Phillip Johnston was born in 1955 in Chicago IL USA, and raised in New York. During the 1970s in New York City he met and began playing with a number of associates, many of whom would be come life long collaborators, such as John Zorn, Joel Forrester, Eugene Chadbourne, Bill Horvitz, Wayne Horvitz, Dave Hofstra, Richard Dworkin, Shelley Hirsch, Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin and many others. During the 1970s he yo-yo’d back and forth between San Francisco and New York, eventually settling in New York in late 1979. During this time he also worked as an actor, sound operator and studio manager for R. Foreman’s Ontological Hysteric Theater.
In the early 1980s he was performing with Joel Forrester ensembles of various sizes (from duo through septet), then with his own groups The Public Servants and The Microscopic Septet, and participating in countless musical projects and various ‘Downtown’ music scenes, including those around Studio Henry. It was during this time that he also began writing music for film, theater, dance, beginning with Lynne Tillman and Sheila McLaughlin’s film Committed in 1984.
During the 1980s and 90s, he toured widely with The Microscopic Septet in Europe, Canada and the United States, and continued to write music for films including Doris Dörrie’s Geld (1989), Philip Haas’s The Music of Chance (1993), Henry Corra’s Umbrellas (1994) and Paul Mazursky’s Faithful (1996). In 1993 he created his first original score for silent film, for Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1926) which was premiered at the American Museum of the Moving Image. Beginning in the early 90s he led new groups, including Big Trouble and the Transparent Quartet.
In 2001 he formed Fast ‘N’ Bulbous: the music of Captain Beefheart, with ex-Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, which featured his arrangements for a seven-piece band, and resulted in two CDs for Cuneiform Records and numerous European tours, including appearances at the London Jazz Festival (UK), the Frankfurt Jazz Festival (Germany) , Saalfelden Jazz Festival (Austria), Jazz Em Agosto (Portugal) and the Zappanale. He also formed a duo with accordionist Guy Klucevsek, which led to a recording for Winter & Winter Records (Tales From The Cryptic), and several European and US tours, including appearances at the Berlin Jazz Festival. In 2002 his score for F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), commissioned by the Lincoln Center Film Society, premiered at the New York Film Festival. Throughout most of the early 2000s, he worked on Drawn To Death: A Three Panel Opera with Art Spiegelman.