Interview with Walt Johnson
Conducted on September 7th, 2018
We went to Walt Johnson’s house on Anderson Island in September to record the second interview for the Featured Artist series for the Island Arts web page. The interview lasted a little over an hour and covered everything from Walt’s years growing up in Seattle, his summers on Anderson Island, his growth as a professional musician, to some of his thoughts about what makes the “Island Sound”. Read on and find out more about this unique island artist.
Walt Johnson playing with his current band, No Rules
IA: We’re here with Walt and Nancy Johnson at their lovely home on Amsterdam Bay on Anderson Island to interview Walt for the Island Arts website. So, we’re going to get started. Walt, could you tell us a little bit about your early years growing up?
WJ: You bet. We were a typical American post-war family. My dad came home from the war and went into the family business. And my mom worked her butt off taking care of us kids. You know it was just like on TV. We had one car because that’s all you needed. My mom didn’t drive during the week. So, my dad would . . . she got the car on Saturday to go shopping because he wasn’t working. So, we just had a blast. If we were going to Anderson Island she would shop on Thursday night and we’d go Friday afternoon after dad got off work. Other than that she shopped every Saturday morning. Tom and I got to go. It was great . . . we’d go to the grocery store in University Village [near the UW campus in Seattle]. I don’t know if you’ve been there recently, but in the 50s there was an A&P store.
IA: So, was your family home in Seattle and you guys came out here for vacation time?
WJ: Yeah, my folks bought this property in ’55. We first came here in ’54. Actually, they bought it in ’54 and built the cabin which at that time was just this center section [pointing to main living area] in ’55.
IA: So, wow, it’s been in the family a long time.
WJ: Yeah, Nancy and I took it over. I think that was in ’03. But Mom and Dad were gradually turning the duties over to us and we were putting our stamp on it since probably in the ‘80s. They got older and they came here less and we came more.
IA: Has the music been a part of that all the time?
WJ: What happened was my brother and I just became, during this period of our childhood we were rock ‘n roll fans; Elvis came along and 45 records, we just loved KJR and KOL. We were just into it. We didn’t play yet but we just loved music. All we cared about then was hydroplanes, music and Anderson Island. That’s what our life was. And the Seattle Rainiers. Dad would take us. Those four things . . . that’s what Tom and I loved.
IA: So, you spent some time at Sick’s Stadium?
WJ: A lot of time. Dad would take us down there maybe once a week. A break for our mom. And that’s how I became such a big baseball fan, seeing that. They were all night games and you’d walk in, you know, past the concession stands and that black sky and the green grass.
IA: I think there’s nothing. . . I remember the first time I went to Briggs Stadium, Tiger Stadium, that was my first ballpark I went to. Walking up the aisle and it opened up into the stands, it’s like you’re in heaven, it’s unbelievable.
WJ: Yeah, that’s exactly what it was. What happened with music was my folks could tell Tom and I were really into this so in ’58, I think it was ’57 and ’58, my dad took us, one year he took me and the next year he took Tom to these rock and roll reviews they had at the Orpheum Theater. And there was like 12 groups on these shows. The Orpheum Theater was where the Westin is now. I think it was ’57, I was 10 and he took me first because I was the oldest. Oh my god, on one show I saw Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Laverne Baker, The Everly Brothers, The Royal Teens. It was just amazing. It’s not like it is now. They all used the same equipment, played 3 songs and the next group came on. He took Tom the next year. And then we were hooked; we wanted to play. Della Reese was on that show, too. We [The Sonics] ended up opening for her at a sold-out Seattle Coliseum show years later.
IA: That was the impetus to get you going?
WJ: That was it. I got a guitar, an old acoustic guitar, and I started trying to figure out things off records and Tom wanted to be a keyboard player. Our folks had a piano in the house; there was no guitar or anything. We didn’t have to even think about it. I wanted to play guitar. He wanted to play keyboards. In all of our early bands we were together.
The Johnson boys, Walt on guitar, Tom on piano, rocking out at home in Seattle
IA: Were you self-taught?
WJ: Pretty much. I took some lessons down at Sherman & Clay from a guy named Glen Corrigan who actually played with the symphony and played guitar when the big bands came to town. He was a great teacher as far as getting me some theory and knowledge about chord structure. I never became a good reader [of music]. I can read chord charts. But, that’s about all.
IA: You play by ear primarily?
IA: Does your brother read music well?
WJ: He’s a pretty good reader. He does both. We got these instruments and started picking stuff up off records because we wanted to learn it. And then by the early ‘60s there were bands around town we’d go see and that’s how we got into it. I think the first band we put together we didn’t have real drums. We just had a guy with pots and pans turned upside down banging on ‘em with spoons, that kind of thing, you know. We gradually got more sophisticated as we saw other bands. I remember seeing the Dynamics and that was an epiphany for me. What a cool band that was.
IA: I’ve never heard of them.
WJ: Jimmy Hannah and the Dynamics. They had a guitar player named Larry Corryell who became well known in jazz circles.
IA: Yeah, Larry Corryell.
WJ: One of the best. He was the guitar player that I first started watching.
IA: Were they local?
WJ: Yeah, it was a Seattle band. They just kind of owned the town from ’62 to ’65. They were the best. There were other bands . . . The Viceroys, The Frantics, The Sonics.
IA: You kind of touched on some of the things we were going to ask anyway. Did you always play the guitar? (The answer is yes.) You started with it and you’re still doing it.
IA: You touched on some of the bands that were influences there In Seattle. You mentioned Larry Corryell’s band and what were the big influences as you were kind of getting really serious about playing?
WJ: I had a buddy named Neil Andersson who actually came out to the Island and played a couple of years ago with Andy Prisco [local jazz guitarist extraordinaire]. We became friends . . . because I got drafted so then I enlisted in the reserves. This was in ’68.
IA: Good time to get into the reserves.
WJ: Yeah. At that time you got in the reserves and didn’t go to Vietnam whereas now the reserves are the first to go.
IA: Yeah, different time.
WJ: So, I’m kind of fast forwarding here till ’68. I was already in bands, two bands I guess. And Neil was in the Wailers. And so, I knew who he was and when I got back from basic training and went to my first Reserve meeting Neil was there. I said, “What are you doing here?”
IA: Same thing you are.
WJ: Yeah, same thing, you know. And I looked at him and I knew, I’d seen The Wailers and his hair was pretty long. So, I’m at this reserve meeting and he’s got this short hair and I said, “I just saw the band a couple of weeks ago and did you get your hair cut?” “No, it’s a short-hair wig.” He was wearing a wig with his hair tucked underneath. You know, you put the Army hat on, you know the fatigue cap and okay, “This is something I gotta do.” Because this is ’68 and hair is getting pretty long. And so, I did the same thing for years and years. I hid it. When summer camp time came at Ft. Lewis you couldn’t get away with it. You had to get a real haircut. But the rest of the year, yeah.
IA: (Laughs) The weekend warrior.
