An Interview with
'Ace Von Johnson'
Lead Guitarist of Legendary Hollywood Sleaze Rockers
that took place in May 2014.
Interviewed by Glenn Milligan.
Ace: Well, I think it was a culmination of a lot of things. Being a kid raised in the ’90’s, which was quintessentially the last generation of pre-internet youth. There were no iPods, cell phones or anything that kids have at their disposal today. And in my recollection, during an era when MTV was playing only music videos all day, I just found I had this sort of urge to create something. I was definitely the loner/outcast-type as a kid, and I became a fan of music of all genres from a young age. I didn’t understand the whole concept, but I can recall being about 8 years old and thinking “Someday, I will have a band and call it Aerosmith 2” because I couldn’t think of a better name than adding a ‘2’ to some other bands name.
I do remember my first two distinct musical memories vividly, asides from lots of ’50’s style doo-wop, it was The Eagles ‘Hotel California’, and The Doors ‘People Are Strange’. I can remember hearing those songs and thinking, ‘I want to do that!’ I wanted to make those sounds. And my mother had an acoustic in the house. So that’s how it began. And eventually when my family relocated to San Diego, I befriended a local band down there called Agent 51. I was in my mid-teens and became their ‘roadie’, and it kinda went from there. Chris Armes, this is all your fault! Haha.
Ace: My first ever guitar was some piece of junk acoustic. But at about 13 I saved up my allowance for a good 6 months to buy this awful Aria Pro II pearl white ‘explorer’ styled guitar from a local pawn shop. It had a floyd rose tremolo arm on it which I would pull every-which-way, and it looked like something The Misfits would’ve used, had it been black, (of course I spray painted it eventually). It just looked evil. I couldn’t play it to save my life but aesthetically it was cool. Very ’80’s. Initially, my mother grounded me when I brought it home. I’ll never forget, she told me, “You’re going to join a band, do drugs, overdose and die!”
My step dad intervened and told her she was being ridiculous and that it was bought with my own money and I had earned it. Of course, once she learned you need an amplifier to make any real noise with an electric guitar, I was allowed to keep it. And it took a while to win that argument too, but that’s another story. Eventually, some years later, they bought me my first legitimate guitar, a Gibson Les Paul Jr. I traded it away just after High school but luckily I got it back from the same friend about a year ago. That would normally be what I considered my first real guitar, as I used that Les Paul to start my first band. And I’ve stuck with Les Paul-styled guitars since.
Ace: I’m not sure, just because after being in so many bands over the years, I can’t really recall. But I know the first song I learned to play and sing along to simultaneously was ‘Skulls’ by The Misfits. And then some Social Distortion songs. Then I started getting into more riff-y stuff, like Guns N Roses. Anything that seemed like the guitar part alone was badass enough to move a mountain; ‘Enter Sandman’ for example. Honestly, I didn’t invest much time in learning a lot of other people’s songs from start to finish. I would learn a hook or solo bit and move on. I was really determined to just write my own stuff. A lot of it was garbage but some of the stuff I’ve recycled over the years in a few bands.
Glenn: Tell us about the first bands you were part of and how did they go?
Ace: Let’s see how much I can condense my answer for this one: At 17 I started a band called P.B.R Street Gang. I lived in San Diego at the time, and eventually it was just shortened to P.B.R., for a bunch of reasons. The band was, for lack of a better term, Punk Rock. Rancid meets The Clash kind of thing. We were doing so many local shows, that it got to the point where I was making more money playing, and I could afford to quit my after-school/weekend job at a theatre. We were relatively successful in that circuit, which is why to this day, I am still really critical when it comes to local support acts. Again, this was when the internet was kind of in its infancy. No Facebook or MySpace, etc. Basically simple dot-coms and e-mail. We hustled and I passed out flyers everywhere. I worked my ass off, networking with ‘national acts’ and anyone who came through town. There was a decent scene down there, and I was heavily involved in it, and saw a lot of people come up from that scene.
