FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MARCH 2018 ISSUE | BY PHIL HOOD | PHOTOS BY TONY SMITH
In 1997, John Mahon got the call that changed his musical life. He had been recording with his friend, bassist Bob Birch, who had recently joined Elton John’s band. Davey Johnstone, Elton’s longtime bandleader and guitarist, heard the tapes and invited Mahon over to do some recording with him and Guy Babylon, the keyboard player. That went well, and a month later, Johnstone called Mahon to say, “The band is looking for someone like you, someone who can sing, play percussion, and knows electronics.” He invited Mahon to come back. “The funny thing is,” Mahon now says, “Davey didn’t really audition me other than singing. He strummed guitars and we sang songs. He just took Bob’s recommendation for my drumming skills.” Johnstone said as far as he was concerned Mahon was right for the gig, and asked Mahon if he was free to go to France to rehearse.
What? France? Just like that?
Just like that.
“The gig is a blur but I remember the rehearsals,” Mahon says. “They put me on the stage right behind and to the left of Elton, near [back-up singer] Billy Trudel. Elton kept looking over at me. He was smiling all the time and couldn’t have been nicer.” After day two Birch leaned over and said the magic words: “I think you’ve pretty much got this gig, dude.” A week later they performed for 40,000 fans in Germany with Mahon handling supporting percussion and singing. He’s been with the band ever since.
We wouldn’t be surprised if Mahon’s job sounds like the world’s easiest gig. He jets around playing festivals and arenas and, when not traveling, the band holes up at Caesar’s Palace for several stays each year. On those weeks he drives over from Los Angeles, hangs out in a nice hotel, and takes an elevator to the gig every night.
But his current routine doesn’t count the decades spent studying, practicing, performing, and learning to be ready for opportunity’s knock. His combination of skills, including drum set, vocals, mallets, programming, electronic drums, and hand percussion was honed through relentless study, effort, and faith in himself when needed. He needs all those skills because with Elton’s tremendous book of songs and hits to draw upon, the band can literally play anything on any given night.
With longtime drummer Nigel Olsson holding down the groove, Mahon’s job is to provide the extra parts that make the tracks come alive, faithful to the originals, but surprising and original for the audience. That could mean congas on one tune, timbales, tambourine, and cymbal stacks on another. And, as the resident electronic specialist in the group, the engineers depend on Mahon to create sounds and rapidly generate samples when needed, like the Grand Canyon-sized snares he triggers on his 28″ bass drum. He does this while supporting Elton with harmonies and hitting the high notes that are a major part of the melodies.
Mahon started learning to play and sing early in his Ohio hometown. “My dad was a cop in Canton,” he says, “and he would send my brother and me down to the Boys Club on Saturdays to get rid of us.” In between watching movies and messing in the woodshop, the two had a chance to join a new drum and bugle corps. His brother went for trumpet; he chose drums.
That was the start of the Canton Blue Coats, today a famous youth color guard and marching organization. But that first incarnation was decidedly less talented. “We wore shorts and t-shirts and played songs like ‘The Old Gray Mare,’” Mahon says, laughing. But his musical fuse was lit.
From there he dove headfirst into all the school bands: symphony, concert, marching, and choir, too. He was gigging by the time he left junior high. Skipping college, Mahon earned his living playing in loads of bands, covering everything from Weather Report to Top 40.
A turning point in his education came when he began studying under Bill Severance, who had been educated at Berklee. “Bill was ambidextrous and I was ambidextrous too, so he made me play the Syncopation book left-handed and right-handed.” Simultaneously, Mahon started singing lessons with the only teacher he knew, an ex-opera performer.
A few years later Severance had moved to Los Angeles and was playing with the keyboard and vocal duo Captain And Tenille, who had a run of hits in the ’70s and ’80s. “Bill would call me and say, ‘You have to come to L.A., there’s a lot of gigs.’ It was still the heyday of the studio scene,” Mahon recalls. “Finally, one time after listening to Bill I was convinced. I asked my wife ‘Do you want to move to California?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ So we got a trailer and headed west.”
His first gig in California was another wake-up call. “I realized these musicians were all better than me.” So he started lessons with Tower Of Power star David Garibaldi, and studied theory and piano at the famed Dick Grove School. Writing his own charts and getting a working knowledge of keys and chord structure helped him tremendously as a drummer, and later in programming.
Another important learning experience came when he started in early on electronic percussion. In a band called Vito & The Stickmen, Mahon put together his first e-drum kit, a hybrid with his acoustic snare, Yamaha pads, and a Simmons SDS7. It was a crazy, complex setup he says, but always worked. The knowledge he gained there became the final piece in the toolbelt of skills Mahon employs today.
