Posted November 3, 2008

Richard Sharman photo courtesy of Blackshadow Photography

Johnny Casino:
He Is Who He Is, Not Who They
Want Him To Be


You might jump to the conclusion that Johnny Casino gave away the game of playing Angry Young Man years ago. Truth be told, the anger's still there but it's more directed now as strongly-focused passion that goes directly into his music.

As John Spittles, the larger-than-life and central guitar-toting character in Sydney's (and for a while Melbourne's) Asteroid B612, he was strapped in to take his band global in the 1990s.

Signed to Au Go Go (a big deal indie label in Australia in those days), the 'Roids were seemingly on the launching pad for success. Some time spent treading water - and the fact that their label grew to see them as "difficult" - ended up closing almost all the doors.

Years later it's easy to reflect clearly.

"I gotta say - and I'll be the first to stick my hand up and if no-one in the band wants, that's fine - we were very destructive," Casino says with his usual candour on a night off from his tattooing job at Sydney's renowned The Illustrated Man studio.

Up close and personal at St Kilda's Greyhound Hotel

"We would cut our nose off to spite our face. We were young, dumb and full of cum.

"We were arrogant and self righteous. We were a good band - sometimes we were a great band - but I wasn't a very nice person. I was a person you could love but I had some many little demons going on...

"As a band we stuck together and we were tight. But we didn't like anyone around us - and that was childish and silly."

Asteroids are on hiatus and matters more immediate concern Johnny Casino. Like being the owner - along with his rotating cast of band members called The Secrets - of the best rock and roll album anyone at the I-94 Bar is likely to hear this year.

"I Am Who I Am, Not Who You Want Me To Be" is its title and if you could come up with a more apt descriptor/statement of intent, well you know how to get in touch.

This is The Real Deal. Not a bad song to be heard, it runs the gamut from swampy, soulful horns-driven rock stompers in the style of the Saints or Louis Tillett in his Aspersion Caste days, to more delicate tunes recalling The Band or the Velvets.

In may ways it's a direct descendent of the 2007 debut for Johnny Casino & The Secrets, "New Clothes Old Shoes". Equally sweeping in its vision (although possibly a touch more eclectic in its stylistic changes), it set a benchmark that's now been broken.

There are a lot of similarities between the two albums, not the least of which is the central role that Sydney's Tardis Studios and its owner, expat Englishman Mike Burnham, had in both.

A montage from The Secrets' Spanish tour 2007.

As Johnny reveals, it's all a matter of doing the basics right and working in increments. And a little planning as he maintains and records with different versions of The Secrets in three separate Australian cities.

"The Tardis studio in Marrickvile was the home ground. There were beds of tracks recorded in Perth and Melbourne and brought home to be worked on.

"The record started as early as November last year when I was in Perth. And then not really much happened to it in March-April when I gave myself a deadline.

"Anyone who questions the difference between fucking stupid computers and recording things to tape - I wish they'd been there the day I dumped the stuff recorded to hard drive back to tape. You can hear the difference. There's no comparison.

"The original Tardis was in London. The board Mike had originally belonged to Pete Townsend. It's an old 16-track Helios desk. He likes the format of two-inch 16-track which I like as well. It's the last great tape machine left.

"Mike's background is more soul and reggae or funk, but he likes real dirty, fucked up soul. Bad shit. The stuff no-one's heard of. He's a drummer as well. He plays that stuff well.

"He really understands the nature of having an organic sound. Something earthy and natural. The craziest we ever get with effects is old tape delay machines. We use on old plate reverb that's he had for years."

The pause that refreshes.

Working in small chunks of time and woodshedding ideas were keys to "I Am Who I Am..." coming together.

"I don't do a lot of pre-production. Except for sitting on my couch with an acoustic guitar in my hand.

"I have this strange little device the size of a mobile phone and I push a little button on it and it badly records me sitting here and playing. It's up to Idea Number 47. Every few months I go through them.

