Hailing from the southern regions of the U.S. of A., John Vernon Forbes has a long and storied history of making music, cartoons, and comical mischief. His love of days gone by is apparent in the heavily blues-tinged music he has been creating for decades as well as his illustrations, which recall the golden age of animation through an absurdist lens. As a child, John started playing the piano while absorbing the vibe of a family member’s tavern, connecting with the honky tonk elements it provided. Making his way to Atlanta, John played in Phantom 309 (with Mac McNeilly, future drummer of the Jesus Lizard) and Dirt. Settling in Chicago in the early 90’s, he formed Mount Shasta, who found a home at the prominent noise-rock label Skin Graft Records. The artwork that was featured on Mount Shasta's records and the comics that accompanied Skin Graft 7”s introduced the world to Gumballhead the Cat, drawn by Rob Syers and perhaps best known now for gracing the packaging of the eponymously named beer made by the ever-popular Three Floyds Brewing. After Mount Shasta disbanded, John went on to form the excellent Tijuana Hercules, of which he remains the driving force and only consistent member. A gifted storyteller and a good friend, it was a pleasure working with him on this. With that said, John can take it from here.
Hi John, thanks for taking some time to Spill The Beans. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
You’re welcome and thanks for having me. I get a kick out of Spillin’ The Beans, plus I got nothing but time in this world and I’m in the mood to talk. I was born John Vernon Forbes. I do illustrations, animations, and screen prints. I host a radio show called Grease Train To Laredo on WRHC FM in Three Oaks, Michigan. I run a recording studio called Frogg Mountain with my pal, Andy Slater, and last but not least, I play in the music combo, Tijuana Hercules.
John Vernon Forbes, photo by Elizabeth Golub.
You’ve been playing music for ages, how did you get started and how did it evolve for you?
Music is communal. It’s encyclopedic in the range of emotions. Music seemed to be my entry to the human race. As far back as I remember, there was music playing somewhere in my life. My mom used to sing around the house when I was a child. I’d bust her balls about her singing, but I thought she was pretty good. She could sing whatever the spirit moved her to sing and she could bend a note. Her mother played the piano. I thought it was great that somebody could be their own entertainment. My grandpa was a real he-man that couldn’t carry a tune but sang with gusto all the time. His brother owned a tavern near a Texaco refinery when the refinery was operating full steam ahead. My grandpa would take me to the bar with him when he’d babysit me. I loved being in the bar. It smelled like stale beer and cheap cigars. The radio was always blasting some steel guitar honky-tonk music. I liked hearing it. I also liked watching how it made the people behave after they had a few beers.
Going into the future a few years, my grandma is downsizing to move to a mobile home in Florida. My family got the piano. I took piano lessons and was diligent about them at first. I’m glad I was, but then I got carried away drawing cartoons and playing pranks.
This was about the end of junior high school. I started hanging out with a couple of guys that were music heads and we started to play music together. We played a few teen dances. We played a junior college show to a bunch of farm kids that hated us. I told them they had better go to bed now because they had to wake up early to fuck the cows. I don’t think I have seen a group of people so mad ever since, especially because it took a couple of seconds for what I had said to sink in.
While the going was good, my mom moved us all down to Florida. At first, we were all living with my grandma in her mobile home. I got a kick out of living there. Due to there not being much room for personal space, I’d listen to my records with my headphones on. Scary Monsters by David Bowie had come out, and I analyzed that record with my headphones.
Living in Florida is exactly what anyone that has read at least two news stories in the last half century would expect it to be. Thirty five year old grandmas in bikinis and Cha-Cha heels sauced out of their mind. Bikers. Old people wearing skimpy bathing suits with that dried out bronze skin, and loads of belligerent white trash.
I’d get together to play music informally with people. One guy I liked playing with was a real pain in the ass. He was nuts. He was a mess. His behavior was like the early Daffy Duck cartoons. He wasn’t that way all of time. When we were hanging out playing guitars, he was cool. He knew more about country blues and strange music than I did and he could play better than me. I needed to expand my knowledge, but there’s only so long that you can deal with a maniac.
