John is the most laid-back performer we've ever laid eyes on; strange when you consider those crazy videos where the Mad Hatter would blend right in. On the surface at least, John appears carefree; content just watching the stars cross the sky. After a superior concert before an enthusiastic crowd, he casually saunters stage right, shakes hands with fans lined up to meet him, and thanks each individually. The only sign that belies his relaxed attitude is the chain smoking binge backstage; the one nervous habit brought forth upon the strands of John's own dubious history, which includes a critical bout with depression.
It is a tale that would leave even the dormouse scrambling back up through the rabbit hole, and it plays out on the latest Marcy Playground album Leaving Wonderland... in a fit of rage.
John Wozniak: Well, neither do I. It's true. It means so many different things, and so many different parts of it came from so many different places. Even though I wrote it in an hour. Yeah, where did I get the "sex and candy" part from? Well, I was dating a girl and she was going to Bryn Mawr College and it's where my dad teaches. And I was probably 17 or something like that and she was like 18. I always liked the older girls. (laughs) But we were in her dorm room, and her roommate came in and she saw us there, and she was like, "Oh, it smells like sex and candy in here." And I always remembered that. And that was back in the late '80s.
But it's just about seeing some sexy girl and then falling in love, and then asking a dumb question to yourself… well, it's not even asking a question. It's just – I don't know!! I don't know. (laughing) I'm just gonna be straight up honest. I don't know. I'm telling you, when I was very young I experimented with drugs, but when I was writing these songs, I wasn't high. But it sounds like I was high.
Songfacts: In the video it looks like somebody is doing some kind of tripping. (laughing)
John: I didn't invent the video. That's Jamie Caliri. That guy actually is great. He's trippy, man. He's Mario Calire's brother – you know, Mario Calire from the Wallflowers. Jamie actually makes films. He did the Morphine video called "Early To Bed," which is one of my favorite videos from the '90s. He's cool, but he's very weird. He's got a really unique artsy sensibility that is very surreal.
Songfacts: But you get it? I mean, he presents these ideas to you, and you go, "Oh yeah, I like that. I get that."
John: Yeah, because the imagery of it is really random. I mean, it's art. What we do is art. In the stuff I've done in the past there's not always a direct meaning, and I think that's the same with his video. He had a lot of very hidden subtexts in the video. Nowadays my songs are much simpler. They're about relationships, they're about my wife, they're about much simpler concepts.
John: Well, "Good Times" is a song about self-soothing, when you're feeling depressed and can't get out of bed. I wrote that song as a self-soothing song to myself. Everything's gonna be okay… it's a really simple message. And at the end of the day, when I'm old and gray, am I really gonna worry about all the little crappy days that I had along the way, or am I just gonna sit back and remember all the good people and the good times? That's a very positive message for me, because sometimes I do feel depressed and bummed out. But it's fleeting, it's passing, so you just gotta stay positive.
Songfacts: Didn't you go into this album when you were really depressed?
Songfacts: And writing the songs brought you out. Which ones started to pull you up out of that?
John: "Good Times" for sure. No question about it. Yeah, "Good Times" was the one that got me back on my feet. "Down The Drain" also. Which was actually the darkest song I've probably ever written. It's the last song on the record. And yeah, that is definitely the darkest song I think I've ever written. That might have been the first one, because of that.
Songfacts: And what was the experience like with you when you were writing "Down the Drain"?
John: My head was really close to being blown off. I was exceedingly depressed, and I didn't really know what was going on with me. I had issues that needed to be dealt with. I had never really been depressed like that. I didn't even know what it was. I just found myself in a really bad space.
Songfacts: Was it a gradual thing?
