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Interview: Unmasking “Johnny 3 Tears”

Jeff Keleher

Johnny 3 Tears(third from left) and his fellow members of Hollywood Undead.

Johnny 3 Tears of Hollywood Undead sits down to talk about the band’s new remix album, the effects of music piracy, and why you won’t hear any solo projects from him anytime soon.

These are heady days for Hollywood Undead. Following the departure of original member, Deuce in early 2010, the band enlisted the talent of American Idol veteran, Daniel Murillo and set to recording the follow up to their buzz-generating debut. The ensuing album, “American Tragedy”, a display of the rap-rock dynamic at its finest, combing the raw energy and sneering arrogance of punk with the pulsing beats and indelible melodies of modern club hits, dropped last April. Since then, the band has been touring relentlessly alongside acts such as Avenged Sevenfold. This week, the group is releasing a companion remix album, “American Tragedy REDUX” Before their blistering set at the Riviera in Chicago, deep in the theater’s bowels, Johnny 3 Tears sat down to discuss apocryphal tales about the band, American Tragedy’s surprising influences, and why people need to calm down about the group’s lyrical content.

I know you guys get asked about the masks a lot, with them being the first thing people probably notice. In the past you’ve said you started wearing them mostly as a means to hide your identity on stage, is that still the case?

No, honestly it was never anything like that. A lot of people get that mixed up though because there’s so many old interviews, I don’t know but I think it’s like a game of telephone. Really we just wanted to have a visual aspect to the band outside of just a bunch of guys. You look at a picture of a band and nine times out of ten they look remarkably the same, which I understand. We were creating something new musically in our eyes and we wanted kind of to, because we were in bands before, that was the first time we ever decided to do it so when we started implementing hip hop elements into our music and things we wanted to do, we wanted to make it different in other ways as well so that was kind of the idea behind it. It was never about being anonymous or anything.

You guys create your own masks, is there anything significant about the designs?

Yeah, each person has their own thing, like mine, I have the “3” on it, the three tears. “3 Tears” was the name of our first band we ever started. And then the butterflies, I’ve got them tattooed everywhere, which is a whole different thing, but they’re two important things to me.

For the new album, “American Tragedy”, were there any bands or specific albums you looked to for inspiration when recording it?

You know, no. When we’re recording, I try not to listen to other bands, because when you listen to too much of one band you start to use their progessions because it’s kind of subconscious. It’s like getting a song stuck in your head. When we record the only band I’ll ever really listen to is like the Beatles or something like that, just because melodically they’re so driven and they’re the best that there ever was at doing that. It’s so different from ours that I don’t need to take anything from it, but it gives you melodic aspects that you might not think of on your own. I honestly rarely listen to music when we’re recording just because of that. I mean, I don’t listen to music actually at all really, because when you do it for a living all the time, some of these guys walk around with their I-Pods after a show, and I’m like, “Didn’t you just listen to that?” But that’s the way I’ve always been. I enjoy peace and quiet when we’re not doing music.

In that vein, with the Beatles and the importance of melody, this new album does feel a little more melodic, a little more sonically compatible with mainstream sensibilities. Was that something you consciously did or was it kind of just a happy accident?

I would say kind of a mixture of both. We didn’t try to make songs more melodic necessarily, but we stripped songs a lot more than we were used to. We wanted more of a rock n’ roll feel, and maybe bring up the synths but take out the programmed beats and just juggle the whole process differently and use more things than what we were used to. I think that’s where that came about. As far as the mainstream aspect, I think we just didn’t want to make “Swan Songs” again. It’s tough in a band like ours, you can’t just move in a completely new direction, so we really just messed with the simplified elements of songs and I think that’s just how it came about.We just wanted to make a different type of record without making something that Hollywood Undead fans would be like, “this isn’t Hollywood Undead”.

Even though it seems a bit more melodic, it has, lyrically some darker stuff to it.  Specifically, there’s a pervading theme of despair brought on by unfulfilled dreams and promises, was that something you set out to do when you started recording it?