WJ: Nancy used to help me. Push the hair up there. And the wig, it only came to about here [shows the point on his head where the wig would cover]. But you could get away with it. Who knows, the CO, (commanding officer) he might have known about it, he could tell, but he didn’t care. So, Neil and I became fast friends after that. He was one of the best guitar players in the state. So, we would get together and he would show me stuff. That’s when I really started learning how to play; after he showed me. After watching these guys like Neil and Coryell. Kind of watching them and listening to their records. And trying to figure out what they were doing. There’s no YouTube back then. But when I got to be close buddies with Neil and I had a guy right here [next to him] that knew that’s when things really started to get better for me.
The London Fog
IA: Having a mentor right in your presence.
WJ: Yeah. He was a couple years older than me. I looked up to him. He was a star to me.
IA: Yeah, The Wailers were big time.
WJ: Yeah, that was really cool.
IA: So, when did The Sonics come around where you were involved with them?
WJ: I was asked to join in ’69, after their heyday. I was probably their third guitar player.
IA: So, they had been around for a while?
WJ: Yeah. But that’s where I met some of the guys in No Rules. Randy, who’s our keyboard player and singer in No Rules was actually second generation Sonics. He took Gerry Rosalie’s place in the Sonics. So, Randy played with four of the original members. It was a 5-piece band. Scotty, our drummer, joined The Sonics in ’68.
IA: How many bands have you played in?
WJ: Just five. My first one was The Royal 5, that was the early ‘60s. We started the London Fog in ’66. Then I was in The Sonics in ’69. And after The Sonics which was a lot of road work. . . I met Nancy when I was in The Sonics . . . decided I didn’t want to travel that much anymore. So, I came home and started another band called Sweetness ‘n Lite, which was me and my brother and two girls, which was a great lounge group and we did really well. Then the next band was The Machine that I was in for 22 years. So, I guess No Rules would be the 6th band. After 22 years of being in and running The Machine, it was ’97 at that point, I was done. I basically retired from music. I’d gotten into golf. I’d been playing so much music for so many years. All of a sudden I was going to be a golfer, you know. And all the golf magazines took the place of the guitar magazines. It’s the same equipment addiction. With me it was always the club’s fault. If you bought a better club . . .
IA: You’d play a better round.
WJ: It’s just the club’s fault. And in music, well I need another amp [amplifier]. In golf, I need another club. I was out of music basically for seven years. The golf thing didn’t really work out for me . . .
IA: It usually doesn’t.
WJ: . . . like for a lot of others.
IA: I made up my mind a long time ago [about golf]. I like it but I’m not going to be serious about it.
WJ: Don’t put your eggs in this basket.
IA: Boy, I’ll tell you.
WJ: I realized, man, I was wasting my time. The best I ever shot was 86 and I could play guitar way better than I can do this so I’m going to go back. And that’s when we started No Rules. I got asked by some ex-London Fog guys to a London Fog reunion and for one of our old friend’s birthday party. It was time to do this again. We took three of those guys and started No Rules. Eventually, in the second year, Randy came and joined us and Scott, our current drummer, came. Those were two guys that were with me with The Sonics in ’69. And we’ve been doing No Rules ever since.
IA: Honestly, I had no idea that No Rules is that active. You’re saying you play twice a month.
WJ: Yeah, four shows, usually four and sometimes five. Sometimes three. This month we’re only doing three shows. In October we’re only doing one show and then we’re going to take a whole month to finish this new CD we’re working on. We’re going to take the whole month to do that.
IA: So, a studio CD?
WJ: Yeah. It’ll have three original songs.
IA: I’ve only seen you . . . I mean I’ve heard your studio music before and it’s great but I think the joy of listening to the band is when they’re live, to me.
IA: Because there’s so much interaction with the audience.
WJ: You don’t get that on a CD. It’s fun to have one, for people listen to what you do creatively. To me I think every band has to have something more than just playing the shows. It’s great playing the shows and making people happy is the best. But I think you need something in the future for the band. You gotta have something else going on. Like this CD, working on this thing, will keep our guys excited for a year.
IA: And you said it’s original music?
Sweetness ‘n Lite
WJ: Yeah. The last one was, too. But it’s really dated now. We still give it away at shows. But if you go back it’s pretty stale. We need to do something new.
IA: What kind of touring did you do through the course of your career? Europe or anything like that?
WJ: No, but we did the whole country. I remember in The Sonics we were gone for 13 months straight. And Nancy, bless her heart, we didn’t play a Seattle show for 13 months. Man, I’m telling you that was a long time. Nothing like the Hey Marseilles guys [local Seattle alternative band that included islanders Jacob and Samuel Anderson and Philip Kobernik]. They did a tour like that, you know, once a year. Those guys . . . tour monsters. They would do a different city each night. We did a city for a week. And we’d have some travel time. But Nancy, she would work it with her job . . . she’d do like 10 days in a row so she could take the weekend to come and see me for three days and then she would go back. She came to all these places. We opened for The Kinks, Chuck Berry, Della Reese, Joe South and some others.
IA: What do you find that’s most interesting about an audience? What do you sum up as being a good audience for your performances?
WJ: You can tell when they’re listening and you can tell when they don’t care. We’ve played some lounge gigs where you’re just part of the background.
IA: Loud wallpaper.
WJ: Yeah, wallpaper, I never wanted to do that. It didn’t matter who it was or how great I was playing I didn’t want to do a wallpaper gig. I always wanted to do gigs where people cared about the band, cared about who was playing. That’s everything to me.
IA: You feel like you do a lot better performance when that’s going on?
WJ: No question.
IA: Any particular audience you remember that was fantastic?
WJ: This one last Tuesday out in Trilogy, 400 folks out there for that. They were on their feet. It was really great. And the St. Michelle gig on the 4th [of July] was great, that was 2,000.
IA: That’s a nice venue.
WJ: That’s what it’s all about for me. But all of the places we play now, we’re kind of picking them ourselves. And none of them are a drag. Anderson Island, I shouldn’t have left that out, that’s the best. That beats Trilogy and St. Michelle. You know playing at the Riv [Riviera Lakeshore Restaurant].
IA: We’re up there, huh?
WJ: That’s the best.
IA: You know, you mentioned when we were talking about doing this interview, “You know, Glenn, there’s an Anderson Island sound.” What is the Anderson Island sound? What is it? I want to know what it is.
WJ: What it is, is the sum total of all the fantastic people who play out here. It’s like a salad or a stew. You’ve got these totally different ingredients. You know you’ve got the Larsens with their bluegrass, and Bob Wilson when he was playing with them. Then there’s Walt Milewski and his band with more of a ‘60s type sound. They’ve got the great vocals with the Sheppard sisters; you know they’re not sisters, but we call them that; it’s mother and daughter, but they’re great singers. And Walt’s sister, Maria, she comes up and yeah.
The Machine, Walt’s band for 22 years
IA: Great singer.
WJ: Yeah, isn’t she?
IA: When she did “White Rabbit” I about died. I told my wife before she started, “This takes some balls for someone to sing that song in public.” And she hit it.
WJ: She just nailed it.
IA: I was just in awe. I almost think she did it better than Grace Slick.
WJ: She may have. And Walt’s a great singer, too. Now he’s the island bass player; he’s really good. So there’s another. . . . you’ve got the bluegrass, ‘60s guys. And we’ve got jazz players here. I just heard John Johansen at the Summit. He’s really good. We have really good guitar players. There’s Chris Jupinka. And Andy [Prisco] is awesome. The guy is just playing . . .
