Centro-matic’s 2011 record, Candidate Waltz, was a typically electrifying set of rock songs. It was the Denton, TX-based band’s first outing in five years, an uncharacteristic amount of downtime, given the group’s hyper-prolific past. But fans know that frontman Will Johnson rarely stays still for long. In fact, he was busier than ever during those intermediate days, touring alongside Conor Oberst, Jim James, Mike Mogis and M. Ward as part of Monsters of Folk, collaborating with Magnolia Electric Co. mastermind Jason Molina on a stellar LP (the fittingly titled Molina and Johnson) and working with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar on an interpretive Woody Guthrie tribute album.
Now comes Scorpion. Johnson’s new solo release, like the ones before it, was produced by Centro-matic drummer Matt Pence. Like the titular animal, the record crawls steadily through barren fields of sound, dangerous despite its stature.
The album’s spartan, magnetic style is the in-the-moment result of some seriously condensed studio sessions. Johnson recalls listening back to the tapes each night. “A lot of the time, it’d be a song that didn’t exist 24 hours agoâ€¦ All but a couple of songs were written right then and there, during the session[s]. Sometimes it [doesn’t] work. Sometimes it completely destructs,” he says, laughing. “And I accept that possibility all the time.”
Scorpion is quiet but piercing, reminiscent of the most effective acoustic work of Johnson’s erstwhile collaborator Molina. (“Bloodkin Push [Forget the Ones]” particularly recalls the pitch-black Neil Young appropriations on Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain.) The work is very much a product of its physical and temporal birthplace.
“[T]his record is pretty stark and subdued, [with] kind of a solitary feel to it. It was, by no coincidence, recorded in the middle of February,” says Johnson, who says he is endlessly, if subconsciously, influenced by the seasons: “That stuff starts to get into the music.”
Like many artists, Johnson thrives on this duality: summer/winter, loud/soft, electric/acoustic. In Centro-matic, he is a rock star. On Scorpion, he is a troubadour. Likewise, on the stage of a dark club, he cuts a shadowy and mysterious figure. But in your living room? He’s just another dude.
Inspired by his friend, Pedro the Lion founder David Bazan, Johnson and fellow songwriter Anders Parker decided in 2009 to embark on a series of “living room shows,” which are precisely what they sound like: intimate performances, played out not in a crowded late-night bar setting but in a host fan’s well-lit domicile. There is no microphone and no crowd-artist divide.
“I really enjoyed the way it struck down a lot of the barriers that we tend to experience sometimes,” Johnson says of the idea. “I really liked the way it kind of harkened back to what I think music was transmitted like in the earliest days of humans, where people went from village to village entertaining each otherâ€¦ I really liked the way it deconstructed things.”
The intimate concerts not only provide a chance for fans and performers to vibe off one another on a bare, base level; they also, Johnson says, force him to reexamine his own work.
“Obviously, the living room show isn’t quite as rich an experience, sonically, as it is having a P.A. and a full band to really traverse these loud and more complex pieces of musical terrainâ€¦ But it can kind of re-aquaint you or re-teach you material that you’ve been playing in a different way for years.”
Still, most significantly, the shows are about community. “It allows me to listen to folks tell stories, and tell a few stories of my own, and not worry about a set-list [or] pacing so much. I like the idea that it does put everybody on neutral turfâ€¦ I like that it makes it about the music, and that it encourages friendships and connections and conversations that people might not have at a venue.”
Stragglers take note! All tickets for Johnson’s living room show must be purchased in advance. Visit undertowtickets.com to gain entry to this decidedly unique, likely unforgettable performance.
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