Artist of the Week: Argyle Johansen

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Argyle Johansen is actually the solo project of Brooklyn musician, John Wentz. He recently clued us in on the story behind his song “Sunny Day In Hell,” and then he told us about how he played the tuba in his high school band, before hooking us up with his recipe for eggplant parmigiana. Read on to find out more!

BTR: For our listeners that don’t know about you, introduce yourself and the
band.

Argyle Johansen: Well, there’s me…John.  That is, I write and sing the songs.  In that sense, it’s a solo project, though the live show varies from just me to a full band at times.  I’ve been having a great time playing around Brooklyn lately, singing two-part harmonies with my good friend Zachariah. He plays mandolin, keys, guitar and cello, while I cover guitar and harmonica.  We’ve done some shows with a rhythm section, and that’s always a hoot, so that’ll definitely be happening some more.

BTR: How did you get started in music?

Argyle Johansen: Like a lot of cool kids, I played the tuba in the school band, which accounts for the majority of my formal musical education.  I started playing guitar when I was 14.  In high school, I played in a band with my friends Zachariah Hagen and Kris Randazzo (of Schocholautte).  We were pretty good for a bunch of kids, but college and the general entropy of the universe eventually took their toll.  I came to New York to attend NYU when I was 19.  By the time I was 23, I had a degree that I wasn’t using, a healthy student loan debt, and a full-time job waiting tables in a restaurant in which I couldn’t afford to eat.  The upside of working in a restaurant is the open schedule and I was able to do a decent amount of traveling during this time.  I went to Eastern Europe, California, and drove from Brooklyn to the North slope of Alaska and swam in the Arctic.  Each time I came home from a trip, I usually fell into a funk primarily based on the lack of direction I was feeling in my life.  Argyle Johansen represents the first serious attempt in my life to do something meaningful.

BTR: Argyle Johansen. Interesting… Where did the name come from?

Argyle Johansen: When I started writing my own stuff, I felt like I was creating a caricature of myself; almost a philosophical brand for the ideas I wanted to convey and share with people listening to my songs.  I think it’s like our ancestors who learned and taught the basic principles that they lived by with the mythological characters that they had created.  Argyle Johansen is like my version of Zeus, with a Scandinavian last name.
BTR: You live in Bushwick, and the music scene in the surrounding area is chock full of bands and artists. What is it like to part of the scene?

Argyle Johansen: I live on the ground floor of a former textile sweatshop, which is known as an infamously scene-y building.  There’s a band across the hall, and one right above us. Someone’s always playing the drums somewhere in my building.  The scene is ubiquitous – everyone’s in a band, aren’t you?

On the other hand, it’s nice having a lot of venues close together that only take 15 minutes to get to.

BTR: How do you feel about the music community in Brooklyn?


Argyle Johansen: I honestly don’t feel much of anything about it.  I moved to Brooklyn during my senior year of college, solely because it was cheaper to live in Bed-Stuy than pay for a dorm or find a place in Manhattan.

Don’t get me wrong though – how do I feel about Brooklyn?  I love it.  Bushwick has been my home now for almost four years, and I have no plans to leave.  That being said, regardless of wherever I might live, my thoughts on the music community around me probably wouldn’t change. There would always be people that I’d want to share the stage with, plenty that I’d want to avoid, and all who’d like to listen would be invited to do so.  The only concern of mine is putting on a good show, and a memorable show that people will want to see and hear again.

BTR: Tell me about Argyle is Argyle. How long did it take to write the album?
Argyle Johansen: Argyle is Argyle, as an accomplishment of mine, is due in great part to the help and guidance of the album’s two producers, Assaf Spector and Eitan Graff.  Without them, their encouragement, and the fact that they are two of the most talented musicians I have ever met, let alone worked with, this album would not exist by a long shot.  We recorded, mixed and mastered the entire album at Vibromonk Studio at the corner of Grand and Morgan in Bushwick.  The album is ten songs long and took about 14 months from start to finish, with me working 40 to 50 hours a week to pay for the studio time.  It began with a three song demo I had made at my place, which is really the genesis of Argyle in the first place.  I had recorded with bands in the past, and had been writing music for as long as I had been playing. But this was the first time I had songs I had written that were both finished and that I liked enough to want to play for other people.  At some point in the early recording process of those first three songs, something just clicked, and the rest of the album just came out.  The first three songs were brand new to me when I recorded them, while others were based on ideas I had had for years, and only then figured out how to make them work.  Argyle is Argyle is basically a summation of my life experience up to this point.
BTR: “Sunny Day in Hell” is so sweet! How about some more info on that?

Argyle Johansen: Right about the time I had started writing my own songs, I was working sunday brunch on a weekly basis.  For anyone who has never worked in a restaurant, Sunday brunch is about the most miserable shift of the week that you can get stuck with.  In that frame of mind, on a beautiful Spring day three years ago, I received a half inch laceration across the palm of my right hand from a broken bottle in a trash bag.  My co-workers applied gauze generously to my hand and congratulated me on a fine scar in the making, while my boss freaked out and gave me $15 so I could take a cab to St. Vincent’s.  On the way to the hospital, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in months… a great girl who I had always liked and never told, all of which would have been one of those random New York alignments of the cosmos by itself, without the bloody gauze on my hand and my face turning green.  About five hours and a couple of stitches later, as I was walking back to work to get my stuff and go home and have a drink, I couldn’t stop thinking that despite the gore, the day hadn’t been so bad after all.

A few days later I had written the first version of the song, which was only about a minute or so long.  A few weeks after that, I hung out with my friend and showed her my stitches.  By the time I finished the song, it became as much about her as it was about my hand, and about my trip to the emergency room and the time I had to reflect on those events.  At that time, I’d never written a song like that.  It felt like the song was already whole in my head and all I had to do was write down what I already knew. I didn’t have to make anything up.

BTR: What can we expect from Argyle Johansen in the future?

Argyle Johansen: My main focus at the moment is the live show.  I’ve been playing two or three times a month in Brooklyn, and plan on branching out over the next few months.  There has been some mention of heading down south for a bit this Fall, which is contingent upon me getting a new driver’s license,as my old one’s been revoked by the state of New Jersey for quite some time.
Otherwise, I’m going to continue writing songs as the events of my life transpire and I am able to write about them.


BTR: Is there anything else you would like to share??


Argyle Johansen:
Yes, my favorite food is eggplant parmigiana.

Cut up two large eggplants, lengthwise, dip in egg-whites, bread liberally and fry layer in a casserole with tomato sauce, parmigiana and mozzarella cheese bake at 450 degrees for 25 minutes serves two to four people

I’m also partial to beer, red wine, and chocolate covered pretzels.

-Lottie

If you are in the New York City area or feel like making a daytrip, here are upcoming live dates for Argyle Johansen:

4/3 – Trash Bar, Williamsburg, BKLN, NY – 10pm w/Schocholautte
4/10 – Pete’s Candy Store, Williamsburg, BKLN, NY – 9pm
4/28 – Otto’s Shrunken Head, NYC, NY – 10pm w/Schocholautte
5/7 – Lit Lounge, NYC, NY – Time TBD w/Schocholautte
5/30 – Alphabet Lounge – NYC, NY – time TBD, w/Schocholautte

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