Alain Johannes (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
The man with the cigar-box guitar is nearly alone. As a tiny pug wanders past his ankles, Alain Johannes strums a cascading folk melody and sings of "a hole that needs to mend," inspired again by the memory and loss of his partner in music and life, Natasha Shneider, gone now for two years.
They once shared this house in Hollywood, among the crosses and tapestries, the obscure musical instruments found at shops and swap meets around the world, the vintage recording gear and digital equipment. Virtually every room is designed to double as a recording space, and many artists, including No Doubt and Mark Lanegan, have worked here.
Together Johannes, 48, and Shneider led a band called Eleven, recorded and toured as sometime members of Queens of the Stone Age, and had many plans at the time of Shneider's death at age 52 from cervical cancer.
The songs still come to Johannes, so on this afternoon he's working up "Train O' Thought A Comin'," a work that is stripped down both musically and emotionally, much like his debut solo album, "Spark," released this week on Rekords Rekords/Ipecac.
"We used to joke around that both of us make one awesome giant being," Johannes recalled with a smile, headphones on his shaved head. "We had all these holes that locked in like a puzzle-piece musically."
They were never officially married, though they liked to tell people they were "common law" husband and wife. She was a classically inclined musician born in Russia, Johannes a rocker of Russian Austrian descent born in Chile. They began collaborating soon after they met in 1984, mingling postmodern rock and folk with Stevie Wonder soul and were rarely apart in all their years together.
This is the subject of "Spark," an eight-song collection that charts the emotional aftermath of Shneider's passing but with as many hopeful moments as there are melancholy. On the opening track, "Endless Eyes," Johannes strums his guitar, wailing in anxious mourning: "It's killing me that I must go on living, just to fill this cup of promise.... It's the you in me / Each day I'm resurrected."
Their five albums together as Eleven (with drummer Jack Irons) had a devoted fan base while suffering from uncertain resources and label support, but "Spark" is likely to earn wider attention because of Johannes' acclaim as the fourth, touring member of Them Crooked Vultures — the super-group created by Dave Grohl ( Foo Fighters, Nirvana), Joshua Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and John Paul Jones ( Led Zeppelin).
A 'Spark' of interest
That Homme's Rekords Rekords label is releasing "Spark" is no surprise, since the band leader has recruited Johannes as player, engineer or songwriter into virtually every one of his projects, including Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal and Desert Sessions.
"Every record has a story about how it comes to be," Homme said of "Spark" by phone. "Some of those stories are of no interest whatsoever, but in this case, the story is about the deepest philosophical reasons that one could have: What do I do now? Who am I here all alone?
"It doesn't feel overwrought to me. It's easy to confuse this dark subject matter. It sounds like the equivalent of thinking about it all night until the sun comes up and realizing what the answer is. This is a record where the sun's coming up."
It was at a musical tribute concert for Shneider that Homme hosted Aug. 16, 2008, at the Fonda Theater that Johannes debuted a raw "Endless Eyes," his first song written after her death. The next night, he went to dinner with PJ Harvey and Jon Brion, who both urged him to continue writing in that vein.
The songs for "Spark" were recorded in just four days. Homme offered to help, but Johannes knew he needed to be alone.
"Something told me it had to be very personal, private space," Johannes said. "And it was. I would break down and drink vodka and sometimes I didn't want to listen to it anymore and leave it for the next day."
The last song recorded was "Spider," taken from Shneider's nickname and written after a visit to her gravesite at Hollywood Forever. She was buried with a small stone painted by Harvey, beneath a grave-marker etched with the Eleven logo. As Johannes rested a palm on the gravestone, a tiny spider hopped into his hand, inspiring the lyrics: "We're spinning these webs, to trap all our dreams."
The house they first moved into in 1994 remains elegantly cluttered with a Bohemian, continental flair, with world maps and art books stacked high, and string instruments from Afghanistan and India. On a harpsichord rests a photograph of his late partner.
"I'm trying to get it to sound like a drunken gypsy party," he said with a grin, continuing to work on the song. Ambient noises from the neighborhood sometimes play a part, even the arrival of a trash truck. "You know the Leonard Cohen lyric? 'There's a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.' We're going to leave in a little crack."