John Krogman: Serves It Up Right
With a Backlog of Songs Sapping 3 Decades, a Local Musical Legend Teams up with Stewart Francke to Record a Pivotal CD of Powerful Originals
By Robert E. Martin
From the lexicon of great musical artists that have emerged from Mid-Michigan – in many ways becoming synonymous with the area by virtue of shaping and defining its sound – few are more formidable than John Krogman.
There exist a few select artists with a voice so indelibly distinct that it transcends categorization within the simple parameters of classification. More than a matter of range, strength, or control, these voices speak to us with an intoxicating blend of vision, commitment, and passion that shoots to the marrow of both experience and expression.
John Krogman is such an artist.
From early seminal days with the tightly wound & groundbreaking rock band The Flies, through his decades fronting the equally potent Johnny & the Boomers, Krogman’s penchant for writing tightly woven and hook-laden songs forms the background for framing a voice as distinct, powerful and instantly recognizable as that of a John Lennon or Neil Young, except that it is entirely Krogman’s – born from an artist that has cultivated dozens of memorable songs from the marrow of his life experience and written material that is unmistakably original and uniquely his own.
Krogman has equally been an infuriating artist in the sense that the dozens of great originals which he has authored, crafted, and polished over the years have never been given the justice that they deserve in terms of recording and documenting his artistry for posterity.
Fortunately, that situation has changed with the recent recording and release of Sling That Mud, which showcases the strongest material from this remarkable artist.
Produced by noted and revered Michigan singer/songwriter Stewart Francke, and amplified by a crack team of Detroit studio musicians, from the opening strains of new material like the haunting, incessant, and gripping Curtis Road, to the plaintive resignation of our contemporary national zeitgeist framed in Red, White & Blue, Krogman proves track after track that he not only has a song to sing; but more important, a story to tell.
With the contribution of Francke’s song The Sinatra Years, Krogman’s collaboration moves the artist into different musical realms, fueled by a solid brass section that kicks his distinctly soulful voice into high gear.
Released nationally on Francke’s Blue Boundary label and in advance of a special CD Release Show for Sling That Mud, which will be held at Pit & Balcony on Thursday, October 29th and feature Francke as a special guest, along with drummer Darryl Pierce, bassist Chuck Bartels, lead guitarist Brett Lucas, keyboardist Chris Plansker, guitarist John Van, and The Mainstreet Soul Horns, the Review caught up with both Krogman and Francke to discuss the convergence of this remarkable collaboration.
A Lifetime in the Making
Following Francke’s presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the All Area Arts Ceremony this year, I went to catch Krogman perform at The Locker Room and was struck by the potency of his newer songs.
That evening upon returning home, I fired an e-mail off to Stewart lamenting the fact that none of Krogman’s originals had ever been properly recorded, and suggesting that he collaborate and hook John up with a top-level studio and top-flight musicians.
Indeed, with this new release Krogman’s key objective and goal was simply “to make a good record.”
“Once you hooked Stew and I back up we went from there to make a record that exceeded my expectations,” notes John.
With such a large backlog of original material was it difficult deciding what songs to record?
“I tried to pick some songs that were new to my listeners,” explains John. “The horns, piano and organ are something new to my listeners. These songs are different than my usual fare, but the horns & keyboards need to be there. That’s what I hear in my head. When I’m writing the song, the song dictates what instruments to use.”
“We also recorded one cover, Tears of a Clown, which is for the Flies fans out there. The rest I feel are well crafted songs. I sent a lot of material to Stew and we both went through the roughs and picked what we thought were the best songs to do.”
Having taken a crack at this before, what was it like working with Stewart as a producer and how does John feel he helped translate his artistic vision?
“Stewart knows what he’s doing,” John flatly states. “The guys in the studio give him a lot of respect, as do I. He lined up musicians who were great and the sessions were positive, by everyone’s account. We did 10 songs in 2 days and the entire project was complete in 5 days. Stew did a great job producing. He translated my artistic vision as close to what I saw and did not play that ‘I’m the producer’ B.S. with me. The changes he did make were right, so I can’t wait for the next opportunity to work with him again at Tempermill Studio.”
“Plus, Stew and I go way back long before music and do have a lot of things in common, so it was just plain fun being in the studio with him. Jim Kissling, the engineer, was real cool too.”
With a distribution deal secured through Burnside Distribution, Corp. out of Oregon, and also with IODA who distributes digitally, the CD is presently available on Amazon.com and can be downloaded on iTunes, Napster and a host of other download sites worldwide.
“The best way to get it now would be to buy it online or download it,” notes John. “I’m not selling from my site (www.johndrogman.com) yet, but plan to add that feature shortly.
As one of our area’s true original voices, how does John feel the local scene has evolved over the years?
“Well, the original scene seems to have taken hold somewhat and that’s a good thing,” he reflects. “There are a lot of talented people out there, both male and female, and the internet has really become the highway. I think the future will be amazing. You’ve got to embrace that. If you stay in music, your scene always changes eventually anyway. I do think this area seems to produce a lot of talented people in general, so it’s good for everybody.”
Knowing the dedication and commitment it takes to remain as focused as John has over the years to his music, what does he feel is the most challenging component of retaining and keeping that commitment alive?
