Angus Young & Brian Johnson of AC/DC
Your new album ‘Power Up’ is here, the band is back together; how did it all come together?
ANGUS YOUNG: Well, it had all come together, basically, when I had a lot of the material together for the album. It came about pretty quickly after that. I knew Brian had been working with a lot of hearing specialists and people who had helped him with a lot of the technology through his hearing.
It was really a matter of contacting Brian, and Cliff, and Phil and also my nephew, Stevie, and just letting everyone know if they’d want to be part of doing this project. Everyone was happy to be on board, so that was really good.
BRIAN JOHNSON: It was something special, as you can imagine. You know, everybody, I guess, came to root the band off, a few years before. It remained, you know, we never did that during some tours, but the thing is it was a great thing with the bond of friendship and working together for all those years. I’m nearly 40 years in and the boys longer, where to walk in the room and there was everybody.
It was real and you could touch it. It was the electricity in the room, you know, for me. You know, I’m talking about me here now. I just felt, I was very happy, and, you know, I was very happy. It was just the sad thing was, obviously, Malcolm wasn’t with us because he’d just passed not, not long before, but we knew that this album from the start was going to be a tribute for Malcolm.
That feeling, I think it went through everybody in the room and even to Brendan O’Brien, the producer. It was just this let’s do it attitude of — let’s make this one for Malcolm, so that felt really good.
Brian, for you personally, how does it feel to be back?
BRIAN: It’s exciting. You know, nobody my age should be this excited without going to prison, but you know, it’s, it’s another challenge and to get back with the boys, I thank the lads for having the faith to come back. For me, to come back and have another shot with them after it all sort of went tits up with the ears.
And I just, it’s kind of weird to get out. I feel like we’re being cheated a little bit because of this, because of this virus coming along, but I think we can take that on the chin like we took everything else in the past, anything kind of tragedy, you know. The things this band seems to be able to ride out because of the members in the band, a pretty resilient bunch, you know.
How was it to be back together in the studio? It’s been 6 year since ‘Rock or Bust.’ Once you were back in the studio, did everything click back into place quite quickly?
ANGUS: Yeah, well, when everyone was together and we were all in that room, especially in the studio, you know, once they got all of the technical side — getting the sound and getting all of that together. Then it’s the band up there, just okay, let’s go, you know. We got the song and it’s really a case of roughly working out the parts and everyone starts playing.
It just sounded like how do you call it? It felt like a really good you’re in your element. It’s a bit like having a really comfortable pair of shoes and you put them on and go wow.
BRIAN: I mean it was lovely to look around at the faces, like Phil, just looking brilliant. You know, and Cliff, who thought it was finished, just happy and pumping out. Everybody playing brilliant.
Of course, Angus brought his songs in. I mean I can’t even talk about them because I’m sure people are just framing them in much better terms than I ever could, except the fact that I’m a singer, anybody would want to get their teeth in these.
The boys just put it down really good. You know, Stevie stepped up to the plate, no problem. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody work as hard as Stevie. I’d see him in the morning and I’d go, ‘Are you all right, Stevie?’ And he’d go, ‘Yeah, I’ve been up ’til about 3:30 learning that. I want to get that riff right.’ And he did, he’d set up, just banging away. And he got it right because he knew that work was from Malcolm, everybody did.
That was the kind of attitude, I think, that what Stevie did is what everybody else did, which is we just wanted to make it worth it to him and certainly something to make.
Do you feel this album is a dedication to Malcolm?
ANGUS: Yeah, well, the album is a tribute to Mal. AC/DC was his life. I mean he created it from the get-go. I always thought I was really lucky even in the beginning that he asked me to come and be on tour to do the guitar work. I had to ask him, you know, ‘Are you sure you want me, your kid brother on guitar?’ And, ‘Yeah, I know what you can do.’
Because he was so comfortable in the way he did things, it gave me that. I thought well, he’s got confidence in me, so that gave me an even stronger drive to make sure I was doing it justice. I mean it was his style, what we would play as a band, the music, how we would approach it, so for me it was always really good because he had more experience than me.
