Johnny Pisano – Johnny Pi to his friends and fans – never fails to attract attention, not easy to do when you’re in a band fronted by ebullient rocker Willie Nile. But Pisano’s Italian good looks and solid musicianship are augmented by some dazzling athleticism. His split jumps off the drum riser have obsessed photographers and caused audiences’ collective jaws to drop in amazement. But Pisano also has a rich history with punk rock and recently released his first solo record, Johnny Pisano’s Punk Rock Pizzeria: Everybody Gets a Slice. Recently, he talked about the record and his musical journey with ROLL.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a predominately Italian Mafia controlled neighborhood, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and I’m still there.
Were you always musical? What kind of kid were you?
When I was eight years old, I was a bit of an introvert. I would stay home like a hermit when all the other kids were out playing. It was kind of a phase I went through. When I was punished, my mother would kick me out of the house instead of keeping me in. I was always daydreaming. I would play hooky from school but while the other kids were out doing stuff, I would go sit on the top landing of my roof at the apartment we lived in and just stare at the wall for hours… just a very active daydreamer. And that kind of turned into being bullied in school, being the kid who got beat up. They’d take my lunch money and all that. I was afraid to go to school so I got left back in 5th grade. In 6th grade, one day I snapped! I literally saw black and when I came to, I was on top of one of them beating him up. From then on, my reputation was, that kid is crazy, don’t mess with him. Maybe a year after that I went to karate school, and became a Brown Belt, got into King Fu and Tai Chi and meditation and all that.
Was that when the interest in music began? Was bass your first instrument?
Me and my friend Mike Buffa would sit in my bedroom with a boom box and blast KISS. I would pretend to be Gene with a baseball bat and he would be Ace with a tennis racket. When we were 12 or 13, Mike’s neighbor, Emil Criscitiello, had a wedding band. He played guitar and also taught lessons, so he recruited us. I loved the bass. Every time I heard a song, even though they’d be blasting loud guitar solos and all the other stuff going on, my ear would literally push these instruments aside. I would want to know what that bass player was doing to complement that guitar solo, or to complement that vocal. I was obsessed with it. So, when Emil said he would teach me bass and teach Mike the guitar at the same time, I went to the store and got a $90 Cameo, a Fender Precision copy. He taught us how to find the notes on the neck, a few scales and how to play songs we liked with a slight haze of marijuana in the air. He was awesome and still is.
I don’t remember taking lessons for all that long, maybe a couple of months. After teaching us the rudiments, he taught me how to use my ear and how to teach myself basically. He would teach me a bass line and I would say yeah, that’s great, but Sting is not playing that exact bass line every time. He does it different sometimes. Emil said you’re going to have to find that yourself. So I would sit home with my vinyl. But since you can’t rewind a vinyl, I would record it onto a cassette and sit there pressing rewind, play, rewind, play. I would take that little part of the song and I would search with my hand up and down the neck trying to find these notes. My ear basically developed from that. Once my ear started getting good, I learned stuff I would tape off the radio, usually WLIR the alternative station. All of Bob Marley Legend, and I loved the Police back then, like 1981, ’82. I just learned anything I could get my hands on with good bass: Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin,The Who. I liked the anger of certain bands like The Who.
How did you get from those bands to punk?
Mike’s brother, Billy Buffa, was a drummer and he was in a couple of bands. He turned us on to punk. I said yeah, but there are no bass lines in it! But what’s that guy singing about? “Corporate death burger Ronald McDonald?” I don’t understand. Billy said just read the lyrics! And he was right. If you read the lyrics to these punk songs, it actually teaches you something that the news might not want you to know. So, I thought this is it, this is for me. It’s not just about music anymore, it’s about using the music to have a platform to say what you want to say. If you’re angry or frustrated about politics, if you’re angry about anything, you can stand up there and express yourself. Everything on the radio was about love in the same pop songs over and over. But being that young and being turned onto rebellious music…. I was already rebellious at that age! I just ate it up. Then I got turned onto The Clash. Joe Strummer was like the history teacher I never had and the band had great musicality too. And there are great bass lines! That band gave me the bass I desired as a beginning player and it gave me the passion and the lyrics and the admiration for these guys standing there with a platform to say something, to teach something. “The Guns of Brixton?” what’s that? I wanted to know. I wanted to learn it.
