In the Eighties, Metallica was a big part of making thrash metal popular worldwide. The band’s first three albums featured fast, heavy and aggressive metal, with Master of Puppets from 1986 being the crown of that creation. … And Justice for All from 1988 was a lot more progressive and complicated, before they slowed things down and turned to a heavier groove with their critically acclaimed Black Album from 1991. With that record and especially the two following ones, Load and Reload, the fan base was divided. Some hardcore fans stood by them through thick and thin, while others detested the band’s musical progress and demanded it go back to its roots. St. Anger from 2003 did not help at all. With a new bass player and a weird snare drum sound, the album was mostly killed by critics and fans around the world. But fast forward to 2008 and Death Magnetic. Finally, Metallica was going back to its roots, and that’s where Pete Johnson, founder of Tatuaje Cigars and former bass player of the heavy metal band Hung Jury, is today. He’s making his own “Death Magnetic.” “There’s always something in the back of my head that says I need to write another song,” Pete says when we meet at the InterTabac trade show in Dortmund, Germany. “Over the years I’ve progressed to trying to do new, crazy things for the industry, but the older I get, the more I reminisce about the past. So I think I’ve traveled back to the reason I started the brand 15 years ago. It’s more old-school.” And nothing’s more old-school than Metallica’s debut album, Kill ’Em All, from 1983.
Two decades later, Pete made his “Kill ’Em All”: Tatuaje Brown Label was the first cigar he made with José “Don Pepín” García at the El Rey de Los Habanos factory in Miami. “That cigar is the exact version of how I want my cigars to be portrayed. It was based on the Old World, and I like the simplicity of the originals.” Pete first got into the industry in the early Nineties, working at a cigar store in Los Angeles before he started making his own cigars. He came from the Sunset Strip heavy metal scene, where Hung Jury tried everything to make it in a hard rock scene disrupted by Nirvana and their grunge colleagues in Seattle. “Our genres changed drastically, from hair metal, like Warrant via Skid Row, to grunge, like Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains, and, finally, Korn-style screaming with harmonies and a melody. We even had a bit of rap in there.” In all their efforts and experimenting they shared an apartment, and the stories that came with it. “At one point, the entire band got lice, except me and the singer,” he laughs. “I had just added a burgundy tint to my hair, so I think that’s what saved me, but we had to clean the apartment. The place was spotless, at least until my birthday that year when my friends decided to douse me in maple syrup in the kitchen. We didn’t clean it for a week so we’d wake up with thousands of cockroaches scattered across the floor.” Pete used to smoke cigars on stage, and when he started working in the industry he quickly became known as “the tattooed guy.” “People used to look at me funny on the trade show floor and everybody came to know me as Tattoo Pete, the kid with the Opus X tattoo,” he remembers. They didn’t think that he was a brand owner, so it took him a while to be recognized; at the same time it made him stand out. “I was drastically different from a traditional face of a brand. Initially, some people actually wouldn’t talk to me because of my tattoos, but once they realized I had a good product they looked past the ink.” One of them was the owner of a competitor of a cigar store that Pete worked in before starting his brand. He didn’t understand what tattoos had to do with cigars and said that he would never hire a manager with tattoos. “What I have on my arms has nothing to do with cigars and me educating customers about cigars,” Pete says. Ironically, this person ended up being one of Pete’s first customers when he started his brand. He just liked the cigar, and when Pete reminded him of what he’d said, his reply was: “Well, I was young.”
Far away from lice-free, burgundytinted hair-dos and maple-syruptainted kitchens on Sunset, Pete did his best to fit in to this new world. Out of respect for the cigar companies, in the beginning he would dress up for the trade shows, but something didn’t feel right at the time. Today it’s different. “I felt like I was portraying another character,” Pete explains. “Eventually I became my own man, so I started dressing down, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Now I’m here, going to Europe in a blazer. I think I’ve grown up a bit and I’m trying to be a more responsible in my life. Which is not easy for me.” The main contributor to that may be his girlfriend and Pete’s main contact at My Father, Pepin’s daughter, Janny. “I think I wanted to be grown up back then, but I wasn’t ready. Now I want to look good for my lady. When she’s all dressed up and I’m in jeans and a T-shirt … I put a jacket on.” In the late-Eighties, Metallica gradually grew bigger on the metal scene, before changing paths with The Black Album in 1991. Suddenly, everybody sang along to mainstream hits like “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters”, and Pete’s progress as a cigar maker hasn’t been much different. “Every musician changes their mind about what style to progress into. You love all the music you’ve done, but sometimes you want to experiment and try different things. Like Metallica doing the live album with the San Francisco Symphony. I listen to that album constantly because the background music and the dynamics are so big. The old Metallica fans might say it’s sacrilege, but I think it’s amazing.”
