Success, Addiction and the Freedom of Walking Away
An exclusive glimpse into the life of legendary A&R Chad Johnson
The first time I met Chad Johnson, in 2009, he had to step away for 20 minutes to take a call from one of the biggest hardcore bands in the world. The vocalist was in Europe, and the group’s contracted bus driver was an avowed Satanist who was starting to open up to the idea that Jesus might love him. It would prove to be a snapshot of a decadelong friendship with one of the most unexpected advocates of modern-day evangelicalism.
Hanging out with Chad Johnson feels like a mix of Old Testament prophet and all the best parts of the movie Almost Famous. The quick biography is that Johnson signed Underoath, Further Seems Forever and The Operation (who would reform as the highly revered mewithoutYou) to an independent label, which was in turn acquired by Tooth & Nail Records. Johnson relocated from Alabama to Seattle, where he helped guide the careers of Anberlin, Mae, As Cities Burn and several other bands you likely have strong teenage memories associated with.
But the soundtrack to your youth almost didn’t happen as Johnson should have spent a decade on the literal dirt floor of an Ecuadorian prison. Johnson has walked through success, failure, affluence, poverty and a relative deal of fame (if you don’t believe me, you clearly missed out on Cornerstone Festival, where Chad was the only A&R rep to be mobbed like a rock star). But it took two rounds of addiction before Johnson fully embraced God’s love in his life.
HOW (NOT) TO SELL DRUGS IN SOUTH AMERICA
“At one point, I had three military police pull M16’s on me and threaten to take away my paperwork,” Johnson recalls in a phone interview for RELEVANT. A missionary kid living in Quito, Ecuador, Chad had begun using, and then selling, drugs as a teenager, in an environment far more dangerous than in the United States. “Another time, undercover police were following us, and all they needed to put my little drug ring in prison for a decade was a photo of us consuming. I loved photography, so I had plenty of photos of us taking drugs.”
The realization of dying of malnutrition or via gang murder in a South American prison finally hit home, and Chad turned to his high school best friend (now wife of 21 years), Beth. When Chad asked her what he should do, she simply replied that he needed Jesus. “I remember thinking that was the dumbest answer anyone could ever give, especially when you’re a missionary kid.”
That night, Johnson prayed the typical prayer of a skeptical cynic. “Jesus, if you’re real, show me.” It was a simple statement that didn’t result in the clouds parting or the voice of an old man coming down, a la a Simpsons episode. “I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t see any double rainbows, but I did begin to sense a faint transformation in my heart.”
Stepping into his newfound faith, Chad was surprised to hear from his youth pastor that there were Christian bands who sounded like his musical loves, including The Cure, Metallica and The Dead Milkmen. Christian music became a larger and more significant part of Johnson’s life.
After college, Johnson opened a small record store and music venue in Birmingham, Alabama, despite a total lack of business or music experience. Early 2000’s pioneers like Jimmy Eat World and At the Drive-In performed at the small operation.
Chad’s life would change forever when a then-unknown band, called Underoath, played on a weeknight for seven people. Blown away by the energy and passion (especially considering the crowd size), Johnson wrote up a contract himself, and handed it to the band, asking them to pray about it. Underoath signed on the spot.
SUCCESS, ADDICTION AND THE FREEDOM OF WALKING AWAY
Underoath’s recording and touring efforts were met with rapid success, and Johnson received an unexpected one-line email from Tooth & Nail President, Brandon Ebel, that simply read, “How much do you want for your label?”
After the sale, Chad and his young family packed up and headed to Seattle to try his hand at A&R (the industry term for artist development). What happened next sounds like a storybook ending to starting your own label. Underoath hit the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts and became one of the biggest bands in the world. Chad helped guide bands ranging from the genre-bending mewithoutYou, to spazz-core outfit The Chariot, to commercial success and critical acclaim.
But Chad wasn’t enjoying being the de facto leader of the subculture he had discovered as a teenager after first coming to Jesus. Instead, he was barely holding it together, caught in a seemingly endless cycle of drugs, porn and workaholism. This time, the cycle was broken by an event that Johnson describes as a mystical experience in which God broke through and asked, “Why are you fighting me?” Breaking down weeping in bumper-to bumper-traffic, Chad cried out a dangerous prayer: “Write whatever story you want over my life.”
Much like the first transformation, Johnson’s life went through dramatic changes. He resigned from one of the most coveted positions in the music industry and answered God’s call to relocate to Nashville, where he founded Come&Live!, a nonprofit focused on provoking artists to share the Gospel globally and outside of the Church. Today, Come&Live! works with Korn’s Brian “Head” Welch, alongside artists from Australia to Ukraine, Brazil to Belarus.
As the organization grew, Johnson felt a hunger to step out and share his story with people who are uncertain, or ex-Christ-followers, struggling with belief in an age where evangelicalism seems to have given up its core values in the name of bringing alleged child molester, Roy Moore, into the Senate.
That project turned into One Thousand Risks (available December 5th on Amazon), which reads as a miracle-laden mix of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Bob Goff’s Love Does. Heavily influenced by John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life and Shane Claiborne’s radical generosity, Johnson stepped out to document a thousand risks all taken in the name of loving Christ and neighbors.
APPROACHING EVERYONE LIKE THE WOMAN AT THE WELL
More conservative-leaning Christians may no doubt give pause at reading dozens of encounters of prayer and prophetic moments that Johnson claims have resulted in miraculous healings around the world. But if you’re face to face with the guy, there’s no doubt he practices what he preaches. As Johnson’s friend, I’ve simply learned to roll with the punches. Meeting up for coffee when I’m in town sometimes means sitting with a homeless man on the street for a half hour before making our way to caffeinated beverages.
If there’s one thing that stands out in 2017 (the year when various segments of Christianity cling ever tighter to either “Free Market Jesus” or “Social Justice Jesus”) it’s Johnson’s courage to risk awkwardness for following in the footsteps of Christ’s relational boldness. In One Thousand Risks, Johnson shares the story of hanging out at Barista Parlor, one of Nashville’s trendiest coffee shops, when he felt a nudge from God to walk over and pray for an “indie-rock looking dude.”
Timidly, Johnson approached the stranger and asked to share something with him. Two friends seated next to the gentleman looked at him with suspicion and asked if this was some kind of “Christian thing.” Johnson confirmed that it was, then shared a brief word.
“I felt God wanted me to tell him he was up against a creative wall, and God was going to help him push down the wall,” Johnson says. “I told him whatever he created on the other side of the wall would be so much better and stronger than where he was right now.” A month later, Johnson learned the “indie rock looking dude” was Grammy-winning Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
In an era where each faction of Christianity is bending the Bible to fit their respective ideological goals, it’s not hard to be inspired by an outlier who shares the same Gospel-love with the homeless as he does with certified rock stars.
Editor’s note: Seth Tower Hurd is a friend of Chad Johnson.