With the operative term for both his new album and an earlier/just-reissued one “strength through adversity,” Will Johnson is now ready to swing for the fences.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“Take Pride in Your Long Odds was a phrase that I kept thinking around over the last 18 to 24 months. I liked the feel of it,” says Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson of the five-word sentence that gave shape to his latest album. “I liked that there is obvious adversity involved but there’s also a shred of positivity.”
That description also applies to the music on this 10th full-length, which is beautifully weathered, in tune with life’s darker elements, but also full of inexorable lift. It’s the kind of album that acknowledges the ditch we’ve driven into, and hauls out the chains, big engines and traction to drag us out.
“I wrote most of Take Pride in Your Long Odds in the summer and the fall of 2011, when our country had gone through a lot economically, and without a doubt, some of that influenced it,” says Johnson, explaining that his mother had also been seriously ill during this period. Yet he had also just had a baby daughter (he also has a son, now 9) and spent much of his time during the day with her. He says you can hear her on some of demos, clearly not happy that daddy was busy making music. But mostly having a little one around forced him to consider the upside
“That definitely had me focusing on more themes of positivity rather than bitchiness, I suppose. Even a sadder song like ‘Through the Fog Then Down,’ to my mind, it still has an element of hope in it. And so even if the songs become a little bit forlorn sounding, I still tried to keep some positivity within. I really tried to not be quite as grumpy as I can be. So she did influence things, without a doubt.”
He adds, “There was a lot on my mind about the forces of adversity and how do we try to make something positive out of all this that surrounds us.” Johnson found it especially important to connect with people, one-on-one, in an age of technical distraction. “There are more and more reasons to not leave the house anymore with all the video games and social media and entertainment that humans spend their time and money on now,” he continued. “So if you can get people out to a rock show, it’s very physical and four-dimensional and live together, it feels like an accomplishment to me. It’s important to try to make a memorable moment that doesn’t involve a screen. Or staring at a phone.”
From Redo the Stacks to Take Pride in Your Long Odds
Centro-Matic is re-releasing its very first album, 1996’s Redo the Stacks. this year as well, so I asked Johnson to think about the two albums together. What had changed? What was still the same? Johnson said he hadn’t thought about the two albums together much, but there were some links between them. “One song that comes to mind is ‘Calling You Glad.’ It’s a two- minute and change brash pop song. It has one speed. There are a couple of moments where we took a devil-may-care recording approach that links with Redo the Stacks, but it wasn’t a grand conceptual relationship. Each is its own beast in my estimation.”
For one thing, Redo the Stacks was more or less a solo album, even though it bore the Centro-Matic name. Matt Pence, now the band’s drummer, produced the album, and Scott Danborn played fiddle on a few tracks. Otherwise it was pure Will Johnson, “ locked in a room for a month banging out some songs,” as he describes it.
Johnson says he’s known all the members of Centro-Matic dating back to the 1990s, Pence and bassist Mark Hedman since about 1990 and Danborn from 1994 on. The band came together over Christmas of 1996 when Johnson was home from college and trying to finish Redo the Stacks before he returned.
“When the record completed, I had a show or two to play solo, but I played under the name Centro-Matic at the time. I just play electric guitar and sing at these shows,” Johnson remembers. “The way that we fell together as a band was I had a couple of shows booked and asked Matt and Mark to do a quick run through, acoustic rehearsal real quick, and then we’d meet down at the rock club with all our gear and just play everything ten times as loud. And so we did our first two Centro-Matic shows that way as a band. We played two shows before we ever really had a rehearsal. Which I think is the way to do it.” Danborn joined on piano and fiddle and backing vocals about six months later, and the band has held together ever since.
Long odds, loud guitar
Besides the mournful but not quite defeated tone, what strikes you first about Centro-Matic’s first album is its guitar work. The disc opens with its title track, a meditation in drone and fuzz so heavy that it seems to sink into the ground as you hear it. You can almost see the pavement cracking under its weight. Johnson says that the track grew out of a demo he worked up on a Tascam 424 cassette recorder, with a vintage 1950s guitar feed through an overdrive pedal and reverb pedal.
