by Patrick Muldowney
Our artists of the month specials are
sub-headed "File Under Cool and Underrated" for a reason and this month
that reason shines through when Patrick Muldowney gives us a much closer
look at one of his favorite bands Centro-Matic with a live review and great
interview with Will Johnson. Now we will let Patrick tell you why Centro-Matic
should definitely be filed under Cool.
April 6, 2006 at The Icon in Buffalo,
Our artists of the month specials are sub-headed
"File Under Cool and Underrated" for a reason and this month that reason
shines through when Patrick Muldowney gives us a much closer look at one
of his favorite bands, Centro-Matic with a live review and great interview
with Will Johnson. Check out this special to find out why Centro-Matic
should definitely be filed under Cool.
I generally consider a live show to be
a surface pleasure. You pay, you go, and you either enjoy it or you don't.
For this reason, seeing Centro-matic for the first time has caused me a
bit of confusion, beyond the realization that one of my favorite bands
existed for almost a decade without me taking notice, even though I was
constantly listening to Varnaline, who traveled in the same circles.
The only comfort for this initial confusion was the attendance at The Icon,
which bordered fifty people, and the fact I had to buy the new album from
iTunes, because even the indiest places in Rochester are as clueless as
I once was. Enough about the inept music world; this review will not change
it. The confusion that lingers for me is based around what I saw on stage
that night in Buffalo, because Centro-matic, more than any other live band
I've seen, provided me with little surface pleasure, compared to an incredibly
During their decade-long existence, Centro-matic
has recorded two of the better albums of the 21st century: Love You
Just the Same (2003) and Fort Recovery (2006). Of the fifteen
songs they played, these two made up more than half the show. What is so
impressive about their live performance of these songs is how they reproduce
the studio sound, which is becoming more difficult as they toy in the sampling
world with their new material, while delivering the live energy and emotion
necessary to put on a show. Will Johnson does not attempt to make his songs
islands, and showed the interconnection of the two albums by coupling "Trigger
and Trash Heaps" and "Flashes and Cables", which seem to be different moments
on a single journey. He also tied together "The Mighty Midshipmen" from
Love… with "Calling Thermatico" from Fort Recovery, based on the
first being about a sports hero, while the latter was about the fallen
hero. This is great for crowd participation, as the first was dedicated
to Dr. Jack Ramsay and the Buffalo Braves. Will came up with that one,
which shows he's not only a tremendous songwriter, but a sports encyclopedia
worthy of guest spots on Jim Rome. "Thermatico", along with the audience
participation clap, went out to Dominik Hasek, once hero of the Sabres,
because O.J. was too cliché. Having themes within the set provides
some anticipation for the audience, and an understanding that the songs
being played were not just thrown down haphazardly from the catalogue.
Those who were down with Centro-matic from
the beginning, get just as much satisfaction as a newbie like me, because
they pull out old classics like "Good as Gold" and "The Blisters May Come".
Will Johnson engaged with the audience, especially with their appreciation
of the older tunes, throwing out a few leg kicks and often balancing stork-like
to sing so he was immediately in motion to rock out the moments the mic
was not needed. Along with Matt Pence beating the piss out of his drums,
which I always consider an energy boost, Johnson provides much of the emotion.
Scott Danbom plays an assortment of instruments proficiently, showing his
incredible talents. My memories of Mark Hedman, the bassist in this foursome,
revolve around the looks the other band members gave him during the mysterious
feedback of "Patience for the Ride", to which he initially shrugged, but
somehow fixed, and the complete exhaustion I saw on his face as he rushed
to the merchandise table after the show to take care of selling things.