I met some guys down there that told me they were anti-music. They’d say everything sounded like shit and that everything was bullshit. Nobody was putting their hearts into anything. Nothing was intense enough. They’d play me records of battalions of jackhammers going off. I liked their spirit. One of the guys told me he was going to take a picture of his dumps every morning. When he told me, I started laughing really hard because that is a ridiculous idea. It’s nasty. Because I was laughing, he started laughing too, and I know it was for the same reason I was too. A couple of days later I see the guy again, and he tells me the same photograph plan in a manner like it’s the first time he’s telling it to me. This time he’s on the offense and speaking in slow measured tones like a college professor, which means those statements can’t be laughed at. But, he turned me onto the Butthole Surfers when they were in their prime.
While I’m on the Florida stories, I wanted to talk about the guy I hung out with who had a fist the size of my head. But our waitress won’t let you take her picture with me and I want to move the talk to Atlanta.
Atlanta was where everything was happening that I wanted to know about at that time. Socially, it was wide open. It was a free for all freak show and a ton of fun.
I first fell in with an ad hoc group of street musicians that played Pre-World War II country blues. Like a jug band. They were hardcore good timers and could play. They were probably a bunch of winos.
Toward the end of one Atlanta winter there was a guitar player that I liked. He was a unique specimen. He had a wild take on what a musical experience should be. One moment his playing would be some low down gutbucket, the next it could be something grating and atonal, and then it might be a beautiful rendition of a Stephen Foster song. He came up to me with a plan. He told me on the first warm Saturday that spring a bunch of us were going to set up in a public space and have an outdoor show, except our instruments were going to be garbage cans. The warm day comes and it’s him with a garbage can, me with a garbage can, and a guy that brought a full drum kit. We set up on this sidewalk area between a pizza joint, a record store, and a bar. The two of us banged on garbage cans and the drummer beat his drum set like a true spastic. We were all screaming like the Apocalypse was happening and calling hogs at the same time. Every now and then some Eddie Cochran lyrics would get thrown in. A crowd started forming and they were getting into it also. They joined in with the screaming. A beat cop walks up to us and tells us to zip it. I don’t remember what I was doing earlier that day, but I caught a glimpse of myself in a storefront window while the cop is yelling at us and thought, “Why do I look so filthy? I look like I’ve been rolling around in pig shit!”
We told the cop we’d break it up, but as soon as he was out of sight we started again. It didn’t take long for the cop to come back. He blew his top and called us sons of bitches.
As we were leaving the drummer and I decided to form Phantom 309, which was the first band I did recordings with.
This is how it started. I had bought a used Fostex X-15 from a guy that worked at a recording studio in Tampa, Florida. It's a four track recorder that uses cassette tapes. I also had a Radio Shack reverb box that made the wettest sounds. It was a real Sci-Fi sounding device. I'd sit around for hours making recordings. If I wrote songs they were rip-offs of Mississippi Fred McDowell or Muddy Waters. If I wasn't recording that way, I'd make layers of noises that sounded like space aliens in the Serengeti. It was fun, but there is no thrill like doing something while someone else is hitting a drum. I hook up with his guy called 8-Ball. He had no confidence in his ability to keep a beat. In retrospect, he had his reasons to feel that way. He also rubbed people the wrong way because of his attitude. None of which bothered me.
To play songs, I'd let him drum by himself for about 10 seconds. Once he had gotten his footing, I'd start playing guitar chords. Usually I'd play a primitive resin of the type of songs that James Cotton would do when he was on Sun Records. We'd remember what we had done and call it a song. We played a few shows as a duo but decided we needed a bass player. I found somebody to fill in on bass, but 8-Ball busted the guys balls non-stop. We had a show in Athens, Georgia scheduled. A few days before the show 8-Ball tells the bass player, "When I say the letter S that means for you to shut up because it's wasting too much of my time to say SHUT UP." Everyone has their limits. Harsh words were exchanged and we were without a bass player.
8-Ball was friends with Mac McNeilly. Mac later became the drummer for the Jesus Lizard. 8-Ball had put out records by Mac's old band. Mac was game to pick up the bass. He'd play his ass off and really get into it. It was fun to be around.
Toward the end of Phantom 309 we added another guitarist. Her name was Jennifer Hensley. She played a SG guitar through an Orange amp. She was into Sabbath, the Stooges, and the Misfits, and it showed. Plus she had a full back tattoo when only bikers, sailors, and degenerated hillbillies had tattoos.
Then we decided to form a new group and called it Dirt. Dean Clyne worked for the label Phantom 309 was on and wanted to join. He became the bass player, and man, he was a powerhouse. He would hit his low E string with such force that it would snap in half. Our first drummer was a woman named Dee Gonzalez. I played slide guitar in an open G tuning.
