John LaMantia, also called Johnny Law, is better known to Macjammers as Boss Hook. (As a kid he was also know as LaMachine because of his “propensity to eat large amounts of food in rapid time.”) John is a lawyer living in the Chicago area, still gigging and recording when he can. His music caught my ear because of its professionalism and sense of fun…
If you could only pick a few lines from your biography, what would they be?
“Born on a cold December morning in Chicago. Italian and Polish/Bohemian by descent. Favorite color is red. Favorite wood for guitar neck material is maple.
“Always had to shop for the ‘husky’ jeans as a kid. This is a crucial developmental psychosis that seems to manifest itself from time to time in my songs. Not really, but those jeans were like wearing raw gunny sacks. And the scars run deep, friends.”
Do you still have a propensity to eat large amounts of food rapidly and does anyone call you LaMachine any more?
“Well, I have had to slow down LaMachine because the indigestion got the better of me. I actually have learned to enjoy and savor – but I am still known to plow through a bowl of rigatoni, sausage and peppers if left to my own devises.”
What is the origin of your member name, Boss Hook?
“The music publishing company I started for pitching my tunes back in 1999 and for exploitation of my publishing catalog is Boss Hook Music, an ASCAP and BMI registered publishing company. So I adopted Boss Hook to hopefully keep the focus on writing tunes that have, well, Boss Hooks!”
Been able to exploit anyone yet?
“Actually, yes. A recent tune I wrote and produced for a comedy parody of Springsteen. The link is on www.funnyordie.com.”
Cool. Have you studied music anywhere?
“Drum lessons at 6 years old, started formal music training at 10 years old on guitar. My stepfather wanted me to take violin. I wanted to keep playing drums, we settled on guitar and boy am I glad we had that battle.
“I have an undergrad BA in English Literature and Philosophy from Fordham Univ., Bronx, NY. John Marshall Law School – Juris Doctrate. Some music theory at Brooklyn Academy of music, but I blew off too many classes to say I was a student.”
When did you form your first band?
“Started my first band at age 13 and we played sets of Buddy Holly to British Invasion and back. Of course we did Girl From Ipanema and even After the Lovin’ by Englebert Humperdinck. You see, we wanted to impress the young girls and the older girls.
“I still gig pretty regularly in 3 different bands, day job I dust my own shingle in a litigation law practice.”
Any early influential experiences that led you to want to make music?
“My mother gave me her special edition copy of Sgt. Pepper’s (and a beat-up Meet the Beatles) and all her Elvis records when I was 9. (Cool Mom, huh!) I also grew up in a great Folk revival area on the north side of Chicago (Rogers Park) so was always in and out of coffeehouses and at music festivals in the 70’s. Then in 1979 I saw Springsteen at the Uptown Theater in Chicago tagging along with a friend’s older brothers and I could not turn back after that. Like his style of music or not, he understands what it means to put on a real show and at age 12 that was pretty darn impressionable on me.”
What are some previous bands?
“Myself and another member here, Remark80 (Sean O’Malley) started a band in the early 90’s called Rain Kings that had a nice little run. We played the best rooms throughout Chicago (House of Blues, Metro, etc.), did a little road playing, opened for some national acts, saw a few singles get pretty regular rotation radio play on a good indie station, WCBR and a well known rock station, WXRT, and generally had a small taste of rock ‘n’ roll life.
The band featured Remark80 (Sean’s) great vocal and writing talents with me as a devil’s advocate in the writing, playing and back-up vocals. Other members of Rain Kings were Matt Murphy on bass, Mike Kadlec and then Mike Lee on drums, Al Zorn on Keyboards, Ed Enright on horns, and me and Sean on all guitars. I’m sure if you YouTube Rain Kings there’s footage out there.
“I studied guitar with a fine variety of dudes, and I mean dudes in the most respectful way because these guys were no Mel Bay method teachers. They were/are true characters on the Chicago scene that have fine studio, writing and performance credits – so I was fortunate to hang around some great players and writers from 10 years old on. One day we would be trying to work out a Steely Dan tune, the next day it was Paul Simon’s picking technique, another day it was Wes Montgomery, then back to the Beatles, and so on – a very rich variety that sticks with me today and is probably responsible for me shunning a particular genre to try to do many.”
Do you still collaborate with Remark80? Has MJ brought you back together?