IA: He’s like Les Paul. He’s pretty good.
WJ: Yeah, he’s great. And then, Brian Alcid. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s got this trio. Have you ever heard them?
WJ: It’s this trio, Go Dog Go. It’s just bass, drums and him. So, he’s playing chords and solos and singing the melody. So cool! And seeing what he can do. And getting to play with him in the Island bands. It’s been great. So, there’s the jazz influence there. And there’s the rock influence of Brian. Then you bring in the classical influence of the Anderson family, classically trained, superior musicians, the whole family. The keyboard players, you remember Mike Robbins when he was here and Rick Stockstad. These guys are just killer keyboard players and they’re trained in everything. Oh, and other vocalists. We’ve had Becca Edmiston join us this year and she’s great to work with, doing great harmony parts. She has a really good voice. In the past there was Merilee Hawkins who’s a great singer, you know Ben’s daughter, and Sonny and Joey Pepin when they were here. Sonny Pepin, it was great playing with her. She was great. David Hussey plays a mean harp and Phil Vickers adds some cool percussion. I talked about Krissa and Sandy. And the Andersons. You know, Rick Anderson has always been a good singer but is becoming better and better.
IA: You know we were just talking about that.
WJ: Jacob is really good and Kristianna really brought it a couple of shows ago. All of the Andersons are good singers. I love listening to Paul and John Larsen sing, too. Rick just killed it this last spring show. And so, there’s the Island sound. . . classical, jazz, ‘60s rock, you know, mixed all together and what you get is what you see when you watch the Spring and Summer concerts. It’s an Anderson Island sound and it deserves a name of its own because it’s not like anything else I’ve ever heard. I’ve heard great rockabilly bands and great bluegrass bands and great ‘60s rock and Beatles bands. But, I’ve never heard the combination.
The 2017 Summer Concert with Rick and Samuel Anderson, Brian Alcid and others
IA: There’s definitely a lot of different influences there, that’s for sure. And some of those musicians you mentioned have played several of those styles, not just stuck with one, say bluegrass or rock. They’ve played several.
WJ: They’ve all branched out and kind of mixed this thing together.
IA: They really have. When we first came out here it was the Not Quite Right band. And Rick, it was like pulling teeth to get the kids to come and perform. It’s so funny now to watch it. I think the kids look for reasons to come out and to do the performances and be a part of that. I think they enjoy it as much as anybody else does. I think there at the beginning Rick was wondering if he was ever going to get them to like it [playing music].
WJ: Well, those girls love it.
IA: You mentioned a number of times the Summit. Can you share a little bit about what that is?
WJ: Sure. Every Friday of Labor Day weekend we just have an informal gathering here on the deck [of Walt’s house]. Any Island musician who wants to play. There’s no rehearsal, there’s no song list. Except, we always start it with “Y’all Come”. Rick Anderson developed an Anderson Island version of that. That’s how we open it up.
IA: You entertain the bay, right.
WJ: Some folks come out, sit on their decks. But you know it’s the opposite of a formal show. It’s like, “What do you want to play next?” “Who wants to solo?” It’s a jam session and we just build around certain songs. We took some songs out of the Spring concert and threw those in because it’s stuff everybody knows. We try to get songs everybody knows or songs that are so simple it doesn’t matter if you know it.
IA: You can pick it up.
WJ: And Deborah Page and Paul Uhl come out and join us for that. And, you know, when Debbie sings it’s like, there’s a star here.
IA: She does have a really good voice.
WJ: It’s like somebody famous is on this deck. And she’ll just start one of her songs she’s written. And everybody, she’ll tell us what the chords are and everybody just joins in. And it turns out to be just a great song. And Jim Pompeo joins us every year for the Summit. Scott Batchelder from No Rules comes and plays with the Islanders for the Spring concerts and just kills it. Jim Pompeo comes out and plays for the Summit. He was the drummer in The Five Johnsons. I guess that’s another band I was in I forgot about because it was going on at the same time as No Rules. It had a couple of No Rules guys in it. But Jim was the drummer in that. He still is the drummer in The Machine. He’s been in The Machine now for 45 years, I think.
IA: Wow, they’re still going, still active.
WJ: He took it over when I left in ’97. I gave it to him and he’s run it ever since. But he joined in 1977. So, he’s been a part of that band since then.
IA: You said earlier when you’re recording there will be some original work. Are you a writer, too? Do you consider yourself a song writer?
WJ: You bet. I love to do that. I wrote both the songs on The Five Johnsons CDs. I wrote one of the songs on the last No Rules CD and one of the songs on the upcoming one.
IA: Do you enjoy that as much as playing?
WJ: Yeah, just as much as playing. I love to practice, play and write. One thing about playing a musical instrument, any musical instrument, you always have something you’re supposed to be doing. You have to . . . for me anyway, I just want to get better. Sometimes I’ll be at my day job and thinking I should be practicing guitar now instead of selling supplies. It’s a little bit stressful because it’s always in the back of my mind.
IA: The passion is there all the time.
WJ: I’m always thinking I should be practicing now because, if I’m not, somebody’s getting better than me. Somebody is, you know. That’s one thing about guitar that’s cool; it’s pretty convenient to practice.
Sonics, and No Rules, members Walt, Randy and Scott
IA: Who would you consider the best guitar player of your generation? [Walt’s thinking] Is that a hard one?
WJ: Well, Jimi Hendrix is the first one that comes to mind. But there’s others, it’s like apples and oranges. There’s guys like Tommy Emmanuel who I think is the world’s greatest guitar player. Joe Bonamassa is awesome.
IA: I’ve seen some of Tommy’s stuff on YouTube and I think, how did you do that?
WJ: But then, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. I consider myself to be mainly a rhythm player, so Curtis Mayfield and Cornell Dupree have been a big influence on me. Gosh I’m sure there’s some younger guys now that, you know . . .
IA: What is it about Hendrix you like so much?
WJ: Just what he did with the guitar. He just took the thing and man handled it. And just got the sounds out of it. I love the emotional part of it.
IA: Is it fair to say, I had a question here, what is your favorite style of music? Maybe that’s kind of a stupid question since you play rock n roll. Is that your favorite style of music?
WJ: It’s the only thing I know how to play. So, it’s my favorite to play. But I love every kind of music. There isn’t anything I don’t bop my head to when I listen to it. I just love it all.
IA: You enjoy listening to it.
WJ: Would it be fair to say then that the stuff you grew up on, what I would call classic rock n roll, from say the late ‘50s through the late’60s is that kind of your bread n butter, the stuff you like the most.
WJ: No, not any more. The ‘90s is my favorite era.