Not to sound gratuitous, but we were a really macho sounding band which was a novelty because half the band were women and we lived in the Deep South.
Mount Shasta, L-R: Jason Bensen, Jenny White, John Vernon Forbes, Al Johnson. Photo courtesy of Skin Graft Records.
I had gotten tired of where I was living and moved to Chicago. Once I got to Chicago, I started Mount Shasta with Jenny White and Jason Bensen. Al Johnson from US Maple played guitar. After he quit, Carl Brueggen replaced him. We wanted to play loud, loose rock and roll. We had some wild times playing weird places out west.
In Albuquerque at the end of the evening some fellows wearing g-strings asked us if we wanted to wrestle. To this day I'm friends with one of them. I have been perpetually fascinated by the idea of adult situations and the running out of the mortal clock. It doesn't cause me anxiety. I was concentrating on the inevitability of multiple apocalypses, fidelity, primal needs, and skullduggery.
I wanted to have some way to play music in my 60s and 70s, and I started Tijuana Hercules to deal with it. I wanted to do something idiosyncratic to fit my mood, something that sounded like it was rooted in the history of mankind. Something raunchy but that wasn't on Viagra.
Tell us about your upcoming release on Skin Graft.
It's a compilation album called POST NOW: ROUND ONE CHICAGO vs NEW YORK. There are eight bands doing two tracks apiece. Representing Chicago is Cheer Accident, Bobby Conn, Lovely Little Girls, and Tijuana Hercules. Representing New York it's the Flying Luttenbachers, Skryptor, Cellular Chaos, and Child Abuse. It seems to me to be taking on a scorched earth policy. A true battle where everyone is the winner.
Can we expect anything else from Tijuana Hercules this year?
You most definitely can. This summer Skin Graft is going to release a collection of Tijuana Hercules singles, EP's, and one-off recordings. It's going to be called MUDSLOD and the SINGLES. Then by the year's end there should be a new album.
Do you have any stories that you would like to share?
I have a story. I don’t know what band I was in, but I remember we played in New York City. After we were done playing, I just wanted to walk around by myself. So, I’m just walking around Manhattan all night long, like lower Manhattan. I come up on this alley and there’s this building, and then a door flies open. There’s this loud party going on inside, and it’s like, I don’t know, somewhere between 3 and 5 in the morning? So, the door flew open because somebody left, and it looked like there were about 40 people in this small room off this alley, and I swear, there’s Tony Curtis standing there in a bra wearing rouge. We made eye contact. He gave me this glare, and then somebody slammed the door in my face.
What’s your songwriting process like?
I keep a guitar tuned in D minor Vestapol tuning. It’s an open tuning used widely in the 1920s for blues. I read somewhere that it got its start in the 1850s as a popular parlor trick for ladies that played guitar for home entertainment. I fingerpick the guitar instead of using a flat pick. It’s what works for me. I’ll pluck around on all sorts of bullshit sometimes something I like appears.
You used to live in the same building as me so you could hear me fool around on the piano. But I mainly like to play old barrelhouse sounding riffs on the piano.
Here’s a vibe that I’m shooting for in song. It’s dark. It’s in an alley behind a restaurant. A restaurant worker is in the alley enjoying a cigarette break. All of the sudden Chuck Berry walks by with a blonde woman on each arm. The restaurant worker is stunned to see Chuck Berry because he’s a fan of Chuck. The restaurant worker starts to speak to Chuck Berry. He’s polite. He calls him Mr. Berry and tells him he’s a fan. Chuck Berry tells him, “Shut the fuck up, motherfucker!” Chuck and the blondes laugh their asses off and hop into a chauffeured car and drive away. I’m only bullshitting here.*
You’re also a prolific illustrator, with generally hilarious results. What do you think puts these images in your head?
To tell you the truth, I have no idea. I think I probably have a very loose mind that randomly bumps along.
Illustrations and animation by John Vernon Forbes.
What are some of your favorite movies, books, and comics that you feel inspire you?
As a kid I watched a sick amount of VHF television. It would be the local independent channel that played old black and white movies from Hollywood’s glory days and cartoons that are now banned today due to violence and racial insensitivity. I was intrigued by it all. I watched everything and enjoyed it even if I thought the movie was not my thing. It took me years to realize that some movies stunk.
