Johnny Ether's spirit still moves artists in Atlanta
At the memorial gathering for Johnny "Ether" Laubach, held at the Albert in Inman Park on Monday, Dec. 8, his father Garrett Laubach hovered near a table with a book of photos and newspaper clippings covering his adopted son's life. He chuckled while thumbing over a high school prom photo in which Johnny's date had been meticulously cut out of the picture. On another photo he paused. "That was when Johnny was a blonde. We never knew what he was going to look like from one day to the next. Blond hair, black hair ... purple hair. He always kept us on our toes."
Not only was Johnny Ether an artist, musician, DJ and promoter who pushed the envelope, he pushed other like-minded artists to pursue their own endeavors at any cost. That's how many will remember him.
Ether's career began in the mid-1980s, during the "Destroy All Music" era. It was Atlanta's response to the noisy and reactionary post-punk trickling out of New York's no wave scene. Simply known as John Laubach then, he was busy cutting his musical teeth on the primitive sounds of the Reagan years and had yet to pull his illusive Ether moniker out of the air.
Over the years, his musical journey carried him from the tumultuous post-punk era to a more sublime sound in the '90s. At one of their earliest pairings, friend and former collaborator Kevin Haller remembers Ether wielding a massive metal spring that he used as a percussive instrument. But his archaic musical explorations were only a starting point for his worldly interests.
Bay Area musician Josh Brown recalls teaming up with Ether in the mid-1990s. "He approached me to collaborate with him by mixing traditional Indian ragas on sitar with his digital music," Brown wrote CL in an e-mail. "Indian Raga is extremely detailed and almost impossible to learn in the West. Johnny researched, went to performances, studied with my guru, Ustad Rafi Akbar Zada, and talked endlessly with me about this majestic music which he loved so much."
In September 1996, Ether and then girlfriend Toniet Gallego launched a night called Transient at the now defunct Club Kaya. Transient featured an eclectic mashup of dance, video projections and music spanning from African and Middle Eastern sounds to jungle, dub and drum and bass. "He was the music man and I added a visual element with dance," says Gallego.
Former Kaya owner Tia Landau, who now owns the Albert, recalls the oft-romanticized Transient nights with fond memories of Ether's edgy antics. "He had fire eaters at one of those nights. They were so smelly, and they had fire all over my club!" Landau says, laughing about it in hindsight. "I remember saying, 'Johnny, can I have a word with you? This is not up to fire code!' It was fun and he encouraged a lot of people to be creative."
Even after Gallego and Ether broke up, the two remained friends and continued collaborating on other projects. "Those were the most productive years of my life," she recalls. "He broadened my musical tastes and we worked together to combine everything we could to create a worldly experience."
Ether's only full-length recording, Free Radical Generator, was released by Atlanta's Clock Wise Records in 1998. By then, he was a fixture on the thriving electronic music scene that churned out such artists as Tommie Sunshine, Richard Devine and a pre-Prefuse 73 Scott Herron, who performed as Delarosa at the time. Ten years after its release, Free Radical Generator still captures the cutting edge design aesthetics and electronic music of that era.
In recent years and up until the time of his death, Ether worked as a bartender and manager at the Albert. "He had matured over the years," Landau says. "I saw the side of him that came to work on time – the responsible Johnny."
Ether was home alone on the evening of Nov. 28. It was the day after Thanksgiving and his mother had stopped by earlier to bring him food. He complained about having a sore throat. The family speculates that sometime after she left, he fainted – most likely during a coughing fit – and hit his head on the hardwood floor. The 41-year-old Ether died on impact.
Word of his death spread slowly. His roommate Joe Cruz left a comment on a LunarMagazine.com thread explaining that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. At his memorial the following Monday, his parents, Garrett and Rachel Laubach, explained that Ether suffered from Mallory-Weiss syndrome, a tear between the stomach and esophagus that is known to cause unpleasant side effects, including severe retching, coughing and bleeding.
A post regarding his death on CL's Crib Notes music blog prompted a flurry of e-mails, comments and phone calls from friends and co-workers. Some hadn't talked with Johnny in years. Nearly everyone stressed how Ether had always encouraged them to be artists.
The same sentiment resonates in the poignant words spoken by his father at Ether's memorial. "When boys grow up and become men, they don't tell their mommy and daddy everything they do. It's overwhelming to hear everyone talk about how much he did for them. I wish I would have known beforehand. I would have given him an extra pat on the back. But unfortunately, we're a day late."