As the lone songwriter for two active bands, Centro-matic and its offshoot South San Gabriel, you would think Will Johnson would have ample musical outlets. After all, Centro-Matic has released 8 albums in its ten-year career, as well as several EPs and 7-inch singles, while South San Gabriel has released two full-lengths since forming in 2003. But Johnson’s abundant song output (somewhere between Ryan Adams and Bob Pollard on the songwriter’s proliferation chart) has necessitated a solo career resulting in two more albums, Murder of Tides and Vultures Await.
Not that any of this has come close to soaking up the hundreds of songs Johnson has written that have never been recorded for a proper release. (He says he records all songs on a four-track as soon as they are finished and then sorts through them for those that best fit his current project.) Johnson’s favorite place to write is a walk-in closet at his mother’s house. When asked why that location seems to be so fruitful, he shrugs and says “it’s kind of like a womb… warm and dark and comfortable.”
Of course, the sheer volume of Johnson’s songs wouldn’t be nearly as impressive if it wasn’t for the consistent quality. Centro-Matic’s debut, Redo The Stacks, contains 22 tracks, and I’ll be damned if I can’t listen to the whole thing straight through without skippin’ a one. And while this kind of pace might send many artists spiraling into creative burn-out, Johnson seems to be getting stronger through the years. Centro-matic’s last two albums, Love You Just The Same and Fort Recovery, are the sound of a band at its peak, mixing chaos and quiet, dissonance and beauty, distortion and melody to create songs that echo in your head and practically demand repeated listening.
Johnson’s 2004 Vultures Await may be an underappreciated minimalist masterpiece capturing the pain and regret of a dissolving relationship. Not that I’m certain that’s what the album is really about… Johnson’s songwriting is often difficult to figure out exactly what he’s singing about. The lyrics are easy enough to understand, but the songs can alternate between the straightforward:
Am I the manager or am I not / She’s out waiting across the lot / If you could inform us now / it’d mean a hell of a lot
…and the poetically obtuse:
The Argonne Limit Co. has signaled to the council / Uncertain where to go and streaking through the Catskills / And only the absentees bothered to show / To American Greetings meetings held below / The radioactive overflow
A character named Thermatico appears in a couple of songs, and is described in one as having been The Larcenist, The Gasohol Arsonist, The Consequent Flier. I haven’t a clue as to who or what Thermatico actually is. (Someone once told me that Thermatico is a superhero that Will created – but that was related to me at a show after several drinks so I don’t trust my memory or the explanation).
A friend of mine believes that the song “Strahan Has Coralled The Freaks” may be about a former linebacker for the New York Giants, but when confronted with the rest of the song’s lyrics that theory quickly dissolves. This is nothing more than music geek obsession and it ultimately means nothing. Like any work of art, a song is open to individual interpretation, and, god knows Will Johnson could write a song about a curling iron that someone might swear to be a condemnation of the Bush administration.
At any rate, Will Johnson shows no signs of slowing. Centro-matic and South San Gabriel both have new records in the can, and Johnson says both will be released in early 2008, quite possibly together as a double album. In the meantime, Centro-matic will soon be releasing the Operation Motorcide EP. It will be available for download via iTunes and in the classic “disc” format as an import-only. You can stream several songs on the band’s myspace.
During Chicago’s first warm, spring day, Will Johnson battled standstill traffic on Lakeshore Drive in order to play an acoustic set for the GLONO video crew. Check it out below.