It actually helped me in school. I was horrible in school but my thirst for knowledge came more from the songs, from The Freeze or Regan Youth, The Dead Kennedys —these punk bands that no one had ever heard of in the pop world. The Ramones is a given. Dee Dee’s lyrics are kind of juvenile but meaningful. “Blitzkrieg Bop.” What’s that? What is Blitzkrieg? Is it a word they just made up? I looked it up. I asked questions. That’s what made me want more.
What was your first real band?
Mike’s brother was in an original band, Pressure Pressure, and their songwriter, Blaise DelBianco, said he wanted to give us his songs, help us out, be our manager. He and the guys in his band weren’t that much older than us —like 19— but when you’re 14, that’s a big deal. To find musicians, we used the Village Voice. On the back, there’s a thing called Public Notices. If you bypass the women seeking men, men seeking men, man seeking Great Dane to complete threesome, all kinds of crazy shit, there are music notices. You could find drummers or singers and people looking to form a band, so we put in our ad. We were looking for a drummer and singer. We had a few auditions, and Blaise helped us name the band. We were called Bundle of Nerves and it wasn’t a punk band, it was more New Wave. For the ‘80s, that type of music worked. The singer we found, Carmelo DiBartolo, later played with a ska band called Beat Brigade who still play around town. He wrote great songs too. We keep in touch to this day. (I was just at his house for dinner the other night.) We lasted maybe a year or two, playing at places like The Dive on 8th Ave and 33rd. I remember it had stuff glued to the ceiling like tables and chairs and giant lobsters. We were way too young to get in and there was no faking it at that age so Blaise made a deal. And it worked!
Most players start out playing guitar and then go to bass and will start playing covers before they do original stuff. I played bass first and my first band was an original band. Billy Buffa, who was my mentor and turned us on to bands like Fishbone and the Chili Peppers before anyone knew who they were, he unfortunately died at 22. I miss him to this day. He wasn’t in this first band, but we would all jam together in Blaise’s studio. Blaise is now unfortunately fighting off the grim reaper because he was a fireman on the bucket brigade after 9/11. He has the 9/11sickness and got bone cancer from that.
Was that when you became serious about playing?
I think I was always serious about playing and about wanting to be a musician, but I learned my chops in Blaise’s studio. Me and Mike had the keys to Blaise’s rehearsal space and we would go in and literally practice all night until 4 or 5 in the morning. We would be jamming on anything. It was just us stretching our creativity as far as we could. We were into King Crimson and weird odd time signatures and other psychedelic shit so we were just experimenting. And Blaise and Billy would jam with us with Blaise’s wife on psychedelic keyboard. Those were golden times.
Were you still going to school?
Just barely. I was never good in school. Finally, in the 10th grade, I just decided to stop going. I don’t know why, it just happened. I thought of going back to school, but I got a full-time job at 16. I was a building maintenance guy, started as a painter at a Navy base on Staten Island, Fort Wadsworth. My mother and a cousin worked there and helped me get the job since I needed one after dropping out of school. I started out painting alone for eight hours at night. There I am alone again. Then a year later, I got promoted to building maintenance and worked days fixing stuff: minor electrical and plumbing, building walls, fixing office doors —I became a bit of a handyman. Matt Hogan [Willie Nile’s guitar player] calls me Schneider, you know, the superintendent from the TV show One Day at a Time. I go to his house and he says, glad you’re here, bring your tools up, my toilet’s not running right. So for 8 years, 1985 – 93, I worked there. I was never in the Navy and I had long hair so I kinda stood out amongst the military types. A year later, for some reason of my own, I went back to GED school, taking classes and I wound up getting my GED. It was a big proud moment for me and my mother.
But you were still playing music?
