Centro-Matic Packs It In

With a sprawling, sold-out show at the Parish Thursday

When Centro-matic formed in Denton in 1996, bandleader Will Johnson didn’t give the band much prognosis for success. Yet nearly two decades and 11 studio LPs later, the original quartet of Johnson, Matt Pence, Scott Danbom, and Mark Hedman brings the group to an end on Dec. 18 with a sold-out show at the Parish having become a cornerstone of Texas indie rock.

Feeling the commitments of family and other projects, the foursome decided that this summer’s Take Pride in Your Long Odds served as the appropriate capstone to Centro-matic’s run, concluding with a final tour of extended-length shows this December.

Austin Chronicle: How have the final shows going?

Will Johnson: They’ve been absolutely joyous, really fun. We’re kind of sprawling out and playing longer shows since it’s our final run and I feel like the crowds want to hear a pretty nice cross-section of music over the course of the night. It’s been really fun.

They’re definitely bittersweet in their way, but at the same time it’s great to sit down for half an hour each night and carefully construct the set-lists – try to cover a lot of ground as far as eras and records. Having a little luxury to spread out and play a longer show has been a lot of fun so far.

AC: I was curious what you guys had planned for the Austin send-off.

WJ: We’ll know a bit closer to the time we get there. We’ve managed to work in a bunch of songs that are older but newer to our hands and our brains that we haven’t touched upon in years. So each night in soundcheck we’ve managed to hit upon some new adventures. We’ll see what it all adds up to by the time we round the turn there in Texas. We’re really excited about it.

AC: What was behind the decision to finally pack it in?

WJ: Well, a couple of things. We’ve always been really true to each other as far as how we’re feeling and keeping our communication wide open. I think that’s what has kept our original lineup together all these years.

We’ve always managed to put our friendships at the forefront, and there became a time earlier in the year where there were a couple things that cropped up in terms of schedules and just the reality of adulthood – other projects pulling us in different directions, family life with two of us as fathers now. Time was becoming more limited to be the band. And from a writing standpoint, I was feeling that Take Pride in Your Long Odds was an appropriate final statement.

So we discussed it and came to the conclusion that the best way to round it out would be to do a final tour of cities and venues that we’ve developed relationships and connections with over these years. We thought about it really carefully and considered what we’d be able to fit into a three-week December tour, so that’s how we constructed this.

We discussed and decided earlier in the spring and of course made the announcement in late September. So there’s been a lot of time for us and hopefully our fans to get our heads around this thing and hopefully celebrate it more than anything.

AC: When you were recording Take Pride, did you have a sense that it would be your last album?

WJ: Not really. That was two years ago, so that inkling wasn’t really set in our heads as we were constructing that. But the more time that went by, and the more we got to know that record and the more that we started to embody it, the more we considered that if it has to be a final statement, I’m really at peace with that. I think we’re all collectively really proud of it and definitely feel as if it’s an appropriate bookend.

AC: You’re coming up on nearly 20 years together. Was there something about that mark that lead to thinking about the place of the band?

WJ: Yeah, we’re coming up on 18 this winter. It’s flown by in so many ways. There’s been a lot of evolution and changes amongst the four of us, just essentially spending half our lives together, creating. In that time, we’ve all married and some of us became fathers and we all live in different places now. Yet in that time, we’ve managed to keep coming back for each other and keep doing this.

There was never a moment where things felt grueling or dragging on in any way. If anything, there were spikes of renewed inspiration here and there. One that comes to mind is the summer of 2000, when we about 3 years old and at that point had put out a several records. We endured a really rotten summer tour that just went off the rails in regard to a booking agent that hadn’t really done his job appropriately, and we were a young band on the road losing money every single day. It was really the first chapter of true, memorable despondency within the band.

Then, about five months later, we had taken up with a European label called Munich Records, and we got to go over there for about three weeks. And it was the first time outside of Interstate 35 – Denton, Dallas, and Austin – that we had really been accepted by crowds, packed rooms and a lot of good energy. I think that tour signified the true beginning of the touring band, and a total rejuvenation.

We came home feeling a new affirmation for what we were doing and new life. That really kickstarted things again in a great way for years to come.

AC: You mentioned that y’all may still get together for other projects, so are there any post-Centro-matic plans being discussed?

WJ: I think right now, we’re really just enjoying this ride together. It’s a testament to the care and our love for one another over these years, and we’re really enjoying getting to spend these three weeks together playing our songs and kind of celebrating these creative years together.

As for what comes afterwards, of course we have South San Gabriel, and that’s still an idea down the line perhaps if everybody has time and wants to do it. I think maybe one thing that’s making this a little less sad for me is that it’s definitely the end of a chapter, but I don’t think it’s quite the end of our whole book together. I think there’s opportunity within a few years to reconvene as South Gabriel, but we’ll just see how we’re feeling.