He kicked around in a few bands, plus the tours over the years, we’d work with my brother, George. Wherever he would get in when we were younger, maybe do some guitar sessions stuff for a few acts of George’s…it was like Malcolm put everything together to get this band, had the direction and off we went.
That’s been for me the attitude that we’ve kept going for all those years and even until now. I don’t necessarily think of–even when we did the album, I think of him first because of how he wanted it, how it should be, the style and the attitude. That was always the driving part for me.
For me, this is really good because I still, even in the studio, I’m thinking he’s right there next to me.
BRIAN: It is what it is, this album. I think anybody listening to it can tell that. The few people I’ve talked to that have hear it have commented on the fact that it really is a bit of like old AC/DC, new AC/DC, Back in Black, you know, all the whole thing all in one album, encapsulated.
I agree with them. It’s fantastic. I think Mal would have been right proud of it. I think he would have been real proud, you know.
How was the process of recording this album? Any interesting recording anecdotes?
ANGUS: Probably. Whenever we work with Brendan O’Brien, he’s always got this card game.
BRIAN: Yeah, cheating aspect.
ANGUS: He’s always hustling. He always hustles this card game. It’s a card game that only he knows the rules. Anytime you ever sit down with him you go, ‘You didn’t have that rule before.’ He’s probably changing that rule.
The album is called ‘Power Up’. Is it a statement of intent for what’s on the record?
BRIAN: Yeah, Power Up, I was thinking of names now and I’d gone through the list. I just thought yeah, and the first song, Realize, was a song Mal really loved. There’s a few lines in there, ‘you’ve got the power to mesmerize…put a chill running down your spine,’ those phrases, the power. I just thought well, you know, that’s probably what AC/DC was about from the beginning because AC/DC is electrical power. As a band that’s what you always do.
When you walk in a studio, you plug in your guitar, crank on your amp and you’ve got all that power. We’re putting out this powerful sound, so for me, Power Up is basically another term for the band, AC/DC. That’s what they do, power up.
The album has the typical AC/DC sound that people love. After all these years, where do you get the inspiration to come up with brand new songs that continue to surprise your fans, but still keep true to your sound?
ANGUS: Well, again, a lot of it’s back from get-go, Mal’s direction. We always aimed to set our own standard in sound and style, so that’s always been–we wanted to be able to be a band that if you heard it on the radio, you heard a song or heard it anywhere, then immediately when you heard it you went, ‘That’s them, that’s AC/DC. I hear it straight away. That’s their style.’
That’s what we always wanted to capture and keep that style going, so any album we ever did, the variety comes in what you do with the songs, but the style and how it’s played, and again, that powerful sound, that’s what we strive for. Every album we ever did had to come up to that standard.
Can you tell us more about the process of writing the album; when were the songs written?
ANGUS: A lot of them really come from just before the last album that Mal was actually on and performed — that was Black Ice. Prior to that album, Malcom and myself, we’d had quite a good few years off. We were very busy. We’d gotten a little studio and we just kept cranking out songs. We had so many songs that even when we went to do Black Ice, we just had boxes of songs. They’re all good AC/DC songs.
Normally when you do an album you kind of put down this is where I am currently, what you’re recently working on, but in this case because of, you know, I just wanted to go back and see what Malcolm and I had worked on. I just thought I’ve got to get these songs and get them on this album that we had wanted to get recorded, but due to, again, that factor…anytime you did want to record something you were always doing the current thing.
I just knew we had so much good material that I thought yeah, Malcolm would definitely want this to come out.
A lot of them, you know, in some cases, you know, the tour was, the songs were basically all there — intro, versus, choruses — they were all there. So for me, the only thing I might have to do is an ending, or maybe a break, or anything that when I’d gone through that I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, we’d probably have changed this piece and maybe done that.’ But again, I’d think always how Mal, how he looked at it.