WJ: Yeah, that was my favorite. I get emotional [he really does] talking about the emotion. The ‘90s were just. . . those bands, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, they just, they were like Hendrix because they put that emotion into it in the vocals and it was just so cool. And what happened was we had a great song list in the ‘90s, this was The Machine, the last version that I was in. And it was kind of funny because when I got back into music I wanted to have an R&B band because I remember back in the ’60s doing R&B in the mid-‘60s. When the Beatles came in that changed everything. But pre-Beatles and Stones it was, we were playing black music. We were white kids playing black music and I wanted to go back to that and I also wanted to have a band with a horn section. That’s when we started No Rules in ’04 with three sax players and this was going to be our R&B band. But the thing was it didn’t go over, it didn’t work. It was not working. The shows we were playing were not working. People were not caring and I realized, man, this is something that is really cool for a certain group of R&B fans, but if we want to have a band that’s going to play every week and be a success and keep playing we’ve got to change this. I went back to the song list, The Machine song list from 1997 and we added about 12 of those songs to No Rules just like that and. . .
IA: Everything changed?
WJ: “Brown Eyed Girl”, “You Shook Me” by AC/DC and we were off and running. We had gigs. And the band graveyard is filled with bands that just played what they wanted to play and, you know, didn’t really care about the commercial success of it and they’re gone. Or they play once a year and I never wanted to do that. I wanted to keep the guys going, to keep the interest going and you still have to think about that all the time. You have to think about what you can do to make this just a little bit more appealing. I’m not talking about all of the awesome bands that play their own music.
IA: What people want to listen to and what you want to play and kind of come up with a happy medium.
IA: You guys seem to, when No Rules plays, you seem like you’re really enjoying yourselves. When you get into those long riffs, you know, like that Chicago song, I mean that seems to me, what is that ’70, 1972, something like that?
Walt and Scott Batchelder get ready for the Beatles concert on the Island a few years ago
WJ: Yeah, maybe even earlier. I saw those guys down at Eagles in ’68 and I think they were already playing that song.
IA: Of course, they had a lot of horns in that group.
WJ: Yeah, trombone, trumpet and sax. There’s songs like that that kind of transcend. People still like “25 or 6 to 4”. Have you seen that Russian group that did it? It went viral on YouTube. These Russian guys, they did just a perfect copy of it. There’s songs like that, it doesn’t matter how old they are.
IA: It’s kind of funny when you get into an artist community, when we were interviewing Alexei [Antonov for the Island Arts web page] he loves music, too. Didn’t he talk about some of the bands or something.
IA: There was one musician, an English kid, his name escapes me, but it’s mentioned in the interview. He’s kind of a composer/performer/solo act that he really likes. But I think part of the reason for that is that he really likes classical music.
IA: But it’s not just classical music that he likes. I just think it’s interesting in terms of artists and the avenues they take.
WJ: That’s where we got the name No Rules for the band. There’s no rules as far as what we play. We have lots of rules as far as conduct is concerned and stuff like that. But as far as what we play it could be from the ‘30s. As long as it’s appealing.
IA: I forget the name of the song, but one of your guys, what does he normally play? Is he a horn player and he does that real bluesy song. It’s the only song he sings.
WJ: Dennis. “Unchain My Heart” by Ray Charles.
WJ: ’65 or so. He does a great job on that. Yeah, he hams it up. We call him Dennis the Ham.
IA: That’s one thing I’ve talked to Glenn about, when you’re listening to musicians that are actually really good they do a lot of jamming in their music, they’re playing off each other. They’re really listening to what the other guy is doing and they’re playing with them and not just doing their piece.
WJ: That’s so true and it’s just so important. You want to see guys, if somebody plays a good solo you want to see the other guys go, “Wow”. You know I love playing with Doug in the band. Doug is 45 years with Paul Revere and the Raiders and he’s on a cruise right now backing up Mitch Ryder and The Drifters. He’s played with . ,. . he’s just a wealth of . . . you know he sat in on a conversation one time between Paul Revere and Waylon Jennings. He’s played with everybody. It’s great having him in the band. He’s just an outstanding player and I get to stand next to one of the greatest players and I get to play with him. And back and forth. And talk about improving as a guitar player, Doug Heath, you know I cannot leave him out. He’s probably the most important one of all of them as far as influencing my playing and making me a better player. You know that guy, he is really something. He still plays with the Raiders and so we have to sub for him once in a while.
IA: It’s interesting listening to you talk, as long as you’ve played, talking about improving, that’s really interesting.
WJ: You just have to.
IA: Do you set aside time daily?
WJ: I try to practice every day.
IA: You do? Do you have a regimen you go through or is it just like you pick up a song and you just want to play it?
WJ: It’s usually stuff I need to learn for the next rehearsal. That’s what it usually is. And we have like 40 songs with No Rules that I have to keep up on. And when we had The Johnsons going it was like 70 songs I had to keep going with both bands. And then the Spring concert rolls around for Anderson Island and I have to learn 24 more, in a hurry. It’s things like that that keep you . . . but if there’s no new song coming up I just like to pick up the guitar and play and that’s when you end up writing a song because I’m just doodling around on it and I come up with something that sounds good. So yeah, it’s really . . . when I’m not at work or spending time with Nancy and the kids or the grandkids or something I’ve got the guitar out. I’ve got ‘em stashed everywhere. I’ve got one stashed here, there’s one stashed in LA where we go visit the grandkids.
On the beach on Anderson Island with friends Andreus Anderson, Rick Stockstad and Rick Anderson
IA: Oh, that’s great. If you were going to give someone who’s wanting to get into the field, so to speak, what would be your advice for a musician today in terms of the way things are now? If you were going to be a mentor for them what would you advise them?
WJ: I’d say, write your own songs and join a band of guys who want to write. And practice your butt off. And play, you know play out, they call it vs. in the garage. You know play some gigs, let people hear you, develop a brotherhood, get the chemistry right.
IA: It does seem with your configuration with No Rules that everyone seems to truly enjoy each other’s company. That’s got to be important.
WJ: That’s gold. It’s so much fun. At our age, are you kidding me? I’m so blessed to still have someone want to come and . . . you know, all these old guys. Still have someone want to come and see us. And even some of the 30 and 40 somethings that come to see us.
IA: Well, they certainly do here on the Island. What I find interesting, most live performances I go to, there’s a dance floor and somebody will wander up eventually, but in your case the dance floor is instantly full. One note into the first song it’s full and it stays full.
WJ: That means the song works. Sometimes people don’t dance but that’s okay with us as long as they’re listening.
IA: As long as they’re engaged with the music?
WJ: If they don’t dance and don’t clap the song’s gone. It’s got to be out of there. Because it’s just a liability.
IA: Do you have any children or grandchildren who are following in your footsteps with music.
WJ: The daughters are good musicians. They don’t play professionally but they play piano. When they were little girls I just loved listening to them play piano in the house. But the grandkids are really into it. They’re really into piano and vocals. I can’t believe how good these kids can sing. I had the great pleasure of backing them up at the grade school concert for McDonald International School where the two who live in Seattle go. The two had picked a song, it’s a boy and a girl, they had picked a song they were going to do together. And I got to accompany them.
IA: Wow, I bet that was a thrill.
WJ: Scared the crap out of me.
IA: Oh really.
WJ: Oh gosh. Three hundred first graders, you kidding me? It’s like, oh my gosh. Tough audience. I was just shaking in my boots. We rehearsed. It was “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. So, I worked it out on guitar and backed them up. What’s the name of that song [sings a few words]. I guess it’s “My Favorite Things”. That’s the song we did. That was really a blast. That was great.
