Go the Distance

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

Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "Earth's crammed with heaven," and if you believe Will Johnson, most of it is crammed into Mississippi. To him, you can see heaven driving north on Highway 61, on the way to Clarksdale, or when you're sitting on the banks of the Yazoo River, surrounded by dragonflies and the ghost of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Heaven, to Will Johnson, is where Muddy Waters once lived, where Sonny Boy Williamson is buried and where Charley Patton--the original king of the Delta blues, the man who influenced them all--played his "Pony Blues" at juke joints and plantation dances. You can see it whether you're standing in the middle of William Faulkner's house or in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere.

That's why Johnson (Centro-matic's singer-songwriter-guitarist) and Keith Killoren (who fronts Budapest One and presided over Johnson's wedding) spent four days there a few weeks ago, armed with little more than a pair of guitars and some cold beer. It wasn't a vacation; it was a pilgrimage to a holy land of American music and literature, to places like Tutwiller (where Williamson is buried) and Oxford (where Faulkner lived), a chance to, as Johnson says, "chase ghosts." The trip to Mississippi was a long time coming for Johnson, who admits to "a hearty obsession" he nurses with old books and records, and from the way he speaks of it, he could have spent four months there, combing through the history and mystery of the state.

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.

"Man, I'm still just kind of reeling from it," Johnson says. He's on the phone, presumably, to talk about Centro-matic's sixth and latest album, Distance and Clime, which comes out August 14 on Idol Records, but that seems beside the point right now. "I'm still just sitting in kind of silent bliss every time I think about it. I'm hard-pressed to, I don't know, find another place that really affected me quite like that. So much beauty, and so much sparseness and mystery. It's a beautiful and solemn place. 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. Thinking, good God, this guy gets maybe 200 visitors a year to his grave, and freaking Jim Morrison's got like a margarita stand next to his grave. Not that'd I'd want a margarita stand next to Johnson's grave."

That doesn't mean he and Killoren didn't bring home a souvenir of their visit. But it wasn't exactly a Hard Rock Café T-shirt. "We went to the foundation of Muddy Waters' boyhood home, where [Alan] Lomax came in and they did all of the Library of Congress recordings," Johnson says. "Keith found a little T-fitting for plumbing, and I mean, it's beaten to hell. It's rusted. It's got dirt crammed in there. It's really, really old; it looks at least 50, 60 years old. Who knows? And of course, you know, Keith snagged it. 'Oh, this is it. This is Muddy Waters' plumbing.' He was so excited, jumping around, rolling in the grass. Good God, I'm 30 years old, and I'm acting like a child out in a field in Mississippi. It was a very fulfilling trip."

Johnson's already planning a return visit, but for the moment, it's back to his piece of heaven in Texas, back to his wife, Kris, and their dogs, back to Denton and Centro-matic. Back to real life. According to him, lately, real life has meant he's "just been goofing off, recording a couple of songs." Of course, when Johnson says he's "just been goofing off, recording a couple of songs," he really means that the day before, he and drummer-producer Matt Pence recorded an entire new album, 16 songs in less than 24 hours. Since around 1996, Johnson's goofing off has resulted in around 120 songs, including the 15 on Distance and Clime, and those are just the ones he's released so far. Earlier this year, Johnson was writing and recording a new song every day before he went to bed, a practice he kept up from January 1 through the middle of March. In case you can't do the math in your head that quickly, that works out to about 70 new songs, some of which he re-recorded for the album he did with Pence yesterday. Just imagine how many they could have recorded if Johnson called in sick from work.

"I guess it was kind of a concept album," Johnson says. "It's interesting. It's just me sitting in a big-ass wooden room with a nylon-string guitar and that's about it. That's the concept, I guess. I mean, it was lightning-fast. We got all the guitar stuff done yesterday before I went to work, and then I came back last night about 10 and rambled through 16 songs or whatever, and that was it. And he was like, 'OK, that's pretty much what I had in mind for this release.' And I said, 'OK.' I wrote the songs [on it] over the course of, I guess, this past wintertime and spring. I was writing just a whole bunch of stuff at that point. And I just picked songs I thought sounded kinda cool on the nylon-string and just kinda ran with it that way. Not necessarily campfire tunes, but maybe more campfire-friendly, if nothing else."

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.

"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.

"It's never taken us a year to record anything," he continues. "I mean, it's so strange. The first record took six weeks, maybe a month at that. Actually, yeah, like a month. And then the following three were all recorded in the same six weeks. And South San Gabriel was recorded in, whatever, five, maybe six days total. I think it just has to do with so much scheduling. We did our best to kind of keep it on the cheap, as far as the studio goes, so we wouldn't get blocks of time. We would just record whenever there was available time. Matt would call and say, 'Look, so-and-so canceled, or, 'There's a window of time here, so let's work then.' Before you know it, it's nine months later."

Not a second of the extra time spent on Distance and Clime was wasted, however. You can hear it in every song, as even "The Connection's Not So Civilized"--which clocks in at just over a minute--sounds like an epic. The spare kick-drum intro to "Fountains of Fire" marches into one of the most beautiful and lush pop songs Centro-matic has ever recorded, coated in Johnson's soft moan and acoustic guitar. The sad-eyed piano of "To Unleash the Horses Now" gives way to a wordless chorus that says more than any lyrics could. "Truth Flies Out" nicks its drumbeat from Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" (really, it does), and the guitars from "On the Sagtikos" wouldn't sound out of place on a Bedhead album (or maybe The New Year, more likely), but the band makes you forget as soon as you remember. Every song on Distance and Clime has a tear in its eye and a smile on its face, a combination Johnson has perfected over the years. Yet even though this is its sixth album in just more than five years, Centro-matic still doesn't repeat itself, as each new song is a surprise, a new direction. It's obvious that writing is a muscle, and Johnson only gets stronger the more he uses it.

While Johnson's strength is still relatively unappreciated pretty much everywhere else except for the Dallas-Denton-Fort Worth area, audiences in Europe have been quick to take up the cause. All the Falsest Hearts Can Try and South San Gabriel Songs/Music were both released overseas last year to rave reviews, and both times Centro-matic has toured the continent, it's been met with packed houses and enthusiastic responses. The band's planning to go back after Thanksgiving, and while Johnson is looking forward to the trip, he knows not to get too excited. After all, he may be able to go to heaven anytime he wants to, but he can only be a rock star in Amsterdam every once in a while. It's best not to let it go to your head.

"It's very sobering," he says, "especially the trip last wintertime, just given that that was the first time. It was a very sobering experience, playing Amsterdam and it's sold-out on a Sunday night, and then the next Wednesday morning, I'm back in Texas, like, cleaning a toilet. It just puts a lot in perspective." He laughs. "That was kind of an interesting time emotionally."

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