Paint Robb Johannes Interview with Matt Hartwick of Kingston Music Reviews

Interview with Robb Johannes of Paint

by Matt Hartwick
May 17, 2010


Robb Johannes: vocals/guitar (me)
Mandy Dunbar: guitar/vocals
Marcus Warren: bass
Chris Oliver: drums


I started Paint initially in Vancouver when I was going through what most 18-year-old boys do: I thought I was the next Bob Dylan, I was churning out 20 shitty songs a week, playing all the instruments, and felt I was doing something revolutionary, haha. Of course, that didn't really go anywhere, we did an album, some touring, and ultimately I took some time off to playing in other bands as a sideman: notable Hinterland, Paper Moon, and Carving Hearts. Playing shoegaze, pop, and punk really sharpened my vision of what I wanted to be doing musically. So in early 2008, Matt Laforest (former drummer of a great band called Astoria) and I got together and dreamed up our ideal concept for a band. It was very clear: we loved Brit rock, vintage tube amps, and blending very sonic, "wall of sound" instrumentation (i.e. Catherine Wheel) with narrative-based lyrics and sing-a-long choruses. And of course, since live music at small clubs is often a backdrop to drinking establishments, we wanted to be as loud as we possibly could so people couldn't talk through our set and would have no choice but to listen to us. That was fun. Paula McGlynn came on board, who I played in Paper Moon with -- she brought in a lovely Kim Deal-esque backup vocal with a totally contrasting filthy, dirty electric guitar. We borrowed bass players and the Can You Hear Me? album is the product of about 9 months of writing and playing shows around Vancouver. But once it was completed, it was clear given the cultural shift in Vancouver that it wasn't going to work for the band to stay there (it's very difficult to tour, there are very few venues, to name a few issues). I was the only one who could make the move across the country after I cleaned up from drugs and alcohol and got married -- so Matt and Paula gave me their blessings, stayed on as writing partners, and I took the machine to Toronto where I found Mandy, Marcus, and Chris (more on that in a moment).


A lot of bands will try and ascribe some cosmic meaning to their names -- and we may have at some point as well, but honestly... the first rehearsal space we had was in the basement of a dingy storage facility on Pacific and Richards in Vancouver. We'd leave every rehearsal reeking of paint fumes because they were renovating the basement. I wanted a name that was one word, easy to say, easy to remember.... and the smell just kind of inspired it. Matt, Paula, and I really wanted to rename the band in 2008 because it just didn't seem to fit the "loud" conception of the band, but we couldn't for the life of us come up with something else, so we kept it. And "Holy Fuck" was already taken.


Not really. I came to Toronto with a completed album, a clear direction of vision, and a "take-no-prisoners" attitude. It's pretty easy to filter out "hobbyists" when you lay it out that way, and it's shocking how many musicians actually are afraid to just take it as far as it will go... so, having nothing to lose was a major criteria for people to joint Paint, as well the ability to learn a small back catalogue of material with no ego, and most importantly, to be creative and contribute to new compositions. So I just advertised, talked to friends, went to shows, and just chatted with everyone I could. I got a lot of strange responses (notably a woman who believed she was the re-incarnation of Marilyn Monroe), but I was able to weed through things, and find some amazing people. Mandy was auditioned on YouTube (I'm serious). She sent me videos of her playing guitar and I invited her to play a few tour dates around with us to "try it out" (when in reality she had me sold immediately cos she was an amazing and charismatic performer -- but of course, I wanted her to sweat for it a little, haha). She's also very level-headed, which is a rare and "keeper" quality for a musician -- another reason why I love having at least one female band member always. Marcus responded to an ad online somewhere and had pretty learned the entire album before we even met, so that was easy. He's really helped spearhead the drive to write new songs as well, so it's made the live show full of more surprises. And Chris was invited as a "fill-in" to help out on drums with a few tour dates initially. He got the songs on Monday, rehearsed with us twice, and we went on stage on Saturday and played one of the best shows we've played (in Toronto at C'est What?). So he was in. And that's it.


Everything. Every single experience; a look left instead of right can completely alter the course of your life, and every single experience, story, encounter, friendship, relationship, and observation can then find their way into my notebook, typewriter, and eventually into song lyrics... I also have done a lot of activism with prisoners, sex workers, hardcore drug users, and other marginalized groups like Aboriginals, so that's been three lifetimes of inspiration. I keep on ongoing journal and when it comes time to start thinking about lyrics (i.e. when we have some musical compositions in the work), it's really a matter of finding the words that best fit the emotional tone of the piece of music. I can probably tell you 3-hour long stories about every song and what inspired the lyrics but my standpoint on lyrics is this: as soon as a song is written, recorded, and released to the public, the meaning of the lyrics is no longer my property. It becomes the audience's song to interpret and find meaning as they wish. Art (and yes, I consider some pop music to still be art) is a means of communication, sharing ideas, and personal growth. I think of a lot of songs that meant a lot to me and then after hearing the writer explain in detail what the songs meant to them, it kind of took away the personal connection I had to the song... so, I try not to reveal things about my lyrics that way because I don't feel that it's my place to do so (plus I feel my connection to the audience should mostly be through the music, that's what everyone really needs to know about me; I try to keep my personal life as private as any other citizen would). In general though, the lyrics are written to be memorable, easy to sing along with, and catchy -- but with deeper layers of meaning that are there if you so choose to want to go there. I'm grateful when people want to take them to that level but I'm also totally fine if they're just gonna sing along and have fun. As long as they're listening, I'm happy!


