Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

The rocker-activist puts his money on the line for the environment


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2011

Courtesy of Brushfire Records

Even stars have mundane moments. When Metropolis reaches Jack Johnson at his home in Hawaii, the famous rocker and surfer is busy preparing the paperwork for his lapsed car registration. “I keep getting pulled over,” he explains. “I’ve gotten lucky being let off twice when the police officers just wanted a photo or an autograph. But I don’t want to push my luck.”

True to his media image, Johnson spends every free moment riding the legendary monster waves of Oahu’s North Shore. “When I’m home I surf a lot more than I play music,” grants the onetime semi-pro boarder. “These days I hardly even play, to be honest. With three kids at home, I don’t have time, so when I have a free hour I jump in the water.”

Growing up on the North Shore, Johnson managed to attract sponsorship, but he doesn’t regret opting out of a pro surfing career. “My friends said it was pretty weird when all of a sudden there were contracts involved and money on the line,” he says. “Going up against close friends, it was ruining friendships.”

Instead, he opted to enroll in college and study film. He would get his start in music a decade ago, when friends encouraged him to use his own songs for movies about renowned surf buddies like Kelly Slater. By remaining on the North Shore, Johnson has been able to maintain his connection to the sea even while selling 8 million albums and traveling the world.

“I’ve always been drawn to it,” he says about the ocean, which provides the inspiration for latest album To The Sea. “It was recorded at a time when my dad had recently passed away,” continues Johnson, 35. “The ocean was the place we put his ashes, and where I go to now to feel closest to him. To The Sea was a reference to the fact that life starts from the ocean, and with family members we’ve lost we’ve always returned them to the ocean. My dad was on my mind all the time I was writing songs for the album.”

As his father introduced him to the sea, Johnson is now doing so with his own children. “It’s a metaphor for entering the subconscious,” he expands. “The idea is that my father led me and my brothers to the ocean as young kids, and now I am a guy in the middle of life who is reaching in one direction and feeling like a son still to my parents, and then the other way pulling my kids along and trying to figure it all out. And the kids are at that same place where they can decide if they are going to plunge in and try to understand things on a deeper subconscious level.”

Johnson’s easygoing surfer-dude image belies his many deep concerns. “The idea of surfing seems so limiting to write about, I never even considered it,” he emphasizes. “It’s understandable that people identify guys like myself and Donovan Frankenreiter as ‘surf rock,’ because the fact is that a lot of us are surfers. But unlike the first era of surf rock, which sounds really good with surf films, now the style comes from not having electricity when you are on a surf trip and only having an acoustic guitar around.”

Johnson’s time in the outdoors and concern for the environment led inexorably to activism. He recorded To The Sea using solar power and donated the entire proceeds of his 2008 and 2010 tours to charity. Yet the sobering fact is that a tour of this size—he’ll play to thousands of adoring Japanese fans at the Budokan next month—produces an environmental impact that requires carbon offsets to the tune of 1,800 tons.

“It’s exciting when the whole thing grows, but then one day you find yourself playing huge places that require multiple trucks to carry equipment around,” he says. “I asked myself: do I even want to keep touring? I love playing live music, but if it’s really that taxing, let’s make sure we’re not just lessening the negative impact—let’s expand on the positive. So the idea is to make all of our touring 100 percent charitable. It feels good to know that I’m leaving things in better shape than when we got there, rather than leave a big old environmental footprint over everything.”

Johnson might be among the more earnest men in rock ’n’ roll, but he’s not without a sense of humor. “There is one song by an Aussie band, the Goons of Doom, that goes, ‘I’d rather smoke napalm from a bong/Than have to hear another Jack Johnson song,’” he chuckles. “There is definitely a reaction when something gets [as] popular as my thing and the surf culture have. The next generation is going to start doing something else.”

But not to worry: he’ll always have film.

Jack Johnson
Mar 15, 7pm, ¥7,500-¥8,000. Nippon Budokan, Kudanshita; Mar 19, 5:30pm, ¥8,000. Studio Coast, Shin-Kiba. Tel: Smash 03-3444-6751.