A Rake to the Mind: An Interview with Will Johnson of Centro-matic
The Centro-matic songwriter finds humor in dark situations, big words, and touring challenges, and still isn't sure what happens when he crosses the Atlantic.
"I don't care if you're making folk-art paintings, sprawling 13-piece band records or whatever, everything artistic stands at that brink of total confusion and possible failure versus falling to the other side of something truly memorable and exciting to your heart. That's my favorite part about creating," enthuses Will Johnson, the perfectly cracked muse behind Centro-matic and South San Gabriel. Based in Austin, he embodies the best traits of Texans like Townes Van Zandt and Roky Erickson but is infused with a post-modernist savvy -- a fractured machine logic rolling along gently chaotic soundscapes. Whether quietly breaking your heart like a contemporary Garth Hudson on his solo records, touring with Vic Chesnutt (one of Johnson's personal heroes), David Bazan (Pedro the Lion) and Mark Eitzel (American Music Club) as the Undertow Orchestra, floating colorful stories upon pedal steel streams in South San Gabriel or pounding down mountains with big amp majesty in Centro-matic, Johnson has proven himself a ferociously talented observer of the human condition.
Fort Recovery, Centro-matic's 10th album in a hyper-productive decade, gels all of Johnson's charms into a bracing, emotionally turbulent whole that delves deep where many today are content to dwell on the surface of things. "It definitely came out different than what I anticipated going in," says Johnson. "We figured we were putting together our rawest record to date, and it definitely didn't come out near as raw as we thought."
There are buckets of excellent noise splashed over the melodic push on Fort Recovery, mystery sounds like the possessed electric guitar wail of opener "Covered Up in Mines" that made me check if something was wrong with my stereo. "We do that from time to time [laughs]. It made my mom do the same thing," smiles Johnson. "We definitely have fun with it. I felt a little guilty watching my mom listen to that song for the first time. She seemed to be settling into it, liked it and then that squank kicked in. There was this look of utter confusion on her face for just a moment then she came around and realized 'That's them. That's what they do' [laughs]."
On the surface, his work can come across as heavy or dour but it also works in a fair amount of humor. "I'm glad you picked that out because a lot of times people stop at, as you said, the dour description and don't go any further," observes Johnson. "It's a darker humor. I've always enjoyed that. A lot of my favorite writers -- and not just songwriters but book writers -- employ that, too. There's a certain playfulness with fate and very dire situations and hopefully seeing something humorous in them. I've always enjoyed slamming those things together."
He continues, "There's definitely some Faulkner influence and I came across an author, Breece D'J Pancake, a few years ago. I actually found out about that name from Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. He was talking about it in some interview and I checked it out. I also like Eudora Welty, John Updike, and a lot of American heavyweights."
His characters often have a palpable sense of impending, though often unspecified, dread. They're obviously in turmoil but won't come out and say just why. "You can smell doom in the distance a lot of the time," offers Johnson. "It's doom's lobby I'm writing about [laughs]. I may not take you up into the doom building itself but I'll set it down in doom's lobby for a while."
The narrator on the song "St Augustine" from the first South San Gabriel release, 2003's Welcome, Convalescence, highlights his black wit. The opening lyric goes "Your gunshots were stuck on repeat / Drowning out the quietness I worked to create". Johnson comments, "The character is clearly very annoyed. 'I know you have a gun but the sound's annoying me. I know you very well could turn it on me. That's fine but just stop making all that racket.' Yeah, that was kind of what I was feeling when I brought that character to life."
Centro-matic has maintained the same line-up for the past 10 years -- Johnson (vocals, guitars), Matt Pence (drums), Mark Hedman (bass) and Scott Danbom (keyboards). "It freaks me out from time to time," Johnson remarks. "I did shows under the name Centro-matic before the band existed, and we're creeping up on the 10th anniversary of that, which is somewhat joyous, somewhat overwhelming, and makes me feel old at the same time. I'm real thankful. When we put this together I had no idea that we'd be able to form-fit our lives around this band somehow 10 years later. It still feels real natural to us, and we work with respect to each other's personal lives at all times. We keep communication at the forefront constantly, even if it's the smallest of things. We were all good friends before we formed this, which doesn't hurt."
At their core, the quartet excels at creative sparring that provides plenty of interesting bruises. Johnson says, "It's a fun, and sometimes a scary fun time, sitting in the control room with the guys embarking on something we thought was nothing that turns into one of our favorites things from a record. It's always quite an energy I'm addicted to at this point. I feel like we all feed off of it."
Centro-matic - Triggers and Trash Heaps
Last year, under the South San Gabriel banner, Johnson crafted an unlikely concept album about a house cat in failing health that runs away. Oddly moving and sketched with the uncanny detail of a short story writer, The Carlton Chronicles has a cosmic country sweep full of mournful mandolins and inspired anthropomorphization. It's the kind of nicked-up jewel My Morning Jacket's Jim James or Son Volt's Jay Farrar might produce on holiday from their regular gigs. Following on the heels of Johnson's melancholy solo marvel, Vultures Await (2004), it marked the full arrival of a songwriter capable of great, poetic things.
