Meet Tam Johnstone, son of Captain Fantastic
Dad played with Elton in England. Here's how Tam, his guitar and career came to Detroit
Published: February 1, 2012
No need to gawk at Nicole Richie on TV anymore, and anybody who has seen Traci Hunter live, practically dressed as her old man (Mott the Hoople's Ian), will know how freakish rock star offspring who perform can be. They're doomed to a fishbowl life, forever compared, dissected and accused of a privileged upbringing, and then they spend their adulthoods untangling bizarre childhoods. Poor Julian and Sean Lennon, can you imagine being son of Superman?
This guy Tam Johnstone, child of Elton John guitar hero Davey Johnstone, from what I can tell, steps clear from such stereotypes.
Papa Johnstone has played with Dame Elton full time since '72's Honky Chateau album, though he did play on a few tunes on Madonna Across the Water the previous year. That means that Tam's dad played on "Tiny Dancer," "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," "Candle in the Wind," "Benny and the Jets," and so many more. Davey Johnstone invented and played some of the most recognizable, beautifully melodic guitar licks in rock 'n' roll. His kid, by a freaky accident, lives in Dearborn.
Tam Johnstone is 41 now, and not a kid at all, but he has no problems remembering that his parents split when he was very young, and that he spent his early years moving around London.
"We moved around quite a lot," Johnstone says. "I grew up in Richmond, then we moved to Ealing, then Finsbury Park, and we gravitated north to Camden. My parents were not together for long, and when I was young things really took off for my dad. Eventually, I moved to Cornwall. My uncle has a recording studio there, so it was a chance to learn more about the recording world."
Johnstone remembers starting to play drums on an Animal (from the Muppets) kit when he was 2 or 3 years old, and living with his mom when his parents split. "My mom became a set director in the movies," he says. "I went from music studios to film studios. She was also doing a textiles course at the same time as Budgie. I was introduced to the whole new wave thing. I went to boarding school and I didn't like it much but I got obsessed with Depeche Mode, Yazz, Madness and the Specials."
What was it like growing up with Captain Fantastic for a father? "My dad joined Elton's band around the Honky Chateau album," he says. "I remember being at the studio while they were making Captain Fantastic. I met a lot of amazing people, but I was very young so I don't remember. John Lennon, Joni Mitchell and people like that. I remember bits and pieces of traveling around. Dad's not an Eddie Van Halen sort of shredder, but he has a melodic style. His whole vibe was George Harrison — they were all huge Beatles fans. He came up with memorable solos .... His roots are in folk music, and I think that comes across in the melodies. Whenever Rolling Stone does a list of the top 100 guitarists, I half expect him to be there."
Kid Johnstone formed a handful of bands and had a few brushes with fame: "I was in my first proper band at 18, Kik, which is a dumb name but there you go," Johnstone says. "We supported A-ha when they were huge and did arena tours. People wanted to be connected with anything to do with A-ha, so they'd follow our bus from the shows. It was a taste of the big leagues. I was in a band called the Green Tambourines, around the time that grunge broke. We were doing the sort of psychedelic indie that the La's and Cast were doing. Then I was in a band called Jaguar and we were signed to Warner Bros. We toured with [Australian singer] Natalie Imbruglia and the Charlatans, and we got huge in Japan but couldn't get arrested in England."
Johnstone Sr. played on Alice Cooper's From the Inside album, creating a little bit of a Detroit family connection, but how did Tam end up here? Bit of an accident; he was just looking for a gig. Turns out his dad is good friends with local musician Steve Trudell, who has a lucrative cover band called Fifty Amp Fuse, which is a good money gig for any musician, particularly these days.
"[Steve's] dad, Johnny, played for Motown," Johnstone says. He was looking for a guy to join a covers band. My dad said, 'Why don't you give Tam a call?' Originally I was planning on moving to California because my dad is there. But this worked out well. I had played in covers bands back in England. And yes, we do an Elton song. We played "Rocket Man" recently. Those songs are ingrained in my mind."
So Johnstone quickly settled in the D. "I really didn't know what to expect here," he said. "Bob Birch from Elton's band is a Detroiter and he has a bet going with my dad about how long I'll last here. The other guys in my band are older so they don't go to shows a whole lot, so I just go to venues randomly, like the Magic Stick or the Crofoot. That's how I discovered Javelins, the Hounds Below and the Silent Years. The quality of the songwriting is amazing; it can just be sad when no one is at the shows."
Cover band aside, Johnstone just put out his debut solo album, Fantastic Animals, produced by Dave Feeney at Tempermill Studios. It's a beauty too. Reviewing it in the City Slang blog, we compared it to, of all things, Adam Ant and the Arcade Fire. How does Johnstone describe his sound? "I'm a pop fan, but I also like a lot of Krautrock," he says. "I also love classical and jazz. I just try to fuse it all together. This is the first time I've put a collection of songs together without hiding behind a pseudonym or band name. It's snapshots of moments in my life. My music sounds like me."
Why a solo album?
"The album sort of happened by accident. It started as a way of keeping my songwriting chops in check. I was gigging around with Fifty Amp Fuse, and I started to forget the other thing I do. Plus, with my work visa, it's handy to have some press, something on paper to show for the time I've been here, and the cover band doesn't really offer that. I didn't intend to put out a full record, but it's just sort of snowballed. People from different areas have been contacting me now about using the songs in commercials and stuff. It was an experiment, and it has taken off a little bit."
Will he be sticking around?
"Hell, yeah," he says. "It's great to be part of something positive after years of bad press for [Detroit]. People are moving back now."
Tam Johnstone's debut album, Fantastic Animals, is out now. For more Tam info, visit tamjohnstone.com.
> Email Brett Callwood