The bad show wasn't Chapel Hill's fault: By the time the long-running Denton, Texas rock band Centro-matic first visited the college town in the summer of 2000 for a show at Local 506, their cross-country trek was already close to skidding off the rails.
"It was in the middle of a particularly grim little tour," Centro-matic guitarist and vocalist Will Johnson remembers. The lingering disappointment is clear in his voice. "We were having a falling out with a booking agent that had partially done his job and, in a lot of places, had not—guarantees he claimed were coming through versus what we were actually receiving. We did one more show after Chapel Hill, folded our relationship with him and wound up having to cancel some shows."
Centro-matic's return to the Triangle this week follows several much more successful area stops during the last decade. But even this gig during a two-and-a-half week tour comes with its own complications—namely, the logistics of fitting that many consecutive concert dates around the families, day jobs and other artistic concerns of the four musicians involved. No, these aren't unusual hassles for a band, especially one that has been at work for the better part of two decades. Still, they are feeding into Centro-matic's collective decision to call it quits following three parting Denton shows before Christmas.
"No one's in the crosshairs here," Johnson says. "It became a matter of acknowledging the reality that we just didn't have as much time as we usually do. And it felt like Take Pride In Your Long Odds was a good last word, a good note to end on."
He has a point: Issued in June through the band's own Navigational Transmissions imprint, Centro-matic's latest and, it would seem, last album is one of its strongest statements ever. It evidences Johnson's mounting disinterest in writing rock tunes via the courtly shuffle of album closer "Through The Fog, Then Down" and the acoustic calm of "Hey There, Straps." It expresses continued curiosity with fuzzed-up folk, electronics-laced psychedelia and midtempo country-soul.
The album's title is a valedictory acknowledgement, too. After nearly 20 years of recording and touring, Johnson, drummer Matt Pence, multi-instrumentalist Scott Danborn and bassist Mark Hedman harbor no illusions that a commercial breakthrough lurks just around the next release.
The band always derived a strange power from that fact. It helped that they had the support of many critics (NPR, for instance, frequently featured their work and boasted of the band's "heartfelt, superb songwriting, performed with chops to match its sugary, gratifying choruses") and a healthy fan base, like the hundreds who funded the recording of Take Pride via Pledge Music.
Letting go of any concerns about their music's bankable prospects has only allowed them to stretch their sounds, whether with the bits of stoner rock and Britpop influences on 2011's Candidate Waltz or the quieter folk-pop they've recorded under the alter ego South San Gabriel. And now, at their end, it has allowed them to avoid one of the most fatal mistakes of rock bands in an era of instant nostalgia, reunions and careers that outlive their expiration dates. Because their popular stakes are so low, Centro-matic is under no pressure to keep the band going until it turns into a laughing-stock or stagnant enterprise. They will quit with their original lineup intact; Centro-matic is going to die with dignity.
"We're not waking up to a massive platinum record-selling world every morning," Johnson says. "We've just been taking care of each other and putting our friendship before we put the band. That's why I think we're able to do this final tour and celebrate it, not mourn it."
But his word choice bears a bit of a jagged edge: Throughout Johnson's career, he has made the acquaintance of and often collaborated with many very successful peers. He's played drums for Son Volt and Monsters of Folk, the vaunted supergroup featuring Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket leader Jim James. Onstage and in the studio, he's assisted his buddy and Drive-By Truckers co-founder Patterson Hood. And he can be heard on The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn's solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. Johnson insists it's possible to both celebrate the accomplishments of his cohorts and celebrate not having to compromise in order to hit those same heights.
"I found out about 12 years ago that it isn't worth it to worry about the fact that we're not more successful and worrying about consorting with the people who could make you successful," he says. "I focused on what I'm definitely in control of: becoming a better writer and a better player."
To that end, Johnson doesn't seem terribly concerned about what he will feel like on the morning of Dec. 22, the day after Centro-matic's final trek ends. He's already got some projects to occupy his time come January, including a new solo album and several collaborations he'd put off for nearly a decade. And thanks to South San Gabriel, he's likely going to be spending some time with his Centro-matic mates before too long.
"We definitely haven't ruled anything out," he says. "We're enthused about whatever might come next, whatever that might be. The not-knowing—that's the part we love."
This article appeared in print with the headline "When to say when"