Monsters of Folk played a set at Stubb’s outdoor amphitheater in support of
their self-titled debut album in 2009. The band, an indie supergroup made up
of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, M. Ward and
producer Mike Mogis, gave their respective fans plenty to keep them hooked.
For James, it was “Golden,” “At Dawn,” and other cuts from
the MMJ catalogue. Oberst played “We Are Nowhere And It’s Now,”
from his 2002 gem “At The Bottom of Everything.”
One of the less expected moments of the night came when Will Johnson, who had
been brought on to handle drums for the new group, stepped out from behind
the drum set to sing his own song, “Just To Know What You’ve Been
Dreaming.” James announced him as a hometown musician; a year later,
during a taping of “Austin City Limits,” he would announce Johnson
as the newest official member of the band.
The crowds at both shows approved — many of them no doubt knew Johnson from
his role as the front man for Centro-matic or offshoot South San Gabriel.
Though it’s a fairly high-profile gig, Johnson’s involvement in Monsters of
Folk is just a small part of a career that includes nearly 20 years with
Centro-matic (and a gigantic heap of recordings) as well as countless
collaborations with the likes of Jay Farrar, Vic Chestnutt, Jason Molina and
This week, Johnson is set to release “Scorpion,” his first solo
effort in eight years. Recorded with longtime Centro-matic bandmate Matt
Pence, it’s a personal, haunting and forward-looking addition to his
Reviews of Johnson’s work tend to include lines about his unmatched work
ethic, how the band is still “going strong” after all these year,
and how he’s such a prolific songwriter. It’s all true. A look at the last
year or so in his career reveals as much.
Fans and critics loved Centro-matic’s 2011 full-length “Candidate Waltz,”
which found the band continuing to improve with a collection of big rock
songs. Johnson followed that with the February release of “New
Multitudes,” a Woody Guthrie tribute that also featured Jay Farrar of
Son Volt, Anders Parker and Jim James.
Johnson also lent his voice to Craig Finn’s recent solo album and played in
Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood’s solo band.
“I don’t think I could be in one band very well, without becoming —
fidgety, for lack of a better word,” Johnson said during an interview
at Spider House in August.
If a constantly rotating schedule of new bands and collaborations isn’t
enough, these days Johnson manages to balance his musical career with a
family. He wrote and recorded “Scorpion” when his life as a father
(he is now stepfather and father to two young children) was just beginning
back in 2009.
Parts of the album, with songs including “You Will Be Here, Mine”
and “Vehicular and True,” reflect that by touching more directly
on themes of relationships and commitment than a lot of Johnson’s other
It’s a change he shares with some of his bandmates from Centro-matic.
“In some ways I think it’s actually easier now,” Johnson said. “We
kind have all grown up together in certain ways and proven that we can still
do it in a way that suits our personal schedules and in a way that pleases
us artistically, and in a way that keeps it changing, and in a way that
we’re still learning from one another.”
The thrill of the new
Johnson grew up in the small town of Kennett, Mo., about three hours south of
St. Louis. He moved to Denton to attend the University of North Texas in the
1990s and he stayed, forming Centro-matic in 1995 after leaving another
band, Funland. Matt Pence, Scott Danbom and Mark Hedman would make up the
band’s lineup a short time later.
Between 1995 and 2001, Centro-matic released five full-length records. The
last of the bunch, “South San Gabriel Songs/Music,” marked a
period of artistic disagreements within the band, where some of the members
wanted to perform material that Johnson describes as “atmospheric,”
as opposed to more straightforward rock.
Instead of letting that divide them, they created South San Gabriel, a
collective that would include the core members of Centro-matic plus other
The band would go on to release music under both names, including a South San
Gabriel split single with Okkervil River and a double album that featured
both Centro-matic and South San Gabriel. “It solved a lot of problems,
to tell you the truth,” Johnson said. “It really made things
easier, especially in how we wanted to play each night. It confused a lot of
people, but I’m glad we made that decision.”
Around the same time, South San Gabriel opened for My Morning Jacket at Austin
club Mercury (now the Parish). MMJ had recently released its second album, “At
Dawn,” and embarked on a national tour.
My Morning Jacket “were just tremendous.” Johnson said. “I had
not seen or experienced a band like that in my life. I’ve seen a lot of
great, great bands for the first time, but that was one of those bands where
I couldn’t stop thinking about that show for a month. I was introduced to a
very, very special musical force of nature that night.”
South San Gabriel went on to tour with MMJ after the release of MMJ’s “It
Still Moves” and “Z”; Johnson joined them on stage on more
than one occasion, including New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden in 2008
and at this year’s Newport Folk Festival.
After Monsters of Folk recorded their album in 2009, the band wanted someone
who could sing and play drums, and called on Johnson to handle drums on tour.
Since then, they’ve made good on James’ assertion that Johnson is the “fifth
monster” (“I wasn’t prepared for it, I didn’t know he was going to
do it,” Johnson said of the announcement) including him as a full
member in recording sessions earlier this year.
“There were moments during the session in February when it had the
excitement of a really young band just kind of rocking out in a living room,”
Johnson said. “There were times when I would get on guitar and Jim
would get on drums — there’s just an undying and inevitable thrill to that,
no matter the situation. It’s thrilling to feel that after all these years.”
In the studio
Johnson recorded “Scorpion” over five days with Pence, his
Centro-matic bandmate, at the Echo Lab studio outside Denton, which Pence
co-owns. On past solo albums, including his 2004 album “Vultures Await,”
as well as Centro-matic recordings, Johnson set song arrangements well in
Here, despite the speed at which they worked, Johnson and Pence worked almost
everything out in the studio. Johnson used the drive from his home in Austin
to Denton, which clocks in around four hours, to work out songs in his head.
Though it might seem his level of productivity could be the result of
aconstant stream of wild brainstorming, Johnson is quite disciplined, Pence
“He specifically sets aside time where he knows he’s going to go in and
work on something, and he does it in a methodical way, so that he creates a
space where he can then be spontaneous and kind of tap into a more pure
creativity,” Pence said. “He does things in a smart way that is
Parts of “Scorpion” feel populated by ghosts. Distant clatter of
percussion interrupts the gentle, rocking guitar on the opening track; at
other points, Johnson’s vocals call out from a far-away place.
“It’s less instrumentation with the solo thing,” Johnson said. “It’s
Matt and I kind of putting our heads down and seeing what we can come up
with. We wanted to experiment with some new, strange things.”
In that vein, another new thing that Johnson added to his repertoire over the
last few years and will continue this fall is his “living room show”
series, in which he trades in traditional club shows for a series of
fan-hosted house performances.
He picked up the idea from another collaborator and friend, former Pedro the
Lion frontman David Bazan.
“I liked that it put everyone on neutral turf, and it broke down some of
the barriers that we encounter at the traditional venue setting,”
“I liked the fact that there was no PA. In a way I thought it harkened
back to the way that people originally played music for one another.”