By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Texas in June is great. There's a certain romance to it. By August, though, the romance is gone, and everyone starts getting edgy. A few summers ago in the studio, the heat really started getting to Centro-Matic frontman Will Johnson, inspiring him to write faster, louder and rawer material.
"We just kind of pulled the rip cord and went for it for about eight days in the studio, and that's what we came out with, really," Johnson says of the tunes, most of which were written and recorded on the same day. "It's a little scary writing right then and there, in the moment, because you've booked time and everybody's coming to the studio in a hour or two, and you're still writing that song or still working on it. But I think it's a very good kind of scary, and I think it's good to find what's important to you lyrically and find what you gravitate toward quickly and find kind of what you're made of. You're teetering on that strange fulcrum of pulling it off or total failure. I think that far more times than not, that brings out the best in a band or a group of people. And I think that's what we wanted to do with that particular session."
Some of those songs ended up on Dual Hawks, the band's latest effort and a split release between Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, which features all four members of the former plus additional musicians. While the guys knocked out the Centro-Matic tracks in just over a week, they labored longer over the South San Gabriel material. Since there were so many people involved, it took more than a month to finish.
"It's definitely kind of an unusual record," Johnson points out, "but at the same time, we wanted it to be a fan-friendly release, and something that we think kind of illustrates why we pursue both projects and how we pursue them. We felt like both sets of recordings sat well together but were different enough to put out a double record with both bands, which is something we've been curious about doing for a little while. We figured, why not? We have the liberty as independent musicians to do those sorts of things. So we went ahead and took those liberties and went with it and put together what we feel like displays both bands and exactly where we're at at this point in time."
More to the point, Dual Hawks highlights the duality of Johnson's songwriting: The Centro-Matic tunes are usually a bit more playful and scattershot, while the South San Gabriel songs are typically more straight-faced and personal. Johnson says that, for the most part, he knows early on which project a tune will be suited to.
"I'll usually have a pretty good idea where I want it to fall," he explains. "On occasion there will be a song or two that kind of ride the fence, so to speak. If that's the case, we'll discuss it in a democratic forum and decide where we want to place it. But most of the time I'll kind of know what path I'm taking once I get a verse or a chorus in; I'll kind of have a feel for it." He should. In the past decade, Johnson has been incredibly prolific, having written roughly 200 songs spread out over nine Centro-Matic records, four EPs, two South San Gabriel albums and two solo efforts.
"I try to stay busy with it," he says. "I'll go through streaks where I won't write anything for a long time, but then something will kind of kick in and I'll write fourteen or fifteen songs over the course of a week. It's a strange thing. I try not to rely on it too much, with the understanding that there may come a day when I don't have a damn thing left to sing about. And hopefully I'll have the wisdom to know when the hell to shut up when that day comes.
"I used to kind of force it when I was younger," he goes on. "I'd lock myself in a room and say, 'You gotta write ten ideas by noon.' But it's got a little more breadth to it at this point. I'll let the quiet times just be quiet, and then suddenly it will go away for five days or a week, and then I'll just start writing and it'll all unfold and make sense to me again. That's kind of the way it's been in recent years."
"Recent" is a relative term when you consider that the 37-year-old musician didn't write his first complete song until he was 24. The seed for that may have been planted at the first concert he attended, at age three: John Denver at Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, 1974.
"My mom tells me I didn't sit down for one bit of it," Johnson says. "We had front row seats in the balcony. I stood there, holding onto the railing, just completely smitten with the entire presentation that was happening in front of me. I don't think I was ever the same, actually, when I got home from that show."