Johnnyswim Showcases Their Chemistry on Debut Album 'Diamonds'
When Abner Ramirez invited Amanda Sudano to write music with him in 2005, his primary intention was to get some alone time with the hottest girl he'd ever met. But as they spent time singing and writing together, they realized their musical chemistry was something pretty special. The years that followed saw them form the band Johnnyswim, release three EPs, get married in 2009 and move from Nashville to Los Angeles.
Their debut full-length album, Diamonds, was released in late April, and the 12 tracks traverse genres and reveal the complementary talents of this duo. Tonight they'll play the El Rey Theatre, and LAist caught up with them last week to learn more.
In many songs, diamonds are mentioned in reference to decadence and status, but here it really feels like you're talking about the process of how a diamond is made—the pressure that results in this beautiful thing. Does that ring true for the album?
Amanda Sudano: A hundred percent. With this album, we wanted to delve a little bit deeper than our EPs, because we went through the hardest year of our lives a couple years ago when we lost my mom [the inimitable Donna Summer], Abner's dad and my grandmother all within a couple months.
And something that was important for us to remember on the hard days was that we had a choice: whether we were going to let ourselves wallow in bitterness or look to the brighter things.
That's not always the easiest thing to do in a situation like that.
Amanda: Absolutely. But we spend our lives wanting to be strong or wanting to be brave but we never want to go through anything, so we looked at this and said, "Hey, this is an opportunity to be brave. Let's dig into it."
So it really became our life mantra and we wrote the song not knowing if it'd ever see the light of day outside of our living room. And then as we played it for people close to us, they gravitated toward it and it just grew and had this life we didn't expect. These diamonds are 100 percent about letting the pressure make you great.
How did your music evolve from your EPs to this full-length release?
Abner Ramirez: For me, the first thing I'd ever produced was our EP, and going from that to our full-length album was like painting on a 5" x 8" piece of paper and then all a sudden being given a massive canvas. EPs are cool and really show the beginning of a band and the growth that goes along with it, but an album is like putting a stake in the ground and saying, "Here we go. This is us."
Abner, as a multi-instrumentalist, did you learn any new instruments for this album?
Abner: I actually wrote "Diamonds" on a mandolin. I'd never really played it until we wrote that, but it just so happened that a neighbor left a mandolin in our apartment.
Sometimes you have scheduled writing sessions, but other times if you go too long without writing, you feel like something is boiling up inside you—thoughts, emotions, life itself—and you have to get it out immediately. So I grabbed the mandolin because it was the closest thing to me. And it's one of the most fun songs to play on the album.
What was one instrument you enjoyed, Amanda?
Amanda: There was this big concert drum, and in a couple of the teaser videos we put out for the record, you can see us running up to it and banging it around. It was just so much fun.
Abner: That was my favorite thing to record. It was a powerful feeling because I could hit this thing and feel the room next to me shake.
Amanda: It became the third member of the band.
Talking about those teaser videos, the video link you have at the end of your album liner notes was a nice surprise—of Amanda eating Sour Patch Kids, and Abner's dancing. Whose idea was it to share those videos?
Amanda: Well, we had our best friend Darren Lau film us during the recording process and tour. And he sent over this video of me tearing into some candy. It was a two-pound bag that I ate over the course of making this record…and that I would sometimes share. By the end of that process I realized, "Wow, this bag was two pounds and now it's gone!"
Abner: "…into my body."
Amanda: I didn't realize how much footage he got. What you see in the video was just the beginning. And then Abner's dancing was the same thing. We have so much footage of him doing those weird dances.
Abner: I don't think they're weird.
Amanda: OK, then let's call them "creative." He does them all the time, so I've grown accustomed to him doing that. We just thought it was super-fun, so I think it was my idea to make it into a little Easter egg and put it somewhere in the credits.
You've said that some of your songs initially start as a joke and then turn into something more. Were any songs on Diamonds conceived that way?
Abner: Musically, yes. With "A Million Years," I wanted to write a song playing only two strings, then of course it grew as we added more things to it.
Amanda: In general, we just give ourselves no boundaries. I think that's the oldest song on the record, and it kind of set the tone for us. After that, we said to ourselves, "Let's just always write what we feel like writing instead of thinking we have to write a song around this tempo or filling a stylistic hole in the album."