That’s how over the years I always tuned in, even when I would do ideas of my own. I always made them. My audience was Malcolm because he was the critic. He was the guy that I needed to put down them, you know, so anything I ever did, I did it toward what I knew was AC/DC and what would be appealing for AC/DC to Mal.
He was the same with me. He would put his ideas there, but Malcolm, he wouldn’t sit and say I’m just going to play this song, a jazz tune or something. I was the same. We knew whenever we came in with ideas, don’t uncovering with little jams and things, try and come in with good, solid ideas, like verses, riffs, choruses, intros, that stuff.
So that’s basically with this, it was only a case where unless some of the tracks might have been you only had like one verse or something and just a chorus, just to give you a picture of the song, but then I would adapt, maybe adapt it, but mirror the roadmap that me and Malcolm had worked on.
What can you tell us about the songs: Shot in the Dark, Demon Fire, Realize?
BRIAN: Shot In the Dark, first of all it’s just a great rock-n-roll song, but when I first heard it, I saw the title and I was singing it, I was thinking of, you know, you’re in bed and you’re sleeping…and you hear a shot in the dark, and you go what, what the–you know, that’s like a scary thing. Then you can think of it on a sexuality explicit thing. Then I thought of it as having a shot of whiskey in the dark.
The song itself is just so great to sing. The verse — I need a pick me up — you know, that’s it. I mean that starts you off, just that first line. ‘A rolling thunder truck,’ I mean fuck off! I mean that’s it. That’s rock-n-roll. It’s as good as ‘one hurt angel, one cool devil.’ You get lines like that as a vocalist, if you can’t fucking–if you can’t deliver the goods after hearing that, well, you shouldn’t be there.
That song personified, you know, Realize was started with, it was a big, big — it’s a big number. It’s rock-n-roll. It’s you know, like the thunder start, the choruses, the big thing. And here Shot in the Dark is just this rock-n-roll song that stands out on its own. Great chorus, great verse that leads into the chorus.
Listen, I’m starting to sound like a fucking professor of music, but I’m not. I just know when things are right. That was just dead right. And then it kept on fucking — oh, excuse me — and then they kept on coming. It’s tough to pick the different ones, but anyway, Sony, carry on. I fucked your whole question up.
ANGUS: Demon Fire is, again, is a good, strong idea that Mal had. I mean from get-go when he told me the title, I immediately thought I think it’s going to be an up-tempo thing. Sure enough, that’s what we came up with. It’s good because it’s got a lot of cool, a cool riff going with it, but it’s also got that swing to it that powers it along.
I always get a big kick, especially when you’ve got Phil, because I think of him also when I’m playing it, when you’re putting down tracks or demos, and you know, I just thought he’s going to have–because Phil really likes, he loves it. You give him an up-tempo tune and he’s in there right away.
BRIAN: Well, it was for me at the time as I said before, this was a chance to have another shot at doing what I love best. And when Brendan O’Brien came in with the initial rough idea and he said this is what we’re gonna do and we want this. I remember, because I was doing–this was before the big choruses were on, you know, so when I was singing, ‘Realize…’ that, you know, I thought I sounded pretty good. And then they got other people on, fuck.
No, it was then I thought it sounded pretty good, and when they put the backing vocals on, it just made, just completely gave a sense that those things could–it was like a kick of, a kick in the ass. And it’s just another one to think, Angus mentioned before about Malcolm loving the lyric and all that, ‘…running down your spine, aw,’ you know, that’s rock-n-roll words. It just, I don’t know, for me it’s just a perfect song to sing. I could sing that one stage all night long. That’s what you want, you know…fucking great tune.
ANGUS: Well, Realize is probably–I remember working with Mal and we worked on that track, we spent a good bit of time. It was another strong idea that he had. To me, it was I knew how much he really liked it, so I remember when we originally were writing it, how much effort he put into it and how he built it up.
The thing is I remember even with him, I said okay, we got, we had the music side of it together and how we wanted to do it. And I had said at the time–you know, he gave me his hook idea, the chorus. And when he gave me the verse idea, the lyric and he sung it to me, roughly. And I heard it and it stuck in my head all day.
