MORE, MORE, MORE: And yet, as Dual Hawks attests, Will Johnson never sacrifices quality for quantity.
For the better part of his prolific songwriting career, Texas singer/guitarist Will Johnson, when not releasing albums under his own name, has donned distinctive hats for his two bands. Centro-matic and South San Gabriel sport the same line-up: Johnson, guitarist Mark Hedman, bassist/keyboardist Scott Danbom, and drummer Matt Pence. Yet the former outfit makes raw, rollicking roots rock suited for a Saturday-night bar crowd and the latter makes quiet, moody indie folk for solitary Sunday contemplation.
Johnson has alternated between the two formats since 2000, when Centro-matic released the subdued South San Gabriel Songs/Music, spawning the wholly separate project, but his hats hang on the same hook with the new Dual Hawks (as well as on the tour that comes to the Middle East this Saturday). A double album, Hawks offers 11 Centro-matic tracks and 12 South San Gabriel tracks. In concert, the foursome have been playing one set as one band and then a second set as the other.
Sure, Johnson could save some of the trouble and just do everything as the better-known Centro-matic, but as he says over the phone in a thoughtful drawl, “I think for us, it kinda helps to change the scenery a little bit. I feel like it’s healthy to do that. I feel like it’s helped us become better musicians and better listeners.”
He explains that during the Centro-matic sessions for Hawks, most of the songs were written in the morning, hammered out in the afternoon, and recorded in the evening. That’s not surprising given the raucous, restless energy that crackles through “Strychnine, Breathless Ways” and “Every Single Switch,” with their swaggering, Crazy Horse–channeling fuzz guitars galloping alongside Johnson’s rough desert warble. And yet nothing comes across half-baked: the arrangements stay sturdy and compelling while Johnson’s sharp lines on ruptured love and complicated entanglements range from cryptically poetic to jarringly evocative.
More time went into the South San Gabriel sessions, with the band bringing in a host of guests to color their primarily acoustic compositions with strings, pedal steel, bass clarinet, trombone, even some throat singing. “There were some songs that I thought were gonna be pretty stark that wound up being a lot more complex and a lot more layered and just way more, quite honestly, beautiful than I had originally envisioned.” The SSG numbers incorporate those added elements in both conventional and unorthodox ways. Cello and pedal steel pull the cymbal-dappled strums of “Kept on the Sly” and “My Goodbyes” into atmospheric and melancholy country-rock-ballad terrain marked with intimate, confessional lyrics. “Of Evil/For Evil” buoys Johnson’s whispery croon with a Kronos Quartet–style modern string arrangement for a torchier, more theatrical mood.
With the release of DualHawks, Johnson has put out 14 albums between Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, and if you factor in his solo full-lengths and various EPs from all of his projects, he’s dropped nearly 20 discs in the 13 years he’s been writing and recording. Yet as Hawks attests, he’s never sacrificed quality for quantity. “There may come a day when I feel that it’s time for me to shut up, that maybe I’ve sung all that I’ve had to sing about. But right now I don’t feel particularly close to that at all. I still feel very driven to work with characters and stories and imagery and melodies, and I think that so long as all that is rollin’ around in my brain, it feels healthy to commit it to tape somehow, whatever form it takes.”