A strong, if hefty, follow up to 2006’s excellent Fort Recovery, Will Johnson and company lay it all out on Dual Hawks, the new two disc affair that stables Centro-matic on disc one, and their softer side project, South San Gabriel, on disc two. With a total of 23 songs it’s admittedly a lot to wade through, but like all great art, the payoff is worth the commitment. Last week Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Will Johnson to discuss, among other things, baseball, Jason Molina and the late, great, Oxford, Mississippi author Larry Brown.
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Aquarium Drunkard: Vulture’s Await is probably my favorite release of yours. Will there be another proper Will Johnson solo album anytime soon?
Will Johnson: I don’t know about soon, but there will definitely be another solo album. I’m starting to write in a quieter mode these days, and that may well lead me back down that path. There are a couple of projects lined up in front of that right now, though.
AD: There have been rumors you recorded an album with Jason Molina earlier this year. When is the album due to come out? (Is there a label attached?) Did you guys play solo on your own songs or are each of you on every song (harmony vocals…instrumentation…etc)?
Will Johnson: Yes, we made a record together back in February. The plan is for it to come out sometime during the early part of next year. We recorded a few songs solo, but mostly backed each other on a good deal of them and even spent some time writing a few of them together. You know, you take a verse, then I take a verse style. We had some friends in to help us on other instrumentation which was great. I think we tracked about 24 songs in 11 days. It was a very fun, enlightening experience hanging with Molina, and it all went better than I could have imagined. Cleansing.
AD: I’m curious as to how essential songwriting is to your life. Throughout your everyday life, as things happen, do you come upon a feeling or have an experience and think, “Man, I gotta write a song about that.” Or is it more of a thing where every so often you think, “well, it’s time to make a record and write songs again”?
Will Johnson: It’s still just as essential as it ever was, but it used to be a bit more spontaneous than it is now. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that when I was younger I had a lot more free time on my hands. There was just more time to be a student, a townie, a waiter, or whatever it was I was doing at the time, and sit around on the porch and speculate and devise and come up with stuff. Now that I’m a little older, it’s more difficult to find that time, so I’ve got to plan it in advance. We’re touring a lot more and there’s more business stuff to tend to during the days, so I find that I’ve got to cut out time to go somewhere and write. That said, it’s still just as necessary. It just happens in a different way these days.
AD: Would you say the majority of the songs you write are personal to you and experiences of your life? Or more based on others experiences that you observe?
Will Johnson: It depends on the song, really. It’s all over the place. A song like “Vultures Await” was gleaned completely from a personal life experience, but a song like “Tundra Part 7” is just me throwing stuff at the wall, creating characters and having them interact. More playful, I guess. That song is all fiction.
AD: How do you feel your vocal style has evolved over the years, and who do you feel are you vocal influences?
Will Johnson: My voice has definitely become a bit more ragged over the years. I feel like there’s a little more range in it than there used to be. I’m more comfortable with it now, and I feel like I’m attuned to its strengths and limitations. i’m trying not to over-sing or force things vocally anymore, and I think I used to do that some in the earlier years. I guess it’s par for the course with a lot of singers, though. It’s just a product of being younger and a bit more, I don’t know, bitchy. As for vocal influences, it’s such a mish mash: Lightnin Hopkins, Nina Simone, Levon Helm, Paul Westerberg are a few. Waits, Eddie Hinton, Patterson Hood, Jim James. even though they may not all be soul singers by genre, those are some of the most soulful singers I know of. There’s got to be something believable in the vocal. I need to feel that as a music fan and as a singer. if I don’t, then it sorta goes in one ear and out the other.
AD: I’m always fascinated by who artists listened to in their youth (and currently). Who would you consider to be your biggest influences?
Will Johnson: I had the fortune of having access to some good records early on. My mom’s, dad’s and grandparents’ collections covered a lot of ground, and music was always very present in my life as far back as I can remember. Johnny Cash, Bread, Aretha and John Denver are some of the first voices I remember hearing in my life. We lived in smalltown southeast Missouri, but there were a couple of great soul stations we could get out of Memphis, and I always wanted to hear those. I guess i took a more FM radio oriented turn later on. Started getting into Journey and stuff, roller rink rock. Then, thanks to my cousin, I had the fortune of discovering bands like the Minutemen, Husker Du and the Replacements. That sealed the deal and I remember feelin’ like there was no turning back. I guess I realized you didn’t have to be playing arenas to be considered justified or legitimate. That was a huge deal to me at that age. an awakening. There’s all this peer pressure, you’re trying to find some way to fit in, and all the kids in school are goin’ to see poison or whatever. But those SST and twin tone and IRS bands spoke to me. Those were the voices I connected with, and still connect with in an immeasurable way.
AD: When it comes to the songs on your South San Gabriel releases who is the mastermind of the sounds on the songs? Are they normally acoustic based songs and the band adds their instrumentation or do you have a vision for each song?
Will Johnson: On the South San Gabriel records, everyone becomes the masterminds of the sounds. I will show up with certain visions for each song, but oftentimes after bringing in the barebones acoustic version of it, everyone is encouraged to start trying whatever ideas might come to mind. Sometimes a songs written right there in the studio. SSG’s got a wide open, collective kind of feel to it, and that was the design for it all along. It’s all built on trust and confidence in one another, you know. It takes a little longer to get those records done, but in the end hopefully everyone’s ideas and input are realized and committed to tape. that makes the recording experience just that much more fulfilling.
AD) What is on your bookshelf at the moment? Any books you’ve read over the past year that you’d recommend?
Will Johnson: I just finished a great book by Ron Rash called The World Made Straight. I would certainly recommend that. Also “the lives of rocks” by Rick Bass, A Miracle of Catfish by Larry Brown. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it but I always recommend Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Currently reading some essays (The Way of Ignorance) by Wendell Berry right now and studying up on LBJ when there’s time.
AD: Alright, as a avid baseball fan, how ’bout some baseball predictions for the 2008 season?
Will Johnson: Man, my only prediction right now is that I am screwed. I mean, capital “S” screwed. As a post tour splurge, I just signed up for the mlb.com TV plan last night. That means I can watch every game live from my computer for the rest of the season. And if it’s the time of day when there’s no baseball on, I can go back and watch archived games. Potential productivity levels for the next few months are seriously endangered. Screwed, I tell you. words/kyle kersten
Elsewhere: Southern Shelter has MP3s of Centro-Matic Live @ 40 Watt in Athens, GA 6/21/08
MP3: Centro-Matic :: Remind Us Alive
MP3: Will Johnson :: Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming
MP3: South San Gabriel :: Kept On The Sly
Amazon: Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel – Dual Hawks