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Interview: John Mahon – Sir Elton John’s Percussionist

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Near the age of twelve, John Mahon picked up a pair of drum sticks with the aspiration of becoming a drummer. As an adult, John has not only realized his dream by becoming a professional musician, but he has built a stellar performance resume that is filled with A-List names in the music industry.

Mahon, a percussionist and vocalist, has worked with artists such as Brian Adams, Sting, Phil Collins, Mary J. Blige, Ray Charles, Cher, Tina Turner, Bonnie Rait, and many, many more. For the last several years, John has accompanied music icon Sir Elton John on his journey down the Yellow Brick of Road of Rock and Roll, serving as a percussionist and background vocalist for the Rocket Man’s legendary stage and studio band.

John was kind enough to take some time while on vacation from his heavy tour schedule with the EJ Band to talk with me about his life as a musician, his experience with Elton John and his band, his side projects as a songwriter and session musician, and the hobbies he enjoys when off the road.

I understand that you chose to become a drummer at around age twelve when your father took you to Canton Ohio Police Boys Club and you signed up for the Drum and Bugle Corp. I also understand that, throughout your young years, you were extremely active in the performing ensembles offered by your schools. How did these experiences shape you as a music fan and as a performer?

Participation in the school music programs broadened my musical experiences. I was exposed to many different genres of music that I would never have heard or played if not for the school bands. Of course, we played marches but there were classical pieces and even some contemporary compositions. Another part is the choir which was a good way to learn pitch and ensemble singing.

These programs teach a musician to play with an ensemble, take constructive criticism, and be motivated by your fellow band members.

Do you come from a musical family? If so, please tell us about it.

My father was the musical side. He sang and played trumpet. My Uncle was a big band singer, and my grandfather played guitar. Everyone in my family played an instrument of some sort, and most of us sing. That said, my younger brother was unexpectedly asked to leave a McCartney concert recently – it’s likely they heard him singing!

When and how did you make the transition from amateur to professional musician?

When I was still in high school, a friend asked me to play with his band and perform at parties. That was the start of getting paid to play. I always worked a day job and did gigs at night until I was about 23. Then it was full on music- -although I had to get a part time job for a while when I moved to LA to pay the bills- – driving a delivery truck! Back in the late 70s and 80s, bands were playing everywhere every night. It was easier to make a living as a musician then. Clubs and Hotels had dance bands 5-6 days a week. It was a great time – no DJs!!!

Who is your biggest influence as a drummer? A vocalist? A songwriter?

I love funk and jazz drumming, so there are so many. I’d have to say, Tony Williams, David Garibaldi, Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Clyde Stubblefield, Peter Erskine, Danny Seraphine, Lenny White – just to name a few.

Vocalists – Larry Williams of Tower of Power, Marvin Gaye, Steve Perry, Stevie Wonder, Sinatra, Bennet, Otis Redding.
Songwriters – Steely Dan, Elton John, The Beatles, Led Zep, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea. Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, James Taylor. But I love new bands as well– U2, Radiohead. So many!!

How did you come to be part of the acclaimed Elton John Band?

I met Davey Johnstone after he heard a recording I was working on with Bob Birch whom I have known and played with for many years since moving to LA. I did some recording for Davey and Guy Babylon, and not long after that session, Davey asked me to audition for Elton’s band.

I’ve read on your personal website that you spend some of your free time writing and recording your own original songs. Can you describe how you approach the mysterious task of songwriting and tell us a bit about your original music?

My music, I suppose, is pop based with a soul/jazz influence. I like to write lyrics first most of the time. Sometimes I will just come up with a musical motif or loop that I like writing around. I write all kinds of music – soundtrack, electronic, organic – even some kid’s music. I think all these influences have put me in the musical blender!! Of course I love drums and percussion based music – who doesn’t?

Several years ago, your band mate and fellow singing drummer, Nigel Olsson, released a solo project that was quite good. When can we expect a solo project from John Mahon, and what sort of a project will it be?

