By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Want to commemorate Centro-matic's 10-year anniversary? Pick a date, any date. There's the hazy "late April or early May 1995" in which guitarist, singer and songwriter Will Johnson wrote and recorded his first solo song, "My Test." There's also March 22, 1997, when the band's current four-piece incarnation, a lineup that has yet to waver, played its first full show. There's even the March 1997 release of debut full-length Redo the Stacks, assuming the previous cassette and 7-inch releases aren't anniversary-worthy enough.
For the quartet--and Misra Records, which just released the group's eighth album, Fort Recovery--this weekend will do just fine, marking the night Johnson unveiled his four-track-tested material in solo form at Denton's legendary Argo. On March 6, 1996, people were shocked to see the skinny kid behind the tempo-abusive drums of Dallas' Funland step up front with a guitar, with songs, with unmistakable talent.
But any notion that his solo project was a gimmick, something similar to work by drummers-cum-leaders like ex-Replacement Chris Mars, has faded in the wake of his rich, poetic catalog of music that spans 12 CDs and many more EPs. He's done so much in a decade that Johnson shocked a whole new batch of fans last Friday night, where he played a special concert with national indie-folk peers Vic Chesnutt, Mark Eitzel (American Music Club) and David Bazan (Pedro the Lion). For a few songs, the skinny kid of old was back behind the kit, raining drumstick thunder.
The X-stamped crowd at Hailey's certainly never saw Johnson's debut as a 19-year-old drummer in Funland, and in the years since, they might not know that the man, now 34, is still laying down drum tracks, or whatever other instruments he wants, on Centro-matic's CDs. In some ways, Centro-matic is as focused as ever on Johnson's songs, which he used to record almost entirely by himself (and still does on four-track demos), but the rest of the group doesn't mind. In fact, they rely on it.
"Sometimes a singer-songwriter has a strong personality, has this real idea of how they want to do everything, but Will's not like that," says drummer and producer Matt Pence. "He's very easy to work with. He wants to make the record that we all want to make. Consequently, we want to make the record that Will wants to make."
Not convincing enough? The members' dedication was proven about eight years ago when they nearly moved en masse to St. Louis. "We were so tightly knit at that point already," Pence says. He also admits that in 1994, he moved back to Denton from Boston on the mere chance that he and Johnson would start a band together someday. (After hearing this, Johnson freezes; this was news to him. He finally blurts, "I just got a chill.")
But don't call Centro-matic a band. Johnson later calls that word "pompous" and retorts with his own choices: "outfit, collective, bowling club." His informal attitude continues for much of our 10th anniversary chat, from the group's birth ("We were all just floatin' and available...it was either bridge club or rock out") to the members' roles ("a lot of [our duties are] unspoken, and I tend to take that for granted") to even the anniversary itself ("It's something of a milestone, but I'm not gonna lie and tell you I'm not already thinking about the next few records").
Johnson's sentiments are repeated by Pence, fiddle/keyboard player Scott Danbom and bassist/guitarist Mark Hedman, and their loose attitudes about roles, touring and recording are fitting. Centro-matic not only lacks a definitive anniversary date, it also lacks a definitive name, alternating to Will Johnson by himself or the "softer" South San Gabriel identity with extra players whenever they see fit (though you'll hear loud songs from SSG and soft ones from Centro-matic, a fact that is plenty intentional).
But a band doesn't last 10 years by just being carefree.
"Matt and I were in a previous band [Adam's Farm] for five years," Hedman says. "We're both long-term commitment kind of people. In fact, if you look at each of us individually, we've all had long relationships, always long relationships. Never, like, dating a lot. Always gotta have a commitment."
Johnson lets out a nervous laugh at this point, having recently moved to Austin after a divorce, in what seems like yet another hurdle in Centro-matic's hurdle-filled decade. In 1998, a botched deal with Doolittle Records lost the guys thousands of bucks, not to mention their faith in even the smallest labels. Years later, the master tapes for The Static Vs. The Strings, Vol. 2 were stolen from their van during a California tour; Johnson writes the disc off as a casualty of his ceaseless songwriting and says he won't redo many of the songs for future records--"Those were the recordings I wanted to use, so someone in the Bay Area has those." And there's the usual set of troubles for a struggling band with more character and quality than hype.
"We'd had a coupla really rough years, the falling out with Doolittle, tours being absolutely crappy, falling out with a booking agent, death, everything," Johnson says. "Morale was exceptionally questionable at best. [And then] that European tour happened in September 2000. Most every show was either full or sold out in this fantasy land we'd never been to. I remember sitting in a van watching the sunset before we got to load-in, thinking, 'This is saving our band.' It was a very pivotal point."
Slowly, America has caught up, and Centro-matic has since toured with some of the finest in our country's indie scene, including Death Cab for Cutie, My Morning Jacket and Drive-By Truckers. That's not to say Centro-matic is coasting--the members each still have day jobs, and when asked about their finances, a delivery guy walks up, as if on cue, to charge them for cheap deli sandwiches. (Danbom refuses Johnson's cash, saying, "Don't worry, you'll pay me back.")
They point out plenty of good reasons to keep Centro-matic running another 10 years. They've met their musical heroes. They make albums their own way and are damn proud that no labels meddle. They inspire each other both musically and as friends (and Johnson's move to Austin has strengthened their time together every time they regroup in Denton). But the most obvious reason is one they're too humble to say out loud--they kick more ass now than ever before. In concert, the group chains together classics like "Call the Legion in Tonight" with more recent hits like "Flashes and Cables" and "Fountains of Fire," each setting off their allegiant crowds at first note.
Fort Recovery doesn't let up, either; "Calling Thermatico" is a bruiser that could bully most any modern-rock song, and final track "Take a Rake" has symphonic heft and amplified guts that combine the studio powers of Pence, the double-barreled guitar and bass blasts of Johnson and Hedman and the greasy, thick synthesizers of Danbom into the biggest-sounding song of their career.
Johnson originally four-tracked the finale by himself, and on the record, he's the one raining drumstick thunder, not Pence. But on CD, the song is the result of a quartet, not just one guy.
"The songs evolve from very isolated situations, me sitting in a room and writing, but then...everyone puts their own bit of personality on the songs," Johnson says. "When Scott takes a fiddle part and attacks it, comes up with something I didn't see in the first place, or Mark picks up the guitar and comes up with one of my favorite guitar lines on the record...That's where the friendships and our connections start to speak for themselves."
On March 6, 1996, Johnson concluded songs at the Argo by saying, "We thank you for coming out." The royal "we" sounded funny at the time, but 10 years later, it's obvious that Johnson knew what he meant.