By all rights Five Horse Johnson should be knee-deep in overseas travel preparations right now: taking new passport photos, making sure their gear’s voltage converters are in working order, checking on the latest European terrorism updates, etc.
Instead, the band’s just stocking up on guitar strings and transmission fluid for a quick weekend trip to play the annual CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. Then, following a CD release party locally — FHJ’s label, Small Stone, is based in Detroit — it’s back home to day jobs and …
FHJ vocalist Eric Oblander is outlining the medical woes he’s been weathering. Granted, the recent stroke that left him weakened couldn’t have come at a worse time. With its fifth album, The Last Men On Earth, just out, the Toledo-based quartet was set for a return engagement in Europe, where its brand of high-octane stoner blooze has been enthusiastically received on a semiannual basis for several years.
“But the main thing right now,” Oblander observes, “is to get myself back into shape. I have to work out every other day at physical therapy. And I’m doing really good now — maybe 90 to 95 percent there. This — thing, it kind of came out of nowhere. I woke up one morning and both my right arm and leg were weak. After we played a show where I could barely move, I finally went to a hospital. I guess I’m lucky it was a small stroke, because if it had been a bigger one I’d be a vegetable. I think it was just my body telling me to fuck off and go get into shape!”
Oblander sounds half-sheepish and half-relieved as he relates the sequence of events that presumably triggered his stroke.
Stress — and lots of it, including a breakup with a girlfriend, shooting a video and fretting over CD and tour details. Cigarettes and booze — and lots of them, too, by Oblander’s estimate at least three to four packs a day and no less than a dozen beers every night. He’d been trying to lose weight as well: “Everyone kept telling me I looked like Meat Loaf or something, and that really bummed me out.”
Wake-up call still fresh in his mind, Oblander says he’s quit smoking and severely curtailed his drinking — and feels tons better as a result.
Whew. Had us worried there for a minute. After all, this is a band that routinely notches uncompromising reviews. One typical rave, courtesy Metal Hammer: “Super-raw, ass-shakin’, blues-boogie rock. Music that you should drink an entire bottle of Yukon Jack to before goin’ into town and openin’ up a can o’ whup-ass on someone.”
Five Horse Johnson slithered outta the Glass City underground in ’95, forming around the nucleus of Oblander, guitarist Brad Coffin and bassist Steve Smith; fifth drummer Mike Alonso, from Detroit, has been manning the traps since 2000. While Oblander describes himself and his band mates as being “all old punk-rock dudes and metalheads,” it was a mutual love for the blues that helped the members find their collective identity. Oblander, who as a teenager soaked in the hardcore punk scene (he roadied for thrash kingpins the Necros), was encouraged by his father, a lifelong blues aficionado, to pick up the harmonica. Oblander cites both Charlie Musselwhite and Captain Beefheart as key influences, and he sings in a raw-scraped, brawny-bluesy voice that suggests a cross between the good Captain and Mountain’s Leslie West. Coffin, for his part, found himself smitten by the down ’n’ dirty likes of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough; picking up a bottleneck, he never looked back.
Fittingly then, the very first FHJ gig was one opening for bluesman Big Jack Johnson, and the first FHJ album, 1996’s Blues For Henry, was recorded in a bona fide juke joint. Although as Oblander is quick to point out, billing themselves a blues band wasn’t always the path of least resistance.
“Yeah, when we started it was really hard to sell a ‘blues band’ that wasn’t doing stuff like ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ you know? We didn’t do all those covers. That’s what separated us from the whole blues crowd mentality anyway. We were punkers at heart, you know? I’d like to say we could whip out a lot of covers — but to be honest, we’re not that talented. Heh! But usually what we’d do, say we’re opening for somebody like Johnny Winter and it’s this suit-and-tie, weekend-warrior kind of crowd, we’d just trudge through our stuff, stick it in their face and hope they dig it.”
Small Stone owner Scott Hamilton clearly dug it. Starting with the second FHJ album, the 1997 Greg (Raging Slab) Strzempka-produced Double Down, he’s overseen all the group’s recordings. Hamilton, whose colorful label has presented everything from Detroit psychedelicists Medusa Psyclone, Texas fuzztone fetishists Dixie Witch and Swedish stoner punks Greenleaf to compilation tributes to Aerosmith (Right In The Nuts) and the ’70s (Sucking The ‘70s, which leads off with FHJ’s cover of Mountain’s “Never In My Life”), was turned on to the band by legendary local artist Mark Dancey. Hamilton points out that one reason he wanted to sign them was because “those guys would literally drive anywhere and tour — and play for beer. All they wanted to do was tour, and they didn’t give a rat’s ass. From a business standpoint, well [laughing] — excellent! Plus, they are easy to work with, and they’re fun to get drunk with! And you know, I always liked what, say, Atlantic Records used to do, or A&M: trying to develop career artists in making a good catalog. I have limited funds, but I guess I’d say I’m trying to do that too.”
Hamilton also admires how the band has gotten exponentially better with each successive release, something Oblander attributes to simply paying close attention to what works and what doesn’t. FHJ discovered that, its bear hug from the stoner-rock community notwithstanding, both the band and the majority of its audiences seemed to prefer the more cathartic, “short punches-to-face” songs over the longer, drawn-out psychedelic opuses that dominated its early set lists. Hence The Last Men On Earth’s efficient, Econoline vibe: Each of its 10 songs clocks in at around four-to-five minutes, perfect for plowing into a patented John Lee Hooker/ZZ Top-styled boogie groove without wearing it out.
FHJ has shared bills with a who’s who of the heavy underground including Queens Of The Stone Age, Monster Magnet, Raging Slab and Nashville Pussy. Yet Oblander seems to take the most pride in having opened for the old guard, bluesmen such as Burnside, Kimbrough and Hubert Sumlin as well as ’70s rockers still making the rounds — Johnny Winter, Mountain, Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Deep Purple, etc.
“The best show we ever had, probably entertainment-wise and for general kickassness, was opening for Skynyrd and Deep Purple at Pine Knob,” says Oblander. “There was Roger Glover standing in our dressing room shaking Steve’s hand and going [in British accent], ‘You guys were fookin’ brilliant, man! Just fookin’ great!’ And then Ian Paice comes walking in and he goes, ‘I felt it ’ere in me balls, mate!’ And he’s grabbing his balls through his jock!
“Plus, playing with all these ’70s cats, it was a good chance the crowd would dig what we were doing. I remember opening for Robin Trower, and it was on a Friday night in Detroit, which means it’s all these GM and Ford workers, big burly fuckers, there to rock. We played a couple of songs and the crowd was real quiet, but we kept digging in, playing our asses off, and by the middle of the set the crowd had really started getting into it — ‘Rock!!!’ We could have even done an encore, which we never do when we’re opening. That was a real learning experience: You really gotta dig in, really reach out. You can’t get up there and go, ‘Fuck it.’ You have to keep going, and if you don’t have ’em yet, go get ’em.”
Having already internalized a solid work ethic, FHJ is set to conquer the planet as soon as everyone’s assured Oblander is back up to cruising altitude. Given the full frontal assault that FHJ is known for, however, should fans expect, for the time being at least, a kinder, gentler performance from its stricken storm trooper of a front man?
“Nah,” Oblander snorts. “I don’t have to rein anything in. I can still go apeshit.”
See Five Horse Johnson at Small’s (10339 Conant, Hamtramck) on Thursday, Oct. 30, with Dixie Witch and Honky. For info, call 313-873-1117.Fred Mills is a freelance writer and editor. E-mail [email protected].