For more than 15 years, Andrew Johnson (right) has been a pillar of northeast Wisconsin music. The former singer and guitarist of seminal Oshkosh (by way of Portland) rock band h. Chinaski, longtime Oshvegas linchpin Happy, and captain of his Holly & Plastic solo venture refocused his efforts into Haunted Heads about three years ago. Since then, his latest band has enjoyed favorable attention, maintained lofty standing in the college town’s quickly expanding music scene, and has hit the road when work and family allow. Before Haunted Heads come to Riverwest Public House this weekend, Johnson told us via email about the state of Oshkosh music, the Fox Cities-Milwaukee relationship, and having Shepard Fairey doing the artwork for one of his albums.
Milwaukee Record: I first became aware of your music when you were in Happy about seven or eight years ago, then backtracked to your work in h. Chinaski and Holly & Plastic. I notice there’s some overlap between Happy and Haunted Heads. What necessitated a new rock band and the step back from Happy?
Andrew Johnson: Even though Haunted Heads has all three members of the final incarnation of Happy, the addition of Eric Van Thiel as a second songwriter was enough to warrant a name change. We had also made a conscious decision to lessen the dissonance and odd meters for a change.
MR: In addition to your projects, it seems like a cluster of Oshkosh bands like The Traveling Suitcase, Dead Horses, Bron Sage, and The Guilty Wanted are making waves throughout the state, including in Milwaukee. For us outsiders, what’s the state of music in the land of baby jeans? Is it an especially fruitful time there?
AN: No, I don’t think so. At least no more that what I feel is normal. This area has always turned out some amazing bands. Some great Milwaukee history started up here. Disguised As Birds, IfIHadAHiFi, and Body Futures all have roots in the area. Maybe we’re just a little more motivated than usual at the moment?
MR: It’s a small sample size for a new event, but what has Mile Of Music done for the Fox Cities music scene? What could it do better?
AN: For only being around for two years, it’s been a pretty incredible festival to be a part of. They go above and beyond the call when it comes to how they treat the bands. The fact that they keep such a strong Wisconsin representation as part of the lineup is a testament to how strong the bands are in this part of the country. A part of me is concerned that the showgoers are a little too preoccupied with their importance on being seen as opposed to really being there to listen and support the artists, but I’m guessing that aspect accompanies most festivals. Right? Rumor has it, they even stopped burning a real man out in the desert.
MR: Aside from bands like The Sleepwalkers—whom you’re playing with Saturday—and The Midwestern Charm who moved here from Oshkosh, are Milwaukee bands and venues generally receptive to booking acts from 85 miles away? Is it reciprocal with Milwaukee bands coming to your town?
AN: I can’t speak for all the clubs and promoters, but the bands have always been fighting the good fight. We’ve been fortunate over the years to always have a strong connection with various Milwaukee bands. When we have touring or out-of-town bands play with us, we always do our best to make sure they are taken care of. Rad flyers, decent pay, a place to crash if needed.
MR: In your decades playing music in Wisconsin, what are some memorable moments playing in Milwaukee? Do you have a favorite place to play?
AN: Over the last 15 years, we’ve played the Cactus the most, so by default, I would consider that our go-to favorite stop. My best memories come from the Akarso house on Bremen in the late ’90s. Those basement shows were crazy fun.
MR: It’s been a bit since your debut full-length in 2012. I know you have an EP out too, but are there plans for a new record soon?
AN: The 10” EP—colored vinyl—is brand new. The download card that comes with it has both the album and another 11 tracks on it. Some live stuff, demos, and covers. We’re writing the new album as we speak.
MR: Going back to h. Chinaski, I can’t go without mentioning that Shepard Fairey did the album art for Smaller-Sized Jar With An Idea. How did you get the “OBEY” guy to do your record? And during President Obama’s first campaign, what was it like knowing the “HOPE” poster had a direct connection to your old band?
AN: Doubleplusgood Records has been our label from the very beginning. It was their idea to approach Shepard about the cover. At that point, he wasn’t the household name that he is today. We were lucky, he liked what we were doing enough to say yes. As for the Obama “Hope” posters, I suppose there is a bit of a Kevin Bacon connection there. Single payer is still the way to go.
Haunted Heads will open a show at Riverwest Public House in support of Animals In Human Attire and The Sleepwalkers Saturday, October 18. The show begins at 9 p.m. and costs $5.