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Ammonia’s Dave Johnstone on The Band’s Life, Legacy, and Reviving Their Classic Tracks

As Ammonia frontman Dave Johnstone returns to the stage, he speaks to Rolling Stone about the group’s revered legacy, and the upcoming revival of their beloved songs.

Image of Dave Johnstone of Ammonia

Dave Johnstone will be performing in Melbourne in June, dusting off classic Ammonia tracks alongside new material.

Craig MacLean

If you were a fan of Aussie alt-rock back in the day, there’s a solid chance that Ammonia were one of the bands you had in frequent rotation. Sure, bands like Silverchair or Spiderbait might have dominated the attention of the music media, but Ammonia were the unsung heroes whose admirable legacy still remains, and who are still highly revered amongst Aus-rock tragics.

Formed in 1992, the Perth outfit had some early success with a pair of EPs, before their 1995 debut Mint 400  hit #15 on the Aussie charts. Lead single “Drugs” hit #32 on the local charts, and reached #27 on the triple j Hottest 100 (beating out the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More, mind you). But their success was evident elsewhere, too.

International distribution saw the record become popular in regions such as the UK and Europe, and their success led to their final album, 1998’s Eleventh Avenue. This record itself found moderate success, appearing at #20 on the charts, while single “You’re Not the Only One Who Feels This Way” neatly beat out the likes of The Tea Party and The Cure to hit #43 in that year’s Hottest 100, too.

Sadly though, despite constant critical acclaim, there wasn’t much left in Ammonia’s future. Saying farewell with a final show at the 1999 Big Day Out, the group called it quits and walked off into the annals of Aussie music history. Admirably, they’ve remained true to their work ever since, not giving in to the idea of a reunion and allowing their legacy to stay as is.

In 2021, frontman Dave Johnstone was announced to be hitting the stage again, reviving Ammonia songs for the first time in over two decades. Though COVID wreaked havoc with those initial plans, June is set to see him hit the stage once again, performing classic Ammonia tracks on a bill that features the likes of Holocene (playing their first show in 20 years) and Moler.

Ahead of the show taking place at the Northcote Social Club in June, Johnstone spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about his time  in Ammonia, and what folks can expect from his forthcoming appearance.

Let’s open with the standard question, which is: how have you been dealing with everything these past few years? Have you been getting by okay and safely?

Fine, yeah, I mean, when the band split up in the late ’90s, I kind of retrained in IT. And honestly, I’ve been working in IT for the past 20-odd years, and that’s been a really good career, honestly. I’m a systems engineer, I raised a family, bought a house – all the trappings you expect from a 30-something, 40-something individual. It’s kind of been fairly standard up until this point, I guess. And I’ve probably been a lot healthier than I was when I was back in the music industry for most of my 20s as well. 

One of the reasons the band split up – amongst many – was just the fact that there was just no money in it to actually raise a family and have another career which was nice and stable. Yet even the music industry back then wasn’t really particularly stable or financially sound. So, yeah, mentally, it’s been a much better place for the past 20 years or so. 

We’ll touch on the breakup of the band in a sec, but you touched on the instability of the music industry. I mean, just these last few months have shown it sort of stays the same, doesn’t it? I know you had shows booked last year supporting The Killjoys, or even performing for the Leaps and Bounds Punter’s Club reunion which were canned due to COVID. Though you did manage to get one gig in, right?

We only just snuck one tiny little gig in. It was supposed to be for the Leaps and Bounds festival, and that got knocked on the head. We literally went into lockdown on the Thursday and we were supposed to play on Friday. So that got knocked on the head, which was hugely disappointing for the boys and me. But you know, it is what it is. So there was this… sort of trying to restart it again and sort of get a little bit of momentum.

And then this one tiny little gig that came up, literally at the last minute. We were fully rehearsed and ready to play and had nowhere to go. Then there was this gap between one of the lockdowns, so they just said, “Do you want to play?”, and we said, “Sure”. There was about 12 people there, no one knew about it, and it was just great.

Those are some of the best gigs, aren’t they? Just that ability to blow them away when it’s nice and intimate.

Yeah, exactly, and it was literally like just nothing had changed. It was pretty much the same as it always was, just 20 years between drinks.

Going back about 20 years or so, like you said, most folks would obviously know you from your time in Ammonia. Now, that’s a band whose legacy is so revered by so many, and whose songs still hold up to this very day. What are you memories of the time in the band? Are they fond memories you have of that era?

It’s mixed. There were incredibly wonderful periods where we’re on the up and we had a hit song and things are going really well. And there was also all of the other stuff that goes along as well. All the interpersonal relationships, all the politics that are going on, all the issues that every other band deals with – it wasn’t just us. But it’s intermingled with success and heading off to another country and dealing with interpersonal relationships, dealing with management, and then just being in really bizarre situations.

