This little slice of gritty pop glory comes courtesy Centro-Matic, one of Will Johnson's musical pursuits alongside South San Gabriel (featuring the same band members) and a solo career. Like much of Centro-Matic's catalog, there's an echo of '80s indie underground in the staccato guitar peals and the redlining distortion. This song's rich in subtle sonic touches like the nice end-of-line backing harmonies, the chiming guitar in the chorus, and the front-of-mix stick-tapping rat-a-tat tightening the tension as things sidle into the outro. The extra overdubbed guitars in the break and chorus produce a meaty sound, but the melody's lithe and fleeting, racing to its two-and-a-half minute exit.
Lyrically, "Quality Strange" is much more suggestive than direct. "Settled in its fictitious ways" is a great line, though slippery. Nonetheless, the song's consumed with an alien sensation, like waking up and not knowing where you are. Or perhaps the opposite: Waking up thinking everything's been replaced by exact duplicates. "It looks like your home, but everything's just a little off," as comedian Steven Wright tells it. "The shadows will switch," Johnson sings, "but the day is the same." There's a feeling of powerlessness ("tangled in the fray") of the repetitive cycle ("Time for a change, but the day is the same").
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Tell me the circumstances for recording "Quality Strange."
WILL JOHNSON: [Most of this album] I figured out what I wanted to do with [a song] and then recorded a final four-track of it, kind of in one afternoon. That one hung around for a while and was sort of broken. I guess this is probably two summers ago, and I had some verses I was happy with. I couldn't figure out what the hell to do with the chorus. I knew the melody I wanted but I just couldn't really find words that really made me happy or had a cadence I was particularly into. I do distinctly remember, I was washing dishes one afternoon. It was hot as hell in the house. I didn't have the A.C. going or anything. It was sweltering—the middle-of-Texas June heat. And I'm sitting there doing my mundane house chores and the chorus sort of showed up. I remember running over to the four track, the whole nine yards, and finally locking the chorus in and completing the song over the course of 15 minutes or so.
Ironic that it happens during something so mundane.
Sometimes songs show up at the most inconvenient times. You're lunging for pens and pieces of napkin, whatever you have around you. Fortunately, I got it.
You recently did a solo tour. Do you record yourself when you're driving?
I carry a little digital voice recorder with me pretty much everywhere I go. I learned my lesson on that years ago, losing ideas that might have been can be a disappointing feeling. The heartbreak in knowing maybe you let something go that was vibrant earlier in the day but you just can't get the melody back. I've made sure to keep a digital recorder with me in my bag at all times.
Was there a particular inspiration for "Quality Strange," or did the verses have individual stories of their own?
That's kind of a weird song. It was inspired by a little evident dose of relationship uncertainty that was beginning to rear its head at that point. I don't think it's particularly aggressive, negative or a mean song in that regard, but I remember feeling a little bit of that old-school, adolescent growing pains kind of thing when I was writing that a little bit. I was getting bummed out that it was creeping in. That's where the "strangle a change" line came from a little bit.
I like the line, "As lost as we get, we never get to unfamiliar coasts." I was thinking it kind of suggested as much as we long for something different, we won't go too far afield to look for it.
I could definitely see it that way and think it's infinitely more interesting than maybe my own interpretation of it, where I think I was feeling a little lost in my own very familiar environment at the time. I think it's very possible to wake up lost. What' s the old Soul Asylum line, from "Cartoons"? "You wake up feeling lost in your own room." I was like that line, and it's a feeling maybe akin to that I was wrestling with at the time.
It ends with a nice meme of resilience: "The damage sticks in its own permanent way". Is there an example in your life of something that you've got the dent on your head to show where the wall was?
That's a funny way of putting it. You've got me on the spot. I'm paying tolls right now. You're getting a little chapter in living the dream right now. If only you could hear us fill up the van. ... That's a big part of what we're doing on this tour.
Miking the drums has always been my favorite: "Again. Again. Again."
I'm trying to get back to your question. As far as the damage staying in its own permanent way, I think maybe in my estimation it's almost a process of getting used to something that's slightly or even moderately faulty and working your life around it. It's almost like a piece of furniture you've had in your office forever that you don't particularly like, but it starts to become almost invisible for you, so you just kind of work around it until a significant other or a friend comes in and is like "What's that ugly end table about?" Then you realize, "Wow, that's kind of become a part of me." I think maybe I was kinda shooting for that feeling in kind of more relationship terms. Sometimes you learn to live with dysfunction. Sometimes in small doses. With other people, sadly, it can be very big doses.
What were you early musical touchstones?
It started early. It came from all different directions in the neighborhood. John Denver, Neil Diamond, things like that my mom would listen to, then it gradually evolved into late-'70s hard rock that my brothers would bring home, so I think I was the first kid in the first grade to have a pretty solid knowledge of Ted Nugent. It felt empowering. I'd never heard music like that. And then onwards after that ... definitely a lot of the American independent underground rock bands that slowly started to emerge over the course of the mid '80s. Go back to SST Records and Twin/Tone Records, with the Replacements and Husker Du, definitely. It illustrated that you didn't have to be a zillionaire and be on a tour bus. You didn't have to be Van Halen to make it in music. You could do it another way, and you could really do it in an interesting and positive way. I learned a lot from those bands since that definitely struck a nerve with me and since that time I knew I was ready to throw myself into it without any question.
So you hail from the school that didn't think about financial gain in starting a band.
It's wonderful over time to see those things [like graduating to the Bowery Ballroom in New York City] happen for you, but at the same time, I think, collectively believe in being able to put out exactly the kind of music that we want, the kind of record that we want whenever, wherever we want to, be it under the name Cento-Matic, South San Gabriel, solo or form another band.
Like this release we're touring on right now [Dual Hawks], it's a fairly unconventional release. It's a double record that's two different bands, and I doubt any major label would put up with that kind of release. It may not be punk rock genre style, but I do think it hopefully pushes the envelope a little bit and pushes it against some of the grain of convention and the old conventional album cycle and rock tour. I think we enjoy a lot of freedoms like that in the position we're in, and, ultimately, I think that's added to the longevity of our band. The years have flown by, and we're still having a great time with this.
Hearing about your allegiance to late '80s underground rock, I wondered if that might be partially responsible for the music's kind of hum. I wouldn't say you're lo-fi, per se, but there is that kind of buzzing tone that brings me back to those old albums.
The character is something we've really tried to keep through those old recordings—those warts-and-all moments. I think they can make the music a lot more relatable. It's made by humans. Humans make errors. Why not have an error or two in there to kind of decorate the tree? From my own personal standpoint, I love hearing that. There's soulfulness in that occasional flub or slightly out of tune vocal. It doesn't bother me. It ads a little curiosity and personality. A lot of early soul music is like that. ... I don't know if it's more human, but maybe more organically presented.
Centro-Matic plays Local 506 with The M's Thursday, June 19, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.