As most musical instrument retailers will tell you, the rise in popularity of EDM has caused the electric guitar market to tank in recent years. These things are cyclical and guitars will come back soon enough, perhaps with Lontalius leading the charge. If not, Eddie Johnston is still likely to be near the head of the local creative pack, under his alternate loop and sample-twisting guise of Race Banyon. Both musical entities are attracting attention, in particular the latter’s globally-discussed extreme covers. Barely 18, the former Wellingtonian is already regarded as something of a musicians’ musician. Auckland producer Dave Parker took up the challenge of conflating his musical personalities and summarising his achievements to date.
“How do you get so much done? I ask Eddie Johnston, aka Race Banyon, aka Lontalius.
He smiles “I’m not sure actually, I don’t feel like I’m doing as much as I am he is in fact doing quite a lot. Eddie Johnston has become somewhat known for being prolific.
Under the moniker of Lontalius he has created a few albums-worth of perfectly melancholic covers of R&B and pop songs. Minimal Casiotone keyboards accompany layered, almost drawling vocals to bring a new voice to songs that you’d otherwise hear on commercial radio. His version of Pharrell Williams’ Happy is the only way I can hear that song without an urge to stab my eardrums with the closest available inanimate object. And it seems I am not the only one to enjoy the Lontalius covers, he has racked up hundreds of thousands of plays on Soundcloud. But before you get the wrong idea, he is far from just another internet covers sensation.
Lontalius actually started as an originals project known as Shipwrecked.
“Shipwrecked first was just random electronic doodles that I put on Myspace and then Blink [A Low Hum] asked me to play a show with Die! Die! Die! and I was like too scared to do electronic music because it’s quite an intimidating thing, so I picked up my guitar and wrote some simple songs to Casio beats.”
Eddie changed names to Lontalius (a name he found by clicking the ‘random article’ button on Wikipedia) and has been self-recording guitar-based solo music. He is impressively prolific here too, having released four EPs of solo material since 2010. At the same time he has been working on another, more electronic project that he has dreamed of for a while.
“It’s kind of always what I’ve wanted to do. Not always, because before I was like 12 I didn’t know what electronic music was, but since then it’s what I’ve wanted to do.”
As Race Banyon he has played around 50 shows in the last year with no sign of slowing down. He has a long list of festivals and shows coming up and has recently played at Rhythm & Vines, also managing to sneak off to perform as both Lontalius and Race Banyon at A Low Hum House in National Park.
“I did my Race Banyon set at midnight on New Year’s eve. Blink did the countdown into a microphone and then I played. That was probably the best show that I’ve ever played I think. Usually I have to warm up at the start, do a long intro to let people get into it and start dancing. But this time it was like from the very start people wanted to go insane.”
We met for this interview at Auckland’s Silo Park, where a few days later Race Banyon would be playing from inside one of the silos at the Laneway Festival. I caught that set and he proved a compelling performer. The meek and calm Eddie that I had met a few days before seemed transformed, for half an hour he didn’t stand still. Rocking from foot to foot, shoulders hunched and head down his whole body was bobbing in time with the music.
I watched from backstage as he scrolled through a seemingly never-ending Ableton session. Eddie had casually mentioned that his live set up was based around one big session but I hadn’t realised how big. He seemed to navigate the screen confidently, knowing exactly where to look for the next sample or loop. When not frantically scrolling the computer (and often whilst simultaneously scrolling) his fingers were constantly grabbing at controls on a Novation Launch control, triggering loops and samples, sweeping filters and who knows what else.
There were no pauses, the tempo slowly increased and songs merged into other songs. He explains that for his live set he puts everything into the same key.
“Most of my songs are more or less in the same key ,but I do pitch stuff up and down for live.
Rather than inhibiting creativity it opens up many more possibilities with triggering loops and samples from Ableton.
“I can play the chords from one song, the drums from another and a Drake song on top of that, and even if I’ve never played it before I know it will work because it’s all in the right key.”
While I was recognising parts of songs from the ‘Whatever Dreams Are Made Of’ EP, I had to remind myself that it was most probably a set no one had heard before or will hear again, something that Eddie is fearlessly proud of.
“I could automate everything and then just pretend. I’ve played shows where they were really important and I wanted to get everything perfect so I’ve planned out everything ahead, but it’s so cool seeing someone mess up. It’s like, ‘Oh, they’re actually having fun and trying stuff out.’”
After what seemed like a solid 25 frantic minutes the tempo dropped for the first time and for a brief moment Eddie stepped back from the controls, I realised that it was the first time he had done so. But not for long, for a bar he breathed, before bringing his set to a final crescendo. It really is amazing to watch someone so fluent with software, a talent in its own, but to bring moving and emotive music out of a collection of loops is the real skill on display. Something that Eddie knows all too well when it comes to writing
“Lontalius is a lot easier to express myself and my feelings, because it’s obviously quite a natural thing, you know, to be able to play guitar, and so it’s quite physically my outward emotions. It’s harder with Race Banyon where I’m just clicking things in the middle of the night. But I think that a really interesting challenge for electronic music is that you kind of have to push yourself to say something in the music.”
Eddie has also been in the studio recording at Roundhead’s Brick Room working towards a Lontalius album. He has been performing live with a combination of Miles Sutton (ex-Attic Sky’s), Taylor Groves (ex-Kitsunegari) and Daniel MacBride of Sheep, Dog & Wolf fame.
“Because Daniel is so busy with his stuff we don’t always play with him but Taylor and Miles will generally just share a table of stuff, so there will be like three Casios, a little synthesiser, a cymbal and a kick drum and they’ll swap between instruments, providing backing to what I’m playing on guitar.”
This album will be featuring the whole band in more of a collaboration than previously.
“I like doing everything myself, but I’m lucky with Daniel, Taylor and Miles. Often I will tell them to do exactly what I want in my head but other times I’ll just let them do whatever they want and they understand what I’m doing enough.”
Roundhead engineer Jordan Stone has been helping with drums and some guitar tracking before the recordings get taken home to be worked on in the usual Lontalius fashion – late night sessions in Eddie’s bedroom.
“Jordan was the perfect engineer to have, he understood that we weren’t trying to make you know a big rock album or anything. He helped us find all the right drum sounds so I could take those stems home.”
Usually working alone, collaborating with other musicians isn’t the only thing Eddie is learning to get used to.
“Roundhead is incredible and it feels amazing to be there but I find it quite uncomfortable, I guess because I’m so used to making music in my bedroom and I’m the only one there – and then suddenly there’s an intern and an engineer and other people upstairs. So I think it’ll take a long time to get used to that but I’m definitely interested in being in studios more.”
Both projects have been receiving an amount of critical acclaim as of late, plus Eddie seems to have a few celebrity fans that name dropping him, so with talk of another release for Race Banyon and plans to release a Lontalius record here and overseas, it seems 2015 will be a busy year. For now he appears to be managing the balance between the two musical personas quite well and with a work ethic like his it shouldn’t be hard to cope with two projects on the cusp of something big.
“I think I hold Race Banyon a little bit closer to my heart… but I know that with Lontalius I’m doing something that obviously resonates well with people and it’s definitely the right time for what I’m doing as Lontalius.”
As we part I foolishly ask if he has any plans for the evening.
“I’ll probably just work on some music,” Eddie answers.