By Jim Schutze
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WASP and AC/DC aside, the people at steve records believed in Centro-matic so much that they basically told Johnson to take some recording equipment home to Denton, find somebody who knew how to use it, and make his demo album during his Christmas recess from school. "I'm not a lo-fi kinda guy," Paulos adds. "I like produced records--a lot. But it's not what he wanted to do, and I trusted Will to deliver." He pauses and then adds wryly, "Besides, when an artist comes to a label and says, 'But I want to spend less money,' that touches a chord."
Far above a demo-class album, Redo the Stacks proves that sometimes less can mean more. Johnson recruited ex-Adam's Farm drummer Matt Pence and the living room, stairwell, and "band room" of Pence's house to help him record all of the 23 refreshingly rough-and-tumble lo-fi cuts. Pence--who's worked on a number of other Denton projects as well as a 16-month-old Centro-matic cassette--was the natural choice.
Pence even admits that one of the reasons he returned to Denton after moving to Boston was to someday play with Johnson. "It's weird," Pence says. "It was always this very informal, mutual feeling of 'Wow, playing together would be a good thing.' I remember driving back from Boston, listening to the tapes Will had sent me, and suddenly thinking, 'Uh-oh, one of these days I'm going to have to learn to sing back-up in this band.'"
That day has finally arrived. According to Johnson, Pence is as much a part of Centro-matic now as he is, and Johnson gives "all the credit for anything that sounds good" on the album to Pence. "He has such a wonderful ear," Johnson says. "I just sat in the basement playing the damn instruments while he had to work his butt off to make it nice." Except for the engaging guest turns from Lindsay Romig on cello and Scott Danbow on violin, Johnson "takes responsibility for all the other recorded damage."
But you have to put Johnson's humility aside; the less-than-pristine Centro-matic effort is far from damaged goods. The added luxury of recording 16 tracks allows rockers like "If I Had a Dartgun" and "Mandatory on the Attack" to blister with a rawer intensity than the vinyl versions. On the uneasy "Fidgeting Wildly," an ode that might easily describe Will's music persona, the lyrics "too much downtime" and "so you're kicking up the hi-fi jams" tend to belie the uneasy balance the song walks between its rough feel and its solid but unpolished production.
The moments to savor are on the slower songs: "Post-It Notes From the State Hospital" uses a fiddle to soothe its unstable narrator; "Starfighter #1479" creates melancholy longing with video-game imagery; the unlisted closer "Good as Gold" gives the album a chance to compose itself with a gentle piano melody before marching quietly off.
Although the album's elliptical wordplay, fragmented song snippets, false starts, fall-apart endings, incidental background chatter, and extra tape hiss are all part of the lo-fi path well-traveled by acts like Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, and Pavement, Stacks is more than just hip, indie posturing.
"Man, look at him. He can't pose. If anything, Will has bad posture," Pence says. "This (record) is just Will being Will. He knows who he is, and he's completely comfortable making the record for himself. He would have been content to sit down with his four-track and satisfied just putting it out the way it came to him." An impish grin creeps over Pence's face. "You know, when I thought I could get away with it, I made an effort to make parts sound as good as I could, but always with character."
Character is what Redo the Stacks, and Centro-matic in general, has in spades. "I enjoy how much you can do with so little," Johnson offers, still eating his queso. "That's the challenge. As far as going for this calculated lo-fi movement, we'll probably fall into it whether we intend to or not. So fine. Throw us in the pile. Whatever. But I've really gotten used to the four-track and that sort of recording. I have a bunch of pop songs recorded on four-track, so--bam--it's automatically lo-fi. That's just the way it comes out. We wanted to keep some of that sense when we went into Matt's. I feel it should sound a little scrappy and trashy in places, just for the simple fact that this is the first time I've sat down and played all these instruments. It should be very honest in delivery. Why pretend it's something it's not?"
Later that night, before taking the stage, he confesses, "Centro-matic is in shambles, if you really must know." He's talking about his makeshift band, which consists of--more or less--Pence on drums, Pence's Adam's Farm cohort Mark Hedman on bass, and Scott Danbow on keyboard and violin.
Tonight it may be less. Much less. Pence is off trying to un-impound his car, while Hedman is in Florida; the newest member, Danbow, hasn't yet played live with the band.
But it really doesn't matter. If his entire outfit punts, Johnson has no problem doing what he's done for most of the last year. He'll get up on stage by himself, just this weird little guy in glasses, play his guitar through a tiny 10-watt amp, and scream out clever words. His face will fold into a goofy grimace, and do his wooden-ballerina kick and twist to an unheard beat.