By some counts, the number of Centro-matic or related releases is in the hundreds at this point; three EPs, a soundtrack cut and a cassingle were released while you read this—each one a surprise and revelation. But none more so than the album now in your possession: Candidate Waltz, what Will Johnson (songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist) calls the band’s “meat-and-potatoes pop record.”
Johnson, the accidental solo artist who formed around him a band that’s hung tight and together for 15 years (and: Happy Anniversary!), wrote the songs on bass, in his warm Central Texas in mid-summer. He wonders: Can’t you tell? It sounds shirtless and sweaty.
Johnson and his compatriots—Scott Danbom (keyboards, violin, harmonies) Matt Pence (drummer, producer), Mark Hedman (bass, guitar)—have made what Johnson calls a “peeled back” album with “new approaches and ideas.” Fifteen years and 294 records later, Candidate Waltz manages to sounds like some young band’s debut—its exuberance is infectious; its vigor, visceral.
“I’d just hate for people to say, ‘It’s the same ol’ Centro-matic record.’ Do we go back and do the old things that please everyone, or go in the direction that challenges us and scares us? Because that’s where you learn things about your craft.”
It used to be, and may be again, that Centro-matic records were the ones you put on for long, late-night drives into the pitch-black oblivion, soundtracks to the getaway. The atmospheric anthems remain on the album, but they’ve been supercharged—“If They Talk You Down” is widescreen and Cinemascope and Surround Sound. This is the record that stands up to bright summer’s sunlight—a song, especially, like “All the Talkers,” about the cubicle-jobbers with cocaine winks and mini-skirt appeal (that’s Johnson’s poetry, every deadpan word) yak-yak-yaking through some band’s barroom set too transcendent to ultimately ignore. “They played until we had been won,” Johnson sings, his voice now fully transformed into a soulful snarl. “Until we had been won!”
Johnson began writing the songs in August 2009, then decamped for a while—this time, off to play drums with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and M. Ward. Hedman had a kid; Johnson too a little later. They’d return to the record in 2010, Hedman and Danbom especially trekking back and forth to Pence’s rustic hideaway, The Echo Lab, just outside of Denton. There, they laid down the overdubs, only to scale back while piling on. The distance did them some good; the songs told the boys to back off, give them some breathing room. A conflagration needs oxygen.
Stripping back, says Johnson, “made things more direct. The word I keep coming back to is more terse. Take a song like ‘All the Talkers.’ It’s a story song. That doesn’t happen often in our camp.” He laughs. “Usually it’s all about the images that leave the listener to decide what to make of it. The wordplay happens in the verses just itching to get to the chorus. But ‘Talkers’ is a attempt to tell a story. As rock fans we’ve all witnessed it, and I love seeing it happen—when an unexpected comes through town and blows the doors off the joint.”
“It always comes down to writing and playing the songs we want to hear and, hopefully, nurturing our relationship as a band that’s been together for a lot of years,” Johnson says. “That keeps us inspired and moving forward. That only adds to the relationship. I’d been doing this regardless, if I was sharing it or putting it in a suitcase in a closet. It’s the result of making a life of music as opposed to a four-, five-year stretch. So many bands come and go in these short patches of time, and we’re in it for the long haul.
“My songs still sound good enough to my ears where I want people to hear them. And until I get to the point where I am not singing where I want to or not singing the stories and melodies I am capable of, I’ll keep doing it in some capacity. It goes back to a life of music and not a phase of music, and when you choose to live a life of music and commit to that love for as long as you live, that’s what comes with the territory—that change, taking chances and pissing people off along the way and furrowing a few brows. But so long as it’s fulfilling, by all means we should do it. And if that’s not the case, we can always go camping together.”