In certain musical circles, Will Johnson and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster are almost musical royalty. Johnson’s band Centro-matic was a force of dark, nuanced alt-country for nearly two decades before calling it quits in 2014. He also played in Monsters of Folk, the supergroup featuring Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, and M. Ward. For much of that time Johnson has also maintained something of a prolific career as a solo artist. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster is one half of Water Liars, a criminally underrated duo known for their Southern gothic Americana. In 2016 he released his debut solo album Constant Stranger, which Glide’s Maeri Ferguson described by saying, “Whether channeling Jason Molina or William Faulkner, Kinkel-Schuster carves out his own identity among them with Constant Stranger.” Both of these artists have put it in years on the road and have garnered a devoted following of fans.
Though there is an age gap, Johnson and Kinkel-Schuster have much in common musically, and after crossing paths as solo acts playing house concerts and in venues with their own respective bands, they decided they should explore the musical chemistry they felt they might share. The result is the partnership Marie/Lepanto and the album Tenkiller, which was released on January 26th on Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum. While 2018 is young, Tenkiller already feels like one of the year’s strongest albums. Both Kinkel-Schuster and Johnson manage to balance loud and quiet, tender and gritty. Their talent is on full display individually, but the real beauty is in how they complement one another through harmonies, Neil Young-esque guitar solos, and lyrics that seem to have been drawn from one collective mind. Fans of Water Liars and Centro-matic – not to mention Will Johnson’s other creative endeavors – will find much to love about Marie/Lepanto.
To make it, the duo made their way to Memphis to Sam Phillips Recording, the studio known for capturing legendary musical moments from a sprawling list of acts that includes Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Alex Chilton, Roy Orbison, Robert Plant and many many more. Clearly, both artists felt the heavy vibe and legacy of the space as is evidenced by the sheer power of the dark folk rock they conjured. Currently, they are on tour opening for Pedro the Lion, but they managed to make some time to answer questions about the album and how their musical partnership came to be.
How did you both come across each other’s work and what did you initially admire about the other?
Will Johnson (WJ): My bandmates in Centro-matic turned me on to Water Liars’ music somewhere along the way in 2014. I was immediately taken with the dynamics, the playing, and the sounds they got on that self-titled record, and the fact that great songwriting was at the foundation of every bit of it. It spent a lot of time on repeat in my life over those months, then I bought the rest of their records. They fast became one of my favorite bands. Their live show was superb.
Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster (JKS): I first fell in love with Will’s work in the fall of 2003; I was 20 and a bumbling idiot in every sense imaginable but I was lucky enough to stumble across Centro-Matic’s “Love You Just the Same” on Insound (remember Insound??). I ordered the CD and I was off to the races. Will’s voice and songs were (and are) something I’d needed but hadn’t found yet. The following year, Will’s solo record Vultures Await came out and again, struck me immediately and completely. Will’s voice has always had, to my ear, a sympathetic growl that is at once tough and tender, and his songs run precisely parallel to his voice in that way. In a sense, my entire output has been unconsciously (and at times consciously) trying to get to the places that Will has been for many years. I truly cannot believe that I am fortunate enough to be his teammate in this project.
Was there a moment or show where you shared a bill or something that gave you the idea you could have chemistry making an album together?
WJ: Our bands only got to play together once, but the pairing worked well. Once we started out on the first acoustic living room tour, and started backing one another on about half the set, it became plausible that working on a record together would eventually make sense. We stopped in to Sam Phillips’ Recording to see our friend Jeff Powell toward the end of that tour, and that initiated conversations about coming up to record with him at some point. The hang time on that tour was too golden not to circle back and work on something together.
JKS: I didn’t meet Will until late 2014 when Centro-matic was making its last tour and my band Water Liars got to open the Nashville date. I had seen Centro-matic many times but never met the band, and so for me that show was beyond crazy. I tried not to be too much of a fanboy and hoped that I hadn’t embarrassed myself too badly. We kept up correspondence but it wasn’t until late 2015 that we planned a run of living room shows together and, seeing Will pull song after song out each night (some of which I knew I had never heard before) I knew that I had to selfishly ask him if he would be interested in working together on a project. That idea was bolstered by the fact that on that tour we happened to stop in Memphis and meet Jeff Powell at his new digs in Sam Phillips Recording Service. It seemed like the perfect place. I couldn’t believe it when Will said yes, I couldn’t believe it when Jeff said yes, I couldn’t believe it when Bruce said yes, and I still cant believe our work exists.
The album seems to jump from a big rock sound to quieter acoustic songs. Was this a conscious decision when you started putting the album together?
