HERE’S ONE FOR THE TALKERS Centro-matic

On their latest – and
possibly greatest – album the Texas
rockers draw artistic sustenance from both novelty and consistency.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

If you’re a live music fan and this has happened to you,
then you know why you are a live
music fan: It’s a mid-week night, and you and some friends are at the local
club-slash-watering hole to knock back a few, shoot the shit and blow off some
mid-week steam. There are a couple bands on the bill, and one of the names vaguely
rings a bell — you heard somebody somewhere sing their praises, but can’t
quite place it because it wasn’t a viral chorus or anything.

 

The opening act plays a brief set — not bad, but not good
enough to derail conversations. But when the headliner hits the stage? It’s
another story altogether, one of unexpected transcendence, where all the
“cubicle jobbers” and “talk-talkers” are eventually stunned into silence. It’s
a rare phenomenon, but one summed up neatly by Centro-matic’s Will Johnson in
the anthemic and jaunty rocker “All the Talkers” from the band’s 10th and latest full-length, Candidate Waltz:

 

“But the band, they
were not like the ones before/There was talk amongst the hips and cliques/As if
it couldn’t be done/They played until we had been won/Until we had been won!”

 

Speaking from his Austin, TX, home, Johnson says “All the
Talkers” was written from a fan’s standpoint more so than a performer’s. “We’ve
all witnessed it, and I love seeing it happen – when an unexpected comes
through town and blows the doors off the joint,” he says, “that experience
knowing that music can still hit you in that way, just as it did when you were
15 or 16 at your first show.”

 

Johnson and his band mates – keyboardist Scott Danbom,
bassist/guitarist Mark Hedman and drummer Matt Pence – have often been the
source of those unexpected moments. Over 15 years, Centro-matic has been
pumping out its consistently great yet underappreciated blend of fuzz-friendly
indie rock, high-plains Texas twang, beautiful-loser ballads and arena-sized
sing-along anthems in clubs across America and Europe, winning a small army of
dedicated converts without benefit of national magazine spreads or Internet
hoopla.

 

Those Centro-matic fundamentals haven’t changed much over
the years; consistency has been one of the band’s hallmarks, though they have
added a bit more polish since their lo-fi beginnings that had some comparing
them to Guided by Voices. Still, you know what you’re going to get with a
Centro-matic release – in part because the band scratch their other artistic
itches via the prolific Johnson’s solo records or the moodier and more
experimental side-project South San Gabriel.

 

But that doesn’t mean Centro-matic isn’t motivated by the
same restless qualities inherent in any other evolving act. Candidate Waltz is, in some key
respects, a significant departure from previous records, from its revised
songwriting tack and producer (Scott Solter) to new recording methods that
reflect significant changes in the band members’ lives, both personal and
professional.

 

Johnson and his mates did the basic tracking at their
favored studio, Echo Lab (with some extra work done at Pence’s log cabin
studio). But instead of their typical three-week “band camp vacations” as
Johnson calls them (from which they usually emerged with something close to a
finished record), this 10-day session in August, 2009 required quite a bit more
work afterward. The constricted time frame happened because Hedman and his wife
had a child, Danbom went out on the road with up-and-coming folk rocker Sarah
Jaffe, and Johnson was officially welcomed into the Monsters of Folk, joining
My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, M. Ward and Conor Oberst as the group’s drummer
on tour. (Johnson and his wife also had their first child five months ago.)

 

Those scheduling and family concerns meant the band, spread
out over Texas from Dallas to Austin anyway, turned to the Internet to complete
the record. Johnson estimates there were over 600 Candidate Waltz-related emails shipped back-and-forth over the last
two months of 2009, featuring everything from song-title round-tables to zip
files with guitar or keyboard parts. That drew out the process further, but
thankfully 15 years together does offer some shorthand.

 

“It’s kind of cool that after all these years of friendship
we can still finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s minds, even
electronically,” Johnsons laughs.

 

They had to lean on that familiarity as well because Johnson
wrote the skeletons of these songs, with one or two exceptions, on bass guitar.
That changed their nature, he says, from the new, poppier rhythms of “Iso-Residue”
and “Solid States” down to how the vocals and melodies interacted with the
rhythms. It was uncomfortable and even confusing at first, Johnson concedes,
but the change forced the band to focus more on tension-making than “the
overall explosive release” that Centro-matic songs often rely on.

 

“It was fun to try and exercise that kind of discipline and
not just go for the big-loud-wall-of-guitars-thing all the time,” he says.
“It’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel, but for our band it definitely
took us into some new territories, which made us really happy.”

 

For a band used to self-producing, bringing Solter
(Superchunk, Mountain Goats) on board changed things up as well. “We’ve made
our own records for many years now, so it’s just good for us to bring in a new
set of ears every once and a while,” Johnson says, “someone who can see the
furniture in a different way in our little living room.”

 

Even the record’s 9-song austerity was a change-up – this is
a band that once recorded 60 songs during one band camp. Part of that brevity
was a result of the shortened recording window, but Johnson says the record
“speaks for itself over the course of nine songs,” especially after the
sprawling two-disc “split” between Centro-matic and South
San Gabriel, 2007’s Dual
Hawks
.

 

“We wanted to make something a little more meat-and-potatoes
and a little more terse,” he says.

 

And so they did, creating a blend of the new and familiar
that, with its brevity and concentration on tension, feels as urgent as
anything the band has done. The opening minor chords, burbling synth and
recurrent keyboard pattern of “Against the Line” insist on going “down and down
and down and down and down” without ever quite releasing into crescendo. The
guitars and drums gang up on “Only In My Double Mind” to pound the beat like
sledgehammers and mirror the narrator’s urgent warning to “iron out your
trouble lines,” Johnson’s double-tracked vocals acting as the melodic red-hot
glow while a fuzz-happy solo provides the sparks. Even the record’s ballads
seem to cut deeper, as the sad-eyed soul of the relationship lament “Estimate
X3” – “the minutes stretched between us tight” – is captured in warm guitar
arpeggios and a slow martial beat coated in synth haze, morphing the outro’s
overlapping “woo-woos” into elegy.

 

These new approaches and fresh elements seem to have served
their purpose; Centro-matic sounds refocused here. They’ve stripped away some
of the past and dug even deeper – using a few new methods, too — into what
they’ve been doing for 15 years.

 

“When we go in and put our heads down and we are on our own
in a quiet setting and able to commit our music to tape, it’s still kind of an
old school, very spiritual and very familiar way of making our music,” Johnson
says. “In those approaches, things have not necessarily changed all that much
as our lives have. But when we walk out of the studio door and realize it’s
2011 instead of 1998, we immediately have to start conjuring new ideas and new
ways to hopefully make people aware of our music.”

 

And on many nights, they’ll do it by being that band that just
shuts the talkers up.

 

 

Centro-matic is on
tour at this very moment. Dates: www.centro-matic.com

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