I think that’s just where you’re at in life when you’re writing songs. Not that we’re all in a state of despair but, you know, your life’s changing and you’re getting older It’s three years since “Swan Songs” and a lot had happened.  So there’s a lot of elements in people’s individual lives that you can’t help bring as part of the music. I don’t think we did that on purpose, but it is what it is. If everyone is as happy as can be the next time we’re recording I’m sure that’ll come out too.

As far as the lyrics go, I know you’ve had issues in the past with record companies trying to, maybe, censor what you can say, is that something you still struggle with today?

No, I don’t think so. We’ve never had that issue with our label now. I never understood that. I think because we’re a rock band, and I consider ourselves a rock band, we’re saying some things that most rock bands don’t say. There’s this big issue but if you look at any rapper they say ten times worse. That’s why I never understood the juxtaposition, it’s not like we’re saying something that no one said before. In fact, people have said it ten times worse, but because we’re in the rock world I think that’s why it was kind of an issue for people. But that was a long time ago when we finished “Swan Songs” and that’s why it took so long to get it out, we had some issues with the record label but that’s one of the reasons we ended up with this label is they were cool to release it as is which was a big thing to us.

Because you never really pull any punches with your lyrics, do you ever have moments where you guys might write a line or even an entire song that you look at and are like, “maybe that’s going a little too far”?

Honestly, I’ve never felt that way but then again, we don’t write stuff for the sake of saying it. So, if we’re saying it, it’s probably not that bad because we’re not completely nuts or anything. I think also when you use certain terms people take it literally, like if you say ‘bitch’ or something, a)half the time when you say it you’re applying it to a guy, but people take it so literally. If you call someone an asshole, you’re not literally calling them an asshole, it’s just a term. I think you run into issues with that with people who look, they almost want to take it seriously so they have something to bitch about. But we’re not homophobes and we don’t hate women, I just think there are people out there who want it to mean that so they have someone to complain about.

If you actually sit down and listen to it, it’s clear that a lot of whatever people might find offensive is clearly-

It’s satire. You know what I mean? But you have to have a sense of humor to understand satire and I think those people who do look for that, that’s what they’re lacking most is a sense of humor.

You’ve got the remix album coming out soon, “American Tragedy REDUX”.What inspired you to do a remix album?

We got approached on it, and we’ve always liked that kind of stuff. Some of the guys on that like KMFDM and those dudes, and I’ve always liked Andrew W.K. At first I was kind of objecting to it because I was like “what’s the point?” but then when we brought in some of the names that wanted to work on it, then I got excited because I was a fan of some of these people. And I think just bringing a new take to any song, and a new life to it is a fun thing to do. One of the things is it’s completely optional for fans, it’s not like “hey we’re coming out with a new record, you should really go get it” it’s like if you’re into this stuff it’s available but if not there’s no pressure for us to be like “go buy this”. It’s a lot more fun than when you’re record’s actually coming out and you’re so focused on chart position and radio and all this bullshit that I really wish I didn’t have to think about and with this it really isn’t like that. So for fans, if they’re into remixes and those people doing them, check it out. If not, cool. It’s a lot less pressure than a record release. So, for the band, it was more of a fun thing to do as opposed to the pressure of the business aspects of it, we don’t have to pay any attention to that stuff, so it’s kind of nice. And they’re cool remixes, we took a lot of parts to them and did certain things with these guys so they’re all remixes we really liked.

In that vein, are there any other side projects that you would like to possibly explore in terms of trying out other genres of music that maybe wouldn’t gel with Hollywood Undead’s format?

No, I’ve always thought about that, writing and stuff like that. No matter what kind of band you’re in, you’re kind of stuck in that. But the idea of starting another band and going through that process again, I don’t think so. No thank you (laughs). Other guys do and I’ll always be into that stuff. Even just remixing other bands that’s something I think would be really cool. But as far as starting a band from scratch and doing that all over again, I don’t think I’m ready for that yet or even to think about.

Or even like a solo project, like a one-off?

Maybe at some point. I guess I’m so focused still on this, where it’s going and what we’re doing that the idea of it, you know when I go home the last thing I want to do, I mean I’ll write music, but it’s much more just for fun. Maybe if we took a break or something, I’d be more into that.

