Mike Johnston’s musical journey began when he took up the drums at an early age. Later, he pursued the rock star dream, touring the world and releasing two albums on a major label with the band Simon Says. However, he soon discovered that education was his true calling.
Johnston now shares his passion for teaching with students around the world thanks to MikesLessons.com, the largest educational site for drummers. Read on as Johnston shares life lessons and gives insights into his recording setup.
Audio-Technica: You studied extensively under drumming legends like Pete Magadini and Will Kennedy. What lessons would you say they instilled in you?
Mike Johnston: I would say the biggest thing that I got from Pete was the idea that it was OK to have teaching be my “Plan A.” During one of our lessons when I was in my twenties, Pete said to me, “Mike you are a good drummer and you seem to really enjoy it, but when you explain stuff to other people your whole face lights up with pure joy and enthusiasm. Maybe you should consider teaching as your primary focus.”
Having someone that I looked up to give me the verbal permission to switch my dreams from being a rock star to an educator… Well, my life hasn’t been the same since, and I couldn’t be happier.
A-T: What inspired you to create MikesLessons.com?
MJ: I have always lived by the “I wish” principle, which is that anytime I say “I wish” out loud, that’s my moment to act. If I’m wishing for something then there’s a good chance other people are wishing for it too. Seven years ago I was wishing for my favorite drummers to make an educational database, an iTunes for drummers. Once I wished for it, I knew it was time to take action.
A-T: You’ve broadcast thousands of lessons, how do you continually come up with fresh content?
MJ: Well, the core of the content can be repeated many times, and it should. I can’t just teach the single paradiddle in June of 2011 and then never come back to it. My goal is instead to always have fresh variations on the topic. The other thing is that I’m always learning, myself, and when I learn anything my first thought is always, “How can I explain this to my students in an easy to digest way that will also inspire them to practice?”
A-T: You took up drumming at a fairly young age. What drew you to the instrument?
MJ: LOL, sucking at the clarinet is what forced me into the drums. I kept passing out when we would work on whole notes and eventually the teacher just said, “Mike, just go back to the drums and hit the big one with this mallet.” That was literally it.
A-T: What was the most challenging studio recording experience you’ve had?
MJ: All of them! I think that’s how I knew that I wasn’t meant to be a session drummer. I would put on the headphones, my pulse would race, the click would start, I would sweat profusely, and then I would be in my head for the entire track. After three major label albums, I knew it just wasn’t for me.
A-T: Who’s your favorite drummer of all time?
MJ: I want to make sure that we clarify that favorite doesn’t mean best. To me, there can’t be a “best” when it comes to art, only personal favorites. I have so many but these days I’m loving the combination of friendship and adoration. So guys that I look up to and am lucky enough to call my friends like Benny Greb, Mark Guiliana, JP Bouvet, Matt Halpern, Robert “Sput” Searight, Jost Nickel are all definitely up there for me.
A-T: You’ve toured with bands like Filter. What lessons did you learn while on the road?
MJ: I think the biggest lesson that I learned was to enjoy the experience. I was far too young, far too cocky, and far too ignorant to get the most out of the experience. I wish I had taken time to learn about the cities I was in. Instead of sitting on a bus complaining about the venue, I wish I had been at someone’s house experiencing a family dinner from a new culture. Lesson learned!
A-T: Tell us about your setup when recording your Live Lessons.
MJ: One of the main reasons why I chose Audio-Technica over all of the other brands was their commitment to “honest” sounds. I wanted a set of mics that made my students and fans feel like they were in the room with me, even if they were 3,000 miles away watching me on YouTube. The set that I am using now is buttery smooth, and extremely honest without sounding harsh. When I hit my floor tom, it doesn’t sound sampled or processed. You really hear the timbre of the drum and that to me is priceless.
A-T: What words of advice do you have for young drummers just starting out?
MJ: I think my advice would be similar to the advice from any instructor. Play because you want to, practice because you want to. Don’t play drums for some imaginary payoff, because it might never happen. But if you play because you love it, then you will always be reaching your goals.
A-T: What’s next for MikesLessons.com?
MJ: MikesLessons.com 3.0, which will come out in January, is a complete redesign of the way online drum lessons have been delivered in the past. I can’t too much, but I can tell you that the focus in designing the new site has been motivation, accountability, and inspiration. If I can create a website that will do those three things for my students, then I truly believe we will have finally leveraged technology to create better drummers.