“Sean (Remark80), remarkably, lives a few miles from me. The last few years I have played with Sean’s band August Son as a utility player, to use a baseball analogy. I play lead guitar, add some organ and piano, and sing harmony to Sean’s lead vocal. We have not written together as much but just as recent as a few weeks ago we started to play with some of the ‘old band’ again and it felt pretty fresh so maybe we will jump back in.”
You’ve been a MacJams member much longer – did you get him to join MJ?
“I did not get Sean (Remark80) to join MacJams per se, but I had been telling him to get with the computer age! Sean’s a great talent and friend, I find myself telling too many inside jokes as comments on his tune postings so I have to try to not to be such a wise-ass.
“Sean and I have a very push and pull writing relationship. Not to compare us at all by any means to that famous push and pull writer duo (Lennon/McCartney), but often when we write that’s what happens. He will have the melody, verse, big chorus and I might write a middle eighth that turns the song a little on its end. If I bring a tune almost done he might write a guitar riff that adds something melodically to make it more interesting. We never sit and write together. It’s always a ‘what you got?’ scenario. We need to collaborate on something for MacJams – we are overdue for that, way overdue.”
Do you recall the first song you ever wrote?”
“Mary Lou was my first tune. Steeped in my home turf in the 70’s with guys like Muddy Waters still playing in town the first song I wrote was a Chicago blues shuffle in A-minor about ‘Mary Lou, not being true’ – you get the picture. I can still play it but it always makes me laugh too much when I think about the 11 year old angst I put into that one about ‘a love done me wrong’ song before I hit puberty or had my first kiss. But I meant the pain, brothers and sisters, I was singing the blues, I guarantee it. My Mom said I sounded like a Coyote that had been shot in the leg. Mom’s general critique of my vocal stylings would also become another part of the regressive psychosis that from time to time may pop up in a middle 8th or something. Well, okay, not really, but Mom still is my best critic when it comes to my singing and if it weren’t for me still trying to impress upon her that I can combine John Lennon, Elvis, Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson, well I might just give it up and work on my mandolin chops.”
Does your mom watch you perform?
“My Mom has come to some acoustic shows in the last few years. It’s harder for her to get around with some health stuff but she always has a smile on her face when it comes to my music and that’s as heart warming to me as anything in the world. She still says she can’t understand the words. A few years ago I had my kids record “When I’m Sixty Four” for her 64th birthday and she loved having the CD with her grand kids playing and singing but she still found a way to say that our version ‘didn’t quite bounce like the original.’ She’s always gonna be Mom and that’s just great by me, I’m lucky she’s here to critique my singing.”
Do you have a band currently?
“I have a rockabilly band that plays more traditional style original roots rock called Johnny 3:16. You can check out our gig schedule at MySpace.com/bosshook.
“I also play guitar and keys in Sean’s (Remark80’s) band August Son and you can see that band in and around Chicago. The latest rumor and rumblings is that the Rain Kings boys have been cooking up playing together again after recovering from a 5 or 6 year hiatus. Hiatus is a cool word. I think I am going to adopt Hiatus for my alter-ego electronica nom de plume.
What sort of law do you practice?
“I originally went to law school to be in the entertainment business but realized quickly that you can play music or you can represent music, but it’s hard to do both and be happy. I continue to do lots of legal work in the Arts and am always willing to help out an artist here with any questions they have about publishing rights, label deals, copyrights, mechanicals, A&R, distribution deals.
“I’d drop it all if I could get my catalog selling, but I have 4 beautiful children to feed. And you should hear them play! Ages 6-12 and they rock a brothers and sisters band that I am very proud of and will post some recording of soon.
How old are you, etc.?
“I am 40. I can’t do too many 3 am closer gigs anymore but still love to put on a show.”
Does your advancing age affect your music?
“The only circumstance that affects the music in anyway is just the loss of the innocence of youth when it didn’t matter if the harmony was a little off or the instruments were out of tune, you had hours to burn and get it all right. Today, time is tight, and so is my wallet, so don’t ask me to buy anything more than 2 rounds at the bar.”
What is the story behind “Johnny Law”?
“I have been one form of ‘Johnny’ down through the years. Johnny Law just came naturally after I became a lawyer. Most people have a hard time getting their chops around pronouncing LaMantia so when somebody needs a lawyer out on the street they say, ‘Go see Johnny Law’.”
How much time do you allot to practicing law – creating/playing music?
