An Interview with Ace Von Johnson of L.A. Guns

Header image credit: Joe Schaefer Photography


By Andrew DiCecco
adicecco@vinylwriter.com

Image courtesy of Ace Von Johnson Website (official)

Although he never aspired to be a musician, Ace Von Johnson met his natural talent as a guitarist late in his teenage years.

For Von Johnson, his interest in the instrument began after discovering an old acoustic guitar his mother had buried away under coats and dust in the closet. Once he deciphered Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” and similar passages, the budding guitarist was gifted an upgraded model. As Von Johnson’s ambitions took hold, he used his allowance to buy an electric guitar, forming his first band within a year.

While Metallica is regarded as Von Johnson’s favorite band, the Los Angeles native also developed a profound affinity for punk music at an early age after being introduced to seminal acts such as The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, and The Dickies via the world-famous KROQ radio station on Sundays. Von Johnson’s punk roots were never too far from the surface in his formative years and early bands, whether it was PBR, Cheap Sex, Madcap, or any number of other outfits as he honed his skills.

Von Johnson’s ascent to prominence began in 2010 when he joined the storied Los Angeles hard rock act Faster Pussycat, playing alongside iconic and charismatic frontman Taime Downe for the next decade.

In 2018, Von Johnson joined L.A. Guns, where he continues to serve as the quintessential complement to revered six-stringer Tracii Guns.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the multifaceted L.A. Guns guitarist about a variety of topics, including his musical roots, Checkered Past, and broader interests in life. Head over to www.acevonjohnson.com for more information, and consider supporting Ace on Patreon.

Andrew:
Thanks for taking the time, Ace. Let’s start with the most recent news on the L.A. Guns front. What are the latest developments?

Ace:
Yeah, we’ve got this big package tour, the Sonic Slam, with Tom Keifer, us, and Faster Pussycat. So, I’m really excited about getting back on the road and I know the other guys are. I talked to Taime two days ago on the phone for quite a while, and he is as well. As are the Tom Keifer guys; I see most of his band regularly here in Nashville. There will be another L.A. Guns record sooner than later. I can say that most of it is done. It’s in various stages of production, obviously, but it exists. That’s kinda all I can say about that, I guess, because that’s sort of not my story to tell, per se. But there will be another L.A. Guns record. I don’t know what the plan is, but I would guarantee within the next twelve months, for sure.

Andrew:
We’ll discuss Checkered Past in a moment, but I wanted to ask you, Ace, how you’ve been making the most of this down time, which has lasted for the better part of two and a half years?

Ace:
Well, interestingly enough, having not toured, personally, in two-and-a-half years, it’s been – not necessarily a challenge – but it’s sort of gotten me out of my comfort zone. It’s forced my hand to find avenues that maybe I dabbled in, and make those more of a constant stream of revenue. And all things considered, I’m very, very fortunate, and very aware that I’m in this fraction of a single percentage of people who get to play music for a living. I’m not rich, I don’t have a trust fund, and I don’t do anything other than basically – I’m an artist. So, I’m aware that I’m very, very fortunate, and I’m happy with how far I’ve gotten.

I had, unbeknownst to the world, launched a Patreon about six months prior to the pandemic. I would say calling it a lifesaver is an understatement, but having that platform and outlet as a creator and whatnot, it is how I’m making half – if not most – of my income in between touring. And since it’s been two and a half years in between touring, it’s been a really great outlet for me. It’s made me come up with things like – against my better wishes – but I’ve been asked to start a podcast for years, and I did not want to do that, and I eventually relented exclusively for Patreon. So, I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it, but it’s gotta be select.” I didn’t just wanna be cold-calling people; I wanted it to be people I had a rapport with, and go beyond just, “Hey, you’re a guy that does whatever.” For example, my first guest was an actor named Derek Mears. He was the Swamp Thing in the Swamp Thing series; he was the Predator in the Predators movie; he was Jason in the Friday the 13th remake; he was in four of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. All of that’s really exciting, but he also happens to be one of my best friends. So, we were just going in and out of discussing his professional career as well as fart jokes and whatnot. [Laughs]

Also, creating things, like video content – pulling up old behind-the-scenes stuff and old tour footage – and then doing some voiceover stuff, which I do pretty frequently. Although, until this week, I had been in kind of a four-month lull, but I’m getting back into that. And just doing a fair amount of session work as a guitar player. I know my strong suits – and there aren’t very many – but I’m an OK rock guitar player with a pedigree in punk rock. So, I get hit up to guest appear on people’s albums, co-write, or collaborate with some people. I think I’ve had more albums that are my album, or have been a part of, or guest on, in the last two or three years than I had in two or three times that in the last six or seven years prior to that. So, I’ve been busy, and I’m happy with how far I’ve gotten.

