About a decade ago, Judo Pony was a popular live band in Eugene, playing light punk and alternative-influenced, ’90s-style guitar rock.
In 2010, Judo Pony entered Last Band Standing, a battle of the bands-style competition sponsored by Eugene new rock radio station KNRQ. They made it to the finals. Their sound, also integrating elements of No Depression alternative country and soul music, was rendered with the tenacity of a hard-gigging road band.
“We had some success, and lots of folks were coming out,” Judo Pony singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter Jason Johnson tells me over the phone.
Despite that early success, the band went dormant.
“I wouldn’t say the band broke up,” Johnson says. “We just lost momentum.” Nevertheless, in October of this year of this year, Judo Pony finally released its debut full-length album, Paper Mountains.
Almost all the tracks on the finished product were recorded while the band was more active. All that was left to do was polish them. For personal and professional reasons, though, the album remained incomplete. That unfinished business troubled Johnson.
“As time went by, we couldn’t get to a spot where we could get the thing finished,” he says. “We were knee-deep in our man hours recording this thing, and we wanted our efforts to pay off.”
In his early 20s, Johnson signed a record deal with Micah Records in Northridge, California. His band, Forty Save One, built a following of its own, playing pop-punk Christian guitar rock in the mid-’90s. Raised in Eugene, Johnson tells me that he grew up in a conservative Christian household. “As a good Christian kid, I thought I should write some good Christian music.” At the time, Johnson and his band supported artists like MXPX, Switchfoot and P.O.D. — big-name crossover acts at the time, with followings outside of Christian music.
Despite that success, Johnson some became disillusioned with the scene, calling it a “crock of shit.”
“It just wasn’t my thing,” he says,
Though turned off on Christian rock, Johnson never stopped making music, playing in a series of bands — most notably Speedshift, who signed to Arkham Records out of Portland, and, of course, Judo Pony, which never signed a deal, despite a strong local audience.
With Judo Pony, including Sam Wartenbee on bass guitar and vocals and Ben Schaaf on drums and vocals, Johnson wanted to move away from Christian rock, looking instead toward alternative country artists like The Jayhawks as well as classic country like Hank Snow — the sort of stuff his grandparents listened to.
Also influencing Johnson were soul and R&B artists like Joe Cocker and Stevie Wonder, evidenced by the climactic riot of horns from Paper Mountains closer “Charity,” just one of many fan-favorites featured on the album.
Above all else, though, Paper Mountains is like a time capsule from guitar rock’s last great heyday — the ’90s. It’s a solid, well-executed return to form, reflecting Johnson’s love for bands like U2 and The Lemonheads as well as alt country.
“I’ve wanted to take the Judo Pony stuff,” he says, “but throw more of the ’90s pop-rock vibe: less horns and pedal steel, but the same kind of feeling behind it. Ultimately all of that infused itself into the album that’s out now.”
After all these years, Johnson still loves the songs on the record and feels they’re just as relevant as they were when the band played them live nearly a decade ago. “Even more, given the political and social climate in the world right now,” he adds.
“All these songs were written either from my own humanity, or trying to tell the story of somebody else’s humanity. If I write something and it doesn’t move me, there’s no way it’s going to move someone else,” he says. “I felt that this is the time to get this thing out because people are struggling: so much use versus them: how do we get through this together.”
Wartenbee says having the album finally released feels like one of those I-thought-the-day-would-never-come scenarios. “I’m grateful, and incredibly proud of it — it’s easily in the top five or 10 albums I’ve ever worked on,” he says.
Paper Mountains is out now on all major music streaming services and on CD from Take92.com and FusionBombRecords.com.