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."

"They are kinda sad, aren't they?" Johnson shrugs. "I wonder what that's about. I wish I could maybe come up with something different, but sometimes the sad songs are more satisfying. I don't know what happened last spring. Things just kept falling out. I don't know--something went wrong. That's bad. I need to cheer up and write some rockers."

Johnson's most obvious role model is ex-Replacements drummer Chris Mars, who was fired from/quit the band after it was clear the 'Mats were becoming a one-man show. When Mars released his 1992 debut solo album, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, it came as a revelation to those longtime fans who had pegged Paul Westerberg as the Replacements' lone songwriter: Loaded with catchy, revelatory moments, it came across like the Replacements fronted by Ray Davies, with Mars playing almost every instrument and singing every word.

Though the situation for Johnson is vastly different in Funland--he and Schmidt and Vogeler share the songwriting duties, and Johnson's role as backup singer has become a key ingredient in the band's sound--he nonetheless talks of a restlessness that only a drummer can know from all those nights sitting behind a drum kit.

"It's not a Replacements kind of thing because Funland is totally the opposite of that," Johnson says. "It's a democratic, communal songwriting kind of atmosphere. Sometimes I feel kinda guilty, but sometimes it's satisfying to sing a lead vocal, too.

"The Replacements have been such an influence to me over the years it's ridiculous. I listen to them once a week. And with Chris Mars, there's someone who makes records and doesn't play live. I would love to play these songs live. I'm a very sloppy guitar player, and I'd love to see what happens. But right now the time isn't permitting that. I mean, it'd be very satisfying playing guitar and writing songs. Playing drums is fun, but writing songs is really satisfying."

Johnson has toyed with the idea of putting together an actual band to play his songs, perhaps even opening for the occasional Funland show. So far, he's discussed the idea and even played a little bit with Slobberbone frontman Brent Best and Matt Pence and Mark Hedman of Adam's Farm, but they've back-burnered the project because of prior commitments to their own bands--which is something Johnson tries often to stress. For now, he's merely trying to find someone interested in releasing the songs; otherwise, he'll continue duping cassettes for friends.

"I've told [Peter and Clark] I'm not going anywhere," he says. "I've had people listen to the tape and ask me, 'What are you doing in Funland?' That might be worth an answer if Peter and Clark weren't two of my best friends, if this were just a gig. But there's a lot of stock put in these two friendships, and I don't want to hurt them by recording these songs, and I don't think I have. Funland will be the last band I play drums in, I'll say that.

"I don't feel like my thing conflicts with Funland," he adds. "It's not like I'm going to sell my tape at Funland shows because that would be too weird. I don't want it to be like, 'There's the Funland booth, but what's the deal with the little drummer's project?'"

Scene, heard
Departed Vibrolux drummer Bruce Alford--who split with his former band just weeks after they signed with Atlas/Polydor and as they were stepping into the studio to record their debut EP for the label--has found a new full-time gig playing with Sixty-Six, who lost their drummer Toby Sheets to REO Speed Dealer. 'Lux bassist Alan Hayslip has also been playing with Sixty-Six in the studio, helping Bill Longhorse and Nate Fowler lay down demos for their next album...

Speaking of Vibrolux, Paul Quigg is currently mixing and selecting the songs for the band's EP, which was due in October but has been pushed back just ever so slightly...

Last week, Tablet was in Los Angeles finishing recording and mixing its debut album for Mercury Records, which is due in February...

Mark Griffin (i.e., MC 900 Ft Jesus) will join the likes of Jesus and Mary Chain, Lush, Cocteau Twins, and Porno for Pyros on the sound track of director Gregg Araki's upcoming film The Doom Generation...

On October 19-21 at the Holiday Inn NorthPark Plaza, the Dallas Songwriters Association will hold its Fifth Annual Dallas Songwriters Seminar, where aspiring songwriters (go figure) can learn about their craft (from writing to selling) from so-called industry pros. The New Dimensions Festival (shades of Dimensions of Dallas) will take place at the same time, with more than 70 acts performing around town at showcase gigs. Call 750-0916 for more information.

After much anticipation, Club Argo has opened in Denton in the old O'tays space at 1217 W. Oak, providing a much-needed home to the smaller Denton bands, since the Kharma Cafe's going to book bands only on Saturdays from now on. The place opened last weekend with a show from Baboon--which, incidentally, is finishing up its second album for Grass Records; this weekend will feature sets from Funland and Dooms U.K. (Thursday), Oddfellows and Skeleton Kids (Friday), and Caulk and Doosu (Saturday).

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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