John: No. It was due to some relationship issues and some personal things that were going on that just threw my self esteem for a loop and I got horribly horribly depressed and started self-medicating myself. And I wasn't gonna last very long, that's for sure. So my friend Jeff, who produced the record, he kind of saved me in the sense that he's like, "Look, man, you really need to write some music, and let's just get some of these things out. Sing some songs instead of wallowing in the pain and self pity." So that's what I did, and I started writing about the stuff. And started doing a little work on myself. I discovered a lot in the process. Besides music, a lot about myself. So I put it into some of these songs. And "Good Times" was the one that really, really pulled me out of the funk.
Songfacts: I've been around depression, and I know what it's like, believe me.
John: It's awful. I mean, it really is awful. It's awful for everybody. It leaves everybody feeling helpless and not knowing what to do. And makes people uncomfortable. And it's really easy to get isolated when you're somebody who's depressed, because you make other people uncomfortable. So I'm really happy that Jeff was like, "You know what, man, whatever." (laughs) "Let's just make the music and get you feeling better again."
It wasn't overnight, obviously. It took a while to sort of get back on my feet. But once I was I realized that the most important thing in the entire world for my psyche is just to keep a positive attitude. That's it. Simple as that. Nothing more complicated. Stay positive and don't let the daily shit get me down. That is probably the most important thing, at least that lesson; that's the most important lesson I ever learned in my entire life, bar none. I have coping skills now because of that. (laughing) I didn't have any coping skills before. Before, I just didn't realize that I needed them.
Songfacts: Would you say that you're totally in the clear now?
John: No. I would say that I understand my fragility now, and I'll never be in the clear. I don't think anybody who has ever gone through an experience that dark and horrible will ever say they're fully in the clear. Because you see the abyss, and you realize that we're there on the precipice every single day as human beings. So no, I'll never be fully in the clear. But at least I'm happy. I'm genuinely happy. So that's new.
John: No, I wasn't. Raine and I got married two years ago. I'd been with her since 2001, and we broke up for a year. That was part of the problem.
Songfacts: So, then tell me how "Blackbird" came about.
Songfacts: Why "blackbird"?
John: Well, it's hard to explain without going into who the girl was, which I don't intend to do, because she is a known person. That's one thing I always promised, nobody would ever know who it was.
Songfacts: So "Blackbird" is in reference to her, and then you're saying thank you to Raine for taking it all away.
Songfacts: Okay, then. I want to ask you about a couple of CDs from a while ago. You have a song called "A Cloak of Elvenkind." Now, when I hear that, I think "Lord of the Rings." What is this all about?
John: Well, it's so long ago. It's the first song I wrote when I was a freshman in college. So that was '91, '92, something like that. I was going to school at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, which is an alternative college. Actually, Marcy Open School, where I got the name of the band, was an alternative grade school.
Songfacts: What is alternative?
John: Well, at Marcy, at least, it was a certain way they taught. And we didn't call teachers by their last names, we called them by their first names, and there were no report cards. You were allowed to learn at your own pace, and it was facilitated by what you wanted to learn about. You could read, or you could do math, or you could do what you wanted to do. I read a lot. I'm not really sure how they did it, but they made it so that when I went to a regular public school outside Philadelphia when I was 9 – which was 4th grade or something – they tested me really rigorously, and I was apparently pretty smart. (laughs) So Marcy did a good job of learning me. They learned me good. At that point I enjoyed school, when I was going to Marcy. And then when I went to this other school I stopped liking school entirely, because it was regimented. It was a regular public school. And I'd never done a stitch of homework in my life. I didn't even know what homework was.
So when I grew up, I wanted to go to an alternative college. Evergreen's an interdisciplinary school, so you'll have a core program with professors from 5 different disciplines giving lectures. For example, my first core program was called "popular art and culture." It's not really a class. It was a whole program of classes and lectures and things, with a syllabus. So at the time, when I was going to college, I was a D&D fan. I don't know if you've ever played Dungeons & Dragons or knew somebody who did? (laughs)
Songfacts: Actually, no. I've heard of it, but that's as far as it got.