I was always playing, yeah. We had a punk band back then and we were doing Clash and Dictators covers and ironically, I was the singer. One band was called Rude Boy. We did Battle of the Bands and some parties. I was playing with drummer Roger Colletti, who now works for Sirius XM, and Alex Colletti, his brother, who was huge at MTV. He was one of the five people who invented Unplugged. Those guys ended up doing a lot for music. There was another band we created called Complete Control and the drummer in that band was in a popular punk band called the Sic Fucks, he called himself Harry Vederci, get it? Arrivederci? Tish and Snooky from that band became Manic Panic Hair Dye and they became super successful with it. It’s worldwide now. In the band, they were pregnant nuns. So, we were doing originals and covers and getting them on the radio, WFMU – the one station that was playing punk at the time.
When did you start singing?
It just kind of happened. There was no one else who would sing, so I sang.
Did you know you could sing?
I was always making funny sounds, imitating cartoons or my mother and sisters’ voices to make fun of them, to the point where they couldn’t tell who was saying what. Since they forced me to watch that soap opera Dynasty, I would imitate the trumpet in the intro song loudly. I was also singing at home with my records. I could hit the notes, more or less in key. I didn’t consider myself a singer at the time, I didn’t really have my own voice —I would just imitate people. We wanted to get our music out and nobody else wanted to sing, so I said I’ll do it until we find somebody.
What was your ‘look’ like back then?
I was growing my hair long or shaving it or coloring it, doing something weird with it so as to not fit in. Everybody needs to show some individuality and my way was dressing different. But I was also working on a navy base so I could only go so far.
Were you ambitious?
I guess, but I didn’t really know what the term ‘making it’ meant. When I was a kid I thought, I want to be a rock star, I want to get girls, make tons of money. But what does that term ‘making it’ mean anyway? When I was a kid I thought if I don’t ‘make it’ by the time I’m 21, I’d better do something else. I’m going to try to find another trade because here I am building offices and fixing electrical sockets. Well, 21 came and went while I was in a band called Crispy Brown. That was with Mike and Carmelo from Bundle of Nerves, Matt Kutner on keys, and drummers Mike Brenna and Al Veteri. From 1991 – 95, that band was our baby. We rehearsed a lot, and we played the Bitter End every two weeks and tried to branch out to Boston here and there. But while we wanted to ‘make it’ we wanted to do it our way. We played funk/punk/reggae. Whenever we tried to get a record deal they would say, you guys are really great but what category do I put you in? This song is punk, this one is straight up roots reggae and this other song is like Living Color meets the Chili Peppers, I’m not sure what to do with this. We just wanted to play whatever we wanted, why do we have to play everything in the same genre, why does it have to be that way? World music wasn’t popular yet, no one even knew what that was. So, I like to say we were ahead of our time, but we couldn’t get a record deal back then, and that was one of the excuses they would give us: We can’t market you, because your reggae song is really great and your funk song is really great and your punk song has a really good hook but we don’t know how to market you. In 1995, before we disbanded, we were playing a gig at the Bitter End when I had my first brush with anyone famous. We were playing and afterwards this guy came over to me and said, I’ve been looking all over the city for a great bass player for my band and you’re the guy. And I said, hi Woody Harrelson. It was Woody from Cheers! I was like, oh my god what do I do? I was so into our band, my buddies.
Did you still have your day job?
I got laid off from the Navy job in ’93 when they moved to Virginia, so in ‘94 I started working as a FedEx delivery guy in the Garment District. I wanted to take advantage of this thing with Woody, but I was also really afraid of losing my job. My father was a workaholic and I definitely have his work ethic, and I didn’t want to risk losing my livelihood. My mind started playing tricks on me, do I quit my job? What about my band? Woody said come upstate to Taconic, where he lived, we’ll take care of you, we’ll rehearse and we’ll tour. I was scared to death of everything. I drove up there and I lasted a day or two but I had to apologize and leave. It was such a weird, mind-bending thing that happened to me. To this day, I say to myself: opportunity knocked and I slammed the door in its face! I felt terrible about it. But it was also an eye opener – because somebody wanted to pay me to play music. And here we were, scrounging money to make up postcards to promote our gigs. After I said no, and came home and went back to work, I’d see these Natural Born Killers movie billboards everywhere – and my heart was bleeding… but everything happens for a reason. And even though playing with Woody and his band may not have been the right opportunity for me, (it turns out Woody didn’t tour much and nothing ever came of it), it was a cool thing to have happen and it made me realize how precious these opportunities are when they come around.
