The Core: Aaron Johnston

Mike Greenhaus on April 17, 2020
The Core: Aaron Johnston

The Brazilian Girls drummer opens up about his band’s split with their singer, his current health crisis and life on David Byrne’s percussion bus.

Taking the Bull by the Horns

Brazilian Girls have had a couple of pauses. About 10 years ago, we were doing pretty well, and it was a little overwhelming for our singer, Sabina Sciubba. I don’t know if she got burned out or what, but she stopped wanting to do a lot of shows. She also became a mom, but this all started to happen before that. It was totally understandable— however, it got to the point where she wanted to do less and less and we said, “We want to move on and keep playing.” We’d already put a lot of effort into this business and were discouraged by how much work it would have taken to rebuild the band at the time, so we took a break.

Eventually, we all agreed to start working again. We played some shows and made a new album, but once we put forth the effort to make the record, it seemed like the same things started happening again. We kept offering Sabina shows and she just didn’t want to play. We finally decided to take the bull by the horns and move forward. She understood, and we actually went out and did some shows without her. We just did this tour with Thievery Corporation. There have been funny comments on social media since all this happened, but anyone who has actually seen the show has had nothing but positive things to say. And a lot of people had never even seen the band before, so they didn’t know the difference.

Unleashed Again

I don’t mean to single out Sabina, but it was usually her who didn’t want to do a show— it’s just the truth. We have tried to deal with it and tried to be as understanding as possible over the years. But these opportunities kept coming up and we just ended up passing on them because of Sabina. And we all missed playing music together.

Sabina is one of a kind, but [keyboardist] Didi Gutman, [bassist] Jesse Murphy and I have a really special chemistry together as well. We’ve developed that sound for years and there’s a future. We are in the process of making some new tracks with different guests. Norah Jones is going to do some tracks with us, and we will continue to work with different singers, known or unknown. And we are gonna go out on tour with different people. After all this time, we have built a name and a brand: You’re gonna come and have this experience, whether that means we have a horn section instead of a singer or two singers at a time, like Thievery. The future of Brazilian Girls is going to open up a little bit more into that instrumental territory. We can play five songs over an hour and a half. And, that doesn’t mean that Sabina is done playing with Brazilian Girls either—we could do shows with her, too. Everyone is really inspired, and we just feel a little bit unleashed again. We’ve kinda had our balls in a vice for a little bit too long, so to speak.

A Code-Red Situation

I have this rare genetic disease called Fabry and, unfortunately, I caught it really late. If you look at my blood work, it does not look good. I’ve discovered—from going to doctors over the last four years—that I have kidney disease and the doctors were baffled. They would say, “You’re a young, healthy guy. Every other part of you is healthy.” At the same time, I started developing heart problems—cardiomyopathy, which is an enlarging of the heart. I did a kidney biopsy and, from that biopsy, they discovered this potential genetic disease that could be causing these problems. So I did further testing, and it turns out that I have Fabry, which attacks the kidney, the heart and the brain, in the sense that it could give you a stroke. It’s a lack of an enzyme in the blood that actually breaks down the fat in the blood. So there is a buildup happening in your blood. The kidney is basically like one big blood vessel, so it obviously attacks that right away and stops the function. And after so much damage, the kidney can’t repair itself like the heart or the liver or any of those other organs. So it has gotten to the point where I have stage-five kidney disease. My kidney function is under 10 percent now and the same issues are happening with my heart.

There is a treatment for this genetic disease and, fortunately, I am what they call a “classic case.” But it is the most vicious type, apparently. That is what I am really trying to get under control now. I’ve already had three treatments. They are every two weeks and I have to do blood infusions. But it’s a code-red situation. I get really tired, everything swells up—my ankles, my knees—and I am getting these crazy muscle cramps that wake me up in the middle of the night. My doctor at NYU is actually a big fan of Brazilian Girls—we played his wedding about 12 years ago— and he’s like, “Don’t worry, I am going to give you the VIP treatment.” But I need a kidney transplant.

I never thought I’d be saying this, but I look forward to getting a kidney transplant because it’ll change everything for the better. It’s going to be a pretty hard recovery and I am going to be on tons of medicine, but once I get over that, I should be back to some kind of normalcy—I should have some energy and strength again

A lot of people don’t realize that before you are approved to be a kidney donor, you have to go through some pretty excruciating testing. And no doctor is going to let you donate a kidney without being absolutely sure that nothing will go wrong with you in the future. If you donate a kidney, then your other kidney basically takes up the slack for the kidney you donated.

J.E.D.I. Powers

My health situation has kind of put everything on the back burner, but I had some really good momentum going with my new band, J.E.D.I. Johnston. I’ve also been trying to finish my recording studio, with the hope of being more prolific in the production world. I’ve been in this zone, writing and recording new music—I’m trying to focus on composing more music and getting more production work done, recording with J.E.D.I. Johnston and with Brazilian Girls.

We played a bunch of shows at the new Nublu [club] in New York with different guests each week. The goal was to eventually have a set lineup. I do realize that a lot of these guys that I want to play with are busy doing other things, but my original thought was to poke my head into several different scenes and use a lot of these musicians that I have known for years—close friends who have their own successful bands. They would help me get the word out in a way. I’m still skimming the surface, even though the concept is there. Ultimately, the whole idea with that project is based on all the electronics that I’m using. I would love to have a steady trio—a keyboard player and a bass player—and then have special guests come in and out.

Old Friends and Nublus

[Brazilian Girls came together at the original Nublu] and it was definitely a special place. There were not only good musicians hanging out there, but also actors, writers, photographers and dancers. It was pretty thriving at that moment. Everybody was feeding off of each other. It was nice to have been able to experience that. And the vibe Ilhan Ersahin, the owner, set up and created is absolutely still there. It’s free spirited and it’s a very open and cool vibe. It’s definitely still the place to play on a hipster, creative trip in New York.

I also used to live in the Bay Area. When I first moved out there, I started playing with people like David Grisman, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger, who are all heavy bluegrass crossover players, and with Chris Thile. People like Michael Kang looked up to Mike Marshall and those guys. That’s how I met Michael and the rest of [String Cheese], and it just spread from there and I’d sit in with them. Michael and I had a couple of bands together, including Commotion with Darol, Mike Marshall, Jeff Sipe, Paul McCandless and Tye North of Leftover Salmon.

American Utopia

I’ve known David [Byrne] for a long time. When Brazilian Girls were still getting going, he came out to see our shows. He offered me a yearlong tour with his solo project when Brazilian Girls were about to do our first big tour a number of years ago. But I was 110% into Brazilian Girls at that time and had to turn it down, though Brazilian Girls did end up doing some tracks with him.

Then, things came back around. Mauro Refosco, who was in charge of putting together a percussion group of mostly Brazilian drummers for David’s American Utopia shows, asked me to do that tour. This time I said yes, and I did most of it— about five-and-a-half-months of solid touring. At the same time, I was going through all of this stuff with my health and I was about to have twins. So, I talked to David and got out gracefully from doing that entire thing. The drummers had our own tour bus, and those guys are like my brothers. I recorded all this footage of us playing together for a documentary. After every show, we would come back to the drum bus and record.

[American Utopia] made total sense for Broadway right from the beginning. After our first show, there were people approaching David from Broadway. Even though I’m not doing the Broadway thing, I’m so happy for the rest of the band. They can stick around New York and not have to tour like that. Most of those guys have families, and that kind of touring is just insane. But David can do it—he is in good health and he’s so smart. He’s an animal in that way.