At one time or another, two worries cross every fan’s mind about their favorite musician: What if the artist gets bored (we’ve all seen that disconnected, smug expression on stage)? Even worse, what if they get burned out? Some of the world’s greatest have met their demise this way, channeling boredom from the same routine into drug benders, or entering rehab for “exhaustion.”
After all, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and only an artist like John 5 — whose left hand was noticeably larger than his right before the age of 12 due to his guitar obsession — actually makes that turn-of-phrase work for him.
Throughout his teens and 20s, he went on to work with musicians like David Lee Roth, k.d. Lang, Rob Halford, Lita Ford, Marilyn Manson, but has been a solid fixture as Rob Zombie’s lead guitarist since 2005. In the past 10 years, he's worked as a songwriter, guest and studio guitarist for artists like Halestorm, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Meatloaf, Paul Stanley, Alice Cooper, and Sebastian Bach. He scores horror films for Rob Zombie. And he manages a dual career as a solo start, averaging an album release almost every year since 2004. Usually concept driven, his albums are for those who value the art of the guitar: One track may be about axe murderers, sampled with macabre clips and frenetic industrial metal shredding, while another pays homage to Buck Owen with Western swing influences, and yet another exemplifies his talent as a flamenco player. Shredding, no less. And his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”? Funky as hell.
“How could I ever get bored?” he laughs. “There’s too many crazy and innovative things I’m trying to do."
And warnings that he might “burn himself out” surprises him— “It’s a very true thing, but I don’t ever notice it,” he says.
New Times talked with the Telecaster Master about finishing the score of Rob Zombie’s flick 31, his new solo album, and the most beautiful place he’s ever been to.
Are you finished with the scoring of 31? When is that supposed to come out?
I’m very proud of this score. There will still be little tweaks but for the most part it’s done. You know, I’m not really sure of a release date but I think it’s super early 2016.
I recently read about a sneak peek a film critic had and they said that it will really appeal to fans to The Devil’s Rejects.
Ah, isn’t The Devil’s Rejects great? That was one of my personal favorites of Rob’s.
Yeah, I think I was Baby for Halloween maybe three years in a row. How do you explain the differences in how you score these movies, and find the right parallel?
I wish I had a cool crazy scary answer, but I usually just get a cue sheet and it tells me what the vibe the director is looking for. Which is sort of like the answers to a test, but it’s very difficult to do because you have to make sure you don’t do too much; you know, if there’s dialogue over it. Or you have to be conscious and careful of certain instruments so it doesn’t interfere with the film. But it is difficult… sometimes there is no time signature. But I love a challenge.
Do you think it’s more challenging than creating albums?
Yeah, I really do. Mostly because of the fact I’ve been doing records my whole life. But it's completely different then working on a music album.
So when you’re scoring a movie, and simultaneously doing work on the new Rob Zombie album, and working on a solo album…. How do you balance that out and get into the different mindsets?
Well, again, it’s a challenge…. without sounding redundant. Laughter. You have to put yourself in that mind frame. Okay – we’re not doing a record. We’re doing a score. Understanding your role as accenting a film with music, and working the guitar on a record,.. very different things. But it is usually matching Rob’s vision of each.
Any new solo albums in the work?
Yes there’s another instrumental record in the works. I’m about five songs into it right now. Really great. I’m going to release a video and a song at the same time. So you get to see the video with the new song. So every month I’ll put out a new one, which will be kind of fun.
Your albums often take different concepts or pay homage to your influences. Which direction does this one go?
It’s hard to describe. There’s a lot going on in it—there are songs where I’m playing mandolin and banjo. And some of the songs I’ll be playing live. This instrumental album is also a challenge for me. Sort of like an instrumental Alice Cooper show. There’s stuff happening in the background, and lots of challenging instruments. I don’t have a name for it yet though…
One of your mottos is practice, practice, practice, and to try to play something new once a week. What is a new technique you’re currently working on?
Well I’m working on a new song right now, and I was just playing right before you called actually. Always create. Always try to improve. I’m kinda practicing a slap technique on guitar right now that a lot of people do on bass. It’s just about creating new stuff and keeping the audience involved, as well as myself! I couldn’t be happier with my life actually.
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Which is why you never get burned out, no doubt. Even so, is there anyone you would ever want to trade places with for a month?
I don’t think I’d choose anyone. You know, nobody knows what somebody’s real life is like. They could live an amazing life on the outside, but go home and be all depressed. I’m really happy with who I am and how everything else. So I don’t think I would want to trade.
You’re constantly immersed in horror and heavy metal settings, but you’ve also traveled all over the world to spread that brand that everyone loves. So what’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?
Let’s see. I’ve been all over the world, for sure. And to be completely and utterly honest with you… I love more than anything in the world, being on the West Coast. I love it more than anything. It’s comfortable, and it’s home. I’m all about comfortable and cozy.