However, there was a stumbling block with South San Gabriel. "We get in trouble when we have to figure out how to play the songs live! If we're doing dates in the States -- which is pretty rare, we don't a lot of touring around here -- we'll round up 6 or 8 people to do the show. With most of our touring, which takes place in Europe, we're on a bit of a budget so we'll only have a 5-piece," explains Johnson. "That requires everybody's arms and feet moving at once to make it all happen. You look at that guarantee on the sheet and you realize we gotta get creative [laughs]. We did the Carlton record from stem to stern on two separate tours over there. It worked out after a while but it was crazy at first. We'd never really played along with an actual drum machine or had a bunch of vocals piped in over the PA and stuff. It was a first, exciting and kind of scary. We felt it would only be right to sing the story with visual backdrops and things like that."
Johnson has no greater champion than the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood who calls Centro-matic his "favorite band that is still vital and intact" and calls Fort Recovery a masterpiece that's "one of life's pleasures that I look forward to passing on to my kids," mighty high praise coming from one of the best songwriters steaming up a mirror today. Johnson says, "God bless him. He's a sweetheart. Talk about an inspirational source, too. I have to step back every once in a while. I can't believe this guy is my friend. It's just unreal. And Mike Cooley as well. They're a group of sweet, sweet people that we consider nothing short of family." In fact, these extended families played New Year's Eve runs together for years and plan to keep on doing so well into the future.
Part of what may appeal to Hood is Johnson's use of unusual language. He plucks words out of the ether and makes them fit in settings you simply don't expect to find them. He's the only songwriter I know that can put "cantankerous" and "missive" in the same line and make them work. "It just flows right off the tongue," laughs Johnson. "There was a song on the first Centro-matic album, Redo the Stacks, called 'Part of this Accident' that involved the word Archilochian and I cheated on that word. I had heard it before but I had to look it up just to make sure I wanted to use it. It fit and it felt right to sing but I wanted to make sure it was what I wanted to commit to tape. As soon as it came out some guy asked me, 'Archilochian?' I'm not trying to sing over anybody's head. I was just trying to make myself laugh by fitting it in and keeping a straight face while singing it. It can be dangerous sometimes, you know, smart rock [laughs]. If there's one thing I'm definitely not trying to do it's to write over the listener's head. So, I think every once in a while that's where a word like Archilochian might come from -- just to pull out of my ass and put in there because a lot of the rest of the subject matter and storytelling is on a much more simple plane."
The British music press has generally shown a greater appreciation for Johnson's music than in the US even though what he does is very American music. When pressed for reasons why this is, Johnson responds, "I wish I had an answer to that but I really don't. There's a certain mystery to it that I kind of don't want solved. It's always been one of those fascinating things to me to try and get to the bottom of how and why a band broke. And that's not to say we 'broke'. We're not playing to thousands of people or anything over there. It's just that there's a consistent audiences for us in Europe."
"South San Gabriel is kind of our main band over there, and Centro-matic's profile isn't exactly well known. Then over here it's exactly the opposite. If we can jump on a plane and change hats or masks and go play music under another guise or name that's just fine by me. In the end, it's all of us friends hanging out playing music anyway. I'm not going to get picky as to which one should do well where."
Centro-matic - Janitorial on Channel Fail
One of the virtues of touring Europe regularly is the way audiences listen so intently. "Listening is very key when doing quieter music," says Johnson. "The tours over here will take us to rock clubs, and when you're doing quiet music at rock clubs you're kind of taking a chance. Sometimes it works out where the crowd is attentive and other nights it can be a battle. In certain countries like Belgium and Spain, crowds go to listen very carefully. It almost feels a little bit formal doing a show under those circumstances. The venues are often not ordinary rock clubs. They'll put on shows in little chapels or university theatres where it changes the mood as soon as you walk in. In Belgium they'll wait until the last little bit of feedback has dissolved and then the applause begins. There's no clapping over the end of the song. It's not a riled up rock 'n' roll kind of thing."
"It can be very intimidating. The first time you experience it you wonder 'Wow, what are we doing wrong?' Then you get to understand how certain countries react. And I say all this with perfect and necessary respect to American rock crowds. It's not good or bad. It's just the way it is. In the States, it can be a battle especially if it's a shotgun style room where there's a bar towards the back. It gets talky. It's all right. We all do it. I'm guilty of it, too. I had to extract myself from a show [recently]. I'm my own enemy if I'm talking at a show [laughs]."
With all his different guises, I asked how he chooses where to place a new songs -- what makes something solo work, Centro-matic, or South San Gabriel. "Most of the time I'll usually know where I want a song to go as soon as I'm done with it," remarks Johnson. "I think that subconsciously I write for a record. I used to just write scattershot. Time becomes shorter the older you get -- more touring, more responsibilities, just trying to be an adult and a good boyfriend and a homeowner, stuff like that. Of late, I've written for the next record that's coming up so it's become less of a head-scratcher where to place a song."
"With the solo stuff it'll generally be more sparse instrumentation, sometimes almost like campfire songs. With South San Gabriel we'll usually get more to people to make more noise at a lower volume. It's more spacious at times, and there's a lot more breath to it, more accent on piano and strings and pedal steel as opposed to Centro-matic, which has more of an accent on the guitar and loud, crashing drums."
There's not a strong sense of autobiography -- the standard emotional floodgate of singer-songwriters -- with Johnson, who tends to compose in rough yet vivid characters. He says, "It depends on the record. The last solo album, Vultures Await, was more of a biographical bloodletting situation. But a lot of the time you're right. With the Carlton record, with South San Gabriel and a lot of Centro-matic songs, it's written from a fictional point of view. It may be inspired by something that happened in my life but I'll change the names and descriptions to protect the somewhat innocent [laughs]."
Centro-matic - Call the Legion in Tonight