John: It's a role-playing game. You had to have your friends around, and you read from the Dungeon Master Guide and the Monster Guide and all these books. And it was all done in your imagination. It was a game that was started in the '70s and then it was kind of big for a little bit in the '80s. It's a fantasy role-playing game. It's for total nerds. Which is what I was. And so the cloak of Elvenkind, the cloak and boots of Elvenkind, are from Dungeons & Dragons, so they're made by elves. So the cloak will make you invisible, and the boots will make you silent. It's a real obscure reference to a D&D thing, the books of magic spells and all that stuff. But the idea is that you're just going through life completely invisible and completely silent, and nobody pays attention to you. (laughs) It's different. And that's why "my book of magic spells is behind everything else that's proper for a boy." (laughs)
Songfacts: What is the significance of the 16 books?
John: There isn't really one, it was just a good number. I mean, that's a lot of books on magic spells. If you're gonna have books on magic spells, you might as well have 16 of them. You could have 17, which would be one better. But that would have too many syllables. (laughs) It's an obscure song, and it's found a home with people who used to play D&D. I mean, it's actually kind of grown to be sort of a cult song on the Internet. People cover it, and if you go to Youtube, there's so many different covers of that song, simply because it is so obscure. And I think it may be the only pop song ever written with Dungeons & Dragons references. (laughing) It's not the only… it's probably the first.
Songfacts: The things that I was hearing about Dungeons & Dragons back when it was popular is, "Oh, it's a cult, it's a cult. They're messing with the minds of our children!" (laughing)
John: Oh my God, really? Well, probably true. (laughing) I mean, when you see video games nowadays that are fantasy role-playing games, it's the same thing. It's just this one you did with books and dice and your imagination. But it was like crack. It was so addictive to play.
Songfacts: My son is so addicted to any kind of video game right now… Let's talk about "St. Joe on the School Bus."
Songfacts: Who is St. Joe? Is he a kid that you knew?
John: It's anybody, any kid that's being picked on on the school bus.
Songfacts: I heard that you had a rough time also. Does it come from that?
John: Yeah, of course. It was rough. I think a lot of kids go through that. I was bullied as a kid, and for a little period there I think I probably started bullying kids because I was bullied, and so I understand it. I don't know if it's bullying, but I got in a lot of fights after a while. Because I didn't like people getting in my face when I was young. Or getting in my friends' faces. And I'm Irish and Polish so… I got in a lot of fights. But it started with just getting picked on.
Songfacts: You seem like you're such a laid back person. You've done some work on that, obviously.
John: Well, I grew up, hopefully. According to plan. But there's always a part of you that's 12 years old.
Songfacts: It's true. Can you tell me about "Sherry Fraser"?
John: Sherry was my first girlfriend. When I was 15, she was 16. She was my first true love. And still a very close friend. She did all the artwork for our latest record, Leaving Wonderland. She's a really terrific visual artist and also a great musician. She has a band called Two Ton Boa, which is really cool. I always tap Sherry for her ideas and her creativity, and I have for years. But she's since married somebody else and we haven't been together since 1993 or something. So it's been a long time, almost 17 years. Well, I guess for that age it was a long time.
Songfacts: Two weeks. (laughing)
John: (laughing) Right. You know what I'm saying? (laughing) I met her in '87, and we stopped dating in '93. We remain friends and made music together. We wrote a bunch of stuff. She sings on the very first record that I ever did, which was the Zog Bogbean - from the Marcy Playground. She sings on some of that. And we wrote some songs together.
Songfacts: Why the Alice In Wonderland references in this song?
John: Oh, it's just imagery and sort of a child-like nature. That was the whole raft of songs I was writing at that period. Which is one of the reasons why I wanted to call the band Marcy Playground, because a lot of my childhood was coming up in the songs I was writing.
Songfacts: I wondered if it was because you and she shared a special memory about Alice In Wonderland or something.
