Even if his name isn’t instantly familiar to you, Will Johnson has probably been a part of at least one musical project you’re a fan of. After moving to Denton, Texas, in the early ’90s for college, Johnson formed Centro-matic, which has released numerous records since 1996. In 2002, Johnson, his Centro-matic bandmates and guest musicians started issuing more introspective records under the South San Gabriel moniker; the same year, Johnson released his first solo LP. Since, Johnson has played drums with Monsters Of Folk, toured with the Undertow Orchestra (featuring David Bazan, Mark Eitzel and Vic Chesnutt) and started work on a Woody Guthrie project (with Jay Farrar, Jim James and Anders Parker) in the vein of the Wilco/Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue albums. Johnson’s latest release is the self-titled debut by Molina And Johnson (on Secretly Canadian), his duo with Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.); download two M&J songs below. As if he wasn’t busy enough already, the Austin-based Johnson will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
“Almost Let You In” (download):
“Twenty Cycles To The Ground” (download):
MAGNET: Will Johnson. Centro-matic. South San Gabriel. The Undertow Orchestra. Monsters Of Folk. The upcoming Woody Guthrie project with Jay Farrar, Jim James and Anders Parker. Obviously, you decided to do a Molina And Johnson record because you felt you needed to play music under yet another different moniker, right?
Johnson: Yeah. [Laughing] Jason and I figured we both needed one more ornament for the moniker tree.
Do you ever think that all your different projects might keep some fans from knowing about everything you do?
Sure. I think that’s very possible. I don’t get hung up on it. I prefer to keep the landscape changing. I never really set out to be identified by one singular band or one sole entity, and by and large, that’s been a big positive creatively. I feel like our various bands and projects all connect in their own ways, some maybe more than others. But instead of confusing, one record might lead a listener to check out some of the other recordings we’ve made or one of the other bands or musicians we’re related to.
It seems you are into the communal aspect of the folk-rock tradition. How did you get into that way of doing things? How does that way of thinking contrast with the singer/songwriter thing that’s been popular since the ’60s?
It’s handed down. I guess I’ve always felt like creating music is supposed to be a shared thing. Denton’s musical community has been that way for as long as I can remember. That had a lot to do with it. In the years I lived there, it was a constant for most musicians we knew to be involved in three or four different bands. I learned that throwing yourself into new environs, even potential failures, inevitably puts new wrinkles on your brain and can teach you something new. It pushes habit aside and takes you out of potential comfort zones. Picking up a different instrument or seeing the studio or stage from different vantage points only helps improve perspective. The more you do that, the more you learn.
How come Molina’s name comes first, by the way? Why not Johnson And Molina?
I voted for his name to come first. Looks and sounds better that way to me.
According to the official press release for the album, drinking and shooting BB guns were integral to the recording session. How come?
This was mostly inspired by a South San Gabriel session about a year before. We kept a BB gun or two on hand and hung targets in the trees out back of the studio. We found that it led to concentration, fellowship and solid takes. That carried over to the recordings with Jason. Whenever we needed a break, we’d just go out and shoot. One of a few forms of poor man’s therapy we latched onto.
On a more serious note, you and Jason had to cancel your U.S. and European tours because of Jason’s “health issues.” Is he doing OK? Are you going to try to tour in the future?
As far as we’ve communicated, I think so. As far as any future touring goes, I hope so.
Aside from the Guthrie album with Farrar, James and Parker, what else do you have coming up?
I made most of a new solo record last year, and I need to finish that. We have a new Centro-matic record we’re working on, and I made some recordings with David Bazan and Matt and Bubba Kadane (New Year, Bedhead) last week that yielded a really nice time and some good results. I’m hoping we see that through to its eventual release.
—Eric T. Miller