From looking at him, I saw proof of Will's statement about the band leaving
it on the stage, but I guess Hedman had to leave a little more on the merch
As I left the show that night I felt a
little disillusion because I had read from respected artists how they are
one of the best, if not the best, live bands in America, which comes back
to my confusion. That night I told my friend, Dave, they were good, but
not great, and that was my surface pleasure voice. I didn't rock out, or
scream, or pick my own little area on the floor to marvel, I just watched
and enjoyed. What is different though is that for bands that have garnered
that reaction, my memories are not as vivid and my appreciation not as
extensive. My memory, which outlasts that surface voice, would now say
they were a great band, in that you can consume them slowly like a fine
wine, as I did, or you can drink a bunch of Pabst and dance and sing along,
like all the other Centro-matic fans did that night.
Will Johnson Interview
Conducted by Patrick Muldowney
In this interview, completed the night
Centro-matic played in Buffalo (4/6/06), Will Johnson discusses the new
album and tour, along with the recent Undertow Orchestra tour. This interview
is highlighted by Johnson's insightful voice, which is both intelligent
antiMusic: You're two weeks into touring,
how have your audiences received the Fort Recovery material?
Will Johnson: Pretty good. We're
trying out a new song every few nights it seems. We're kind of trying to
get to covering most of the record, but we're also trying to dig back into
the catalogue and play some of the songs folks might want to hear off the
old records. It's a little different each night, but it's been encouraging.
anti: What songs do you think have received
the best reaction (from the new album)?
WJ: The song "Calling Thermatico"
has been received pretty well. We've only been doing that for a couple
weeks now, but it seems like folks are warming up to that one. It's got
sort of an audience participation clapping part at the end which has caught
anti: How long does it take you to get
comfortable with playing new material?
WJ: It usually takes 2 or 3 shows
for a song to start feeling worn in, but it's just part of the natural
growing pains that go along with playing new material. It's just like a
new pair of shoes or something.
anti: What songs are you most excited
WJ: That ("Calling Thermatico")
was one of them actually. I'm really looking forward to doing "Take a Rake"
and "Take the Maps and Run". Both of those, I'm looking forward to finally
getting into the set. That's a goal for the end of the tour.
anti: What influences shaped your lyrics
as you wrote this album?
WJ: It was written in different
time periods, so there were a number of different tributaries. Some were
5 or 6 years, while others were written 2 or 3 days before loading into
the studio, but as far as influences go it could be a number of things.
It can be writers, it can be literature, it can be a conversation. It doesn't
have to be music, and it often times is not music. It is usually an event,
a conversation, or a joke, or a fragment that gets into my head, and I
turn it into a song.
anti: It just doesn't seem you write
love song after love song…
WJ: Right. It's not always non-fiction.
I'll sometimes write musical short stories.
anti: What is your philosophy towards
WJ: I think it's important to work
to make a special moment happen between audience and band. To let the show
ascend to that point where it is the creation of a moment and something
that will be remembered. It's so cliché to say it, but we do tend
to leave every bit of it onstage, and come staggering off. If the audience
can feel you're working for that, you'll achieve that moment. That's the
kind of thing that keeps people coming around to shows.
anti: Other than the new album, are
there any notable changes to the current tour?
WJ: We're using some samples here
and there, so we're importing some more sounds. Just a little bit. Not
much. We probably will a little more as we continue to tour the next few
months with new songs, but we just started doing it two days ago, like
footswitch samples and things like that. Steady as she goes with that.
anti: Are you working any of that into
your older tunes?
WJ: No, not yet, but we'll probably
do so. I think we want to get the new record covered first, then work backward
a little bit.
anti: Do you have any good stories from
the tour thus far?
WJ: (Laughing) I got a case of double
pink eye in Florida. Pink eye is one thing man, but if you get the double
pink eye, it's pretty intense. You have to pry your eyes open in the morning
with your thumb and forefinger. I've never looked so metal. I had glowing
pink eyes for a while there. So that was kind of interesting. That was
an adventure. We got detained at Canadian customs for about an hour and
a half a couple days ago. It was just typical stuff, I guess. They searched
the van. They didn't search it with a fine-toothed comb or anything, they
just held us for a while, and went through tons of paperwork, and asked
a lot of questions, and went over a lot of numbers, and made some calls,
and sent a few guys out to look at the van. Before I knew it, we'd been
there about an hour and fifteen, hour twenty, or so. But it's all fine.