There’s some enchantment in the not knowing for right now. It’s okay to not know. So long as we’re at peace with our friendships, and can circle back and support each other with our various endeavors, then that’s what counts for right now. I’m sure we’ll figure out some excuses to see each other and do some things down the line.

AC: What does this mean for your myriad other projects right now.

WJ: I’ve got a plan to make another solo record in the winter, and hopefully see a few collaborations through that have been sitting on the back burner, some of them for upwards of eight or 10 years. I’d like to see some of those through. And the band I play in with David Bazan and the Kadane Brothers, Overseas, has a second record that we’re slowly but surely getting done. Honestly, I’m happy to lay low for the moment and work on my baseball paintings and try to be a good dad.

AC: Have there been any surprises for you in digging back through archives?

WJ: Definitely. There have been a few songs that are just an eyebrow raiser to dust off. It’s met with mixed feelings, in a way, in that it’s been surprisingly easy to play every night, but then other feelings that we should’ve been doing this all along. There’s a lot of songs and you only have so many per night that you can play.

One example is “Members of the Show Them How It’s Done.” We hadn’t touched that song in years, and we ended up playing it the first night in Dallas and each night since. It’s been really fun to reacquaint ourselves with that song in particular, but there are a handful of others as well. They take on a different meaning after all these years, or take on a different energy. I accept that a song can morph and change in its way as years go by and resonate with you differently.

AC: In that process, how do you feel that the band has changed and developed over the past two decades?

WJ: I think we’re all more confident players now. We kind of write it off as we all get together and we make a big racket, and that’s our signature racket. But I do feel that the four of us just naturally over time and through more and more hours of stage time and playing with other musicians, I think we’ve just become better players and more confident players. With that, I think it’s easier to approach some of those older songs and just attack them and see what happens. If it clicks and it has that certain thing to it, then we’ll just take it on into the set. If it doesn’t, then fine.

Most times nowadays, and part of that is the nature of this tour and this is the last chance to play these songs possibly forever, you want to give them all a chance. And I think there are people in the crowd that are excited to hear some of those old songs and are a little surprised when we unveil them. We’re really savoring each minute of this ride, and that’s part of it. It’s definitely not your usual type of tour.

AC: How would you hope Centro-matic is remembered as a band?

WJ: These days, it’s hard for me to ignore the feeling. I hope that we’re remembered for the way that we treated each other and cared for each other and looked after each other. I hope that those friendships, and that we’ve done this for really half our lives together, is detected through our sound and our songs and our records.

We’re really proud of our work, and we understand where we stand on the food chain of rock bands, but for those that do know our story, I hope that they can pick up on the fact that four friends got together and did this for a long time without a whole lot of resources or money or conduits of great fortune or anything like that. We really did this on our own, and we did it with respect to each other and out of sheer love, and the velocity of creating that kept bringing us back together.

I would hope that would be evident in our story. It’s not usual that a band of 18 years would keep the same lineup, so I hope that people would at least appreciate that aspect of this musical chapter.

AC: And how do you feel about Centro-matic in relation to your overall career and everything else that you do?

WJ: It’s definitely the thing that I jumped out of the gates with for songwriting. The first songs I ever wrote, those cassette tapes were labeled Centro-matic, so that was the initial identity.

There was a time when Matt and I recorded Re-do the Stacks in 1996, before the band existed, when we thought, “Let’s let Centro-matic just be a collective, a loose membership with different lineups every show.” That changed very quickly once Matt, Mark, Scott, and I started playing together. I realized nobody’s going anywhere and this was our band – not my band, but our band. This was us and no one is expendable.

A year or two after that, we got together and recorded three records up in Illinois, and it became very evident to me that we were going to give this a go. That this could be something lasting and very cool. At the time we started Centro-matic, I really thought we’d make a couple records and then I’d go to graduate school. I just didn’t see it going too terribly far down the line.

Gradually I started to realize that this was something that could become a bigger piece of my life. So it’s a really important chapter in our lives, in our creative and musical lives. We’re trying to respect that and celebrate it and nurture it as best we can, even in these final days.

And I feel really lucky to be able to do it that way. Not a lot of bands get to do it like that. Something gets dramatic or something tragic happens and the band is over. If you would’ve asked me years ago how I wanted to wrap it up, this would pretty much be the way I would have hoped for.

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Centro-matic, Will Johnson, Matt Pence, Scott Danbom, Mark Hedman, South San Gabriel, David Bazan, Kadane Brothers, Overseas

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