Andrew:
Originally, I was planning to discuss your voiceover work later, but since you brought it up, let’s get into it now. What led you to that line of work and how do you balance the demands of it as a professional musician?

Ace:
There’s really no balance. It was the kind of thing where, as a teenager, people would frequently comment on my voice. Even about five minutes before we got on this thing, Steve Brown from Trixter and a few other projects, commented on something about my voice, saying I sound like a broadcaster. I was like, “Well, to a degree, I kind of am.” It just was the kind of thing that I was hearing regularly as a young man. It was like, “Oh, you have such a nice speaking voice.” And as I got into my twenties and was trying to decide what I was gonna do with my life, if you will – besides being underpaid and in a lot of bands – I went and studied under several people in the Los Angeles area. And I joke, like I was saying about the thing with Steve Brown, I joke and I go, “Technically, I’m a professionally trained voice actor.” You know, it’s all bullshit. I’ve never really done anything too large credit-wise; I’ve got a few shows on Netflix that feature my voice; mostly dubbing work, where they’ll purchase something from a foreign territory, and they’ll dub it into English. But I’ve had my voice on Money Heist, Marianne, The Woods, and a few other things. Mostly, someone will come to me and go, “Hey, I hear you do voiceover,” and there’s this air of nepotism and they’re like, “I’m a fan of your band, and I’ve got a business, and I need a commercial spot. What’s your rate?” And I go from there. So, it’s just another facet of being creative and doing something with it.

Predominately, everything is my speaking voice. I did a thing yesterday or the day before that was like a little YouTube clip ad; just a commercial for something coming out. But my goal is, I wanna do animation; I wanna do character-driven stuff. That’s my goal, as far as the voiceover stuff.

Image courtesy of Ace Von Johnson

Andrew:
L.A. Guns released the outstanding Checkered Past last November, my favorite rock album of 2021 alongside Death by Rock and Roll by The Pretty Reckless, which I felt returned to the classic roots of melodic hard rock in contrast to The Devil You Know. What was the blueprint for this album, Ace?

Ace:
That’s a good question. The blueprint, I think, really stems from two things; the core of Phil and Tracii working together, and the fact that the band members have been working together so closely for so many years now. There’s a fluidity to it, where often, we would walk in at soundcheck, and Tracii would be like, “Hey, check out this riff!” And he’d noodle, and we would be like, “Alright,” and jump in. And then a year would go by and I’d get a text … “Check your email,” and it’d be Tracii with this demo version, and I’d be like, “Oh, I know that riff! That’s that thing from eighteen months ago.” So, a lot of it formulated like that, naturally. You gotta understand, it’s Tracii’s band – the guy is a legend in his own right – so he’s cranking out music constantly, just like the rest of us. Like I said, I’ll wake up and there will be an email, and there will be a bunch of songs in my inbox. It’s just a cool thing to be a part of, that I get to sort of ride shotgun, or even in the backseat, of this project.

Then the other thing was, I think that a large part of that stemmed from the fact that we were thrown into this whole like, “Holy shit, there’s a pandemic right now. How do we write an album?” I recorded probably ninety percent of my guitars seated where I am right now, in my office. And I think everybody did their own, respectively. I think Phil recorded most of his at home; Tracii recorded most of his guitars in Denmark, where he lives. So, it was two continents and four states. I can only speak for myself, and for me, with some of the stuff contributed to Checkered Past – as well as, I got this one song I really like for the new record – I’m just writing going, “Does this sound like L.A. Guns?” And aiming for that. Or if [Tracii] sends me something, my mindset is, “For my contribution, how can I make it sound more like the band you want to hear?”

