Will Johnson shares some stories in advance of the Denver Music Summit this weekend
Will Johnson (due this Saturday, November 23, at the Denver Music Summit) made a name for himself in the '90s in Centro-Matic. A gifted songwriter, Johnson has a knack for penning elegant, emotionally rich and subtly powerful, folk-inflected songs. Over the years, he's toured endlessly on his own and with other acts such as New Multitudes, Monsters of Folk and Undertow Orchestra with friends like Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Connor Oberst.
Johnson's Denver appearance this weekend will include Johnson performing music as well as telling stories. We had a chance to speak with the thoughtful and eloquent Johnson about his early experiences playing in music, why the road is still a very important part of his life and why he is fascinated with painting lesser-known figures from the history of baseball.
Westword: You've been playing in bands since you were a teenager. What is your strongest memory of playing shows back then?
Will Johnson: Oh, goodness. I was in a band, I guess, in high school, called the Benjamins, and I think our first foray into playing in public was playing at the county carnival next to the hog pen and things like that. It was in this, as you might imagine, this big sort of exhibition, airplane hanger thing. It sounded horrible and looked worse. All our devoted and very kind high school buddies and all our pals came out.
I think we did a two night stand on a Friday and a Saturday. The money was huge for the time. I think we got two hundred fifty or three hundred dollars, which was astronomical. And I remember we finished up the shows, and talked about what we were going to do with all that money now that we were rich.
The bass player, maybe the singer, was of age and procured a twelve pack of cheap beer and went to Dennys or something like that. We sat around having late night supper, really glowing at the fact that we were using the money we made from the show to actually eat on and probably prematurely called ourselves professional musicians. That was my junior year of high school.
Aside from that, it was occasionally in these really rough biker bars in the military town we live in -- in Kileen, Texas, or that area. We weren't quite established, and couldn't get booked into Austin clubs, so we would play wherever they would let us. Our parents would come and support, look around and think, "Geez, our kids are deciding to do this with their lives? This is perhaps cause for alarm." It was funny watching my stepfather playing pool with all these bikers waiting for us to go on.
When you were in Funland you signed to Arista in 1992. In what ways did that influence how you handled your musical career later in life?
I got a little bit of an early education. I was a youngster when we signed to that label. I guess I was 20 or 21, and decided to take a break from college and go on the road and see what that was like. It definitely gave me an early taste of what the road was like -- these four and six week tours from time to time -- and how that would test your mind and your body.
We were signed in an era when major labels were signing just any band with two guitars, bass and drums and kind of long hair. It was clearly part of the post-Nirvana signing frenzy that went on with so many o the major labels. Many of those signings, of course, tax write-offs -- just throw something at a wall and see what sticks.
I suppose we were part of that approach. I'm not embittered about it, and I learned a lot about what not to do, and, in some cases, what to do. I'm really grateful for my friendship with my bandmates. We stay in touch from time to time, so it provided something last time.
But I smelled a rat when we turned in demos for our first full-length. We released an EP and the record deal was an EP with a full-length after that. We handed the demos over to the A&R guy, and we were exceptionally proud of them and happy with how the band was performing, and we were very locked in, in terms of friendships and how personal lives were going. We turned the demos over like a third grader might turn over an incredibly good report card. A week later, the A&R guy came back and told us, "You know, I was hoping for A and B songs, but these are B and C songs."
At that point, I thought we were clearly after different things.After that, we did something very unusual in asking out of the deal. We got in touch with our lawyer, and said we wanted to get out of our deal, and no longer wanted to have anything to do with them. Over the course of a few weeks, maybe a month or so, it was done. So we took the money and recorded the album we wanted to make and released it the following year on an independent label.
I think we were really happy about that. I think the sentiment on their side of things, they were like, "Oh, do you really want to jump ship?" And we were very certain. So for the misfortune that was at hand, it ended up being kind of rewarding in the end.
That's interesting because that's far better than having your album shelved, as happens with many bands in a similar situation.
Yeah, that would have been a lot worse. I would have taken a smaller label that would have given us more attention and shown our work more respect, rather than a major label that would have thrown a lot of money at it but not put their heart into it.
Not long after that, you went back to college at 24. What prompted that, and how did you feel about going back to college?
I was a little nervous, but I was excited to go back to college. I was going to Denton, Texas, which is where I started, in '89 and went through '92. Then I moved down to Dallas to do the Funland thing for a few years. So in '95, I went back there for a number of reasons. It had been heavy on my mind, and I had missed it a lot. On the work part of things, the job I was working at the time, they ended up cleaning house and laying a bunch of people off, so all arrows pointed toward making a move or changing things.
I was a little nervous about how things had changed since I left, but I was excited to be among a few old friends that were still there and in a music scene, that, at the time, was really full of life and great energy and a great sense of community. It still is now, but in a different way. It was just a really good era for music in that town, and I don't think it was any accident that at that time was when I wrote and eventually completed my first song with melody and lyrics and a bridge. I think I was just so inspired to be in that environment there.
That was the beginning of what became Centro-Matic. Midlake is from there, Baptist Generals, Slaughter Bums, Riverboat Gamblers started out there. It's a hotbed of various types of music, and I think it's a product of being an affordable state university within proximity of a major metropolitan area with a lot of venues and it has a great music school. You get so many musicians that go and decided to not study full time but instead play in a band.
You mentioned Centro-Matic, what made using a four-track studio an attractive option over a more traditional studio?
I was attracted to the creativity the that the limitations of a four-track really pushed. You only have a little bit of space to work with, and you have to maximize your performances and make something as good as you can in a very small space. I had borrowed the Funland four-track, and they let me take them from Dallas to Denton and back.
I had never really worked with one, and I started experimenting with it and finding that I just really loved the aesthetic of it. There's something about a Tascam 424 -- maybe it was a Mark II -- that I found so raw and personal, and I had a blast with it. Once I finished that first song, it was like the floodgates opened. I realized there was a whole world to work with in that little machine.
I was really into a lower fi aesthetic at that time. I started making recordings on a regular basis and releasing seven inches and cassettes and giving stuff away. In late '96 I made my first record and that was when I started doing more multi-tracking.
Did you do a lot of ping-ponging of tracks?
A little bit. But even that I didn't mess around with much until later.
Ah, yeah, people like John Vanderslice and Mark Eitzel made extensive use of that sort of thing.
I became friends with Mark in '01 or '02, and we became fast friends when we realized we were geographically-separated kindred spirits when it came to the four-track.