Back in July, when we caught up with Centro-matic frontman Will Johnson to talk about his band's latest release, the excellent Candidate Waltz, much of our conversation centered around the small dusty city of Bastrop, Texas, located about 30 miles south of Austin, where Johnson wrote essentially all of the new album's material.
"It was hot as hell, and it was my first summer in that little town," Johnson told us of those recording sessions. "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."
The current situation in the town is far less blissful; of all the areas facing the fires rampaging through Central Texas at the moment, Bastrop might have it the worst. The city's blaze the largest of all the fires, having already destroyed 600 homes, having forced the evacuations of another 5,000 residents and having spread well across 30,000 acres.
Earlier this week, on a return flight to his current residence in Austin from a tour stop in New Orleans, Johnson saw the damage of the fire firsthand, the smoke emanating from the nearby region impossible to ignore from the sky's eye. Once back home, he called some friends to check on their well-being. Most had been evacuated and are in good health, despite their homes being in question. But not all have been so fortunate.
"I'm still missing one guy," Johnson says over the phone this afternoon. "I haven't reached him yet. Everyone else just seems incredible devastated. But they're all safe, and that's the big thing."
Far as Johnson knows, the place he rented while writing Candidate Waltz is still standing. But few structures have been so fortunate. One friend, Johnson says, watched on as he lost his home to the fire in "a matter of minutes." Others complained that they were having difficulty breathing amidst all the flames and smoke.
"It definitely hits home," Johnson says. "It's an area and a region that I'm pretty smitten with. It remains an incredible source of inspiration to me and I have a lot of friends out there. And it's our family's playground."
Wistfully, Johnson talks of weekend trips back to the city for brunches, hiking treks and swimming trips. Were it not for commuting complications, perhaps, of getting his kids to their Austin schools, he might still live there. As such, Johnson and the rest of his bandmates in Centro-matic and South San Gabriel have a plan to help out with the devastation as best they can.
This weekend, on Saturday, September 10, and Sunday, September 11, one hundred percent the sales of all Centro-matic, South San Gabriel and Will Johnson solo releases purchased at the Undertow Music Collective online store will be donated to helping the victims of the Bastrop fires. The following weekend, on Sunday, September 18, Johnson will also auction off two paintings from his acclaimed baseball series -- portraits of Dave Kingsman and Richie Herber -- with the proceeds also benefiting the Bastrop victims.
"I want to make sure that the money we raise goes directly to the Bastrop cause," Johnson says.
This afternoon, he's researching the specific entities to which the money will go. (As that information is confirmed, we'll pass it along.) In the meantime, Johnson is hunkering down in his Austin home, hoping that the situation doesn't worsen -- especially in light of the fact that many Bastrop evacuees have relocated to the state capital. This morning, a fire broke out north of the city.
"We're just totally surrounded by it now," he says. "It's extremely hazy here [in Austin] today, and there's the smell of smoke everywhere. This is the first day that I've noticed that significantly."
Below, Johnson makes his plea for assistance in his cause directly.
Centro-matic Dispatch - September 6, 2011
I write to you all with a pretty heavy heart this afternoon. On the flight home from New Orleans yesterday, I saw a massive portion of my former home county on fire. I got word of all this after our show on Sunday night, and waited 'til morning to make some calls. I spoke to a friend and former neighbor before I got on the plane to make sure he, his wife and dogs were okay. He told me that the fire came through faster than they could have imagined on Sunday afternoon. They had just enough time to get the dogs into their small car, shut the front door to the house that they'd put years of love, work, and care into, and say goodbye. They lost everything minutes later to a fire that presently spans over 30,000 acres, and has destroyed more than 500 homes. Resources are stretched thin out there. As I write this, the fire is still 0% contained.
My friend's story is one of many here in Central Texas right now, but it sure hits hard. It comes from a community that I lived in for a good while, and still have immeasurable love for. Bastrop and its surrounding piney woods has inspired the last few years of our songwriting and the releases that have followed. Every ounce of Candidate Waltz was written out there. The Little Raider EP that I released earlier in the year is as close as I could get to out and out writing a love note to that area's beauty, inhabitants, and uniqueness.
Our band has decided we'd like to help out in a few ways.
We will donate all Centro-matic/South San Gabriel/Will J sales from the Undertow Store on Saturday Sept. 10th and Sunday Sept. 11th to help victims of this fire. It's a good time to pick up a release (or releases) you may not have, need to replace, or pass along to a friend.
I will also auction off two original baseball paintings (Dave Kingman and Richie Hebner) starting Sunday. The auction will be up and running for a week, ending Sunday Sept. 18th. All details on the paintings will be included once the auction begins.
100% of the proceeds will go directly to help victims of this fire get their lives back on track.
Thanks for reading and considering.