John Wooten is one of my oldest friends. We met in high school and for years we toured the country together playing music. I remember very distinctly the day he got called to Iraq. It was 2005 and our band was seeing a lot of success. We’d recently signed a booking and management deal out of Nashville and traveled to Texas to record the first few songs of our new album with Grammy winning engineer Eric Delegard. The night before, the band had written a new song we all thought would be a hit. The next day John called to tell me the news. Even though he was supposed to be done with the Marines in the next few months, he was being activated for a year in Iraq. It’s the closest I’ve come to having an actual family member go to war.
John is one of those guys who always accomplishes his mission. I’m not sure if this is something he was born with or if the Marines brought out of him, but I’ve seen him accomplish a lot in his life. Not only is he a professional level drummer and keyboard player, he’s taught himself guitar and built a very successful web design company.
From funding his retirement through music to building a business that has allowed him to do what he wants, wherever he wants, John is the type of mobile entrepreneur a lot of people aspire to be. If this type of lifestyle sounds appealing to you, I think you’ll enjoy this interview. Without further ado, here’s our Warrior Profile on John Wooten.
So tell me a little about yourself. Where’d you grow up? What were you like as a kid, etc…
I spent my childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska until I was 15. I grew up in a Christian home with my dad being a church pastor as long as I can remember.
When I was 15, my parents decided to become missionaries so we lived in the southern tip of Texas for 1 year of language school followed by another year living 6 hours down south in Durango, Mexico.
We moved back to Nebraska right before my Senior year of high school.
As a young kid, I was into skateboarding and bicycles. When I watch Stranger Things, that pretty much sums up what I was into. Riding bikes around with friends, trading baseball cards, getting into a bit of trouble, etc.
With my dad being a small church pastor, my 2 brothers and I were very involved in the music aspect of church from a young age. I took piano lessons from 6 years of age to 15. I started playing keyboard on stage at church when I was 12.
My older brother left for college 1 year later and he was our drummer. One week before he left, my dad told me “Well, your older brother’s going to college so you’re our new drummer starting next week.”
I learned one beat and played that one beat faster or slower for each song.
After a couple months, the piano player turned to me in practice, and out of frustration yelled “CAN YOU PLAY ANYTHING ELSE?!?”.
I was embarrassed.
I decided to take on his challenge and started diving into the drums. Before I knew it, I fell in love with playing and would go to the church often to practice. My parents even let me put a drum set in the basement. I can’t believe they let me do that thinking back on it!
As a teenager I really started to get into basketball. During my time in Mexico, my parents even sent me back to Nebraska to attend high school only during the basketball season. I would spend hours practicing. My senior year of high school I had to choose whether to go into college to play basketball or not. I had a couple smaller colleges interested. I’m 5’ 6” so I knew a career beyond college was extremely unlikely. When I realized that, I decided to join the Marine Corps Reserves to help pay for college.
What was it that lead you to join the Marines and what was your job while you were serving?
My older brother had joined. He’s 4 years older than me. He told me I could signup as a Reservist and the Marines would pay 50% of my school. At the time I was looking at the National Guard which would’ve paid 75%. He would say, “You don’t wanna join the ’Nasty Guard’!”
He’s in the National Guard now. Lol. =)
Signing up as a reservist, you want your drill location (the one weekend a month) to be close to you. That limits your job choices quite a bit. The closest drill center was in Omaha. It was a Maintenance & Utilities company.
Every Marine trains as a Rifleman first. We learn marksmanship in boot camp shooting up to 600 yards with the naked eye, no scope. After boot camp you go to combat school. Once I was done with both of those trainings, I was sent to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to complete training to be a Generator Mechanic.
Do you have any funny or intense stories from your time in the service?