And we're happier with ourselves at the end of the day, because that approach is a surefire way for us to sing with sincerity. If you write a song thinking, "Oh, I just need to make something that sounds like this…" then it'll be hard six months down the line to sing it with the same enthusiasm.
Given the way the two of you came together as a band and the passion that went into it—including make-out sessions in the middle of songwriting ones—what kind of music did you have at your wedding? Did you sing?
Amanda: I walked down the aisle to an old Cuban song called "Como Fue." That was in honor of his parents. It was a song he'd watch them dance to in the kitchen all the time, and his dad would sometimes sing it to his mom.
Abner: Yeah, we didn't sing anything at our wedding. We had some friends sing some hymns, we had that old Cuban song, and Amanda's dance with her dad was to a song he had written for her when she was young.
That's so sweet! Speaking of songwriting, Abner once compared your process to that of a novelist, which made me wonder, what are you reading now?
Amanda: I'm currently reading through the entire Harry Potter series. I'm on book five. I'd read the The Cuckoo's Calling and I liked that, so I went and bought all the Harry Potter books. And Abner's been doing the same thing, but now he's taken a break.
And you have also been involved in a literacy campaign in India. Is that correct?
Amanda: We've worked with a few organizations, but I think the one you're referring to is called Visiting Orphans. They started out in the slums and it was pretty much the worst conditions you could imagine. This doctor started the program, raised money and now has a couple different schools around New Delhi. We played them songs…and tried to play cricket and failed miserably.
Abner: I didn't fail miserably; I failed with honor. (laughs)
You seem to travel so much. What are you most looking forward to most with this tour?
Amanda: I'm so looking forward to the West Coast because I can sleep in my own bed. It's a luxury.
Abner: I mean, every show for the last two months has been leading up to the El Rey in Los Angeles. We haven't played our own show in Los Angeles in a year or so. It's all about being at home. Everything revolves around this show for us in this city.
Do you use all that time on the road to come up with more stories about the origin of your band name? There are quite a few of them out there.
Amanda: You know, we never really think too much about it. Experiences give you a well of inspiration to draw from. For example, in Roanoke, Virginia, the concert promoter came backstage before we went on and said, "A man just pulled me aside. He says that his name is John Edward Swim and he goes by 'Johnny Swim.'"
And that's all we needed for, like, three weeks of stories about the origin of the name. And so of course we made him stand up and say that he'd saved Abner's life one time, which led to the band name. He took a bow and it was quite fun.
Abner: If I'm being perfectly honest, I don't even know where our name came from. We've tried to sit down and really recall completely biographical facts about how the name came to be, and we can't remember exactly.
Amanda: It keeps us on our toes. It's more fun to think of new stories at this point.
Abner: And we try not to repeat the same one twice.
Amanda: But we usually do! (laughs)
Have you already started writing your next album?
Amanda: We've been so busy that we haven't had time to really sit down and write write. But we're coming up with melodies and jotting down lyrical ideas all the time. We were just saying yesterday, "Man, we just can't wait to actually have the time and the wherewithal to just sit and flesh out all these ideas."
You two love your roller coasters and I know you've had Six Flags Magic Mountain passes in recent years. Which are your favorite rides?
Abner: Goliath and Superman are the best.
Amanda: I don't really like Superman but I love Goliath.
We have some dates in Florida coming up and we literally just asked our booking agent for a day off in Orlando so we could visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. I just want to pretend that I'm at Hogwarts.
Given that you now live in Los Angeles, what are some of your favorite—perhaps lesser-known—restaurants or other favorite spots?
Amanda: Number one is a dumpling place in Arcadia called Din Tai Fung. People are starting to discover it because it's also at the Americana in Glendale now, but that's the place I dream about when I'm on the road. Beyond that, we just found a great Thai place called the Rustic Spoon in North Hollywood.
Abner: In case you can't tell, food is a big deal to us. We do a lot of eating.
So you're loving it here in LA?
Abner: People often ask us what it's like to live in Los Angeles and if we'd ever move back to Nashville, and it never takes us more than a second to answer. LA's our home!
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Amanda and Abner!
Be sure to catch Johnnyswim tonight—June 3 at 8 p.m.—at the El Rey Theatre. Their full-length album, Diamonds, is available now.