Musician to Musician: Knights of the Fire Kingdom
Jeoaf Johnson and I go back a few years, to his days as a sound-man at The Mink club on Main Street. As a sound-man, he was friendly and hard-working and known for getting a lot of sound out of a very cheap and temperamental sound system. As a drummer for Roky Moon and BOLT!, he seemed to glue the band together with his drums and personality. And now, as a singer/songwriter and guitarist for Knights of the Fire Kingdom, he steps out from behind the kit to sing, growl, and bark his way into our ears.
SCR: How did Knights get together? Is it a “from the ashes of Roky Moon & BOLT!”-kind of thing…? Who are all these people? I recognize Aaron [Echegaray] from RM&B, but the rest of the guys look like chiseled rock and roll veterans you pulled off the street!
Jeoaf Johnson: Knights really formed as kind of a stopgap to keep me from getting bored when the activity with Roky Moon and BOLT! slowed down. I can totally see where the idea of “From the ashes of Roky Moon and BOLT! comes Knights of the Fire Kingdom” would make sense, but the reality was that there weren’t any ashes to speak of yet.
Both bands existed simultaneously for a brief preiod of time and forming Knights was a instinctive reaction to Mike [Hardin] and Cassie [Hargrove] moving to Austin, knowing that the band wasn’t going to be doing as much because of the logistics of band members living three hours apart, and me having the habit of wanting to fill every waking moment of every single day with some sort of project or another. I’m terrible with having free time on my hands. I always feel like there’s something that I should be doing — like I’m forgetting something.
Anyway, I remember there was a conversation that, with the formation of this new band, there would be the added bonus of Aaron and I continuing to play together, which, more than just enjoying it, also served as a way to keep a couple members of BOLT! actively throwing ideas back and forth, so as not to let that band grind to a complete halt.
Also, I knew that our original drummer Marcos [Echegaray] — Aaron’s brother and formerly of Ultramagg — and Dave [Noske] were wanting to play some music, so it just made perfect sense for the four of us to get together, make some noise and see what happened.
Then, at one point, Aaron decided that he was going to be heading back and forth to Austin fairly regularly to work with Mike on BOLT! stuff, and that was gonna take up too much time to play in Knights on the side. So he bowed out, and I asked my friend Dwayne Cathey — ex-Jon Sparrow, ex-Tie That Binds, current badass — to help us out on the “Chinese Dragon” 7″. He played amazingly, but he was also starting to really make a name for himself with his film scoring work, which was putting a lot of pressure on him and taking up a lot of his time.
There was just no way that he could add playing in a band to what he already had going on, so I called another friend, Chris [Wertz], who I knew from playing in a band that I’ve known and loved for years called Hollywood Black. He and I share a lot of musical tastes and sensibilities, so it was pretty seamless integrating him into Knights. In the meantime, it became apparent that Roky Moon and BOLT! wouldn’t be continuing, after all, and Aaron came out to see one of the Knights of the Fire Kingdom shows that we played as a four-piece.
The absolute M.O. for Knights is to have fun above all else, and I guess that came across pretty strongly that night, because as soon as our set was over, he came up to me and said, “You guys are having way too much of a good time up there for me not to want to be a part of it.” So, despite my initial fears of three guitars in one band being too much, Aaron came back, and it was all awesome.
A brief rundown of personnel and history would go something like this… Aaron Echegaray — guitar and backing vox — and I obviously have our BOLT! history. That’s where we met, bonded, and essentially became brothers in arms via the trenches. There’s nobody I’d rather be in a band with. Chris Wertz — guitar and backing vox — and I met at a Hollywood Black show at Mary Jane’s about 10 years ago, minutes after some goon from the label that they were on had showed up to literally shake them down for money.
I saw the guy — who was goddamn massive — as he was leaving and when I introduced myself to Chris right afterward, he was still a little pale and shaky ’cause the guy had just threatened to kick his ass if his band didn’t fork over $300 on the spot to pay for some bogus manufacturing costs of the CD they had just put out. They gave him all the money they had on them, which was what they had saved in their band account for the tour they were leaving on the next day. They still went on the tour, by the way.
