Whenever you hear about the end of a band, no matter how great they are, it’s more than just common to hear about angry disputes and oceans of bad blood between group members. In fact, the longer a band has been together, it seems that the chances for bitterness and anger grows proportionately. Rare is the case when a band makes the conscious decision that their work is accomplished and that they can walk away happy and with a sense of achievement.
It makes sense, however, that Centro-matic would be one of those few; throughout their long and storied career—from their days as a local band playing a small, but artistic North Texas town, to their days as an international touring sensation—Centro-matic has been known for not only keeping the same lineup, but also for maintaining and cultivating a sense of family and brotherhood between the members. When they announced last summer that their upcoming tour (which begins this week) would be their last, it didn’t come on the heels of drama or turmoil. It came with a feeling of blessedness and thanks.
For nearly two decades, Will Johnson and Centro-matic have been nothing if not the most gracious rock stars of the modern era. This translated into their music; no matter how many albums they put out, there was always a sense of wonder and awe. A sort of belief that, even after all these years, they were still able to do the thing they loved the most. This attitude helped them cultivate an audience and an identity. As the band grew, so, too, did their fans. The love between the band was shared with their audience and vice versa.
This is the outlook that Johnson and the band maintain as they ride into the final leg of their journey as Centro-matic. There’s no drama, no loss of love. Their final tour, rather, stands to be a testimony to their mutual accomplishments and a celebration of their career. Unlike many breakups, this is a finale that is to be celebrated, rather than mourned.
I caught up with Johnson before Thanksgiving, as he was in the middle of his solo acoustic tour. We discussed some of his best memories of Centro-matic, the band’s history, and what it’s all come to mean to him now that the end is nigh.
So you’re on the living room tour right now. Is that about what it sounds like? Are you just playing random living rooms? How does that work?
We set it up in advance and what we do is, I’m managed by a company called Undertow. They’ll send out a routing and dates that we’d like to land in certain cities. If folks are interested in hosting a show and meet the requirements to host one—as far as capacity, no cranky landlords or neighbors or anything to deal with—then people chime back in and then we go ahead and tighten up and arrange the whole thing. Once that’s all set we announce it and once the tickets are on sale, when you buy a ticket you’re given the location of the actual show. There’s no publicity, no radio, no press on these types of tours. It’s just word of mouth. That’s the point entirely. Just take it away from your typical venue type situation. It kind of puts everybody on neutral turf. I just run in with an acoustic guitar and play for about an hour and fifteen or an hour and a half. It’s easy and there’s no heavy lifting.
That’s probably the most Denton idea I’ve ever heard in my life. Or at least since I’ve moved away from Denton.
(laughs) It’s great, you know? I really do like it. It’s not the only way I’d want to tour. I definitely enjoy the therapy of touring with people and with a band and with a bigger sonic sound that’s more physically gratifying but this type of touring is more spiritually gratifying and it’s peaceful. I get to try out a bunch of new songs. I get to try out my shitty comedy act. There’s a lot of stuff I can just mess with on these tours that’s fun. It’s rewarding and it keeps me coming back to them every now and again just because it’s easy. I’m traveling in a Prius with next to nothing. I can arrive literally five minutes before show time and then be back at the hotel before 10pm. It’s just easy.
It sounds like a real cool way to connect with fans. Like you said, it’s word of mouth. So you’re not going to that show unless you’re already a fan of you and your music.
That’s correct. I think it’s really fun for fans. I can say that I go see a lot of these [types] of shows when they come through Austin and the memory of each experience, the memory of each show, is very specific because chances are that show’s not gonna happen at that same place ever again. So you remember the setting, you remember the search to get there, you remember the how the architecture affected the vibe or the sound in ways that you don’t always remember those types of things when you go down to your local rock club that you’ve been to a hundred times and seen a hundred shows. So each memory is kind of specific. Each one is kind of its own snowflake, and that’s part of what makes it really fun.
So, switching gears and talking about Centro-matic, this is it, huh? The last Centro-matic tour.
Yeah, we’re gonna do the last run here starting in a couple of weeks.
What finally spurred that decision to call it quits as Centro-matic?
