. It’s deep inside your soul and who you are. So I think it’s an amalgamation of people that I’ve loved throughout my life.
You said one time that you wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. Would you say he was the most influential guitar player for you?
I think so, because you take so much when you’re growing up, you’re like a sponge, and I believe it was Eddie Van Halen that really was such an impact on my early days of crafting my style and growing up. But I always remember him saying in interviews to have your own style, so I made sure I didn’t sound like Eddie Van Halen cause we already have one Eddie Van Halen. I always took that to heart, to make sure I wasn’t sounding like someone else.
Who was the first rock star that you ever met?
I know exactly. I was probably about nine years old and it was Nancy Wilson from Heart. She was doing an autograph session and I remember going to the music store and meeting her. It was strange because we’d heard Heart on the radio and things like that so I was like, I’d love to meet her and I saw her picture in a magazine. I was this little teeny, teeny kid and I can still visualize it now. And Howard Leese was there too. He was the other guitar player in Heart. It’s so funny because it had a very big effect on me. And she still looks great.
What was it like working with David Lee Roth?
It was really a dream come true cause I loved Van Halen, like we talked about earlier. David Lee Roth is very untouchable. You don’t know a lot of people who have even met David Lee Roth. Like you and I will talk and yes, we know people that have met Gene Simmons or people like that but very few people have really met David Lee Roth or talked to him. Do you know anybody?
No, but Tyler Connelly from Theory Of A Deadman told me he met him at one of the MTV Awards shows and just went up and said hi.
Yeah, it’s very rare cause Dave is not out a lot and he’s very standoffish and untouchable. But luckily I got the chance to start working with him in I guess 1997 or 1998, and we’ve stayed friends ever since then. We’ll sit and chit chat on the phone and it’s weird that we were just talking about this, how time has gone by and how fast time goes by, but he is a great friend. I really look up to him and he is definitely one of my top five heroes.
Is he a perfectionist in the studio?
I don’t know if perfectionist is right. I think if you capture the right take, if you capture that magic then I think that that’s what it’s about. That’s what I think.
Tell us about your new CD.
It’s called God Told Me To. You know, I’ve done CDs where, of course they’re all instrumental, but they have country songs and a wide range of music on them, but for this one I wanted to change it up a little bit cause I wanted to keep the audience guessing. This one I did like half acoustic guitar, really cool acoustic guitar music, and the other half is heavy, crazy, blistering music. I also did a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, an instrumental cover of that. Also, it comes with a DVD, like a making of the album. It’s like an hour long and it shows me in the studio recording these songs and on the road. It’s a really cool CD to pick up because it has all these extra things with it. Rob Zombie painted the cover. I put a lot of hard work into it.
You’re going out on tour with Rob Zombie this month, correct?
Yeah, Rob Zombie and Megadeth and I’m really excited because I have been working so hard and it is going to be really nice to get out on the road cause it’s kind of like a vacation for me. You get to run around on stage with your friends and have fun.
Since you do all this instrumental music, where does the inspiration come from? I know it probably comes from the same places but songwriters can convey those feelings and emotions in words whereas you convey what you’re feeling with the strings of your guitar.
I think with certain songs, especially on the record, they’re so nice and heart-wrenching and just a lot of soul and emotion and that comes across. But there are some of these songs that just have so much tension and so much frenzy and an out of control feeling almost that it gives you an uneasy feeling. I don’t believe that it always has to have lyrics to make you feel that way. I think a really well-executed song can give you the same sense of emotion.
Are you still doing your clinics?
When I have time. I’m so busy. I’m also scoring Rob Zombie’s film Lords Of Salem, and writing. We’re going into the studio for a new Rob Zombie record in June. It’s been so busy that I haven’t had a chance to do a lot of clinics.
I read a quote by you where you said you liked doing your clinics because the younger kids can come in and talk to you and meet you in person and you get that contact with them.
Oh I love doing clinics. It’s a lot of fun but I’ll do them again for sure. Like I was saying before, like how I met Nancy Wilson, I was so young but it made such an impression on me that I still remember it vividly. Hopefully, I’m giving some of these kids that as well.