But he was still searching for a musical home. Continuing to work in L.A., he landed stints with artists such as Peter White, Al Stewart, Helen Reddy, and Rita Coolidge. He finally ended up with Three Dog Night star Chuck Negron, playing percussion and singing backup like he does now. Then came that call from Davey Johnstone.
Working every night with Captain Fantastic has increased Mahon’s respect for the entertainment as well as the musical side of performance. “Davey and Elton have a real sense of what it takes to entertain people,” Mahon says. “They come from a real 1970s rock and roll sensibility. Sometimes I may play something I think is too simple or too over-the-top. But they’ll like it and put it in the show. They know what will work.”
Many shows are heavily sequenced today, but not this band. “Elton won’t play to a click and Nigel refuses, too, unless maybe when we are in the studio.” Mahon says. “So when you see the band, you are getting the band. No lip-syncing and no playing to tracks.” Though Mahon embellishes with samples, it’s often to assist the sound he’s already playing. “And Elton’s always improvising. Nothing is ever played exactly the same way twice.”
Mahon’s work setup is a mix of drums, hand percussion, and electronics, positioned for easy reach and also that important entertainment value. In front of his setup sits his 28″ Yamaha marching bass drum, which Elton wanted in the show. Mahon had it refinished at Porkpie to fit the stage appearance. He often uses it to trigger other sounds.
One reason for the triggers is it’s incredibly loud on the stage. Elton eschews in-ears and has huge monitor wedges in front of him. One of the challenges of hand percussion is that it’s relatively quiet. Mahon plays loud enough to hear what’s going on but not so loud that he is blowing through the microphones. He says, “I was originally set up behind Elton but after a few years they, to my benefit, moved me to the opposite side of the stage because I was too ‘distracting.’”
Behind the bass drum in front of Mahon sit his Yamaha pads. “When the band started I was playing a Zendrum. With its numerous triggers I could do a lot of things. I could take a two-bar groove and chop it into eight different notes, or I could play it down the keyboard or across the pads. I could slow it down or speed it up. And, I could stand at my mike and sing.” But eventually he switched to Yamaha DTX pads because they allowed a more drummer-like setup. “For example,” he says, “‘Benny And The Jets’ is a big stomping and clapping number. I put all those claps on the pads. And the pads are more rock and roll. It’s more exciting visually for me to take a swing at something.”
Today those pads are front and center in Mahon’s setup. To his right is a 13″ snare and one timbale with crash cymbals, blocks, and tambourines mounted above. Behind those are more effects and Chinas, with cowbells, chimes, and stacked Zildjian effects cymbals.
On his left are congas and bongos. Various crash cymbals, more chimes and bells, and a Zildjian Zil-Bel stacked with a Trashformer, for an abrasive sound. “I’ve added lots of thing that are loud because of the stage volume, like the LP Galaxy congas; the fiberglass is loud and bright and with Fiberskyn heads on them. Also, the bells and triangles I have are heavier ones. Heavy and loud, that’s the best way I can put it [laughs].”
Sticks and techniques are affected by volume, too. He uses a large custom Vic Firth CT4 Ultra staccato marching tympani stick often that is fat with a felt head on it. “I play that stick, using the hard end on timbales and then flip it and use it a little bit on bongos or congas or pads. Or I might do one thing with the right hand and use the mallet on my left.”
In the heat of battle John also hits cymbals with his Cyclops tambourine or plays his LP cymbal with his hand. To avoid injury, Mahon has started taping the joints of his fingers. It helps, but the engineers sometimes want more volume. “There are nights when I’ll be pounding on the congas and the soundman hits the talkback and says ‘John, hit the damn things,’” he laughs. “You try it!”
Does Mahon now consider himself a percussionist first and foremost after having played all types of percussion the past 20 years? He thinks and says, “I’m a drummer, really, and that’s what I say. I’m definitely not like a Latin percussionist. When I meet a real percussionist like Luis Conte I make it clear. I’m not a Latin percussionist [laughs].
“I think in Latin music the percussionists are creating the rhythm with the various drums.” But the percussionist in a rock context colors the sound or supports the rhythm laid down by the drum set. “We have an extended jam on the song ‘Levon’ and I play congas and tambourine. I listened to a show tape from Vegas last week and I thought ‘John, you suck.’ [laughs] The time it sounds best is when I’m locked into the drummer. I can play these extended triplets onstage, but when I listen back I think, ‘You’re not carrying the beat.’”
Famously, drummer Nigel Olsson is noted for his behind-the-beat playing, so “carrying the beat” sometimes requires a little extra effort. When it’s important Mahon says he watches Nigel’s stick on the snare drum. “If he’s hitting the snare and I am matching it then I want it to be perfect. Not just close. It’s not rocket science, but it’s really cool.”