With Devil You Know, I don’t know anything about it because I wasn’t really privy to it. I am pictured and credited on the album as a member, but the album was written and recorded about a year before I joined. I’ve had a couple come up and be like, “Oh, I don’t want you to sign the record. You’re on it, but you didn’t play on it.” I think we bounced back on the third reunion record. If you ask me, of the three records, I personally think Checkered Past is the strongest effort.

Andrew:
How have you seen your role in the band evolve over time?

Ace:
I don’t think anything’s really changed too much. I’d like to think that I came in with enough of my own accolades where it wasn’t like I needed training wheels or anything. I think it’s pretty well known now, that they actively sort of pursued me for the gig for a little bit of time. So, by the time we came together, within six months maybe, I felt like it was pretty much comparable to where I’ve stayed, as far as my relationship with the band and my role. There’s been forward momentum and growth, but it’s been pretty natural. I can’t really state, per se, anything that seems to stand out. Even when we did Another Xmas In Hell EP, which is just a digital release of covers, I had a pretty active role with that because that was the first time we, as a band, – even before me – had recorded with Tracii being remote. Tracii was in Denmark, so Johnny [Martin], Scot Coogan, myself, and Adam Hamilton – sort of our sixth Beatle – recorded that all at Adam’s studio. I did a lot of the guitar stuff on that EP, and just sort of figured if Tracii didn’t like it, he’d shitcan it, and most of it ended up staying. I felt like they gave me a healthy amount of responsibilities in my role right out of the gate, which has pretty much stayed true. But again, you know, I’m a member of the band and the two main guys are Tracii and Phil, and they’ll always be Tracii and Phil. What’d I say earlier about riding shotgun or sitting in the backseat sometimes? I’m OK with that, too.

Andrew:
You may not have seen our articles highlighting the most influential and decade-defining singers and guitar players of the 1980s, but my list each included Tracii and Phil. My stance is that both were incredibly influential and supremely gifted, but personally, I didn’t feel they’ve been accorded the reverence they deserve. I wanted to change that.

Ace:
I agree. I do agree with you that – taking myself out of my role as a member and just speaking as a fan of music – I do think Tracii’s influence goes beyond maybe what he’s accredited for. Same thing with Phil; I really love Phil’s catalog of music with L.A. Guns, and then also without. In my record collection, I’ve got those two Girl albums that he did with Phil Collen; I’ve got the Tormé album he did with Bernie Tormé, Rest in Peace. Not that I’m on that level, but we’re all coming in with like, “You know us for this gig, but we also have these other accolades or whatever else.” Mine being Faster Pussycat, and all these other things I’ve done over the years, as well. So, I think that’s what ties it all together in being a really strong group. You have all these members who are known for the sort of popular pedestal they’re put on, but beyond that, there are so many more facets to them. Like, Tracii’s a really fantastic blues player; I’ve seen him do some rockabilly stuff and other interesting things that go beyond just what you see in the L.A. Guns outfit.

Image courtesy of Ace Von Johnson

Andrew:
You and Tracii always appear to be in constant unison on stage. The innate rapport is apparent. Where does that connection stem from, and how has that developed over time?

Ace:
I don’t know. [Laughs]. Tracii is just the coolest. I don’t know how else to explain it. I remember my first show with L.A. Guns, and I remember some moments in that first week when I didn’t need to be coaxed to do anything, and it didn’t seem unnatural. My first show, obviously, I was a little – not nervous – I was never nervous, but it was a new gig. But I think right out of the gate it was pretty much like, “I’m gonna come and do this and see what the response is.” You can read someone’s vibe or their face, and within a couple of shows, both he – and especially Phil – were mid-show complimenting me. Like, Phil would come over – I remember vividly – a handful of times during “Over The Edge,” he’d be like, “Whatever you just did in that verse, mate, was brilliant!” And I’d be like, “Alright. Okay. Cool.”

