Will Johnson said he wasn’t expecting the songs that became Centro-matic’s 11th album, Take Pride in Your Long Odds.
“These songs cropped up when I wasn’t expecting it, which happens sometimes,” Johnson said. “The record was written in late fall and early summer in 2011. When they came up and I started writing them, they were stories and it was turning into a character-oriented record.”
Johnsons wasn’t planning to write a Centro-matic record, either. Usually, he said, the songs like the ones he was writing would end up on another of his projects, South San Gabriel.
“Centro-matic records are more about wordplay, and it’s generally more angular than the other projects I work with,” he said. “But something moved this more toward being a rock record, and there were points when it seemed like a love letter to Denton. There are some Denton outposts on the record. It was just worth putting it on a record with the full band.”
Johnson has been in hustle mode for a few years. Candidate Waltz came out in 2011, and the self-titled debut from Overseas — Johnson, Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan and brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, a collaboration often referred to as an indie supergroup — was released a year ago Wednesday. Oh, and Johnson dropped a solo album on Sept. 11 in 2012.
Long Odds is being released alongside Centro-matic’s 1997 debut LP. Navigational Transmissions/Thirty Tigers is releasing Redo the Stacks as a limited-edition, double-vinyl album for the first time ever.
Centro-matic originated in Denton, and is still anchored in Denton’s music-incubating ethers. Johnson lives in Austin, but treks up Interstate 35 when music calls. The melodies often started with Johnson.
“There were some melodies that were written on evening walks with my family — the three notes of ‘Salty Disciple’ started there, for the most part,” he said. “‘On the Ride Back’ is written on this guitar groove thing, and the melody came later.
“I really wanted these songs to have a bigger rock sound,” Johnson said. “The band helped us lift these songs out of the muck, along with [producer] Scott Solter.”
It’s not that Take Pride in Your Long Odds is an old man’s record. It’s just that the meditative tension between multi-instrumentalist Scott Danbom’s restrained keyboard work, the smoldering guitars of Johnson and guitarist/bassist Mark Hedman, and Matt Pence’s measured and precise drumming give much of the record a sound that’s worn without being boring, and burning without being blistering. With Long Odds in front of it, Centro-matic has achieved a maturity that belongs to bands that have been around long enough to see influences come and go and still riff off them.
Johnson said he titled the album after an idea that he been “kicking around.”
He admitted that the title can stand as Centro-matic tweaking the American culture’s nose. This is the land of Lance Armstrong and hanging chads — long odds are something to fix, not a point of pride.
“It was a statement I really liked,” Johnson said. “It applied to so many things. Regardless of what a person does and no matter where you are, all of us are going to experience long odds at some point in our lives. It might be about health. It might be about relationships. It might be the community softball league. I liked the silver-lining aspect. I found a lot of hope for these characters.”
Like the records before it, Long Odds considers the human condition, with a little extra attention to the warts. The First World still believes it might finally buy its way out of spiritual and relational poverty, and yet conflict keeps coming and denting it, corroding it around the bright, shiny edges. Johnson said “On the Ride Back” refers to our fussy habit of trying to shortcut struggle.
“There are as many people leaning on medication to get them through than there ever has been in human history — even in television ads for antidepressants, and do your muscles hurt or did you take that drug, maybe join this lawsuit,” he said. “I can’t deny that some of this was an experiment with that kind of thing. There are also the markers of small-town ’70s life and the holidays, when people think they can be with each other without the baggage every family has.”
Johnson said Centro-matic has sustained itself on mutual respect and a lot of patience.
“I just think the inherent love and care for each other over all these years has seen us through,” he said. “We have essentially become adults together. You have to find ways to make the band fit into your lives as it changes. That flexibility of your early 20s doesn’t exist anymore.”
Johnson said Centro-matic has also benefited from maintaining its status as a well-known small band.
“We have had to understand the realities of our place in the world. That’s hard for a low-profile indie band. We don’t tour as much as we used to,” Johnson said. “We can’t do that six-week lap around the country we used to. But I like to think we tour smarter. When you work for a label, you ... feel like you owe something. I had the same experience with [early Denton band] Funland [more than] 10 years ago, and then had the disappointment when the work is rejected.
“Centro-matic hasn’t had to feel like we owe something. We’ve been able to do the music we want to do.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
ALBUM RELEASE SHOWS
Centro-matic has two Dallas shows this weekend.
In-store at Good Records: 7 p.m. Friday at Good Records, 1808 Greenville Ave. in Dallas. Free.
At the Kessler: 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Kessler Theater, 1230 W. Davis St. in Dallas. Bar opens 6:30 p.m., and theater doors open at 7:30 p.m. With Cliffs of Insanity and True Widow. Tickets cost $16 to $24. For advance tickets, visit http://bit.ly/1l59cKj.
TRACK BY TRACK
Centro-matic, Take Pride in Your Long Odds
“Salty Disciple” — The band borrows the opening drumbeat from John Mellencamp’s “Hurt So Good.” Three catchy notes groove through the track about an addict. “What of your chemicals, honey?” Johnson sings. “She said, ‘I am your deterioration queen.’/All that you have is coming on down/All that you had is coming on down.” You can almost see the narrator soaring upward on a high, thanks to keyboardist Scott Danbom’s cheeky sci-fi sounds. And when the buzz starts to wear off, the guitars grind out like an unhappy hangover’s hurt.
“Hey There, Straps” — This quiet and gorgeous song crystallizes that special something that has made Centro-matic a vertebra in indie music’s backbone. Uber-simple guitar phrases back woebegone, soulful vocals. The song trails off with the last resonant strains of an organ. “Hey there, Straps, if you got time to hear this out,” Johnsons sings. “Is there room for my regret there in your cup?/In no time flat you were reeling from the thrust/Did it inconvenience you or pick you up?” It’s not often that a songwriter speaks to the fabled bootstraps, and that Johnson’s narrator would admit his are worn thin is sad and sweet.
“On the Ride Back” — The song ends with an uneasy reverb of fuzzed-out guitar and frayed, warbling organ. The character at the center of this unfolding story is on edge, paranoid. “It’s only OxyContin you trust,” but teeth are dangerously on edge when the angelic opiate can’t keep the antihero from a sordid stroll down memory lane. And in this song, pounding drums and hard guitar and bass slashes accompany the labored slog through the 12 saving steps. The noise grows wilder as the narrator helps the monkey back up onto his back.
— Lucinda Breeding