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The three-song EP “Let There Be Drums!” features drummer Johnny Harrelson, guitar player Joe Pizzolato, bass player Adrian Howard, Cody Kallum on keyboard and Red Young on organ and piano.
One the area’s newest musical projects is Johnny John & the Schemin’ Dreamers, who have burst onto the scene with the 10-inch vinyl and digital EP “Let There Be Drums!”
The project is the brainchild of local drummer Johnny Harrelson, who says it serves as a tribute to three of his favorite artists and doubles as an experimental exercise in self-reliance.
While Harrelson may not yet be a household name, he says he has been playing in various local projects since his teens. Most notably, he was a member of the band The Viridian Sons, who released an indie pop rock single called “Russian Spy.” But after that group faded into the shadows, he decided to strike out on his own.
“I’ve always had a desire to play music and be productive, but I’ve always found that projects have always started and stopped,” Harrelson said. “For whatever reason, I was never really a part of anything that could really sustain itself or get off the ground for a very long period of time. I think there are a lot of people that way.”
Now in his 30s, Harrelson plans to have the final say on everything, ranging from the studio production to the featured players. He considers “Let There Be Drums!” to be the “opening salvo” of an industrious future for the group.
“I’m in the process of releasing a series of records on a consistent productive basis,” Harrelson explained. “‘Let There Be Drums!’ is the first record in that series of releases. I wanted to start with something I knew, with playing the drums to music I like.”
“Album-oriented rock” (AOR) is what Harrelson knows and likes. This offshoot genre of progressive rock is noted for a freeform nature that can sometimes border on fusion jazz. Narrowing his focus, Harrelson decided to give his interpretation of Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush’s “Poppy,” Jeff Beck Group’s “Definitely Maybe” and Cozy Powell’s “Killer.”
His own compositions offer an opportunity to transition from band member to band leader while exposing listeners to an obscure form of instrumental rock.
“[AOR] used to be out there 30 or 40 years ago,” he said. “There would be groups that would do this fusion or rock instrumental/AOR kind of music. I just wanted to pay tribute to that. Now that it’s out of the way, I can move on to other music that I enjoy.”
The album’s version of “Poppy” focuses more on the song’s clean fusion jazz than the rock-dominated original. “Killer” features a raunchier synth sound than the original. “Definitely Maybe” trades the original version’s standout piano for a warm, soulful organ and a more prominent guitar.
Harrelson owes the fresh versions of these songs to the group of musicians who joined him at Rick Hirsch’s Studio H2O. Harrelson says Florida-based guitarist/co-producer Joe Pizzolato recruited a majority of the lineup. Hirsch brought in longtime friend Red Young (Eric Burdon, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) to add his keyboard magic to the album. With the wealth of experience that spawned AOR, Hirsch also played an important role with the EP.
After Pizzolato recruited a studio lineup from the Florida Panhandle music scene, Harrelson says there were many emails and phone calls among the musicians. Once the album’s goals and agendas were presented, the group met for one day of rehearsal before entering the studio. Throughout the rehearsal, Harrelson says, a natural connection built, a spontaneous bond resulting in superb arrangements.
“It was very organic,” he admitted. “It wasn’t articulated one way or another. The guys were familiar with the tunes and went over it on their own. Whenever we rehearsed, we were prepared enough to let the chemistry happen. It was risky, and it could’ve been a disaster. It worked out, and it was pretty cool.”
Harrelson says the group laid these tracks in December 2016 but the business and marketing aspects of releasing the album kept its debut on hold. As far as licensing, Harrelson says he was lucky the Harry Fox Agency owns the rights to both “Definitely Maybe” and “Killer.” Securing the rights for “Poppy” took “a little more legwork,” as Harrelson said he had to personally contact Canadian Frank Marino’s wife, and did so with a phone call to Vancouver.
He also had to consider the financial requirements of releasing this album on vinyl, as well as the time it would take to press it.
“A lot of [releasing an album] is setting up the framework, not just the mixing and mastering but also the business aspect,” Harrelson said. “I have never done anything like that before. I wanted to make sure that I had all the right credentials as far as starting up a little vanity record label on Hello Dare! Records. It was also getting the records pressed and raising the money.”
Harrelson said the public can expect another album in the near future. He is already laying all the instrument tracks by himself at his home studio, then taking them to New Orleans studio engineer Jack Miele, who mastered “Let There Be Drums!” The upcoming release will comprise only Harrelson’s original songs. However, he won’t be delving into the world of AOR.
“I would call it pop,” Harrelson said. “I played some tracks for some folks, and they said it has some roots rock edge. I would say that it’s a pop record. There’s hooks. There’s bridges and lots of good lyrics. I play the bass, the guitar and the drums. It’s going to be a more proper solo record, but it’ll be under the same name. It should be out in probably about eight months.”