Tell me about your family. Are there other musicians?
My mother and father weren’t musical. He was an oil burner mechanic, but his mother was an opera singer. My grandmother actually made a record – one of those records that break if you drop them, before vinyl. When she met my grandfather, he said we can be together but I don’t want you hanging out in these clubs. It’s either me or the music. So, my grandmother gave up her music career for my grandfather, one of those old-school things that unfortunately still happens in relationships. My aunt, my father’s sister, was a keyboard player in a band. So, if you believe it comes from blood, then any musicality I had came from them.
How did you hook up with Marky Ramone?
Crispy Brown was rehearsing at Rockaway Studios in Rockaway Beach, Queens, one day and the guy who worked behind the desk, Mark Neuman, was a guitar player for a punk band, Sheer Terror. He said he had been playing bass with Marky Ramone, and that they wrote a record together. Marky was looking to tour as soon as the Ramones retired, but Mark didn’t want to tour. So he introduced me to Marky in April of ’96, and we hit it off, and that’s how I joined Marky Ramone and the Intruders. It’s almost like opportunity knocked again within a year of the Woody incident. The Ramones were still touring – they were doing the last shows at Lollapalooza in ’96 —so we were hanging out and rehearsing during this time. Six months after they retired we went to South America. We played this festival, one of those Rock in Rio things. It was the Sex Pistols reunion tour so the very first time I played with Marky Ramone was in front of 20,000 people in Brazil. That was the biggest mosh pit I’ve ever seen and it was happening for us! The lineup was us, Cypress Hill, Silverchair, Space Hogs, Screaming Trees, Bad Religion and the Sex Pistols. Then we did it again in Sao Paolo and I fell in love with that place. Shortly after that, I wrote a song called “The Streets of Sao Paolo” that’s now on my new record.
What did you like about Sao Paolo?
It reminded me of New York in the 70’s when there was still garbage everywhere, and you had to watch your back a bit walking around. I like Sao Paolo for the same reasons. It just reminded me of when there were hookers in the street, transvestites doing whatever, it has character.
So, you had a pretty long run with Marky Ramone.
I spent four years with Marky. We went to South America every year for a month at a time. We’d go to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, but mostly Brazil. The rest of the year, we toured around the states. We would do a little Canada and all of western Europe. We would go all the way from Sweden out to Croatia. We dipped into Italy. We would dip into the UK a bit. That four years was incredible and I kept my FedEx job the whole time.
How in the world did you manage that?
I’d get to the airport in Sao Paolo and people would be taking pictures of me just because my picture’s on the back of the record. And I’m thinking, this is crazy. My hand hurt from signing my name so much. We would do these in-stores in a mall where the kids would be lined up outside around the corner. I would fly home, and the next day I would be with FedEx, carrying these heavy packages to the garment district where some guy in a suit wouldn’t hold the door for me. My ego was kept in check by the reality of that. But it was my work ethic that wouldn’t allow me to quit. Because Marky Ramone wasn’t always busy playing gigs, it wasn’t enough to maintain life and rent and all that. So, I kept the job the whole time. We wrote together too for when we made a second record.
Was this the beginning of writing for you?