“Believing in one’s self - the discipline that comes from playing Heart of Gold for the 8,000,000th time and making it fresh. This is what I do best. Playing in a band is hard work and finding guys that have the same vision is a hard thing to achieve. I don’t think it’s my choice anyway. Some say, ‘You don’t choose music, music chooses you’. I’m lucky because I can play solo and Sullivan’s Black Forest has been very good to me. I play a lot and it keeps me sharp.”
A Different Hat for Stewart Francke
While he has taken his own career in some amazing directions, what was it about the work of John Krogman – as both a songwriter and performer – that prompted Stew to become involved with this project?
“It was a couple of things,” reflects Stewart. “One, he inspired me to sing and play guitar when I was kid in my living room; and two, I admire his perseverance and the fact that he’s the real deal – a ‘lifer’ in music. He ain’t no fly-by-night. He’s worked his ass off in bars and joints because he loves the music and wants to connect with other people. I just felt he needed to be heard on a more serious level. He’s a terrific singer and really fine writer, and he should be considered as an artist on another level.”
“Then when I heard his demos, I thought I could contribute to his ambition and vision. They’re such honest songs, written with a direct connection to his audience.”
As a producer, how did Stew approach his involvement with John in the studio and how did he view his role in terms of translating John’s sound?
“I felt he had, like most artists, a trio of modes of expression. The first was the narrative folk-rock songs, where they lyrics are the dominant thing – the story. Songs like ‘Curtis Road’ and ‘Raymond Jones’. It’s a very dominant form of acoustic rock, as done by American artists since Dylan. They’re more like Byrd’s songs as done by a harder hitting Midwestern guy.”
“The second is his very real interpretation of the Blues, 12-bar grooves that needed an explosiveness. I wasn’t aware of his connection to the Blues. But with his lyrical outlook, his harp playing and weathered voice, it’s a style that really suits him.”
“His third stylistic form is highly original – a synthesis of the blues and guitar rock – with songs like ‘Sling That Mud’ and ‘Shadows of Night’ – it’s almost a bohemian Tom Waits approach to his darker material. I wanted to bring a little swing to all this as a unifying factor, while being true to the songs. I tried to bring some funk to his traditionalism.”
So how did Stewart go about selecting the studio musicians that John ended up working with?
“Well, I initially thought that the energy was vital and that we should cut the songs without overdubs, as a live experience because that’s what he does – he’s a working musician. People come to hear him because they dig his voice & guitar and it should sound that way on record.”
“I wanted to maintain the honesty I found in his voice & songs, so I put together the best group of rock & blues players I could find in Detroit, and it turned out to be guys I’ve been recording with a lot lately from Bettye LaVatte’s band. We cut the songs live, with John singing. The only overdubs were some horn parts, percussion, and some backing vocals.”
“I felt it was important conceptually that the songs sound very much like they would when you heard John live. I don’t like it when a producer has a recognizable ‘sound’ to the records he works on – it’s all about the artist. So I wanted my own voice and style to have total transparency and let the songs speak for themselves, because they can.”
Tell me a bit about the song that you contributed to the album, The Sinatra Hours.
“I’ve had the title floating around for many years. It’s about the small hours, the wee hours, those desperate hours when you can’t sleep and you’re alone and in pain. Then I moved it out of a personal area and made it more of a jump blues to fit with the rest of John’s songs, so it became a more detached lyric.”
“Why is this guy in pain? Well, the dominant themes of the Blues are women, work, booze and the profound grief all three cause you. So in the song, the guy knows his woman is not alone, knows she’s with another man, and he’s walkin’ the floor with that gut ache that love and infidelity gives you. He’s drinking and its 4 AM. I thought it would work with John’s voice and I wanted something with a slamming horn section on the record, so it worked out.”
“I also wanted a shuffle on the record as a temp and groove variation,” adds Stewart. “You can get hunkered down in 4/4 midtempo grooves and lose the listener. The fact we cut all 11 songs and mixed and mastered everything in a five-day week is a testimonial to the greatness of Jim Kissling, the engineer that I’ve worked with for more than 10 years. He’s as much an artist as he is an engineer.”
“I just hope this is the first of many records for John,” concludes Stewart. “I sent this to my distributor in Portland and they instantly picked it up, so that’s an indication that he’s doing good work – you need business affirmation, press, and radio attention.”
“The people of Saginaw have supported John and he’s delivered on that trust with this album. I feel good about it artistically, but getting the public’s attention is now an economic process more than a musical one. We’ll get it out there to all the media, pick a single and get some airplay. My hope is that this ups the ante for John, raises his visibility, and puts him on the level he deserves to be on. It was a gas making the record and it’s been great re-connecting with John. I think that translates to the listener when you hear it.”
Ultimately, Sling This Mud serves more as the debut springboard for an artist that has spent over three decades perfecting his songwriting and honing his sound – it stands as a musical testament to all that is vital and enduring about rock’ n roll: memorable material, purity of heart, a focused vision, and the ability to transcend gravity by getting you out of your seat, feet moving to the beat, spirit soaring within the delightful embrace of a hope embedded within the ambitious notion that music can not only change one’s world; but heal one’s soul.
Thank God, it’s been a long time coming – but the best things do indeed come to those with the patience to endure.
John Krogman’s ‘Sling That Mud’ CD Release Party will take place on Thursday, October 29th at Pit & Balcony community Theatre, 805 N. Hamilton St., Saginaw. CD’s will be available for $10.00 and tickets will be $15.00 at the Pit & Balcony Box Office. Special guests will include Stewart Francke. The show starts at 7:30 PM.