Eventually, I ended up working for Taang! Records, a store front and record label, and this helped me even further. We were fortunate to play with a lot of my favorite punk bands; The Misfits, Circle Jerks, US Bombs, and a bunch of others. Eventually I found myself in a position where bands were contacting me from other states looking to help them get shows. A lot of these fellow musicians are still good friends of mine to this day, and I’m really proud of them and those bonds. Ryan from the Distillers/Angels And Airwaves, John Pebsworth from Buck-O-Nine, and a ton of others. Even Mike the drummer in Pierce The Veil, played a few shows in my band, back when they were still called Early Times. And then there were the guys in the band Agent 51 I mentioned, who were the hometown heroes, we were all very close. Eventually, my band were outdrawing them.
From there, I flirted with joining several out of town acts; One Man Army from the bay area, and The Generators out of Los Angeles (who I would end up playing with later on for several years in my early 20’s) and there were others. I ended up joining a signed band from Los Angeles called Madcap that did a lot of touring. I was 19 years old at this point, and spent literally the next 2 years of my life on tour. But just prior to that, some friends and I had started a ‘hair punk’ band with the lead singer of an East coast band (The Virus) who had just relocated to San Diego, called Cheap Sex. The album I recorded with them ‘Launch Off To War’ sold fairly well and it’s still popular in that scene to this day. But there were no touring prospects there, so I left to do Madcap and thus my ‘music career’ began…
(2007 with The US Bombs)
Ace: Well it is definitely a double edged sword. The thing about me living in the Los Angeles area is, I’m one of the few people in the music industry (or whatever we’re calling it) that was born and raised here. And that’s something I’m kind of proud of. I live in ‘the Valley’ which is about 15 miles north of the Hollywood area, and I have to drive by the high school my parents went to anytime I’m heading to/from my house, and the hospital I was born at is only a few miles from me. So, in that sense, this place is very much my home. But it’s also a place where everyone from all fields, especially in the entertainment industry, flock to and try to make it. So there is constantly this influx of kids going to MI (Musicians Institute) that are floating around Hollywood, with their guitars on their back hoping to land some dream gig. And it’s very possible. But also not as likely as I’m sure they were hoping when they came out West from Sheboygan or Duluth, or wherever it may be.
So you’ve got all these people waiting around for a gig to free up, or trying to take someone else’s gig, or hoping that Berry Squire will call them in for an Adam Lambert audition or whatever. It can be a bit frustrating if you’re trying to make a name for yourself out here. I watch it all the time, and to me that has a bit of a negative connotation. But some of the positives are, I have a really strong ‘family’ type circle of people that are always around, from restauranteurs to actors, to guys like myself who just work hard and play for lots of different groups, and genres. It’s really a neat place once you’re cemented. I love that. Plus, there’s never a shortage of things to do, or events or people coming into town for whatever. I’m pretty lucky to be here and be afforded the opportunity to do what I do, on a professional level. Outside of maybe NYC, Nashville, and a few other major cities, there aren’t a lot of places out there where you can find so much work at any given moment.
Ace: Holy hell, I honestly don’t even know. My house? Haha! There are so many places I love in the greater Los Angeles area. But honestly, I would say I find myself spending most of my free time on a street called Cahuenga in Hollywood. Most of the bars there are like my version of Cheers; everybody knows my name, etc. Specifically at Loaded & Saint Felix. Plus, Taime and the guys live nearby, and Amoeba (California's largest record store) is there. It’s pretty much my stomping grounds when I’m not on the road or at my place. It really is my home away from home. A lot of my friends live nearby, and there is constantly something going on. The Roxy, The Rainbow, The Whisky A Go Go; they’re all a cab ride away.
Otherwise, I do enjoy Disneyland (which technically isn’t Los Angeles), or Universal Studios. Otherwise, I find myself occasionally shopping in Burbank at places like Halloween Town (Rob Zombie is a co-owner), or Blast From The Past, or down on Melrose for cool stuff at places like Congregation of Forgotten Saints, Necromance or Monster A Go Go. I’m also an avid tattoo collector, so I’m often found at my close friend Jeffery Page’s tattoo shop California Gold, or Vintage Tattoo Parlor in Highland Park with Shaun Kama. These are most of my favorite parts of Los Angeles.
Glenn: What initially led you to becoming a member of Faster Pussycat and did it take long to settle into being a member of the band?
