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Interview: Duquette Johnston

10 May 2022

While there was never a question of whether or not Duquette Johnston would release new music, there was a question on the timing. The former Verbena bassist, who left the band in 2000 due to drug issues that resulted in a stay in the Etowah County Correctional Facility, completed work on fifth full-length album, The Social Animals, in early 2017 under the guidance of noted producer John Agnello but wanted to wait until the time was right to share it with the world. Johnston is a husband, a father, and a proprietor who opened a unique clothing store/art gallery/performance space called Club Duquette in 2016 and while music is his passion, it shares priority with other things in his life.

After dropping a few singles/videos in late 2021 and early 2022, Johnston released The Social Animals in February with the help and support of Single Lock Records, an artist-friendly label that has released music from the likes of Nicole Atkins, John Paul White, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones among others.

For someone who hit rock bottom and spent time in prison, Johnston’s turned his life around and continues to spread positive messages and joy through whatever medium he has available. And while fans have been hungry for new material for years, the wait for The Social Animals was well worth it, the music sounding like something you’d hear on AAA radio alongside like-minded artists such as The War on Drugs, Father John Misty and Hiss Golden Messenger.

You started working on the album years ago. Would you call this a labor of love?

DUQUETTE: Absolutely. You go into make an album like that and it’s like, sure, you can self release but I tell people that it’s been 9 years since I put out a record but it was really 20 years in the making because that’s the first time I ever worked with John Agnello. It was post-Verbena, Souls for Sale, we were doing pre-production for what would become Into the Pink and I left the band right before that full album was recorded. But, originally, it was supposed to be John Agnello producing it. We did pre-production with John and we really connected. We spent a lot of time together that week and, after that, I didn’t talk to him until 2015. I had always wanted to make a record with him and I was willing to wait and be patient and do whatever needed to be done. You do something like that and then you’re like, “Sure, I could self release it but I don’t have all the resources or the time because we are running Club Duquette and I have a family.” I will always make records, even if I do have to self release them, even if I just get out my cassette 4-track, my old Tascam.

It was a labor of love with an incredible amount of love and support from people within my community. Jeffrey Cain, who runs [label] Communicating Vessels, I don’t know if they are still putting out records but they put out my last record, he’s a full-time member of The Church now and their studio is on the other side of the wall that is behind the painting in my shop. Jeffrey was like, “You’ve got to make this record. How can I help? What can we do to make this happen?” Once it was done, it was like “Okay, who should we send this to?” It got rejected from a lot of indies. A lot of people just said, “Nope.” I’m used to rejection in the music industry so it didn’t bother me. Honestly, I don’t think I really wanted even to be with some of those other labels. I just wanted help. I wanted partnership. I wanted people who were willing to support my vision for my art in the way we want to do things, the way my family wants to do things, because everything is intertwined and connected. Single Lock was that label. Reed Watson, Ben Tanner, John Paul White, Will Trapp, they all got it. A labor of love indeed. That’s my long answer.

I had the chance to talk with John Agnello once. He seems like such a genuinely nice guy.

DUQUETTE: John is a very deep friend of mine. We had that instant connection in Verbena 20 years ago but when I messaged him and said, “Long time, no talk. I’m going to be in New York doing these shows. Can I come to New Jersey and buy you a drink and let’s talk?” It was like we were brothers, like we had grown up together and it was just an instant connection not only with John but with his wife, Sharon. John is completely genuine, one of the most caring, loving, sarcastic, at times curmudgeon – I use that word lovingly, just because he’s funny as hell. The dude is deep and soulful and fun. There was no egos in the making of this record. When we made this, there was a few times where I wanted to put my foot down and say, “I really believe this song should be on the record.” But, other than that, I really trusted the collaborators. John is amazing and I hope I get to make more records with John. I don’t think this will be our last.

Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth played drums on your record. Is he John’s go-to drummer?