I wrote when I was a teenager too, just now and then, a poem here and there. I wrote a song called “Don’t Think” about a girl I was trying to forget at the time. Marky liked it and it was on the Marky Ramone and the Intruders second record. I re-recorded it for my new record and I added a bridge. With Marky, we were gonna do a third record, so I told him, I got this idea for a song, “All Fucked Up From Growing Up,” and he liked it. That’s also on my new record, so that’s how old that song is, we’re talking 1998. I also wrote “The Streets of Sao Paolo” and he liked that enough that we were starting to play it live. In 2000, we played that song in Sao Paolo people were digging it. We were going to put it on our next record, but then we disbanded. Marky just didn’t want to deal with record companies anymore. We were opening for the Misfits a bunch and they wanted Marky to tour with them as their guest drummer. He figured out that he could do better playing Ramones covers than original music. I don’t blame him. He didn’t have to deal with record companies, and it made his life easier. We maintain a friendship to this day, I love the guy. He’s got a band called Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg and he plays everywhere. He does guest DJ work and he’s got his own show on Sirius. He told me that he’d be playing my record on it, which would be great.
Where did you go from there?
Within a couple of months, drummer Joe Rizzo said that Jesse Malin, the singer of D Generation, was looking for a bass player. Jesse was playing at Brownie’s on Avenue A and 12th Street. First thing he said to me was, ‘You look like a young Harvey Keitel!’ We laughed. Next thing you know we’re playing together and became great buddies. The name of the band was Tsing-Tsing and we did a bunch of shows. Then Jesse decided to change the name of the band to Bellevue and we made a record. We did a tour as Bellevue, to LA and back, and had a lot of fun. Ryan Adams produced Jesse’s first solo record. He got another drummer and guitar player, and Jesse Malin the solo artist was born. That was the start of recording the album The Fine Art of Self Destruction. Ryan Adams played guitar, sang background vocals, and produced the whole thing. I played upright bass on a song on that record.
Did you have an upright bass then?
My mother was working in an office and the person who worked next to her said, your son plays bass? My son has a big thing in the attic, you want it? So I got an upright bass from that which was pretty cool. I put money into it fixing it up and I still play it. That’s the bass you hear on “Subway” on the Jesse Malin record. I was with Jesse from 2000 to 2005. Ryan Adams loved Jesse’s band, so he borrowed us for a couple of his records and I ended up playing a few songs on Love is Hell part 1 and 2 and Rock and Roll.
I look at Jesse as the mayor of the Lower East Side. He’s not just an amazing guy and amazing songwriter, he’s an artist and a bar owner. He is part owner of a bunch of cool establishments including Bowery Electric, Dream Baby and Berlin. He was also part owner of Coney Island High back in the day. He creates a scene. If he wore a blue hat for a month, I bet that soon after everybody would be wearing that blue hat. He’s always on point. Never needs caffeine, he and Willie Nile have that in common. They don’t need it because they’re already there, up and ready to go.
Did you still have the FedEx job?
I quit FedEx in 2003. I decided at that point that I just wanted to be a musician. It took 10 years for me to just say fuck it but living in New York you always have to have another job so I did other things even worked security in a brothel but that’s another story. So, I still do other things.
So were you able to support yourself as a fulltime musician?
At the time I started playing with a bunch of different people, including a band called Musiciens Sans Frontières. We did a tour of Europe and went to Hungary and Romania. It was interesting. It was an artsy kind of music, art-rock, I guess it would be called. There was a violin player in the band, Susan Mitchell. She is also an actress and said she could get me work in films. She said once in a while, they need upright bass players to fake-play in films. Great! Within a few months she got me a gig playing in the Metropolitan Opera House, one of the most prestigious places in the world to fake-play for this movie called Margaret. I’ve never even seen the film but not too much later, another friend hooked me up on another film. They needed music done and could I come to the studio and record “My Funny Valentine” on the upright bass and a Hot Chocolate song on electric. Someone from the film said, there’s a scene in the film that has a band, do you guys want to be in the film? So I worked another two days on this film Perfect Stranger with Bruce Willis, Halle Berry and Heidi Klum. After that, Susan explained how the union works. She said you got 3 waivers, you could join. So I wound up doing a bunch more films playing bass and was able to join SAG a year later. Ever since, in addition to music, I’ve been doing films and TV. That’s what I do. Shows like Law and Order, White Collar, and The Sopranos, either as an extra or photo double. I was a stand-in for John Magaro on a Wes Craven film. We also did Not Fade Away, David Chase’s film after The Sopranos. I got to eat lunch with James Gandolfini and Lisa Lampanelli a bunch. I was never in the film except at a distance, but as a stand-in you have to be there every day. As an extra, you’re there once and then they can’t use you in other scenes because of the continuity. I made a nice amount of money for a guy like me by being there 16-hour days for two months. I also had some really great experiences with the film. Right now, I haven’t done a film in about 6 months because music has kept me really busy, I’m happy getting hired to write bass lines to record on people’s records or play in other people’s gigs, but I mainly play with Willie Nile.