"As much as I like the first album, it was a learning curve. It's a matter of progressing like that. I'd like to think I've learned more about he craft for the next one.

"I learned that for some things I'm more more capable at things and others I'm not. You start to get a roster of people you know can do certain things. I know exactly who to call."

It wasn't always the way with the recording experience in the Asteroids and subsequent bands Easy Action and The Egos being vastly different:

"I always used to think it meant recording in two or three days, a week or whatever. Have a day off and mix them all. I thought that's how records are made.

"Until making the first Secrets records when I learned it wasn't necessarily the case. It works for me and I can step back and re-visit it."

Passion is a by-word. So is respect. Cue a dose of focussed (passionate) anger, directed towards those who would take a short cut by using too much technology:

"This is one of my gripes: People don't respect music anymore. They sit in their bedroom and have a computer and they make their record there. They don't respect the art of making a record or working with someone to do it.

"I believe that the songs that I write deserve a bit more respect than can be given to them by someone sitting in a bedroom using ProTools.

"If people like Mickster and Chris at (record label) Off The Hip are going to the trouble of putting this record out, then I should show them some respect by giving them the best record I'm capable of.

"I know people say I'm too precious about it but fuck it, my time's precious. I don't even want to hear something recorded on a computer.

"Maybe people think I'm crazy or I take things too seriously but that's OK. I don't think people should necessarily agree with me anyway.

"Take me for who I am. If you don't like me, that's fine, as long as you're passionate about it. If you hate me, then say: 'That guy's a fucking jerk-off!' but don't just sit on the fence."

This is an album that needs to be heard around the world. The Secrets are a middle-range act at home, headlining their own shows and scoring good support spots but not their fair share of critical acceptance - especially in Johnny's home town of Sydney where large elements of the street press remain largely clueless about rock and roll.

So Johnny Casino racks up frequent flyer points. The advantage of having other configurations of The Secrets in Perth and Melbourne means he can take himself interstate relatively cheaply and still play with empathetic, great musicians. But taking the album overseas (where Off The Hip has a strong focus) is definitely on the cards.

It's a well-worn path with the memories still bright of a November 2007 run through Europe.

"Next year I'd like to think I could get back to Spain and Europe and maybe make it back to America. As much as the last time I was in the US, I was happy to leave.

"I was there a lot in consecutive years I lived there for a year - and it wore me down a little bit. I'm the type of person who enjoys being at home.

"But if things fell into place and we could play there for three weeks and I could hang around afterwards for three weeks, that'd do me fine."

If there's one thing Johnny is proud about on this album - and there are plenty to chose from - it's his increasing confidence behind the lead vocal microphone.

With Easy Action at Sydney's Lansdowne Hotel.

"I'm really proud of the singing on this one. I'm more comfortable.

"I'm trying to sponge off as many people to get them to do guitar stuff. And trying to get myself into doing stuff I haven't before."

Not bowing to conformity and being accepted at face value are at the core of "I Am Who I Am..." so, unsurprisingly, Casino's not expecting loads of radio airplay in the tightly-controlled Australian radio market.

"What am I going to do? Bash on the door like an idiot? I got emails from overseas stations so someone played it (the last album). It's not in my budget or my mind-frame to pay someone to present the record to a station here.

"That's what you have to do. People don't play what they like, they play what they're told to play. That's why the final song's called 'The Deaf Leading the Blind'.

"These people should be working in a supermarket. But they're not. They're in charge of signing up some new band. They're told where to go. They don't listen to music. It's all a big fucking back-patting, horrible existence.

"It's a horrible, sickening thing. It's a manipulated load of fucking fashion drivel. It's packaged and boxed up and they don't give a fuck what's inside it, or whether it's honest or a lie.

"I'm disappointed that the public doesn't want to know about that either. They just want the Quarter Pounder because it's easy

"It gives me a topic to write about. Beats the hell out of trying to make something up and create some false emotion.

"It doesn't matter what I think. It just gives me more fodder to write about."