DUQUETTE: I don’t know. They were all in New Jersey. John and Steve were doing a ton of stuff together. At first, I had a different band. There was a ton of different Birmingham musicians I could use, but most of them have jobs and don’t do music full time so they couldn’t dedicate the time I needed in the studio with John to record. I was talking to my buddy Dan Bailey, who plays drums with Father John Misty and we were like, “What if me and John came to L.A. looking at studios? What if I flew some of y’all into Birmingham and we did it at Communicating Vessels?” Then John was like, “What if I send the music to Steve Shelley?” Obviously, being a massive Sonic Youth fan since I was a teenager, it made sense. Steve loved the songs. Steve and I had met back in the Verbena days. He was like, “The Sonic Youth studio’s available” and Emil (Amos) was up there and John had used Emil and Steve on some stuff. They are an amazing rhythm section. I flew up, I lived with John and his wife that first week of recording. Everyone who came in for the recording was like, “What does the song need? What’s best for the song?”

When you have a working relationship with musicians, the way John does, it’s great if you can all keep working together. It doesn’t always last, it’s not always going to be smooth. But, for my project, it was. John knows how Steve is going to play. John knows how Emil is going to play. John knows that studio space. I did a lot of pre-production, something I had never done to this level before. When we went in, we had a week at Sonic Youth Studio. I knew two months later we had a week at Communicating Vessels. And then I knew the first week of January 2017, we had a week to mix it. When you know you’re on a timeline, you don’t get to add extra studio time. There’s no screwing around. You go in and you do what is best for the songs and you knock them out and you have as much fun as possible. Restraints are really good because in the digital age you can constantly tinker with stuff. There’s times that I’m glad I don’t know a lot of the tech side of recording because I would probably screw with it all the time.

You’ve said that the record came out when it was supposed to come out rather than putting it out as soon as it was done. Was it tough to sit on it for five years?

DUQUETTE: At times, but not all the time. By the time the album was recorded, it had already been four years since my last record had come out. Rabbit Runs a Destiny was 2013, The Social Animals got mastered in February 2017. After that long of a time period with being an artist that sporadically puts out these solo records but still been tapped in and connected to the music industry for 30 years, another couple of years? What’s the difference? I wanted to make sure the art work was right. I wanted to make sure the title was right. I wanted to make sure the people working on the album were right. I wanted to find a manager. I’d been doing this all myself. I knew that going forward, to do the music in the way that I want, I need the right team. I also do Club Duquette. Being a dad, being a husband, there’s all these different elements. There’s a lot more to my creative endeavors than just music. I hope I get to continue doing it that way. My wife and I always say that her art and my music are the priority. If we had to lock the doors to Club Duquette for two years so that I could go tour, we would lock the doors and make it online only or try to find the right people to run the shop. I’m not locking the doors to Club Duquette, that’s not happening.

As the time went on, waiting to release the record, I started doing a lot of self work and trying to change who I was, behavioral patterns and things where, in the past, I would self sabotage, not in a harmful way. But, I would shut down, I wouldn’t respond, I would procrastinate. Being the hippie dude I am, I wasn’t prepared to release this record years ago. It happened when it was supposed to.

The work is just beginning on promoting the record and trying to get out there and play. After COVID, and now gas prices going through the roof, booking agents are panicking again. Tour budgets are getting blown out the window. It’s a wild, wild time out there. I was willing to wait. It was difficult but there were moments when I had total peace about it.

I feel like your new record came out at the right time. I hear some similarities between what you’re doing and what The War on Drugs is doing and they are at the top of their game now. Do you consider them to be peers in terms of the music you’re creating?

DUQUETTE: Them and many others, for sure. My friend, Daniel Fox, who has made this documentary that will be coming out, and he helped me film the “Tonight” video, and he shot, directed and edited the “Year to Run” video, he also is The War on Drugs documentary guy. I don’t know how old Adam (Granduciel) is, if we’re close in age, but I feel a kinship with a lot of bands in that same sonic nature. I can take songs and do this with a full band, very layered sonically live, loud, a lot of depth, or I can take the songs and pull up an acoustic guitar and sing it the same way and it’s still going to be a great song in my opinion. I’ve seen The War on Drugs do that same thing. Some of my favorite performances I’ve seen filmed are when it’s just stripped down to an acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums and it is powerful.

Do you have a backlog of songs ready to go to record when the time is right?

DUQUETTE: Yes. I need to finish lyrics – and some choruses – to a lot of songs but I’m always writing. I don’t write for a certain project. I’ve done that in the past, I’ve put a group of people together and we wrote for something specifically. My friend, Janet Templin, she’s an amazing songwriter, we had The Gum Creek Killers with David Hickox and Brad Davis, guys that are in this metal band, Null. That was the most project-based writing I had ever done. Other than that, I’m always trying to write. The issue I came upon during the pandemic is that I never finished songs. I just kept writing because I couldn’t fathom pausing anything, especially with those first several months of 2020.

