When Chris Johnson and his band Telegraph Canyon wrapped up their last album, he decided to hit the road — but his real travels didn't have anything to do with touring. Johnson hit the road simply to see the world. That last record came out in 2009, and little did he know that it would be another six years before the completion of the next Telegraph Canyon record.
"I'm a traveling kind of guy. I like to hike and camp and move around as often as I can," Johnson says. He would travel all the way to South America, not because he was there to play or write music but simply to be there. "I played occasional shows, but I was really there mostly to hang out."
Telegraph Canyon had released Tide and the Current in August of 2009, an immaculate album that was met with glowing reviews in North Texas. The following year, Johnson headed to Colombia for an extended "hang out." Later, he also spent a considerable amount of time in San Francisco and New Orleans, where he was born.
But it was in between those travels that Johnson was thrown his biggest curveball — or, rather, a series of them. When he returned to the States, Johnson entered what he describes as a "crazy vortex," which began with a divorce. This only enhanced his itinerant existence; he lived for a while in his band's RV. Then, In early 2011, the Fort Worth house he was parked in front of, in a neighborhood he had lived in years prior, caught on fire. He and a friend were arrested and charged with a felony for allegedly lighting the blaze, but Johnson maintained his innocence, and soon the charges were dropped.
It's little surprise then that Telegraph Canyon's new release You From Before, which they'll be celebrating tonight at Granada Theater, presents a very different musical vision from the one fans are familiar with. “I didn’t set out to make a record this way,” he admits. “I set out to create a collection of things that were super close to me and on my mind a lot. As I was writing these songs I decided on the album title because I realized each song was sincerely about actual relationships I’ve had.”
You From Before is a tremendous step forward for the band, and Johnson speaks with a sense of accomplishment about how he and his bandmates arrived where they are now — so far removed from where they were six years ago. Danceable beats, tight grooves and electronic flourishes not heard on past Telegraph Canyon albums are the backdrops for tales of Johnson’s real-life relationships. But rather than a brooding, self-important document of grief, You From Before is a study in the intricate, defining details of many relationships, including toxic ones.
Given that Johnson is a well-liked fellow in the North Texas music community with many connections, an autobiographical album has potential to make troublesome waves, but the reactions so far have surprised him. “A lot of the songs are about people I don’t see much,” he says. “And I don’t think most people would know that a given song is about them. No one’s been upset yet, but there is one song that’s about two people I do know well, and their relationship, which I ended up getting tangled in.”
Though Johnson declines to offer up the name of this specific track, he admits it doesn’t stay a secret for long when he plays it in the presence of the couple in question. “I’m surprised I haven’t gotten any backlash from them,” Johnson says. “I feel like they’ve taken some kind of weird pride in it, and even some ownership of the song. They’ll point it out to people if they hear us play it.”
Like more surprising for most listeners is the way everything sounds. Unlike The Tide and the Current’s swelling, orchestral folk explosions, Johnson brought a new philosophy to the studio in an effort to evolve. That motivation, he says, came from "playing the songs from the last record so much and touring so much. I would get to the point when I would finish a song, and begin to start playing a tune that didn’t exist. I’d hit a groove, or a couple of chords out of the end of an older song, but there wasn’t anything to go towards really.”
Recorded between late 2013 and the end of last year at the Echo Lab in Argyle under the expert ears of Matt Pence and Will Johnson, the sounds range from the disco grooves of “Old Hearts” and “Why Let it Go” to psychedelic organ-driven tunes like “Hung Up” and “Lightning.” But fear not, enemies of change: There are songs, such as the bombastic epic “Wheel to the Garden” or the rustic “Haunted Woods,” that strike a perfect balance of old and new. These songs crackle with a nostalgic warmth, and their moody electronic accents blow them up to a wonderfully grand scale.
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These days, Johnson is hanging out at home. He wants to build a catalog that will keep Telegraph Canyon relevant for a long time to come, no matter what he endures personally or what life may throw his band’s way.
“I’ve played with the people in this band for nine years now,” Johnson says. “I want us to stay happy, so I never want to completely abandon the style we’ve had for so long. But I want us to do some different things, and do them well enough so that everyone listening will trust us and want to come along with us.”