It had been kind of bubbling about for a little while, to be totally honest with you. At least in my mind. We’ve been together for 18 years almost. We’ve put out all these records and we’ve essentially become grownups together. But over the last little while there’s just been some limitations in our availability for the band. It’s just life stuff, it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the fact that we’re all pulled in different directions right now. Somewhat musically, [but] definitely as we’ve become husbands and fathers, there came a point back in the spring time when I realized that after we put a ton of work into our new record, we simultaneously experienced a couple of pretty hefty disappointments and setbacks as far as delays in release and we had a publicist leave on us at the last minute. Suddenly it came time to start talking about touring and supporting the record and we just weren’t as available as we usually had been when it came time to support our records. So that definitely sent a handful of signals to me, in addition to the fact that, from a writing standpoint, I haven’t really been writing much rock music or Centro-matic style songs. I slowly came to feel like Take Pride in Your Long Odds was an appropriate last statement for our band. At least for the time being. So for that combination of reasons, we discussed it back in late May, early June and made our decision to instead of just going away or disappearing, [we would] take it out for one last track come the end of this year when we were finally all available and ready to tour again. So that became the idea for doing this tour. We wanted to make sure that we were able to go to venues that we have played in and become connected to over the years; we wanted to make sure that we were able to curate each show with openers that we really like a lot and try to wring this out as positively as properly as we can.
How do you decide what venues you need to play one more time? How do you forge that connection with a specific venue or town specific audience?
Some are more obvious than others. When speaking in terms of, say, Athens Georgia or New York or Chicago or obviously Denton, there are venues that are kind of no brainers for us, so those were easy to pick. Buffalo has always been a good town for us, but we’re playing a venue we’ve never played before because the venue that used to play is no longer. So in a case like that it’s just a matter of respecting a town or a market that has just been really good to you over the band’s existence and making sure you stop in. For the most part, it’s places that we’ve played on and off going back ten, twelve years in some cases; and promoters that we just like to deal with and we know it’s going to be a good scene when we get there.
So now that you’re wrapping up Centro-matic, and I’m sure you’ve done some thinking about it, do you think there’s any songs you’ll miss playing live as Centro-matic?
Oh yeah, sure. Without a doubt. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be some significant missing of playing certain songs and of making the racket that we’ve come to make over the years. No doubt about it. But it’s a long life and it’s a life full of change. It’s just part of evolving and moving on.
What do you think your highest moment or best Centro-matic memory is?
That’s a really good question. I’m not so sure about…if I had to pick, I would pick a feeling rather than one specific moment. Just the general feeling of reward and completion and accomplishment of making our recordings. We love touring and we’ve been able to make a ton of great life-long friendships through touring. We’ve kind of created a family on the road, of sorts, through the way that we’ve kind of just continued to get out and work. Something about recording with Matt and Mark and Scott and coming to the end of those sessions and end of those roads and finally having a record completed, that feeling remained just as satisfying as ever all throughout the band’s existence. There was just a certain sense of completion and satisfaction in being able to make these records and see them through. Sometimes having them surprise you and coming out better than you might have thought they would have alongside three of your best friends. To be able to do that for so long, that’s the thing I’ve been the most proud of, really. And the way that we’ve looked out for each other and cared for each other throughout the existence of the band. They’re not a ton of bands that can say they kept the original lineup over the course of 18 years and I think that was just a testament for our trust and our love for one another. In so many ways, acknowledging that we don’t quite have as much time as we used to be this band and being true to one another on our feelings on that matter, that’s just another testament to how we run our friendships. The friendships have come first and being true to each other and being honest with one another has always preceded being this name, Centro-matic.
When you think about the kid that you once were, messing around with a four-track on his winter break, did he ever think that lead to something like this?
Oh, absolutely not. No way. I mean, I’ve said this before but back in 96 when we were making Redo the Stacks, I really figured I might see a record or two through, maybe some seven-inches and things like that, and then we’d get out and kick around and play some shows. I think in the back of my mind I figured that might get it out of my system over the course of a couple of years and I would just move on to graduate school and start teaching. That was kind of the way I saw things unfurling back then. So to sit here 18 years later with a lot of recordings under our belts and many, many miles and many great tours and satisfying shows, it’s a pleasant surprise to be completely frank with you. It’s really been a gift and a total treasure to spend almost half my life being in this band with these people.
How do you think that kid that you were would feel about the path that you’ve been on and the journey that you’ve taken?
I think I would have been really enticed by it. It’s afforded me some of my life’s greatest friendships and some of my life’s greatest experiences, without a doubt, no questions about it. To be able to travel around Europe and play to crowds and justify it and repeat that type of thing. I didn’t see that coming when I was 25 or 26 years old. I just didn’t consider it. In the same way, it’s been a really immeasurable gift to do it, to be able to do this.
So now that you can sort of see the full journey of Centro-matic from beginning to end, what do you see? Is there any specific message or takeaway that you think people can take from Centro-matic and your career?
I would hope so, you know. We’ve never really been a particularly preachy band. We’ve more tried to illustrate who were are as individuals and as a whole by our actions and through our records and through our chemistry on stage. But I would hope that for the folks that have seen us on any kind of regular basis over these years would see that there’s a very evident respect for one another that exists between the four of us. There’s a certain type of care that I’ve been really proud of. That’s a great part of the reason that we’ve been together for so long and it’s a great part of the reason that we’re able to acknowledge the end and take it out and try to celebrate it instead of just walk away quietly. If [the message is] anything it would be respect and care for one another, put each other first before any kind of entity or brand name. Don’t put that first. Put your friends first.