Here’s the condensed story: In 2007 I was playing in a punk band called the U.S. Bombs and we had an agent or manager or a something or rather. His name was Charlie (AKA Kit Ashley of Big Bang Babies) and he asked me to join his somewhat of an all-star band called Charlie & The Valentine Killers. The band was more or less a good time Americana-rock-n-roll act. Social Distortion meets Tom Petty with some Springsteen. It was a lot of fun. At one point I think Brian from KIX was in the band? But regardless, when I joined Chad & Danny (from Faster Pussycat) were in the band. We played together for about a year and at some point in 2009 it was clear that Michael Thomas (FP’s guitar player at the time) was going to be leaving to focus on other projects.
Around the same time, we did a show with Reverend Horton Heat in Hollywood. It was definitely a ‘who’s who’ type of scenario and there was this guy backstage helping himself to our booze and I remember thinking, ‘this f*ck*ng guy is going to drink ALL of our Jack Daniels!’. This was my introduction to Taime. Side note; I have a great photo of Danny, myself and Lemmy in the bathroom from this show. But that’s another story. So we played the show, and within a month or so Danny asked me to come over to Taime’s. I sat there and plucked on one of his guitars and I remember him saying something to the effect of, “Yeah, looks like you can play”. He then made me a CD of the songs that were in their repertoire, told me, “Don't suck”, and off I went. I learned the 15 songs or so, rehearsed with the guys a few times and at some point or another, Michael decided he wasn’t going to be leaving.
So there was a bit of a false start. But a few months later, the same scenario came up again and they offered me the gig. Reluctantly, I agreed and we went out with Tracii’s now defunct version of LA Guns and the rest is history. Sort of. And that’s the ‘Short version!’ As far as settling in, it definitely took me some time. I don’t think I was as confident as I should have been initially, not because it was my first gig at that level, but because I just wasn’t prepared for the fan reaction at being the ‘new guy’, on top of the fact that I’m admittedly not the strongest lead-guitarist. But after several tours, I eventually settled in. And now the music practically feels like my own.
To me, initially it was just another gig. I liked the music and had been familiar with at least the singles since I was younger. But I was never a ‘fan’. I didn’t know all the original guys names or the back story right off the bat. So I might have came in with a different approach than some of the previous guys in that sense. I wasn’t like, “Oh my god, Taime Downe!” it was more casual to me, and I think our relationship to this day has been built off of that. In hindsight, it’s pretty fucking cool though. I think what he did with the Cathouse and even Pretty Ugly in the late 90’s/early 2000’s was imperative for the LA music scene. Plus he’s a legend.
But again, I don’t really look at him that way. He’s my brother and we’re in a band together. I’m stoked to be working on new music with him, and to play on a Faster Pussycat album. That means a lot to me. I think initially though, my thought process was “don’t fuck up” and don’t make boss man angry-kinda vibe. Haha. I’d like to think I’m way passed all that kind of stuff now and that I’m as vital to the band as any of the other members. Or so I tell myself, haha. But I do appreciate that Taime has spoken up saying that since I’ve joined the band, it’s the lineup he has always envisioned. Or something to that affect. Regardless, I appreciate the sentiment.
Ace: ‘No Room For Emotion’, because it has that slinky ‘Stones kinda vibe and I can really relate to the lyrics. It's just one of those songs I love to play and it keeps my fingers busy. And ‘Nonstop To Nowhere’. That will forever be my favorite Pussycat song to play. I truly love that to really grind into that guitar solo, along with the verses, where its mostly just Xristian playing so I can pause and have a drink! There are a few others like ‘Smash Alley’, ‘Disintegrate’ where I dig the lead bits, and then some of the new stuff like ‘Pretty Ugly’ and ‘Motorbike’ I like the riffing on as well. Plus busting out the slide (or a beer bottle) for ‘Poison Ivy’ is always fun.
Ace: With Pussycat, mostly the Monsters of Rock Cruise performances, going backwards in chronological order. This years sets were fantastic. The ambience was great, and the crowd was a lot of fun both nights. The whole experience is just amazing. If you were there, you get it. And a few other festival dates. We did one in Sweden with Twisted Sister, 69 Eyes, and a bunch of other bands last year. That was a great gig. Rock N America, was fun for all the backstage antics. That’s really it. Once we start rolling, a lot of the shows just start to blend together. Not that that’s a bad thing. But definitely the Monsters of Rock Cruise, hands down.
