Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
Will Johnson is a cool glass of drink. However much that may be, one gets the feeling that the glass is definitely half-full, yet the man from Austin sings as if it's half-empty, curling brows into a universally known, signature downtrodden move and flopping consolatory arms across the shoulders of some idea of personal/spiritual struggle. Those folks, unlucky in love and life, in his many songs as a solo artist and as the leader of Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, are portrayals of the greater part of existence, or at least the part that takes up the most time and steals the most scenes.
It's a matter of perception, but Johnson gives sweet voice to that which is both empty and full, wanting and needing, having and have-not - the space on the chart where the overlapping red and yellow circles make an orange oval. He's as good as anyone at pinning a tale on the happiness, with the prick of the pin turning it into something less happy, until eventually the mood finds its somberness. It's a clear 60-40 split - the blend churning simultaneously - of the good and the bad, always more of the good, but it's close, you know?
It's an unlikely place to find a relevant touching point, but another Will - Willie Nelson - makes a slightly imperfect nod to, or about what potentially causes the ever-present, middling crossbreed of happy and sad in the travel song "On The Road Again," when he sings, "We're the best of friends/Insisting that the world keep turning our way." The line is likely about travel (remember that it was billed as an imperfect reference from the beginning), but the thought of insisting that the world obey, that life obey is an unwinnable battle.
It is a battle worth fighting according to Johnson, trying to get obedience out of all the hard knocks and light blows that rip like the dickens. Cooperation comes and goes for all of the characters that Johnson creates in his beautiful folk songs, leaving them high and dry and looking for some place where their missteps aren't so tireless and lasting. Vultures can mingle with sparrows and robins, while darkness sometimes brings the sharpest light. Johnson is an unmistakable talent, stumped about whether or not the devil - the real devil - really exists and continually finding that token goodness in every broken day.
The Daytrotter interview:
*Are you disappointed in your Cardinals this year so far? My Chicago Cubs are on a bit of a streak.*
Will Johnson: A little, but I'm not sure I really have a right to be just yet, you know? I try to keep the baseball thing in perspective as best I can (with the one exception of a 44 oz-cherry-Slurpee-thrown-at-the-TV-set tantrum after Denkinger's blown call vs. the Royals in '85. Stained the carpet. Got in trouble). I always want 'em to do well and tune in or attend when I can, but I feel lucky to have watched 'em win a couple of World Series so far. I've got a lotta close baseball geek friends that don't get to say that about their teams. Your Cubs oughta be on a streak considering that dough they spent this past winter. You think they'll catch the Brewers?
*How many professional games do you get to in a baseball season? Do you save your scorecards? Where did your baseball love come from, if you can pinpoint it?*
WJ: Only four or five MLB games a year, really, but I get to see a bunch of Round Rock Express (Astros Triple-A team) and Texas Longhorn games living here in Austin. My girlfriend and I have taken scorebooks to every game for about four years now and we save 'em all. They become little pieces of history, and it's a souvenir from each game. As for the baseball love, it started pretty early. There wasn't much else to do in small town Missouri except for hunting, cruising hot cars, and you know, weed. Wasn't really old enough for that scene, so baseball's what my friends and I looked forward to every summer. Then I moved to Texas, discovered Black Flag on cassette and the two Budweiser buzz. That's when shit got tricky.
*You've been trying to breed that love into Bazan haven't you?*
WJ: Nah, not really. I did take him to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and I think he dug it. That's about as far as I pushed it with him.
*When we were talking here, you had your own interpretations of some of his songs and you'd never asked him if they were correct. All that driving around together and you never pose those questions. Do you prefer your own definitions to the truth of them? Are you like that with songs? Do you cringe when people ask you what your songs are about?*
WJ: I'm glad you brought that up. Dave and I have some pretty serious things to talk about when we roll, like whether or not the Devil exists, when one should "Starbucks" and when one should not, and analysis and re-analysis of The Office and This American Life episodes. I think we, and the Undertow Orchestra for that matter, traversed this country with such an implied love and familiarity for one another that we thought we knew each other's songs inside and out without even having to ask. To voyage and experience in chemistry-drenched and umbilical fashion, so to speak. So when it turns out that we've moved on and in the process, misunderstood, we take the chance of standing on regrettable and uncertain crag. At least I do. That's what happened that day. I thought I had his song straight, and found that my interpretation was all fucked up. Now I'm not sure I even know who Bazan is anymore. I spent the rest of the tour under two green, ten-dollar sleeping bags in the back seat of that Subaru sipping Special Export (cans only) and doing reasonably easy math. He drove every day, wrought with confusion, occasionally checking on me in the rearview mirror. I'd mostly just come out to play my set, then go back to the car. As for my interpretations of others' songs, my confidence has been significantly depleted in the wake of the Bazan Occurrence®. That said, I don't always prefer my own readings of others' songs, and I sometimes get uncomfortable when people ask what my songs are about. That's because I often find that others' interpretations of my songs are a lot more interesting than my own.
*What are some of your musical and pop cultural guilty pleasures?*
WJ: Some friends invited me over to watch the "America's Got Talent" show the other night and I dug it, even with the unfortunate presence of Hasselhoff. Wait. I don't feel guilty about this, so I guess it doesn't count. Maybe I just felt like I was supposed to feel guilty about it. Like metal or porn. Anyway, there was Boy Shakira, and a kid from Pakistan just dancing his ass off, and it was beautiful. It's sort of a circus and doesn't have quite the desperation factor of that American Idol show. Or maybe it does, just with more versatility, humor and humility. Musical guilty pleasure: Jennifer Love Hewitt's "How Do I Deal?". That song's pretty hot, but I feel like maybe it was just recorded incorrectly.
*What was the last great conversation you had?*
WJ: My girlfriend, a friend, and I got into a very heated argument last Wednesday night that went on for about an hour and a half. It was essentially over whether or not triathletes' and ultra runners' willingness to sometimes push their bodies to the brink of death could be seen as selfish in the eyes of those that love them.
*What will we hear first, a new Centro-matic, Will Johnson or South San Gabriel album?*
WJ: Centro-matic and South San Gabriel both have new albums recorded. We plan to release them together as a double album set sometime early next year.
*Do you ever sit around and think, "I wonder what Vic Chesnutt's doing right now?"*
WJ: Vic could be doing any one of four things: reading, hanging out on his porch, opining insightfully, or writing a song that humbles and sheds perspective in every way. Or smoking a fatty. So, maybe five things.
*What's been the most satisfying thing to come out of this life in music for you? What could you do without?*
WJ: I've gotten to make music and travel a lot of the world with my friends at the pace we've wanted to, and completely on our terms for over ten years now. And it gets a little better every year. I always wanted it to be a life of music and so far that's how it's turned out. It's afforded me a wealth of educational experiences and I've been lucky to make a lot of good friends and meet some great people along the way. To do without? I could do without the type of person that subscribes to the thought that: if you don't make a lot of money at what you do, then you just must not be that smart. I feel like independent musicians, artists and businesspeople are confronted with that type of attitude at a lot of turns in a country drunk on capitalism, domination, and speeding from place to place. I've tried to understand why some might take such a dismissive attitude, and as far as I've ever concluded, it is still complete bullshit.
*Which of your songs has taken the longest to get right?*
WJ: There's a song I wrote back in 2000 called "Wesson and Beam" that just seemed to take forever to finish. The lyrics read alright, and I dig it okay, but not nearly in proportion to the work and headache that went into finishing it. I psyched myself out on that one.
*What are you reading these days?*
WJ: Just finished Dorothy Allison's Trash, and Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash. Presently reading Miracle of Catfish by Larry Brown.