Q&A: Ukulele Loki on performing at Red Rocks, his influences and a new EP
Aaron Johnson has a lot on his plate right now. He teaches fifth-graders by day, and by night he's taking classes to get certified in teaching English as a Second Language. He's also a Geeks Who Drink quizmaster. But tonight? Tonight Aaron Johnson (aka Ukulele Loki) is performing at Red Rocks with the Gadabout Orchestra before the Film on the Rocks screening of Edward Scissorhands. The first time the Gadabout Orchestra performed at Red Rocks was three years ago, for the showing of Labyrinth.
Ukulele Loki's Gadabout Orchestra. Aaron Johnson is pictured far right.
We recently chatted with Ukulele Loki about his musical influences and his plans for tonight's performance. He also revealed the details of the stage that he and Cory Gilstrap of Imagined Creations are constructing just for the Edward Scissorhands screening: "We're building flats that suggest the topiary sculptures that Edward does -- a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a snake, and a couple more Gadabout Orchestra-related sculptures. It's going to be pretty big. We're going to put the band inside the movie, basically." There's even going to be an aerialist, Vikkah Windmeyer.
Westword: So take us through a timeline of how this transpired. At what point were you approached to do Film on the Rocks this year, and how long did it take to get things into motion with building this set?
Ukulele Loki: We didn't start building the set until last week. We don't have a huge budget -- we're a local band -- and Film on the Rocks isn't the most expensive show. We're doing this on a local-band budget. We wanted to bring in that component that's more than just "Hey, come see a concert." We always want people, when they leave our concerts, to have something to talk about. Cory Gilstrap [of Imagined Creations] just started building the set last week, and I've been driving around helping him pick up materials and doing whatever work I can.
How do you and the bandmembers fit into the set, then? Are you going to be in costumes?
Yes. We're not going to dress up specifically as characters from Edward Scissorhands, but, yeah, we'll have some makeup and some costumes that tie in. I see Edward Scissorhands as a modern fairytale; it's a little bit goth and very much Tim Burton, so the band will have a goth, Tim Burton-y feel.
What songs will you be playing, do you know yet?
We'll be playing our set list, some of the songs on our album that are in the usual set list, but we have about five new songs that we've only played out once or twice before, and that was earlier this spring. And we just finished up an EP, so we have a new EP that's going to have some brand-new music for sale that nobody's heard yet. Three of the new songs we'll be playing will be on the EP we're selling, The Melancholy 3P.
A lot of people, when they hear the history of the band and know that I've done a lot of burlesque and side shows and play the ukulele and they know we've got a trombone, clarinet and glockenspiel, they assume we're going to sound like a 1920s swing band. I love that stuff, but I've never been interested in making that kind of music. I've always wanted to make music that indicates what I grew up listening to -- Depeche Mode, New Order, but I also love contemporary indie music.
I love free-form indie. I was a free-form indie radio DJ for ten years -- I was influenced by everything from Elvis Costello to the Beatles to Neutral Milk Hotel. Some people say we have a Modest Mouse feel. I want people to know we're not just a happy, playtime circus band. The Melancholy EP has three songs about heartbreak, with kind of a circus-rock feel to it.
Breanna Bires models the new Ukulele Loki moustache necklace, for sale at tonight's Red Rocks show.
Tell us about the EP itself.
There are three songs. There's "Carefree Love," which is playing with the idea of someone being carefree. If you're carefree, that's supposed to be a really good thing, but if you're carefree in a relationship, sometimes it's careless, which is the double side of carefree -- free of care. There's a song called "Myspace Madeline," which I wrote over a year and a half ago, just as Myspace was dying, so it's almost like a retro piece because no one uses Myspace. It's a song about love in the Internet age.
And the last song is called "Here We Go Again." My favorite thing we've ever recorded yet is the bridge, which is there only for about thirty seconds in that song. It's like this little surprise, very poppy bridge in the middle of this very dark, heavy song -- it sort of pummels you with the idea that "here we go again...and again, and again. We keep trying to leave this thing, but here we are back in it." The bridge is about trying to moving on.
Will all six members of the Gadabout Orchestra be at the Red Rocks performance?
