By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Will Johnson is nothing if not prolific.
Starting with the 1995 release of his first Centro-matic recording, Non-Directional Jetpack Race, which was released exclusively on cassette tape, he has put out 18 full-length titles either under the Centro-matic banner, its South San Gabriel doppelganger persona, his own name or, in one case, in collaboration with Magnolia Electric Co.'s Jason Molina. That all comes on top of another 10 or so EPs from these same projects. And that's saying nothing of his pre-Centro-matic work with iconic area once-weres Funland and Baboon. Or of his work as a touring musician in bands such as The New Year or, most recently, as the drummer and "fifth monster" in folk-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk.
He understands that from the outside looking in, this seems like a lot. So, before the release of Centro-matic's latest, Candidate Waltz, he and his bandmates, Matt Pence, Scott Danbom and Mark Hedman, decided to tackle the issue firsthand. For a 48-hour period, they made Redo The Stacks, their first non-cassette release, available as a free download. They also released as a free download a separate 24-song compilation of tracks from throughout their 16-year career—this one without a time limit on its availability.
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"If nothing else, it was almost like sort of a fig-leaf peace offering of a starter kit for folks that might not be terribly familiar or might just feel a little overwhelmed with where it even begins with our music or our releases," says Johnson, speaking on his cell phone while en route to New York City as part of a tour coming just days after the new album's release. "There's obviously a lot to pick from, so we just decided, kind of collectively, to go ahead and offer a 24-song sort of CliffsNotes version of a lot of the material we've done over these years."
More than simply a nice gesture, that starter kit also helps audiences understand how Centro-matic got from its almost-emo beginnings (listen to Redo The Stacks' "Fidgeting Wildly" and try not to notice how much it sounds like Dashboard Confessional) to the rather thankfully straightforward barroom rock it proffers today.
That's something Johnson has been thinking about himself lately, and throughout the making of Candidate Waltz. Tough to blame him; with so many releases to his name, it's a wonder he's able to keep them apart, let alone expect his fans to do so.
So Candidate Waltz is different—intentionally so. It still sounds like Centro-matic. It's tough for this band not to, with Johnson's instantly recognizable weary vocal wail and the general distortion that his band tends to offer to complement it. But there are some noticeable differences that become more noticeable once the listener is aware that, this time around, and for the first time ever, Johnson penned this album's songs entirely on a bass guitar. The result is a beefier sound heard most notably on lead single "Only In My Double Mind," which is all rhythm section and emotion, Centro-matic at its unquestioned best.
Perhaps it's also the band at it simplest. Johnson, in discussing the album's writing process, explains that writing on the bass gave the rest of the arrangements more freedom. It makes their cores less complicated too; none of these songs ever deviate far from their established norms once their grooves kick in. That can be partly explained by Johnson's surroundings as he wrote this batch of songs—the small town of Bastrop, some 30 miles south of Austin.
"It was hot as hell, and it was my first summer in that little town," he recalls. "It was interesting to be kind of removed from the big city for the first time in quite a number of years. I didn't know a lot of people out there, which is kind of part of the impetus of moving out there. I really wanted to kind of hunker down and live the small-town life for a little while. I remember I'd wake up, take care of a little email work or whatever, walk downtown, get lunch, then come back and hook all the amps up and everything, and just write all afternoon. It was one of the most fun, truly kidlike, joy-filled writing sessions I can remember. I just set everything up in the kitchen and had a really good time just playing this."
"I'm sure the neighbors said it sounded like utter shit, though," he says. "It was just this distorted bass guitar at top volume."
But the songs came—mostly because Johnson, who has clearly never lacked for inspiration, was particularly inspired this time around. Fresh off of his tour of duty with Monsters of Folk and its heavyweight four-piece of M. Ward, My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, Johnson had just been watching four of his most revered contemporaries at work, playing live and writing on the road.
"The cool thing about that experience and that band is that we're all getting a glimpse at each other's creative process and assessing what it is that drives each songwriter and how they create, how they operate," Johnson says. "That's a pretty neat thing, when you get to have all those different ways of creating all together, all in one setting. It's impossible not to be affected by that and to learn from that."
More than anything, Johnson says, it inspired him to simply attack his ideas head-on.
Clearly that worked. Candidate Waltz songs such as "Mercedes Blast" and "Iso-Residue" score for their sing-along-ability, for their clever wordplay, for their immediacy and, in a few cases, for their self-effacing nature. Perhaps no song highlights this as much as "All The Stalkers," a particularly Thin Lizzy-sounding track that finds Johnson singing the presumably pseudo-biographical tale of a band that, despite numerous mishaps, miraculously clicks particularly well with an audience one night. In many ways, it's the 12-years-later response to "Huge In Every City," from 1999's All The Falsest Hearts Can Try, which finds a band with an especially strong reputation failing to engage its audience during a particularly tragic show.
It's a stark change in songwriting perspective, no doubt, and perhaps a subtle admission from the career just-shy-of-the-radar performer about what constitutes success for him these days.
Indeed, Johnson concedes, the thing that mostly keeps him going at this point is the luxury he has to both create and have his creations received—and consistently enough so that the latter still supports the former. That freedom to create has even led him and Pence to dabble in the visual arts. (Johnson painted the mural that eventually became Candidate Waltz's cover art.)
"And so long as that's the case," Johnson says, "we'll continue to create together in some capacity."
Given that his and his band's works are increasingly more creative each time, here's hoping that remains the case for the foreseeable future.