Will Johnson is a songwriter who works in bursts. He's also a songwriter who keeps multiple bands and projects alive at the same time.
So what makes a song a Centro-Matic song?
"I will get into certain sounds or certain type of songs for a stretch," he says. "These days, I'm writing more hard-driving music."
Johnson will sort his batches of songs by feel, instead of setting out to focus on a particular band. The songs come easier when he blocks out those other intentions.
"More times than not, I'll kind of binge-write. I'll take two or three weeks and just devote as much time as I can to the act of writing and getting sounds down that appeal to my ideas. Once I'm done with that, I'll start to sort it out," Johnson says. "If I over-think it too much as far as which band or what category a song goes in, I'll take the chance of losing the guts of the song itself. I find it's better to sort it out later."
Circling back to hard-driving rock music was just a matter of time for Johnson after recording with his more-somber band South San Gabriel, drumming for the Monsters of Folk supergroup, and releasing a stark collaborative record with Magnolia Electric Co.'s Jason Molina.
"Last year, I was writing these really stark, more-acoustic narrative storyteller kind of songs. It's just the type of guitar I purchased and the type of place I was recording in. It just inspired that type of song," he says. "Whereas these days, I'm really just getting into a lot of noise and sounds and going for a more-aggressive approach vocally at times. It's funny; the older I get, the more toothy some of the vocals become."
Johnson wrote Centro-Matic's 10th album—and first proper release in five years—on the bass guitar, which gives Candidate Waltz a different sort of feel, energetic but straightforward.
"My wife has this great bass guitar from back when she used to play. I got all the guitars out knowing I was going to spend two weeks on writing. I picked that one up, and I just loved it," he says. "I got attracted to the idea of writing on a different plane. It dictated some different things rhythmically and encouraged some different things vocally in terms of cadence. It inherently changes some decisions that I would have made. It leaves a little more space, a little bit more to the imagination than just strumming a guitar."
Candidate Waltz marks the 15-year point for Centro-Matic—Johnson, Scott Danbom (keyboards, violin, harmonies), Matt Pence (drummer, producer) and Mark Hedman (bass, guitar)—and is in some ways a throwback to the band's earliest days in Denton, Texas.
"Sometimes in the studio, we have kept it loose and loud, with a lot of feedback and hiccups here and there. But with this recording, we worked hard to make it terse, but not cold or unfriendly," says Johnson, "multitasking" with his 10-month-old daughter during a phone interview from his Texas home. "It's a little-bit-different recording process. We economized the overdub world ... on Candidate Waltz.
"From time to time, we've been known to layer things up and put heaps of overdubs, and that's fun sometimes," he says. "But with this one, we definitely wanted to peel things back more and let the instruments we did leave in speak a little louder and maintain a little bit more presence."
With essentially the same lineup as Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel depends on much of the same musical chemistry. But keeping both bands going simultaneously creates a bit of a dual identity, something Johnson references on "Only in My Double Mind."
"There has been a certain musical duality to our efforts over these last 15 years. Sometimes, it does involve shifting identity," he says. "We tend to fall back into it pretty easily, and I'd like to believe it's a testament to the fact that we've maintained the friendships very carefully and very beautifully over all these years."
When the band started, Johnson says, he had no clear vision of where Centro-Matic would find itself in the future—just that the bandmates were committed to playing music together.
"I kind of figured we would be playing music together in some capacity this far down the line. I didn't necessarily think it'd be Centro-Matic, but I figured we'd find some reason, some way, to keep playing music. We've become husbands and fathers, but we've found a way to want to keep making music in our lives.
"I'm proud of the fact that we've continued to not take ourselves too terribly seriously. We've managed to take it all with a bucket of salt as we go," Johnson says. "That's not to say we don't take the art seriously—the recording and the live show, we want that to be as good as it possibly can be. But the inherent want to keep things respectful and loose within our friendships has hopefully added longevity to the band."
After recording Candidate Waltz, Johnson rented a cabin in the Texas hill country for another burst of songwriting. Returning with 26 recently sorted-out songs, Johnson says it's clearly another Centro-Matic batch.
"We'd scattered for a break between albums, and Candidate Waltz brought us back together. I'm looking forward to getting everybody back together in six or eight months. I'm thinking and hoping this will be a faster turnaround."
That should be no trouble for Centro-Matic, which streamlined the recording and release process by going without a record label for Candidate Waltz. Self-releasing for the first time was brought on by the band's tight-knit relationship with fans, a testament to the band's perseverance. A pleasant byproduct was the time it opened for another creative burst from Johnson.
"The fact that I was so inspired to write is hopefully a testament to the energy that the band has received through the encouraging recent tour," he says. "We're all looking forward to getting back to the studio and seeing what comes out of the next record.
"The fact that there's always one more record in us is an encouraging thing, and we might as well get that."