Big drummer boy

When his phone rings at the allotted time--precisely at midnight, as per his request--Will Johnson is fast asleep. His voice groggy, his words at first a random mishmash of syllables and hazy thought, Johnson explains he got home from the library earlier than he expected and went right to bed because he has to get up early in the morning to take two final exams--one in biology, the other on Shakespeare. He also has a paper due the next day on author Cormac McCarthy, and another test to take a couple of days later in algebra.

Such is the life of the 24-year-old elementary education/English double major who returned to the University of North Texas after a three-year absence spent working by day and rocking by night---hours spent cramming at the library, balancing sleep with study and often mixing the two.

To make the hard even more difficult, Johnson's also the drummer for Funland--perhaps the best rock drummer in town, a barely contained whirlwind behind the kit--and a third of that band's songwriting trio, and he's having to maintain his schoolwork while touring to support the band's newly released Steve Records debut The Funland Band. "I found myself walking around campus the other day and my legs went numb because I'd been up for so long," Johnson says. "We had just gotten back from a show in San Antonio, and I was just too exhausted. It's like holding up an avalanche with one pebble above my head."

Johnson has been, as he describes it, in self-exile since May: Bandmates Peter Schmidt and Clark Vogeler live in Dallas, and since Johnson lives in Denton he can no longer make it to band practice as often as he once did. He is holed up in the library most nights, and he must now weigh a Funland tour against his school schedule.

And there is something else weighing lightly on his mind these days--his burgeoning interest in something halfway between a solo career and a side project. Called "The Centromatic Band" for now, it's a one-man-low-fi-four-track project that has produced the best local cassette-only release of the year for those lucky enough to score one.

Johnson began writing and recording most of the Centromatic material when he moved back to Denton in May to finish school and discovered all the people he once knew up there had moved away. "I didn't feel at home," he says, so to kill time and his loneliness, he borrowed a four-track recorder from Funland to set to tape ideas for songs; initially, he had planned on generating bits of music to take to the band and flesh out with Schmidt and Vogeler, but the more Johnson wrote and recorded the more he found himself completing whole songs--melodies and lyrics and all--that he wanted to keep for himself.

Johnson wound up recording all the vocals himself--not to mention all the guitar, bass, and drum tracks, a one-man band in true lo-fi-indie-rock spirit; he's the Lou Barlow of Denton, sitting in his room and moaning his sad, raw, fragile pop songs into a recorder for no one and everyone to hear. Johnson eventually collected the four-track material onto cassettes and began handing them out to friends, later updating those songs with better versions recorded at friends' home studios around Denton.

"I make tapes and give them to friends or people I trust almost as a progress report," Johnson says. "On some days I think it's good, and some days I think, 'Whatever, you're no different from the guy sitting in his room writing songs two doors down from you.' Some days it's nice to listen to and I'm satisfied with it. I don't know how seriously I should take it. Probably not very."

The most recent tape of the "Centromatic Band" is a dizzying and impressive assortment of quirky, touching songs with titles like "Quart Date," "Misunderstanding Surplus in the Getaway Car," "The Fall of the Scenester Girl," and "My Supermodel Girlfrien' Gone AWOL" (with its out-of-nowhere chorus of "whoo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-sha-sha"). They're all wonderful songs (especially the Tupelo-esque "Slip Away") but probably inappropriate for Funland: Where the band reconciles its affection for '70s rock melody with an admiration for post-punk energy, Johnson's solo stuff is more moody and fragile; it's a whisper to Funland's scream, a waltz to their pogo.

Sung in a voice that's a cross between a whispered howl and an ironic snarl--"Slowly," Johnson says, "I'm getting used to the instability but spirit of my voice"--most of his tracks come off as kind of sad even when they rock, undercut with a melancholy that brings down even the happiest of melodies. "What's done is done, it's said," Johnson moans on the beautiful "A Song Called All Along." "Go trouble someone else instead."