TRAN’S FORMATION: La Jolla gallery owner Johnny Tran releases album


Making his first album of original music, “Meditations on Death,” wasn’t even Johnny Tran’s idea. The owner of La Jolla’s Thumbprint Gallery said he was laying down some electronic instrumentals for his own pleasure — like he did before the art business consumed his life 10 years ago.

“In 2016, there was a lot of emotional stuff going on and it felt kind of cathartic to make music again,” Tran told the Light.

Tran played the tracks — a bleep-y cocktail of electronica, drum & bass and jazz — for Nonie Cruzado, one of Thumbprint’s regularly featured painters. Cruzado loved them so much, he offered to paint an album cover inspired by them.

“So now, I had to make the album!” Tran said, smiling at his desk in the gallery. “If it turned out bad, it’s his fault!”

Tran opened Thumbprint — a tiny studio with a big pop-surrealistic/urban attitude — with partner Paul Ecdao in 2009. It was in North Park first. Then, since most of their clients lived in North County, they relocated it to 920 Kline St.

When Tran took up art, however, he put down music. He had been a DJ when he moved to San Diego in 1999 from his native Santa Maria. And with some of his pro gear, he wrote and recorded his first compositions.

“I used to use a four-track tape recorder and two analog keyboards and press the buttons at the same time to record the track and play the beats live,” he recalled.

People told him back then to record an album. He politely shrugged them off.

“Now, it’s like, ‘Remember that thing you used to say I should do?’” Tran said. “Well, I did it!”

“Meditations on Death” — a title inspired by the Vietnamese Buddhism of Tran’s youth — was made almost entirely by computer, as most electronic music is these days. In fact, the album doesn’t even have any physical form. It came out on Saturday, Feb. 2, on the streaming service SoundCloud. (At a later date, Tran said, he’ll upload it to iTunes.)

The album’s 10 tracks include “Atomic Number 93,” a highly danceable ditty inspired by the recent North Korean showdown, and a heavily synthesized rumination on humanity’s future called “Robots Will Replace Us.”

Some of that “emotional stuff” going on for Tran in 2016 included the presidential election, and another track, “Executive Order 9066,” is an ominous plod through screams and soundbites including then-candidate Donald Trump’s 2015’s promise to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. (The title refers to the 1942 order that forcibly removed 122,000 resident Japanese-Americans from their homes and placed them in internment camps.)

“For me, it was totally like painting,” said Tran of recording the album, which he did in his home studio over three or four months. “I just make the work, work on it and present it. It’s very similar to an art show.”“Meditations on Death” is available to stream on