I just kind of thought how clever is he, you know, just how clever. He comes up with things. It was one of these things where I kept repeating it and repeating it my head. Sometimes I used to say I don’t know where he pulls these ideas from because he was always, his great gift was for him a song wasn’t a combination of riffs, and hooks and that. For him, he just had that kind of natural gift of whenever he created a song, the parts would all come together — lyrics, music and even kind of the dynamic of it.
Sometimes he’d go, ‘Yeah, I’m struggling with something. See if you can think of a line or two that we could, you know.’ And I’d go through umpteen things. Then he would go, ‘Oh yeah, that’ll do it.’ It was never a case for the two of us that we’d just settled for the chord, your first hit or something. You went through all the different angles with him.
Even with a song, a song was never really–say you would do it at that tempo or a different way, sometimes we may even go back to another route and go okay, try it from another perspective.
It was a case of this one though, he had it just so clean and it stuck with me. He kind of put it, he was going to get a mic and put his rough voice because he would do that sometimes. I said, ‘Mal, if it’s for me, you don’t need to. I’ve got it here.’
Any personal favorite tracks on the album?
BRIAN: Well, of course, because there’s so many–I think so many of them, honestly, from 1 of 12. The one I keep going back to without thinking about it, you know, if I just want to listen, is Through The Mists Of Time. That for me is wonderful to sing. It’s lyrically brilliant. It all makes sense about the past, it all comes together. It hits all the points. Yeah, I don’t know, when that was recorded the stars must’ve been in alignment because that’s just a, it just lifts you. It really does, that song.
As I said before, I still get goosebumps when I hear it and I don’t know why. I guess that’s what you could call my favorite song if it means you play it more than anything else.
ANGUS: Yeah, well, Brian, what he said, The Mists of Time is a song that, again, yeah, I suppose for somebody listening for the first time, yeah, it is, it’s almost kind of time travel in that aspect.
ANGUS: Yeah, but for myself, I never get so deep into things. I just, again, when it was being crafted, I just was thinking and putting together, you know, because Mal had put some phrases and ideas. I just had to look at that and I thought, right, I’ve got the basis of it and I just, again, I had the roadmap.
I remember even at the time when we were talking because I was always going on about, like I’d see something of an art program or something. And they were discussing like Mona Lisa, the painting with the woman smiling, and is she smiling? I mean what is she actually–that’s the big thing with that painting that, you know, it captures a lot of people.
It was the same with a lot of these through history, you’d see a lot of paintings, like the girl with the blue earrings. Another one that is is this real? Did this guy use some device, like a camera before a camera almost because of how it looked so real. A lot of mystery with that one and other paintings, things like that.
Then it was, I think, probably a bit of dark humor with Picasso. I think one of the wives that he married or something kept pestering him about getting–she wanted a portrait because he’d done portraits. He did it like one of his abstract paintings, a portrait of her. And I think after that, I think they were kind of separated. She loved it that much.
Can you tell us about working with Brendan O’Brien?
BRIAN: It’s easy. Working with Brendan O’Brien, he’s full of beans, fun and energy. He’s always got everybody working. Nobody sits down on their hands when Brendan’s around, you know. He’ll have me up in the room, singing. He’ll have the boys downstairs, you know, trying out, getting something right or getting something rehearsed for as soon as I’m finished doing that, he’ll be straight down there with the boys doing that. He’ll be straight down there with the boys, let’s go.
So it’s pretty, you know, he always keeps you fresh. The songs are always fresh. He never lets you linger on anything for too long and he’s always pushing through to the next thing. He’s a brilliant fellow to work with. He’s like one of the band, really. He’s a very, very good musician. He’s got a hell of an ear for everything, you know, so I enjoy being around him and working with him. I think the boys would say the same. He’s fun. He’s a fun kid.
