Centro-Matic – Rapid-fire delivery
Will Johnson speaks slowly and thoughtfully, as you might expect of a Missouri native and longtime Texas resident, but he writes songs at the fevered pace of an auctioneer. As the leader of Centro-matic, Johnson has produced enough material for the band to issue five albums and one EP in less than three years. He also recently released his first solo disc, and estimates he has another 150 songs yet unrecorded.
Despite their prolific studio output, the members of Centro-matic — Johnson, Matt Pence, Scott Danbom and Mark Hedman — are hardly shut-ins. They recently completed an American tour with Varnaline, serving as Anders Parker’s backing band in addition to playing their own set. They’ve also toured Europe, and play regularly around Dallas when they’re not on the road.
Even with such an active agenda, Centro-matic continues to operate through small channels, releasing its records on a couple of independent labels, Idol and Quality Park. The band still lives in Denton, about an hour north of Dallas and home to a vibrant scene fostered by the renowned musical curriculum at the University of North Texas. Johnson says the town provides a “close-knit, family-like music community.”
He also insists the band’s disavowal of major-label backing is rooted in practicality, not idealism. “Some people think we’re grumpy old men with an anti-major-label bias,” Johnson said. “But I think we’ve been focused to an indie-label perspective because I don’t know any major label that will allow you to release two or three albums a year. We’ve all had friends who were held hostage while their records sat on a shelf for years.”
Centro-matic’s music tends toward two distinct directions. One is raucous and melodic garage rock that has earned comparisons to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, but is more concise and hook-oriented, owing at least as much to Guided By Voices. The other is acoustic balladry saved of any sap by the affecting spookiness of Johnson’s voice, which is adenoidal and husky, cracked and plaintive all at the same time.
Johnson’s own take on his influences is a wide-ranging tale. A typical young male’s appreciation of AC/DC gave way to the more thoughtful brashness of Husker Du and Crazy Horse. All of this was leavened by childhood exposure to John Denver and Neil Diamond, thanks to his mother. He also has an appreciation for the work of Woody Guthrie, though he warily notes that “sometimes ‘folk songwriter’ doesn’t hold the best connotations.”
However unlikely the distillation of those influences, they are strikingly displayed on Distance And Clime, Centro-matic’s latest full-length effort. Though Johnson is more notable for how much he can do with a familiar template than for his broad palette, Distance And Clime is the band’s most varied and fully realized work to date.
As for the band’s unusual name, it comes from the Italian make of an accordion that was lying around Johnson’s room when he first started writing songs. At 24, Johnson had been a drummer on the Dallas scene, but would soon find he was “addicted to having melodies free-form in my brain.” The first melody he attempted to transfer from his head to a four-track became a song called “My Test”. He remembers it as a long birthing process. “It took a stinking week [to write],” he says. “That song really pissed me off.”
“My Test” was unique in the length of its gestation, but it has yet to find its way onto a Centro-matic record. In that respect, it has a lot of company.