To this day I prefer old movies. I like noirs except for the one Lucille Ball was in. John Ford movies hit a special nerve for me, a good nerve. I saw plenty of the same things in real life growing up as is handled in his movies. Fighting. Paddling. Drinking. Wrestling with moral dilemmas.
I’m also hooked on Joan Crawford movies. She can make a horrible movie a great movie by her presence. The plots are soap operas. One character makes a cutting speech to another character. The character that was the speech’s recipient retaliates by slapping the speech giver with wide-eyed vigor. What a great dramatic writing device.
I wasn’t really into superhero or fantasy comics. I was more into the newspaper comics, especially the non-realistic looking humorous ones. It gave me something to aspire to. I could figure out how they did it. The thought behind them seemed to have something on the ball. I’m thinking about Beetle Bailey, Krazy Kat, Peanuts (but that one had a deep spiritual meaning), and Nancy. Nancy was drawn by Ernie Bushmiller. I read a quote from the Village Voice that his sensibility was that of a “moron on an acid trip”.
I used to buy books all the time. Now I go to the library. I read whatever catches my imagination for the moment. I’m all over the board. It might be The Legend Of Gigamesh or a book about the Turk, the chess playing automaton, that played Benjamin Franklin in a game. I used to work in a used bookstore down in Florida. It was an old supermarket that was converted into a used bookstore. I found some good authors while working there by pure happenstance. There was also plenty of crackpot theory books I read for amusement. They were true tinfoil hat potboilers. Being that it was in Florida, the store was always full of penny-pinching retirees. Not only did they browse for hours, but they farted nonstop. You couldn’t walk three feet without stepping into an invisible noxious cloud.
What would you call some of your favorite bands/musicians?
The creme de la creme.
Ok, it’s coffee time. Do you like that stuff?
I do. I only started drinking coffee a couple of years ago which I consider pretty late in life. I always liked the smell and I liked the visual ritual of a coffee drinker. It looked like high life. Everybody that drinks a cup of coffee looks smart while they are doing it, even bums look classy drinking coffee. But the taste was beyond something I could put my head around. It was too bitter for my palate. Then one hot summer day I got a craving for coffee. Not a cup but a pot. That same day I got a craving for a cocktail made of bourbon, Pepsi with real sugar, ginger, and bitters. I have not wavered since that day. Maybe maturity has set in. Or else I’m looking for a new way to get jacked.
What do you look for in a good cup of coffee?
A fifty dollar bill.
How do you make coffee at home?
I use a French press.
Photo by Kristan Lieb.
If you are grabbing a coffee at a cafe, what is your go-to?
See, mainly I drink my coffee at home. But if I’m really feeling dead on my feet and have things to do that require me using my wits, I’ll stop some place to get a cup to try and juice myself up. I don’t have any particular spot that I go to. What I’m looking for is a place that can get me in and out with as little lingering time as possible. I see people with laptops hanging out in coffee shops and it looks like they have been there all day. It makes me wonder if their home lives are so horrible that fooling around on a computer all day in a coffee shop is some sort of reprieve. I have a feeling the only difference between is people that hang out in a coffee shop all day and those that hang out in the library all day is olfactory offensiveness.
When I had down time I used to hang out at the Harold Washington Library, downtown. Once I went into the bathroom on the eighth floor. As I came in I saw a fellow at the sink that looked like Caesar Romero with an Esquerita style pompadour. It was graying, but it was a dry pompadour and it was stacked. He’s looking at himself in the mirror and going to town combing his hair. All the while he’s singing to himself. The song sounded like one of those jivey late 70s-80s R&B tunes where the melody goes nowhere and the lyrics are a combination of the silliest pick up lines invented by man. I do my business. He’s still at the mirror. I go to wash my hands. He’s still at the mirror, but we make eye contact. I leave the bathroom. He’s still at the mirror. I walk about 15 feet from the door and I hear the door and a voice singing in the same style as earlier but this time it is singing, “I JUST WANT TO MAKE LOVE TO YOU! OH YEAH! ALL NIGHT LONG!” I turn around and it’s the guy from the bathroom. He’s pointing both of his index fingers at me and looking me in the eye. He’s singing and dancing like he’s on late night television game show.
Are there coffees from particular regions that you are particularly fond of?
I get French Roast, Ethiopian, or Guatemalan.
How do you feel that coffee intersects with your creativity?
It’s obvious that it goes hand in hand.
Thanks so much, John. Lastly, have you heard any good jokes lately?
*based on true events