Singer-guitarist Will Johns originally began playing drums. But his uncle, who is none other than Yardbirds/Cream guitarist Eric Clapton, encouraged him to pick up the guitar instead.
Johns went on to have a promising career as a musician, but “a great big shower of cocaine and bullshit” derailed it, and he took a “proper job” on a charter fishing boat to make ends meet.
Then, he had an epiphany.
“I can remember a point when I was out there in the middle of the English Channel,” he says via phone. “I just thought, ‘How the fuck did I end up here? What am I doing here for 60 pounds a day?’ I was getting up at 6 in the morning, working hard every day and getting fish hooks in my fingers. I was doing that when I got a phone call from Blues Matters Magazine
. Somehow, they tracked me down, and I did an interview with them at my local blues joint in Brighton and from there, I got sucked back into the music industry, and I started to play out more and get more attention. Things just picked up from there. It’s been a long, topsy turvy road.”
About five years ago, Johns would team up with drummer Kofi Baker and bassist Malcolm Bruce to form the Music of Cream, a tribute to the great British power trio. Baker is the son of Cream drummer Ginger Baker and Malcolm is the son of Cream bassist Jack Bruce, so the guys have the musical pedigrees to pull it off.
The group performs at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1, at the State Theatre
Learning the catalog of Cream, which recorded and toured between 1966 and 1968, came naturally to Johns.
“It’s music I’ve always played,” says Johns. “Every rock blues guitarist in the world has at one point or another learned to play [Cream's] ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ It’s just something you have to play. A lot of the songs I used to play anyway. More important than that is the jamming that goes on with these guys. They’re both incredible musicians, and they come from a jazz fusion background. I’m strictly blues. If it’s not B.B. King, I don’t really give a shit. And so I’ve been working on playing with different time signatures. I had to up my game. I’m not really a trained musician. I taught myself. What’s fun is that within the jams, which is a huge part of the show, are very experimental and time-breaking jams. That’s the real meat, if you like.”
Johns says the trio has recently added visuals that he likens to the “icing on the cake.”
“Our lighting director Steve Fallon has worked with all the greats,” Johns says. “He’s worked with Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson. You name it, he’s worked with them. He brings incredible experience, and the lighting is interspersed with our personal photos. The show is really great at the moment. It’s an interactive presentation now. We do our performance, but you have various different visuals interspersed with old photos of the band. Anybody who is slightly hip to a good psychedelic show of the ages will be quite impressed with what we have going on.”
Cream songs such as “White Room,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Strange Brew” and “Crossroads” feature heavy blues guitar riffs, trippy lyrics, and jazz-inspired bass and drums. The songs still hold up too, something that Johns says speaks to the trio’s talent.
“It’s just fucking good music,” he says when asked why the group's legacy has endured. “There’s nothing like it. It’s loud and proud and bluesy and jazzy. It has so many elements that at the time were fused together naturally by those three guys. They were all bringing something to the table. There’s a touch of the divine to it as well. I don’t think we would even be able to touch it if we hadn’t had the kind of lives we’ve had. That goes for all of us. We’re like brothers from another mother. We weren’t privileged kids growing up with rock star parents. We were dealing with the fallout of busted relationships and the excesses of drugs and alcohol. It’s a wonder the three of us are here in sound mind and spirit and have something to give to the audience. We’re still finding out stuff about each other and learning to work together, but there’s definitely a desire and a built-in compass that we’re all following to make sure we're going in the same direction.”