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Centro-matic's Will Johnson:
Stranded on Home Plate

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: April 13, 2004

Will Johnson
w/The Sleepy Jackson, On the Speakers
April 17, 8 p.m.
The Ranch Bowl
1600 So. 72nd St.

Will Johnson solo is a whole different animal than the Will Johnson that's known among the small-but-loyal fan base of gritty, indie rock band Centro-matic.

When he's part of the Denton, Texas, four-piece, Johnson growls with throaty exuberance, cutting through the dusty, shimmering haze of electric guitars on music that shares a legacy with such great American rockers as Crazy Horse, Silkworm, The Grifters and Son Volt. On albums like the 2000 breakthrough All the Falsest Hearts Can Try, and last year's best-of-list fodder Love You Just the Same, Centro-matics' twangy ballads are undeniably earnest and as a catchy as a hang-nail you can't seem to ignore -- and frontman Will Johnson is nothing less than a rock star leading one of the best unknown bands in the country.

But solo, Will Johnson's music takes the hang-nail and rips it clean from the finger, tearing open his heart (and mind) to bleed all over your dashboard in the orange glow of empty street lights. The subtle approach on his solo CD, The Murder of Tides, strips away the rock-fueled bombasts, leaving only Johnson and his solemn lyrics in their wake to roll over you like an aching memory. He does this with that voice of his, that singular instrument that's a throaty, raspy blend of Pollard, Vedder, Tweedy and Zevon, and as memorable as any of the four standing alone.




"It's definitely different," Johnson said of his solo show from the cab of his Toyota pick-up driving on an Interstate about 100 miles west of Buffalo. "It's a little sparse and rather gloomy at times. I'll just have my guitar and vocal going for the show, a nice quiet, minimal set up. I might play some Centro-matic stuff, but I like to keep it separate as best I can unless someone really wants to hear one of those songs."

Johnson said touring solo is not so much an escape from the road rigors of Centro-matic and his other band, South San Gabriel, it's more of a respite -- a chance to refocus his songwriting in glorious isolation.

"It doesn't feel like work at all, it's like a vacation," he said of flying solo. "I don't have to worry about getting to the city early. I can just show up and plug in. The overhead is pretty low. Not that touring with the band is hard, this is just easier. I can listen to records all day and reacquaint myself with making songs."

Driving around alone also allows him to indulge in one of his more eccentric past-times -- visiting baseball parks. While in Omaha, he hopes to check out Rosenblatt Stadium and, if necessary, sneak inside. "I have a list of stadiums I've visited," Johnson said. "I love them. I love the architecture -- just the choices that were made in designing and building a stadium. And I love baseball. It's a flawless, beautiful game. The challenge is sneaking in and getting out. I've had quite a few close calls, including Wrigley Field."









"The overhead is pretty low. Not that touring with the band is hard, this is just easier."








"After I get home, I'll isolate myself for three or four days and record as much of it as possible. It's like flood gates opening."



So far, his extracurricular activities have kept him from getting as much writing done as he'd like. Notorious as a prolific songwriter, Johnson recently finished a follow-up solo effort to 2002's Murder of Tides, which should be released later this year, and plans on entering the studio to record the next South San Gabriel CD in June.

For Johnson, the writing process is ongoing, and inspiration can strike almost anywhere. "If I'm driving, I'll make notes on a napkin on the steering wheel and keep a micro-cassette recorder nearby so if a melody pops in my head I'll jump on it," he said. "After I get home, I'll isolate myself for three or four days and record as much of it as possible. It's like flood gates opening."

Johnson has been relegated to the opening slot for Saturday night's Ranch Bowl gig, a place reserved for new acts and unknowns, even though Centro-matic is one of the most well-respected bands among critics and in-the-know indie music fans. Is it frustrating that his band continues to fly under the radar?

"Not really, because we've all been friends for a long time and really enjoy hanging out together," he said. "You want to play to more than 11 people on a Monday night in Iowa City, but sometimes that's the way the cards fall. Those 11 people paid money to see you, same as the 200 who showed up in Chicago and New York. You play the show and make the most of it."

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Published in The Omaha Reader April 14, 2004. Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.