Will Johnson is not a songwriter's songwriter. It's not that he doesn't compose gorgeous, complete and carefully constructed songs, that his melodies don't linger after the last notes dissipate or that his lyrics don't resonate beyond their off-hand stream of consciousness. But Johnson, co-leader of below-fi indie rockers Centro-matic and ambient twangers South San Gabriel, is not only one of rock music's most prolific composers -- writing for and releasing a dozen records over a seven-year period -- he is also one of the most inimitable and frighteningly personal writers. Don't try this at home, but take Stephin Merritt and cross him with Richard Buckner and fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt, and you start to get close to Johnson's strange poetic temperament.
Johnson didn't start out writing songs. With his first notable band, Funland, he propelled the rhythm section (if you saw his last appearance in St. Louis, you'll recall his frenzied, percussive slams while sitting in with local heroes Nadine). "I was a drummer first," he says, "but I guess I was also something of a frustrated guitar player. Now of course I have that drum lust; I miss and love playing the drums, but I doubt I'd go back to doing that solely." Toward the end of Funland's mid-'90s run, Johnson began writing songs, keeping them to himself, sure of only one thing: The songs were pouring out, and he couldn't stop them. Even before Centro-matic was born, he tested the solo singer/songwriter waters.
"It's a whole different way to look at the stage and approach songs," he explains. "I'd take my glasses off so that if I looked out on the audience, everything would be a blur; if I saw someone's eyeballs I'd shy away or flub it. But there were these melodies I had to get out of my head. I found this new love of recording these little songs on a four-track machine."
Based in Denton, Texas, Centro-matic and the quieter, more lush South San Gabriel became the twin vehicles for Johnson's songs. Formed in 1995, Centro-matic may have gone on to share bills with the likes of Sebadoh and the Promise Ring, but they began like most garage-punkers in America: clueless and loud. "The first two band shows happened before our first practice," Johnson says of Centro-matic's early days. "It was colorful and spirited, if nothing else. Then we said, 'Let's have a practice. That would be novel.'" By 1997, the year they were ready for their official début album, they had enough material for three CDs. Instead of releasing them in stages, they included all 23 songs on the amazing Redo the Stacks. A year later, the band was in Millstadt, Illinois, recording no less than 60 songs at Jay Farrar's studio and spreading them out over Navigational, The Static Vs. Strings Vol. 1. and All the Falsest Hearts Can Try.
Three years ago, South San Gabriel replaced Centro-matic's uncontrollable, Replacements-esque bent -- Johnson names Chris Mars as one of his role models in both songwriting and drumming -- with a symphonic, laze-about dream of Americana called Songs/Music. This year, SSG enlisted members of Slobberbone and Pleasant Grove (also based in Denton) for an even more luxurious, pedal-steel-and-pot-smoke suite called Welcome, Convalescence. "Again, there were these songs that didn't sound like Centro-matic songs," Johnson says. "We were having some quibbles about how to do a set-list for a show, or even what songs to be on a recording. Some shows would be quiet and subdued, and some nights I wanted to play quiet and they wanted to play loud, and vice versa. I figured, 'Why not just form another band to do these songs?' It was a way to sort out the songs."
Still, as wide-ranging as it sounds -- South San Gabriel is the elegant, contemplative Jekyll to Centro-matic's mad, blasting Hyde -- the bands couldn't quite keep pace with Johnson's compulsive output, though they certainly tried. "Maybe we've released too much, I don't know," Johnson admits. "When I sit behind a merch table, I'll have all the CDs, and I try to write a detailed description of each to orient people. But I've seen people come up and shrug their shoulders at the sheer number of records."
Last year, Johnson released his first solo record, Murder of Tides; a new solo album, as well as new work from Centro-matic, are due out later this year on Undertow Records. "I guess I work quickly," Johnson says. "I'll get a line or a verse, and then everything else comes out, very quick, maybe in an hour or two. It just unfolds in my mind like a movie. All the songs I was starting to write just seemed different from band songs. They were sparsely played, some on the piano or just nylon-string guitar. They seemed to stand on their own that way, and I felt it was best to leave them in that sparse light. There were a lot of murder ballads and songs about divorce. The subject matter was more personal and less abstract; they certainly were not guitar-rock songs."
Not guitar-rock songs -- more like interior monologues never quite drowned out by the din of feedback, tape gurgle, crickets, tree frogs and cellos apparently recorded at the bottom of wells. A cursory consideration of Johnson's sprawling output brings to mind such adjectives as "abstract" or even "abstruse." But his best songs are concrete, even story-based. "Karcher's Contacts" begins like a terse, Hemingway vignette: "Save your face/Collect your guns/Take part in the call/Karcher's got his contacts waiting by the bar."
"I'll come up with these characters and then follow them through to the end," Johnson says. Where do they take him? To a place where what doesn't kill you leaves your soul stripped to a single, inextinguishable flame. "Rusted through those seasons of newest, newest blood," Johnson whispers on Murder of Tides' second track, "that holds all the vices and dangers -- it's a warfare commonly linked to you."
"I didn't even tell my band members 'til the end," Johnson says of his divorce, which has been the fuse for much of his solo material over the past three years. "That song, 'Commonly Linked,' is about freezing someone out as a kind of warfare. It's not National Enquirer crap, but I kept the end of that relationship inside me. I guess these songs are like a healing. I felt I had exorcised some demons, without getting ugly or having one person in the crosshairs. I know it sounds generic, but it's just a document of a difficult period."
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