Blue notes

Centro-matic's second album is so good, it will break your heart

"I was talking to Danbom right after we got the discs back," Johnson says. "He has such good delivery, and he sits down and says, 'An intense record, man.' He meant that so much. And he was so right. I listened to it all the way through when we got it back, and I heard things I hadn't heard there before, like things in the background that didn't quite come through before. Yeah, it's kind of a sad record. But I get sad sometimes. It's real good to me to be sad some of the time. Maybe there's not a lot of sadness for me anymore because I left it there."

The 16 songs on Navigational were culled from 60 songs Centro-matic recorded during July and August of last year, when the band went to Millstadt, Illinois, to work in the studio of Son Volt's Jay Farrar. Once the band returned, the members began separating the songs that sounded best together: the poignant stuff, the four-track pieces, the pop-rock songs. Pence then mastered and sequenced three separate albums, all of which will be released this year. Navigational just turned out to be the first to arrive in stores.

It's light years beyond Centro-matic's first album, Redo the Stacks, though it's hardly surprising. That record was what Johnson likes to call his "warts and all" disc, his first full-length collection of songs featuring himself and Pence, who produced the disc. Redo was made as Johnson was just learning how to write and record on his own--a work in progress of sorts, the portrait of a young songwriter just beginning to find a groove. The album--rough in spots, polished to perfection in others--remains a gem, but it's still a baby step compared to the enormous, surround-sound intimacy of Navigational.

"When Redo the Stacks came out, I was like, 'We need to remaster it,' and if we touched it I would be so mad at myself now," Pence says. "With this record, I would love for the listener to feel like they were in the room we recorded it in and Will was whispering to them, like he really is. These vocals are so much more intimate. I would love for the microphone to reach down in the throat of the listener and for them to hear the gravel and grit."

Johnson keeps a diary chronicling his daily activities, and as a result, time doesn't pass too quickly for him. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was behind the drums in Funland, a mass of arms and facial gestures sitting behind Peter Schmidt and Clark Vogeler and whatever bass player was in the band at the time. The band broke up three years ago, but it seems like only...well, maybe two to Johnson. But Johnson literally grew up in Funland, went from being a drumstick kid who collected baseball cards and comic books to a singer-songwriter who sold his own handmade cassettes toward the end of that band's existence. "That seems like forever ago," Johnson says.

To see old pictures of him--his hair long and curly, his small frame draped in flannel and cut-offs--is to gaze upon someone's baby pictures. The current model of Will Johnson is an adult, a married man who fronts his own band now, even if it happened by accident. After all, he never asked Danbom and Pence and Hedman to join his band. They just sort of did, one by one, when the solo artist decided he needed someone to help him play his songs.

"I'm not a bandleader," Johnson insists. "I just had the songs. I'm not real comfortable with that term. At first, I didn't even want to play any shows. I just wanted to record. I just wanted to play with friends I was comfortable with, and I'm real fortunate to be in that position now."

Pence, who had played in Adam's Farm, concedes that the band members don't have clearly defined roles, that sometimes he will have to tell Danbom or Hedman that a part Johnson played, however rough it turned out, might be a little better than the smoother track they laid down. To that end, Pence doesn't even record everything heard on Navigational. Johnson will often put music on four-track and have Pence mix it down.

"I'm actually jealous a lot of the quality of the stuff Will's able to record," Pence says. "We have to have a tough enough skin to know what's going to make the band better."

Johnson can't recall the exact date when he wrote his first song--May 1, 1995, or maybe it was April 30. It was titled "My Test," a rudimentary lo-fidelity pop song that sounds very much like the first song written by a man who would eventually write dozens, hundreds. The reason he doesn't know the date is because he didn't jot it down in his journal. He figured he wrote a song, finally, and he wouldn't tell anyone...not yet.

In time, Johnson wrote and recorded so many songs that they filled hours and hours of cassettes. For a while, he recorded cassettes and gave them to his friends. At first, it seemed almost like a novelty, or the inevitable story of Drummer Writes Songs, Breaks Up Band (which is not the way it happened in Funland, not exactly).

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