Dave Noske — bass — and I have known each other since we were little. Our moms took us to the same daycare, which was just this lady’s house up on the Northside. I don’t think the appropriate licenses were in effect there, but no one died, so I guess it’s okay. On the first day I went to the daycare, I was standing on top of one of those plastic slides, getting ready to slide down, when Dave got squirrely and pushed me off. I hit the ground pretty hard and split my head open badly enough to have to go to the ER for stitches.
The grown-ups made him apologize when I went back and then made us play together. We eventually hit it off and have been friends ever since. He used to play in Hardin Store Road with Aaron and Mike, so I knew what he was capable of musically, too, so it was really a no-brainer asking him to play in Knights. We’re really close to having a new drummer, but we need to do a little more jamming around before we set anything in stone on that front.
What was the process like of going from behind the drums to being the “leader” of the band, as the singer and guitarist?
JJ: It’s definitely different. Playing drums, you get to hide behind everything, so you don’t really have to worry about looking cool or engaging the audience or anything like that. You just beat the piss out of the drums and walk away sweaty.
Being up front is a completely different beast because — and I might be overly conscious of this stuff because it’s still kinda new to me — you sorta have to be aware of every single move you make, every word you say into the mic and how you say it, how you stand, et cetera, because it’s all somewhat representative of who all of you are together as a band. And, obviously, you don’t want to look like an idiot, either.
I’ve seen too many guys over the years up onstage, bumbling through bad jokes and awkward banter, to know that I don’t want to be like that, so I try to be aware. Switching from drums hasn’t really been any different from a musical or a writing perspective, though. I’ve always written songs; I just never let anyone hear them. So it’s always really been about playing or coming up with a part that serves the song, above all else. That approach never changes, regardless of what instrument I’m playing or what my role is in a band.
I hear a Foo Fighters-esque crunch in your sound. Am I making that up because you both were drummers who started their own bands? Or do you think of Dave Grohl as a big influence, musically and/or personally?
JJ: Well, I learned to play drums by listening to Nirvana records and playing along to Nevermind and In Utero with my headphones on, so I’d say the influence on my drumming is pretty undeniable. I love the Foo Fighters, also, so I’m sure some of that influence creeps into how I sing and play guitar and probably even how I write songs, too.
But I didn’t start Knights of the Fire Kingdom as a vehicle for me to move from drums so I could sing and play guitar and be just like Dave Grohl or anything weird like that, though. I started it to keep myself occupied and have fun. But starting a new band and playing drums in it would have felt very safe and familiar and comfortable and easy. I didn’t want that.
I wanted to try to recapture the feeling of when I started my first band in junior high school, before any of us really new how to play our instruments but still had fun jumping around and screaming at the top of our lungs for hours every day after school. I wanted to feel that sense of discovery and accomplishment, and I didn’t see it happening if I just fell back on playing the drums again.
Tell me about your instruments and what amps you use. Have you been using the same equipment long? Is it your ultimate setup, or do you have a fantasy guitar or amp? Was there a particular reason you picked what you did? I’m especially interested in hearing about that amp of Aaron’s.
Aaron Echegaray: My gear is very much the kind that found me, rather than vice versa. I stumbled across my ’78 Les Paul Custom hanging all alone behind that counter of a guitar shop in The Woodlands. I was awestruck when I saw it and even more so when the dude took it down and handed it to me for the first time. It already had the finish worn off of the neck, scratched and dented all over… I felt an immediate connection to it. There are spirits in an instrument like that, and it’s up to you to find them.
The amp is a Rivera Quianna…and oddball 4×10 combo that I believe is no longer in production, though you can still get 2x12s readily enough. It’s got two channels with a boost on each; the boost on the clean channel is called “NINJA” boost. I guess they thought it was the sort of thing you never see coming.
There’s also a vintage/modern switch on the back that cuts the power and sweetens some of the tone. It’s got more of that old ’70s crunch in vintage, but on modern it just screams…so that’s probably how you’ve heard me play it. The amp and guitar are the only real gear I’ve ever owned, and both have been my faithful companions for about a decade now. They give me power and have gone on every tour with me.