John: Well, Sherry and I started experimenting with LSD when we first got together. I was 15 and she was 16 and we were tripping on acid a lot. And Through the Looking Glass was always both of our favorite book. And so it's part of it, I suppose. But the way I write songs is with a lot of imagery, and not necessarily a lot of direct meaning. It's all multi-layered feelings, like "disco lemonade" doesn't mean anything. There's no such thing. (laughs) It's a feeling. You know what I'm saying?
Songfacts: Got it. "Deadly Handsome Man." That was on Jay and Silent Bob. Did you write it with that intention?
John: No. That was just a fun one. I just wanted to write a song about that sort of slinky, weird, zoot suit-wearing A&R guy-ish/movie business slimeball. And I guess Kevin Smith really liked the song, so he put it in the movie. It ended up on the soundtrack and everything.
Songfacts: My nephew runs around calling himself the Deadly Handsome Man.
John: Oh, is that right? That's awesome. (laughing)
Songfacts: And "Death of a Cheerleader," did that happen?
John: Apparently yes. That's a song that was written mainly, and conceptualized by Chris Temple. He was in a band called Lincoln. But yeah, the story is true. It was in like Ohio or somewhere. It was something he had read about; he started working on the song, and I helped him. It's not common that I co-write with people. I have to really appreciate what it is they're doing. They have to be good storytellers. And I found that Chris Temple is one of the best storyteller musician friends I've ever had. I fell in love with that song. But it was incomplete. It wasn't finished, and so we finished it.
Songfacts: Any other songs that you take particular pride in having written?
John: "Wave Motion Gun" is a cool song. That's off Shapeshifter. That's a song that a lot of people seem to really dig. It's one of those impression songs. In the end, it's telling the story about me trying to convince my friend not to do heroin anymore. And that became a theme of my life because I went to college in Olympia, Washington, in the early '90s. It was sort of a port area in the Pacific Northwest where all the heroin trade was coming through. And everybody was on it at the time in the early '90s. And all my friends were sort of disappearing, and I didn't know where they were going. I found out they were all doing heroin. And they were doing it together, which is really a weird thing. But I never did it. It was not something I was ever interested in. In fact, drugs are something that never really interested me, except for some experimentation. But I just started watching friends die and disappear and drop out of school and stuff, and turning up in houses in San Francisco and shit like that. And my one closest friend I tried to convince to stop doing it, and that's kind of what that song's about.
Songfacts: Does you friend know it was about him?
John: I have honestly not spoken to him in… some people you need to cut out of your life. So I haven't spoken to him in 15, 16 years. I have no idea if he's dead or alive, actually.
Songfacts: Are you even curious?
John: No. Some people I just literally, I don't even want to know.
Songfacts: Well, that's probably for the better, considering where you just came from.
John: Exactly. Some people I don't need in my life, even though I love them. You have to protect yourself sometimes.
Songfacts: I have to ask you something. I've been doing a bunch of research on you and learning all about your music. And it occurred to me: How weird is it for you to know that somebody out there is researching you?
John: It's a little strange. (laughs nervously) It's not too weird. But I'm so used to it now. I've been doing this now for 15 years now I guess. That's with this band. Yeah, it's a little odd, but it's cool.
Songfacts: What is the story about the rat on the drum set? (laughing)
John: (laughing) It's just a rat that Shlomi found. We were in British Columbia, and we were playing somewhere out near Nanaimo, which is out on Vancouver Island. And I think it was Halloween, actually. He ended up with this rubber rat, and he carries it everywhere. He takes that stupid rat everywhere we go. (laughing) He's an odd guy, our drummer. He's in love with this rat. It's this Halloween rat, so it's kind of deformed and it's angry, and it's just really strange. But he's our comic relief, Shlomi is. (laughs)
Songfacts: It's good to have that.
John: Yeah, it really is. Especially when you're out touring as much as we have been. He keeps us laughing.
A very gracious John took us on this brief tour of his history on May 3, 2010.
More Songwriter Interviews