Alex Hall Pays Tribute to Childhood Friend’s Trials and Tribulations in latest album, Johnny

Nahla Bendefaa for The Devil Strip

Alex Hall’s Figurehead is a Northeast Ohio-based progressive rock band fronted by Alex Hall. Last fall, they released Johnny, a concept album written by Alex Hall and co-produced by Pete Drivere of Ampreon Recorder

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A Southwest Ohio native, Alex Hall moved to Stow a decade ago. He has been the frontman for a number of jam bands in the area including  Aliver Hall. He is also a member of the Americana band Summit Sky.

Hall credits his parents’ record collection for inspiring him to learn to play music.

“I discovered a whole bunch of music from the 60s and 70s that I just really love,” Hall says, “and that just made me want to pursue playing the guitar and writing my own music that much more.”

 As a child, Hall grew up watching MTV music videos where the guitar was often a prominent instrument. He took guitar lessons where he learned to figure out how to play songs by ear. The first song he learned was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” 

Hall’s childhood left marks not just in terms of skills learned, but also relationships. Johnny, which Hall describes as an “honest-to-goodness, classic-meets-modern, progressive rock concept album,” centers around the experiences of a childhood friend with whom Hall had recently reconnected. 

“I happened to run into a family member of his who told me that he was living in this house where I used to play as kids,” Hall recalls, “I actually go see him, and when I did I found him in a wheelchair in really bad shape and he eventually passed away.”

In the time between Alex Hall’s Figurehead 2016 album Carrion and the time Hall started working on Johnny, he started listening to a lot more progressive metal bands such as Haken and Between the Buried and Me. Nevertheless, he says it has never been an intention of his to write a progressive metal album.

“That’s a very particular sound that I just wouldn’t have the ability to reproduce,” Hall says, “I mean I don’t know what it would sound like if I tried to do that.” 

Hall initially set out to write an album that would lend itself to being played by a trio. It also was not his intention to write about his friend Johnny. However, working on the song “A Dream in a Nightmare’s Place” proved to be pivotal to the end result and the creative process as a whole.

“The piano riff that opens that song was the piano riff that I kept playing over and over again,” Hall says. “And by the time I got a demo of that song written out— because the whole middle sections in a different time that’s in the intro or the outro are — by the time I got the whole song finished as far as like the demo, I was like ‘well this is more than a tune I would play with just a trio. I think I have something more here.’” 

Hall says he let his “creative side take over” instead of trying to tell it what to do. It was while writing the lyrics to “A Dream in a Nightmare’s Place” that Hall felt the lyrics were reminiscent of his friend’s struggles with addiction, illness, and navigating the healthcare system. 

The result was a riveting album that practically wrote itself as music and lyrics came to Hall relatively quickly.

For the first time in his songwriting career, Hall did not workshop the songs or perform them live before recording. 

“It was a risk in that way because I don’t have any classical music training,” Hall says.

Johnny was recorded with Tim Wilderoder on bass and Zach Connolly on drums.It is available on all major streaming services and YouTube, etc.

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