The Wildfires Projekt is a collaborative outfit headed by Johnny Zirkel. Drawing on an influence scope of alternative rock with nuances of pop and hip hop, the Santa Clarita, California-based singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is gearing up for the release of his upcoming EP, Lost and Searching, out tomorrow. Zirkel is also the founder of Reverse the Trend, a mental health-based non-profit centering on advocacy for anti-bullying through live, interactive experiences.
I caught up with Zirkel to discuss his formative experience with music, his current material, and what he has gleaned from working with his project as well as with other endeavors.
Growing up, what was your musical environment like?
My parents aren’t musicians or anything like that, but my brother and I took an interest in music very early on. A lot of it had to do with them taking us to concerts; we saw Bruce Springsteen when we were four years old. We started pretty young just getting involved in music, but it wasn’t a serious thing until the end of middle school.
That’s awesome how you had the chance to see legendary artists at such a young age!
It was a lot of fun, man. I remember seeing Kiss when I was ten, then Motley Crue and Tony Ackerman. Yeah, I definitely lucked out (laughs)!
You mentioned taking music more seriously toward the end of middle school. What happened during that transition?
Before then, I was practicing a lot at home. I picked up guitar and my brother picked up drums, so it was fairly simple for our building out a band. By the end of middle school, we started getting involved in a lot more programs that provided a more realistic approach to pursuing music, instead of something that was just recital-based. Our parents were big supporters of what we were doing, so that inspired us to pursue music in that way.
That’s cool; it’s not easy to find that kind of support, especially early on.
Yeah, I’d say my dad was more the straightforward ‘go to school, get a job’ type of guy, while my mom has a background in entertainment, so she was like, “Sure, go for it!”
So your dad took a bit more convincing, right?
Yeah (laughs)! Once he started seeing the fruits, he was cool with it.
When did The Wildfires Projekt come about?
I started The Wildfires Projekt after the dissolution of my previous band that I was in for a very long time. It was time for something new – something that was more important than just writing songs about girls and things like that, you know? I started writing music for that, and then I developed a TV series called Sounds of the Undeground, which is where I met Ronnie from Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, and through him I met John from the band as well. Then, at one point, Ronnie called me up and said that he wanted to work on a record together, so we did that, and John and I live in the same town, so we just continued working.
You also collaborated with other artists like SayWeCanFly, Josh Burke, and SGAR. Do you feel like these artists you work with have faith in your abilities, and understand how you work as an artist?
Absolutely. People pay for features and things like that, and it’s a good way to make money, especially these days. From the standpoint of most artists, though, I don’t think they’ll put their name on something they don’t believe in, just because if it’s not good, they’re tied to it as well.
Whether it’s a feature or not, it’s still good to make these connections.
At what point did you start releasing material under the Wildfires Projekt moniker?
So, the first record I did with Ronnie Winter and John Espy was in spring of 2020. That’s when we were on tour together, and that ended for the time being because of Covid. Because of that, John and I continued writing.
I heard that the record was partly inspired by the book Malleus Maleficarum, is that right?
Yeah. We got to the song called “Set Me on Fire,” and Malleus Maleficarum was the basis for it. I was listening to a podcast that talked about the book, and there was also that AFI song from back in the day about it. I thought it was a cool concept. I think Malleus Maleficarum was, at its core, a book that exposed witchcraft, and how to fight witchcraft. Monty Python even makes fun of it in one of their movies, you know? So, I flipped it into the concept of the world being against people who share faith in Christianity, and things like that. It was kind of all over the place influence-wise because, at that time, we were trying to find things to do in our own lives since touring ended. There are some songs on the record with political leanings, but we feel that it’s not really our platform to speak about politics, so we keep that to a minimum.
Moving forward to the record we’ll be releasing soon [Lost and Searching], we take a step back to look at the problems we have as individuals at this point in time, and that’s where this record was drawn from.
In the context of Covid, did you find that you’d been able to develop more of an awareness of your musical ideas, as well as your interests aside from music?
Well, in the beginning, I think I was more cloudy than aware. There was just a lot of anger that a lot of artists could relate to. We’ve done all this work the year prior and built this momentum, and all of a sudden, Covid comes along and stops everything that we’ve worked so hard for. I wasn’t on my best game, because when you don’t have much to do, then you don’t have much to write about.