So you have a new member, Danny and that’s obviously going to change up the dynamics and sound of the band, how has that addition altered it?

Well, like you said, on “American Tragedy” there are those different sensibilities, it was much more available to us. One of the issues we were having was certain people were moving in certain different directions, it happens countless times. We wanted someone who was more open-minded to what we wanted to do, that was kind of the whole reason behind the thing. It’s really a new found freedom. Actually, I remember when we started how fun it was, you’re writing good songs but at the same time, there was a purity to it and I think that kind of got lost after “Swan Songs”. We wanted to get that feeling back where it wasn’t like, “fuck, I have to go to the studio”, it’s “I can’t wait to go to the studio” and get there an hour early now as opposed to before it’s just like I was always pretending to be sick and shit like that (laughs). That is back, that vibe of commraderie and it’s just a much more free feeling and there are a lot more directions we can go in, in the situation we’re in now.

As a band that’s still on the rise, what’s your take on the demise of traditional media formats like bands don’t really need to be beholden to radio-play necessarily or getting on Mtv in order to get to a large audience? Is there a freedom in that?

There are a lot of good things about it and a lot of bad things about it. I think it’s really great for new bands, because you don’t need to worry about getting signed or any of this crap. You can record music at home, you don’t have to save up fifty grand to go do a demo, you know what I mean? It’s great for new bands, for old bands or people who have been around awhile it’s makes it more difficult because everybody and their mother has a band. So the competition level is so much higher, not even necessarily that music’s getting better, it’s just there’s so much available that it makes it difficult for some bands because as opposed to the fact that there were six tours in the summer, now there’s sixty tours in the summer. It makes it more difficult but I think it’s great in the sense that you don’t have to go through the, via going through the label, especially in the sense that kids that haven’t been signed, without a ton of money can get music out, which is what a lot of people want to do.  So, I think it’s great for that, and I think it’s great that if you’re getting music out that way, it hasn’t been tampered with or commercialized. So there’s good things about it and bad things about it, but it is what it is. Social media, I have way bigger issues with social media than the music aspect of it. I think it’s weird that my friends are on their phones all the time. I don’t have a Facebook profile or do any of that stuff, solely because I see what it does to people’s lives, but that’s people’s own business. I guess it’s good for certain things and bad for others.

What’s your take on the rise of musical piracy in terms of, do you think there’s kind of a silver lining to it that people might be stealing music, at the same there’s the possibility that people are hearing music they might not otherwise listen to?

Absolutely, it’s in the same vein where it’s good for bands because they don’t have to go through the traditional route to get their music heard. But in the end it’s bad for the bands because most bands can’t make a living anymore. I think it’s partly the record companies’ fault themselves because they rip people off for so long that now that they’re getting ripped off, they’re up in arms about it, but they’re charging twenty dollars for a CD, it’s a joke, you know? So now they’re trying to retrace their steps and figure out a way, I think if as a kid, a young kid who wasn’t around for those days, if you like a band, go buy their CD. I still agree with that, but if you just want to just check something out and find out if you like it, I don’t see anything wrong with that. But, I think kids in general have to understand they’re stealing just as much from the band-it’s not stealing per se-but people rely on these sales, some of these guys, to feed their kids, these older bands. There are two ways to it. It’s great to check stuff out and see if you like it, but if you do like something, go buy the CD. Because that’s someone’s bread you’re taking out of their mouth, you know what I mean? There’s the other side where it’s kind of hypocritical, you take a band like Metallica or something where these guys are worth a hundred million dollars each, do I give a shit? No, I don’t, I’m sorry, you know what I mean? But the up and coming bands, it’s already tough enough without it. But I’m not objecting, which is hypocritical, to doing to the same thing to a band that are ga-billionaires, who cares? I guess there are sides to everything and I think people just have to use their own moral judgment and what they feel right and wrong about.

Hollywood Undead is on tour now.  “American Tragedy REDUX” is on sale now at iTunes: American Tragedy REDUX

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