Chris Wertz: I play a Fender ’52 Reissue Telecaster through a Fender Vintage Reissue ’65 Twin Reverb. I’ve been playing these two together for about seven years. I chose the amp because of its power, tone, and the spring reverb/vibrato switches. The guitar, well, it chose me.
JJ: I’ve never been a gearhead at all, whatsoever — be it drum stuff or guitar. Got a drum kit? Beat the fuck out of it and it’ll sound just fine. Got a guitar? If it’ll stay in tune for a song or two, then it’s alright by me. I’m starting to get a little pickier about amps, though, ’cause — who’d-a thunk? — they actually matter, ha-ha!
Right now, I’m playing though Chris’ Fender Deluxe Deville combo. That’s probably going to be what I get when I get a big-boy amp of my own, which will be soon. I’ve got a couple pedals that I use, too — one is a sweet overdrive/distortion pedal that my friend, Joe, from JJ Pedals down in Corpus custom-built for me. I love that thing! It’s totally becoming my security blanket.
Then I’ve got some weird phase pedal that Pope Jon PPPP from The Monocles didn’t want anymore and gave to me. That one gets used very sparingly. My main guitar is a ’70s Telecaster Deluxe reissue that I bought from a friend of Dave’s. I love the thing and thought that it was really fancy when I got it, but then I talked to a guitar expert friend of mine, and he basically said that back in the day they couldn’t give those guitars away! [laughs] I still love it, though.
My backup guitar is this crazy homemade thing that’s like a hybrid Strat/Tele/Jaguar-type of deal. Some guy in Galveston made it, and I won it off of him playing drunken Truth or Dare at the Poop Deck. True story — he dared me to do a shot that was 1/3 Jagermeister, 1/3 cinnamon Schnapps, and 1/3 Apple Pucker. It tasted like cough syrup from hell. So I dared him to touch tongues with a stray cat that was down below on the sidewalk. We caught the cat and were even able to pry its mouth open and get it to stay relatively still, but the dude chickened out, and I got to keep the guitar. It’s a handful, but it sounds super-nasty. I’m gonna trick it out and make it do magic.
I understand you are mid-recording? Where and who with? Are you taking your time or getting through it quickly?
JJ: We’re in the middle of doing our full-length right now with Stephen Finley over at Digital Warehaus. We did the first Roky Moon and BOLT! record there and liked working with him, so it was an easy choice. Originally, we thought getting it done quickly was the way to go, so we booked a weekend, got all the tracking done for 10 songs in two days, then decided that we’d play a bunch of shows and come back to start mixing it with fresh ears after about six weeks or so.
Well, over that six-week period, some stuff went down and unfortunately, we ended up having to part ways with our drummer, Marcos. That really sucked, man, it was rough. So when we went back to listen to what we had recorded, it felt kinda weird going forward with the tracks that we had done with him. Plus, there had been a pretty big emphasis on keeping the tempos rock solid, which actually ended up having the complete opposite effect and made the songs sound restrained and polite and the tempos jumped all over the place. It got way over-thought.
So rather than jam around with some new drummers ’til we find the right person, we want to re-do the record while the songs are still fresh and new to us, so I’m gonna go ahead and play drums on it. That way it’s still completely our band, rather than bringing in a hired gun to fill in for the recording and then split, and we’re not waiting to re-record a full set of songs six months from now that we’ve already been playing for a year or more.
Are you recording to tape, or is it all digital or a mix of both?
JJ: It’s mostly digital so far, but we’ve been talking to Stephen about mastering down to tape. Hopefully we can slam the final mixes hard to the reel and get some of that good analog compression and sound. I’m not a huge analog purist, but I’d be lying if I said most of my favorite records weren’t recorded to tape, so there’s some allure in the idea of introducing tape to the process at some level.
Do you have a favorite place in Houston to play?
CW: My favorite place to play was Walter’s when it was on Washington. I have a lot of memories there. Now, I would say Fitzgerald’s. The new Walters isn’t bad, either. I love Terry the sound guy.
AE: Honestly, The Mink used to be home. Many a debaucherous night was had within those hallowed halls. Nowadays, Fitzgerald’s is beginning to feel like home. It has such a revamped sound and vibe that love being there time and again.
