Will Johnson, Man Of Many Bands, Embraces Discomfort

Originally published on June 28, 2011 12:20 pm

Will Johnson may be one of the hardest-working people in indie rock. He leads two bands, records as a solo artist and plays as a sideman in a host of other projects. Johnson is originally from Denton, Texas, and his music — be it the lonesome balladry of South San Gabriel or the rock 'n' roll machine that is Centro-Matic — is inspired by the distinctive sounds of that state.

Johnson is currently on tour with Centro-Matic for its latest album, Candidate Waltz. He tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin that he took on a new challenge in writing this set of songs: He used a bass, rather than a guitar, as his composition instrument.

"It felt a little strange and uncomfortable at first, and that's when I knew that really it was the right choice," Johnson says. "It definitely changed some of the directions that I chose vocally, and that [the band] chose in respect to the rhythm. It opened things up a little bit more to my imagination."

Johnson says he tried some other new things this time around. His lyrics for Centro-Matic are often angular and abstract, but for "All the Talkers," he wrote in a more narrative style. The song is about the moment when a band wins over an indifferent crowd, which Johnson says came from his own experiences on the road.

"Sometimes you just have to look at your friends and kind of pull the rip cord, play the rock show and hope that it translates," Johnson says. "I can kind of sense that sometimes when I go see bands. I sense that they're a little frustrated. It's kind of exciting to see caution thrown to the wind, and to see them turn the room around in the course of a few songs."

Of course, those experiences are more the exception than the norm. Johnson says that sometimes, bands have to accept the reality of playing to a dead crowd — but that, with the right attitude, those moments can be gratifying.

"You just fear that no one is listening and no one cares," he says. "So you turn inward and at least enjoy yourselves for that hour and a half of the day where you get to put on the guitars and play."

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WILL JOHNSON: (Singing) Your gunshots were stuck on repeat...

MARTIN: This is one of the many faces of Will Johnson. He's considered one of the most prolific songwriters in indie rock, so much so that he leads two bands and records as a solo artist and plays as a sideman in more projects than I can name here. Will Johnson's from Denton, Texas, and his music is inspired by the great sounds of that state, from the lonesome balladry you hear now - that's his band South San Gabriel - to the rock and roll machine that is Centro-matic.


JOHNSON: (Singing) Well, now you got some picking up to do.

MARTIN: This is a track from the brand new Centro-matic album "Candidate Waltz." The track is called "Iso-Residue." Will Johnson joins us from a stop on his seemingly never-ending tour, he's in Nashville. Will Johnson, welcome.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So, we just named all the kind of music projects that you're involved in. Are you good at just kind of chilling out, or are you one of those people who has to be working constantly?

JOHNSON: It depends on - kind of depends on the hour.


JOHNSON: Yeah. Sometimes the constant movement is definitely what my soul and my spirit needs. But at the same time, you know, when I hit the wall, I definitely go down pretty quick. And I'm a new father, so I take naps in pretty...

MARTIN: Congratulations.

JOHNSON: ...interesting places now. I kind of fall asleep just about wherever.


MARTIN: So if these were friends of yours, Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, what characteristics do you ascribe to them? What kind of people are these?


JOHNSON: Centro-matic is maybe the only child kind of spinning on a foot, you know, around the room rarely sleeping and involved in a lot of wordplay and, you know, attempts at painterly language and really scattered shooting and going from the front of the brain, whereas South San Gabriel is more of the subdued friend that, you know, chimes in every once in a while but a pretty quiet individual for the most part.

MARTIN: One of the songs on your new Centro-matic album is called "All the Talkers." It seems to be about a band playing live, what that's like, and trying to win over an indifferent crowd.


JOHNSON: (Singing) There were kids. There were cubicle jobbers and of course the talk-talkers by the south wall bar and there were deals. There were girlfriend steals and clinks with cocaine winks and mini-skirt appeal have you heard? Well, no I haven't heard 'em. No, I haven't heard 'em, but I've heard the name. See, the way...

MARTIN: OK. So you're singing there: have you heard them? Well, no, I haven't heard them, but I've heard the name. I'm guessing you've been in that position before, a band trying to get everyone's attention in a world where people can be checking their BlackBerries and talking on their cell phones. What's that like?

