I was originally introduced to American Opera in the most natural way music can be shared, a suggestion from a friend. It just so happened that the week I first began listening to John Bee’s folk-rock project I would be seeing him live, and I didn’t even know it. He opened for William Elliott Whitmore with an impressive set that garnered him more than a few fans from the mostly unfamiliar audience. After his set, I got to speak with John for a few minutes and he was/still is one of the friendliest musicians I’ve ever come across. Incredibly gracious, humble, and as you’ll see from this interview, sharp-witted. I’m very excited to present my latest installment of 10 Questions, with the man behind the Opera. Learn the hilarious story of how John got into music, plans for new songs and his unique description of himself as a songwriter.
As always, it’s all about the musicians at MFH so be sure to head to American Opera’s bandcamp and check out the EP’s (available as pay-what-you-want!). Also, head to the website, Facebook, and follow on Twitter.
My Folking Heart: How/when did you get into music?
John Bee: My older brother Joe brought a guitar home when I was 10 or 11. He borrowed it from my Uncle. I just thought it was so rad that he could listen to Nirvana’s Unplugged album or Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and pick it up by ear. I’ve been hooked ever since. I started writing lyrics (which were basically plagiarisms of Weezer, Nirvana, and The Smashing Pumpkins) and told kids at school that I played guitar (even though I couldn’t play a lick). This led to my make believe band getting booked at the school dance, and in turn, having to back out last minute. Come to think of it, that sounds exactly like one of my favorite Boy Meets World episodes.
MFH: How did you come up with the moniker American Opera?
JB: I was listening to the Cold War Kids. They have a song called “Hospital Beds” where they sing about Italian Opera. I thought it sounded rad so I stole it and like any good American, Americanized it.
MFH: How would you describe yourself as a songwriter?
JB: I guess I’m kind of like a storyteller who yells at certain points in the songs to drive the point home. I’m a story-yeller. That’s silly. I really enjoy telling stories and trying to get people to feel songs. Lyrically I will try to create imagery and take people on whatever roller coaster I’m currently on. I want people to feel like they are in the room of whatever story is taking place.
MFH: Many of your songs contain religious imagery and verbiage. Is it important for you to convey your relationship with religion through your music?
JB: I was raised Catholic so I’ve always had that with me, but some of the songs are about a struggle with faith. There will be a couple of songs where I acknowledge religion and other songs are about my struggle with it. I don’t necessarily feel that it’s important for me to say “I believe in God” or “I don’t believe in God”, I just feel that it’s important for me to say whatever I feel, regardless of the subject matter.
MFH: You have a song that you said was about “playing rock music for a very long time, and then not.” Was transitioning to a folkier sound a natural one for you?
JB: It was a natural progression, but I still write lots of rock music. I think I just broadened my guitar playing a bit. In past bands I used weird chords and riffed a lot. With American Opera, I’m playing more traditional chords but still riffing way too much for the acoustic guitar and my less than stellar ability. I think the tougher transition was going from touring with 3 other dudes to playing on stage by myself.
MFH: What was your experience at GBS Detroit like?
JB: It was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been. It’s a live recording session where you have one chance to record 5 songs. It was a one take, one microphone, one dude situation. And being the ultra dummy that I am, I chose to record 5 brand new songs that I was not at all comfortable or familiar with. I was practicing the songs in the van on the way down to Detroit and doing other dumb stuff like changing songs up last minute. There’s a song I did on that session called “A Spot For My Sister” where I had the crowd sing some gang vocals. I just took a couple minutes and asked them to sing with me. It was just a San Antonio spur of the moment thing. They did a great job and made the song really special.
MFH: You played a show with William Elliott Whitmore. Any cool interactions with WEW?
JB: That was a rad show and Will is a rad dude. I got to talk to him for a bit after soundcheck and throughout the night. He’s just a very humble, down to earth guy who writes great songs and puts on an even better show. Talk about a dude who can control a room… this guy had the whole room in his hand. They wouldn’t let him off the stage, and even when he did finally escape, the crowd called him back up to play a couple more encores. It was a very humbling and inspiring experience.
MFH: When opening a show, like you did with WEW, can it be difficult to concentrate with a chatty crowd?
JB: Definitely. Usually, I can lose myself in the songs but there are times where a chatty crowd can be distracting. All that means is that I need to step my game up and become more engaging.
MFH: You currently have two EPs available. Any plans for a full-length anytime soon?
JB: I’m actually writing for what I think will become two separate full lengths. But before those are completed I’ll probably release a couple more EPs and/or splits. I’m sitting on a bunch of songs right now, just trying to finish writing them. Then I’ll demo them out, work out kinks, and hopefully hit the studio soon.
MFH: What should we look for from American Opera in 2012 and beyond?
JB: New music and more touring. We’ll see how things go but I’d like to get a full band going. But you can definitely count on lots of new songs and shows.
Extra Questions for Fun:
MFH: Current musical obsessions?
JB: I can’t say that I’m “obsessed” with anything right now, but I’ve been listening to Boyz II Men, The Cure, and Damiera lately. I think the last record that came out and rocked my world was Joe Hertler and The Rainbow Seekers’ “On Being.”
MFH: Favorite roadtrip/driving jam?
JB: I’m more into listening to full albums, but if pressed for a roadtrip jam I’d have to say Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway.” That is just a great song with great energy.
MFH: Have any cities you’ve played in surprised you or stood out?
JB: New York City surprised me in a good way. I was expecting a rough show because it was my first time in the city and American Opera is a new project but I was pleasantly surprised. The show was really great and the room was packed.