Featured Artist Interview: Doug Johnson of Loverboy
Cherry Audio is excited to share a featured artist interview with Doug Johnson, keyboardist for legendary arena-rock giants, Loverboy! Doug uses Cherry Audio plugins for his analog synthesizer sounds, both onstage and in the studio. We reached out to Doug, who graciously invited us to fire away with questions.
Loverboy does not get enough credit for being a band that jump started the 80s rock genre, and Doug Johnson's skilled synth work was a key component. Utilizing classic analog pads, orchestral strings, arpeggiations, and unique sound manipulations, Doug's intuitive ability to balance anthemic rock keyboard riffs and layered pads expanded Loverboy's sound far beyond guitar-rock bands of the era. Doug is a phenomenal musician and a true gentleman - we hope you enjoy this candid conversation!
Q: We watched a fantastic interview you did for MisplacedStraws.com. You provided a great perspective on your career approach, essential advice on balancing creativity with business, and the ingredients of Loverboy's massive and long-term success. What additional advice can you offer musicians?
A: Do the work. If you want to achieve anything, you just have to do the required work. There's a great little book called "The War of Art" by Stephen Pressfield. He talks about the Resistance and how to deal with it. It speaks directly to what is required to create music or anything of value, really. I had a somewhat traditional music education, starting piano at age 4 and then learning about jazz, and then getting into prog rock when I was about 18 or so. I practiced, transcribed a lot of jazz and prog rock pieces, and then starting working on original music. I've never stopped learning. I use resources like Masterclass, Groove3, LinkedIn Learning, and figure stuff out.
Q: Loverboy formed in 1978 and has sold more than 23 million records with such hits as, "The Kid Is Hot Tonight," "When It's Over," and "Hot Girls In Love." "Turn Me Loose," "Lovin' Every Minute of It," and "Working for the Weekend" became arena rock smashes and are still classic rock radio staples. Loverboy was the first Canadian group to earn Columbia Records' exclusive Crystal Globe Award, commemorating the sale of over five million albums outside of Canada. In March 2009, the group was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame, joining the likes of Bryan Adams, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Rush. How does it feel to be part of such an exclusive group of talented artists?
A: That was a very humbling acknowledgment. Accolades are very validating, and it's an honor to be in the company of such great artists. And it all starts with the songs. If you've got something to offer that resonates with enough people, then things can get very exciting for sure. So work on that creative voice that is uniquely yours.
Q: A lot has changed when it comes to making records today. You went from working on a Fostex multi-track cassette recorder to working with renowned producer Bruce Fairbairn at Little Mountain Sound. Today the bulk of your work is done in your home studio. Describe how your approach to music creation changed and tell us how you're integrating Cherry Audio synths into your setup, and which are your favorites?
A: When I started "in the biz" on synths, there was no such thing as MIDI; hell, there were no presets! Just dial up the sound and go! Then when the Memorymoog, Jupiter-8, and other analog synths with user-assignable presets arrived, it was like, "Can life get any better?" And then we had the advent of digital technology. Believe it or not, I paid 35K for a Fairlight computer/synth/sampler, with the light pen and the whole nine yards. That would have been around 1983 or so. I used it a little; it could sample 8-bit for 1.5 seconds and store it on a humongous floppy disk. I leased it to a studio here in Vancouver, and then I sold it to a Belgian composer in 1989.
But now everything is "in the box." Up until five years ago I took a Novation Supernova and a Korg Karma on the road with me. They were great synths, but the rigor of road work was very hard on them. They were in the shop every couple of weeks because we fly commercially. Even though we have padded cases for everything, shit happens. And so, for that reason, I transitioned into MainStage. For at-home composition, I'm a Digital Performer devotee from version 1. It does everything I need in terms of hosting plugins, from recording to time-stretching. My "live" rig is just two controller keyboards and a shiny new 14" M1 Pro laptop with 16G RAM running MainStage. Solid as a rock.
Sonically, I am using Cherry Audio's Memorymode, PS-20, and Quadra. They are the closest sonically to the original recordings for songs like "Take Me to the Top," "Working for the Weekend," and "Turn Me Loose." Just gorgeously thick, beautiful analog with a GUI that is easily assignable to a few knobs or mod wheel.
Q: With the prevalence of modern technology and the internet, collaboration methods have greatly expanded. How has the post-COVID era affected the band's songwriting and recording process, and tell us how the band's newest song, "Release," came together.
A: Paul sent me a version of this song with just guitar, bass, click track, and rough vocals. I listened to it probably four or five times before I started noodling around with some different sounds, which then gave rise to actual parts. Took me a couple of days to tweak the sounds and parts which I then uploaded as WAV files to his server, and all I heard back was "parts received - mind blown." So I figured he was on board with my choices. Then the song went to our drummer, Matt, who recorded his parts in North Carolina; and then to our bass player, Spider, who recorded in Winnipeg, MB; and then back to Mike a few blocks from where I live. They all uploaded their parts, and Paul mixed the whole shebang.
Q: Loverboy is on tour this summer with Styx and REO Speedwagon. You guys must be totally pumped and ready! How has your live keyboard setup evolved, and how have you integrated Cherry Audio virtual instruments?
A: I like to call it Lolapageezer!! We've played with these bands many times over the years, and we're good friends. It's a good combination of 80's styles and some great musicianship up there. So as mentioned previously, the days of the giant keyboard rigs, for me at least, have been replaced with my two M-Audio controllers -- 49- and 61-note -- and my 14" MacBook Pro. I use a MOTU UltraLite for my I/O. I have a duplicate system on standby just in case of Murphy's Law. And so the Cherry Audio plugins are used throughout the set in the songs listed above, and I do tend to change things up a bit. So as you guys come up with yet more amazing products, I'm sure I'll find places to use them.
Q: You mentioned that you're been influenced by a lot of current music. What bands are you listening to these days?
A: Linkin Park, Snarky Puppy, Lady Gaga, everything from AC/DC to Beethoven. If it's good, you learn something from everything.
Q: Life outside of Loverboy looks super busy and creatively fulfilling. You've produced an excellent catalog of incredible soundscapes, music compositions, and soundtracks for TV and film, including the score for the documentary "Last Paddle." Your SoundCloud page is an excellent resource. Tell us about your segue into soundtracks for TV and film, and your approach to the genre.
A: Well, Loverboy had a great run from 1980 to 1988, and then we called it quits for a while, during which time I thought I'd dip my toes into the ocean of soundtrack work. So I did a couple of films, some TV work, and actually worked for a production house in Vancouver called GGRP. Learned a lot in the process. One of the biggest lessons is that the music is usually the last thing that filmmakers think about. Your music is there to support and reinforce the story that is being told. It's not there to draw attention to itself and your limitless talents. So humility is a valuable trait. The thing I love about it is that each job requires a different set of sonic approaches. I love the challenge of experimenting and finding out what the best approach should be.
Editor's note: Our thanks go to Doug Johnson, one of the world's best role models for keyboard players and synthesizer enthusiasts, for sharing his experiences and expertise with our readers.