Also, I’m beginning to notice a pattern of seriously getting down every time we play Warehouse Live. The funny thing is, we’re often last minute support for fair-to-middling lineups that somehow happen to fall on off-nights. So it’s almost like there’s nobody there, but we just seriously get down, sound great, then drink ourselves stupid by the end of the night. I guess we just make our own party.
JJ: Man, I miss The Mink, too. It’s goddamn criminal what happened with that whole situation. But yeah, I agree with really warming up to Warehouse Live, which was always kind of a bizarro universe venue to play for me in the past — mainly because it was tough for my inner 15-year-old to escape the idea that, “Whoa, Billy fucking Corgan played here! And oh wait…Adam Ant played here, too! Awesome!”
We’ve played there a handful of times now. It sounds great, and the staff is starting to recognize us, so that’s cool. It’s a good spot. Other than that, everybody knows that Fitz is killing it. I’ve also sorta started a renewed love affair with Rudyard’s over the past couple of months. I’d be skinned alive if I didn’t mention how great the new Walter’s has become, too. I’m pleasantly surprised by the fact that, despite its physical differences, the vibe of the old Walter’s is still very much alive there. Those guys will always be like family to me, even if I don’t get to go over and see them as much as I used to. And Terry is the best goddamn soundguy in the city. I absolutely love that dude.
As a sound man at The Mink for so long, does that make you more picky about your live sound, or does it give you more empathy for the sound man/woman’s challenges in making a band sound good? Or maybe it’s a combination of these?
JJ: Mmm, I’d say its a combination. On one hand, I know the secret behind the magic trick, so I can usually tell if a soundguy is just being lazy. But on the other hand, it also gives me some insight to what kind of capabilities and limitations they’re up against, as well, based on what gear the venue has and how a room is set up, etc.
Whereas “Band X” might think the soundguy is just being a dick for not giving them more vocals in the monitor, I know that there is a very good chance that if the soundguy puts more volume through a shitty monitor in a small room, it’s gonna feedback or possibly blow the speaker altogether. I’ve never really been terribly picky about an on-stage sound mix in any band I’ve been in. My thought is that if you’re good at what you do and you know your songs, then you should pretty much be able to play them even if it sounds like you’re inside of a jet engine up there.
That’s obviously an over-simplified way to put it, but by and large, it’s totally true. Although, after getting some experience singing in Knights of the Fire Kingdom, I have noticed that I’m pretty self-conscious about how the vocals might sound in the house if I can’t really hear them very well onstage. Not because I need to hear the sultry sounds of my own voice, but because, for the sake of the people watching, I don’t wanna be singing horribly off-key or screeching like a drowned cat or something.
Have you played outside of Houston much? Have you noticed a different or similar reaction as Houston when you play elsewhere? Any fun stories?
AE: This band has gotten out a few times, though we haven’t toured on a record yet or anything — coming soon! People tend to get into it whenever they’re seeing us for the first time, especially outside of Houston. I think people are caught off-guard by an honest-to-goodness rock band, surprised by the output of energy during the set…we have a tendency to be all over the place. I think lots of people are getting accustomed to seeing a band stand and deliver, which is not necessarily how we do things. There’s a simple power in some boys putting on guitars and playing their asses off…we’ve thankfully been received as a breath of fresh air from a lot of rock fans.
CW: In this band, the only outside place we’ve played has been Beaumont, and we all love it. I used to do a lot of touring in another band. Every city is different, and depending on what day of the week you play usually determines what the crowd will be like. I always heard great things about Athens, GA, but we always seemed to end up playing there on a Monday, so there wasn’t much action going on. However, there was this one guy, Israel, who went around asking everyone if he could lick the bottom of their shoes. I saw him lick at least five people’s, full tongue, heel to toe. Gross!
JJ: Our very first show was in Beaumont, actually. It was a conscious decision to have our first outing be at Tequila Rok, because that is the most fun venue in one of the most fun cities I’ve ever played in. There is zero pretension there, everyone comes out to have a fucking blast, and every show feels like a big-ass house party. We’ve played there a couple times now, and I absolutely love it every time.
