A THIRTY YEAR GAP BETWEEN A DEBUT SOLO ALBUM AND ITS FOLLOW-UP MAY SEEM EXCESSIVE – BUT FOR BEN WATT IT’S EASILY EXPLAINABLE. THOSE THREE DECADES HAVE SEEN HIM WORKING ALONGSIDE WIFE TRACEY THORN AS EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL, AND RUNNING RESPECTED DANCE LABELS BUZZIN’ FLY AND STRANGE FEELING.
Watt is about to release HENDRA, the follow-up to 1983’s NORTH MARINE DRIVE, and parental memoir ROMANY AND TOM was published last week. In this fascinating new interview with The Mouth Magazine he discusses the influence of his father on his musical direction, reflects on both HENDRA and NORTH MARINE DRIVE, and reveals how 1992 – a year in which he suffered a rare and life-threatening intestinal illness – was profoundly life-changing.
FROM THE JAZZ AND BOSSANOVA INFLECTIONS OF EDEN TO THE SHOWBAND AND SOUL OF THE FOLLOWING THREE OR FOUR EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL ALBUMS, YOUR CAREER HAS SEEN MOVEMENTS IN DIFFERENT TRADITIONAL GENRES… SO I IMAGINE YOUR EARLY SOUND WAS HEAVILY INFLUENCED BY YOUR FATHER, TOMMY WATT, WHO’D BEEN ONE OF THE PREMIER BAND-LEADERS IN THE UK IN THE 1950s…
I can’t ignore the fact that I was introduced to jazz at a very early age. My dad played it at home, took me to the Bull’s Head jazz pub as a kid, played me loads of stuff. I was steeped in orchestral jazz things like Basie and Quincy Jones and Pat Williams, and then later on when I picked up a guitar he pressed people like Joe Pass and George Benson on me. While it clearly left a mark I was also a product of my generation; post-punk was all about rejecting rock cliches, and searching for non-rock alternatives. I suppose this legitimised jazz as an influence in the indie world. Tracey loved the bluesier jazz singers too – Billie Holiday in particular. Minimalism was also a key influence, keeping things simple. The time was right to bring it all together.
YOU SANG ABOUT YOUR FATHER ON THE TRACK THE NIGHT I HEARD CARUSO SING… SO I’M PRESUMING IT WAS HE WHO FIRST PLAYED YOU MUSIC BY CARUSO. ?
Well, the lyric is about hearing Caruso by chance as an adult – not via my dad – and realising the power of music to make sense of life that might otherwise seem random and frightening. My dad never played me Caruso. I stumbled across it.
EVEN ONLY CURSORY RESEARCH REVEALS THAT YOUR DAD LED AN INTERESTING AND EVENTFUL LIFE. YOU’VE WRITTEN ABOUT HIM IN THE BOOK ROMANY AND TOM, DESCRIBED AS BEING “ABOUT WHO WE ARE, WHERE WE COME FROM, AND HOW WE LOVE AND LIVE WITH EACH OTHER FOR A LONG TIME”. DID THAT MAKE IT DIFFICULT – NOT JUST IN TERMS OF THE RESEARCH AND WRITING, BUT AT A PERSONAL LEVEL?
The only difficulty was marshalling all the information and finding the right structure to help kick-start it. That in itself took a long time. It was only when I worked out how to structure the final third of the book that I really got going. I developed a voice with my first book, PATIENT, and ROMANY AND TOM speaks in a similar way, I think. So the tone was quiet easy to find. Factually, there was a lot of checking and double-checking to do. Emotionally I was moved by the story I uncovered, but I never flinched from trying to articulate it.
WERE THERE THINGS YOU DISCOVERED THAT YOU’D NOT BEEN EXPECTING? ABOUT YOUR PARENTS, OF COURSE, BUT PERHAPS ABOUT YOURSELF, TOO?
Yes, there were surprises. There were things I had never known that startled me… But I’m not going to spoil the book for everyone by revealing them here!
YOUR FATHER RETIRED FROM MUSIC IN THE EARLY 1970s, BUT HOW MUCH DID HIS EXPERIENCES INFLUENCE YOUR OWN DECISION TO PURSUE A LIFE IN MUSIC? WOULD HE TALK TO YOU ABOUT HIS CAREER? AND, LATER ON, DID YOU USE HIM AS A SOUNDING BOARD FOR YOUR OWN?
He was just there. His job was normal to me, although, as the book points out, we are often only dimly aware of our parents’ golden years; we tend to experience the decline in our parents in most cases. So I never actually saw him play properly publicly. His time had gone. Nor was he a man of many words. Opinionated when drunk yes, but not often expansive about things otherwise. I learned most stuff by osmosis. It just seeped in. There was little direct instruction.
WHAT WERE THE FIRST RECORDS YOU REMEMBER HEARING THAT WERE ‘YOURS’, AND WHAT PARTICULAR ELEMENTS OF MUSIC FIRST CAPTURED YOU – VOCALS, CHORD CHANGES, STRING ARRANGEMENTS OR LYRICS, PERHAPS ..?
