On his first new album in nearly a decade, Duquette Johnston has partnered with producer, John Agnello ((Waxahatchee, Dinosaur Jr) and an all-star cast of players including Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley to create his boldest and most powerful music to date. By his own admission, Johnston has lived a “wild, incredible life,” but even that might be underselling the three-act 25-year journey that’s led to the Alabama musician’s new album, The Social Animals, due out 25th February on Single Lock Records.
A founding member of the breakout 90s indie band Verbena, Johnston toured with acts such as The Strokes and Foo Fighters before leaving the band somewhere around their first major label deal (instead joining Juliana Hatfield in a reunited Blake Babies). In the years that followed, remembering “I thought I had to live in misery to create great art,” a drug charge began Johnston’s treacherous cycle through a prison system more focused on “zero tolerance” than recovery and rehabilitation. Emerging against the odds with a resolute optimism and renewed focus on community, Duquette returned to Birmingham, Alabama, to help bring the arts back to a historic part of town that had seen better days…Seemingly insurmountable challenges would hit Duquette again, but this time he would be ready.
The result of Johnston’s expanded creativity now takes shape in The Social Animals, an album that reverberates with hopefulness and an awe for the mysteries of our dandelion existence. “I was holding on for one more year to run / so I started closing eyes and seeing sun,” Johnston sings on opener, “Year To Run.” That song, “Whiskey and the Wine” and “Baby Loves a Mystery” quickly establish the record’s palette of spiraling guitars and deep cavernous beats wrapped around Johnston’s airy, yearning voice. It’s a lush, inviting sound, with echoes of both On The Beach-era Neil Young and ’80s spectral pop like The Church and Cocteau Twins. Other standout tracks include the slowburn swoon of “Motorcycles,” the dream-weaving lift of “Mystics” (“We are family, it’s all I need. . .”) and the anthemic, lighters-aloft closer “Tonight”.
The new album came together over the course of an eight year period, during which Duquette’s wife developed a life-threatening condition after giving birth to the couple’s first child through a complicated pregnancy. It took everything the family had to pick up the pieces…emotionally, financially, spiritually…but leaning on the lessons of past adversities, Duquette had what he calls “a radical break from the old way of living and looking at life.” It was at that moment he returned to music, and came up with the idea for Club Duquette and further dedicated his life to service in his beloved Birmingham community.
Though the album has been finished since 2017, Johnston says, “I don’t think it was supposed to come out back then. I don’t think the meaning behind some of the songs mattered as much as they do now. That song ‘Tonight’ is a good example. The chorus was like a chant I wanted to scream at the world, ‘Tonight, tonight, tonight, it’s gonna be all right.’ We need to come together, we need to have love for each other. Now, over the last several years with the extreme political BS and COVID and the lack of caring on some people’s parts, to me, the song is more powerful.”
“Because we can be all right,” Johnston says, emphasizing a belief that’s central to his outlook. “We can lift each other up. We can change things, if we keep our hearts in the right place.”
In bringing the new album to life, Johnston drew from his indie rock past to unite a remarkable group of collaborators, featuring Steve Shelley (drums), Emil Amos (bass), David Swatzell (guitar) and Seth Brown (keys).
As Johnston looks forward to a new year that hopefully will make touring less complicated than it’s been during the pandemic, Johnston is clear-eyed and grounded about being an artist. “I just want to live a creative life,” he says. “I’ve been in the music industry since I was 18 and now I’m 48. I want to do things that feel great to me. I’m not sweating, I’m not chasing anybody down. I have to make records, and I want to make records that impact people. I’ve been through so much craziness. I think that extreme contrast has allowed me to understand so much of life that so many people will never see and understand. It’s like walking between worlds – it’s beautiful. If my story and my experiences can open other people’s eyes, then everything I’ve done is worth it.”