Disagreements in bands occur often––this is undeniable. Some disagreements end with the band splitting up. But in the case of Centro-Matic, a common argument about the direction they were going spawned an additional project called South San Gabriel. Will Johnson––singer/songwriter of both bands, gave me the insight as to how and why it works for these Texas Natives.
The core members of Centro-Matic include Johnson, Matt Pence, Mark Hedman and Scott Danbom—they have been together for over a decade. Eight years ago the band started playing tug o' war with different musical styles. Some members, such as Pence, were pulling for the rock n' roll sets, while Johnson wanted a more spacious and subdued sound. The decision didn't end with black eyes and broken guitars though, as Centro-Matic rounded up a few more members to create the laid back, mellow sound of South San Gabriel. SSG became the separate, collective band with a revolving door membership in place.
These days, SSG includes the four core members of Centro-Matic with the addition of Matt Stoessel, Bryan VanDivier, Jeffrey Barnes, Robert Gomez, Buffi Jacobs, Tamara Cauble, David Pierce and James Driscoll. It varies from three members to sometimes nine, depending on who is around at the time.
"It takes a lot less people to make a lot more noise," Johnson says when comparing the two. The four members of Centro-Matic create a sound that gets people energized. It's got faster drumbeats and louder guitar made specifically to get the crowd dancing and clapping along. But that all changes when they are in SSG mode. The larger posse attracts attention equally, but with a subtle, hypnotic method. Johnson's simple, lyrically focused melodies come out more fluently in SS G, accompanied by a variety of instruments such as clarinet, saxophone, flute, cello, violin and trombone.
Fitting all of SS G and their instruments on a big stage would be difficult, fitting them on a small stage would be almost impossible...almost. At one point during a SSG set at SXSW, the stage wasn't big enough for all the members to fit. Johnson had a friend from Brooklyn playing that night and a friend from Denton. "Neither of them had met each other. They looked up half way through the set and didn't even realize they were in the band together. It's that kind of spontaneous risk that keeps things interesting," Johnson says.
The risk taking ideology comes from their roots in Texas. Johnson gets his inspiration from the diverse geography and culture of what the locals call The Golden Triangle, the area in between Denton, Dallas and Fort Worth. The region is a cool college town that is independent business friendly with a strong music community. The bands there are unpretentious instead of competitive. They all work together and learn from each other by collaboration and support. Risk in The Golden Triangle is encouraged and celebrated.
Inspiration for creating music also comes from traveling. Johnson refers to this as "soaking up the life juice and refueling." Whether it's the small, solitary trips he takes where he writes for four days straight, or on tour with the band, he finds ideas for his two bands in other cities, and other cultures. When not on tour, the members reside all over the state––some live in Denton, some in Dallas and others in Austin. Johnson believes the distance between the members has a lot to do with their ability to work as a team. Without the pressure of constantly being together, practicing and recording, there are less disagreements that could spark another project or end the current two. "When we're on, we're truly on. When we're off, everyone kind of scatters...it keeps it good, it seems to streamline the efficiency," he says.
The efficient work comes out of Pence's studio, The Echo Lab. Unlike some other studios in the middle of giant cities, The Echo Lab is located in the woods of Denton, just 10 minutes away from the city. According to Johnson the studio is equipped with a band apartment, back porch, BBQ grill and a BB gun––for personal therapy use only. He describes it as a rustic scene where the band can really put their attention on recording with no distractions.
For Johnson and crew, recording is something they have mastered. Decisions about which band should should develop each song is democratic. For the most part, Johnson writes the song with a direction in mind and if a track feels on the fence, the band members cast a vote on where that song will fall. The recording process is very focused and no one gets confused on which group is doing the work. When it comes to performing, however, it takes a little bit more time to adjust.
Although veterans to the music business, Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel had never been on tour together until just a few months ago in Europe. The threeand- half-week European escapade helped the group reach their extremes. It took about a week for the group to get adjusted to performing together. South San Gabriel opens and after a 15-20 minute break, Centro-Matic hits the stage. The process between sets is more complicated than in most acts. They have to "really shift gears emotionally and sonically," says Johnson. "At first, I was worried the crowd might feel we were putting them on...it made us work harder to illustrate the difference," he says.
With no roadies on call, the band has to do a lot within those 15 minutes. Loading, unloading, sound check, taking down a cold one, changing the mood, losing some members and turning up the rock. Not only does the band refocus, the crowd seems to get more rambunctious as well.
After warming up in Europe, Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel are ready to show the states what they've got. Their first double tour in the states comes hand in hand with their first double album, Dual Hawks, which features both bands. The tour starts Aug. 29 and comes to Salt Lake City on Sept. 8 at Urban Lounge.