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coverpic coverpic flag US - Texas - Full Moon 86 - 10/10/03

Centro-matic vs.
South San Gabriel

an interview with Will Johnson

Between a rock and a folk place
Austin, Texas-based singer/songwriter Will Johnson definitely is a busy man. Not only did he just finish an European tour (the next is already booked for October/November), he also released two albums within just a few months. The first, Welcome, Convalenscence, was the stripped down sophomore effort by his side-project South San Gabriel, the other is the soon-to-be-released Love You Just The Same by his main band, Centro-matic. We recently had the chance to talk to Will, who explained why the two bands are pretty much made ofthe same band members, though they are very much seperate entities.

Luna Kafé: I guess a lot of people start side projects because they don't want to play with the same musicians all the time. That doesn't seem to apply in your case. So what was the motivation behind SSG?
Will Johnson: "A few years back I had a certain surplus of songs floating around that didn't quite fit the more guitar-intensive stuff that Centro-matic often does. We started to become attracted to the idea of forming an entirely different outlet to fit those types of sounds, in hopes of including other friends that we've known and played with - something a little less formal and collective-like. This is not to suggest that Centro-matic is an overtly formal affair, but it took pressure off of us having to release all these songs under the Centro-matic moniker and created a new forum to write music in. We were inspired in several different directions."

LK: I guess not only the sound, also the SSG songs itself are different than in Centro-matic - was that change in songwriting prompted just by life in general or was there a specific turning point, where you realized to wanted/needed to do something different?
Will: "Both, really. We've always enjoyed making music together, but we've also tried to explore as many ways as we can to deliver a song. To me that's where a lot of the magic is in writing and recording - that feeling where nothing's impossible. We weren't bored with Centro-matic. We just had the fortune of having a lot of songs on hand that we liked, and decided to form a whole other band to accommodate them."

LK: Is there a potential (for lack of a better word) "risk" that you wouldn't want to continue to write any more "rock" (whatever that means) songs and SSG will become your main focus instead of Centro-matic?
Will: "Not presently, but I guess anything's possible. It's a long life and I enjoy the idea of us making records together for years to come in whatever form inspires us. There's certainly no plan to abandon Centro-matic because I think playing in that band is extremely fulfilling for us. It's loud, fairly loose, and very fun. It's entirely possible that South San Gabriel could become the main focus at some point, but I don't really worry about that. I'm concerned that everyone involved is enjoying themselves. The rest will take care of itself."

LK: Do you consider SSG to be a completely separate entity or could the band be described as a reaction of sorts to what you do with Centro-matic as well?
Will: "We try to keep them pretty separate, which was part of the point of forming South San Gabriel. Of course there's going to be inevitable kinship when the songs are coming from the same songwriter and four of the same musicians, but we work to keep the two bands fairly distanced from one another. If a song doesn't feel removed enough from its counterpart band, we'll hold off on it."

LK: Unfortunately I don't have the first SSG album, Songs/Music - how would you describe the differences between the first two records?
Will: "To me the first one's a little peppier and stripped down than Welcome, Convalescence. There's not quite as many soundscapes or atmospheric-ness on Songs/Music. Less syrup-y, more raw."

LK: One review over here said something along the lines of: "While Centro-matic focus on the guitars, SSG focus on the silence between the notes." Is that a fitting description in your eyes?
Will: "That's not too far off base. Centro-matic has more songs with football metaphors."

LK: How democratic is SSG (compared to Centro-matic) and how much input do the guest musicians have?
Will: "Both bands have always been wide open. I've tried to encourage that. I'll bring the bare bones songs to the camp, and then everyone will pile it on after that. We've played together for quite a long while now to where our communication and instincts feel pretty locked in. There's a lot of trust and respect, which inevitably breeds freedom."

LK: Would you be able to name five records that have played a role in writing and recording this album (as far as the sound and the mood is concerned)?
Will: "It might sound untrue, but not readily or quickly. In the case of this group of songs, it's easier for me to name books than records. I was reading a good deal of William Faulkner ("Light in August", "Sanctuary", "As I Lay Dying") and some of Breece D' J Pancake's short stories around that time, and was, frankly, going through a pretty fucked up period emotionally and marriage-wise. I think some of the books I'd chosen subconsciously inspired me to create some of my own characters and tell their stories. I isolated myself at my folks' house out in the country and wrote all the songs, with the exception of one, in the span of about four days. Isolation, books, and personal fucked up-ness played as big a role as anything."

LK: Silly last question - Is there anything you would like to see in print that's really important and that should be mentioned?
Will: "Not silly at all, though it's become very late into the night and I'm pretty tired. I think we've covered a pretty good deal here. Thanks for doing the interview, Carsten!"

Copyright © 2003 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

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