It's to be expected. You know, you've got Texas tags and beards, so immediately
people are gonna go, 'Wait a minute. Something's going on." (Laughing again)
anti: How many shows did you have pink
WJ: Five, maybe? It took a while
to go away, so I went back to wearing glasses, but the prescription's all
wrong. I got out of driving a couple days. I guess that was nice, but man
it was unpleasant. It feels like you got cornflakes under your eyeballs.
anti: Audience members probably thought
you were so stoned on stage.
WJ: That's exactly what the promoter
said at one of the shows. He's like, "Oh, I didn't know you had pink eye.
I just thought you jumped out of the van stoned."
anti: What's the current favorite album
on the tour bus?
WJ: Her name is Liz Durrett. She's
Vic Chestnutt's niece, and he's all over the record, he helped record it.
Tina Chestnutt's all over it. It's just my favorite record right now.
anti: How did the Undertow Orchestra
WJ: If it could have gone better,
I'd be anxious to know how. It was so much fun, and very educational. Very
enlightening. It was fun to be amongst heroes for a month. We're going
to do some European stuff in June, and the west coast in the fall. Maybe
even make a record. (My jaw dropped.) We've been talking about it,
if we can get all the schedules to align.
anti: I was a little upset it didn't
make it up here (which means upstate NY).
WJ: I was too. I was really sad
it didn't make it to here (Buffalo) or Toronto. It was a bummer. I think
we were passing through, or routing, from Boston all the way to Grand Rapids,
and we stopped to have dinner in Buffalo. It was really disappointing because
we were like, "We should be playing here tonight." I'm going to lobby for
that if we choose to do another round. There are certain towns we didn't
get to this past time that I'm pushing for.
anti: What are you looking forward to
with the upcoming dates you have? I know you're going overseas.
WJ: We're going to there May 7th
for about a month. We're going to some familiar haunts that have done real
well for us in the past. I'm definitely excited about getting back there,
because it's been so long since we've toured with Centro-matic. I'm curious
to see, first, if people even remember who we are, and, if so, how they
respond to it. There are a few places that we haven't been yet, that seems
like things are starting to go pretty well. We haven't taken Centro-matic
to Spain yet, so we'll spend about a week there doing dates. I think that's
the place I'm most excited about.
anti: I always see these pictures of
you reading books. What book are you currently reading?
WJ: I've got a book of poetry I'm
reading by a guy named Ron Rash. He's from, I believe, western North Carolina.
He teaches out there. It's funny, I gave him a shout out the other night
onstage when we were in Asheville, and I got an email from him today out
of the blue. He's like, "Hey, I heard you gave me a shout out. Thanks."
So that's my pleasant surprise of the day. I'm also reading Moneyball
by Michael Lewis. I'm a big baseball freak. In celebration of a new season
starting, I'm always reading a new baseball book this time of the year.
anti: Which Texas team?
WJ: I'm a Cardinals fan. I mean,
I'm a Rangers sympathist, but I'm a Cardinals fan.
anti: You tour so much, how do you keep
from getting road weary?
WJ: Making sure there are adequate
breaks between the tours. Like three weeks on, a month off. Anything more
than 3 or 4 weeks starts wearing on you a bit. There were a couple stretches
last year that I probable would have done differently in hindsight. That's
where you learn. It's just a little foresight. A little planning. Being
able to predict fatigue. Looking at a schedule and seeing 22 out of 24
days of shows. I'm probably not going to want to leave one week after that.
Knowing your body and your constitution to the point where you can predict
After drilling him for three pages worth
of material, we merrily parted ways. Me feeling honored, and he probably
feeling I strained his vocal chords for the show that night. I would like
to thank Will Johnson for his wealth of information, his cordiality, and
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