These days, we’re pushing forward and are able to work more efficiently, with new music coming out and ideas continuing to pop up, and that’s been a lot of fun for us.
You’ve had three recent singles out now that have each done really well. When you get that combined response, does it surprise you to a degree, or is the feeling more so, “We’ve put in the effort, so the response we’ve accumulated makes sense.”
I think it’s a mix of both. When you’ve built a fan base, you anticipate the response being positive in some way. I’m sure there have been albums that you and I appreciate; a casual audience wouldn’t like them, but the true fans do. I can remember the Finch record What It Is To Burn; a lot of people hated it, but I really liked it. With your own music, there’s always that feeling that people are going to love it regardless, because we did try incorporating new things into our older sound, and that definitely opened it up to new people who weren’t fans of our music before.
In the email I received about your music, the focus track for the new EP is “Headlights.” What can you tell me about that song?
“Headlights” is a really depressing – but I’d like to think positive – song (laughs). The subject matter involves someone who’s at the edge of giving up, but they know that if they do give up, there will be no one left for another person in their life to rely on. So, they choose to help this person, which allows both of them to continue living. They’re both in these dark places, but their human connection allows them to support each other, and in that sense, it’s a dark story with a positive solution.
What I’d gathered from the song is that you’re essentially running on empty – without ‘headlights’. Despite having all these expectations placed upon you, you know that you can’t be the perfect help for this person, but you try to help them anyway, just because you naturally feel inclined to do so.
That’s actually a great way to put it, and it’s one of the things I love about music. I can have my own meanings for songs, but your meaning still resonates with me a lot, and if it’s related to how you feel, I’m not going to say that you’re wrong.
How do you handle the production side of things?
These past few years, everything we’ve worked on has involved John Espy. We’ve become great friends and have a good working relationship. At this point, this setup is how we’re continuing to pursue our music, and if there are any changes to it, then there are, but for now, it’s working out for us.
Aside from your recording endeavors, you’ve also had the non-profit, Reverse the Trend. How did that get started?
That started around the time I was in the band prior to The Wildfires Projekt. We’d done a number of very public things that led to a lot of hate over the internet. It was nothing bad; we’d played very big events, but of course there’s a select group of people that wants to bring us down. So, we saw these different things come up, and began to recognize how big of an issue internet bullying was, and still is. Kids had been going through this at school, and would come up to us at our shows and talk about it with us. We realized the need to reach kids in a better way than what we’ve experienced back then, like having some random person come in and say, “Oh, bullying’s bad.”
An outsider looking in, in other words.
Yes! So, we took our experiences and bundled it into an actual concert to connect with the kids – that’s what Reverse the Trend was, you know? We went to schools, spoke to students, and performed shows; we were a non-profit on Warped Tour. In four years, we’d done over 500 events, and it’s been a lot of fun. Nowadays, we haven’t been able to do it, just because of the state of the world, and grants and other things that are part of the business aspect, but it’s something we still strive to do. Even if I’m not working with that specific non-profit, I still aim to do something charitable with our music.
I feel like a component that your work addresses is providing an outlet for people who sometimes feel like they’re ignored or brushed off by society. Can you relate to that to a personal extent?
Yeah. As much as I like the general type of storytelling, I try to write songs about personal events that have happened in my life, or about people who are close to me or used to be close to me, with an understanding of what they’re coming from.
At this point in your career, what have you learned about yourself, both as a musician, and as a person?
Wow, that’s a good question! For myself, it’s the realization that I want to write songs with more meaning. That has involved not being afraid to incorporate other genres into our music, including pop. It no longer matters how our music is classified; if it’s good, then it’s good.
Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
Thank you for supporting us these last couple years. It’s been a struggle for us and other artists to not be able to perform, because that’s how we really engage fans and other listeners to our music. But whether you’re an older or younger listener, we appreciate that you are listening right now at this point, and if you came out to a show this past tour, that’s even more incredible. Keep in touch, and feel free to shoot us a message on Instagram. Keep coming to our shows, and I’d like to see you at every single one!
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