Centro-Matic: Guided by Veterans

We were young, dumb, and broke. They lent a hand.

The Long Winters slogged through our first-ever national tour in 2002 like the freshman band we were, sharing bills with weekend warriors and callow indie bands in half-empty shitholes, pocketing a hundred bucks a night and living on backstage granola bars and drink tickets. Most of those clubs and bands I’ve completely forgotten, but on the last leg of that tour we swung through the little town of Denton, Texas, and met a band who would become some of our best friends in music. Centro-Matic changed our lives and the future of The Long Winters, making the world of touring less of a cutthroat drag and more of a flat-out good time.

That bar in Denton was called Rubber Gloves, a name that immediately grossed me out when I read our itinerary. We arrived for soundcheck to find the doors locked and the lights off, so we sat outside in the hot sun taking turns spitting chewing tobacco on scorpions until eventually some stoned hippy ambled over to say the soundman wouldn’t arrive for a few hours. Then Centro-Matic rolled in, a scruffy bunch of locals headlining the show. I wasn’t too happy about opening for a local headliner—hell, we were a national touring act—but after seeing our single CD for sale next to Centro-Matic’s multiple releases I quit bitching. They were veterans! Their gear was all taped together and covered with rust, dander, and blood. They were one of those bands that appeared to personally violate the fire code, just the four of them standing there a fire hazard.

Then they launched into a song, and the effect on us was like watching a simple farm truck turn into a killer Transformer space robot. I’ve heard them compared to the Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, Guided by Voices, My Morning Jacket, and our own Built to Spill, which is all to say “Climactic Melodic Epic Rock,” but listing their influences won’t do them justice. A Centro-Matic song starts at a level of intensity that most bands only reach at the end of their encore. They THUNDER into their music, relaxed and confident, pushing up and over wave after wave of peak moments that never teeter, nailing each landing, every time. We were in awe, and agreed that night we had to tour together.

A few weeks later The Long Winters were added to Centro-Matic’s upcoming tour. The night before our first show, they called me from the road: Their van had dropped its transmission somewhere outside of Ellensburg and they might be a little late. Oh, also, did I know a transmission repair place in Seattle? Luckily, Dean Transmissions was half a block from the Sit & Spin where we were playing that night. The tow truck that picked them up had no place for them in the cab, so they rode over the pass sitting in their van strapped on top of a flatbed. They had a new transmission in their van by the next morning.

Over the years our two bands have toured together repeatedly, through every phase of our careers. Centro-Matic introduced us to their European label and booking agent, both of whom were soon working for us. They were generous with their connections and their fans, excited to show off their discoveries rather than jealously guarding their resources. Centro and The Long Winters felt competitive, sure, but never jockeyed for position. The competition was always musical, and always had the effect of making us play better. We admired them and wanted to blow them away, to impress them.

Will Johnson, the band’s singer and guitarist, is the most prolific songwriter I’ve ever known, releasing solo albums, Centro-Matic albums, and albums by his many side projects at an unparalleled rate. He and Centro-Matic formed an entirely separate group, the ethereal South San Gabriel, just to play the quiet songs. Will’s voice and character are inextricable, both honest like an element.

The first South San Gabriel record, Welcome, Convalescence, was intense, like standing on a cliff in fog, and it became an indie hit in Europe. I toured with them there during that time, and despite their hit with SSG, they booked a tour as Centro-Matic. Their fans would call out for South San Gabriel songs and the band would politely explain that tonight they were playing only Centro-Matic songs. That commitment to the idea, that united devotion to principle, was not what anyone would consider a “good business move,” but it struck me then that it was exactly what made Centro/SSG unstoppable. They know who they are, and they played what they came to play.

In recent years Centro-Matic hasn’t made it to Seattle as often as I’d like. Will Johnson played drums in Monsters of Folk, among other things, and all the dudes are busy with multiple projects. For that reason a Seattle Centro-Matic show is an event not to be missed. They’re playing at the Tractor on September 11, a date with plenty of emotional resonance. But Centro-Matic will provide a perfect catharsis. Some of the best bands don’t ever soar to the pinnacles of indie fashionability, but Centro-Matic has few peers at any level of the music world to rival the bottled lightning of their live show. Go.

John Roderick is the singer and songwriter responsible for the Long Winters. He tweets (constantly) @johnroderick.