This fall, Derek Johnson will return to the classroom to teach music theory and composition courses at Ball State University, but one thing his students may not know is that their professor's humble path to virtuosity began as a teenage metalhead.
"It was a really great way to engage in music," Johnson says, looking back. "I think that's actually really the birth of a lot of my personality and process. I used to just sit in my room and learn records, and it wouldn't be done until I could play the whole record."
Since those fateful days, Johnson's music inquiries have covered vast tuneful territories. After high school, he delved into jazz guitar, which just wasn't for him. "But like so many other things, when you explore you find a different path, and that path turned out to be composition," he explains.
- Perry Reichanadter
"I guess like anything, I really immersed myself in it and took it really seriously," says Johnson about his composition studies.
This led Johnson to IU Bloomington, where he received his master's and doctorate in composition. During that time, he became rather distant from his six-string roots.
"For all intents and purposes, I focused only on composition and didn't practice guitar, and also kind of got away from metal -- the music that was really important to me when I was growing up -- in favor of learning hundreds of years of classical music," he recalls. "I guess like anything, I really immersed myself in it and took it really seriously."
Near the end of his doctorate study, Johnson and his electric guitar became very close again, thanks to two separate opportunities that arose. One of these was BASILICA, a virtuoso chamber ensemble he helped start in Bloomington. The other was the Bang on a Can All-Stars -- an internationally recognized amplified ensemble, which Johnson still regularly performs with around the world. Through this group, Johnson has been granted fantastic opportunities, performing in collaboration with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner (The National), Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) and many more.
Throughout his composition studies, Johnson says he knew of Bang on a Can and its innovative take on concert music. Nevertheless, he admits, "During that period, I think I was still searching for a different type of extremity." He recalls that at that time, the experimental works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass just weren't for him. Undoubtedly, his range of listening habits changed when he joined the All-Stars.
"When I started working with Bang on a Can and ironically getting to work with Philip Glass or Steve Reich, it was so cool to see just how wrong I was and how closed off to that music that I was," Johnson says. "After that, I just started listening in a completely different way."
Somewhere in the midst of his musical meanderings, Johnson would also return to his long-lost love of metal, embarking on an ambitious project of his own.
- Perry Reichanadter
"I'm like a 15-year-old in his bedroom learning the album and having a great time doing it," Johnson says.
It was 2002 and Johnson found himself at Aspen Music Festival and School studying composition. Friends of his had been telling him to give the band Meshuggah a listen, so he decided to purchase their latest (at the time) album, Nothing, at a CD shop in Colorado.
"I got it, and it was really like a return home," Johnson remembers. "I was instantly fascinated by the music."
He held to this allurement, eventually taking time off after his doctoral composition recital was complete to transcribe Meshuggah's Catch Thirtythree album. Eventually, he would get in touch with the band about his idea to transcribe all of their music for guitar, bass and drums--an idea they were quite fond of.
Since then, the band has been very supportive of Johnson's perseverant transcription efforts, providing him with their original recordings so he can ensure utmost accuracy. Now that the notation process is nearly complete for the band's latest album, Koloss, Johnson and his Swedish metal companions will move on to the project's next phase -- an iPad/computer application that allows the user to stream the scores (full score, or individual guitar, bass and drum parts) while listening to the original studio recordings."
"The user will be able to set up loops, play things slower, and take out instruments from the original mix," Johnson adds. "Additionally we plan to release books of the transcriptions, and, in the future, I will be writing books analyzing the structure of the music."
Throughout the transcription process, Johnson admits he's truly felt like a younger version of himself -- the same one that was shredding through Slayer's Reign in Blood album years prior.
"I'm like a 15-year-old in his bedroom learning the album and having a great time doing it," he says.
In his eyes, his early love for metal directly correlates with the composition path he took later in life.
"Growing up in high school with this background in metal, I started composing," he says "I didn't really realize what I was doing, but I had this really progressive instrumental metal band, and I wrote most of the music."
Between his Meshuggah madness, Bang on a Can gigs and several other endeavors, Johnson stays quite busy, even in the summertime when he's away from the classroom. With his hand in so many projects outside of the state, one might think the virtuoso's current Indy residency was rather odd, but according to Johnson, Fountain Square is right where he belongs.
- Perry Reichanadter
"My songwriting is always progressing, but with Derek in tow it has grown leaps and bounds," Christian Taylor says.
On the third floor of the Murphy Arts Center in Fountain Square, Johnson's lair is tucked away. Music equipment is scattered throughout the space, with guitars lining the walls and drums set up in one corner. Here is where Johnson accomplishes much of his work, often opening his studio's doors to Fountain Square musicians as well.
"I've been really involved with the community here in Fountain Square since I moved here and got this place, my studio [known as JoHNsoNgs]," Johnson says. "I've worked with a lot of the musicians around the neighborhood, and especially Christian Taylor, which has been just a fantastic collaboration."
Johnson and Taylor (a Fountain Square veteran whose other projects include Christian Taylor & Homeschool and America Owns the Moon) first met back in 2012 as a part of Musical Family Tree's EP in a Weekend series.
Their collaborative relationship would bloom from there, with the formation of Ampersand Blues Band that performs July 4 as a part of Fountain Square Music Festival.
"I think some people have seen us a really unlikely pair, but trained or untrained, I always say quality trumps all, and he's a really quality musician," Johnson says. "It's incredibly gratifying and fun to work with him."
A seasoned songwriter in his own right, Taylor admits collaborations with Johnson have greatly benefited his craft.
"My songwriting is always progressing, but with Derek in tow it has grown leaps and bounds," Taylor says. "Partly due to his drive and enthusiasm towards my material, but also his attention to detail. I like to take myself and work seriously, and his partnership allows me to do that unashamedly."
So although Fountain Square offers Johnson plenty of practical benefits, there's undoubtedly more keeping him in the neighborhood than that.
"Whenever I travel, I'm always talking about this place and talking about the great artists and musicians here," Johnson says. "I really like being here, and I think I want to stay. My life makes sense, and I'm able to do all the things that I want to do. I have to say this is the first time that I've lived somewhere that I feel so passionately about."
And with that, no matter where his musical or teaching endeavors lead, it's a safe bet he'll be calling this his creative home.
- Perry Reichanadter
You can hear Johnson's music this weekend at the Fountain Square Music Festival.