Centro-Matic :: supporting Drive-By Truckers :: Fox Theatre :: December 29, 30 and 31

Centro-matic’s Will Johnson juggles multiple projects and loves it all

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By Tim Dwenger


“If we found the time,” sings Will Johnson on the opening line of Centro-Matic’s most recent release, the Flashes and Cables EP. His tenor voice is as recognizable as the passion that seeps through his lyrics. He may not have a highly trained or technically beautiful voice, but in the tradition of singers like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, he sings from a place deep inside his soul in a style that can’t be taught. 


Time is something Johnson has found little of recently and he generously shared some of it with The Marquee while in Dallas on a short run of shows in a high-profile solo opening slot for My Morning Jacket. With only three shows remaining on his run with “The Jackets,” Johnson is coming up on some well deserved time off. “It has been about four months straight on the road, with one band or another,” he said. “I got back from Europe at about 1 a.m. yesterday morning after doing about a month of shows over there with South San Gabriel [Johnson’s other band]. It is a matter of which mask to put on each night.”


Music fans in his home town of Austin, Texas have been very supportive of this prolific musician and all of his projects. Since parting ways with the Dallas-based band Funland in 1996, Johnson has released 19 albums or EPs; 13 with Centro-Matic, his rock and roll project, three with Centro-Matic’s mellower cousin, South San Gabriel, and three solo albums that feature nothing but his own guitar work and vocals.


As the lone songwriter for all three of these projects, it is clear that Johnson is one of a rare breed of writers that can fill notebooks upon notebooks with inspired, well thought-out lyrics, almost at will. He reflected on his prolific ability to write songs and said, “I understand and respect the idea that there may come a day where I can’t.  So long as I’ve got it in me, and have that energy and spirit in my soul, I should respect that and get it out. There may come a day where I’m gonna go sell paint, or shoes, or sofa cushions. If that’s the case and I didn’t get it out when the getting was good, then I’ve only got myself to blame and there is nothing sadder than a great song that was never written.”


As one might expect, Johnson’s influences come in all shapes and sizes. As a well read man, Johnson is often moved by the prose he reads and those who write it. “I get inspired by writers as much as I do by musicians,” he said. “I am reading a book by Rick Bass right now and he has been a big inspiration to me. I love Southern writers like Faulkner and Welty and Larry Brown.  When I first started writing, John Updike’s Rabbit Run books were a big influence on me,” he said.


In Centro-Matic, Johnson’s image-laden lyrics and warbling tenor are paired with a rollicking, barroom rock sound that is full of loud, fuzzy guitars and anchored by the tight rhythm section of drummer Matt Pence and bassist Mark Hedman.  While simple, it is a sound that could be heard pouring through the cracks in the wall of a roadhouse in Texas just as easily as it could be heard in a ski town bar right here in Colorado. It is dirty, beer drinking rock and roll that meshes surprisingly well with Johnson’s passionate, sensitive songwriting.


Centro-Matic will showcase its sound in Boulder during a three night stand supporting Drive-By Truckers at the Fox Theatre leading up to and including New Year’s Eve. The two bands have grown to be friends over the last several years. “Patterson [Hood] would come out to our shows whenever we went through Athens,” Johnson remembered. “We would always hang with him at his house. The friendship kept rolling on to the point where we were doing a few shows together.”


This friendship between the bands has evolved over the years. Trucker Jason Isbell toured as a guitarist with Centro-Matic last year and Johnson promises some collaboration between the two bands over the course of their run at the Fox.  “Usually toward the end of their set Scott [Danborn] and/or I will come up on stage and join them on anywhere from a handful of songs to, hell, a bunch. It really depends on the night. The doors are always open to each band and its members to come and join in.”


This year’s New Year festivities will not be the first time the bands have been together when the ball dropped. Johnson refers to New Year’s Eve with the Truckers as “a kind of a tradition we have between the two bands. It began with a run in 2002 in Chicago, and we have tried to keep it going. It is a very family style atmosphere when we hang out, it’s very cool, I really enjoy it. We are all looking forward to the run at the Fox, it should be a great time!”


Centro-Matic :: supporting Drive-By Truckers :: Fox Theatre :: December 29, 30 and 31


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