The Sound and the Fury
Austin's own Monster of Folk, Will Johnson
By his own account, Will Johnson plays drums like a frustrated guitarist.
Keeping beat for the Monsters of Folk at a sold-out Stubb's on a November night, Johnson throws his back into every movement with a determined abandonment, bouncing forcefully off his stool with every right-handed cymbal crash. You know he's going to be sore the next morning.
Dressed for either a wedding or a funeral, the Monsters – My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, M. Ward, and Saddle Creek Records utility man extraordinaire Mike Mogis – trade selections from their indie folk songbook, venturing from romantic ruminations to existential wanderlust. For this last night of the North American tour, the illustrious collective radiates a punch-drunk camaraderie of old friends, each in service of the song.
Johnson's barely visible behind the front line, but his raspy harmonies rise above the fray. More than halfway into the three-hour, 36-song marathon, and after a stunning duet on "Bermuda Highway," James yields center stage to his "favorite son" by handing Johnson his acoustic guitar. Bathed in white spotlight, Johnson delivers "Just To Know What You've Been Dreaming," the stark silencer from his 2005 solo album, Vultures Await.
I would walk a thousand miles
Just to know that you've been dreaming
And I would steal a thousand smiles
Just to know that you've been laughing
But when you're not around
You know nothing makes a sound
While not counted as an official member of the supergroup, Johnson unknowingly illustrates why he could be Neil Young to the Monsters' Crosby Stills & Nash, an instinctual and prolific songwriter of profound personal insight. Leader of longstanding Texan cells Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, he's amassed a body of work offering contemplative shades of My Morning Jacket's At Dawn, the AM radio Americana of M. Ward, and Oberst's emotive narratives.
I would tell a thousand tales
Just to know that you've been thinking
And I would swim the seven seas
Just to crawl along your beaches
Johnson's desperation deepens with every verse. James steps in to harmonize as if trying to shoulder some of the burden.
But when you're not around
You know nothing makes a sound
In the silence where I drown
Patience for the Ride
With a wire-bound scorecard tucked under his left arm at the Dell Diamond, Johnson could easily be mistaken for a baseball scout. The lanky 39-year-old songwriter wears a wool-fitted cap bearing the logo for the Asheville Tourists, an obscure Single-A team from North Carolina, shading emerald eyes and a lumberjack beard you could strike a match on. You almost expect him to have a mitt.
"It's still packed away in the shed," he chuckles, seated in the home run balcony for the Round Rock Express' Aug. 22 bout against the Oklahoma City Redhawks.
The hypnotic repetition of balls and strikes, baked in the glow of the late afternoon, makes a perfect backdrop for conversation with the polite and unassuming Johnson. His career parallels that of a journeyman minor leaguer with an all-star batting average. Over the last decade, he's served as a touring member of Son Volt and Varnaline, provided background vocals for the Drive-by Truckers' 2008 LP Brighter Than Creation's Dark, and produced works for local songwriters Austin Collins and Collin Herring.
This summer, Johnson traveled abroad for a one-off live performance with the Barcelona psych-folk act Animic, which was filmed for an upcoming documentary. He's even jammed with cult experimentalist Jandek. Small wonder his collaboration with Magnolia Electric Co.'s Jason Molina last year was alternately dubbed the Phantoms of Folk.
"I refuse to hang too much on certain milestones," shrugs Johnson, who moved to Austin from Denton in 2003. "It's all about trying to see things from as many angles as possible."
Born and raised in the boot heel of Kennett, Mo., Johnson committed to learning entire records as a teenager, including the Replacements' Let It Be and Soul Asylum's Hang Time, from start to finish, on every instrument. Taking the name from an antique accordion, Johnson took the same approach for the recording of his 1997 debut as Centro-matic, Redo the Stacks, a four-track collection of abrasive pop, equally indebted to 1980s post-punk and his tenure on drums for Dallas' scrappy Funland.
Shortly thereafter, the final lineup of Centro-matic solidified with guitarist Mark Hedman and drummer Matt Pence, both formerly of Adam's Farm, and Slobberbone's Scott Danbom, a sonic architect that handles bass, keyboards, and violin. The same core treads mellower waters under the guise of South San Gabriel, albeit with a rotating cast of contributors.
"If we're ever behind in the studio, we can set up stations in the studio and Will can jump from one instrument to the next," reflects Pence, the producer behind both outfits and Johnson's solo recordings. "He's fully capable of making amazing music without anyone's help, and yet he allows plenty of space for us to flourish and really contribute. That's one of the reasons why we've lasted as long as we have."
The difference between Centro-matic and South San Gabriel is that of Saturday night and Sunday morning, a division made evident as far back as 1999. That's when a 60-song recording session, helmed at Jay Farrar's Illinois studio, was divided between the noisy The Static vs. the Strings Vol. 1 and the oceanic lull of Navigational. Across more than 15 albums in the last decade, both projects have delivered modern roots rock with an unwavering standard of quality.
"Centro-matic is my favorite band," proclaims Patterson Hood of the Drive-by Truckers, who drafted Johnson and Danbom for his 2009 solo album, Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs), and accompanying tour. "I was a huge fan long before I met them. I don't know if I can even put it into words. Every once in a while, something comes along that's just like nectar music. It's got everything I like in one place, as if I've been hearing it all my life.
