Centro-matic's Will Johnson is a Study in Opposites

...just like the Texan president who fascinates him

Will Johnson's been thinking a lot about duality.

That might seem obvious for a couple of reasons.

Johnson's two primary musical projects, Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, are about to release a split double album that even has the word "dual" in its title. Each of his bands represents an opposite pole in dichotomy between loud, sloppy, raw bar rock and quiet, subtle, intricate slow songs. And Johnson even splits his time between two cities: Denton, which his bands identify as home base, and Austin, where he has lived for the past five years.

Will Johnson (left) and Centro-matic are very touchy in the studio.
Will Johnson (left) and Centro-matic are very touchy in the studio.

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Centro-matic plays at Dan's Silverleaf in Denton on Friday, May 30.

Surprisingly, though, it's not his own dual nature he's dwelling on. Lately, he's been thinking about the duality of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"I'm slowly but surely trying to piece together some recordings with a friend [Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers] based on Ladybird and LBJ," he says, "so I'm trying to do as much research as I can on LBJ stuff.

"There's just such a duality to that man that I don't think I could ever possibly decode. But I am fascinated. There's just so much complexity to what made that guy tick, so maybe I'm just trying to get to the bottom of it. He's got so many good gifts and bad gifts, it's hard not to be fascinated by that."

But LBJ aside, Will Johnson—who's not related to the former president—has other collaborations in mind. In February, he cut a record with Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co.—he describes it as dark, stark and minimal, along the lines of his solo material—and the two plan to tour the disc following its release early next year. And now he's even mulling collaboration with Dallas hip-hop crew PPT.

"I've been in touch with Pikahsso [of PPT] quite a bit, and we've thrown the idea around of working together either with him or with them," Johnson says. "It's a little daunting, thinking about how different it would be. But at the same time, it's very exciting to my brain. It gives me something completely new to get nervous about, and I think sometimes that's where one's best work comes from: sitting on that fulcrum of nerves and confidence, that fulcrum of, 'This may completely work or this may totally fail.' But that's where all your nerve endings are awake, and if you're creating with all your nerve endings awake, that can't be a bad thing."

It's hardly surprising that Johnson is already thinking about his next few projects even as he sits just mere days away from the North American release of Dual Hawks. After 12 years of mind-boggling productivity with Centro-matic, South San Gabriel and his work as a solo artist, it's almost cliché by now to use the word "prolific" to describe him.

But just because Johnson might already be thinking about future collaborations, that doesn't mean the rest of us should also look past the impressive Dual Hawks.

Centro-matic's half of the split release sounds as good as the band has in some time. It's a lean 42 minutes of concise, solid, workman-like rock 'n' roll, ragged and raw, with laughter and playful post-take riffing left on the tracks, as if to offer proof of how much fun Johnson and his bandmates had in the studio. And, as always, Johnson's stream-of-consciousness lyrics swing from evocative to inscrutable. It's a style undeniably his; it's hard to imagine someone else singing a line as awkwardly sweet as, "In an ashtray kind of way, you are useful and a little stained," from "Strychnine, Breathless Ways."

And yet it's the lesser-known South San Gabriel whose Hawk truly soars. Consisting of the same members as Centro-matic (Johnson; Scott Danbom on keyboards, bass and violin; Mark Hedman on guitar and bass; and Matt Pence on drums), plus an evolving cast of guest players who add in pedal steel, strings, wind and other instrumentations, South San Gabriel's name comes from South San Gabriel Songs, the quiet, moody 2000-released Centro-matic album that gave Johnson the idea to create a separate band. The hushed singing, weepy pedal-steel guitar, trippy Rhodes piano and strings add an emotional depth appropriate to the more intimate lyrics Johnson saves for this group's efforts.

But as wonderful as the band sounds these days, Johnson was initially nervous about pairing South San Gabriel with Centro-matic on the road as he did on a recent tour of Europe. (He's toured the United States and Europe with each in the past, but never together.)

"I was worried that maybe people would think we were scamming them by jumping back on stage and playing a full rock show after playing this other music already," he says. "But it seems like people understood. I feel like they got it. It was a lot of work and kind of interesting to take the challenge certain nights, to take 15 minutes between sets and totally change gears. But I think it pushed both bands in their own directions, in a way, just to differentiate the music. Which I think is inevitably a good thing."

The effort to distinguish the music is also strikingly evident when playing the Dual Hawks discs back-to-back. Each project has always been distinct from its counterpart, but the contrast is especially strong on their latest releases: The South San Gabriel disc is as polished and thoughtful as anything the band has done, while the loose takes and forceful, fuzzed-out guitars on the Centro-matic disc recall earlier, grimier albums like 1999's The Static Vs. The Strings Vol. 01.

The dissimilarity was the result of the two projects' differing recording processes.

"The South San Gabriel session was a lot more involved and calculated, for having all those people in it," Johnson says. "The greater part of the Centro-matic session took place over 10 days. It was very fast. The majority was written and recorded in the studio. We wanted it to be spontaneous and raw, and kind of hearken back to the kind of recordings we used to make."

Getting back to that raw sound was intended to set the Centro-matic disc apart from the South San Gabriel disc, although that's not to say there wasn't room for serendipity in South San Gabriel.

"A lot of it is actually decided right there in the moment, which is a lot of fun," Johnson says. "That's part of what South San Gabriel is really about. Someone happens to be available in town that day, and by that night they're in front of a microphone laying down a track."

Speaking of laying down tracks, Johnson is looking at houses in Taylor and Smithville in Central Texas, hoping to find a place where he can build a modest home studio for his art work and his home recording. As much as he loves challenges and changes of scenery, though, he has his routines: Johnson calls North Texas "a great, great place to record," and has no plans to discontinue his tradition of recording at The Echo Lab studio in Argyle.

Likewise, for the foreseeable future, he plans on staying near Austin, close to his parents—and the LBJ Ranch.

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