IA: So, is there anything you’d like the Islanders to know?
WJ: Just how much we love playing out here. Speaking for the guys in No Rules they love playing here. I think the first show we played out here, I think it was in ’63. We were out here in the summer because this is where we came during the summers with the family. Tom and I were playing at this point so, you can’t just stop playing because it’s the summer. So, we’d have these rehearsals out here on the deck. We’d get the Brown brothers, Bill and Bud, and Bob Gordon. The Gordons were our friends from over here. They had the only TV so we knew them. We were over there all the time. We would just put these bands together. Tom and I were the only ones who really played, but we would talk these guys into it. “Come on, you can do it.” We got a snare drum and put Bill Brown back there. Bob played guitar.
IA: Where would you play?
WJ: At the Clubhouse. That was in ’63. Then we did it again in ’64. We did one a summer. In ’65 I was out here all summer; I was working up at the Johnson Farm. I did that in the summer of ’65 and ’66; I was here all summer. In ’65 we hadn’t started The London Fog yet; we brought out The Royal 5, our very first band. In ’66 we brought out The London Fog. And I went into town for a couple of gigs, too. So, we managed to do something every year. We didn’t do much out here in the ‘70s. But we brought The Machine out here and played at the Riv in 1990, the first time we ever played at the Riv. We didn’t come back to the Riv until ’04 when we brought No Rules over. So, it’s been since ’63 that we’ve had stuff going on out here.
Walt’s band playing at the Anderson Island Community Club in 1965
IA: Were you aware that Willie Nelson came out here one time?
WJ: No. I didn’t know that.
IA: I was talking to Brian, LeMay’s grandson, at the dog park. And the dog park is sitting at the end of the Shaw property. We were just talking and he said he worked for Shaw one summer when Mrs. Shaw had all those horses. And he said this guy came out with a big semi truck and trailer. He said the guy kind of looked like a cowboy. He comes out with this big semi truck to breed his horses. At the time he was just 18 years old and he didn’t have a clue who Willie Nelson was. During the course of that week he discovered who he was. Willie was the one who was driving the semi with all the horses. He brought his horses out. I don’t know if he performed privately for them or not. He was breeding his horses with Shaw’s wife’s horses. Then shortly after that she died. I don’t know what the circumstances were. I thought that was a pretty interesting story.
WJ: Are there still horses out there? I see Raoul out there.
IA: He, the husband, lives on Fox Island, and when she died apparently she had plans to develop the property. There’s something like 30 acres there. And they had subdivided it and they were going to put 5 houses in but it didn’t happen after she died. Jeanne McGoldrick told me there were 20-25 horses when she died and he just hired someone to take care of them until they all die off.
IA: I think there’s maybe 5 horses left.
Nancy: It’s getting kind of low.
WJ: It’s Raoul’s job to take care of them.
IA: He takes care of them, doesn’t he?
WJ: I think so. That was our softball field. Right at the north end of the Shaw property we carved out a softball field. They used to hay that. So, right after it was hayed.
IA: The Parks Department has about 2 acres there for the dog park.
WJ: Oh yeah.
IA: Is there anything else you want to add?
WJ: Gosh, I probably told too much. I thought of one thing. You’d asked me if I’d ever played any other instruments. We were loading equipment into a club and this speaker fell over and actually severed my finger.
Nancy: It [the amp] got stuck in the door and fell over.
WJ: It’s a permanent crook in the finger. It came off right here. It doesn’t straighten out anymore because when they reattached it they . . . you know I immediately put it in the palm of my hand and, “Let’s get to the hospital.” I’m thinking, you know, guitar player, you kiddin me? So, we got to the hospital right away. And I’m going “You got to get this f___ing thing back on. But what happened was. . . well I got a wonderful doctor and we became friends. He originally reattached it and it was originally like this [straight] but I couldn’t play like that, with the finger sticking out because I couldn’t bend it to form chords. So, he was such a great guy I ended up going back to his office with my guitar and telling him what I needed to have this finger do so I could play. So, I went in for another surgery and he put this pin in it so I could play that D chord. If you play the guitar or ukulele you have to play those open chords. So, he bent it, I don’t ever need it straight to play guitar. I need to have it like this [shows his hand with the permanently bent finger]. But in the mean time so I could keep my job in the band I played keyboards. And that’s the only time I ever played another instrument.
Nancy: I taped A, B, C, D on the keys for him.
WJ: Yeah, she put notes on the keys for me.
Nancy: His hand stuck up like this [hand sticking straight up in the air].
WJ: Yeah, she’s got a picture of me like that with the cast on there.
Nancy: To clarify, he had a rule in his bands. He was always the leader of every band he’s had. We don’t have a union. If you can’t play you don’t get paid.
WJ: We didn’t have a keyboard player so, well, I’ll learn it. I got a keyboard and learned some sounds, you know. I played some parts. I was never good enough to do Rick Stockstad or Mike Robbins. I played for 6 months and then went back to guitar.
IA: That’s a great story. Something you mentioned about Rick Anderson and teaching all of his kids how to play. This is my favorite story of their group playing out here. I think Jacob was about 15, 16. So they’d been at it long enough where every year they’re playing at the Community Club talent show at night after the Fair. And it gets a little old playing for dad and mom’s pleasure. And he was tired of it, you could tell, you know, slouched shoulders. He gets up there and he’s playing the violin and he’s playing something like Bach or something pretty extravagant. And it was a packed house and across the back of the room there was a gaggle of about 10 girls, middle school age. And he was playing, kind of very somber and not missing any notes or anything, but no feeling, and then he did this little head bob, you know, for no reason and a little flourish and . . . the girls squealed. He got it. Right then his whole attitude changed.
WJ: That’s awesome.
IA: It really was awesome. You could see the transformation just like that.
WJ: Yeah, someone’s listening.
IA: Yeah, and they were girls, too.
Nancy: I’ll send you a couple of pictures just for fun from the jam out here where Jacob was jamming. It was my first time I ever went because it used to be “No Vegetables, No Women” just guys. “No Vegetables, No Women”
IA: Is that an equal equation there, Walt?
WJ: We had to change that because female musicians started showing up. We’re not going to be exclusionary anymore. The Anderson girls showed up, Deb Page showed up.
Nancy: I didn’t want to come because I didn’t want to change the flavor of things. I’d have to put the chips in a bowl. We had 4 salads; we had chips in the bowl. It was my first year and I just wrecked it.
WJ: This year we had a great group because Jacob was here this year.
Nancy: With his new wife; he’s married now.
WJ: We had a great group. And then there was John Johansson for the first time this year. It was a great group.
IA: Well, good.
Nancy: Walt was lucky enough to play for a living, you know. Five and six times a week for the first 16 years we were married. He would be home with the kids during the day. It was great. I was a buyer; I got to go to my job. We had family dinner together. Then he’d go off to work around 8:30 at night.
WJ: It was really by my folks encouraging us, by taking us to these rock n roll shows but they always said, “You’re never going to be able to make a living at this. You’ve got to have something to fall back on. You’re never going to do that.” I ended up supporting my family for 15 years playing music. So, my dad was wrong about that part of it.
