It's a few hours before show time at Chicago's Park West, and Centro-matic's Will Johnson is talking about his role in the Undertow Orchestra, an indie-songwriter supergroup of sorts composed of Johnson, Vic Chesnutt, American Music Club's Mark Eitzel and Pedro the Lion's David Bazan.
The tour, conceived as a one-off trek by former St. Louisan Bob Andrews (who manages all four artists under his Undertow Music umbrella), was a showcase for crooked-character studies and dark heartbreaks. Less an orchestra and more of a downtempo hootenanny, the UO featured each singer playing a half-dozen songs while the other three musicians provided instrumentation and the occasional harmony. And despite its informal title as "The Monsters of Sadness" tour, the show was an eye-opening experience for fans and performers alike.
"It's been positively one of the most educational and invigorating musical experiences I could have asked for," Johnson says, his deep, rich voice a good octave lower than his sweetly ragged singing voice. "I get to sit amongst heroes of mine and play songs with them. I can't say much more than that.
"You learn so much about songs you've known for so many years, like Vic's and Mark's especially. I've been listening to both of them for upwards of fifteen years. But it's fun just hanging back and playing their songs and seeing them from a new angle as opposed to just as a fan angle. 'Wow, now I get to play 'em! I lived this song for the summer of '92.'"
Johnson need not be so deferential toward his tourmates, though. While he may have felt like the Undertow underdog, at the Chicago show his resonant songs were standouts in a night of superlatives. Mixing songs from his three creative outlets (solo recordings, Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, a more atmospheric version of the latter), the set showcased Johnson's mournful voice, which was both clear and bottomless over the spare accompaniment. While it was no small task playing in between Chesnutt's gothic Americana and Eitzel's bittersweet portraits, he held his own by strength of songcraft and delivery.
Although the Missouri native splits his time among the aforementioned projects, he's best known as the leader of Denton, Texas' Centro-matic, a band that wraps Johnson's sometimes fragile (and sometimes raucous) songs in a gauze of country feedback and big-sky rock & roll. For much of its existence, the band has labored in relative obscurity, dutifully releasing an album every few years and bringing a full-out live show to any club that will have it. But Centro-matic made a jump to the mid-level independent label Misra for 2003's excellent Love You Just the Same and with this year's Fort Recovery, the band may raise their profile a bit.
The recording of the album found Centro-matic having to build their songs bit-by-bit in the studio, a departure for this band of road warriors that were used to tracking songs they had first tested during gigs.
"A lot of the seeds that were planted for Love You Just the Same had been worked out live for years," Johnson says. "So we had as good an idea as we've ever had about how we thought a record was gonna turn out, because we knew the songs inside and out from playing them live.
"With Fort Recovery it's a little different, because most of the songs we had not played live leading up to [the recording] and there were a couple of songs that made the record that I personally felt could be just throwaway four-track songs, like I didn't think much of them."
But while Centro-matic took a new direction in recording Recovery, some significant outside forces helped shape the album as well. Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast right as the band was beginning sessions for the record.
"Even if it wasn't an overt lyrical influence, it definitely fueled some of the tone of the record, and some of the feel of it," Johnson says about the hurricane. "Even the title itself could be somewhat linked in a way. There's a song off the sessions that's not on the record, but it's called 'All This Fresh Mutiny.' It's kind of a harsh title, but at the same time it was very much inspired and influenced by what I kept seeing before my eyes on TV. It's impossible for me not to be affected by that."
The references may not be overt, but echoes of loss and resilience do pop up throughout Recovery. While it's less of a heartbreak record than Centro-matic's last, the album contains songs such as "In Such Crooked Times" that float like a reverie until the weight of goodbye grounds the emotion. "Patience for the Ride," one of the disc's most immediately endearing songs, tells that "the damage was with us from the start/But you can't touch the forces of our hurricane hearts." Even Recovery's liner notes contain snapshots of cloud-darkened skies and wide riverbanks, which seem to hint at the cause-and-effect of last fall's events.
Johnson was certainly moved by the destruction in the South, though he also took time during conversation to reflect on the destruction of his favorite St. Louis landmark: Busch Stadium. "I spent a lot of my childhood summer afternoons there, and it still makes me sad to think that it's not there," he says. "I wound up doing a date [in St. Louis] with My Morning Jacket when they had the thing about half-demolished, and that was even sadder, seeing this half a doughnut just in rubble."
He did have time to abscond with one last souvenir of the old ballpark. "I did make off with a piece of rubble," he says. "It's worth it it sits in the garage. I have it out there and I'm trying to figure out how the hell to mount it or put it on a plaque of something. Or maybe I should grind it down and make little jars of it and give it to my Cardinals-fan friends."