ANGUS: Brendan is really, he’s a very good producer, but also I mean he’s gifted, as Brian said. He’s very musical, which is one of the strong factors because he knows his music, he knows the various instruments he can play. He’s great on guitar. He knows bass, he knows drums and piano. What’s the big thing, the other one, the keyboard?
BRIAN: The Hammond.
ANGUS: The big Hammond. He knows all of that stuff. He’s multitalented, so it’s good when you’re working with somebody who knows his music. Plus, he knows our whole career, even from the early days. He knows even from like when Brian was on board, he knows all the work we’ve done.
As he always says to me, you know, he says something and I kind of look, like what are we doing here? And he’ll go, ‘Hey, if you listen to all your records, you guys, you’ve done it before, you’ve done something similar.’ And then I go, ‘He’s right.’ He points it out and I go hey, so he’s, he’s very good in that sense. He’s very confident in what he does.
Plus, the other big thing I always like about him, he’s not afraid to go out and get his hands dirty. If there’s no engineer about, he’ll just rush out and move the mics how he wants it, or sound, you know, he doesn’t mind. Or going in and getting the drums, helps Phil get his snares and things together or whatever, so he’s good like that. The other good thing is he keeps you laughing, too.
ANGUS: He keeps it fun for you, so you’re not, like Brian said, you’re not bored. He keeps everyone busy.
Can you tell us about the video shoot for ‘Shot In The Dark’?
BRIAN: Well, I remember, you know, when we first walked in there, I was quite amazed. It really was an amazing set. It was surreal, to be quite honest. It was just all black with a stunning polished stage, with a red neon thing around the stage. And the lightning bolt, it was just–I was going, phfff, look at this.
And I saw all these people on computers at the back, and a big boom camera thing. I’m going oh, this is serious stuff. I think nobody was allowed on the stage so they wouldn’t dirty it. There were these guys with the–I was going this is serious stuff. It was, it was impressive to say the least when we walked in. It really was.
ANGUS: As Brian said, you know, I mean I remember when we were walking in, it was all dark, the whole thing, but then when they put on the backlights with the neon thing, and then you could see the reflection. It almost to me looked like water. It was like–it just looked so clear and the reflection, it looked like water.
As he said, they were doing their best to make sure nobody scuffed it. They just wanted that reflection coming back. And I said, ‘Well, what’s gonna happen when we’re on the thing?’
BRIAN: And we fucked it all up.
ANGUS: That’s right. I was trying to do ballerina steps on it too, like you didn’t want to scuff it. But I mean I was impressed because it just, as I said, when I walked in, it was dark, but then with the lights all coming on, you go wow! I was very impressed.
After all these years, how do you manage to still keep your energy so high, individually and as a band? Is performing (live) a catalyst for your energy?
BRIAN: I mean I’ve always been energetic, yeah. I can’t sit still for long. I get bored, sitting, watching the TV or just doing regular stuff. I’ve always got to be moving. As me Dad used to call it, I was a jumpy jack, ‘Something’s wrong with that kid, he’s a jumpy jack.’ And he’s right, so you know, it keeps the energy up.
Singing with AC/DC is no small part of that. That helps you a big, great deal. Gets you up, up and out every time you’re up there. Plus, if I see Angus out there doing his stuff, you know, I’ve got to do something, I’ve gotta, I’ve gotta try harder, you know.
So I think it’s just a mutual thing in the band. Everybody, from Phil whacking out there, Malcolm when he used to just–I mean Malcolm used to sweat, hitting the guitar, and Cliff and everybody. It was just a thing, I guess because they were the front, which you know, that’s the reason, that one. But it’s just a thing, it’s an AC/DC energy thing.
ANGUS: It starts for me really when I got on that school suit. You know, I don’t know why, when the school suit gets on, I suddenly feel different. I feel I’m comfy now, I know what I’m about and I can put that little, the hat down. Then for some reason, everything, I even feel taller, you know. I actually, if I can say, I grow a couple of inches. Don’t take that the wrong way. You know, that’s what happens, I actually feel taller.