Nancy: The kids were in high school. We had money for college. Back then they were taking away the Stafford loans. (1:00:28)
WJ: We were the anti-Andersons. Rick and Melissa encouraged their kids to play. My folks were, you know, “You should be doing homework, not playing this guitar.”
Nancy: They complained about it until the day they died.
WJ: Yeah, they did.
Nancy: They really did. I spent many weekends with Walt’s family on occasions because he was playing. So, I’d go and the family was like, “That damn music.”
WJ: He should be here.
IA: The first time we met the Andersons we had moved out here, we’d only been out here for a short while. We moved out in November  and we went to the Island Fair [the following summer]. They signed up as a prize for the auction. You know, the family would come to your house and do a concert.
WJ: Oh my god.
IA: The kids were little. Talitha wasn’t even born yet. They were all little. So we bid on it and we won. So they came over to our house and somebody told me, you know they had all these kids, and I asked what does he do and they said he doesn’t work and I though, “Oh my god. He’s got all these kids and he doesn’t even have a job.” I was feeling absolutely horrible. And then, you know, they came over to the house and I had dinner for them and I thought, “Oh my god.”
WJ: I gotta help this family.
IA: They just seemed so upbeat. When they left I said to Glenn, “How can he be so upbeat? He’s got all these kids and . . .
WJ: No job.
IA: Anyway, I was set straight shortly thereafter. I just remember I was freaked out.
IA: They gave us a choice: rock n roll, folk or bluegrass. Those were the three choices we had and we picked one of the three genres. It was Rick, Melissa . . . Melissa played rhythm or bass.
WJ: I remember her playing bass up at the farm.
IA: So it was those two, Jacob, Larissa and Samuel. The five of them played. We cleared out all of our furniture and . . .
WJ: Oh, you won the auction.
IA: We won it. They came to our house. So they played in our living room. It was fun.
WJ: So you’ve got this homeless family coming over, huh?
IA: Kind of.
WJ: I see. Okay.
IA: They seemed so nice and I felt bad for them.
Nancy: We just went to Columbia City and saw Samuel. He was playing solo, the cello. It was a homeless fundraiser. Raising money for the homeless. It was fabulous.
WJ: Yeah those guys.
IA: All those kids. I think Samuel just loves it.
WJ: He does. Hey Marseilles’s first album was awesome, their other albums, too. They got such critical acclaim. It was one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.
Nancy: I still have it on my . . . I play it all the time.
IA: Is that the one with “Rio” on it?
WJ: Yeah, “Rio” was on it. “Calabasas” was on it. It was amazing.
END OF INTERVIEW
Interview with Alexei Antonov, Conducted on March 1st, 2018
Alexei Antonov at 5th Annual Anderson Island Art Show, Winter at the Farm
(We met with Alexei in his kitchen at his home on Anderson Island on March 1st of this year.)
For more information on Alexei Antonov’s art visit his website: www.antonovart.com.
Island Arts: We’re here with Alexei Antonov to do our inaugural interview for the Island Arts website. Tell us a little bit about yourself, Alexei, where you were born, your family and, perhaps, your early history.
Alexei: Well, I was born in Baku. It’s the capitol of Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea. It’s a former Soviet Union republic. I’m Russian; my parents immigrated from the Volga region during the 2nd World War because there was no food and it was a very dangerous place to live. So, they immigrated to Azerbaijan. Well, my Mom and Dad were like . . . Dad was a scientist and Mom was, like, my Mom. (chuckles)
Island Arts: She was home. She was a stay at home Mom?
Alexei: Yes. Well, my grandparents, especially from my mother’s side, he was a carpenter, very high quality like a furniture maker. And from my father’s side my grandpa was a watchmaker. So, probably from them I got the genes of crafting something with the hands and eyes. That’s pretty much where I come from.
Island Arts: When did you actually start painting or at least show an interest in the arts and get serious about it?
Alexei: Well, I remember myself from when I was 2 years old I believe because I remember some pictures from that period of time. I started painting with Mom’s lipstick. I always took her lipstick and painted on the wall paper.
Island Arts: (laughs) Her favorite artist?
Alexei: Well, that’s when it started. In school I didn’t have any interest in different disciplines, only art and singing sometimes. I was a pretty good student. All my life I’ve been drawing something, been painting.
Island Arts: Did they have art classes in your high school equivalent years?
Island Arts: Did you take them?
Alexei: I had to.
Island Arts: It was a requirement?
Island Arts: Did you like them?
Alexei: Yes, I like them. I was the best student.
Island Arts: Did they tell you that you were good?
Alexei: Yes, some of them, some of them not. I always saw myself as an artist, always. My friends saw themselves as firefighters. They dreamed of selling ice cream on the streets. I wouldn’t think about this. I was always thinking I would be an artist.
Island Arts: So, at what point did you go to the professional level of training where you specialized in the style of art that you’ve become famous for?
Alexei: Well, when I started out in art college they taught us more like Soviet realism which is based on the realistic theory, the realistic tradition and impressionistic tradition. It was kind of mixed. There was no fine detail there was none of the difficult Flemish masters technology. It was pretty much New School.
Island Art: So was the training for the art initially under the Soviet style like socialist realism, where you were considered a propogandist where they wanted you to promote the Soviet Union per se?
Alexei: No. Yes and no. They actually taught me something. They taught me how to deal with oil paint, how to use the brushes. And the role of propaganda, well, it was normal in the Soviet Union. If you find a job to do portraits of the political people who were ruling the government you were a lucky person. You could make a living. When I finished school and had to find a job, it was very difficult to find this kind of job. A group of government artists, they give you like a license, a very important-looking license, red color . . . Like a KGB license or something like that. But you don’t have a job; you have the opportunity to find a job and run it through the government but you have to find it by yourself. Every Tuesday people would go to a certain place and wait for a job. And I came and came and there was no job for me. And finally I wrote a letter to the director. I said, “Because I’m so hungry and I’m dying please give me the most unlikeable job that no one will take. I will take it.” They started laughing and asked me to come and they gave me a job. I painted a portrait of, I don’t remember who, it was Breshnev.
Alexei in his studio with one of his paintings.
Island Arts: You painted a portrait of Breshnev.
Alexei: Yes. And I started my career. But I didn’t pick up this propaganda seriously, only as a way to survive, a way to make a living.
Island Arts: Did Breshnev see the painting?
Alexei: I don’t think so. No. I painted it for someone else.
Island Arts: Was this still in Baku?
Island Arts: And this was early in your career?
Alexei: Yes, I was very very young. When I moved to Moscow after the Army I was starting to experiment with the Flemish masters technique. I started copying, I started reading books. I was still discovering. I pretty much covered everything available about this technique, about this period in history, the 16th century.
Island Arts: Did you teach yourself the technique, then?
Alexei: This particular technique, yes.
Island Arts: Yeah the Flemish technique.
Island Arts: So, within the Soviet system, they weren’t telling you, “We want you to paint in this style or that style.” You had the flexibility to develop your own style or did they . . . ?
Alexei: Well, they were looking for a more realistic style, but again the major school was more the impressionist style, like a pig, one layer of painting, careless composition, careless material, you know what kind of material they used. But if you made fine details, if your painting looked like the person whom you were painting you’re the best. So, they didn’t force me to do that.
