Ruthie Garibay and Stuart Johnson fell in love through music, a passion they continue as rock duo Feisty Heart
By Michael Aushenker
The passion was there well before Ruthie Garibay and Stuart Johnson became an item.
As the now appropriately named rock duo Feisty Heart, they will share the fruits of their musical collaboration on Friday night at TRiP.
Formed in the Venice Beach cottage that longtime local Johnson and Michigan-raised Garibay share, Feisty Heart traces its genesis in 2008 to a jazz band in which Johnson drummed and Garibay sang back-up vocals.
“I’d listen to her play her songs in various incarnations and get ideas on how to produce them,” said Johnson.
As Feisty Heart, he plays bass with his hands and drums with his feet while Garibay sings and plays guitar.
“People tell us ‘I can’t believe how much music you’re getting with only two people playing up there,’” said Johnson, who eschews the “singer-songwriter” tag, likening his duo to minimalist rock groups such as The White Stripes.
Garibay’s original compositions include “John Muir,” inspired by stints as a camp counselor in the Sequoias; “Circles,” about “human behavior, repeated history,” she said; and “Las Vegas,” a double-edged commentary on Sin City.
“I’m really good at starting things, and he’s really good at finishing — which means he spends a lot more time on the computer engineering than I do, but we make a good team,” Garibay wrote on the band’s website.
She began dating Johnson a little over a year into their creative union, finds inspiration for her songs from the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Donovan, Melanie Saska and Heart.
Kentucky native Johnson, a working musician since age 15, was known as “Stix Johnson” in his high school marching band and grew up digging crooners Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Mel Torme.
“I was never a rock guy or punk guy or power-pop guy,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s Vince Guaraldi [in the “Peanuts” Christmas special] or Kermit the Frog singing ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green,’ if you’re moved by something … [it’s legitimate].”
Johnson’s music career blossomed in the mid-1990s when he appeared on late-night talk shows after drumming on the Matthew Sweet albums “100 Percent Fun” and “Blue Sky on Mars.”
He also played a Junior Brown gig at the now-defunct West L.A. joint Jack’s Sugar Shack where he witnessed a fight break out by the pool table. It turned out to be the cast of “Dazed and Confused,” years after the 1993 Rich Linklater film’s release.
“I wound up talking to Matthew McConaughey with a split lip,” Johnson recalled.
When Johnson eventually ran into McConaughey again at a Laurel Canyon party and McConaughey recalled trying to break up that fight, another partier overheard their conversation. Interjecting “I was there that night, too,” was McConaughey’s “Dazed” co-star, Ben Affleck.
One night in the mid-1990s while backing Sweet at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, The Bangles’ front woman Susanna Hoffs sat in onstage. Hoff’s pal, actor Mike Myers, was in the audience and invited Sweet, Hoffs and Johnson to jam at his house. That session and a star-studded Viper Room follow-up performance evolved into songs Hoffs and Johnson played as the house band in 1997’s “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” directed by Hoffs’ husband, Jay Roach. The band returned in the second sequel, 2002’s “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” performing the ode to Powers’ father (Michael Caine), “Daddy Wasn’t There.”
Johnson has also drummed for the New Radicals and backed John Doe of the seminal L.A. punk band X on several solo records and world tours.
Johnson, who has lived in Venice for 22 years, said he and Garibay love playing the Westside.
“We want our friends to come see us,” she said.
Feisty Heart plays at 8 p.m. Friday at TRiP, 2101 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. No cover. Call (310) 398-9010 or visit tripsantamonica.com.