I think it helps that we’re just tight, Tracii and I. I think he kind of gets me and I kind of get him. Before I moved out of Hollywood, I had an apartment that was walking distance from his house in the Hills. So, I would just like grab the dog, it was like three-quarters of a mile, and I’d walk up the hill and I’d be like, “What’s up?” And he’d be like, “Come on in!” I’d go over to Tracii’s house and sit down, and he’d be like, “Check out this new guitar I got,” or “What are you workin’ on?” Or talk about Zodiac Mindwarp, or Germs, or whatever weird stuff. And his garage is kind of a studio now, so we’d go in there and he’d be like, “Check out this vintage amp I bought,” and just nerd out. And I like that relationship. It made it easier, so when I got on stage, I wasn’t like, “Oh my God. This is a new gig,” or “I’m playing with this guy.” It wasn’t like that out of the gate; it was literally me stepping on stage with my friends. I just happened to be new in the band. Even my first tour with Faster Pussycat in 2010 was with Tracii. So, at this point, we go back twelve years, formally. Then Johnny Martin, the bass player in L.A. Guns, I’ve known Johnny since I was like twenty-two. So, it wasn’t weird. It was just sort of like hanging out with some buds.

Andrew:
Do you have any memory of your first gig with L.A. Guns, Ace?

Ace:
I do. Not a lot of detail, other than it was a venue that might have been previously like a VFW hall. It was a good turnout, and it was a good show, but the ambiance was weird; the ceiling was low and you could tell that they were kind of not prepared for a real rock concert. It might have been what we would call a tertiary market. I had a good time. I just remember getting off stage, and I think Tracii patted me on the butt. It was fun, there was never any weird vibe. I remember asking Johnny maybe a week in, “So, is this just how it is? You guys seem pretty easy and fun. Everything is copacetic and whatnot.” So, I was just like, “Oh, this is great,” and then I just never left. [Laughs]. It was meant to be sort of like a probational tour for all parties because they were going through this thing of going through guitar players, basically just trying people on for size. But they were going through some probational lineup changes trying to find the guy, and finally, both our schedules worked out, and we were like, “Yeah, let’s see how this works.” Like I said, it’s been maybe four years now. Clearly, I’m still here.

Andrew:
Hailing from Los Angeles, how significant is it for you to have played in two of the area’s prominent legacy bands, L.A. Guns and Faster Pussycat?

Ace:
It’s cool. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s two really cool milestones to have as a rock guitar player. You know, there are a lot of things in my career that I’m really proud of, but definitely being in Pussycat for ten years, as well as being in the reunited lineup of L.A. Guns, are cool notches to have on my belt. Even though I wasn’t around for the heyday of these bands – I was a child then – it still goes without saying that they’re both legendary in their own right, especially regarding hard rock to come out of Los Angeles. And I’m happy to have that on my resume. It’s cool. I’m proud of both of those opportunities.

Image courtesy of Ace Von Johnson

Andrew:
Now, I’d like to rewind back to the beginning of your musical journey. What are you able to recall regarding your initial introduction to music?

Ace:
Probably my mom playing me all her weird, hippie, 70s shit. [Laughs]. The Eagles, which I’m still a massive fan of; Joni Mitchell; The Doors. A lot of 50s and 60s bubblegum doo-wop; you know, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, Danny & the Juniors. I still love all that stuff. I’m a big fan of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates and anything like that. ‘Cause a lot of it, not only is it proto-rock ‘n’ roll, which is clearly the most important thing, but it’s also proto-punk rock in a sense because that’s like my big thing musically. And then just being in L.A. and hearing The Ramones on KROQ for the first time. I remember when Metallica’s Black Album came out in ’91; I was eight, but I was still aware of MTV and all these things. And you couldn’t escape that record. Then, of course, by ’92, ’93, and ’94, I was buying Metallica albums and whatever else was popular at the time. So, those are kind of some of my earliest memories with that.

Andrew:
What originally kindled your passion for guitar?

Ace:
I think just enjoying music to the degree of going, “Oh, I also would like to do that.” I never wanted to be a musician; it just ended up being my career. I think there was a turning point in my early twenties, where I was like, “I guess this is what I’m doing.” My mom had a terrible acoustic guitar in the closet, covered under coats and dust, and whatever, and I would pull it out and bang away at it until I could try to decipher “Smoke on the Water” and that kind of stuff. Eventually, my mom and my stepdad – I think I was thirteen, or fourteen – they bought me a real acoustic. I played that for a little bit, and then I saved up my allowance and I bought an electric, and within a year, I started my first band. And off I went.