WJ: I don’t think we ever formally discussed laying it out it that way, but inherently I feel like we both wanted the record to cover some diverse sonic terrain, and hopefully offer some varied velocities and moods. I think that was a natural thing from the outset, though a few things were decided in the moment. When my final turn came around during tracking I was still undecided on what song, or even what kind of song to throw on the pile. I made a last minute choice to track something I hadn’t really planned to put on the record, partially because I thought it could be kind of a role player in the whole lineup.
JKS: As far as I’m concerned, my instincts in writing and recording songs tend to veer from the very spare and quiet to the loud and nearly unhinged. I have a deep and abiding love for both ends of the spectrum as well as for the middle, and so most things that I work on seem to reflect that. It’s just fun to let the guitars stretch sometimes and sometimes a song needs things to be more silent.
You recorded the album back in 2016. Was there a reason for waiting so long to release it?
WJ: The delay is my fault. I had a solo record come out last March, so it felt better to give each record a little space to breathe.
JKS: We were just waiting for everyone’s schedules to open up, really. We both have different projects working and irons in the fire and there is always some lining up that needs to be done when planning a record’s release, so all that administrative stuff needed to get done.
Can you talk about how recording in Memphis and specifically how Sam Phillips Recording affected the mood of the album?
WJ: It was a little psychedelic recording there, given that there’s so much curiosity and history about the place. Overall, we kept things pretty simple with regard to letting the room define a lot of the sounds, and we worked pretty fast. We got ten songs tracked in four days, and I think there’s an immediacy to the recordings that reflects that. Memphis was the closest city of any consequence when I was growing up, so the whole thing sort of felt like going home again. That affected me. Being back in that part of the world got into the lyrics some.
JKS: Recording at Sam Phillips was a first principles this project, I think. As I mentioned above, meeting Jeff there and him showing us around the place, which was just getting back on its feet after a period of neglect, was mind-blowing. You could feel the ghosts in there, it was like everyone had gone home from work in 1972 and just never came back. Getting to work there, like everything about this project, still seems unreal to me. It’s like a working museum. Every square foot of that joint lives and breathes and I hope we were able to get a little of that blood into our record.
Were there albums that you both bonded over that inspired this project?
JKS: I don’t remember any specific records that we were into around the session, but I think Will and I’s respective musical vocabularies are so similar I think we’ve kind of been bonding over records from afar for years, if that makes sense.
Will, you have always been a collaborator, which is interesting because you also tour solo so much. Is your approach to collaborating with other talented songwriters different to writing solo material?
WJ: It’s changed a little over the years. I used to get myself into a writing panic, bringing raw songs in and trying to figure it all out later. I’d let folks run free, and hopefully they’d just find their place in the framework. It’s still that way occasionally, but overall I try to be better about keeping all the players in mind now. I might have a vocal in mind for someone if I can easily hear their voice in a certain spot, or leave some space within a song that might cater to a player’s instrumental strengths. There was a Monsters of Folk session a few years ago where I wrote with everyone’s vocal personalities in mind. It was easy to envision all our voices as part of the narrative, so we all took a verse. It was a similar situation on a song or two with [Jason] Molina. With this Marie/Lepanto record I wanted to bring songs in where I could easily hear Pete’s singing and musicianship involved. Our song “The Rail” is an example with regard to instrumentation. I knew I wanted to play one part of the outro guitar solo, then leave room for him to just go wild for a little while.
February 13 – Austin, TX – Mohawk*
February 14 – Houston, TX – Rockefeller’s*
February 15 – Baton Rouge, LA – living room show
February 16 – New Orleans, LA – One Eyed Jack’s*
February 17 – Birmingham, AL – Saturn*
February 18 – Gainesville, FL – High Dive*
February 19 – Orlando, FL – The Social*
February 21 – Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle*
February 22 – Atlanta, GA – Terminal West*
February 23 – Nashville, TN – Exit/In*
April 5 – Springfield MO – living room show
April 6 – Omaha NE – living room show
April 7 – Sioux Falls – living room show
April 8 – Minneapolis – Turf Club
April 9 – Madison – living room show
April 10 – Milwaukee – living room show
April 12 – Chicago – Schuba’s
April 13 – Detroit – living room show
April 14 – Toronto – living room show
April 16 – Boston – living room show
April 17 – NYC – Mercury Lounge
April 18 – Philadelphia PA – Johnny Brenda’s
April 20 – Baltimore – living room show
April 22 – Asheville NC – living room show
April 23 – Athens GA – living room show
April 24 – Waverly AL – Standard Deluxe
April 25 – Mobile AL – Satori Coffee House
April 26 – Oxford, MS – living room show
April 27 – Little Rock AR – living room show
* with Pedro the Lion