"Centro-matic ought to be one of the biggest bands of the world. They're a fourpiece without an ounce of flab, and Will Johnson is just an ungodly great singer and player. I hope I've been influenced by him."
Flashes and Cables
There's an old Willie Mays' quote that Johnson's particularly fond of: "For all its gentility, its almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps."
The same sentiment could be applied to Johnson's songwriting. There's a beautiful darkness to his lyricism that seeks out some lost American pastime, fever dream epiphanies encrypted with scholarly sophistication. Having studied literature at the University of North Texas in Denton, Johnson's versed in the Southern Gothic tradition, with the fractured density of William Faulkner and a sympathy for his characters that recalls Eudora Welty. It's his visceral imagery, however, that's barbed wire.
In "The Fugitives Have Won," from Centro-matic's 2006 album, Fort Recovery, he retreats behind bitter metaphors ("I could taste the salt from your dishwasher eyes") before landing the haymaker, "You with your beauty and I with my spleen, I'll hitchhike to your bonfire in my suit of gasoline."
Then there's his voice, as distinct as Springsteen's or Dylan's but in no way similar. It's worn yet endearing, equal parts devils and dust. In every way, he's a songwriter's songwriter. Just ask around.
"He's one of the best writers I know," agrees Jon Dee Graham, who put Johnson in the hot seat for his Jon Dee & Friend residency at the Continental Club Gallery last month. "He doesn't pander. There's this sense that he delivers really important messages, that he knows exactly what he's saying, but his word choice is just so unpredictable. There's nothing straight-laced about it. His voice is so powerful, like an opera singer in a way. It's such a pure tone that comes from the center."
"Will's a gem," adds Anders Parker, co-producer of Centro-matic's 2003 classic, Love You Just the Same. "I love him like a brother. He has a workman's attitude to the craft that I can really appreciate."
"He's the kind of songwriter, like Bill Callahan, that everyone should know," furthers fellow 2010 Austin City Limits Music Festival performer David Bazan (Pedro the Lion/Headphones), who toured alongside Johnson four years ago in the Undertow Orchestra, a short-lived ensemble that included Mark Eitzel of American Music Club and the late Vic Chesnutt. "What I learned about all of their songwriting – and in the negative about my own – is that they have simple yet profound and evocative tunes.
"With Will it can be three chords over and over again, but you never get sick of hearing it or playing it."
Johnson vividly remembers the day the package arrived, 4:30pm. Sent by Son Volt's Jay Farrar for a still-unnamed project with Anders Parker and Jim James, the priority mailer was filled with photocopies of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics – some handwritten, others typed out – in various states of unrest. A script in need of a soundtrack.
Spreading the contents out across the kitchen table, Johnson skimmed over the first few pages until the words to "Chorine My Sheba Queen" caught his eye. He began by tinkering with acoustic guitar progressions, juggling the melody with the rhythm of the verses. By 4:50pm, he'd recorded his first scratch version of the song, which will be included on the group's collaborative full-length, tentatively scheduled for release next year.
"To see these scraps of paper, with these incredible lyrics, and out in the margins are little math problems or coffee cup stains, was to get a glimpse of how full of life he was all the time," relates Johnson. "I got to see the hard evidence of his conviction. I was so inspired and enthused to be witness to that."
Such moments of clarity aren't unusual for Johnson. The concept behind South San Gabriel's opus, The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until the Operation's Through, struck him in the middle of the night while visiting his family, leading him to write "Predatory King Today" crouched in the closet of the guest bedroom.
"It's kind of unpredictable and happens in spurts," acknowledges Johnson, a binge writer in the truest since. "Sometimes it strikes at incredibly inconvenient times, but that's part of the fun – seeing if you can hang on to it or get it down on paper. You can't sleep on it. No matter how many times you promise yourself you'll wake up and remember it, it won't be the same."
Back in 2005, Johnson estimated he had more than 750 unreleased songs stashed away. He's since lost count, save for three nearly completed albums: a new full-length for Centro-matic, for which he recently completed guitar overdubs; a follow-up to Vultures Await, featuring stark, acoustic sketches of the more eccentric figures he crossed paths with while living briefly in Bastrop; and a new collaboration with Bazan and the Kadane brothers of Trance Syndicate's slowcore champions Bedhead.
That's not even including Eros, the succinct appendix to last year's Dual Hawks, the double album split between Centro-matic and South San Gabriel. Released digitally last month (store.centro-matic.com), the seven-song EP blurs the lines between the former's rusted glory and the latter's ambient introspection in the violin-plucked whisper of "Christmas '83," cinematic grandeur of "Water 4 Legs and Lungs," and the Americana reverb reverie "All Night Long." As usual, Johnson's already turned that page.
He recently returned from a second leg of his living room tour with Parker and leaves later this month for a European run with Centro-matic. In December he's scheduled to produce Denton's Telegraph Canyon. The same independent streak runs through Monsters of Folk.
"Without question, we all change the scenery a good bit," reflects Johnson. "That's part of what brought Monsters together – a desire to just throw it out there and see what happens. I've always felt like that's where good art comes from, the willingness to put yourself in a position to either really pull something off or to totally fail. It's a delicate pendulum from day to day, but I think we all find that very exciting and exhilarating."
It all balances out in the end. After all, Johnson plays guitar like a frustrated drummer.
The Monsters of Folk help headline the Austin City Limits Festival Saturday, Oct. 9, at the Austin Ventures stage, 6pm.