I think that the most important thing I remember is you grow up a lot when you’re put in situations daily – just really odd situations daily, and you have to deal with them. Doing press constantly in another country, people asking questions, playing gigs every night somewhere new, and being constantly tired and exhausted.

But at the same time, you see some amazing places and get some amazing experiences. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth, in that respect. You come back a better person, a more experienced person. And from that point of view, I loved that. I genuinely loved it. I love touring. It’s not for everybody, but I genuinely loved touring. I liked being in that little bubble and just playing every single night, and you know exactly what you’re doing, and you’re just a machine that keeps churning and playing. I loved that aspect. But at the same time, it does wear you out and you do get tired. 

I feel that sort of touring aspect is something that a lot of people forget about. But, I also think Ammonia is one of those bands where a lot of people sort of forget how big you guys were back at the time as well. I mean, an Aussie band in the grunge era was being championed in places like Europe and the US. That’s just wild to think of, especially at that time in musical history. Do you feel that way? Or is it more like, “Well, we worked hard – it makes sense”?

Yeah, we had a bit of luck along the way, obviously. We had a hit, and then college radio started playing us over there. We’d had some good experiences in Australia, and we had a bit of experience and it was a lot of hard work. But that’s the thing, you try and make the most of the situation. And I think we really did. We never stopped touring. Anywhere they said we should tour, we did. We never said no to anything, we always worked really hard.

It got to the point where if we were in a country and we weren’t doing press or doing stuff, we would be going, “Well, you should be making us work. We’re here to work.” But there genuinely was a pretty good work ethic within the band. I think we all wanted the same thing. We all wanted to be successful, and we wanted to enjoy our time, and we wanted to make something of it. We were all quite driven at the time. 

Speaking of ‘international success’, I was watching – and please don’t judge me – some of Miley Cyrus’ Hannah Montana show a while back, and there’s actually a scene where you can see Ammonia’s first album on a shelf. Either that’s a testament to the band’s success, or the fact that their set designers have some taste.

[Laughs] Yeah, I genuinely had no idea about that. That’s the first I’ve ever heard of that, but I’m actually quite happy about it [laughs]. 

Emily Osment and Hannah Montana in an episode of 'Hannah Montana' with the Ammonia 'Mint 400' on the rear shelf.

Emily Osment and Miley Cyrus in a 2007 episode of Hannah Montana with Ammonia’s Mint 400 on the rear shelf. (Photo: Disney+)

A lot of people look back on Ammonia as a band that did so much, but left us with so many unanswered questions about what could have been. The Eleventh Avenue album was phenomenal, but it ended up being the band’s swan-song. You mentioned money and interpersonal relationships, but what was it that brought about the end of Ammonia? Was there a conscious decision, or was it more of a gradual realisation as a band that things needed to wrap up?

Even before Eleventh Avenue, we were all sort of just kind of looking at each other and going, “Yeah, I don’t know if I want to do this again.” I remember a conversation, and I think it was almost when we were just about to start up again, because we’d done Mint 400, we’d toured a lot, and we just needed a break. I think we were off for just about a year or two.

And we were just starting up again, and I remember we were in a hotel in Sydney, and we’re all just kind of looking at each other kind of going, “You know, are we going to do this again?”. And everybody wanted to do it. And I remember that conversation, it was in Kings Cross somewhere, a hotel somewhere, but it looked as though we all wanted to do it again.

And we were heading over to the States to record and we had a bunch of songs that we were pretty excited about. So that was that, and then we went through the cycle of recording, which was great. And then it was a cycle of touring and doing everything again. And I think we all knew what was coming, and then it was just a gradual decline. But we did have a fourth member come in – Phil Natt – and he sort of added a bit of oil to the cogs for a bit longer, and it helped us sort of get through that last cycle. 

And Natty was great. He was just a wonderful injection of fun and he sort went, “What are you guys doing? You’re on top of the world, just bloody enjoy it”. And he was great, giving us all a little bit of perspective. Then afterwards it was just like, “Oh my God, we’re doing all this again.” 

And we just pretty much had enough, at the end. I think we wanted to split up like three years prior, but we kept going because I think we wanted to do the right thing by the record company and the right thing by each other and just sort of give it a go. And we got to do some pretty special stuff on the second round as well. By the end of it, everyone had just run out of petrol, I think. We were just just done. 

How did it feel for yourself to shut the door on the band at the Perth Big Day Out in 1999? It ended in such a respectable way, which is more than most bands could hope for, and it seems like it was just the best way to close that chapter for yourself.

“A respectable way to go”, that’s very kind of you to say, thank you [laughs]. 

I’m nothing if not diplomatic [laughs].

I don’t think we wanted to beat a dead horse, and I think we left on a high. The feeling? It was sort of melancholy, but also relief as well, because you knew that you could move on and try something else. That was a bit of relief from everybody. But yeah, it was sad. I remember our manager, Jess Ducrou, there’s some footage of her just going, “It’s so sad, they’re splitting up”. And it was, it was sad because artistically there was just way more in the tank. But band-wise nah, that’s it, it’s done. 