I am always composing material– whether it be for myself, TV, or even collaborating with someone else on a project. I am trying to finish a bunch of songs, but it is difficult for me on the road. I like to work at home in the studio– not in a hotel room. All the songs are vocals and groovy. Almost jazzy in way – I’m terrible at pinning down styles!! But I hope to get it out soon, later this year.

Is it true that, even after all of your successes, you still study privately with music coaches and teachers? How important do you think such continuing practice and education is for every musician?

I feel there is so much to learn out there. I try to take the opportunity that travels bring me to study with people when time permits. Going to Europe is cool because there are some real masters there. It’s the practicing time that is hard to achieve. No one wants to hear a djembe drum being played in the hotel room next door!

Speaking of Nigel Olsson, he has achieved legendary status as a vocalist and drummer among many musicians and fans. What has it been like sharing percussion and backing vocal duties with such a loved and respected veteran performer? Have you learned anything from the experience?

Yes, I’ve learned to appreciate great wines!! Not only is Nigel an amazing talent, but he knows wine very well, especially French. He’s an expensive date. (No, I’m not gay). Playing music with Nigel has taught me mostly when not to play- – he is a master of creating space and tension on the drums, pulling the time a bit to make the song more dramatic. He also sings like a bird.

As a percussionist for the EJ band, you have the opportunity to do many different kinds of shows. You play with the regular band, with the Bill Joel (Face2Face) set-up, and at times, with a full orchestra. Of all of these kinds of concerts, which is your favorite? Which is the most challenging?

The orchestra is the most challenging because, like I said earlier, one must adapt when playing with a large ensemble. The conductor might ask me to play something different than my regular part to better fit with the orchestra. Small ensemble playing — like duo or trio — is tricky too. No mistakes here!!

When performing the EJ set, are you allowed a great deal of freedom from show to show as a percussionist, or are the arrangements pretty set in stone and done the exact same way each time?

My arrangements are based on what was played on Elton’s records, mostly by Ray Cooper. I have changed some of them a bit to adapt better live and add my own ideas here and there. There is a pretty set way I play percussion at shows, but certain songs have sections that are ad lib – I can jam out a little more. Sometimes Elton will change the song a bit and that influences how I play as well.

On the last couple of albums he has released, Elton John has used his stage band on the recordings. I have noticed several stand out percussion parts that you have added to tracks on these albums, particularly on songs like “And the House Fell Down” (from The Captain and the Kid). How much freedom are you given when creating percussion parts in the studio with Elton?

I might be asked to come up with some ideas and then Elton, or whoever is producing the session, will pick what they like. Maybe they will change it a little or even suggest something completely different. I would not call it freedom because every note you play will be scrutinized and criticized so you better be ready to play anything and understand how to take direction. It can be really fun or it can be very challenging. Most of the time when you hit on something it will just work – that’s the magic part.

Do you play any instruments aside from drums? If so what?

I play the keyboards some and strum the guitar. Drummer/Percussionists need to know another instrument so we can talk with the really smart musicians!!

 

  

 

Of all your many accomplishments as a musician, of what are you the most proud?

I come from a very humble upbringing in a small town. Playing and recording with an icon like Elton John is quite an accomplishment. Not many musicians, or people for that matter, get to experience what I have. The travel, the concerts, the amazing audiences…. I am very fortunate indeed.

Aside from music, what other interests and hobbies do you have that might surprise us?

I love mountain biking and cycling in general. I’ve also been playing a bit of tennis. I just like being outside. I don’t mind some home improvement projects — which I’m not bad at, and I guess I like photography but that has just come out of my travels. I really love recording too. When there is no pressure it is like painting… adding colors and creating freely – It is very rewarding to me.

Do you have a favorite city or venue to play in?

New York City is amazing. Rio was great. Anywhere in Ireland has the best audiences. I have to say American audiences are the most fun overall — they love to rock out. Playing Hyde Park was great as well as Rome in front of the Coliseum — and lately the Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza, Mexico.

What do you like most about your current touring job? The least?

I enjoy the camaraderie of the crew and band. We are a big family and it’s fun to be around them all. I do enjoy going to some great cities and getting a little sightseeing in. Then, of course, there is the music part- – playing the shows is always the highlight of the day. I loath airports, airport security, airport food, and the smell of airports. Did I say I hate airports? Finding a consistent meal and cup of coffee are the most challenging thing to me on the road. Oh yes, I need good water pressure!!