How did that come about?
When Willie was looking for a bass player in 2007, he went to Jesse Malin. He said Johnny is the guy you want. He comes prepared, shows up on time — he’s your guy. That’s one of the reasons that I love Jesse. He has gotten me gigs with Deborah Harry, David Johansen, and other really cool people. So, I met with Willie and had a gig with him opening up for the Counting Crows at the PNC Art Center scheduled for a couple of months later. At the time, there were Hurricane Katrina benefits going on and I was helping a friend of mine, photographer Kyra Kverno, who did the videos on my 5-day countdown announcing the birth of Johnny Pisano’s Punk Rock Pizzeria. She said if you wouldn’t mind being stage manager— ya know, getting bands on and off the stage on time on this particular night. It turned out Willie was playing that night and his bass player showed up at the wrong venue in Brooklyn! He was miles away in Williamsburg while we were in Park Slope. So Willie said, I know I told you the gig is two months away, but I don’t suppose you know any of those songs? I did learn a few. I borrowed a bass from one of the other bands and it was me, Jimmy Vivino, Rich Pagano on drums and Willie. So the very first gig we did was a fluke because the bass player didn’t show and I happened to have learned the songs already. I shocked them because I went through the songs and pretty much nailed it. I even started singing backgrounds. Not to toot my own horn, but I got the point across. Want to know the big secret? Show up on time, learn your parts, don’t be an asshole. That’s how you gotta be. When I’m creating bass lines for people and I hear a lyric go dark in the subject matter, I might write a darker bass line. The lyrics affect the mood. I’m not going to play a happy bass line unless it’s being sarcastic like punk. So I basically try to make my bass lines go with the subject matter. This was 2007 – 2008 and we ended up doing that Counting Crows gig at the PNC Arts Center with like 6 of us onstage. Then we started to do trio gigs: me, Willie, and Frankie Lee on drums, traveling in my car. And sometimes, because Frankie worked for ASCAP and couldn’t get off work, me and Willie started doing duo gigs. I was singing harmonies and because Willie doesn’t want to solo on acoustic guitar, I started doing solos on the bass. We still do these duo shows. People dig it as something different, more intimate. We just went to Anchorage Alaska for a couple of duo gigs. It was awesome!
Is Willie the only gig now?
No I still play with lots of other people. I played on Eljuri’s new record and K.O.’s new record, as well as on a few songs on Tommy London’s new record, just to name a few. But I’ve been mainly playing with Willie. He’s kept me really busy for the past 8 or 9 years. One of the other things I’ve done is a tour with Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live. In New York City, we played Town Hall. It was incredible. He’s a punk, and he has fake bands. Because he’s a comedian, he puts on a blonde Billy Idol-looking wig and calls the band Ian Rubbish and he puts on this snotty fake English accent. He has another fake band that sounds like Steely Dan and he puts on a different wig. We play one or two songs, then we get off and there’s more comedy bits and video bits and then he puts on another wig and I change jackets. But he doesn’t mind schooling his audience on punk. He’s a great musician — no ego, amazing guy, always a pleasure. Doing that connected me to playing on Late Night with Seth Myers.
When did you decide to do your own record?
