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Turn it Down: Mustard Plug’s Rick Johnson returns solo to Mac’s Bar

The Commons fundraiser features Rick Johnson Rock & Roll Machine, Rent Strike, more

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Friday, Jan. 24 @ Mac’s Bar, 2700 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing. All ages, 8 p.m., $15, $10 adv.

For 15 years, Rick Johnson has toured the world playing bass with Mustard Plug, while also moonlighting in bands like Bomb The Music Industry!, Wack Trucks, Sharkanoid and The Stitch Up.  During that time, he’s also fronted The Rick Johnson Rock and Roll Machine, a one-man lo-fi synth-pop project.

Friday, he brings that solo act to Mac’s Bar for a fundraiser concert supporting The Commons, a Lansing-based group that, in part, states its mission as:

“A (future) social center in Lansing, Michigan that wants to see neighbors come together in mutual self-reliance. In our time of escalating social and environmental crises, we need to chart a course towards a different future. The Commons wants to support the growth of the many formal and informal groups that are fighting racism, gender-based oppression, reliance on the police, greed, inequality and all of the other forms of domination that exist in our society.”

Also performing at the fundraiser are Mover Shaker, Rent Strike and austhebear. As for the headliner, the Rick Johnson Rock and Roll Machine, Johnson simply calls it his “one-man freak out.” But that’s not all he’s up to right now, he also hosts “I’m in Love With a Girl Named Spike,” a podcast covering “Degrassi Junior High.” 

“I am never not working,” said Johnson, 39, who also operates Cold War Studios, his own Grand Rapids-based recording facility — a business he started out of necessity. 

“Basically, in order for me to justify buying recording gear, I had to do something commercial with it,” he said. “Also, to seek out a living only doing music things, it made sense to open up a studio.”   

Beyond recording other bands at his studio, Johnson also frequently hits the road with various bands doing sound and tour managing. As for Mustard Plug, Johnson said the ska-punk outfit is “loosely working on something,” but didn’t specify beyond that. Last year, he toured Japan with the group, but missed many of the band’s other dates. 

“Because of my other touring requirements, I only played about half of Mustard Plug’s shows last year,” Johnson said.  “This year, however, is turning out to be pretty busy. Mustard Plug is doing a West Coast run shortly and also might be going to Australia.”   

Looking back, after countless days in the tour van, he’s had amazing memories, like touring with the late Wesley Willis, but he’s also had a few tense incidents along the way, too.

“A group of skinheads tried to stab me with a screwdriver in Rockford, Illinois, in 2007,” he recalled. “That was possibly the craziest thing.”   

On a more positive note, it’s mostly been a dream come true for Johnson, who is also “98 percent” through wrapping up a new Sharkanoid album with the band’s co-founder, Dan Potthast. 

For Johnson, who cut his teeth in the golden years of the ’90s alt-rock boom, he said his longevity comes from staying focused on his passion for music, and not getting consumed with success and money. He’s just kept as busy as possible.

“Basically, I grew up in the era of grunge and punk,” he recalled. “It was cool to be in a band in those days. It’s probably still cool, but maybe not as a 40-year old at the class reunion. But, back then, I put all my eggs in that one basket, so I had to run with it.  You know, a rock and roll shark’s gotta keep swimming, gotta keep moving.” 

“I mean it is pretty insane that I just get to tour as much as I do,” he added. “I never thought I would be able to go to the place that I have ended up.”   

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