Will Johnson is part of a dying breed of songwriters: the kind that writes songs, makes records and goes on tour incessantly, not because of a filthy pursuit of money and fame, but because of pure, simple love of everything that goes along with it. As the mastermind behind Centro-Matic, he plays the role of the boisterous frontman, blurting out drunken anthem after drunken anthem, bringing to mind the great Robert Pollard. As a solo performer, things are decidedly more intimate. He tells sordid, often depressing tales that are painstakingly hidden behind simple, yet highly effective melodies. With Centro-Matic’s seventh long player due to hit shelves soon, and a Mercury Lounge show scheduled for March 5, Johnson was kind enough to answer a few questions about his writing process, his touring schedule and, of course, baseball.
The L Magazine: Because we’ve become accustomed to artists taking years between releases, it seems every bit of press you get includes mention of the dizzying rate at which you write, record and release songs. I imagine that could get annoying after a while, but it does seem pretty noteworthy. With your schedule being what it is, how do you find the time to write as much as you do?
Will Johnson: I make time between tours. I set aside a block or blocks of days to finish up or develop ideas I develop on the road. The songs are usually written in batches.
The L: What’s the process like for you in determining which of your songs will be brought to fruition as Centro-Matic songs and which will be released or performed by you solo?
Will Johnson: It’s usually pretty automatic when the song is done where it should go. Sometimes I’ll write in a certain mode, for one of the bands for a while. Sometimes it can be completely the opposite, where I’ll write the song and once it’s completed I know where it’ll end up.
The L: Not only do you release more records than most artists, but you tour more than most as well. What is it that keeps you out on the road so much? Do financial concerns come into play?
Will Johnson: Not necessarily financial concerns. We enjoy each other’s company and have a good time going out a couple times per year. I enjoy it as much now as when I started doing it, if not more. My body has become used to it, where if I’m at home for too long I become stir crazy.
The L: Considering how hard you work at all this, do you ever get caught up in resenting bands that might have slightly more success after putting in far less time, both in the studio and on the road?
Will Johnson: I choose not to toil with that kind of stuff. It just wears you if you think about it too much and I just worry about what we’re capable of. I’m not a resentful type of person.
The L: Is it more enjoyable for you to tour with the band or on your own?
Will Johnson: They both have very different ways of satisfying me. I love the camaraderie and interaction of the band. But, the overhead is lower solo and if you have a bad night on your own it doesn’t make you feel like you’re a host to a bad party. Doing both makes me appreciate the other. Inevitably touring solo adds life and inspiration into the band and vice versa.
The L: How do you think the new Centro-Matic record compares to the previous ones?
Will Johnson: It’s a little different in that it was played live for a long, long time before we ever went into the studio to record it, so it was a well-rehearsed batch of songs. It’s not as rough around the edges as some of the previous questions and it’s the most cohesive and refined batch of songs we’ve done. We’ll probably revisit some of the skronkiness pretty soon.
The L: With SXSW just a few weeks away, I’m curious to know how you, as a native Texan, feel about it. Do you stand to gain anything from it at this point, or is it just an excuse to hang out with friends and drink in the afternoon?
Will Johnson: It’s probably closer to the latter at this point. It’s spring break for the industry and that’s fine as long as you embrace it for what it is. It’s a way to see lots of friends from around the country and around the world in a weekend, so long as you can find a place to park. I do enjoy the opportunity to see some bands that I’ve heard of but never seen.
The L: How does Phil manage to sign exclusively bands that share his borderline freakish love of baseball?
Will Johnson: We didn’t really dive into it until after we were working together, actually.
The L: A source tells me you’re a Cardinals fan. Level with me: If baseball does get around to cracking down on steroids the way they say they will, what will happen to Albert Pujols?
Will Johnson: .340 – 45 HRS – 145 RBIs
Love You Just the Same (2003)
Distance and Clime (2001)
All the Falsest Heats Can Try (2000)
South San Gabriel Songs/Music (2000)
Love Has Found Me Somehow (2000)
The Static Vs. the Strings, Vol.1 (1999)
Line Connection Aim (1998)
Redo the Stacks (1996)