So…and I’m sorry, this is going to require a bit of a preamble…but I was a Dallas kid. I grew up there. You know, my first memory of Centro-matic was walking into CD World when I was 17 and they were playing Navigational. So, to me, I’ve always kind of associated Centro-matic with that scene, that Deep Ellum and Denton scene that started to blow up in the mid to late 90s. I was wondering if you had any memories or insights into that scene because, for a while there, there was this really vibrant and active indie movement that seemed to happen almost organically.
I tend to agree with you. There was a real energy. In 1995, I left Dallas and moved back to Denton to return to school. I got back into Denton in May of 95 and I started writing songs. I wrote and completed my first song within a week of arrival. I was a little bit of a late bloomer, you know? I was 24 years old. But going back to Denton after having been gone for three and half years and experiencing the energy that was all over that town in 95, 96, 97, and 98 with the various venues and great song-writers, and great bands that were playing around, the great art that was happening there thanks to the people in the Good Bad art collective, it all showed me that there was just a throw caution to the wind type attitude within the artistic and musical community in Denton at that time. I’m sure there still is today, but it just hits you right. It hits you at the right crossroads, and at that point I was at a crossroads. Moving back to the town I was in before, finally trying my hand at writing songs, going out to the club or the Argo or the X Record Store and seeing bands and great song-writers play. It inspired me. I fed off that energy. I don’t think it was any accident that upon returning to Denton I finally started writing songs. I finally felt like maybe I had a voice, I finally had the confidence to get out and start doing that. It was a new thing. Up until that point I had just been playing drums in a band and contributing to some of the songwriting but never standing up with a guitar and singing on my own. That energy at that time was a huge influence and it was a huge encouraging factor to get out and try that. I think it was largely part of the reason I tried my hand at writing songs and getting out and playing.
So I guess you still kind of carry that whole Denton and Deep Ellum DIY, get out there and just fucking do it philosophy?
Totally. Absolutely. I don’t have as much time to write as I used to when I was 25 or 25. Obviously, I’m a husband and a father now and there are certain realities of adulthood that don’t allow me quite the freewheeling type of climate for writing that I used to have, but in some ways it’s made me work harder at the writing because the time to do it is more precious. I think I’m getting better writing done now, even if I’m not getting as much writing done as I used to back in those days. As far as the approach goes and making home recordings on four tracks and things like that, I still operate by the same measure. I don’t use any fancy gear at the house when I’m working on songs and their infantile, baby step stages. I still use a four track to cassette recorder. I still run the mics really high. I still work from the front of the brain like I always did back then. Not much has changed about those instincts or those approaches.
Do you remember what it was like when you stepped out of the Dallas and Denton scene on to more of a national arena? I remember how much Centro-matic was loved and supported by this scene and there was very much a feeling of everyone wanting to see you guys succeed. What was that like?
There’s a real specific little era there; things started to develop in certain places nationally, like New York and Chicago and Athens and Atlanta and San Francisco. Those towns started to become stronger for us with each visit. The one tour that sticks out to me most, where it felt like there was a significant shift that had happened, was Centro-matic’s first European tour, which happened in December of 2000. At the time, we had not a ton of touring, honestly. We had done maybe one New York City CMJ show, we had played Chicago a couple of times, and a couple of little mid-western runs. But we had not done a heap of national touring by December of 2000. So they flew us over and we played two weeks of shows in Holland and Belgium and Germany and I think we had a UK show or two. That tour was the first time we had really resoundingly been accepted among crowds that were not in Denton or Dallas or Austin. It was the first time we had really regularly played encores to pretty full houses. It was a really intoxicating feeling to be able to go over to Europe and experience that. I always refer to that as our “Honeymoon Tour” because every single night was just a blast. You’re in places that you’ve never been before and there’s a great energy and a great love between the band and the folks that came out to the shows going on each night. The hangovers were excruciating every day. It was just joy. It was this experience and this notion that our band was finally accepted somewhere outside of Interstate 35. [laughs] That was a real life-affirming time for us.
So to juxtapose that, how does it feel now to looking right in the face of the final tour?
It’s melancholy, you know? I’m really looking forward to the shows. There’s not one of those shows that I’m overlooking or looking beyond or anything like that. I think we’re going to approach each one with great care and construct our set lists with great care. At the same time, I think it’s a final tour and a final sort of celebratory lap. If you would have told me at the beginning of the band or even a couple of years ago that that was the way we got to conclude it, I would have taken that. Most bands end in bitterness and drama and sometimes lawsuits and hatred and terrible energy. If we are able to get out and play a last round of show in cities that have been good to us and to our folks, then I’ll take that. I’m really grateful for that.