“I practice law everyday, there’s no such thing as a casual lawyer, the work is too intense on the nerves. I try to write, rehearse and record a few days a week, and I gig on the average of two to three nights a month for about 20-30 shows a year. Of course I would prefer more time dedicated to writing and recording but I have worked hard to strike a favorable balance of law to music ratio. I am not good with idle time on my hands so my days start early and end after midnight.”
When did you move to Chicago from NYC? Are you still a Yankee fan?
“I moved to NYC in 1985 and stayed until 1990. Love NYC as much as Chicago for different reasons though. Chicago is home, NYC is the place where anything can happen at anytime of the day or night, the pinnacle of possibilities if you will.
“I am a Chicago White Sox fan. I worked at Wrigley Field for the Cubs for 2 seasons back in the early 80’s. I was in charge of making sure the ketchup and mustard containers were always full and that the onion grinder that turns out the onions on your hot dog did not get jammed up. Fun days indeed and there’s nothing like going to work at Wrigley Field everyday, paradise for a baseball nut like me.
“Though I am a White Sox fan I have always been in awe of the legend of the Yankees pinstripes too. I lived in the Bronx when I was in NY so I got to see the Yanks play during their ‘down years’ in the late 80’s when they couldn’t buy a sniff of a divisional championship or pennant.”
How has Chicago affected your music? Your ambitions?
“Chicago is my hometown, born and raised along Lake Michigan on the northeast side of the City. As a songwriter I have benefited from a few waves of attention here. The City with Big Shoulders is a nom de plume that fits even the music industry. You can get exposure here if you work hard for it. You can get a good gig that pays if you put people in the club. There’s not much “pay to play” here like in NY and LA. I’d say that Chicago is still the jingle capital so it is a good place to shop and pitch commercial music, beds, bumpers, stingers, etc.
“I do not subscribe to the theory that you need to ‘go to the industry’ to fulfill your ambitions. Sam Phillips hawked Elvis and Johnny Cash records out of his trunk driving up and down the south. If you are talented, you can be found. If you write a good song, with a good hook, you can get it published. Now the monetary returns on that is a different story. And that’s why you need a good lawyer – he, he.”
Any people you’ve worked with we might recognize?
“Back in my early 20’s I used to frequent the blues chopping block sessions in Chicago and I got to chunk-a-chunk rhythm on some open stage jams with Otis Rush, Eddy Clearwater and Lonnie Brooks – but no studio or recording work with those legends.
“When I lived in New York I played a songwriter’s circle at the Bitter End in the Village with Sean Colvin and another very cool woman writer, Jonatha Brooke – but that was the 80’s and the 80’s are soooo over.
“Rain Kings opened for headliners like The Insiders (Ghost on the Beach), and Psychedelic Furs. I remember the show with the Furs one of the guys came and told us people kept coming to their dressing room looking for us and it was pissing them off so they sent them through the basement, etc., ala the Spinal Tap scene. (You know the one, ‘Hello Cleveland, Rock and Roll!’)”
I love both Sean Colvin and Jonatha Brooke, especially their earliest works. Can you share any thoughts on their performances, your encounters, etc?
“Sean was a passing ‘hi and bye’ at the song circle performances of writers in NY I did. I have not followed her more recent work. Jonatha is someone I very much admire as a writer and performer. I have met her a few times whenever she comes through Chicago and I stay active on her site to support her indie efforts. She has carved a nice niche placing songs in animated films. I wish her records would sell more for her because in my opinion, she is a much bigger talent than many females that get touted in the industry. Jonatha is the real deal, she’s no bubblegum invention.”
What obstacles have you overcome in your musical career? How did you overcome?
“I do not have a very mathematical mind, at all. So sight reading has always been a big weakness. I learned to overcome that by auditioning and becoming the guitar player for a 16 piece swing big band every night for 5 years.I had to play Ellington, Basie, Dorsey, etc., and figure out how to keep up without sticking out.
“I still prefer flying by the seat of my pants and that is a liability for me when I sit at the piano and someone throws some sheets up there or asks me to deconstruct some augmented chord. But there is a certain maverick restless rebel thing about not being trapped by the theory (at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!!).
“I tried to make it near Brill and music row in New York City writing and submitting but eventually headed back home to Law school. I was hurt by the routine rejection but that has forced me to analyze songs for what they do to a listener, not what you want them to do to a listener.”
Except for Convoluted (highlighted below), I don’t here much Swing influence, even after all those performances (every night for 5 years). Do you avoid it because it haunts you, or it doesn’t sell, or you gravitate more to rockabilly?
