Analogue Music | Will Johnson's latest collaborative project

Will Johnson

By Scott Elingburg

Will Johnson is on the move.

He always is. A creature with a head full of songs and sharp eye for the nuance of American life and geography, Johnson is continually creating new music. Whether it was with his longtime bands (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel) or with any number of prime collaborators—from Jason Molina to David Bazan—Johnson doesn’t sit still for long. And that’s a good thing for those of us hungry for more new and inventive music. 

Johnson’s latest project is called Marie/Lepanto, a collaborative effort with Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster from Water Liars. Their debut album, Tenkiller, is a dark, visceral journey through our strained American hearts and minds. It’s pitch-perfect in nearly every way, from the burned down opening track, “Patient, Patient Man” to the restless ending track, “Tenkiller.” Recorded in Sam Phillips Recording studio in Memphis, Tenkiller is steeped in time, nostalgia, and slowness; yet it isn't held by any boundaries. In conversation, Will Johnson helps explain why that might be.  

Analogue: I read about the origins of Marie/Lepanto and this album, to me, is a lot about geography. I hear parts of Nebraska in it and it reminded me of some Jim Thompson novels and the Terrence Malick film, Badlands. What is it about that region that draws people to it, do you think? Is it the darkness that people are naturally attracted to?

Will Johnson: There are some references to the Mid-South for sure, even within the band name itself. There's a stark beauty to that region I've always been drawn to, and going to Memphis to record rejuvenated some of that curiosity in me. It was the closest city or cultural center to my hometown of Kennett, Missouri, so in a way, going up there to record felt like going home again.  

A lot of towns scattered through that region are struggling, and some are flat out broken down economically.  With that you can encounter undercurrents of desperation or darkness. That’s not an easy thing to look upon when I go home, but it gives off an unavoidable energy when it comes to writing and creating characters. It got into the song "Famished Raven," and it's getting into some short stories I’m chipping away at. It may not be the most glamorous place in the world, but I'm grateful for my upbringing, my family and all the friends I made there. Right now my creative mind is back in that region as much as it ever has been.

Analogue: What was the experience like recording in Sam Phillips Recording studio? What do you remember most from recording there?

Will: It was wonderful to get to track there, but I'm glad we visited the studio prior to the session. I think its history would've felt a little overwhelming had we not. Even still, it was a fairly psychedelic experience. I remember standing by myself out in the live room right before cutting my first vocal, thinking of all the conversations and sounds and great music those walls had absorbed. It felt a little like time travel, and it was easy to envision it in full swing in the early '60s. Those mental images, and sitting in the quiet of Sam Phillips' office, seeing the the worn out arms of those white vinyl chairs, his jukebox behind his desk, the old ashtrays, red carpet and artifacts laying around sticks with me. It was like they locked the door and walked away. 

Analogue: You've been at this thing-called-music for a while and are pretty prolific. Does the music come easier now after working on it for so long? Are your instincts a bit more refined?

WJ: As far as music or songs coming easier, it's a day-to-day thing. That's been the case as long as I've been writing.  Some days the melodies and lines show up pretty quick, and other days involve more labor to get to an idea that turns me on.  If that's the case I’ll work on some small piece of instrumental music to keep the gears turning. That simple motion usually leads to something productive. 

My instincts and editorial approaches are more refined now. I work lines and verses over more rigorously now than I used to. I also value the time to write more now than I used to, and that's probably because I tend to have less of it. I try to be respectful of the fact that I still get to call this one of my jobs, so when some calendar time is blocked out for writing I try to honor it as a true day’s work.  

It's rarely a struggle to be creative once my head's clear, the errands are run, and the house chores are done. It's just a matter of getting to that point, warming up the amps and getting some noise going.  Once I'm there, I track one usually shitty warmup song out of the gates, then things start to unlock and make more sense. That usually leads to some songs. It's an exercise and a discipline like most anything else.

Will Johnson

Analogue: What did you respond to most about Justin [Peter Kinkel-Schuster of Water Liars] that made you feel like he was a kindred musical spirit? Do you guys share a similar approach to writing or just a natural kinship in personalities?

WJ: We haven't really compared notes on our approaches to writing, but I do think there's an audible kinship with regard to lyrical and sonic approaches. After that first tour it felt evident that we should work on some sort of project together. The timing and enthusiasm levels were optimum, so we got something on the calendar right then. I have an immeasurable amount of respect for him as a writer and as a human. He's one of the most decent, kind people I know, and the hang time is just superb. That's the thing. If the hang is golden, the rest usually works itself out. 

Analogue: When you look back over what you've done so far, are there moments that stand out as being "high points" in your career? Songs or albums or collaborations you're especially proud of or maybe even something that got overlooked?  Like, for me, I loved the Overseas record and I also felt like your record with Jason Molina was powerful and stark. But I feel like some records get lost in the shuffle of new release cycles and the speed that we move in our lives. Like perhaps there's not enough time to sit and really absorb some records.

Will: I feel lucky to say that they all involve specific, enriching memories. One session that sticks out is the one for the South San Gabriel The Carlton Chronicles record. We had a decent budget, had three full weeks to make it, and didn't really have to feel hurried. We'd cook out together every night, and it felt like camp. It was mostly tracked from the tops of our brains. None of the musicians had heard any of the songs prior to arriving to the studio and that lead to a pretty high creativity and risk factor, which felt great. The session with Molina was much that way, too. We just wrote in the moment and sorted it out later. 

Sitting in the quiet of Sam Phillips' office, seeing the the worn out arms of those white vinyl chairs, his jukebox behind his desk, the old ashtrays, red carpet and artifacts laying around sticks with me. It was like they locked the door and walked away.

With regard to some records getting lost in the shuffle, I think that's inevitable when a band releases a lot of music. I can't always keep up with some of my favorite artists, but it doesn't diminish my love or respect for them or what they do. Our band (Centro-matic), especially early on, released a lot of music in a short amount of time and we continued to do that for most of our seventeen-year existence. With that you take a chance on some folks feeling overwhelmed by the output and missing releases. Some folks just check out, and that's alright. We accepted that. But we continued to work and release records at a rate that was consistently satisfying and exciting to us. We were in it for the long haul, and against the idea of waiting out release delays, or suffering someone else's marketing plots or selling strategies with regard to our music. I think that would have wrecked our band early on. 

I still gravitate toward that approach with the solo releases and collaborations. I understand why some folks miss out on certain records, but it's a long life, and they're still in the world to check out. There's a heap of music and entertainment options to consider. I'm grateful anyone’s listening in the first place.