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Man With a Mission's Jean-Ken Johnny: “I’m not really a technical guitar guy: it’s all about the emotion – how you descend your soul into the sound”

Jean-Ken Johnny of Man With a Mission
(Image credit: Man With a Mission)

Man With a Mission guitarist Jean-Ken Johnny’s lead playing on Merry-Go-Round, from the Tokyo quintet’s new Break and Cross the Walls I, is evocatively on-point. Understated in its melody, yet bristling with a recklessly speedy, speaker-panning tremolo effect, the lead certainly conjures the sensation of a carousel on-the-fritz. 

That twirling joyride is all the more impressive when you consider how Johnny and the rest of the group – at least going by the band’s mythology – are all man-wolf hybrids that were brought to life in an underground laboratory in the Antarctic by a biologist/guitar master named – ahem – Dr. Jimi Hendrix. 

While the guitarist is a beast from the neck up (his lupine game face is unshakeable on this point), his hands are blessedly human enough to run across his fretboard with slender ease. What’s for sure is that this wolfpack have captivated countless listeners over the past decade, regularly packing arenas in their native Japan over their genre-blurring howl of rock guitars and EDM drops. 

Break and Cross the Walls I continues Man With a Mission’s kaleidoscopic journey, whether marrying scratch-heavy turntablism with orchestral strings (Merry-Go-Round), or delivering multilingual, SoCal by-way-of Shibuya pop-punk (Telescope). 

In one of its most jaw-dropping moments, a take on AC/DC’s Thunderstruck has Johnny not only re-interpreting Brian Johnson’s inimitable screech as a boastful rap, but dropping a digital Whammy-coursing tapping solo through the group’s defiantly dance-oriented redo. 

“I’m still really in love with the music that was going on in the ‘90s, so all my ideas and passion for the guitar come from there,” he explains. “I’m trying to update the sound, but I’m also trying to inherit the emotion and experimentalism that I believe was [taking place] in the ‘90s.”

Speaking with Guitar World, Jean-Ken Johnny detailed the new record’s plugin-heavy guitar focus, anime-adjacent guitar anthems, and more.

Before we get into the new album, 2020 found Man With a Mission celebrating the 10th anniversary of the band with a trio of releases: a best-of, a b-sides collection, and a remix album. Having taken stock of the past like that, where were you most excited to take Man With a Mission on Break and Cross the Walls I?

“It was really good to look back on what we’ve done – we’ve done a lot of experimental stuff over the past 10 years. We noticed that we’ve really combined a lot of genres [with] the essence of rock music; it’s not just alternative. Releasing that best-of album made us confident in what we’re doing now.”

Sticking to that idea of experimenting with all kinds of genres – dance, rock, metal – were there any moments on this album that felt especially surprising?

“We’re just going with what we want to do. I’m really inspired by the music that was going on in the ‘90s, especially alternative guitar rock. It was full of ideas then, this frontier spirit of making rock music. I guess we’re trying to do that in this age, still.”

The Thunderstruck riff is all over the song – It almost sounds like a sample. We thought it would be a good hook for this era, to make it dance music

Not an alternative song by any means, though technically a song from the ‘90s, I’m wondering if you can speak to the challenge – if not the guts it takes – of putting your own twist on AC/DC’s Thunderstruck?

“We’re aware of the power of that song. As soon as you hear that main guitar riff, everyone gets excited.”

That riff is such a classic. Was that something you had learned when you were younger, or had you picked it up specifically for this cover?

“Obviously we love that song and that guitar riff. It’s rock, but at the same time [the riff] is all over the song – it almost sounds like a sample. We thought it would be a good hook for this era, to make it dance music.”

There are obvious ties to the original, but the lead you bring to it is worlds apart from Angus Young’s. You take it in a different direction with that digital Whammy effect and the tapping. How did you approach the solo? Was there much planning to it?

“It was a one-off. We tried to make it sound digital, but also rock and roll. With the digital Whammy, the sound itself is just amplified with the normal kind of plugins.”

Where does your relationship with ‘90s rock begin?

“It started from listening to Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, stuff like that. I’m still in love with those bands.”

Merry-Go-Round was one of the early singles for the album, but it’s also become the theme song to the latest season of the anime My Hero Academia. What can you say about the song, in general?

“It was a great challenge. The anime itself is not only huge in Japan, but all over the world. I’m a big fan of anime, so we tried to stick to the story [with the lyrics], but at the same time make it powerful enough [to be our] song as well.”

The track has you wrapping some super-chunky, detuned riffs around a bright, jubilant symphony sound. Was there much consideration on how to put those two pieces together?

“We didn’t want it to sound like a normal rock song. We tried to add some digital arrangements; we also added the DJ stuff. We focused on how to make it sound pop, yet powerful.”

We usually use amps, but with this album we really focused on making everything sound more digital than before. We dug into a lot of plugin stuff

Break and Cross the Walls had initially been planned-out as a double album, right? 

“Yes.”

How did the band come to the decision to make this grander, double-sized statement?

“It’s been more than three-and-a-half years since we released our last original album [2018’s Chasing the Horizon]. Also, the situation with the pandemic made us think about making something big for our fans. They’re the ones having the hard time. We really wanted to [deliver] a huge present for everybody.”

Why did you end up splitting it into two volumes, then?

“We weren’t able to complete the second one [in time]. We just wanted to release this [Vol. 1] as quickly as we could.”

Into the Deep is another song that features that dance-to-rock crossover: big palm muted chugs mixed with EDM drops. You also rip into a massive, trilling solo at the end of the track. If you’d been inspired by Nirvana, where does your lead style come from?

“The beginning of the song is really digital and danceable, but at the end I wanted to explode. I’m not really a technical guitar guy: it’s all about the emotion – how you descend your soul into the sound. That kind of approach really comes from bands that I fell in love with from the ‘90s.”

What would you say is the largest guitar moment on the album?

Into The Deep definitely puts a focus on the guitar solo; there are a lot of things going on in the solo on Thunderstruck.” 

Jean-Ken Johnny of Man With a Mission

(Image credit: David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images)

Getting back to Thunderstruck, traditionally that lead riff of Angus's would have been played on an SG. On the band’s Instagram, you posted up photos from the sessions that show off a PRS, a Jazzmaster, and a Mustang. What were you playing on Thunderstruck?

“I used the PRS [McCarty]. We tried it with an SG, but it sounded so much like the original song, so we tried to avoid that.”

You’re rapping in the verses too, right?

“That’s right.”

Can you play the main riff while rapping?

“Actually, when we’re playing it live I stick to the chords [laughs]. It’s difficult.”

What else were you turning to for the sessions, gear-wise?

“We tried to experiment with a lot of guitar rigs. We usually use amps, but with this album we really focused on making everything sound more digital than before. We dug into a lot of plugin stuff. We used a lot of fuzz plugins.”

Have you transitioned away from amps for live shows, as well? 

“We’ve used traditional amps, but these days I use a lot of sounds coming from the Fractal.”

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Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.