I’m sure all Marines and service members have funny stories from boot camp. We had one recruit who was from India and his last name was Anguiano or something like that. At the end of each day, we all would be lined up with just our underwear, flip flops, and our t-shirt hanging out the back of our underwear like a tail. You had to show the Drill Instructor both sides of your hands so they could inspect them for cleanliness, nail length, and general humiliation I’d say. While doing that you had to shout your name: “Recruit Wooten’s rifle serial number is…!” This kid would say his name in his strong Indian accent, and about 80% of the time the Drill Instructor would just bury his face in his Smokey Bear hat and you knew he was laughing, although we never saw them laugh. We would laugh too of course, and then get smoked for it. “Smoked” meaning they’d make us do push-ups or some other exercise until you couldn’t do them anymore.
Fortunately, I never had to fire my weapon at an enemy combatant during my time at Camp Fallujah, Iraq. I did have to aim my weapon 2 different times and be prepared to fire on Iraqis. I’ll tell one of those stories.
When we first got to Iraq, we were put on convoy security for 1 month while the previous engineer company finished up their tour. We were going outside the wire pretty often. One of these convoys we saw a couple Iraqis digging along the side of the road. We immediately thought they were planting IED’s. Eight of us setup a firing formation, 4 along each side of the road. We aimed in on the Iraqis. I aimed my weapon at one of them not even thinking about it. I was ready to pull the trigger when told to. The training had totally taken over like they told me it would. I had no thoughts of who this person was, if they had a family, children, etc. I was just ready to do my job. We sent a translator and found out they were working on a water pipe. No big deal in the end, but the significant part of the story for me was how the training had taken over my mind and body. It’s something I’ll never forget.
One of the most memorable experiences was on our way back from Iraq. We stopped at Camp Victory in Kuwait. They had several choices for lunch. A friend of mine and I saw this building out in the desert a bit. They were serving chinese food inside and had decorated this tent with Asian decorations. The server was Asian as well. So here I was in Kuwait, in the middle of the desert, eating Chinese food, on the way home from Iraq. It was a good moment.
If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice to follow during your time as a Marine, what would it be?
I think I would try to enjoy it a bit more. I was pretty “gung-ho” my first few years. I was pretty focused on earning rank and outperforming the Marines around me. Looking back, I could have experienced more of the community part of it while I was in. I do miss the camaraderie and the sense of being part of something bigger.
Tell me about your musical training. How many instruments do you play, what instrument did you start with, and what was it the lead you to pursue learning more than one instrument?
I started piano lessons when I was 6. After a few years I wanted to quit. However my mom had this “lie” she would tell me. “One more set of books.” is what she’d say. I think she said that a few times over a few books and a few years … lol. I got to the point where I could play by reading music and also reading chord charts at church. When you get to that point, and you can improvise, then it becomes really interesting and enjoyable. I could hear anything on the radio and start to play along.
When my brother left for college I started drumming. I really started to pick it up when I was 13. I would spend hours practicing at church and playing at home.
As the church grew, we gained a couple solid drummers so I was moved back over to piano when I was about 20 years old. We didn’t have any solid electric guitar so I decided to learn guitar to play for worship music. Playing electric guitar for worship is its own kind of guitar playing. It’s not as much shredding and being a rock star … it’s more “chimey” and using some effects to fit into the song.
If you can play guitar for worship, you can pretty much play bass for worship. I’ve had to fill-in on bass a few times for worship over the years.
So all in all, I play piano and drums at a professional level I’d say, guitar and bass on a “worship team” level.
Who are some of your major musical influences and favorite artists and what makes them stand out to you?
It changes. Back in the day it was Dave Weckl (drummer), Foo Fighters, Coldplay, House of Heroes, Anberlin and other Tooth & Nail artists. Now it’s mostly pop, country and this new 80’s retro wave type music. I also enjoy some alternative music … bands like The 1975.
For the gearheads out there, what does your rig consist of these days (drums, electronic beats, accessories, etc)?
I’ll just focus on drums for this question since that’s the main instrument I play.
