Friends with Benefits: Brushfire Records
Brushfire co-founder Jack Johnson
On a warm summer evening in 1999, a line formed around the Key Club in West Hollywood. The occasion was the premiere of a surf film called Thicker Than Water, a retro style surfing documentary which was the debut from a trio called The Moonshine Conspiracy—surfer Chris Malloy, his film editor cousin Emmett Malloy and cameraman Jack Johnson. Each wore a variety of hats in addition to helping direct—Chris was a cameraman, Emmett was something of businessman and Jack was a little known musician who contributed some original music.
Sure, all of the best surfers such as Kelly Slater were there to support the film but it was the reaction to the music after the screening that was particularly memorable—Jack joined G. Love and Special Sauce for the former’s “Rodeo Clowns” which the latter had released as the single from his album Philadelphonic. Jack played a few of his other acoustic-based originals, too and then drifted offstage as nonchalantly as he had come on. The crowd howled with approval. “That night really was like, ‘What do we have here?” recalls Emmett of the premiere and performance. “Everything felt massive.”
While The Moonshine Conspiracy would be forced to change its name a short while later, its inspiration—taken from the coltishly-appreciated, old-school Kentucky banjoist and singer Roscoe Holcomb’s “Moonshiner”—would portend the company’s greatest success: an artist that was able to combine simple lyrics with simple melodies but deliver music that was utterly unique.
In just a few short years, Jack Johnson would be a household name.
While Emmett edited Hollywood movie trailers by day, his house in Venice, Calif. had become the central hub for work on Thicker Than Water by night—and a crash pad for Chris and Jack. As Chris and Emmett edited the film, Jack would often work on his music. “He would stay up late and we would hear the clicking of the four-track upstairs,” remembers Emmett fondly. “In the morning, there were would be new songs.”
“I had known him pretty well [at that point],” continues Emmett, “but never knew him as a musician. It was like, ‘Wow, Jack, these songs are incredible.’” After persistent encouragement from Emmett and Chris, Jack—somewhat begrudgingly—allowed a handful of his songs to be used in Thicker Than Water. Part of the film’s success was due its soundtrack which, besides Jack’s music, included G. Love, Finley Quaye and The Meters. But mostly, people were interested in Jack.
“People had cassette tapes or mini discs and spread things around,” says Emmett of how Jack’s original four-track recordings began grow its roots (the soundtrack was not initially available for purchase). “That really started to get his music out to a lot of people and I think a lot of people had immediate reactions to it—including myself.”
One of the Jack’s early mentors was JP Plunier who he had met while securing music from Ben Harper for Thicker Than Water. Plunier, at the time, was Harper’s manager and producer. “JP is always somebody who holds art above business,” says Jack. “It’s nice to have somebody like that in the beginning.” Though major record labels quickly came knocking, Jack (and Emmett) ultimately decided to put out his debut Brushfire Fairytales with Plunier.
“We got a little scared off from the majors,” recalls Jack. “They didn’t see that the place I was coming from—the lifestyle I was already living—was actually going to be beneficial and help us. They would actually ask questions like, ‘Would you be willing to give up surfing to tour? We’re concerned a little bit because we know you travel a lot for surfing.’ Stuff like that and questions that would just scare the hell out of me.”
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