What was it like for yourself in the aftermath? You obviously played in other bands over the years, but you also frequently hear about musicians lumped with that expectations of their previous work. So were people coming to see you in your new bands in hopes you’d be belting out “Drugs” or something?

Yeah, literally all the time. I’ll be down at the footy or cricket and I’ll have all the dads singing it as I walk past [laughs]. It’s a constant in my life that doesn’t seem to go away. And I genuinely don’t mind, I’m really proud of it; I don’t mind at all. The transition, however, from not being a musician to working in an office and having a nine-to-five was really difficult.

If you think about it, if you’re a musician, your job is to go and play shows in a pub and they give you a large quantity of alcohol every night before you play in the band rider. And that’s like, you know, five or six days a week. And then you go into an office and this is just another world. It took me a little while to adjust to it. A good couple of years to adjust, and then I had to retrain as well. But I don’t mind, I enjoy the challenges. It took me a little while to sort of settle into it. But I missed it. I still play with friends and everything, but I genuinely did miss it. 

The reason I did ask about your memories before is because it’s been a very long time since you performed Ammonia songs live. Is there a specific reason why you’ve not touched those songs over the years, or is it more of them being part of who you were rather than who you are? I feel most artists would kill to write songs like “Ken Carter”, and it almost seems blasphemous to leave them behind.

I just didn’t have any will to play them, and no one was banging on my door and saying, “Play the old catalogue”, or anything like that. We played them so much, I don’t think I would have enjoyed sort of wheeling them out to give them a flogging again. My heart probably wouldn’t have been in it. And honestly, I kind of like to move on anyway. The band I was playing with, they’re kind of interesting, and I enjoy writing new stuff.

Of course, I say that when I’m actually about to start playing them all again [laughs], but playing them all again is, after all this time, there is actually a bit of a new lease on life on the songs, and I’m actually genuinely enjoying playing them. But it’s taken me 20 years to circle back and go, “Actually, yeah, you know, these are good songs.”

It’s funny when I’m playing, because all that muscle memory from all those years ago is immediately there, like it never went away, which was bizarre. So when I was playing with Bren [Clift; drums, sampler] and Mark [Dorrington; bass], this fantastic rhythm section that I’m playing with at the moment, when they learnt the parts and playing them, it was getting to that point where it came all flooding back. To the point where Mark was playing this particular bassline that Simon [Hensworth] used to play, and I was going, “Oh, that note that he plays; I never liked that note,” [laughs]. I can’t even remember it, but I was like, “Oh my God, it’s all coming back to me.” But at the same time, we’ve been rehearsing the songs for long enough now that it’s back to normal. 

With that in mind though, and the way that Ammonia ended, have there ever been thoughts of reuniting the band at all? I’m not saying you should, but I can only imagine that would’ve been the sort of thing that fans would come to you with. So has that idea ever been entertained?

No, not really. I mean, I live across the country, I’m in Melbourne and they’re in Perth. So that sort of distance makes it difficult. I haven’t really spoken to the guys since we’ve been apart. So there’s no real relationship. If anything did happen, it would be really rebuilding from ground zero, and we’d have to establish a relationship, then a business relationship again, and work all that stuff out. It’s just something I really don’t want to do. 

I’m too old now [laughs], I’ve been through it, and it’s just nice to let it go. And also it is kind of fun to play with new musicians as well, because whenever you’re playing with new musicians, the chemistry always changes, and something fresh and new is actually kind of exciting. So I’m kind of enjoying just playing with different people. And I’m sure they feel the same.

Speaking of playing with new musicians, there is a new show from yourself in June in Melbourne. So, what are we expecting from this show? It’s got the word ‘Ammonia’ on the poster, so there’s obviously a bit of a look back at the old tracks. Are we looking at old stuff and new stuff, or is it solely retrospective?

It’s a mix of old and new. Yes we’re playing all the main Ammonia songs that we used to play in the day. So if you’re an Ammonia fan, you won’t be disappointed, because we’re playing all those old songs again. But there’s also a whole bunch of other stuff, and the way the show is constructed is… I won’t give too much away, but the songs are sort of strung along in a particular way. They should be very interesting for any Ammonia fan. 

And there’s three new songs, three main new songs that we’re just just working on at the moment. But it is fresh off the presses and we were basically rehearsing them last weekend and at the end of the rehearsal, everyone was really buoyant and really excited, which makes me very happy, because it means I’m still writing half-decent songs [laughs]. 

Dave Johnstone is set to perform at the Northcote Social Club with Holocene and Moler on June 3rd, 2022. Full details are available below.

Dave Johnstone from Ammonia

Plus guests Holocene (first show in 20 years) + Moler

Friday, June 3rd, 2022
Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, VIC
Tickets: Northcote Social Club