(Playing bass for “Cinderella and Friends")
Glenn: How was the 50th Anniversary show at the Whisky for you and what were the highlights personally?
Ace: It was a solid, sold out, stand up show. For a lot of reasons, mostly due to the fact that the crowd was just super intense which is one thing that, in my opinion, Hollywood shows usually are Not. I don’t really recall anything super specific from that night, other than a great lineup of bands playing there for the entire month (X, Fear, Robby Krieger from The Doors, Jack’s Great White, etc). However, having Jetboy on the bill was definitely a treat. I’ve known Billy for nearly 10 years now, and I know all those guys go way, way back with Taime and the band.
My sister came to that show as well, so that was really neat. I’m not sure if she had ever really seen me play before, and she’s in her early 40’s and grew up around a lot of these bands. I’m sure that was a trip for her. That’s really it. It was a show. In Hollywood. At the Whisky. I love those guys though, everyone there is so sweet. Jake the talent buyer is a real homie too. He used to be Pauly Shore’s personal assistant. I bet he’s seen some sh*t…
Ace: Oh wow. I am going to really try to avoid ruining anyone’s lives here. So many of the legendary ones are pretty elicit, or I just don’t have the clarity to remember in full detail. One that stands out for sure was from the Triple Threat Tour (with Tracii’s LA Guns, Us, and John Corabi), Chad, Danny and myself did the ol’ end-of-tour prank on Crab by coming onstage during ‘Hooligans Holiday’ with a cowbell and kind of ruining the moment. Lots of laughs were had. And speaking of, I think John, Chad and myself did some weird thing during Stryper’s acoustic set during last years ‘Skullfest’. I think we all barged onstage uninvited and sang the wrong words or something. John banged on the drums (no one was playing them at the moment). They were not so thrilled. Another good one was another end-of-tour prank, this time it was with Lillian Axe on the 2012 package tour we did with Great White and Bullet Boys.
We came on stage with cardboard axes that I had fashioned out of pizza boxes, and I wore Chad’s stage jumpsuit (don’t ask), stuffed with pillows and we banged on several cowbells. They had a laugh. Their revenge was sweet, as they all came out during our set in costume, most notably their tour manager Buck in our MOR cruise Pussy Power bikini. It was awful and hilarious all at once. But we like to have fun. And note, all of these incidents are on film, somewhere on youtube. Good luck finding them, but they’re out there. Really, there are just too many stories to tell. My most recent favorite would be aboard the Monsters of Rock cruise. My step dad was there, and at one point I looked over, and it was him, standing in a group of some of my favorite members of the other bands aboard the ship. It was quit a trip, and just as I started to revel in it, Spike from the Quireboys and Phil from LA Guns ran out and joined us for ‘House of Pain’. That was a really great time. The rest I’m saving for the book I’ll never write.
Ace: At the moment, Pussycat is really the only thing I’m doing. I have another band called ‘Lords of the Damned’ with this phenomenal tattoo artist named Shaun Kama, that’s mostly death-rock covers and some original stuff. That’s been fun, playing songs front The Damned and The Misfits and whatnot with that, but it’s relatively new. We had our buddy Ronnie from The Art fill in for me while I was gone on tour. Usually, anything else I’ve take on, I have either been in a position to where there was no conflict of interest, because several members of the band were also in Pussycat, like Motochrist or when Danny, Chad & I do cover sets, or its the kind of situation where they know I will be leaving for tour and can’t play without me, or they have to find someone to fill in while I’m gone, or... it just leads to my eventually leaving the band altogether. This happened recently with my tenure in a band called ‘Unwritten Law’.
Juggling a schedule when I have been doing 5, 6, 7, or more projects that are all somewhat active is honestly, a f*ck*ng nightmare. Being in One functioning band alone is enough to stress me out, so to be kind of relieved of some of the things I’ve been doing off and on for the last 5+ years, is really a relief. I don’t have any idea how it all fit into my schedule ever, but I made it work. And here I am. And aside from music stuff, I’ve done a few voice over jobs sporadically over the last two years. Thats something I enjoy, and have been looking into doing more of, leisurely. Plus, I have an interest in animal rescue, most specifically with dogs.
