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John Mahon


John Mahon

foto di Laura Miglioli  © 2007

Percussionista, nato in Ohio (USA), fa parte della Elton John band dal 1997.
Ha iniziato la sua attività di percussionista negli anni 80 e ha collaborato anche con Bonnie Rait, Tina Turner, Ray Charles e Phil Collins.

John Mahon - Elton John
di Dan Kane
30 aprile 2010

For 13 years, John Mahon has been traveling the world as a full-time member of Elton John’s band. A 1973 graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School, he has played about 700 shows to date.

A backing vocalist and percussionist in the band, Mahon will be onstage at Youngstown’s Cavelli Center on Saturday night for the arena’s sold-out Elton concert.

Mahon, a professional musician who had been based in Los Angeles since 1980, was hired for Elton’s band in 1997 after a friend arranged for him to audition with Elton’s bandleader, Davey Johnstone.

Since that fateful day, Mahon has found himself performing  for more than 100,000 people at the Carnivale in Rio de Janeiro, 200,000 people at the Coliseum in Rome, and 500,000 in London’s Hyde Park. He has met Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Sting, Cher, Gene Hackman and many other luminaries.

Back in Canton for a few days this week, Mahon talked about life on the road with an international rock superstar.

Q. Can you give me a preview of the Youngstown show?

This show is two and a half hours and definitely big Elton John hits all the way from beginning to end: ”Tiny Dancer,” “Daniel,” “Rocket Man,” “Benny and the Jets,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Your Song,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

Q. Do you have much contact with Elton offstage?

Elton loves to come into our dressing room before the show and basically hang out with the boys and act stupid. Sometimes we’ll throw food at each other like little kids. We talk about the previous night’s show, and Elton loves to talk sports. He’s just nuts about soccer, which they call football, and he’s a big Atlanta Braves fan because he lives in Atlanta.

Q. So how crazy is Elton’s tour itinerary?

In March, we flew to Dubai for two days, 16 hours nonstop from Los Angeles, that trip really beat me up. We played with Santana there, then the next weekend I played in front of the pyramids outside Cancun. In five days in May, I’m going to play Morocco, Denmark, London and Poland. I have been gone for almost four months at a stretch, which is different if you’re a college kid.

Q. It sounds exciting and exhausting.

I think I’m in a constant state of jet lag. I really have to exercise and watch my diet and hopefully sleep. A lot of what takes it’s toll on you when you’re jumping from city to city is just dragging your suitcase around and trying to get your laundry done and finding a nice cup of coffee. Imagine going to a restaurant in Serbia and trying to figure out the menu.

Q. Is it challenging to play the same songs night after night and keep it fresh, especially with all the traveling you’re doing?

It’s really the audience we feed off of. Some nights you’re beat up and worn out but when you look out there and see people screaming like they’ve just won the lottery because you’re playing “Benny and the Jets,” it definitely gives you a pump of adrenaline immediately.

Q. Does your wife (Canton native Pam Tortola Mahon) join you on the road very often?

My wife likes to travel to the cities where she can shop — New York, London, Chicago. We went to Rome last summer and the winter before that we went to Paris. We’re going to be married for 30 years this year.

Q. Tell me about your very first concert with Elton John. I imagine you were a little nervous.

The first show was at a castle in Germany, but we’d rehearsed for four days in Nice. I remember traveling to the south of France and staying in a hotel on the Riviera and thinking, “I don’t even need to get paid for this!” Elton came over to me the first day of rehearsal and introduced himself. He couldn’t have been any nicer or more cordial. I’d never met a superstar. He was real cool.

Q. Do you take a lot of photos on the road?

I do. I have a website — www.johnmahon.com — and there’s a gallery there.

Q. So ... playing in Elton John’s band is not a bad gig, huh?

Like anything, it becomes your job. This is not an easy route. But I could think of a lot worse things to be doing than making a good living playing music.

da blogcritics.org

di Jason Spraggins

Interview: John Mahon - Sir Elton John's Percussionist

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!!