Yes. Absolutely. The only thing that I do myself is write lyrics. Every piece of music, every arrangement, every chord change, every dynamic shift, the length of every section -- all go through each band member's filter. The amount of editing that needs to be done really depends on how complete a piece is when it's presented. "Strangers" for example, is a song that I brought in pretty much completely written: every guitar part, vocal part, and groove were there, so the others just had to learn them. But a song like "A Gentle Art," on the other hand, we hammered away at it, and ended up merging what we thought were initially two completely separate songs into a bridge and a chorus. No song is ever written the same way. That's why I love playing in a band so much more than being solo; four people can take a piece of music so much further than any one of them could do on their own. It's a completely different perspective, it's the same as working with a producer on an album, who's one-step removed emotionally from the music and just wants to take the great idea you have and make it better... It slows down the process of writing for sure, but I think quality is much more important than quantity. I'd rather have 8 songs that kick serious ass than have 25 that are 80% filler -- that's a mistake that a lot of immature musicians make. And I say that from the point of view of having been there myself!


First of all, thank you! I've always been leery of training, and trained musicians in general. They always sound generic; as though training has this built-in elitism and a very narrow perspective of what a "good" musician is supposed to sound like. So most come out the other side very technically proficient, and they could play circles around me, but they don't have a unique character to their playing, or to their voice. They wow you, but they don't make you FEEL anything. I worked with a vocal coach named Spencer Welch in Vancouver for a while, who specializes in something called "Speech-Level Singing," and he was great in just helping me work on how to sing for long periods, on tour, in the studio, and not destroy my throat. I'm very aware of how to maintain a healthy voice box, which is really not all that different to just keeping a healthy body; so, exercising, eating well, drinking lots of tea (I have some very special herbal formulas of which I can't reveal the ingredients, and some regimented warmup routines that I do before every show). Getting clean from drugs and alcohol admittedly helped a lot as well especially with my upper register, though a lot of whiskey definitely did give me some natural grit to sing rock! But in terms of the actual character of my voice, as with any instrument, it's supposed to be an extension of you as a person. So I definitely sing from an emotional and communicative place based on words and melody rather than a technical one. Music is about connecting with people after all.


Depends on the night, really! And I go through phases with them, and some songs are more fun to play for us than they are for the audience to hear so it's never the same with each gig... back in Vancouver, I loved playing "After," it just killed, especially in the long bridge section when it builds back into the last chorus. "Strangers" has been consistently strong live, "Madonna" is probably my favourite song that we have and I love playing it live because it's very, very difficult yo play correctly. "Don't Blow Me Away" has never failed to have audiences singing the chorus with us whether they've heard the song or not. I must say though that lately "Can You Hear Me?" has been my personal favourite of the album songs to play live. Mandy just completely slaughters that solo at the end (with all due respect to what Paula did on the album). I get to just sit back and groove out with Marcus and Chris, and let her step to the front and tear everyone's faces off. It's also one of the only moments in our live set when I can really look out into the audience and be part of a shared experience of watching Mandy in her element. It's other-worldly, really.


You mean favourite song beyond the album? ...a lot of the new songs we've written are sharper, and just one step above the songs on the albums -- which is why playing live is so crucial for us right now, to give the new songs an outlet before it's time to record them. We've got one called "She Leaves" that I wrote in 10 minutes or so, which we often close our sets with, and it just slays. It's the first "yeah yeah" song we have, and audiences go nuts for it. I also think it may have some of the best lyrics I've written and it really captures Paint: high-energy, danceable, sing-a-long, and with a positive outlook but an underlying sense of unrest and facing some of life's most difficult challenges with a resilient outlook, like, "Yes, I will overcome this!" I can't wait to record the new songs, but in the meantime I guess we just have to keep touring so people can hear them!


We've been able to create quieter moments on stage lately, and breaking away with the "wall of sound" a little because audiences have been very attentive. They see that we're having fun on stage, that we genuinely believe in the music, and that the lyrics are coming from a very personal place for me. So it creates a lot of reciprocal positive energy, and a very intimate experience at every show. Like I said, with songs like "Don't Blow Me Away" and new songs like "She Leaves," people who have never heard the songs before are singing along by the last chorus. So, I think we're onto something. And girls lose their minds when they see Mandy on stage just nailing it. We've gotten emails from girls saying they went out and bought a guitar after seeing us live. I can't think of a higher compliment than that; to inspire others and to be doing something culturally relevant, not just in the form of writing lyrics with a social consciousness, but to challenge male dominance in rock 'n' roll, is pretty amazing. I'm proud to be a part of this band.


A few ways: directly through us at our online store (, in some independent retailers in Toronto (Sonic Boom, Criminal Records, Soundscapes), on iTunes (mp3), CDBaby (CD and mp3), (CD and mp3), and a great distributor called Zunior, which does FLAC lossless audio files as well as pdf album artwork! I don't buy music digitally myself and never have. I like vinyl, and I go to stores because I love having something tangible in my hands, and reading liner notes, and appreciating the album as a complete piece of work. So, Zunior is a cool outlet to buy digital music and still have the rest of the package in your possession. And as we tour, we're slowly getting our album into independent retailers in every city but we need to get to every city in order for that to happen. So, expect it in more places soon!

The original text of this article can be found at Kingston Music Reviews.