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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.

Centro-Matic Live
April 6, 2006 at The Icon in Buffalo, New York

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 fond memory.

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 table.

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 and humorous.

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 on.

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 about premiering?

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 performing live?

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 eye?

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 tour go?

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 fatigue.

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 his time. 


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