Andrew:
When did you begin to develop a taste for punk music?

Ace:
I think there was a turning point in middle school where the radio station I was listening to, KROQ, there was a show on Sunday with this famous, famous DJ named Rodney Bingenheimer. It was like “Flashback Sundays” or whatever, and they would play the band X, and The Ramones, and The Dickies, and The Dead Kennedys. I’m getting goosebumps. They would play all this stuff that is still like my lifeblood. And I was like eleven, twelve, thirteen – I was a child – and I have a sister who was thirteen years my senior, and I went to her and I was like, “Have you ever heard of this band The Ramones?” And she’s like, “Fuckin’…yeah!” And having herself lived through the ’80s in Los Angeles, I remember vividly, she was like, “Come with me.” She opens up this thing with cassettes and some 7-inches and stuff, and she lent me The Damned, and Social Distortion, and The Ramones and all this stuff, and off I went. Coupled with that, and my favorite band was Metallica, and I had this book on Metallica and it was all these photos from the 80s, and they were all wearing Misfits shirts in like every single photo. I was like twelve or thirteen and I was like, “I need to know who this band is.” So, I went to the store and bought some Misfits record – Walk Among Us, maybe – and already had been raised on horror movies by my father, so I was like, “Wait a minute. So, this is an angry, loud punk rock band, but they’re singing about these horror movies?” So, that became my favorite band for probably the next – well, indefinitely, really – but probably most of my teens.

So, at thirteen, fourteen years old, I was listening to The Eagles, I was listening to Black Flag, I was listening to Megadeth, and then I would listen to Soundgarden, and then I would listen to Cannibal Corpse, and then I would listen to Chubby Checker. I was listening to everything. I just didn’t understand that you had to be pigeonholed in some cliquey scene or genre. And then I got to high school, and then that’s when it was like, “You have to pick one! You can either be a metal head, or you can be the goth kid, or you can be the punk kid. You can’t be all of them!” So, I was sort of an outcast amongst my social circle, and I just sort of meandered between all these groups. Then I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna start listening to the Sisters of Mercy. And then I’m gonna listen to Carcass now.” So, I was building this musical palate, which I still enjoy to this day, but the thing that I identified most with was punk rock. It was loud, fast, and angry, and it had an edge that maybe post-Load Metallica didn’t have. Or Def Leppard didn’t have. Or Pearl Jam didn’t have. So, I just went in that direction. Plus, that coupled with the fact that I could pick up a guitar and learn most of a punk rock album from most bands, easily, seemed to set me on that path. Then, I was also already making my own clothes and doing weird, artsy stuff. Like, I took a makeup course in middle school, much to my mother’s chagrin. I’d learn how to do eyeliner and put on lipstick. I was a weird kid; I’m still a weird kid, I’m just almost forty.

To kind of summarize the tail-end, I started a band at seventeen, and within six months, I was booking national bands. My mom and my stepdad had moved me to San Diego at fifteen – so I did grow up in San Diego for about four years – but by that point, I already had sort of my own identity anyhow, which was rooted in growing up with my sister in L.A. in adjacent cities. So, I was a part of the scene in San Diego, and networking and booking shows. One of the most memorable shows from my first band, which was just called PBR – which was Punks, Bastards, and Runaways – we got to support the Misfits. Albeit, a funky incarnation of the Misfits, but that was a big deal for me, that we got asked to support them at this big venue in San Diego. I was booking bands that I was a fan of: The Partisans, The Skulls, The Weirdos, and as you imagine, people would call me and say, “Hey, can you help me with this show?” And that started to segue into, “Hey, can you fill in for this band?” So, within six months of me being nineteen, I was set to join or audition for three bands that were signed and touring. I had their albums. I had also started this punk band with some of my friends called Cheap Sex. They’re actually doing a tour right now of the twenty-year anniversary of the album we did together, and like playing all these punk venues and selling out. It’s pretty cool. Then I joined this band called Madcap at nineteen that had a little, indy deal, and off I went. Then I was on tour; I was thrust out into this sort of real world as a touring musician. We did eight months consecutively once. I think we came home for like ten days or two weeks, and then back out on the road. It was two or three tours back-to-back; we went out with Fall Out Boy; we did dates at Warp Tour; we were out with Dropkick Murphys. We were out with so many bands. I can’t even remember; it just went on, and on, and on and we did that for two years. At that point, I had met other bands; I joined another band, I joined another band, I joined another band, and now — twenty years later — here I am.