Unfortunately, experimenting sometimes means you have to have your “Load” and “Reload” moments before finding your way back. “I feel like I lost my way a little bit. I needed to write a bunch of different songs and every cigar I’ve made with the Garcías over the years has shown a different style of music, but maybe I tried to get into a genre I wasn’t always great at. Now I just want to go back and play my old music,” Pete says, comparing his cigar creativity with his song-writing. The decision will definitely please a lot of his customers, much like Death Magnetic made Metallica fans happy all over the world. That doesn’t mean that Load, Reload, and even St. Anger, didn’t have their following. Like Pete’s Cabaiguan, for example. “Everyone’s going to have an opinion on the new record,” Pete maintains. “People were used to Brown Label and Selección de Cazadores when I came out with Cabaiguan. I designed a different packaging, I didn’t put Tatuaje on the band and some people just didn’t think it was Tatuaje. Others who appreciated a different style loved it.” His goal is to produce cigars for every mood and time of day: “A seat for every ass and a price point for every wallet,” as he puts it. Some people get on board with that, but others want the same thing every time. “It’s like a guy playing an old record, but one day it starts skipping,” Pete explains. “He’s played it a thousand times and now he can’t find it again. Or maybe he finds a new press, but it doesn’t have the same scratchiness to it, so he’s going to be disappointed. Cigars are so personal for everyone.” At the end of the day he just wants to make something simple that someone can light up and disappear with for an hour and a half. In order to do that, Pete says he has to respect the tradition of the old. “I’m not trying to complicate things by putting tobacco from seven different countries in the blend, or anything. I’m just making a simple cigar for someone who enjoys smoking, and I actually like myself a little bit better recently because of that. There’s been more truth to what I do. ”Simple or complicated, whatever he makes has to be perfect. This is something you will hear any cigar manufacturer say, but there are levels to perfectionism. Just ask Janny. “Unfortunately, she gets the first call when I find a problem with something,” he laughs. “I’ve always been a bit self-conscious so I think acceptance is a big thing for me. I want people to like me and I never want anyone to have a bad experience with a cigar.” But striving for perfection can be overbearing at times. Pete’s drive is the fear of failure at something he’s done better than anything else in his life. “I probably get a bit too much into making the perfect machine. It can make me depressed if someone has a bad experience or doesn’t like my product at all.”
Today, people in the industry are well aware of Pete’s presence, not only as the tattooed guy, but as a serious and skilled cigar maker. But the question is: will he ever stop being Tattoo Pete? “I can name two-dozen cigar makers with tattoo sleeves today, but I still think people see me as Tattoo Pete. I’m the cigar guy with tattoos who makes great cigars with a traditional family, and some people even call me a sell-out when they see me in nice clothes.” Diehard Metallica fans will probably be able to point out the discrepancy in the chronological analogy to Pete’s career at this point. The accusations of Metallica selling out had to do with them cutting off their hair and going mainstream in the Nineties. Pete’s selling out is current, purely superficial and is him going back to his roots. Also, the accusations are very tongue-incheek. “I had a suit on when I went to dinner with Janny recently and some guys wondered what the heck was going on. And then Tony Gómez of La Flor Dominicana asked her what she was doing to me,” he laughs affectionately. “I still have my time when I need to be in jeans and a T-shirt, but I’m comfortable wearing this now, and it makes her happy.” Whether in a dress-shirt or a T-shirt, what the future holds remains to be seen. All we can hope is that he doesn’t regress and make his own “St. Anger.” “Hey, man, Robert Trujillo [Metallica’s current bass player] is amazing, but he’s just not Metallica. I’m a fan of [former bassists] Jason Newsted and Cliff Burton. I guess I just like the old stuff.”
Copyright images: Christian Lünig