“Well, Tobin, my jazz chops need rehearsal. My musician friends joke that I had hotter jazz chops in my teens than I do now, and they are right. I had a great instructor who got me on the Wes, Pass, Burrell and contemporary monsters like Metheny and Carlton. But I have not asserted the discipline necessary to be a player on the scene. I keep telling myself that when I get old, if my hands work okay I will finally go back to jazz. I love jazz and have a reverence for players that earn their chops. I am great friends with top horn players and piano players here in Chicago and I always have a cat or two come blow on my rockabilly and soul gigs. As for me though, my strength is writing the tune. I can hang alright in a solo section but if the changes get too outside I duck out down the alley.”
Tell me more about Boss Hook Music. Do you have investors? What are your marketing techniques? Business hopes? How has the catalog sold? What venues/markets work best? etc…
“In 2001 I had several song-for-hire projects going with small companies and corporations as well as the commercial albums I was releasing. I wanted to formalize the publishing effort to legitimatize the business model. I have an active practice in Entertainment Law so I have the advantage of professionally knowing the business pretty well. I formed Boss Hook alone and do not have any active partners, investors or shareholders. What I will do is on a project to project basis I will engage individuals necessary to meet the project goal. If it is an influx of capital we need, I will court an investor or money angel; if it’s facilities, I will subcontract with music house’s or studios in Chicago, etc.
“The catalog is performing modestly. I certainly cannot make a living off it and still am looking for a commercial hit but I have been lucky to stay busy with independent films, video projects, local commercials, etc. I am not a composer for these projects per se, I am songwriter. My talents are in getting you a song to fit your purpose. Full score and arrangement I leave to guys like you!”
What are your musical aspirations?
“I would love to get larger placements in TV, film and corporate use of my tunes. I enjoy publishing and writing ‘for hire’ pieces and may bring more of a singer/songwriter to sound design then many of the great classical, ambient, progressive composers I encounter on these sites.”
What is your main instrument?
“Guitars are primary instrument but have played piano, bass, drums for several years as well.”
What is your recording process?
“I was lucky to watch at the hands of some very good studio engineers and producers making records with bands in the 80’s and 90’s. I have always been a recording buff and was a 4-track warrior too. I gradually made the move over to computer based recording and now run many platforms depending upon work-flow that I feel.
“I use Pro Tools, Sonar, Cubase, Garageband and am flirting with Logic but need to get a new Mac before I dive into that.
“As for the organic process of writing, it always starts with an acoustic guitar or piano for me. I summon the Muse and sometimes it all comes spilling out like water out of the faucet. Sometimes I have to perform dental surgery for weeks on a melody twisting that sucker until a song is there somewhere. Either way, I love the pain and pleasure of the process. I cannot imagine a day has gone by in the last 25 years where I wasn’t working on some tune or reaching for the next one. Oh maybe the day I got a vasectomy – that was one day that I could not think about music at all…”
Many lifelong players have a ton of gear. How many guitars do you own?
“I am guilty of gear purchase syndrome and own too many guitars. Still write many of my tunes on my first nice acoustic, a 1976 Yamaha FG folk style. I have a few decent Strats and Teles, several mid-grade acoustics, and some big box hollow bodies for the jazz urges I get.
“I have knock-off basses and Ensoniq and Yamaha keys. I do not do any midi work in my studio currently (yeah I know, get with the 00’s) but I have M-Audio 61 key midi board and should figure out the midi thing someday.
“Midi seems like math to me, well it is actually, and math scares me.
“Every song you hear from me is all played in hand and live recorded. I have learned to use the convenience of some loops for backbeats and that does make it easier then always miking up the drum kit. Plus as a drummer, I still am just a beat off. (Rimshot!)”
“I hotrodded a Dell gaming PC for most recording and also have an old Apple G4, I really dig the simplicity of the Line 6 Tone Port interface. I have Mbox and PreSonus as well for interfaces but fall back to the Tone Port mostly for its ease and pretty good amp modeling. I use very good mics. CADs, Earthworks and Shure.
“For software, I am always chasing the next update anyway. I have a stomp box set-up I use with guitars and when hard miking a real amp, it will be either the old Fender Champ or the kinda old Super Deville. I really have not used too many virtual plug-ins other than what comes with the software.”
How do you record/mix/master?
“Each song requires a different recording process for me. I try to ‘serve the song’ completely focused on where I want to go. Sometimes that means tempo, drums, then instruments later; sometimes I lay down the acoustic or piano melody and build from there. I build the song looking for best performances but never have the patience to arduously scour over hours of recording, mixing or mastering.
