Will Johnson, enigmatic front man of Denton rock outfit Centro-matic, is chuckling over reviews for the band's latest album, Candidate Waltz (Undertow/Thirty Tigers).
"For the most part they've been good, but even the negative ones - and there are some that are so negative - I can appreciate as long as they're well thought-out and passionate."
This guy, who is obviously a longtime fan, wrote something like, 'I hope they can find themselves again,'" Johnson laughs. "He really hated the new sound."
Candidate is tighter, less jammy and maybe more radio-friendly than previous Centro-matic albums. Johnson actaully wrote the songs on his bass.
"Can you tell?" he laughs. "On the other albums everything was bigger and louder, big guitars going full throttle. On this one we experimented more with tension and release - that's something we've just learned over the years of gigs and working in the studio - and the songs themselves are just tighter than what people usually think of as a Centro-matic song being."
Johnson lives outside Austin these days, but the rest of his bandmates still call the Denton area home and the recordings were done at Denton's Echo Lab with Centro- bassist Matt Pence.
"Yeah, even though I'm living in the Austin area now, we still consider Denton as our home base," says Johnson. "Our contemporaries like Slobberbone are still there, and we'll probably always go there to record. It's kinda who we are, since we come out of that scene, those clubs. We certainly identify with Denton."
The new album features Johnson's artwork. A self-taught painter, he primarily works with baseball-related themes.
"It may sound a little corny, but baseball is still the American game," Johnson says. "I just think of it as something that has meant so much to so many people, and that the history is interesting and worth considering. My paintings are just my humble tribute to the people who played the game."
"I actually got into art as a kind of therapy, something that balances the music side of me. I think any kind of artist has to diversify their efforts to avoid staleness and boredom," he explains.
"Plus, I didn't have much in the way of decorations when I moved into my apartment, and I just decided I'd do my own artwork to hang on the walls. It feels like folks have just found their way to my paintings.
"It seems to have gained some interest," Johnson says. "I've been getting some nice commission paintings."
Asked if he is aware of rocker Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey's The Baseball Project, an album of rock songs about baseball's epic moments and characters, Johnson replied, "Ironically, they've both bought paintings from me, which is a great honor for me and a bit of validation for the work," Johnson explains. "I love their project. Some of those songs are incredible."
Two weeks into their CD release tour for Candidate Waltz, Johnson says the Monday night off in Baltimore was a much needed breather.
"We haven't had an off day in 17 days, and it looks like we're going to tour all that we can supporting this record the rest of the year," says Johnson. "After that we'll regroup, take a little time off and figure out what we want to do next, maybe another South San Gabriel record or another Centro-matic record.
"I've got a solo [album] recorded and I'd like to get that out whenever it makes sense given our other commitments, so we'll just have to wait and see what direction we go in next."
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Johnson laughs and says, "Who knows? Hopefully we'll be able to find ourselves again."
With Sarah Jaffe, 8 p.m. tonight at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, 713-862-3838.