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."

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.

"When I do that, people ask me if I can hear the band even though there isn't one," Johnson says, sheepishly. "And, yeah, I do. I really do." On this night, everyone else hears the music too. Pence shows just in time, and Danbow's playing elevates the entire set. From the stage, Johnson tries to offer an explanation of exactly what the audience is seeing: "We're kind of in flux here. This is an experiment in the works."

So far, the experiment seems a success.

Centro-matic plays April 3 at the Argo in Denton.

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