From when I’ve got it on, I feel ready. You could say to me, ‘Angus, okay, we’ve gotta go out now and gotta do a bit of fire fighting.’ I’ll have that suit on, I’ll think eh, why not? But I love it, I do. I love–and when I get on the stage–when you hear it all going and you’re standing in front of it.
I feed off, and funny enough, the one I always look to if I’m there and, you know, as Brian said, it’s like it was Mal, so solid — I never had to think walking on the stage with Mal because it was just a boom, you’re there, you’re so confident. I mean but when you’ve got Phil there, Phil whacks the hell out of that drum. He really drives into it. It’s so solid. Even from the first time when he ever joined with the band and he got behind the drums.
Mal had said this guy’s a solid player. I said, ‘Yeah, I know, I’ve got to up my game.’ I’ve got to play, I’m playing the guitar and I’m hitting it harder just to ride over the energy. And sometimes when you’re on there and you feel that, when Phil gets into his high gear, I just go and like with a solo or something, I feel it. I just feel it rising, and at that time I ride that wave, you know. For me, that’s a piece of magic. I enjoy it so much.
You’ve created some very powerful music throughout your career, full of positivity and uplifting lyrics — have you had any reaction from people (especially during this difficult year) who have found comfort in your music?
BRIAN: The last two weeks has been quite amazing since the single came out, it really has. Messages from everyone just saying how happy they are and that it’s lifted them. I think in the past as well, you know, as we get through life and all that, you start meeting kids, people who’ll come up to you and say thanks for getting us through college. You know, so many doctors who say, ‘Hey, man, yeah, we played Back In Black before surgery, or you know, Highway To Hell.’
And then you talk to people in the military who play it in their helmets when they do parachute drops at night, going in. It’s quite amazing, all the different people that it touches. Sportsmen, especially in sports, they’ll tell you what they’re playing in the dressing room before the go out, you know, to get them geared up. And it’s usually AC/DC, so it’s very nice.
It’s good to know that you’ve been a part of people’s lives to get through. And they’re still playing it, so we hope the album continues that when it comes out. That would be fun, you know.
ANGUS: I remember Malcolm once saying, because Mal was a big fan of the football team. He liked Man United.
ANGUS: He liked it. He said one time in the European Cup or something, the football when they played the European league or whatever it is,
ANGUS: and they’re playing away football. He said–and they’re playing, is it Bayern
BRIAN: Bayern Munich, yeah.
ANGUS: They’re playing, and anyhow, Man U came out and he said they had some strange kind of music to come out. Mal said it was really odd. It was like he couldn’t make what it was sounding, but he said it just seemed so lightweight. And he said then next he knew he heard Highway To Hell go on and out come the Munich. And Malcolm said Man United’s in trouble!
You have very loyal and dedicated fans all over the world. Your music seems to connect and unite people across countries, languages, and cultures. How does it feel to be able to connect so many different people through the power of your music?
ANGUS: I think it’s, over the years, you know, to connect with so many people and all around the world. I don’t know whether it’s luck or what, really, but I think it’s possibly because we’ve struck, you know, in your life you probably, what we play, and the sound and style, we’ve been very lucky that we strike a chord with so many people. I would love to be able to know,
ANGUS: I mean because as you say, it does travel all the way around the world in different countries. But I think it’s that — somewhere, you know, they hear the music, they feel it. I think it kind of gives them a sense of unity. They can all bond with it and bond with what we do as a band
I think that’s what it is. It’s like when they tune into it, it has that kind of bond that when they hear something like that, they go this is–because you get a lot of people who come up and say, ‘You’re my band.’ It’s a good, it’s a good feeling, actually.
BRIAN: Well, it’s just the thing I’ve said. I think, I’ve tried to think of it, I think it’s just the pure honesty of the band and the music. It’s just as simple as that. There’s many sides to it. It’s just, it’s just honest, you know. And everybody loves that shit, you know, especially in this world.
Thank you to Sony Music and Dawn Osborne for the interview.