We played Loudfest in Bryan, too, so we’ve gotten out of the city limits a few times. Yeah, I think that people respond to exactly what I was saying before about how we’re trying to get back to that feeling of how it was when we started our first bands — that thrill and excitement of doing something that is purely rooted in having a good time. High hopes, but no expectations, and if it’s all done right, everyone leaves grinning like an idiot.
We haven’t really been a band long enough to have many “what’s the craziest shit that’s happened on tour?” stories yet. But when we played in Bryan, a few of the guys from the local Knights of Columbus chapter had seen our name on a flyer, then came to the show and got kinda shitty ’cause they thought that us naming our band “Knights of the Fire Kingdom” was poking fun at them somehow. They got all up in our faces and everything. It was pretty hard to take seriously, though, ’cause they were older guys and they were wearing their matching Knights of Columbus chapter shirts, so they looked like a bowling team or something.
It all ended up being okay, though. They stayed and watched our set to make sure we weren’t mocking them, ended up actually really liking the band, and bought us all a round of drinks. Ha! No harm, no foul. Another good story is that the second time we played in Beaumont, there was this girl who was super drunk and thought that we were doing blow off of the merch table.
She wanted to join in, so Chris sprinkled some tiny bits of paper down on the table when she wasn’t looking, and then she snorted them up like a line. Then she immediately sprung up, looked around and yelled, “UGH! Your shit is fuckin’ chunky!”, and then ran off. That, of course, became a running joke, so it is completely appropriate to tell Chris that his shit is chunky if you ever run into him somewhere.
Do you have any favorite Houston bands and National bands?
AE: I love Grandfather Child! I’m still spinning that record of theirs constantly. A few recent performances got me really excited for some upcoming albums, most notably from Wild Moccasins and Poor Pilate. Really, there’s such a host of talent in the musical community here that we could do a whole blog on that subject alone. On the whole, I’m actually going through a phase of drenching myself in some classic soul and funk/rock sounds…Har Mar Superstar, Monophonics, Cody Chesnutt, Lee Fields, Bright Light Social Hour, stuff like that.
JJ: Yeah, Grandfather Child and Poor Pilate are definitely at the top of the local heap for me, too. And I really like Brand New Hearts and Mikey and the Drags. We Were Wolves is a guaranteed good time, every time. As far as national bands go, I almost always turn to whatever John Reis is doing at the moment.
I’m taking my daughter to see one of the Rocket from the Crypt reunion shows — with the Replacements, to boot! — in September, so I’m over the moon stoked about that. I love everything that guy has done: Hot Snakes, [Drive Like] Jehu, Night Marchers, etc. Foo Fighters are a staple. I’ve developed more and more a taste for ’70s rock bands in the past couple of years, too. I blame/credit Aaron for that.
ELO is mind-blowing, Zeppelin and Queen are go-to’s, CCR, Black Sabbath. We actually took a full-band field trip with the We Were Wolves guys to see Sabbath play live. Everything you heard about Ozzy sounding pretty off is true, but still — it’s Black fucking Sabbath, man! It was killer.
CW: Houston bands: We Were Wolves, Mikey and the Drags, Brand New Hearts, Buxton, Young Girls, Something Fierce, Poor Pilate, Hoofprints.
Any great albums you’re listening to, either new this year, or if not, of any era?
CW: A few albums I have liked from this year have been Deerhunter, Monomania, Thee Oh Sees, Floating Coffin, and Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse.
AE: My current cross-section of obsession looks like: Har Mar Superstar, Bye Bye 17; Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork; Night Marchers, Allez! Allez!; Cody Chesnutt, Landing On A Hundred; Bright Light Social Hour, Bright Light Social Hour…and, of course, Daft Punk, Random Access Memories. That’s a good start.
JJ: I go on obsessive binges that last a few months where I listen to the same two or three albums over and over on repeat. Right now, its Allez! Allez! by Night Marchers and the new Queens of the Stone Age record. Sorry for the lack of variety from what Aaron said, but we spend a lot of time together, so we end up listening to a lot of the same stuff.
I love what I’ve heard of the latest Torche record and Thee Oh Sees had some stuff on their last one that blew my mind. The new Purple album 409, is fantastic. The new Sabbath is pretty good, too. It’s in the same vein as their old stuff, so it’s tough to complain about that! END