Our clarinet player, Kevin Reynolds, won't. He's been my right-hand man in the Gadabout Orchestra for about five years. I basically do the songs and the musical direction, and Kevin transcribes the songs and takes all of these ideas and writes them out in music. He's been a big part of Gadabout Orchestra. He got married this month and has gone off on his honeymoon, and he's in grad school in Portland, so this is going to be one of two shows in the last five years I've ever done without Kevin. We've got a clarinet player filling in, though.
Of all the shows to miss, right?
Yeah, well, he played with us last time. We've played Red Rocks before; that's old hat to us [laughs]. Playing Red Rocks is probably the best experience. When we played it a few years ago, I thought I was going to walk out on the stage and be overwhelmed. I don't really have stage fright; I've been a performer since I could walk, like the kind of kid who puts on a costume and jumps around all of the adults, but I still thought I was going to get nervous at Red Rocks.
I thought it was going to be impersonal, like this stadium-awful thing. And then I get out there, and the first thing I notice is that I can see every single face in the audience. As you look out, there's just this wall of people, and they're really close -- I can see someone wheezing, and there's Kevin's uncle, "Oh that girl's cute," "That's a funny baby" -- you know, you can see everyone. I hit that first chord, and you hear it reverberating back off of the rocks, and I heard that and I thought, "Yeah, this makes sense; I could do this again."
Is that why it was so easy for you to say yes this second time around?
I still hear people say that that was a game-changer for us, Film on the Rocks. We picked up a lot of fans; I made a lot of really good friends with other people who are Jim Henson fanatics.
It sounds like you have a lot of these influences converging into this upcoming performance, so what would you say your strongest influence is?
Well, I grew up in Salt Lake City -- kind of a very liberal family, kind of the opposite of what you'd expect people from Utah to be -- so my family was very suspicious of organized religion. So, growing up without religion, I had John Lennon and Jim Henson. I was also really close to my mother, who brought me listening to the Threepenny Opera, so Kurt Weill was a big influence.
I'd say the first moment that I realized I was destined to be different was when I was in third grade and my older sister and her friend brought over some Cure videos. I was being a pest and wouldn't go to bed until they said they would let me watch these movies, so I stayed up and watched a bunch of Cure videos. Apparently I just pitched a huge fit as soon as they were over, and I refused to go to bed until they did my hair and makeup like Robert Smith. I was in third grade, and I was like, "I need red lipstick and black eyeliner, and you've got to spike my hair now."
How are your musical influences, then, translating into influencing the construction of this stage? Or are they?
I'm really into gardening right now. Since I've moved to Denver, I've become a big urban gardener. I've taken my entire back yard, with my landlady's permission, and ripped out the lawn, and it's all vegetables now. I love the idea that Red Rocks is this natural wonder. I hate going to big stadium shows. I love when bands become successful, and I always root for them when they do. Sometimes people are like, "Oh, you sold out" -- well, no, they just got paid. But I typically stop seeing bands when they play at a venue that's more than two or three hundred people.
I'm just not interested in going to those types of shows. But Red Rocks is different. I would love to see anyone at Red Rocks. It's the best venue on Earth. It's a natural wonder -- you can see the sky, the city, the clouds and the rocks. It just feels like nature did something incredible there. For us to try and bring a garden feel to Red Rocks and play in this garden is really cool.
Are you nervous, excited? What's going through your head as you gear up for this performance?
Well, it's not going through my head. It's going through my throat. Whenever there's a big show, I always lose my voice. I don't know if it's psychosomatic or stress-related, but right now I'm just trying to drink a lot of ginger and lemon and tea. It's a lot of work. We've got a lot of merchandise we're trying to make. We're building the set. We're getting a new aerialist together. We're rehearsing new songs. I've just replaced the drummer [Ryan Elwood]; I had to get a new clarinet player [as a substitute for Kevin Reynolds]. So all of this stuff makes it hard for me to sleep, so I start to get this sore throat. If I can make sure I don't lose my voice before the show, I'm a happy camper.
Listen to the new EP, The Melancholy 3P, here.
Ukulele Loki and the Gadabout Orchestra will take the Red Rocks stage tonight at 6:45 p.m., and the screening of Edward Scissorhands begins at dusk. Buy your ticket here.