Will Johnson of Centro-matic: "I Didn't Think Centro-Matic Would Be Around That Long"
Matt Pence Centro-matic play Good Records and the Kessler this weekend.
Seventeen years into their time as a fully fleshed unit, the Denton-born indie-rock band Centro-matic seem to have the formula for creating one well-crafted album after another down to a science. Though lead singer and songwriter Will Johnson has lived in Austin for some time now, the band's spiritual home is still North Texas. Scott Danbom, Matt Pence and Mark Hedman still call this area home, and the group continues to use the storied Echo Lab Studio in Argyle as their soundproof home base.
It was over two separate recording sessions at the Echo Lab, one in late 2012 and another in the summer of 2013, that the songs for the band's excellent new LP, Take Pride in Your Long Odds, were laid down after Johnson had written them just after the group's last record, the also stellar Candidate Waltz. Because of the timing, the songs that the frenetically prolific Johnson began working on at that point didn't have a definite future home set just yet.
"I wasn't really in Centro-matic writing mode at that point in time," explains Johnson over the phone as the band makes their way through the wilds of Minnesota towards a tour stop in Sioux Falls. "But a couple of the songs I came across just made sense together. Then I built the record out from there at the end of 2011 in what turned out to be a quick process in terms of writing the album."
It's not surprising to know that Johnson wasn't originally writing these songs specifically for a band album. The new album showcases a bit more variety of styles and textures than previous Centro albums, yet it still feels complete and well thought-out as a collection.
The album opens with the instrumental title track, setting the stage for the drama that unfolds as the album employs the crunchy rock sounds fans have long adored, even with a few curves inventively thrown in. The album's second song, "Every Mission," is a stripped-down, heartland rock tune where Danbom's work on the keys inspire air-piano movements from the listener's hands, and "Cross Path" is a bold guitar-driven anthem that would fit neatly onto most Centro-matic albums.
But the gritty, electrified "Salty Disciple" is maybe the most danceable tune the venerable group has proffered in its history and the ambient "Anything Torn Out" brings with it an ethereal swirl that never feels too light or airy. The record's closing track, "Through the Fog, Then Down," also shares in a mellow atmospheric vibe that never meanders or stalls. Needless to say, the group has more than earned a right to slap a fresh coat of sound onto their familiar identity.
"We had an idea that we wanted to sprawl out a bit after on this one after the more tightly wrapped nature of Candidate Waltz," Johnson says. "We experimented with some different moods and that led to some songs that were in our normal, straight-ahead rock wheelhouse, but we also pushed out more attitude and chunkiness that we hadn't messed with before, like on 'Cynthia Glass.' It was a collective effort to mesh the songs together so they fit thematically and sonically and where the moods would also fit together."
As much as Johnson and crew placed an emphasis on the styles of the songs, the group also put serious thought into what might sadly be a dying art: sequencing the album.
"We sequenced the album so there's a dose of the familiar and the unfamiliar in a way that works," he says. "For us, sequencing an album often comes down to a gut feeling. We all deeply believe in the album format and the importance of the way an album should be presented. Listening to an album is a journey of sorts, and the sequence is important to that. We take our time with that part."
For someone that's constantly in creative motion, even Johnson, who has songs for another upcoming solo-album (to follow up 2012's stunning Scorpion LP), in the works, it's quite the trip for him to stop and look back upon the history of his group. Centro-matic recently re-issued their killer debut album, Redo the Stacks, and, seen alongside this latest effort and the band's ability to effectively evolve, it divulges the key to creative sustainability.
"In the beginning, I didn't think Centro-matic would be around for that along," Johnson admits. "I thought we'd make two or three records and then I'd get my master's and get into teaching. But that plan changed pretty quickly because the music stayed challenging. We've always found ways to stay current by making records that are relevant."