Six Degrees of Will Johnson
How the Centro-Matic front man’s knack for making friends and introductions helped turn Denton into “the new Austin.”
Will Johnson. Musician. Yes, sir, I do. Earlier this year, those were the answers Will Johnson gave to a U.S. Customs official as he returned from a European tour. The first two questions were standard: Name? Occupation? The third was clearly off-script: Do you make a living doing that? Not a question the official would have likely bothered asking Steven Tyler. “I suspect he was a little disappointed he wasn’t meeting a rock star,” Johnson says. “And if you’re not a recognizable rock star, you can’t be making a living, right?”
It depends on how you define “a living.” At 41, Johnson, the front man of the Denton pop band Centro-Matic, is scrapping it out, raising a family and paying an Austin mortgage. He may have had a major-label recording deal and once shared a Madison Square Garden stage with his friends in My Morning Jacket, but the two things he’s best known for—his role in bringing together the mid-nineties Dallas and Denton music scenes and his standing as arguably the most productive contemporary singer-songwriter in Texas—aren’t the stuff of rock stardom. They’re the stuff of a global cult following. “I wasn’t wired to be a pop star,” Johnson says. “I was wired to create music. There’s a big difference between the two.”
Not that Johnson is some sort of a hermit. He is, for sure, compelled to write and record songs at a staggering pace. The Greenville-turned-Austin musician Ben Kweller uses three words to summarize Johnson’s ethos: always make art. In the music press, “prolific” is the word most attached to his name, as in “the prolific singer-songwriter Will Johnson.” Johnson shrugs off the tag, though he admits he is addicted to the “physical and emotional release” of songwriting. When he’s not on tour, he can often be found in the dining room of his North Austin home, writing lyrics and sketching out melodies while his toddler naps. After a series of busy days, tunes leave the room ten or twelve at a time.
But Johnson is prolific in another way: he’s constantly making new friends and turning them into collaborators. Though Centro-Matic is his “main squeeze,” he also clocks time with the atmospheric South San Gabriel and with the Monsters of Folk, a supergroup featuring Johnson, the singer-songwriter M. Ward, My Morning Jacket front man Jim James, and Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst. Scorpion, the solo record Johnson released in September, was recorded almost four years ago, but it sat around largely because he had so many other albums awaiting release—among them, Centro-Matic’s twelfth record, a set with Magnolia Electric Co.’s Jason Molina, and a Woody Guthrie tribute made with James and Son Volt’s Jay Farrar. Taking stock of Johnson’s long and eclectic list of collaborators, Paste magazine recently called him “the Kevin Bacon of indie rock,” though author Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of a “connector”—someone with a knack for getting to know people and putting them in touch with one another—may be even more apt. Johnson was knitting together social networks when Facebook was just a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, and the Internet’s ability to amplify that talent goes a long way toward explaining his unlikely success.
Before Johnson’s tentacles stretched nationwide, he was the Kevin Bacon of Denton. Born and raised in Missouri, he moved to Texas in the early nineties to attend the University of North Texas. He wasn’t enrolled in the school’s legendary music program (which later produced Norah Jones), but being in Denton at that time meant many a late night immersed in local music at such venues as Rick’s Place or the Argo, dive bars where you could see a polka band one night and an experimental punk group the next.
“There was a real sense of community,” Johnson says. “And there was a little bit of a musical blockade between Denton and Dallas bands. A band that did really well in Dallas wouldn’t do as great in Denton, and vice versa.” The separation wasn’t merely cultural. Johnson notes that the towns were divided by vast stretches of undeveloped land and that getting from one to the other wasn’t as easy as hopping on a toll road.
A highway construction boom and Johnson himself helped bridge those gaps. While living in Denton, he played drums with Funland, one of the first Dallas rock bands of the time to ink a major-label deal. Before long, Johnson put school on hold and moved to Dallas. “I suppose I was trying to make friends and get to know people in a giant city,” he says.
One of those friends was Rhett Miller, who was launching the popular roots-rock band the Old 97’s. “Will was just the unassuming drummer back then,” says Miller. “But he was so generous. And he’s so low-key. It’s not as if he was running around championing himself as the center of this web he created. He was just this ubiquitous connector of the Dallas and Denton scenes.”
In 1995—a couple of years after Funland had left Arista Records and gone the independent route—Johnson wrote his first songs and began issuing cassette-only releases under the name Centro-Matic. Soon he had a rising national profile, and his eagerness to boost local groups began to make a difference. He’d talk about Denton bands in interviews and handpick low-profile acts to open Centro-Matic shows. Thanks partly to Johnson, Denton is now widely recognized as a perennial “new Austin,” a launching pad for semi-big-name acts like Midlake and Sarah Jaffe.
Despite the deep roots he’d planted in North Texas, after going through a divorce Johnson took up residence in Austin in 2002. But he still records regularly in and around Denton. Scorpion, for instance, was put together in the neighboring town of Argyle. Johnson says that recording in near-isolation during the winter inspired the album’s introspective feel. Scorpion is full of meditations on aging and fatherhood; many of the songs that came out of his dining room could have been set in his dining room. Johnson calls this sort of thing “personal music,” a putative genre that includes artists like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bon Iver, and Johnson’s fellow Central Texas transplants Bill Callahan and Iron & Wine.
“To me, the notion of personal music goes back to Woody Guthrie, Nick Drake, and early Neil Young,” Johnson says. In an age of digital ones and zeros, such unflinchingly stark music conveys extra power. “The more we’re connected to screens for hours on end, the more weight some of those voices carry. When I sit down and listen to a Callahan record, it’s a very cleansing experience. It’s a luxury to hear his voice, especially after a day feeling enslaved to technology.”
The irony is that in Johnson’s case, this inward-turning music is made possible by his gift for creating alliances. His discography looks like the hippest Facebook friends list ever. And online is where most people hear about Johnson: a Jim James or Conor Oberst fan will see his name linked to theirs and click over to his music. Which is why a guy who twenty years ago would have had a local following and a day job can tell a customs officer that he makes a living playing music.
And he’s not letting up anytime soon. After touring on Scorpion this fall, he hopes to record a new Centro-Matic set and release an album he’s already made with Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan under the moniker Overseas. In April, just in time for opening day, he’ll present an exhibition of his baseball paintings—another compulsion—at ground zero for Austin folk art, Yard Dog Gallery.
Still, even all that isn’t quite enough for Johnson. “It’s like books,” he says. “Most of us never get to read all the books we want to read. I don’t think I’ll ever get to create all the music I want to create. But I don’t sit around and take inventory of what I’ve done and what I haven’t. My job is waking up and making art. I’m lucky to sustain a living that way. Really lucky.”
Of course, some people make their own luck.