Island Arts: Interesting. So, was there an actual market for your work in the Soviet Union?
Alexei: When I worked for propaganda, yes, there was like a market. But it was a government market. They had a certain amount of money to spend on this kind of art.
Island Arts: They had a budget?
Alexei: They had a budget. So, we had to take this budget. Sometimes we bribed the owners of new buildings. We would come and say, “You have money, you have a budget. Let me do your interiors. And 20% is yours. Well, okay, that’s good.” I would say, “Look, if you don’t spend the money this year, next year you will have less money.”
Island Arts: You have to spend it all or you don’t get it again?.
Alexei: We learned this very well. Bribery was everywhere.
Island Arts: What you said about the Russian you said was real simplistic, one layer of paint, is that the kind of stuff you see in the propaganda posters? You know you always see during the period of Stalin, you know, all the workers out there. That kind of stuff. Is it that kind of style?
Alexei: It’s close. But you’re talking about the genre. It’s separate, like posters.
Island Arts: So that’s not what you did?
Island Arts: Now, you did say you did some illustration work in one of your bios. What was that all about? What kind of work was that?
Alexei: Again, when I was off to Moscow. Times started being more free during the Gorbachev period of time when we had good relations with America and stuff like that. During this period of time I met lots of good people in Moscow, artists, musicians, especially rock groups. They needed advertising and I started doing posters for them.
Island Arts: Interesting. For musical groups?
Alexei: Yes, musical groups.
Island Arts: So these were posters for their events, for their concerts?
Alexei: Concerts, events, records.
"Black Belt Artist"
Island Arts: Did you keep copies of that kind of stuff?
Alexei: I have them somewhere but I don’t pay attention to it actually. So, it’s kind of gone. I was young.
Island Arts: (Laughs) It was just a way to pay the bills. Now you opened a gallery in Moscow, right?
Island Arts: Is it still open?
Alexei: It’s still open and in fact it still has the same name I gave it. It’s called Gallery Rubens.
Island Arts: Isn’t there a famous painter by that name? It’s named after him?
Alexei: Yes, Peter Paul Rubens.
Island Arts: And so you worked in Moscow. And obviously at some point you decided to immigrate to the US then?
Alexei: Well it wasn’t like I decided to immigrate. I decided to go for a visit with a friend of mine. He’s also an artist. He’s an iconographer. He paints icons; he’s a very religious guy. And I went with him to Alaska and lived in an orthodox Christian community. I took some paintings with me. And one gallery showed in an interest in my paintings. They gave me a one-man show and all of the paintings were gone on the first day. It was my best commercial success in America. Then little by little they created a business visa for me, then a green card. And to me like it’s led me where I am right now, where I can paint and nobody bothers me. And for now I feel like Anderson Island is my motherland. Because here people are dear to me and I have a perfect place to work. Nobody bothers me. There’s lots of inspirational things in the weather, the climate. And this is my place right now.
Island Arts: So, did you live in Alaska?
Alexei: Yeah, 4 years.
Island Arts: And then you moved down to here.
Alexei: Down to California. In California I had a contract with a gallery in Carmel. And this contact said that I could not sell my art from my home. I couldn’t sell art in California, only through them. And then I moved because I wanted to sell art from my home. So, I moved to Washington. I visited this island, fell in love, bought this piece of land, built this house and have been stuck here for more than 20 years.
Island Arts: So, in the mid-1990’s?
Island Arts: I’d say you’ve perfected this style and you’re also doing some work with what I kind of call “Rubens meets Dali”. (Laughs) I don’t know if that’s accurate or not but there’s kind of mixture of these two styles. When did you start experimenting with that and is that something that just sort of a sideline or do you see that as your new style?
Alexei: Yes, probably a new style. But how it happened. During my real artist period I learned the Flemish masters technique and developed and put together 6 teaching videos about this. And I have lots of written materials. What I learned from the books it’s very hard to find very organized tutorials on how to paint. You have to read about this artist, find this book, then try to find the writer about this artist, what he wrote about another artist. There’s so many things to learn. But I learned and during the last several years it’s gotten a little bit boring because I reached my ceiling. I couldn’t grow anymore.
Island Arts: With the Flemish style? The technique, you’ve mastered it.
Alexei: Yes, and it’s very hard to find something new. So, then I started thinking I need to bring in some more enjoyment and I started experimenting with my dreams you know my psychological feelings, my intuition and I started feeling like a young artist again. It’s like I started my second life. I started learning. I started looking at paintings. I started reading. It’s like a new epoch. I spent a good 4 or 5 years with this. We can call it surrealistic. It’s not exactly surrealistic, but there’s no name for what I’m doing. Yeah, like this. And right now I’m going a little farther. I’ve started doing the expressionistic style, more impressionistic. Cleaning my palette I find new colors, I find new happy accidents. And it’s given me an opportunity to change composition “on the go.” If it doesn’t go very well I just throw away the painting. I start a new one. Because the technique is very quick.
Island Arts: So, the technique for this style here (points at painting on the wall) is a lot less involved than your classic Flemish style? Is the underlying technique more or less the same but you’ve kind of eliminated some steps along the way or is it a totally different technique?
Alexei: We’re talking about 3 epochs. Classical Flemish masters (points to the still life), this portrait is more surrealistic (points to another painting) . . . And this is the latest one, expressionistic/impressionistic style, one layer technique. Sloppy.
Island Arts: This is done with one layer?
Alexei: Yes, this is actually a print. The original is twice as big.
Island Arts: Is the Flemish style always done with still life? Do they do portraits?
Alexei: They do portraits, of course. They made big compositions.
Island Arts: Do you like portraits?
Alexei: I like portraits, but portraits require lots of work with the people and I don’t like this destiny. I like to be my own boss. I like to serve my composition, what I think. But sometimes I do portraits. For example, my dentist’s kids. My first child when he was born, my 2nd child when was born in Alaska. I’ve painted kids’ portraits for my wife’s doctor. So, . . .
Island Arts: Oh fun, but he wasn’t probably very cooperative.
Alexei: I like to do trades with the doctors.
Island Arts: Have you seen the presidential portraits of Obama and his wife? Have you looked at those? There’s two new official portraits that are going to be in the national gallery. One of him and one of her. He’s in the flowers and she’s got a quilt on. What did you think of those? I don’t want to put you on the spot but I’m really interested. . .
Alexei: Her portrait I actually love. Her portrait because of the decoration, because of the composition. It’s more a piece of art than (President) Obama’s. Obama’s is kind of catchy, it’s like it’s not serious.
Island Arts: Do you have a favorite contemporary painter or historical painter?
Alexei: Yes, it’s only one guy. Jan van Huysum. Yes, he does flowers. Unbeatable. I can’t do how he does Peonies. I learned a lot from him.
Island Arts: And he paints this style?
Alexei: Yes, I learned a lot and he lived in the 16th century in Holland. They used to develop tulips; one tulip could cost one painting of Jan van Huysun. So that’s why he painted tulips, lots of tulips because they were very expensive. In America there are maybe 5 very good originals in the Jay Paul Getty museum.
Island Arts: So, in terms of your own paintings, do you have a favorite of yours? This is the height of my career.
