Blue notes

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

Will Johnson and his new bride, Kris, should be packing up the house right about now, putting all those guitars and amps and vinyl records and comic books and Green Bay Packers posters in boxes and shipping them off to St. Louis. That had been the plan for more than a year, for Will to join The Two Matts--Barnhart, owner of Quality Park Records, and Pence, musician and producer--in Missouri, where they had set up their studio, Transcontinental Recording Company. Will and Kris thought everything was settled...right up until their wedding day in January. That's when Barnhart and Pence broke the news to the Johnsons and their friends--and during the reception, no less.

Barnhart and Pence were coming back to Denton after all, merging their studio with Dave Willingham's 70 Hurtz setup out in Argyle. Oh, yeah--and congratulations, man.

"We didn't mean to say anything," Pence says. "But everybody I talked to, I was sort of hinting around, 'We're thinking about coming back...maybe,' and they would go, 'Aren't you coming back?' It's like, well, I didn't say I was coming back. I mean, we hadn't fully discussed it with everybody in Centro-matic and didn't want anyone to feel like they made these plans to move to Missouri and we pulled the rug out from under them."

The Johnsons were at first a bit taken aback--shocked is perhaps the more accurate word. After a summer spent just outside of St. Louis--in Millstadt, Illinois, less than an hour away--recording the brand-new Centro-matic album Navigational with bandmates Pence, Scott Danbom, and Mark Hedman, Will had been preparing himself for the pack-up. Looking forward to it. Excited about the change of scenery, the small adventure laid out before the newlywed couple.

"I would have been content up there," Johnson says now, sitting in the darkened den of the Denton home that he and the missus share with Budapest One's Keith Killoren--the home he and Kris will remain in for a while longer.

Johnson now gets up each morning and goes off to one of his two jobs: working on a mercury-manufacturing machine and tending to a 25-acre farm just outside of town. Kris will finish school at the University of North Texas while Will considers his grad-school options. And Centro-matic will stay in Denton, all the band members living in the same town for the first time in more than a year. If nothing else, at least the band will finally get to practice somewhere else than on stage, during a show.

"Actually, I'm as content right now as I've ever been in my entire life," Johnson says, sitting on a couch while Oliver the cat lounges on a mattress propped up in the den, waiting for Barnhart to come pick it up. "I'm married. I'm crazy about my job--both of them. Being at our reception, seeing all our friends, I was thinking, 'Wow, we're about to run away and leave all this,' and it was kinda strange. Then, suddenly that night, when I found out both of the Matts were definitely coming back, it was kinda nice. It was kinda relieving in a weird way, just because it will allow us to settle for a while. I'm as happy as I've ever been. I didn't know people were allowed to be this happy."

He then lets out a laugh bigger than he is. Maybe that's because even he can't figure out how someone so content, so downright giddy in his personal life, could make a record as gloomy and bittersweet as Navigational, the second full-length released under the Centro-matic brand name (and the sole Centro-matic record to be released on Erv Karwelis' Idol Records). Johnson explains the songs were written a couple of years ago, and he wasn't "100 percent sad at the time," merely obsessing over a sad sound. Or maybe a sad record--say, Big Star's Third or something by Bill Callahan's Smog. When he wrote the 16 songs that make up the just-released album, he heard not only guitars and bass and drums, but violins and pianos--the stuff of which the very best, and the most fragile, pop melancholia is made.

The results are songs that hang on the most delicate skeletons--some not even songs, more like the ambient echoes of gently stroked guitars comforting half-whispered moans. Sometimes you can listen to the record and never hear anything but Johnson's guitar and his voice; that's how most of the songs begin anyway, the pieces piling on as they creep toward their finales. But other times, you'll hear only the piano or the strings, the overbearing silence and sadness they bring to the proceedings. "The Beautiful Ones," which closes out the record, is a sparse seven-minute epic, a duet between Danbom and Johnson that recalls the high-lonesome sound once made by the Jayhawks; by the end, you wish it would go on forever, if only it weren't so unbearably heartbreaking.

"God, I didn't mean to bum anyone out," Johnson says, laughing. "But yeah, it's not exactly a party record."

Navigational is not a record to be listened to in the car, not a record to be picked from the collection and played at random in the background. It offers no joy, unless you're among those who believe nothing feels better than to feel this godawful. If anything, it provides some solace, the consolation that someone out there actually feels worse than you do. It's all tension, no release--not even a teardrop for your efforts. And that's what makes it so utterly astonishing: After four years of writing and performing, Johnson, along with his bandmates, has managed to create the sort of record most musicians spend a lifetime trying to make--one that creates such darkness, you can't see beyond it. Play Navigational, and nothing else in this world exists.

"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).

"I remember when I first heard his stuff, and the first two songs were like the junior Replacements," says Pence, who still plans to release songs Johnson wrote and recorded then. "But from the third song on, it sounded like he knew exactly where he was going. It took him two songs to do what it takes most people two years. He found his voice so quickly."

Eventually, Johnson released two EPs before settling down to make Redo the Stacks. This year alone Centro-matic plans to release three albums: Navigational, Activator #1 (a collection of odds and ends "in the spirit of Redo the Stacks," Pence says) in May or June, and an out-and-out pop-rock collection later in the fall. (The latter two, in addition to subsequent Centro-matic albums, will be released on Barnhart's Quality Park label.) This is a band that can't afford to wait a year between releases. Too many songs, too little time--delaying the release of just one record would create an enormous backlog, and Johnson fears he and his bandmates will get bored playing last year's songs, or even last month's.

The forthcoming songs are just as astonishing, as captivating as those on Navigational. This is not a case of being unable to edit out the best and leave the rest on the mixing-room floor. It's almost as though Johnson, who didn't write a song until four years ago, is making up for lost time, sprinting forward while others merely run in place.

"I'd like to do three records a year so long as I'm inspired," Johnson says. "So long as I feel like I'm being honest."

Scene, heard
You will never find a more appropriately named record than Scott Meeks' forthcoming A Long Time Coming. Meeks, a Los Angeles-born jazz composer-musician who moved to Dallas in the early 1970s and played briefly with L.A. legend Horace Tapscott, is only now releasing his debut album, and it comprises a dozen songs written during the last 10 years--though one, "A Summer's End," dates back to 1979. The disc will be released in the next few weeks, and it's a stellar collection that features the best local jazzers no money can buy: Earl Harvin, Marchel Ivery, Shelley Carrol, and Madukwu Chinwah among their lot. Meeks will perform songs from the disc April 10 at the Clarence Muse Cafe at the Black Academy of Arts and Letters at 650 S. Griffin. The program begins at 8 p.m.

Send Street Beat your four-track love to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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