by Brad Tucker
The easy misconception when one first encounters Centro-matic and South San Gabriel is that they are the same band; both are led by guitarist and singer Will Johnson, and South San Gabriel’s line-up features all four Centro-matic members, plus two. The groups are touring together for the first time in the U.S., and seeing them on the same stage will erase any mind-set that they are the same band.
If Will Johnson is anything, he is an inexhaustible songwriter. As the driving forcing behind both bands (and a few solo records) he has written at least 15 albums worth of material. Last summer, the Denton, TX native came through in a big way on a Centro-matic/South San Gabriel split double album, Dual Hawks. Previously, the two bands had been kept completely separate, each releasing an album every other year or so.
While Johnson is a commanding stage presence, there is little doubt that his best assets are the musicians surrounding him. Scott Danbom (keyboards, violin, bass, vocals), Mark Hedman (guitar, bass), and Matt Pence (drums) round out Centro-matic, and are also members of South San Gabriel, which includes Brian VanDivier (bass, guitar) and Matt Stoessel (pedal steel). The difference between the two bands is much easier heard than described in terms of who plays what and which name goes on the packaging.
The show starts with South San Gabriel. Denton, TX singer-songwriter Chris Flemmons (The Baptist Generals) sneaks in a solo set while the guys take a breath, and then Centro-matic emerges to finish the night with some straight ahead rock.
Johnson, like many of his peers, came of age listening to the alternative rock that was pouring out of Midwestern towns like Minneapolis in the 1980s.
“I was living in Killeen, TX, but the closest place to go to see shows was Austin,” says Johnson, reflecting on the transition from attending Van Halen arena rock shows to discovering Soul Asylum and Hüsker Dü in smaller venues. “It was only an hour drive. There was a venue there called Liberty Lunch, and they would let me and my underage friends in, so I’d see a lot of shows that way.”
Johnson began playing drums at age 4, and played with Funland until his best friend booked him a solo show in Denton. Though he was unprepared to step out from behind the symbols and uncover his own songs, his friend insisted he play out, going so far as to print up fliers and posters before even telling Johnson about the gig.
“Initially I thought, ‘Wow what an asshole thing to do,’” says Johnson. “But in hindsight it was probably the right thing to do, I’m glad that he did it. It kind of kicked me in the ass and got me ready to play.”
Apparently that first nudge was all he needed. Johnson soon surrounded himself with the rest of Centro-matic, and over the next four years put out four hefty albums. Then in 2001, the four friends formed a second band, South San Gabriel, and began putting out records under both monikers.
An audience member at night two of the bands’ stop in New York City summed up the most compelling aspect of their music: “No matter what you say about Will’s songs or his voice, they are an incredible collective and a perfect fit for each other. What other group of guys could keep two bands together for over 10 years?”
Scott Danbom’s voice is almost perfect as the high harmony to Johnson’s gritty male voice, and all the members move fluidly from one instrument to another. Danbom stays behind two keyboards for most of the night, but also climbs out and grabs a bass guitar from Hedman, who moves to guitar. Even drummer Pence holds the bass for a song.
During South San Gabriel’s set, Stoessel comes in with his pedal steel frequently, and adds one more layer to a textured live sound that is both moving and enveloping. Johnson is sometimes left with his guitar as his only accompaniment, and the effect is equal.
Pence is a deceptively talented drummer, adept at maximizing the spacey feel of South San Gabriel’s sound, and full of tricky fills that help propel the rock side of Centro-matic. Johnson, as a former drummer, has no problem handing the reins over to Pence, who also produces and records both bands.
“I do have the urge to play drums, I love playing drums,” says Johnson. “But I never feel some overwhelming rush of “just let me do it,” because he’s such an incredible and astonishing drummer.
“I do play on some of the recordings. Often times it’s a result of his encouragement.”
With a writer possessing so many songs in his head, and a group of multi-instrumentalists, it seems they could spend all their time in the studio. And, to add to their prolific output, they’ve begun to write a great deal of their music while recording.
“I may show up now with six or seven songs that I really like, and the rest of it, we just let the record evolve with all of us there. It seems like it takes on a natural birth better that way than, ‘Hey, here are our 15 songs, we’re gonna do these.’”
The groups have a lot of songs to choose from, and they choose widely. Over two nights in New York they pulled out only three songs from the Centro-matic half of Dual Hawks, included songs from their debut, Redo the Stacks, and a super-slow cover of Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Loing.”
Both bands will get a substantial break following this tour before supporting Drive-By Truckers for their annual blowout at the 40 Watt in Athens, GA. Truckers’ frontman Patterson Hood is an unabashed fan of both groups, often calling them one of his favorites, and Johnson and Danbom have played on most of the Truckers’ albums. The respect of their peers runs deep—Son Volt and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit keyboardist Derry deBorja showed for both nights in New York.
“It just means a lot, it keeps me inspired as a writer, and it keeps all of us inspired and hopeful as a group,” Johnson says. “Sometimes I’m still taken aback that I get to be friends with some of very favorite musicians and songwriters. It’s nice to be able to call and say hey let’s go hang out or have coffee or make a record or whatever we might want to do. It still kind of floors me.”
Centro-matic/South San Gabriel will wrap up this tour this weekend in Tennessee. Make sure to get there early, you don’t want to miss either band.