Enigmatic Frontman

Charleston City Paper | September 20, 2005
But when you’re around

You know nothing makes a sound

In the silence where I drown

— Will Johnson, “Vultures Await,” 2004

While Texas-based Centro-Matic virtually own the patent to the “modern Lone Star indie-rock sound,” their bandleader’s remarkable solo work seems determined to operate in an entirely different, much darker realm.

Centro-Matic kicked off casually enough as a typical garage band in the north-Texas college town of Denton in 1995. Initially a side project for drummer-turned-guitarist Will Johnson, it quickly evolved into a proper band situation, with drummer/audio engineer Matt Pence, keyboardist-violinist Scott Danbom, and bassist Mark Hedman. With a sound based on a mix of twang, melody, and fuzzed-out mid-fi pop noise, the quartet currently stands as one of the strongest indie groups of the Texas “indie” scene.

In 2002, Johnson switched gears and released a comparatively morose solo debut, Murder of Tides. That year, he assembled another side project, with the help of most of his bandmates, called South San Gabriel, a group who specialized in somber, “minor-chord frailty.” In 2004, the band issued the Flashes and Cables EP and the full-length Truth Flies Out.

Last year, Johnson released Vultures Await, a 12-song solo collection on the Austin-based Misra Records label. Compared to the more conventional guitar-pop of Centro-Matic, Vultures Await is dark, moody, and intense. The songs creep, wander, and unravel at a tortured pace. Johnson keeps the instrumentation simple, playing just a little guitar, piano, and adding a bit of fiddle (from bandmate Scott Danbom) underneath his poetic lyrics about the troublesome relationship between man and fate. At the front is Johnson’s gravelly, expressive warble — one part young Tom Waits, one part young Springsteen, and two parts elderly Vic Chesnutt (minus the Georgia drawl).

“The comparisons to raspy-voiced musicians tend to resurface and resurface [from listeners and critics],” says Johnson. “My favorite singers aren’t exactly skilled singers, but, for whatever reason, they manage to get it out in their own way … people like [Paul] Westerberg and that. They’re the reasons I even picked up the guitar and gave it a shot in the first place. With the solo work, I do try to make the vocal the centerpiece of the songs, because they’re lyric-driven and there’s rarely more than just guitar or piano accompaniment.”

Misra Records exec Phil Waldorf says, “from front to back, Vultures Await carries an emotional heft similar to Bruce Springsteen’s more narrative Nebraska, even if the themes and songs differ on their surfaces.”

“I’ll be drawing from the new record quite a bit,” says Johnson. “I have three or four new songs I’m tinkering with and getting comfortable with as well. There’ll be some Centro-Matic songs, too. I usually do it a little different every night.

“I was closing with a fairly amateur-yet-spirited version of ‘Money Changes Everything’ for a good while, so we’ll see,” he chuckles. “You know, when you do a cover, you gotta try and totally make it your own.”

Coincidentally, money plays into Johnson’s artistic situation as much as any underground musician’s. At this point, Centro-Matic has earned notable acclaim and attention from critics and shakers in the biz. They constantly tour the U.S. and Europe and make enough to come back and get ready to do it all again.

“I’m able to get by with it, actually,” says Johnson. “It’s not a handsome living, but I’m surviving. That was kind of my ultimate goal. Some days I wake up and feel a little guilt for not having to put on the work boots and work clothes [laughs].”

Johnson worked off and on for years with an environmental company, as a teacher, and as a farm hand to “fill in the gaps.”

“For the most part, I’m infinitely thankful that I’ve been able to survive for a few years like this,” he says. “It’s the solo touring with the low overhead that makes it possible. Traveling in the pickup truck is pretty easy, but it makes me miss the full band, too. Each of them have their benefits.”

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