“The sound of that old guitar run through a full tone, full overdrive pedal and the holy grail reverb pedal was so inviting to me at various junctures,” he explains. “I would track the guitar with that sound and then I would sing the vocals through the guitar pick-up instead of singing them directly into the conventional microphone. So those demos really started to take on a weird feel over the course of a few songs, singing into that guitar pick-up. The title track, with the final recording of the title track, we tried to keep the same feel and the same vibe that the demo had.”
In a similar way, “Salty Disciple” grew out of a guitar sound – one that Johnson tried, unsuccessfully, to get out of his. “There was this guitar line that kept coming up on family walks in the evenings, generally late summer and early fall of 2011. I got turned off by it but it wouldn’t go away,” he recalls. “So I thought maybe I should sit down and try to examine it. Make something compelling out of it, at least to my ear, something I believe in and something I’m turned on by. And so I sat down and started demoing it and using some different vocal approaches. Trying to break some habits vocally and even lyrically…some things that I had, in my opinion, kind of fallen into.”
Johnson says that the lyrics took an unusual turn as he worked on the song and began speaking in the voices of characters rather than himself: “It turned into real different type of song. I remember being a little bit nervous when I handed the demo to the guys, thinking, ‘Oh man, you guys are going to hate this. But that’s wasn’t the case.
“Just because it feels different or even uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Oftentimes, that’s where you learn about yourself and learn what the band is about, when you start down a completely different path and throw something unfamiliar into their hands. It wound up being an extremely fun song to record.”
Centro-Matic has been working the new material into its live set over the last year or so, adding “Academy of Lunkers,” “Hey There Straps,” “Salty Disciple” and some other unfamiliar songs into the set lists. They’ve also been playing some acoustic living room shows, which changes everything. “Part of the adventure of the living room show is figuring out a different way, a way to make a rock song translate,” says Johnson. “We might play it in a different key or a different tempo or turn it on its ear. And almost make it a different song. That’s part of the fun and part of the adventure of sitting in front of people with just an acoustic guitar and trying to keep it engaging.”
Hot sauce and baseball games
Centro-Matic also tried something new on the business side for Take Pride, using the PledgeMusic Campaign to raise money for studio time. Prizes included the usual items – CDs, expanded digital albums, signed lyric sheets, shows at fans’ homes — as well as some more unusual items.
Scott Danborn, for instance, kicked in bottles of his home-made hot sauce, which Johnson says is literally dangerously good. “I’ve sustained my only true eating injury over the last ten years, thanks to his hot sauce,” says Johnson. “I just couldn’t get it into my face fast enough. I loved it so much. I did not chew the chip properly. The corner went right down my esophagus and put a scrape in it. I was having trouble eating for the next couple of days. But it was so good.”
The campaign also showcased Matt Pence’s photography, Johnson’s original oil painted cover for Redo the Stacks and a chance to go to a baseball game with the members of Centro-Matic (sadly, unclaimed). It allowed band members to showcase their lesser known talents, too, like Johnson’s painting.
“That’s kind of all I’m doing this summer, just painting and running in this Texas heat,” he explains. Johnson is putting together material for several art shows in the fall of 2014 and early 2015, as well as working on commission work.
Johnson has been painting seriously for six or seven years. He got started after moving into a new apartment and not having enough money to buy anything to hang on the walls. About a year later, a friend asked him to do a show at his record store. He’s had several shows since then.
Still, don’t look for links between his visual art and music. “The paintings are based on baseball history. They’re portraits of the players and personalities that I prefer to champion and hopefully make people aware of. There are some obvious ones like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, but then there are for the most part they’re less obvious players. It’s a pretty different thing.”
Maybe so, but players like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson also faced long odds and persevered through adversity… not so different from Centro-Matic or its resilient new album.
Photo credit: Matt Pence. This week, Will Johnson starts a 10-day living tour across Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, with each show limited to 35-45 tickets. Dates at his official website.