I had four much older siblings. Growing up, I heard a mixed bag: Paul Simon, Roy Harper, Lou Reed, and stuff I discovered myself – Neil Young, John Martyn, Brian Eno. Of course I heard glam rock and pop growing up too, but I was always drawn to the musical stuff even as a kid – I remember being amazed by Wings’ MY LOVE, 10cc’s I’M NOT IN LOVE, Stevie Wonder’s KNOCKS ME OFF MY FEET.
PRE-EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL, WERE YOU PARTICULARLY AMBITIOUS IN TERMS OF SONGWRITING?
I started writing songs as early as thirteen. Most were lyrically derivitive as I had few real experiences of my own. But melodically they were adventurous. I loved chords.
WHAT WERE YOUR EARLIEST EXPERIENCES OF WRITING AND PERFORMANCE LIKE?
When I was seventeen I met a different crowd from the local art college and discovered art rock; Talking Heads, Wire and Joy Division. I went to a tiny club in Richmond in Surrey called Snoopies, run by Mike Alway, who was to become A&R at Cherry Red Records. I blagged my first gig by claiming that I was “like Durutti Column with songs”. I had to write ten songs in ten days to be ready in time. I adopted a pseudonym – The Low Countries – and played with a drum machine and guitar… Looking back, only one of the songs was any good but it was a start.
I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU ABOUT NORTH MARINE DRIVE, YOUR FIRST SOLO ALBUM, WHICH IS SOMETHING OF A ‘FORGOTTEN GEM’. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT ALBUM, THIRTY YEARS ON? WHERE DOES IT STAND FOR YOU IN YOUR CANON?
Musically, I still love NORTH MARINE DRIVE. It is unlike anything else. Very atmospheric. Crystalline yet somehow misty at the same time. I’d forgotten the delicate piano lines throughout until I listened to it recently. They’re great too. I love how focused and full of intent the whole thing is. But some of the lyrics make me wince at their open-hearted naivety. I think NORTH MARINE DRIVE itself is a good lyric but I find it hard to listen to some of the others. The reediness and stretched keening quality to the voice is also not my favourite thing about the record.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE MUSICAL TOUCHSTONES FOR THAT RECORD?
Often you think that you are sounding like someone, but actually you come across completely differently. In my head some of the guitar was like John Martyn – but of course it lacks that louche bluesiness. I was too young to be louche. You can hear Tracey’s early influence on there, too. The faster rhythms came from listening to her pop singles. The slower stuff and jazzier stuff was all from inside my own head, and closer to the SUMMER INTO WINTER approach.
THERE WAS SOMETHING APPEALINGLY MELANCHOLY ABOUT IT – THE SOUNDS, THE SONGS, THE LYRICS… LUCKY ONE, FOR INSTANCE, IS TRULY EERY. WAS THAT SPARSITY IN SOUND BORN OF PRODUCTION NECESSITY, OR WAS THE INTENTION ALWAYS TO AIM FOR SOMETHING SO ATMOSPHERIC?
The cheapness of my Evans Echopet delay pedal also meant that the reverb and echoes were gauzy and indistinct. It wasn’t quite what I wanted, actually, but it created its own blurred atmosphere. The heavily compressed clinking delicate piano lines were the engineer Mike Gregovich’s idea.
IT’S INTERESTING THAT THE ALBUM PRE-DATES EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL. IT SUGGESTS THERE MIGHT HAVE BEEN AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY, A DIFFERENT PATH…
Of course it would have been different. When colours merge a new colour is formed. Old colours are left behind. Some things were clearly abandoned when we decided to go in together. Perhaps I would have pursued a slightly more experimental path on my own: jazzier, folkier, more pastoral, bluesier … And perhaps it is some of those instincts that I’m returning to now.
HOW WOULD YOU SAY YOUR SONGWRITING PROCESS HAS CHANGED SINCE NORTH MARINE DRIVE? DO YOU STILL WORK AT GUITAR AND PIANO AND BUILD OUT FROM THERE?
I can only work these days by pretending not to work. I have Pro Tools at home but never turn it on if at all possible. I record fragments of ideas – usually a guitar or piano part – into my iPhone, often just before its time to eat, or time to go out, as if denying the fact I am actually writing anything significant. I then listen to them back a few days later. If they strike me as interesting at that point I will go back and revisit the idea. I have to be somehow impressed.
AND THEN, IF YOU ARE IMPRESSED..?
Once I’m sure I am onto something, I work painstakingly at shaping it; the precise chord inversions, the movement of the hand across the fretboard, the interlocking of chords and suspensions. Sometimes a lyric starts with an image and expands outwards like ripples on a pond until it has a more recognisable meaning that I might never have intended at the start. Very different to the direct way Tracey writes. Sometimes the best lyrics come from something someone tells me – a brief story, a few words on the phone, pauses, implied meaning in unfinished sentences… I fill in the gaps. I then spend a lot of time on the language of the lyrics, the cadences, the meter and rhythm of what I sing. In the old days I think I was more grateful to come up with anything half good that things got finished too quickly, often in the wrong key or too fast.
