Go the Distance

Centro-matic's Will Johnson chases the ghosts of Mississippi

If all goes according to plan, Johnson will release the campfire-friendly tunes later this year through the Centro-matic Web site, www.centro-matic.com, and more than likely, it'll be the first of many recordings the band puts out on its own. He envisions a "little self-release series, something to sell off the Web site and out of the living room, basically. Just little records like, maybe 10 songs each. Very low-key, very quickly recorded." It's a simple solution for a songwriter who's always had more songs than places to put them.

Still, he thought he had that problem--if that's what you want to call it--solved before. Originally, The Static vs. The Strings series was created as a place where all the Centro-matic songs that didn't fit onto other releases could find a home. The first volume was released in 1999 on Quality Park Records and mainly included recordings that were left off Centro-matic's 1997 debut, Redo the Stacks, and others from a six-week session in Milstadt, Illinois, which resulted in 1999's Navigational and last year's All the Falsest Hearts Can Try. The grab-bag record also featured a song Johnson taped at his parents' house in Killeen, as well as a few from various studios and kitchens in and around Denton.

The idea was that the rest of the installments in the series would follow the same odds/ends format. Now, though, The Static vs. The Strings has become an outlet for specific types of Centro-matic recordings. It's where Johnson and the band (which also includes piano/organ player and fiddler Scott Danbom and bassist Mark Hedman) can make records that are reminiscent of Redo the Stacks, putting songs that don't fit together side by side and not worrying about using a studio to record them if they don't want to. At the moment, however, it's an outlet Johnson finds himself using only occasionally.

The men who pit the static vs. the strings: Centro-matic is, from left, Mark Hedman, Will Johnson, Matt Pence and Scott Danbom.
Peter Salisbury
The men who pit the static vs. the strings: Centro-matic is, from left, Mark Hedman, Will Johnson, Matt Pence and Scott Danbom.
"I got a little misty sitting there at Robert Johnson's grave just considering what an origin, what ground zero that is for everything that we surround all ourselves in daily," Centro-matic's Will Johnson says of his recent trip to Mississippi.
Mark Graham
"I got a little misty sitting there at Robert Johnson's grave just considering what an origin, what ground zero that is for everything that we surround all ourselves in daily," Centro-matic's Will Johnson says of his recent trip to Mississippi.

"It's such a dicey situation trying to record that," Johnson says, "because you know, I'm sure you understand, when you have a wife, and she's working 50 hours a week plus taking calculus and stuff like that, there's just certain hurdles to be overcome as far as the timing of when you're actually gonna hit the shit out of the drums, and when you shouldn't. And it seems like most of the time these days, I shouldn't. So I'm kind of waiting for that perfect window of opportunity to do this correctly and also be an accommodating husband. It's still in the works; I'm still picking at it."

Another Centro-matic album has taken on a new form since its release: last year's South San Gabriel Songs/Music. South San Gabriel is now the name of Centro-matic's not-quite-side project, a group that takes on Johnson's quieter, more contemplative songs. (Don't yell for Redo the Stacks' "Am I the Manager or Am I Not?" and expect them to play it.) The lineup includes the four members of Centro-matic as well as local veteran Joe Butcher on pedal steel, but it doesn't necessarily end there. Wiring Prank's Sam Wagster played with the group recently, and Stumptone's Chris Plavidal was the fifth member on the album that gave South San Gabriel its name. "I think we'll probably wind up having a few extra people in to do some stuff on that record," Johnson says, referring to the South San Gabriel album they're set to record in October and November. "It's a little bit more, I don't know, a bit more of an open-door policy."

All of this means that Johnson is writing songs for a) another Centro-matic album, b) another South San Gabriel record, c) another volume of The Static vs. The Strings and d) another disc he can record at home for release "off the Web site and out of the living room." You would think Johnson would have trouble keeping it straight, figuring out what belongs where, and sometimes he does. But usually, he knows exactly which project the song is suited for as soon as he hits the last chord.

"I have fairly ridiculous quantities of lists lying around the house that I'll just add to as I go," Johnson explains. "It's usually pretty instinctual; I'll pretty much know right when the song is done where it's gonna fall, where I want to put it. Obviously, if I write a song with Joe's pedal steel parts in mind or something like that, I'll definitely write in that direction and take it toward going with South San Gabriel. And The Static vs. The Strings and then, you know, a regular Centro-matic release, that's probably the hardest one to decide, because some of those kind of walk the line. 'Boy, this would sound great with everybody, fully produced...but it'd also be kind of cool just banged out in the garage, too.' That's usually the hardest decision to make: where those are gonna fall."

That's part of why Distance and Clime took more time than usual, almost a year from beginning to end. Even with Johnson's new approach to delegating his songs, or maybe because of it, the recording of Distance and Clime lasted longer than any other Centro-matic album. The band spent more time in the studio than on all the other ones put together, which is strange, because at first, they only thought they were recording the next installment of The Static vs. The Strings. They started out recording whenever there was some time at The Echo Lab--the studio Pence co-owns in Argyle--and "by the time wintertime rolled around, it seemed like it was coming together a bit more, I don't know, I wanna say more cohesively than a Static vs. The Strings record," Johnson says. "It just seemed like more of a complete record.

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