Interviews

Johnny Zapp Desires a Music World With 'More Rock' and 'Less Assholes'

Joking about being a dual citizen of Tempe and Tucson, Johnny Zapp might be one of the most recognized guitarists in the thriving Arizona music scene.
Joking about being a dual citizen of Tempe and Tucson, Johnny Zapp might be one of the most recognized guitarists in the thriving Arizona music scene. Jade Beall
Of the many bands and musicians in the thriving Arizona music scene, Johnny Zapp might be the most recognized guitarist, especially if you consider his past work with A-list bands such as the Gin Blossoms and the disbanded Pistoleros.

This week, he is celebrating the release of his latest album, More Rock & Roll Less Assholes. He will be at Club Congress on Friday, September 16, in Tucson. Then on Saturday, September 17, he will play at the Yucca Tap Room in Tempe. He’s not calling it a tour per se, saying “it’s really just an opportunity for me and my guys to go and shake things up.” Those “guys” include band members Matt Lubben, Pistoleros bassist Scott Andrews and drummer Mark Riggs, along with special guest Dan Henzerling, formerly of the Gin Blossoms.

Although, technically, these performances are to promote the new album, Zapp, 45, is waxing nostalgic with the friends he used to jam with many years ago. He told Phoenix New Times in an email interview that all of this is kind of a recipe for a reunion. “I was banging around the clubs on Mill Avenue with the best of them. I moved to Tucson in 2016 and realized that while all that was happening in Tempe, the same had been happening in Tucson and we were all friends and contemporaries.”

He jokes about being a dual citizen of Tempe and Tucson, and these back-to-back rock 'n' roll parties are tributes to what he affectionately calls “hometowns.”

Zapp is originally from Huntington Beach, California, where he learned to play guitar at a young age. It wasn’t long after moving to Tempe in the mid-'90s that he became immersed in the local growing music scene. He was asked to join many headlining bands as a guitarist and, from there, his career grew worldwide.

More Rock & Roll Less Assholes is a watershed moment for the rock musician. He has been writing and performing music professionally for the past two decades, but never managed to release a full-length record. His works were used in television shows such as MTV's Pimp My Ride, and the HBO series True Blood. As the rights holder to those songs, he released them as singles but they were never performed live. “I’d record them, put them out there, and that was it,” he points out.
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After writing and performing music professionally for the past two decades, Johnny Zapp still considers himself a "purist" when it comes to developing his sound.
Jade Beall
“In the interim, I was working as a hired gun for several Phoenix and Tucson bands, playing guitars, bass or drums on their local shows and some touring,” Zapp explains. “In late 2019, the bug hit to do some solo rock band shows and just play my catalog. Right before the pandemic, I was committing four to five bands' worth of material to memory for all the gigs I had on the calendar. Then lockdown happened and it was like hitting control-alt-delete on my brain. All of a sudden, riffs started pouring into my head and I started making a record. I played guitars, bass, and drums on every song, and I had a few friends here and there add their color to the palette by way of percussion, vocals, or additional guitars.”

Wanting to remain independent, Zapp is only releasing the album on his website and at his live shows. “I pressed CD digipaks that include a digital download of the album, so you get a sweet CD package, but if you don’t have a CD player, no sweat; I’ve got you covered with the digital download card,” he proclaims.

Zapp might be considered a soundscape vegan, so to speak. His work harkens back to the age of music when instruments were a part of the band, each sound and each chord a part of the composition. When asked about music today, he emphasizes how much of a hot-button subject this is for him.

“I'm a purist,” he says. “I’ve had countless songwriters and musicians who’ve heard my music over the years ask me how I got that sound. My answer is always the same: by putting microphones on real drums and playing my ass off. By slapping a mic in front of a tube amp, grabbing a guitar and going for it. You have to move air to make it come alive. The music has to make you swing. I don’t think you get that without live instruments and that human element. Sadly, it’s a lost art. I’ve currently got a waiting list of bands wanting to work with me to capture that vibe for them in the studio.”
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Johnny Zapp says he played guitars, bass, and drums on every song of the new album.
Jade Beall
As for bands that Zapp likes today, he is a fan of outfits that have not “quite caught fire yet.” He likes East Nashville's Them Vibes, saying they are “true musicians and songwriters a la Stones and T. Rex. Another one for me is [Los Angeles] band Dorothy. Singer Dorothy Martin has this soul and these amazing pipes that when she sings, you believe every word she says, and she’s got the songs to back it up.”

It's probably obvious that Zapp loves his Arizona musical roots, but a lot has changed during the last decade or so. Back then, he says, you couldn’t walk down Mill Avenue in Tempe without hitting a music venue every 10 feet.

“They’ve all gone away, it seems,” Zapp offers. “So no clubs, no bands! Maybe I’m just an old guy now, I don’t know, but that’s part of why we’re doing these shows. To take everyone old enough to have been there, back to the glory days of Tempe and Tucson’s vibrant rock scene, and hopefully introduce the roots of it to the new generation. This is also why we are playing the rooms we’re playing.

"My band — Scott Andrews and Mark Riggs from Pistoleros, Matt Lubben from Dead City Love, and Daniel Henzerling from Gas Giants — we all cut our teeth in the Yucca Tap Room, and I believe it's the only club from the old days that’s left in Tempe. Club Congress in Tucson is the same and it’s run by David Slutes, who fronted the Sidewinders, which was one of the hot Tucson original bands in the '90s.”

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Johnny Zapp will bring a backing band to his shows in Tucson and Tempe this weekend.
Jade Beall
Zapp is going to be busy over the next few months, working with Sidewinders drummer Bruce Halper. Vintage Guitar magazine has asked them to be the “house” rhythm section. They will start in Philadelphia, then travel all over the country. “We’ll essentially be the backing band for a revolving lineup of famous guitar players/frontmen and fans of the magazine,” he adds.

As for his solo band, he doesn’t plan on doing more than one show a year each in Tempe and Tucson. Zapp contends, “I’m a firm believer in not oversaturating your hometown. You have to let them miss you! It has to be the right venue on the right night, and you have to do it big, then people will show up. Beyond that, there may be some out-of-state solo shows at some point next year. Stay tuned!”

Album: More Rock & Roll Less Assholes was released in May. It is available through Zapp’s website and at his live performances.

Weekend events: Club Congress, 311 East Congress Street, Tucson, on Friday, September 16; tickets are $5, and the 21-and-over show starts at 7 p.m.; Yucca Tap Room, 29 West Southern Avenue, Tempe, on Saturday, September 17; tickets are free, and the 21-and-over show starts at 9 p.m. 
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Timothy Rawles