How do you even start preparing for that? I mean mentally and technically, is it a weird mindspace to get into? Realizing that you have to curate these set lists for ostensibly the last time this town is going to see Centro-matic, is that hard?
I’ll probably know more about that when we get there. I think those thoughts will start to become a little bit clearer and better embodied about December first or second when we convene for rehearsal and start hanging out again. I’ll have a better grip on it. But that’s part of it, you know? We’ve always been a pretty raw band. We’ve kept things pretty raw and we’re gonna keep our last tour pretty raw. We’re gonna go out kind of like we came in [laughs]. I may not even have an answer for that when the tour’s done. I don’t guess I have to have answer for everything, I just have to feel satisfied in the way that we’ve done our work and the way that we’ve played our shows. So long as that feeling can be the foundation for the performances and for the run then that’s good. I think that’s a positive thing.
I guess in a final tour you kind of have to, in a sense, really deliver to the fans and probably pull from the full history, right?
We’ll work to pull from most all the records, I think. We haven’t really discussed it yet, so it’s hard to say, but I think we will work to try and pull from almost all the Centro-matic records, yeah. This isn’t a tour to go support the newest record and focus on that. It’s a bigger buffet [laughs].
Is there anything from the old back catalogue you think you’re looking forward to revisiting?
Will: It’s always fun to dig into Redo the Stacks and take that walk down memory lane, so I’m sure we will dig into that. Again, that’s another one where it’s like we’ll know when we get there. Sometimes you’ll show up and a certain song that you haven’t played in forever somehow clicks and works and then it becomes a more regular dance partner over the course of a tour. There’s a few surprises every tour like. So it’s hard to say, but I think we’ll work to try to cover the spectrum of all the records somehow. We’re going to have a really limited amount of time to do such a thing, a lot of records to cover. At the same time, I think we’ll approach each night with care, constructing the whole thing.
Have you given any thoughts to post-Centro-matic or do you have any idea what might be on the horizon for you?
There are a handful of plans that I’ve got that I’m really looking forward to seeing through. I’m making another solo record in January and there are a handful of collaborations that I’ve really been wanting to try to get to and see through, some for upwards for ten years. So I think there’ll be plenty to work with. There’s material for probably three solo records written already. So there’s stuff to sit with right now. Also, the breakup of Centro-matic or the indefinite departure of Centro-matic, doesn’t mean South San Gabriel is off the table or out of the question at any point. I think that the four of us would like to embark on a different type of musical adventure eventually. So that possibility is always there.
I don’t normally like asking this question but, since you brought it up, what are you some your dream collaborations that you want to put down somewhere?
Well I don’t want to talk about all of them because I’ll jinx them [laughs]. If I got to press about them sometimes that kills them. But one I can speak on, my friend Patterson Hood from Drive-by Truckers and I have been talking about making a record together for 8 or 9 years now. Obviously, he’s slammed right now with Drive-by Truckers stuff, and it’s fine if it’s delayed longer. But I’d eventually like to see that through. Our band Overseas that I have with David Bazan and Matt and Bubba Kadane from New Year and Bedhead, we have another record that is largely tracked already, so we want to see that through. Of course there’s more solo releases to tend to. I’ve got a friend in Alabama that I’ve really been wanting to make a release with so I’d like to get over there within the next 12 or 18 months and put a record together with him. And then, you know, making baseball art and being dad.
Centro-matic’s final tour just kicked off and will be visting the following cities. Visit the band’s website for more info…
Centro-matic Final Tour Dates:
Dec 04 : Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge $
Dec 05 : Athens, GA – Georgia Theater #
Dec 06 : Raleigh, NC – Kings Barcade *
Dec 07 : Washington, DC – DC9 *
Dec 09 : Philadelphia, PA – Boot & Saddle *
Dec 11 : Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade *
Dec 12 : New York, NY – Mercury Lounge ^
Dec 13 : Allston, MA – Great Scott ^
Dec 14 : Buffalo, NY – Sportmen’s Tavern &
Dec 15 : Chicago, IL – Schubas Tavern ~
Dec 16 : St Louis, MO – Off Broadway ~
Dec 18 : Austin, TX – The Parish +
Dec 19 : Denton, TX – Dans Silverleaf ~
Dec 20 : Denton, TX – Dans Silverleaf @
Dec 21 : Denton, TX – Dans Silverleaf %
> with Doug Burr and Angelus
$ with Joey & Kelly of Glossary Duo, Water Liars & special guest Jason Isbell
# with Thayer and Dead Confederate
* with Elephant Micah
^ with Anders Parker and Cloud Badge
& with Roger Bryan and the Orphans
~ with Telegraph Canyon
+ with Monahans
@ with Slobberbone
% with Daniel Markham and Patterson Hood