Ricky Thomas – guitar
Paul James Phillips – guitar
Wade Carpenter – bass
Dave Moreno – drums
Lots of hard rock bands channel insecurity and pessimism into songs that spit and roar about the unfairness of it all. Operator takes the opposite approach. Fronted by consummate performer, multi-instrumentalist, mixed martial arts fighter, gunslinger, and all around modern renaissance man Johnny Strong, Operator is all about believing in yourself, embracing the moment and making the impossible happen.
“I believe in the positive power, strength, and perseverance of the human spirit,” Strong says. “As far as I’m concerned, you can just take your weakness, pain, hopelessness, complaints, and depression and put them in a box wrapped with dynamite, and I’ll throw it over a bridge and explode it because to exist like that is a complete waste of your life.”
A soldier of self-empowerment, Strong speaks with a commanding voice that rings loudly throughout Soulcrusher, Operator’s major label debut. A triumphant album in the spirit of some of Strong’s favorite artists—Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Guns N’ Roses—Soulcrusher pays homage to the past, but maintains a spirit and philosophy that transcends its influences. More than anything, the disc is an inspirational reality slap, a high five to those who make the most out of life, and a dire warning to anyone who lacks the courage to follow their dreams.
“Soulcrusher is my theory about the way the universe is,” Strong explains. “We have these ideas of God, love, and hate, and we think they’re really important. But if you take those thoughts and put them outside the atmosphere of this planet, they get vacuum sucked away, and there’s nothing. It’s just ice, gas, and rocks. And because of that, I can’t be bogged down when somebody goes, ‘Oh, I don’t really like that guitar part,’ or, ‘I don’t really like what you’re saying.’ Because I have this short little time on this planet, and I’m going to do exactly what I feel. I’ve learned that if you don’t take control of your life and your destiny and your career, you’re fucked.”
Strong is a gifted songwriter, actor, and fighter, but he refuses to categorize himself as any of the above, instead viewing each talent as part of a composite whole. “Those titles don’t mean anything and the term ‘artist’ is so abused,” he scoffs. “I just need to express myself. If I’m punching somebody in the face, playing guitar, singing, running and jumping over a building, shooting machine guns, or sitting in a scene with someone doing some emotional thing, I’m not labeling myself as an expert in anything. I just need and love to create.”
The thunderous rhythms, passionate melodies, and urgent messages on Soulcrusher reveal Strong’s no-holds-barred attitude and passion for creativity. The title track builds from a tense, terse, echoing verse to a swaggering, stomping chorus. “Nothing to Lose” ignites like a Molotov cocktail against a wooden fence, burning down the visage of mediocrity and restraint. The impassioned “Delicate” is the late-night whisper of a girlfriend into a cell phone, assuring you that everything’s going according to plan.
Strong entered the studio to start recording Soulcrusher in late 2005. By early 2006, he had finished most of the album, but returned to the studio several times to fine tune the material. In addition to penning all the tunes, he sang, played guitar, bass, keyboards, and some drums on the album. Three of the songs were co-written by guitarist Paul James Phillips (ex-Puddle of Mudd). “I’m real big on Guns N’ Roses and Skynyrd, but I also like heavier stuff like Metallica and Pantera,” Phillips says. “We’re trying to bring in a little bit of that old-school influence without it sounding dated.”
Various other players came and went before Strong cemented the Operator line-up in 2006. “I’m a pretty demanding guy when it comes to ability,” Strong says. “But I finally found the guys that belong in this fuckin’ band, and every time we hit the stage, magic happens.”
Strong was born in Los Angeles and was a performer from the start. At seven he learned to read music and started training in the martial arts. At 12, he picked up guitar and over the next decade he taught himself to play drums, bass, banjo, and keyboards. “If you give me an instrument, just give me a half-hour and I’ll figure out how to play it,” he says.
As a teenager, Strong was never Mr. Popularity, and he became a recluse and dropped out of high school after he was the victim of a near act of terrorism. The day started normally enough. Strong ate cereal, smoked some cigarettes, and drove to school. When he arrived he asked another musician to come to his locker to check out some lyrics, but when he opened the door he found an unexploded pipe bomb.
“There were four people who had this conspiracy to try to kill me,” he says. “One person was a lookout and saw me as I drove up to school, and he told this other dude I was on the way. And there were two other guys involved. One of the kids had put a cigarette on the end of the fuse to time it so when I showed up, it would explode. But there was no oxygen in the locker to keep the cigarette burning, so it never went off.”
The incident made Strong distrustful and fueled his self-reliance. In the years that followed, he channeled the experience into the power and assertiveness of his music. “Today, I rarely use the word friend and I can count the number of friends I have on my hands,” he says. “And I would say my mistrust of people and that alienation of not knowing whether your friends are trying to kill you totally rubs off on my music.”
Strong’s first batch of Operator songs appeared on his self-produced, self-released album, Can You Hear Me Now. He sold the record on his website and eventually attracted the attention of various record labels, including Atlantic Records, which signed Operator.
He chose the band’s name from a documentary he saw about the downing of a helicopter in Mogadishu, a story that was later turned into Ridley Scott’s film Black Hawk Down, in which Strong played a Delta Operator.
“I had seen this documentary on these soldiers that went down in Mogadishu trying to protect this helicopter pilot, and I was really moved by it,” he explains. “I thought to myself, ‘I need to play a part like that.’ And then a year and a half later I got the call to do it. It was really trippy how it happened, because when I got the job I didn’t know it was the same story.”
As much as he enjoyed making the album, Strong can’t wait to get on the road to tour. He’s dismayed by all the lackluster bands he sees taking the stage, and, as with everything he’s unimpressed by, he strives to ignite a spark under the sleepy scene. “We’re going to fucking take rock ‘n’ roll back to its prestigious glory,” he says. “I feel like I’ve received this calling from the universe to save this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s what I plan to fucking do.”