Some stuff happened in my life a few years ago, and I needed something. I needed an outlet for my brain. I always wanted to do my own shit, and I had these songs sitting here for 20 years. I know that Willie Nile fans are not necessarily punk rockers, and I do have some songs that aren’t punk songs. But I said fuck it, I’m going to make a punk record and I don’t care if anybody likes it or not. I was determined. So not every song on this record is punk. “Maloveilove” is more of a rock tune. There’s punk lyrics when I start cursing in the bridge, but it’s not punk per se. By the way, I sang alternate lyrics with no cursing for certain radio stations or people with kids. I did a reggae version of Willie Nile’s “One Guitar.” It sounds really beautiful, so I put that on the record too.
Where did the Punk Rock Pizzeria come from?
I came up with this concept about how everybody makes fun of my name. I’ve been hearing that since I’m 8 years old. The whole concept of Johnny Pisano’s Punk Rock Pizzeria—I know it’s a long title but I just thought it was kind of funny. I didn’t want to make a comedy record where everything is funny but I just wanted to put some quirky things here and there. “The Know It Alls” is something that I had been working on since 2000 and I finished it in 2004. “The Streets of Sao Paolo” was written in 1998, “All Fucked Up From Growing Up” was written in 1998, and “Don’t Think” was also written in 1997 – 98 and was on Marky Ramone’s second record. I really only had 7 tunes and I didn’t want this to be an EP, I wanted it to be a full record. So I dug up “Don’t Think,” redid it and added a bridge. I also had “The Streets of Sao Paulo.” So, I wound up putting that on, making it a total of 9 songs. Then I had the concept of a pizzeria. But I didn’t have any songs about pizza, and I didn’t care. But we would be driving to some gig and Matt Hogan and Willie would say I was Pi-sexual or everything was Pi-riffic or Pi-tastic – they get really creative with it in the car like two kids.
When Matt writes a joke, he runs it into the ground. I’d be standing right there talking to someone and he’d come over and say, you see this guy? Pi-tastic! Matt is the funniest guy I know. But then I thought, I can make a song out of that! But I can’t make a song about myself because that would be narcissistic and I hate ego, But I could write a song about pizza! So I came up with “Pi-licious Bitches,” just a play on words so people might think the song is about me, but then they put it on and they realize it’s not. I had another idea for a song about a girl dating a superhero about how amazing it would be, like that movie My Super Ex-Girlfriend with Uma Thurman. How great would it be to have sex with your superhero partner? Just think, they save the world and you’re with them! However, this superhero can do anything and everything. You can never tell one little white lie. He would know. What if he’s jealous? So now you’re on the phone and he’s floating outside your 17th floor window hearing your conversation. He can read your mind! It’s supposed to take you on a journey of thought: Dating a superhero, this is great! Oh wait, maybe not. I had an idea to put the Mighty Mouse theme at the beginning. That’s me singing with Arlene Feiles playing all the instruments. Then I made it sound small, like it was coming out of a 1940s television. I did 15 seconds of that, and then I did another version at the end of the record as a hidden track. Ten seconds after the record is completely over, if you let it roll it comes back. I had another idea for a song called “Midlife Crisis” about a guy dating an older woman. He wants to be everything to her but doesn’t want to be that.
Everybody Gets A Slice?
Matt, who makes fun of me about everything, would always say, “Johnny Pi, everybody gets a slice.” I’m a very friendly, easy-going guy and like to talk to people, especially the ones who come out of their way to see us play. So he named the record without even knowing it. He also makes fun of how when I talk to people, sometimes I touch their arm or grab their shoulder —ya know, to connect. I don’t do it consciously. Then Willie started to call me Jumping Johnny because I started doing these split jumps at live shows. So we created this little acting bit. I had Tommy London play Vito and Matt to play this guy Tony. According to Matt, Tony is supposed to be sitting in a bar, his wife and his mother-in-law dragged him to see this band, Willie Nile, but he’d rather watch the game. So his wife and mother-in-law are seeing me play and he’s across the street at a bar watching the game and not giving a shit and then Vito comes in. This is the beginning of “Midlife Crisis.” You hear a bar crowd, then you hear the television. It’s the crack of a bat, then you hear the announcer and you can tell it’s a bar scene. Vito comes in and says, hey Tony what are you doing here? Tony says my wife and mother-in-law dragged me down here to see this guy play —Jumping Jiminy, Jumping Jack Rabbit — I don’t know. But if he touches my wife’s arm again, I’m gonna jump down his throat. That’s the punch line and the song “Midlife Crisis” starts. Matt was very persistent, he said it has to be my wife and my mother-in-law. We wrote the script out. It was so funny.