I have a custom kit a friend of mine built. It’s a Bermuda Sand sparkle kit. 22×22 kick, 14×6 snare, 13” rack tom, 16” and 18” floor toms nicknamed “thunder & lightning”. =)
I use a mix of Zildjian K and Istanbul cymbals.
For electronics, I have a Roland SPD-SX drum pad, the Roland SPD-ONE Wave pad, and the Roland SPD-ONE Electro. I just picked up a Nord Drum 3P that I’m excited about.
For acoustic gigs I also play cajon, and some sample sounds on an AKAI 16 finger-pad midi controller.
What do you hope to accomplish with your music?
Back in the day I wanted to tour full-time. I’ve done that a couple times in different situations. The first time, it was in a 15 passenger van with a trailer. I think we were around 25 years old. It was definitely a great time of life.
I eventually played in another group that toured in a tour bus. That was also a great time of life.
Through both times, I realized it’s never what you think it’s going to be.
One one occasion I played for over 90,000 people at a festival … another time I played for over 70,000. To be honest, once the crowd is over 2,000 people, it feels the same to me.
Now, with web design being the main income focus, my goal with music is to make enough each month to fully fund my wife and I’s Roth RIA. That works out to be a bit over $1k each month. We have other investment vehicles for retirement but I like music to take care of the Roth RIA’s.
I like the idea of saying “Music is funding my retirement”.
How long have you been doing web and graphic design and what got you into it?
I started building websites in college. I took an Instructional Design Technology course where we had to build 1 site … along with building PowerPoints and other presentations.
Building that one website really hooked me. I ended up getting a work study position in the computer lab where I took that course. I would spend a ton of time in that lab making graphics for the band and working on our website.
Eventually word spread that I made websites. I made a website for a local studio, other bands, my dad’s church, a home builder … and it just grew from there.
In the field of web and graphic design, who are some people that inspire you?
There are some guys that run podcasts that I’ve been listening to for years: Paul Boag, Marcus Lillington, Chris Coyier and Dave Rupert.
What would you like to accomplish with your web design business?
My main goals for the web design business are:
– provide a great life and income for me and my family
– provide a life of freedom for my family both financially and location-wise
– build a sellable business
If you could change anything about the way you went about learning web design, or any of your musical instruments for that matter, what would you change?
I’m pretty happy with how I went about learning music and web design. I do wish I would have discovered drums a bit earlier in life. You see folks who have been playing since they were 3 or 4 years old and they’re amazing. When you’re that young, you just soak it up.
Later on in the questions I mention a web design course I help manage. I wish that course would have been around when I was learning web design. I feel like going to a 4-year college to be a web designer could be wasting a ton of money. My college time was valuable, but I could have taken a $2k course to learn what I do now instead of spending $40k. I think education beyond high school is starting to change. More of these “masterclasses” are going to be popping up. I think it’s about time.
For someone brand new to web design what advice would you give and what resources would you recommend?
I would advise them to stick with it if they’re into it. It can be a large learning curve and overwhelming at first. But once you get the hang of it, it gets much easier. It’s a great industry to be in. Every business needs a website and most business owners do not have the time or skill to build the site themselves … even with tools like Squarespace, Wix, etc.
As far as resources, a web designer friend of mine, Kelly, and I launched an online course for folks called “Break Into Web”. It’s a great way to get involved in web design and try it out. It’s also a lot less expensive than trying it out in college and paying college tuition: breakintoweb.com
Other resources would be teamtreehouse.com and/or lynda.com
For those who wish to excel in multiple fields at the same time (like web design AND music) what advice would you give?
Web design and musicians are a pretty good pair … a lot of musicians I know are technical as well as creative. They’re dialing in their tone, recording themselves using ProTools, Reason or Logic … and they have good style as far as how they dress and their design eye. It’s a great fit. I’d suggest trying to find different fields that can compliment each other if possible. Also, try not to have too many irons in the fire. I read a quote that said “You need to be doing fewer things for effect instead of doing more things with side effects.”
Where can people find you online?