Now a few questions for John, the fan…What is your favorite Elton John song? Album?

My favorite song might be “Levon” – mainly because I used to play it as a kid. I love Madman Across the Water, Captain Fantastic, and the Made In England album.

(Aside from those from your boss) What are your three favorite albums of all time?

That’s not fair! Steely Dan Gauchos. Herbie Hancock, VSOP, Chicago II.

What future musical projects are on the calender for John Mahon?

Elton is touring almost constantly. I plan to continue writing lyrics and songs. I just played drums and percussion on some smooth jazz tracks for a new artist “Ja Nya Sol”. I’m producing and playing some music with a friend in Ohio, David Marchione who is extremely talented. We are doing experimental soundtrack music right now. As always, listening, learning, and keeping the darn computer working!!

Visit John Mahon’s website.

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About Jason Spraggins

Jason was born in Bells, TN. As a high school musician, Jason achieved membership in the All-West Tennessee Honor Band and, as a senior, received the John Phillips Sousa Award. He was also the 1998 recipient of the Joe Kincaid Memorial Scholarship for Musicians. He later earned his Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education with an English minor from Lambuth University in Jackson, TN. As a student at Lambuth, he participated in and was a featured soloist for the University Jazz Band (playing first alto sax). He also performed with the school's Brass Ensemble (on tuba) and Wind Band (playing first sax and tuba). Over the years, Jason has served as a summer camp instructor for various high school band programs in the area and has arranged concert band, small ensemble, and marching band music for a variety of ensembles. As a church musician, he has served as pianist and has directed vocal and hand chime groups. He has also taught instrumental music privately since his graduation. In 2004, Jason wrote the script and songs for a two act Christmas musical entitled Beyond Bethlehem. The musical has been performed twice locally and has now been submitted for publication. He is currently preparing the scores for two new shows, Elizabethtown: A Musical Western and Adventures in the Closet: A Children's Musical, both of which he is co-writing with his long-time friend and collaborator, Andy Brown. The two are also busy developing a cycle of songs for a concept album entitled Garfield County. In addition, Jason is working on a musical, "Beneath the Surface," based on the John Wayne Gacy murders of the 1970's. Aside from these projects, Jason is also preparing a set of instrumental pieces for a solo piano album called Daydreams and Reflections that is to be recorded in the coming year. Along with his current theatrical projects, Jason is actively writing stand-alone songs to be pitched to publishing houses and studios and is working to earn album placement and the inclusion of his music in T.V. and film. As a writer, Jason has a variety of approaches when crafting songs. At times he writes alone, creating both the lyrics and music himself. He most often writes with Andy Brown, setting Andy's lyrics to music. One of their new stand-alone songs, "Yours," just received a glowing review and was nominated as "Best of SongU.com" (an online songwriting community/music industry website based in Nashville). Recently, Jason has collaborated on a number of songs with composer Matt Glickstein from Hawaii, providing lyrics for Matt's compositions. The very first collaboration by Spraggins and Glickstein, a song called "Ghosts," was also nominated as "Best of SongU.com" (an honor several more of Jason's works have earned) by an award-winning professional songwriter with over a hundred cuts to his credit by major artists in country, rock, and contemporary Christian music.
  • Sir H., D. Andrew

    My first time on blogcritic and I enjoyed your interview with John Mahon. I always thought of bands as whole entities, never realizing the individual characters immense talent. This interview portrayed a delightfully intelligent instrumentalist with a well-rounded background in the music business who, even with his present status advocates for practice and combining all types of musical genres. Blogcritic’s Jason Spraggins introduces fans to a creative force within the ej band that you might never have seen so closely were it not for this intriquing interview. It is important to hear the story of John Mahon who shows that each individual band member brings something to the table. Whether it be their family history and influences, or their experience playing gigs over the past decade, John Mahon and other band members’ singular talents and backgrounds in music open the door to playing right alongside some of the world’s best entertainers. Excellent interview, and piece.