Alexei: Usually I answer this question by saying my favorite painting is in the future. I can tell you my rating grew up a little bit last summer because one of my paintings was bought by a very famous rock musician. His name is Steven Tyler.
Island Arts: Yes. Steven Tyler.
Alexei: So that’s why my rating grew.
Island Arts: I’m sure that a lot of the value of art (in this country) is in who owns the art. A couple of high-visibility people who own your art, that just makes you more visible. Again, related to the Obama paintings, we both thought the painting of Barack Obama, we liked that better than the painting of Michelle Obama. And it’s interesting you liked the painting of Michelle Obama. How does that relate to your definition of fine art? How do you define fine art and is it even important to you, the definition and the debate over what constitutes fine art?
Alexei: Well, I think it’s a matter of taste. I feel in (President) Obama’s portrait there’s a little bit of Naïve style. You know Naïve?
Island Arts: Yes.
Alexei: Because this foliage has no perspective. It looks like it’s . . .
Island Arts: It’s one dimensional.
Alexei: Yes. Not really professional. But some people understand Naïve and like Naïve. And I respect that. Maybe in the future I will do something Naïve, too. I don’t know. But right now I’m more on the Michelle side, on the live dress, on the bold composition, very contemporary. It’s very eye-catching from a distance. From a bunch of pictures on a screen you can point at this dress, you know. In a little square. But faces? I’m not sure. In a painting I look for composition and the colors and things like that. I guess it’s not only about paintings, it’s about art, about music, about literature, about poetry. The professionalism, something which is indescribable. . . for example, musicians. One musician will play every note (Alexei then sounds out the notes to the beginning of the Star Spangled Banner in a very straightforward way). Everything is perfect, all the notes are there. But another musician can play like (Alexei then sounds out the Star Spangles Banner with quite a bit of interpretation in the notes) you know, a little bit of disharmony, a little bit stretched out inside notes.
Island Arts: With more feeling?
Alexei: He’s kind of creating something with the notes. He brings his own mistakes, his own soul you know? And if he did it right it’s real art, if he did it wrong, it’s bad art. Something like that. There’s lots of feelings, different quality of feelings. Where to put the spotlight, the focus light. Where contours must disappear or appear. And again, if you do this mechanically you know the artist is supposed to make this, for example, (points at painting) shadow line disappear. You know like this line is not supposed to be there. This sharp line has to be here. But, if you do this automatically it’s not a fact it will be good. It depends on what’s inside of you. It’s like all people are different. One person is smart, another is not that smart. One person has better feeling and another doesn’t. It’s the same thing with artists and musicians. It depends on their personality. Sometimes you see great art and you start reading about the artist he was an awful person. He was not good at all. He was not good with people. How was he able to produce?
Island Arts: Do you use much modern technology when you’re painting?
Alexei: Lately, yes.
Island Arts: What has it been?
Alexei: I like computer gadgets. I like playing with different things. Right now I have a new IPod Pro with a pencil and I have so much fun. It’s breakthrough technology for artists. You can draw just like on a piece of paper.
Island Arts: Do you incorporate that into . . . just sort of experimenting with that for fun or are you trying to incorporate that into your repertoire of work?
Alexei: I try as much as possible to learn something new. For example, when I was growing up I tried to choose my friends from people older than me to learn from them, to learn information. Now I try to make friends with younger people because I know they are smarter than me.
Island Arts: (Laughs) I taught technology. I know they are smarter.
Alexei: So, that’s why I learn. I’m thinking what can I do for my art with this? And right now I find it much more appropriate, for example, I take a picture of a painting in progress and immediately I start to try different things on the screen. How to change, what to add, what to get rid of. It’s already a big plus. I don’t make a mistake on the canvas, I make a mistake on the screen.
Island Arts: So it’s a form of editing your work in a way?
Alexei: Yes, editing, composing.
Island Arts: It’s much faster.
Alexei: Faster, yes, and more appropriate.
Island Arts: You probably experiment more because it makes it friendly to use.
Island Arts: So are you. . . you see some art where they are using computers in the actual art itself. You can see it in photography, like in Photoshop.
Alexei: There are lots of artists right now who make a painting right on the computer then paint it out and sell limited editions and stuff like that. But this is also a limited edition (points to one of his paintings hanging on the wall). It’s a print on canvas from the original. I use lots of Photoshop before I start to do real composition on the canvas because it’s easier to balance. On the canvas if you make a mistake it’s very hard to correct it. And I believe if Leonardo da Vinci were living in our century he would have the most sophisticated computer technology.
Island Arts: You know, I think that’s true. He was a scientist after all. He’d have them lined up. He’d have big screens. You taught a class out here, a number of classes. Do you like teaching?
Alexei: Yes, I love it. I like it. I’ve been so surprised when I started to do this. So many people here on the island who like to paint. I have been pleasantly surprised how many people. They’re waiting for me to do it again. But my studio is getting tighter and tighter. I have more and more stuff. I need a new studio or I need to get rid of a bunch of things.
Island Arts: Well, at our last art show in January there were 33 artists and photographers. But aside from the photographers, there were a good 25 to 26 artists, most of them from the island.
Alexei: The island has some kind of magic.
Island Arts: That’s great. What would be your advice to someone who wants to become a professional artist or at least a serious artist?
Alexei: Well, no compromise. If you want to have this career, no compromise with a good dad, good husband or good wife. Only an artist. You are not a wife anymore. You are only an artist.
Island Arts: Oh my God, that’s serious.
Alexei: You have to suffer with lots of normal human being things. My poor wife has been with me for 30 years, more than. While I was growing she was around but I always said I’m an artist in the first place and a dad and husband in the second.
Island Arts: Oh gosh, so she did it all, huh? She’s not an artist herself?
Alexei: Thank God, no.
Island Arts: I was going to ask you before we close up here, you’ve painted primarily. You made mention that you were told you were good at art and you were good at singing. Do you still sing?
Alexei: Not really. But I love to play on the piano. I don’t know notes. I like to play avant garde. I love any new form of music. I always search for new names. My favorite style is fusion, the fusion of jazz, classical and folk music. Like Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Do you remember those names?
Island Arts: Oh yes.
Alexei: Right now there’s a new young guy. He’s 23 years old. Last year he had 4 Grammy awards. His name is Jacob Collier. He’s a fantastic guy. He’s a great composer. He composes better than Mozart. He’s composed the most difficult compositions. He’s created a new kind of harmony. He teaches. Very big musicians are following him right now.
Island Arts: Wow, is he a jazz fusion guy?
Alexei: It’s kind of the next step of fusion I can say. The next step. It’s something new.
Island Arts: Wow. Jacob Collier. Glenn will go home and look him up right away.
Alexei: I always listen to him right now.
Island Arts: My other question I had is, have you ever done anything besides painting that has to do with art, like sculpture or anything like that?
Alexei: Not really. When I studied art in college, yes, I did some sculpture and I was pretty good at it. But there’s no facility. If I had a big studio I’d probably have a corner with sculptures. But there’s no place for me to do it here.
Island Arts: So you need a bigger place, huh?
(This concluded our interview with Alexei Antonov Island Arts appreciates his time and effort in helping us put this project together.)