Near the age of twelve, John Mahon picked up a pair of drum sticks with the aspiration of becoming a drummer. As an adult, John has not only realized his dream by becoming a professional musician, but he has built a stellar performance resume that is filled with A-List names in the music industry.
Mahon, a percussionist and vocalist, has worked with artists such as Brian Adams, Sting, Phil Collins, Mary J. Blige, Ray Charles, Cher, Tina Turner, Bonnie Rait, and many, many more. For the last several years, John has accompanied music icon Sir Elton John on his journey down the Yellow Brick of Road of Rock and Roll, serving as a percussionist and background vocalist for the Rocket Man’s legendary stage and studio band.
John was kind enough to take some time while on vacation from his heavy tour schedule with the EJ Band to talk with me about his life as a musician, his experience with Elton John and his band, his side projects as a songwriter and session musician, and the hobbies he enjoys when off the road.
I understand that you chose to become a drummer at around age twelve when your father took you to Canton Ohio Police Boys Club and you signed up for the Drum and Bugle Corp. I also understand that, throughout your young years, you were extremely active in the performing ensembles offered by your schools. How did these experiences shape you as a music fan and as a performer?
Participation in the school music programs broadened my musical experiences. I was exposed to many different genres of music that I would never have heard or played if not for the school bands. Of course, we played marches but there were classical pieces and even some contemporary compositions. Another part is the choir which was a good way to learn pitch and ensemble singing.
These programs teach a musician to play with an ensemble, take constructive criticism, and be motivated by your fellow band members.
Do you come from a musical family? If so, please tell us about it.
My father was the musical side. He sang and played trumpet. My Uncle was a big band singer, and my grandfather played guitar. Everyone in my family played an instrument of some sort, and most of us sing. That said, my younger brother was unexpectedly asked to leave a McCartney concert recently – it’s likely they heard him singing!
When and how did you make the transition from amateur to professional musician?
When I was still in high school, a friend asked me to play with his band and perform at parties. That was the start of getting paid to play. I always worked a day job and did gigs at night until I was about 23. Then it was full on music- -although I had to get a part time job for a while when I moved to LA to pay the bills- – driving a delivery truck! Back in the late 70s and 80s, bands were playing everywhere every night. It was easier to make a living as a musician then. Clubs and Hotels had dance bands 5-6 days a week. It was a great time – no DJs!!!
Who is your biggest influence as a drummer? A vocalist? A songwriter?
I love funk and jazz drumming, so there are so many. I’d have to say, Tony Williams, David Garibaldi, Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Clyde Stubblefield, Peter Erskine, Danny Seraphine, Lenny White – just to name a few.
Vocalists – Larry Williams of Tower of Power, Marvin Gaye, Steve Perry, Stevie Wonder, Sinatra, Bennet, Otis Redding.
Songwriters – Steely Dan, Elton John, The Beatles, Led Zep, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea. Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, James Taylor. But I love new bands as well– U2, Radiohead. So many!!
How did you come to be part of the acclaimed Elton John Band?
I met Davey Johnstone after he heard a recording I was working on with Bob Birch whom I have known and played with for many years since moving to LA. I did some recording for Davey and Guy Babylon, and not long after that session, Davey asked me to audition for Elton’s band.
I’ve read on your personal website that you spend some of your free time writing and recording your own original songs. Can you describe how you approach the mysterious task of songwriting and tell us a bit about your original music?
My music, I suppose, is pop based with a soul/jazz influence. I like to write lyrics first most of the time. Sometimes I will just come up with a musical motif or loop that I like writing around. I write all kinds of music – soundtrack, electronic, organic – even some kid’s music. I think all these influences have put me in the musical blender!! Of course I love drums and percussion based music – who doesn’t?
Several years ago, your band mate and fellow singing drummer, Nigel Olsson, released a solo project that was quite good. When can we expect a solo project from John Mahon, and what sort of a project will it be?I might be asked to come up with some ideas and then Elton, or whoever is producing the session, will pick what they like. Maybe they will change it a little or even suggest something completely different. I would not call it freedom because every note you play will be scrutinized and criticized so you better be ready to play anything and understand how to take direction. It can be really fun or it can be very challenging. Most of the time when you hit on something it will just work – that’s the magic part.
Do you play any instruments aside from drums? If so what?
I play the keyboards some and strum the guitar. Drummer/Percussionists need to know another instrument so we can talk with the really smart musicians!!
Of all your many accomplishments as a musician, of what are you the most proud?
I come from a very humble upbringing in a small town. Playing and recording with an icon like Elton John is quite an accomplishment. Not many musicians, or people for that matter, get to experience what I have. The travel, the concerts, the amazing audiences…. I am very fortunate indeed.
Aside from music, what other interests and hobbies do you have that might surprise us?
I love mountain biking and cycling in general. I’ve also been playing a bit of tennis. I just like being outside. I don’t mind some home improvement projects – which I’m not bad at, and I guess I like photography but that has just come out of my travels. I really love recording too. When there is no pressure it is like painting… adding colors and creating freely – It is very rewarding to me.
Do you have a favorite city or venue to play in?
New York City is amazing. Rio was great. Anywhere in Ireland has the best audiences. I have to say American audiences are the most fun overall – they love to rock out. Playing Hyde Park was great as well as Rome in front of the Coliseum – and lately the Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza, Mexico.
What do you like most about your current touring job? The least?
I enjoy the camaraderie of the crew and band. We are a big family and it’s fun to be around them all. I do enjoy going to some great cities and getting a little sightseeing in. Then, of course, there is the music part- – playing the shows is always the highlight of the day. I loath airports, airport security, airport food, and the smell of airports. Did I say I hate airports? Finding a consistent meal and cup of coffee are the most challenging thing to me on the road. Oh yes, I need good water pressure!!
Now a few questions for John, the fan…What is your favorite Elton John song? Album?
My favorite song might be “Levon” – mainly because I used to play it as a kid. I love Madman Across the Water, Captain Fantastic, and the Made In England album.
(Aside from those from your boss) What are your three favorite albums of all time?
That’s not fair! Steely Dan Gauchos. Herbie Hancock, VSOP, Chicago II.
What future musical projects are on the calender for John Mahon?
Elton is touring almost constantly. I plan to continue writing lyrics and songs. I just played drums and percussion on some smooth jazz tracks for a new artist “Ja Nya Sol”. I’m producing and playing some music with a friend in Ohio, David Marchione who is extremely talented. We are doing experimental soundtrack music right now. As always, listening, learning, and keeping the darn computer working!!
Visit John Mahon’s website.
Article first published as Interview: John Mahon: Sir Elton John’s Percussionist on Blogcritics.