I’ve done a few contest-type things, and donated some proceeds from my guitar picks that are sold, and just try to do what I can, when I can. Taking advantage of my small level of “celebrity" for anything that pertains to animal rescue, is one of the greatest rewards, mostly because it’s something I’m genuinely passionate about. If I had the time, I would without a doubt be more involved in something in this field. Especially bully-breeds. They are my favorite, and there is an over abundance of them in Los Angeles, and all of the U.S. So, if you get a chance, check out NKLA.org or look for a local rescue near you and see if there is anything you can do.
Glenn: No doubt, there have been many tours you have been part of, which ones stand out to you and for what reasons?
Ace: Within the confines of touring with Faster Pussycat, I would have to say anytime we tour with a band that are our friends or like minded, it usually ends up being a nonstop party. Mostly. We did a tour early last year with The Art from Australia, which ended up being a great pairing and a lot of fun. Touring with Great White, Bullet Boys & Lillian Axe or LA Guns and John Corabi, there is always going to be a large amount of camaraderie. These usually stand out more than the ones where it’s just us, out there hammering away by ourselves. You end up rolling into town like a gang, and I like that. Those probably stand out the most.
Outside of that, I would have to say touring Japan for an entire month, which is almost unheard of, was really a unique and awesome experience. This was a few years ago when I was playing for Murphy’s Law from NYC. And probably the first time I did a bus tour. It was 2005 and I was in Europe and just had a blast with it, having a crew and a bunk to and zero responsibility. And now we are approaching the start of the Bang Your Head tour with Quiet Riot, Bullet Boys and Gilby Clarke. We just did a warm up show for this package last weekend, and if that was any indicator of how the tour is going to be, then we are all in for a big treat.
(Right - Portrait By Xristian Simon)
Ace: My style? Well I would say it’s like Slash, if you broke a couple of his fingers. Haha. I really don’t know. I wish I had some easy answer. I’m definitely a blues-based player. I don’t do the whole “shred” thing very well, and I just try to play everything from my gut and put some emotion into it. I come from a punk rock background, and that right there should tell you a lot. I didn’t get into the whole “guitar hero” idea until much later. My earliest rock guitar influences however, were guys like John Christ of Danzig and Billy Duffy from The Cult. And they’re both known for being somewhat basic themselves.
I rely on a lot of wah-pedal, and tons of silly stage antics to make my point. I never took any formal lessons as a kid, something I have occasionally regretted but I suppose that’s how I developed my own style. It’s changed over the years, as I have put more thought into advancing my technique. I may pick up a Randy Rhoads lick here, or a Marty Friedman riff there, but where I’m most comfortable is always back in that pentatonic blues-based box. For a bit, I was actively trying to get away from any Chuck Berry-esque style of playing, but it usually comes right back to that anyhow. Johnny Thunders was a hero of mine growing up, and in hindsight, he was not that great of a player. That’s the school I come from. Minus the heroin.
Ace: I think I’m most proud of the fact that, several times over, I have been able to achieve the musical goals I have set in front of myself. At this point, it doesn’t matter what they are, but I reached them. Which reminds me, I need to start looking ahead again and find some new ones to work at. Like getting a new Pussycat album out. That’s in the works, and I’m proud to be a part of that. Also, the story all of my friends are sick of hearing about; the Michael Jackson session I did 3 years ago. It was with Grammy-winning producer Ron “Neff-U” Feemster, who was working on a portion of the first posthumous album; Michael.
The engineer was a buddy of mine and invited me to come down to lay down some tracks. I did some stuff on a tune, that they cut from the album at the last minute. Maybe it’ll see the light of day eventually, but for now I’ve got a copy in my personal collection. Released or not, that was a big deal for me. And I’m proud that I’m lucky enough to be able to play music for a living. Most people never will never know what its like to achieve that.
Thank you Metalliville for the great questions and kudos to anyone who actually read all of my blithering! Keep an eye out for a new Faster Pussycat album later this year and lots of touring. Be sure to check my website or find me on all those silly social media sites for further info. And please adopt a shelter animal! Can’t stress that enough.