Playback: Will Johnson’s Eternal Newness

“Playback” challenges Will Johnson to a home run derby and uncovers seven things you didn’t know about A Giant Dog


Photo by David Brendan Hall

Friday, Feb. 2, 10:30am: I've challenged Will Johnson to a home run derby.

An appropriate gauntlet given that the Austin songwriter, best known in the Lone Star State for fronting beloved indie rock outfit Centro-matic, moonlights as a painter whose primary muses are historical pitchers and sluggers from Major League Baseball, Negro League, and semipro teams. Word is he was once a ringer on the Waterloo Records softball team.

"I accept," smiles the singer/guitarist/drummer, sipping coffee in the chill morning air outside some batting cages in Pflugerville.

In a few days, Johnson leaves on tour with his latest project, Marie/Lepanto, a collaboration with Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, Arkansas-based frontman for Water Liars. The duo's late-January debut, versatile and challenging full-length Tenkiller, feels like a song swap in which two distinct voices recount the gravity of life and love through melancholy folk ballads and raw, ruminative pop. It's also a guitar album laced with fuzzed-out anti-solos and knob-twisting sonic uprisings.

First, Johnson has to beat "Playback."

He has two distinct advantages in today's match: his opponent is running on four hours of sleep and retired from baseball at age 13. Said "athlete" holds the edge of making up the rules, however: Each participant gets 15 pitches from a machine and tallies a run for each ball that makes it to the back netting before touching the ground.

"I'll be representing the Lansing Lugnuts," declares yours truly. Without hesitation, Johnson counters: "I'm representing the Montgomery Biscuits."

Stuffing my cranium inside a blue plastic helmet, I step into the batter's box. The pitching machine gives me some high cheese and I ding a couple backward before finding my sweet spot and lift five balls to the back net. My turn ends with a Mighty Casey-like whiff.

Johnson follows and, with professional form, smacks a series of pitches to the back wall. I'm only saved by two balls hit so hard and high that they bounce off the overhead netting and come down inches short of scoring. We tie at five runs apiece.

Sitting on the bleachers, Johnson touches on his relentlessly collaborative career. He made an album with late Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. balladeer Jason Molina, partook in the Conor Oberst/Mike Mogis/M. Ward/Jim James collab Monsters of Folk, formed Overseas with Pedro the Lion's David Bazan and members of Bedhead, anchored the Woody Guthrie tribute New Multitudes with Jim James and Jay Farrar, played in the Undertow Orchestra, and expanded Centro-matic into bonus band South San Gabriel. As such, he's one of Austin's most willing teammates.

"I love newness," he shrugs. "I have to keep the landscape changing. If I did one band all of the time, I'd get restless.

"Each collaboration teaches me something new," he continues. "It gives me a glimpse into some of my favorite musicians' approaches, work ethics, and ways of writing and that inspires me to become better."

As for what he gleaned from working with Kinkel-Schuster, Johnson notes the broad-yet-intimate quality of the lyrics: "He explores a lot of detail without zooming in too much and making it too diary-entry-like."

When it's pointed out that the constant spawning of new projects – especially ones with difficult-to-memorize names like Marie/Lepanto – is a terrible way to build commercial momentum, Johnson laughs.

"I'm sure from a marketing standpoint it's a nightmare, but that's what it's about for me. It's about creating and staying happy, and staying turned on to making stuff. That's the life I'm trying to lead. The rest of it, in my opinion, has to take care of itself."

Marie/Lepanto plays in-store at Waterloo Records before opening for reunited indie giants Pedro the Lion Tuesday at Mohawk.


Youth in Asia

Seven Fascinating Facts About A Giant Dog

After a sold-out debut performance, A Giant Dog continues barnstorming Beerland every Thursday in February. Here are some intimate details about Austin's explosive harmony-punk quintet that even their most fanatic followers don't know:

When the band formed in 2008, they wanted to call it Atreyu, after the character from The NeverEnding Story. A popular metalcore band already had that name, so they chose A Giant Dog in reference to the film's Falkor, who's actually a Luckdragon, not a dog.

Bassist Graham Low is a musket-owning Civil War re-enactor – Union, of course – and has guided his bandmates through battlefields while on tour.

Singer/guitarist Andrew Cashen trained for ballet as a child. In high school, he founded a social club called the North Hampton Ballers Society that wore vintage leisure suits and ate KFC together on Fridays. It became pervasive throughout two schools and administrators worried it was a gang.

While attending high school in Spring, A Giant Dog singers Andrew Cashen and Sabrina Ellis were in a band called Youth in Asia with future OBN IIIs members Orville Neely and Jason Smith. AGD guitarist Andy Bauer, then an Afro'd upperclassman known as Andy Vandal, assembled the group and served as their manager. They played a high school dance, covering Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite" and Green Day's "When I Come Around," and have never officially broken up.

Drummer Danny Lion is actually AGD's best vocalist. He pays tribute to ultimate drummer/singer combo Phil Collins with a jean jacket back patch.

Singer Sabrina Ellis claims half Mexican-American ancestry and is related to Toribio Romo, the Catholic priest who was murdered during a religious uprising in 1928 and made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Half Notes

Stevie Ray Vaughan's statue was found on Monday wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey after the team's Super Bowl win the night before. Graffiti on the base read "Philly (hearts) St. Nick," referring to homegrown game MVP Nick Foles. This follows last week's territorial "Nawf Side" tag on the blues icon's back, but is worse because the Eagles are the Dallas Cowboys' bitter conference rivals.

The White Horse served as the setting of Shiner Bock's first-ever Super Bowl ad, a $1.2 million spot centered around Texas transplants in freshly purchased western wear being intimated by two-steppers. Jason James, whose new single "Let's Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello" soundtracks the commercial, plays the Comal Street dance hall on Saturday.

Levitation revealed the second hemisphere of its 2018 lineup Wednesday morning. Joining previously announced acts such as Ty Segall, Oh Sees, Electric Wizard, and Slowdive are the Make-Up, Russian Circles, Ariel Pink, Bedouine, and Diiv. The series, running April 26-29 at the usual Red River venues plus Emo's, represents a shifting to an individually ticketed, club-based model for the psychedelic gathering, which took last year off following a 2016 rainout.

So many layers of secrecy surround the special guest performer at this year's Austin Music Awards that "Playback" might have to waterboard musical director Charlie Sexton to find out who it is. I'm assured it's a beloved artist on par with past special guests Robert Plant and Chrissie Hynde. Organizers have also added John Hiatt, Alejandro Escovedo, John Fullbright, Reggie Coby, Davíd Garza, Phoebe Hunt, and more to the extant lineup headlined by the Black Angels and Lucinda Williams. Tickets for the show, Feb. 28 at the Moody Theater, are on sale now: austinchronicle.com/austin-music-awards/show.

Willie Nelson postponed all of his February concerts as he recovers from the flu. The 84-year-old country music legend left the stage coughing during assured opener "Whiskey River" on Jan. 6 in San Diego and hasn't played a show since. Nelson's next Central Texas gig is on 4/20 at Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Will Johnson, Marie / Lepanto, Water Liars, Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, Centro-matic, A Giant Dog, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Nick Foles, Willie Nelson

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