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Will Johnson calls on longtime bandmate for solo effort

Peter Mongillo
Will Johnson performs with Monsters of Folk at the Austin City Limits music festival in Zilker Park in 2010.

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 many others.

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 catalogue.

Keeping busy

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 material.

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 contributors.

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 advance.

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 says.

"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 efficient."

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," Johnson said.

"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."

Will Johnson