If you listened to modern rock radio in the 1990's, chances are you know "Bad Reputation," the hit single by Freedy Johnston.
What you may not know is that the New York guitarist -- who was named Songwriter of the Year by Rolling Stone in 1994 -- has developed deep connections to the Madison music scene over the past 15 years.
He worked on two of his major label albums here and stayed in town for a year from 2000 to 2001. He's also an original member of the Madison supergroup, the Know It All Boyfriends.
Last Friday, Johnston, 47, played a show at the Frequency, days after finishing work at Pat McDonald's Steel Bridge Songfest in Door County. Before the Frequency show, I sat down with Johnston to talk about his Madison connections and his upcoming album.
The Daily Page: So how was the Steel Bridge Songfest?
Johnston: It was great. This was my second year there. I got paired with an Austin songwriter named Mark Addison this time.
How are the pairings arranged?
You play 'Spin the Bottle' the first night. That's how it gets decided.
The big Madison story coming out of the Songfest last year was Jane Wiedlin teaming up with Whore du Jour.
Yeah, she was there again, and they played together. Man did they rock. You can tell they've been rehearsing because they're really tight. I have high hopes for them.
I've wanted to do a story for some time on your ongoing connection with the Madison music scene. I know Butch Vig recorded your 1994 album, This Perfect World. Then you recorded your 2001 album, Right Between the Promises, at Smart Studios. The cover photo for that album was taken in front of a motel on East Washington Avenue. And you're also a member of the Know It All Boyfriends. How would you characterize your relationship with this city?
Well, the Know It All Boyfriends have been together for seven years now. I don't have any reservations about saying this is my second hometown. It started in '94, working with Butch, and we came here to do the last overdubs.
We'd been working on that album for about two months in New York. Butch is a patient guy, so we came back here and spent another month and a half working on it.
In fact over there at Genna's is where it all started. I was staying at the Inn on the Park. That's how I met everyone -- Kristi (Genna) and Jack (Williams), Jay (Moran) and Duke (Erikson), Stick (Bielefeld) and Pie (Cowan) -- and I knew that these were my people.
My last Elektra record was recorded here, and I lived here for a year while we made that.
That's the album where the cover photo is taken in front of the Spence Motel, right?
Yes, and I didn't realize what had happened there. [A prostitute was murdered at the Spence Motel in 1997.] We were doing a photo shoot, and it was really, utterly innocent. We just happened to have rented out a room work up a 1950's theme. It couldn't have upset me more. Nobody told me. There were rumors going around that we had done it on purpose. It was very, very stupid and coincidental.
Did you write the songs for that album here?
I finished most of them here, but I wrote those songs over 2-3 years. I was here for a year. I rented a house. That was 2000, in the winter. There was about three feet of snow. The house was in a really nice part of town. I rented it from a university professor.
Did Butch work on that album at all?
He was busy with Beautiful Garbage at the time.
How did you first get connected to Butch?
I don't know. I just kind of asked. I had just been signed to a major label deal. I was all doe-eyed, nave, about to be exploited. And the people at the label said, 'who do you want to work with?' And I said, 'I'll take Butch Vig, please.' They said, 'ok, he's pretty busy, but we'll try.' He took my job because he liked my first album.
The album Butch produced included your most famous single, "Bad Reputation," right?
Yes, that's right, indeed. And of course, Butch played drums on that. It was a song we put together at the end of the session. We kind of ran out of songs, and Butch said, 'we need more songs!' And so I said, "Ok, I have this stupid song, but I'll play it for you.' I had different words for it back then, and I really just didn't like it.
I played it there in the kitchen of the recording studio, and Butch said, 'Ok, that's the one. We've got to record that right now.' But the band was already gone. The only people there were Butch, an engineer and my manager. So Butch agreed to play drums and the engineer, John Yates, played bass. Butch's drums gave the song a great, driving feel.
Did you know that Death Cab for Cutie recorded a cover version of "Bad Reputation?"
I've heard about that.
Have you ever heard their version?
I haven't. Is it any good?
It's really good. I would think their popularity could bring some new exposure to that song. Their latest album was a Billboard #1 this year.
Their album went to #1 on the Billboard charts? Man, I am so out of touch. I don't even know what's on the charts.
It's a wide open time in the music business. Have the changes in the industry helped or hurt your career?
I've been on the other side of the biz for awhile now. I mean, I haven't recorded an original album in seven years. That's as many years as I spent on Elektra (1994-2001). I'm working on a new album now. Five of the songs are recorded, and it sounds fantastic.
I read that it's going to be a double album.
It was going to be. Now it's just going to be an album that will be released.
Has your approach to songwriting changed since your last album?
No, I don't think so. I think it will be in a different place once I'm done with this. But I've been carrying these songs around for a long time.
I'd like to talk a little about the Know It All Boyfriends (KIAB). They've become something of a local phenomenon. What's your earliest memory of KIAB and how the band came together?
Well, BV's [Butch Vig's] brother Chris was having a Christmas party, and the band that was supposed to play had canceled. A bunch of us met up at Genna's before the party, and Butch was like, "We're going to start a band tonight!"' Yeah, a cover band. BV had drumsticks. The band didn't even have a name, you know.
So there we were in the kitchen of Chris' house right before we were supposed to perform. Butch asked what we were going to call ourselves. And I said, "Well, I had a band that played a couple of gigs back in Hoboken in the 1980's called The Know It All Boyfriends." So that's what we decided to call it.
Playing in that band has been really fun. We've gotten better. Last time we played, which was at Chris Vig's son's graduation, we were really tight. I've learned a lot from that band. You learn other people's chord changes, and you think it's crazy, but you learn it works.
Will KIAB continue?
I hope it does, but BV is in L.A. now.
So you're playing the new Frequency club tonight.
Yes, I knew it as the Slipper Club.
Do you know Darwin Sampson, the club owner? He used to book the Annex.
Oh, he booked the Annex? I just met him tonight. There's a need for a club like [The Frequency]. The King Club is like that.
Except the King Club closed.
Oh, it closed. See, there's just no profit in that. There's got to be a way, but it can't be easy. There's too much overhead. But thank goodness people do it. Like Darwin, he's doing it for the love of music.
You keep coming back to Madison. Do you think you'll ever move here?
Well, I have at least a couple of dozen friends here. It's crazy. I think I'll end up here some day, at least part time. Yes, I definitely could see living here, if I ever settle down. I'm just especially happy, every time I'm here.