The split jumps….did you always do them? You know that people would be disappointed if they came to one of your shows and you didn’t jump.
Since I was a kid in punk bands, I would jump around. With Marky Ramone, I would just jump off his drum kit or whatever – I was always running around. Then I kind of started perfecting it a bit because as a musician, you don’t only want to jump, you want to land on the 1. It’s like 1, 2, 3, jump in the air for 4 and land on the 1. It’s kind of a trick. It’s not just getting up there and stretching your legs out. Photographers try and catch me doing it, so I tell them I only do it in certain places where I know I can land on the 1 — like the beginning of Willie Nile’s “House of 1000 Guitars.” people try and get it when my legs are horizontal, which is tricky because you’re only up there for a moment.
It has gotten to be a bit of a signature!
My friend John Favorite, who was the bouncer of the Scrap Bar back in the day, said I watched you since we were kids and I love that jump you do. He’s also an artist —spray paint, graffiti, all kinds of graphic art. He made this cool t-shirt design. It’s great what he did! He made a bunch of shirts of my jump, people wanted them so we had to make more. Now I have this logo, the jumping guy on the front and the name “Johnny Pisano’s Punk Rock Pizzeria” on the back. I also have a fork sculpture which came from when we were kids and would be in a diner at 3 am and there was cheap silverware. So this guy Chris Johnson and I would bend all the forks. Then this girl Danielle Redbird made beautiful pizza slices out of wood and stained them and used a different stain for the crust. I just put together an Etsy page, so all that is there, along with jewelry — a pizza pendant! Check it out at etsy.com/JohnnyPisano
I just have one more question: Whatever happened to Mike Buffa? Is he still playing music?
Mike and I met when we were five, learned how to play together, and were in bands together up to the late ‘90s. Then he started learning how to tech for bands which means you’re not only changing guitar strings, adjusting the neck, but if something goes wrong with the wiring, you pull out a solder gun and you fix it. He builds the effects racks for artists like Peter Frampton. Mark Snyder, who was working for Vernon Reid, Metallica, and Dream Theater, taught Mike how to do it. Mike has been touring starting with Alanis Morrisette and then Dream Theater. He’s out now with Maroon 5, has been on the road with them for the past five years, and doing great.
Might you do another record?
Once I forget how hard it was to make this record, I have a whole other one in my head and it’s not punk rock. It’s Flaming Lips, Gomez-y, kind of singer/songwriter-y indie stuff and who knows? I have a Christmas song that’s like Frank Sinatra style. We’ll see how it goes, but right now I can’t even think about it, it was so much fucking work.
After the show I did at Mercury Lounge, putting on a cape for “Superhero” and a chef’s hat for “Pilicious Bitches” and a Trump wig singing the Clash’s “I’m So Bored with the USA,” people are demanding it! If I do, it will be in the summer. Tommy London and Matt Hogan recorded Tommy’s solo record and he’s going to do a CD release show soon and he wants me to open for him. So my next gig might be at the Bowery Ballroom before the Tommy London show or maybe I’ll put something together at the Wonder Bar with other cool bands. We’ll see!
Featured image by Kyra Kverno
“One Guitar Mon’” Edited by Dave Stekert
For more on Johnny, visit Johnnypisano.com
His Facebook page:
Or his Etsy site:
Kay Cordtz has been fascinated by music and musicians since elementary school when she ran home from school every day to watch American Bandstand. Since then, she has been a newspaper reporter, political spokeswoman, government science writer and freelance chronicler of local music scenes during a 30+-year career. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism