John Avila is a bassist and producer known for his work with Oingo Boingo. Learn about John's role in the 70s LA rock scene, and what led to his success in music.
John Avila is a professional bassist and record producer known for his role in Oingo Boingo. After cutting his teeth on the LA club circuit, he cultivated a successful career full of major touring highlights and studio production credits that would influence a generation of musicians.
Some of John’s biggest successes overlap with the milestones of the popular rock bands from the 70s. His first big break came when Los Angeles-based soul group El Chicano invited John to play bass for them on their tour opening for Santana, which had him performing in front of 40,000 people nightly. Once he got a taste for performing for thousands of fans, John left East Los Angeles College and never looked back.
By the early ‘80s, John co-founded Food For Feet and was making waves as a prominent bassist in Los Angeles. In 1984, he was chosen to replace Kerry Hatch in Oingo Boingo, a local rock band founded by Richard Elfman that had started to delve into ska and new wave influences. The four albums he co-produced with the band helped John develop the versatile production skills he’s respected for today.
1995 was a pivotal year for John. Oingo Boingo delivered their legendary farewell performance at The Universal Amphitheatre, and John launched his personal recording studio—Brando’s Paradise. Opening the studio gave him the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects, including music for TV and film. As a producer, John is also known for his work on Turn the Radio Off, the landmark release by Reel Big Fish, the band credited for the ‘90s ska revival.
John is currently the bass player in Mutaytor and The Gama Sennin. To this day, he continues to tour, experiment and connect with different recording artists.
We caught up with John to chat about his favorite moments throughout his career. Read the interview below.
Tell me about your favorite bass and what it feels like to play.
It’s a Vigier made in Paris, France—my bass guitar that I sometimes sleep with. I had another bass from B.C. Rich in the ‘80s that was custom and super heavy. From years and years of touring and jumping around on stage, the strap started rubbing against my shoulder, and I developed a fatty tumor cyst that had to be surgically removed. Around that time I was approached by Vigier Patrice and his wife Lena in 1990. They sent me a bunch of basses, and I ended up picking one.
Could you tell me about your first memories of live music as a fan?
My first concert was Canned Heat. I saw them when I was around 10 years old at the Santa Monica pier. When I was about 15, I used to go to the Palladium, and I saw Tower of Power and people like that.
Tell me about that first show. What did it feel like?
One of the first concerts that hit me hard was Led Zeppelin at The Forum in 1973, on their Houses of the Holy tour. I was 16 years old, and that was one of those shows that was life-changing. Another big event for me music-wise was seeing the movie Woodstock. I saw Hendrix, Janis Joplin and all these incredible bands. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.
What are some of your earliest memories as a performer?
I started playing bass when I was 16 years old. I already had a car and a driver's license before my first bass. A friend of mine was helping me move into an apartment. So, we took out the seats of my Volkswagen Beetle and were putting boxes in my little car on our way to the apartment. When we got there, we saw an attic in the ceiling. We looked in the attic and found a bass guitar left from the people that lived there before. It was a Japanese copy of a Paul McCartney Hoffner bass. My friend sold it to me for $15, and I haven’t put it down to this day.
What made you stick with the bass?
A lot of times they say bass players choose bass because they aren’t good enough to play guitar, but I was never like that. I always wanted to play the bass. I was never interested in being a guitar player. When I took the bass home, it was just instantaneous. McCartney, Jack Bruce, Stanley Clark and Jocko Pastorious were really starting to hit, so the bass guitar was becoming more of a lead instrument as far as rock was concerned. I just wanted to practice and get better.
I grew up in the Pasadena area in the mid seventies and there was a little high school backyard party Van Halen used to play. I was in a band called Blowout, and we used to play shows with Van Halen. Being in that rock world and seeing Eddie doing all this crazy stuff on guitar was really inspiring.
Tell me about your first show and what it was like from your perspective on stage.
I was playing at a club in Hollywood called the Viper Room in the mid seventies back when it was called Filthy McNasty. I used to play there in a house band five nights a week. One night a guy came up to me and said, “There's a band looking for bass players,” so I ended up auditioning for the band, and I got the gig.
The very first show was in front of 40,000 people opening for Santana and another band called El Chicano. That was the first time I got to experience a really big show. That was the very first tour I ever did where I really felt that connection with an audience.
Of course, I got spoiled playing shows with Oingo Boingo, because there was such a love affair between the audience and the band, especially in LA. The energy that I would get almost every single time I played with them was phenomenal.
As a bass player who plays live shows, what is the value of in-ear monitoring for you?
I've been in this business for so long. It was something that wasn't around early on, and it wasn't until recently that I decided I wanted to give in-ear monitors a try. I use Ultimate Ears Live.
It's important having a monitoring engineer that you trust and who knows how to get a great sound. There are certain bands I've toured with, like Ozomatli that have a great monitor engineer working with them. When you're working with bands like that, man, you get incredible sound. Hearing everything in perspective with a sense of reality helps you feel like you're still in the room.
What other benefits do you get from your in-ear monitors?
The first time I ever used Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors I was playing with three drummers. At the end of the night, I used to have a slight ringing in my ear, and after using in-ear monitors, I had no ringing, and it just took away all that brashness that you hear from around the stage. They protect my ears when I use them.
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