AMPLIFIED HEART, IN 1994, SEEMED TO BE THE FIRST OF TWO ‘REBIRTHS’ FOR EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL FOLLOWING A COUPLE OF UNDERACHIEVING ALBUMS. YOU WERE QUITE OBVIOUSLY REINVIGORATED AFTER A BIT OF A TOUGH TIME. I REMEMBER SEEING YOU GIG IN (IRONICALLY ENOUGH) HULL THAT YEAR – AND SOMETHING THAT HAS STUCK WITH ME SINCE IS YOUR PERFORMANCE OF JACKSON BROWNE’S THESE DAYS, WHICH CLEARLY MEANT A GREAT DEAL TO YOU. YOU INTRODUCED THE SONG BY TALKING ABOUT YOUR ILLNESS (WHICH YOU ALSO WROTE ABOUT IN PATIENT). A PIVOTAL TIME…
Of course, 1992 was a life changing year. No-one goes to death’s door several times in the space of ten weeks and remains unchanged. A lot of that experience fed into AMPLIFIED HEART – and of course, into PATIENT. Those Jackson Browne lyrics about solitude and loss and sense of failure struck me powerfully at the time. Tracey and I both felt that we’d lost our way – particularly in our music – and we’d had some kind of freakish wake-up call.
TRACEY’S WORK WITH MASSIVE ATTACK AND TODD TERRY’S REMIX OF YOUR SINGLE MISSING SEEMED TO OFFER THAT SECOND REBIRTH, OPENING UP THE CLUB SCENE FOR YOU. BUT, AS AN ACTIVE MUSICAL MIND, YOU WERE INTERESTED IN DANCE CULTURE ANYWAY…
Yes, I was intrigued by the vocal side of house and garage from the end of the 80s onwards – Turntable Orchestra, Phase II, Joe Smooth… But it was a raw street sound and Everything But The Girl had already evolved into something more sophisticated. It would have been a bad fit to adopt those clothes back then. But we kept quietly probing its possibilities. When we finally decided to go for broke, with the album WALKING WOUNDED in 1996, it felt quite liberating.
WHAT DO YOU FIND IN DANCE MUSIC THAT YOU DON’T FIND IN ANY OTHER GENRE?
When I started to DJ and play clubs I realised the true power of great dance music: the sublimation of the artist as artist, the importance of ritual, of communality, of repetition, of dancing with strangers. It was a new way of communicating. Pathos through loud joy. Melancholy through jubilation…
YOU HAVE A NEW SOLO ALBUM DUE SHORTLY… WHAT’S THE MOTIVATION BEHIND RELEASING SOMETHING UNDER YOUR OWN NAME AFTER SUCH A LONG ABSENCE?
For a moment I was tempted to try using a pseudonym, form a band, but in the end I wanted to be honest and just say “this is me, in this moment”. The record, HENDRA, came unexpectedly. I’d carved out some time to finish the book ROMANY AND TOM but was unsure of what was going to happen next. Publishers Bloomsbury had talked of me writing a novel. But, in the end, a couple of songs appeared unexpectedly last February. So I just grabbed the opportunity. I parked the labels, which were becoming a drain on my time, and just threw myself into the writing process.
YOU DESCRIBED THE PROCESS AS YOU HAVING TO IMPRESS YOURSELF, BUT AFTER SUCH A LONG GAP WAS THAT EASY TO DO? WHAT WAS THE WRITING PROCESS FOR HENDRA LIKE?
It was like confronting something that I knew I had had to confront for years. I wrote most of HENDRA in three months. Then, last May, I took a two week road trip down the west coast of America with an old friend of mine, and that threw up two more songs. I had it all down by August.
ARE THERE THINGS THAT YOU’VE FELT LIBERATED TO DO ON THE NEW RECORD WHICH YOU’VE NOT BEEN ABLE TO SINCE NORTH MARINE DRIVE?
Hard to tell. I sometimes wonder would I have written any of the songs in the same way had Tracey ultimately been the singer of them. Not sure. A couple maybe. But then as the songs have mutated and the melodies revisited they have gradually become moulded to my intonation and choice of key and vocal range. It makes them different. I also spend a long time experimenting with new guitar tunings to make the instrument seem fresh in my hands. I’m not sure Tracey would have had the patience with some of it!
BERNARD BUTLER APPEARS ON HENDRA…
Bernard has been brilliant. I turned to him instinctively. We barely knew each other – but something told me that his gnarly overdriven but melodic style would complement what I was writing perfectly. And as soon as we started jamming things out in my basement it sounded great.
LATE IN 2013 THE TWO OF YOU DID A LOW KEY UK TOUR…
Yes, we did. I hope to play as much as possible this year, too. It needs planning, but I hope to get around.