Interview with Will Johnson

Next up in our interview series which we’ll call Artists on Independent Venues,” is the great Will Johnson, singer-songwriter and frontman of Centro-matic.

It’s time for the second installment in the series leading up to our cross-country trip to raise money for the National Independent Venue Foundation (NIVF) and Musicians on Call (MOC).  

Hot on the heels of Jay Burgess, it’s time to hear from the fantastic Will Johnson. Will is a superb singer-songwriter and the frontman of Centro-matic. He currently finds himself on the road with Jason Isbell as a multi-instrumentalist member of The 400 Unit. We are delighted that Will found time in his busy schedule to tell us about his experience of playing independent venues. Keep your eyes open for the next in the series! 

LH:  What are the independent venues you remember from your neighborhood growing up?
Will:  My time growing up was split between a small Missouri farming town and a mid-sized Texas military town. There weren’t really any long-running or noteworthy venues in those towns, other than maybe a metal club in the latter that I wasn’t old enough to get into. By the time I got to Texas, Austin was the closest thing we had, which was about an hour away. By high school, I was making regular trips down there to see shows.

LH:  Do you remember the first show you saw at an independent venue?
Will:  I’d guess Hüsker Dü or maybe The Reivers (formerly Zeitgeist) at Liberty Lunch in Austin. By the time I was 16, that was where I’d go for shows most often. They’d put the big, markered “X” on my hand and let me and my friends in. A lot of clubs wouldn’t, or couldn’t do that. I’ll always be thankful for the many shows I got to see at Liberty Lunch.

LH:  What was the first venue you played as an artist?
Will:  My first band (sr. year of high school) played inside of an exposition barn at a county carnival, just across from the goat and cow pens.

LH:  Do you have a favorite venue?
Will:  After some 32 years of touring, I have a number of them by this point. I love the Saturn in Birmingham, The 40 Watt and The Georgia Theater in Athens, The Mercury and Bowery Ballroom in NYC, and Schubas in Chicago. For Europe, The Apollo in Barcelona, Vera in Groningen, and A/B in Brussels. My favorite Austin venue for years was The Parish, at the old 6th Street location.

LH:  Is there a venue/city you particularly look forward to visiting?
Will:  Athens, GA and Asheville, NC. Both of those towns have long felt like homes away from home.

LH:  Do you have a bucket list venue? One that you’ve not performed at that you dream of playing one day?
Will:  Maybe Red Rocks. I’ve never played there, but it looks like I’ll get to next year with Jason (Isbell) and the band.

Any special relationships with venue owners/anyone who particularly helped your career?
Will:  Two that come to mind are Jeff Liles (Kessler/Dallas) and Dan Mojica (Dan’s Silverleaf/Denton). I’ve worked with Jeff on shows since 1991, and with Dan since 1996. They’ve both become close friends over some thirty years, and I’m honored to still get to work with them.

LH:  Funniest thing that ever happened at a show?
Will:  Bisbee, AZ, April 2002. Our band (Centro-matic) loaded in for soundcheck and there were two large, friendly dogs running about. It raised morale and spirits just to have them in the room. By the time the show started, there was a traditional arc of people watching, with a large space left in the center of the floor. We opened with a slow, syrupy burner. I had my eyes closed for the first verse or two, then opened them to find the two dogs f**king wildly in the open space, directly in front of the stage. I had to turn my mic stand inward toward the guys just to keep it together, and, of course, they were all giggling like kids that had heard a fart in church. But, for just a moment, it felt like we were the Barry White of the canine world.

LH:  Any last words on independent venues and their importance to live music?
Will:  I feel like the past several years have only stressed the importance and infinite value of independent venues in the US. We’ve unfortunately lost so many that didn’t survive lockdown. And with that, I think it’s more important than ever to continue making efforts to support them and help keep them afloat.

Thanks again to Will for taking the time to share his thoughts! Head over to his website to pre-order his new album No Ordinary Crown. And if you fancy catching him on stage, head over to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s website to see where they will be in the coming weeks.

To read more about our cross-country fundraising trip for National Independent Venue Foundation and Musicians On Call , click here

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About Phil Walton 84 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.