“I start with good line input level and work hard to mix and master the song along the way so I do not have to rebuild the house later. With many years of mistakes under my belt I am proud to say that the songs you hear from me here are all done pretty spontaneously. There is no epic recording masterpiece for me – if it sits on the computer for more than a few days, the thrill is gone and I will usually never finish the tune. I am very impatient. My best work is what happens now. Sure, I could fix those vocal flats a bit or get a better guitar solo, but to me that is style (unless of course it is just musically ‘wrong’), so unless I am doing a piece for hire where the client will drive the car on edits and production, I lay it down and kick it out the door for the world to hear.
“Mastering is important. I will always master in separate session from recording because I just believe the ears need to re-attenuate to the sounds and vibrations on fresh time so that obvious drops in lows, highs or mids are not missed because the ears are tired and have blocked those frequencies.”
What is your strongest point, musically?
“My strongest trait as a musician is my song writing ability, imho.
“I think I play an above average guitar but it is my own style mash-up of rock, jazz and soul – I am not a real technical player at all and that is alright by me.”
What is your weakest point and how you get around it?
“I perceive my voice as the weakest link. (That Freudian thing comes back) However, wisdom of age has taught me how to use it best, I think. Hanging around the cyber communities has been rewarding for me vocally because people have given useful feedback on my natural style and I find myself singing ‘like me’ more now instead of trying to emulate influences.”
How do you come up with a song?
“I work the song together before recording it. Each song is different and it is a potpourri where chords come first, melody sometimes comes first, or I hear harmonies to chord structure that take me to a melody, or I have lyrics that I am trying to peg-hole on a melody.”
Any more tips?
“Hard for me to preach because like Tobin, I am so guilty of playing in many genres that I feel I have compromised my identity by doing everything. But I love it all, so damn the torpedos.
“I would just say that your dreams die with you, never before. I still dream of having a tune picked up and going to my mailbox for royalties. So I would encourage everyone at every level to pay attention to their dreams – it is no whim or flounder to follow it. If I had a dime for every person who laughed at me along the way I’d have lots of dimes and also a bunch of great songs in my back pocket. So be proud, because it takes a bit of ego with the determination for someone to want to listen to you.”
How has your Macjams experience been?
I like MacJams because it seems to be a open and free community without hang-ups and I hope to expand my experience here. It has been great so far, even when getting tanked on votes – I can always say ‘hey, maybe I’ll win that guy/gal over next time.’
“I am still trying to figure out the participation points stuff but the open welcome from some huge members here has made it inspirational for me to open myself to the whole community.”I really appreciate Tobin giving me this opportunity to introduce myself, and I look forward to collab opportunities…”
What is your favorite MJ song that you’ve submitted?
“The most recent uploaded song of mine is always my greatest fancy – then, like last night’s chicken bones (or tofu curds for you veggies), I am off to the next garbage can looking for another meal.”
How has the Internet changed your music goals, your way of creating music, your time management, etc.?
“It sure is less expensive than the studio days! I sometimes miss locking out a week at a pro-studio and having that experience but to record tunes in my boxers and slippers is right on by me. (TMI?)”
What do you think about Creative Commons licensing and the new sharing sense re: copyrights?
“I think the Creative Commons license is a reasonable response to the digital age of intellectual property. The copyright structure was much more rigid before, either you were an originator of the work or a work-for-hire contributor. Now there is more flexibility in sharing the rights. The lawyer in me will tell you though that the rights don’t mean much unless they are vigorously exploited and protected. And by that I mean that all artists need to take the proper steps to protect their art. The days of mailing yourself a cassette tape and leaving it sealed in the postmarked envelope are gone.”
Is there something else the MJ community might not know about you?
“I like to write and publish monthly reviews of instruments and gear as a free lance writer for Downbeat Jazz magazine, so if you get Downbeat feel free to message me about a product I review and I can give you the low down.
“I played some college baseball in New York – pitcher – lazy curve ball that I couldn’t get over for strikes and a real fast fastball (90’s) that flattened out. And you know what they say, the harder it comes, the farther it goes. Wasn’t that a Jimmy Cliff tune?”
Any final comments?
“I just wanted to say thanks for this opportunity, Tobin. MacJams is a great outlet and melting pot for songwriters and I hope to carve out more time to spend active in the community.
“The future looks bright so I gotta wear shades! Thanks, Tobin, and I will see y’all at the next chord change!”