Centro-matic for the people

Will Johnson's new adventures in lo-fi

"It's an experiment in the works," Will Johnson says with a warm laugh. Although he is supposed to be shedding some light on Centro-matic, his solo musical guise, and Redo the Stacks, the band's "warts-and-all" debut out on steve records, he may well be referring to the coagulating queso dip he's methodically stirring with a salty corn chip.

He shoves some of the cheese-covered mess into his mouth, purses his lips and concludes, "It's not bad, really, despite outward appearances. So far everything is OK."

Whether he is talking about his makeshift music, the makeshift band that backs him when he plays live, or his makeshift dinner is still unclear. He may mean all three. After all, he's the sort of guy who--when talk turns to literature--says that instead of the Great American Novel, he'd be content with writing a strong Choose Your Own Adventure book. "You should never do things all the way," he says. "Especially when other people take pleasure in finishing things for you."

Such are the good-natured flushings of the id that pepper the conversations--and the music--of Will Johnson. Best known as the wiry and powerfully spastic drummer for the beloved but now defunct Funland, Johnson had been cultivating his own songwriting skills well before the band's demise, steadily putting together a catalog of songs on a four-track using whatever instruments he happened upon--drums, guitar, his parents' piano, even an old "Centro-matic" model accordion. "I'm real passionate about the accordion," Johnson says. "Of course, I don't play it well. But, you know, I wish I did. That counts for something."

When pressed, he reveals that his bond with the instrument runs a tad deeper. His shoulders hunch up, and he twists a little in his seat as he hems and haws. It's a move reminiscent of his wooden-ballerina spinning on stage, bending and kicking up his leg like a drunk flamingo. "I'll hesitantly admit that I stole the word off my accordion," he says. "A few summers ago, I was staring at the thing while I was piddling around. I decided then that if any of these little things ever got out, they would be Centro-matic too. I'm really just living up to a promise."

Some of those little things--and Johnson's big songwriting promise--got out as he and his Funland bandmates decided to call it quits. For The Transistor EP (Automatic Records) and later on Forget the Sixth Step (steve), both seven-inch releases, Johnson culled tracks from his kitchen and bedroom recordings, offering definitive slices of how he'd spent his downtime from both Funland and his English Lit studies at the University of North Texas. Underneath the coarse, ragtag recordings were compelling and diverse pop tunes. Catchy hooks and earnest (if off-kilter and off-key) lyrics jostled against Johnson's familiarly manic drums, Funland-like layered harmonies, uneven guitars, and, of course, a healthy dose of accordion.

"I have no problem saying that the biggest reason I can write a pop song is because I got to hang out with Clark (Vogeler) and Peter (Schmidt) and do Funland for five and a half years," Johnson says. "I learned from them what a good pop song sounds like. Back in '91, all I listened to was Mudhoney. Peter and Clark opened me up. That's why Funland was so satisfying, and I'm so grateful that we could end the band with respect to our friendship." He shrugs again. "Our lives were scattered at the end, and it's always good to call the game before the cancer comes in and you stop speaking to each other for the rest of your lives."

For the folks at steve records--the label that put out what proved to be Funland's final effort--an obvious logical step was to get Will Johnson and his 40-some-odd songs in a real recording studio where engineers and fancy systems could polish them into shiny gems.

"I told him I wanted to help him get his songs out," says Sam Paulos, owner of both steve and Crystal Clear Sound. "I told him I would do whatever he wanted, and he really wanted to showcase his songs in more of a demo form. I replied, 'What, are you crazy? You want me to put out a piece of crap?'"

Jokes aside, Paulos told Johnson that if that's what he honestly wanted to do, they'd figure out a way to make it happen. "I think too much of Will not to carry out his wishes," Paulos says. "And there was no way that Will was going to be doing a record with anyone else. There was no way I was going to do anything but support the genius that is Will Johnson." He says this last part with a dry chuckle, but stresses that he's serious; in fact, as he explains his love for Paul Westerberg, Elvis Costello, and other purveyors of "intelligent pop songs," Paulos' belief in Centro-matic makes complete sense.

Not surprisingly, Johnson points to the same singer-songwriters as favorites, as well as Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and--Blackie Lawless? "Oh, you bet," he says. "And Brian Johnson. Too many women. Too many pills. Shoot to thrill, baby. You cannot beat that. I'd feel lucky just to pick up the scraps."

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