But that’s where the punk rock ethos comes from, that era of booking shows and handing out flyers. This sort of street team, grassroots legwork that I’m still applying today, whether it’s selling pick packs, Patreon, or meet and greets. It still stems from me being a teenager and being like, “I want to do this, and I’m here. How do I get from here to here?”

Image credit: Rockstar Photography

Andrew:
As far as I can tell, flyering was not nearly as intense or competitive as the storied flyer wars of the 1980s.

Ace:
No, that wasn’t so much a thing too much in the late 90s. As a guy whose career started in 2000, and I say career loosely, by that point, it was already email lists, street teams, and dot coms. So, it was pre-social media, but the internet – especially email – had taken place of heavily flyering. When I was fifteen, I started working as a roadie – not a tech, but a roadie – for a band called Agent 51 out of San Diego. We’d paste flyers and all that, so I saw the last little bastion of it, and it was cool. I still have a roll of punk posters from shows. So, it was a cool thing to be privy to as a young man and be influenced by.

Andrew:
Given your musical DNA, I imagine that when you went to audition for Faster, you were very much in your element.

Ace:
Oh, completely. That first record, I swear to this day, if they all had short, spikey hair, it wouldn’t be a hair metal album, it would be a punk rock album. Like “City Has No Heart,” to me, sounds like Sex Pistols. “Got No Room for Emotion” is very New York Dolls. There’s definitely a heavy, heavy punk rock influence. And something that people don’t really know is Taime had a band in Seattle called the Bondage Boys that he sort of namechecks in Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way. That was his first punk band. Ironically, a guy I used to live with shot Faster Pussycat at their second show ever, and Taime has charged hair – he looks like Colin from GBH – he’s got this crazy, spikey hair, and he’s wearing a Misfits shirt. It looks like a punk band. That was ’85, maybe ’86.

Andrew:
You are also a passionate advocate for dog rescue, so it would be remiss of me not to mention that before we wrap up. How can we get involved?

Ace:
There’s no shortage of ways people can help. I always recommend that people look and see if there’s a local shelter, or if there’s an advocacy group or a rescue group in their area that they can partner with or get behind. Even if it’s just bringing old blankets and some canned food. One of the first things I did when I moved to Nashville was seek out as many rescue groups here as possible, so I could do what I could to help. Like I said, there’s just much stuff that can be done, social media is the most obvious one; I’m sure you’ve noticed my Twitter feed is usually filled with reposts and retweets. Pretty much anybody I follow that either tags me, sends me, or I see in general, sometimes I’ll just go through in the middle of the night, or if I’m in the gym, I’ll just start reposting stuff. Frequently, I’ll pledge money for dogs in need; $20 here and whatnot. So, a little goes a long way. And it doesn’t have to just be dogs, or in my case, specifically Pitbull-type dogs. It could be anything – if it’s cats or whatnot – but just finding a local rescue for what you’re passionate about. You don’t even have to volunteer your time, which is great. It’s as easy as just reposting stuff, donating, helping, or just being an advocate in any capacity. I find that’s more rewarding than the obvious sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll cliché.

Andrew:
Again, I appreciate you carving out some time to speak with me today, Ace. Before we go, I wanted to give you an opportunity to plug some of the things we discussed at the top of our conversation, such as your podcast and website.

Ace:
I have a good stream of links as far as some organizations that I support regarding rescue that are on my dot come, so you can go to www.acevonjohnson.com. I’m pretty active on Twitter, that’s @acevonjohnson. My Patreon, which is definitely important – you mentioned the podcast I have that is exclusive to Patreon – it’s just www.patreon.com/acevonjohnson. There’s a ton of content created and whatnot, behind-the-scenes tour footage, etc. Those are kind of my main outlets, if you will. It’s pretty much Twitter and Patreon. Anything else is real life, I guess.

Image courtesy of Ace Von Johnson Website (official)

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Be sure to check out the full archives of Shredful Compositions, by Andrew DiCecco, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/shredful-compositions-archives/

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