You’ve lived in Birmingham for quite a while. You’ve got roots and people know your story as both a musician and a store owner whereas if you lived in, say, New York city, maybe people would only identify you as either a musician or a store owner.

DUQUETTE: Yes. I went to high school in Tennessee but when I moved back here and Bondy and I started Verbena, this was my base and this has been my home base since 1991. For that brief period where I was in Etowah County and then when I got released from that, I lived in Wyoming for a few months in the mountains because I had a friend who said, “I’ll fly you out here and you can live for free. Come finish writing your record.” That’s where I finished writing the Etowah record.

In Birmingham, I think most people would know me as a musician who opened a store although there’s a ton of people who just know me as Club Duquette that had no idea. I’ve become friends with this hip-hop producer. We go to the same barber. He thought I just owned Club Duquette. One day, somebody posted one of my songs and he messaged me and was like, “Wait a minute, what are you talking about?” I really want to make a record this him. That’s on my list. I want to collaborate with someone who is in a completely different genre but that we have the same musical influences and connections and connectivity.

I wasn’t born here. I lived here off and on as a kid, I lived between here and Wyoming as a child. I came back here after high school and started Verbena with Bondy and Les (Nuby) and Anne Marie (Griffin). You had room to do what you wanted to do. Even when we signed to Capitol Records, everyone expected us to move to New York or LA and we were like, “Why?” We signed to Merge, we signed to Capital, we don’t need to move now, we can afford to live a comfortable life in Birmingham and make the music we want to make and it’s still that way to this day.

There’s so many amazing bands and artists in this town right now. Where my shop is, Communicating Vessels is on the other side of the wall. Across the street is a studio called Earth Libraries that’s putting out a ton of young artists, they are putting out reissues. The building next door to that is a recording studio called Audiostate 55 that does tons of different genres, especially R&B and hip-hop and TV commercials and stuff. There’s tons of artists in this neighborhood. It’s just a very supportive, creative community. We have an incredible radio station, Substrate Radio, that is an internet radio station. You can put it on and it’s different music all the time, great specialty shows. And then you have Birmingham Mountain Radio that spins a ton of local music. It’s a great place to be home. My wife and I love to travel but I love coming home to Birmingham.

You mentioned working on yourself and having a hippie spirit. Your social media posts always give off a positive vibe. How difficult is that in 2022 with everything that we’ve been through the last few years?

DUQUETTE: Insanely challenging. It is fucking challenging to stay positive in a world where, if you’re not careful with what you’re opening or looking at or reading, it’ll bombard you and remind you of only the hatred – and negativity is always going to exist, it can’t always be “om” – but can you learn to be neutral with it? Can you learn to stay balanced through it? Can you try to approach it from a positive way? Having anger, having hatred, only focusing on only the negative things tears at peoples’ souls and only makes things worse.

I’ve always believed that we can change things and make this world a better place. It’s not easy. It’s going to be really freaking hard. But if everybody just gives up, we might as well set the damn thing on fire and watch it burn. It’s worth fighting for. You see those glimpses of hope and humanity. I have a daughter who is an adult and she is always giving me insane hope and I see what her and her generation are doing and fighting for, and then when I had a newborn son that I never thought I would have the chance to have a kid again, it lights you up. How do I want the world to be for him? What’s the legacy? As you get older, you do consider your legacy. In my head, I’m still 18. It’s weird that my birth certificate says different.

I’ve always been a pretty positive guy but I’ve gone through phases of getting stuck in that loop cycle of only focusing on the negativity, having that be my identifier. Having trauma be my identifier. All those things happen and can be part of life but they don’t have to be your identity forever. I think we have to learn to view it, learn from it, face it, don’t hide from it.

I don’t understand a lot of this world. I don’t understand the greed, the hatred. We all want our families to be healthy. We all want to feel love and connected. We all want to have a home. We all want to be fed. Those are common goals across the world. I may never get an answer or understand it while my body is here on this Earth, I wish more people could connect over those commonalities.