JOHNSON: Goodness. I don't know. Sometimes you just have to turn inward. And a friend of mine sometimes joke - would joke about the Holiday Inn power set, and if you're stuck in one of those shows you just have to not talk between the songs and just knock the songs out, wham, wham, wham. And I can sense that sometimes when I go see bands and I can - and so I sense that they're a little frustrated, it's kind of exciting to see caution kind of thrown to the wind and to see them turn the room around in the course of a few songs, like, wait a minute. It's a very exciting feeling as a rock fan and as a live music fan.


JOHNSON: (Singing) But they played until we had been won. We had been won.

MARTIN: I understand that at one point you were doing very small intimate living room shows in people's homes. That's a different kind of dynamic. What was that like?

JOHNSON: It sure is. It's definitely - by the time you drive up to the venue and go sit in the backstage order and you kill off an hour and a half or whatever maybe you're reading a book while everybody's running lines and getting ready for sound check and so forth. But, yeah, it's different going up to a house. You know, you're kind of creeping up the block looking for the house number and then you walk up the steps and you're interacting from the second you arrive. But in my mind, that's the point, and that's why I wanted to do those shows and...

MARTIN: And we should clarify these aren't just friends and family or friends of friends. These are strangers in many cases...

JOHNSON: They are.

MARTIN: ...just people who want to - fans who want to see you play.

JOHNSON: Yeah. It's an exciting feeling, though, because a show in a living room tends to - obviously, it breaks down some pretty traditional barriers that we sometimes experience at venues. You know, there's no darkness or PA system or volume to hide behind or lights or, like I said, a backstage or interacting with the folks that have made the effort and taken the time to buy a ticket and find the same house that you were just looking for a little while ago driving up the street. And in that way, though, I think that putting everybody on such neutral turf in a private residence for a show is an exciting way to experience music just both from a performing and a listening standpoint.

MARTIN: I'm talking with Will Johnson, the front man for the band Centro-matic. His new album is called "Candidate Waltz." Let's hear another track. This one is called "Only in My Double Mind."


JOHNSON: (Singing) Calculate the trouble lines only in my double mind. Foresee the history and then follow through.

MARTIN: Your new music video for "Only in My Double Mind" features you painting a mural on a wall, and that painting ended up being the album cover, actually. Have you always been into the visual arts and painting, or is this a new thing for you?

JOHNSON: It's kind of new. I mean, I've been into visual arts for sure, but the painting thing is something that I really started messing around with just a few years ago. That's what inspired me getting talked into the idea of making this mural for the cover of the record.

My friend, Christian Helms, he and my other friend, Eric Montez, just did the - they did the layout, but at the same time over the course of a couple of beers, Christian very smartly - it was pretty funny - but he kind of talked me into doing the album cover. He was like, look, we're going to lock you in a room basically for this many hours, and you have to paint a mural, and it's going to be stop action. And what's more is it's going to be first video. And then on top of that, it's also going to be the cover of the record.

MARTIN: No pressure.

JOHNSON: Yeah. And I was just like, OK, that sounds great. Wait a second. I'm paying you to do the artwork, and you've tricked me into doing the art work. You're a genius.

MARTIN: So we've talked a lot about all the different projects you're working on: two bands, you got a new baby, six months old, you paint murals. So when you release a new Centro-matic album, as you've done, is there even time to savor that? Do you give yourself that time, or are you just immediately on to the next project?

JOHNSON: No. I think you got to savor it some, you know? And part of that comes with the fun of getting back together with the band and going out and playing our shows, you know? That to me in so many ways is savoring it. Making the records has always been kind of a spiritual experience, but playing the music is the physical and exuberant experience for us. And that is, in so many ways, savoring it and really cherishing and appreciating the work that you did.

MARTIN: Will Johnson is a member of too many bands to mention. His latest album is with Centro-matic. It's called "Candidate Waltz." If you'd like to hear a few tracks, they're at our website, nprmusic.org. Will, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me on.


JOHNSON: (Singing) First it's what you think, then once you step away it's gonna switch to somethin' you can handle sittin' down. Second are your suspects trapped...

MARTIN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKEND on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post new episode Sunday night. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.