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.
In 2005, he moved to Sydney, Australia with his wife, Australian playwright Hilary Bell, and their two children. In Australia, he wrote music for theater (Bell Shakespeare Company, Darlinghurst Theatre Company, NORPA), film (Stolen Life, Mr. Sin: The Abe Saffron Story, Shock Room), and formed a number of bands, including: the Greasy Chicken Orchestra, performing Johnston’s arrangements of jazz of the 1920s/1930s, focusing particularly on the music of Jelly Roll Morton, SNAP, a saxophone quartet, co-led with Sandy Evans, Tight Corners: Jex Saarelaht play the music of Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and Steve Lacy, and his current band, Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators. He has performed with an A list of Australian jazz musicians including Lloyd Swanton, Alister Spence, Nic Cecire, Matt McMahon, Chris Abrahams, Peter Dasent, Jex Saarelaht, Phil Slater, James Greening, Sandy Evans, Paul Cutlan, Tim Rollinson, Peter Farrar, Jonathan Zwartz and Andrew Robson, among others.
While living in Australia, he has continued to return to New York regularly to perform and record, and to perform in Europe as well. In 2006, the Microscopic Septet re-assembled in order to promote a 4-CD collection on Cuneiform Records of all of their LPs from the 1980s (Seven Men in Neckties and Surrealistic Swing), and subsequently went on to record four more acclaimed CDs, and perform whenever Johnston was back in New York – usually several times a year. In 2007 he scored Henry Bean’s film Noise (starring Tim Robbins and William Hurt). He formed the cooperative group The Spokes with clarinetist Andy Biskin and trombonist Curt Hasselbring, resulting in the CD Not So Fast (2011).
In 2013 he began one his most important collaborations: Wordless! with Art Spiegelman. Commissioned in 2013 by the Sydney Opera House and performed at the Opera Theatre in October of that year, the ‘intellectual vaudeville’ show which combined Art’s lecture on the Wordless novels of the 1930s with Johnston’s compositions for a six-piece band, later dubbed The Silent Six. The project later premiered in the US at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and subsequently did a nine-city tour of the US. It has continued to be performed over subsequent years, including the 2016 London Jazz Festival, Comicópolis in Buenos Aires and in 2018 at the Paris Philharmonie.
In 2015 he completed a PhD in Music Composition at the Newcastle Conservatorium (University of New South Wales). During that time he was the recipient of 2013 RHD Publication Prize (UoN) (2014), the RHS Achievement Award (UoN)(2013) and the Joy Ingall Scholarship (UoN) (2013), which carried a cash award of AU$20,000. He also completed a Certificate of Educational Studies in 2011 through the College of Teachers at the University of London Institute of Education.
He has taught at the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney since 2007. Previously he has taught at the Sydney Institute, NYU’s Steinhardt School of Music and Tisch School of the Arts, and the University of the South in Sewanee TN. He has served as an external post-graduate tutor at University of New South Wales and a visiting lecturer at AFTRS in Sydney and guest lecturer at Bard College, Ramapo College, University of Ohio and Columbia University in the US.