BEN WATT’S THIRD SOLO ALBUM – FEVER DREAM – HAS JUST BEEN RELEASED. IT’S AS INTENSE AND SPECTRAL AS 2014’s CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED SOLO COMEBACK HENDRA (WATT HAD NOT MADE A SOLO SONGWRITING RECORD SINCE 1983).
HENDRA was a well received treatise on middle-age, sometimes seeming to be a companion piece to his parental memoir ROMANY AND TOM (published the same year). It encompassed his father and half-sister’s death and his mother’s descent into dementia. On FEVER DREAM Watt turns his writer’s eye to the subject of relationships – the shifts and the constants of them – most notably on GRADUALLY and NEW YEAR OF GRACE. In this new interview with The Mouth Magazine Watt talks about that pair of songs, and reflects on his continuing musical partnership with talismanic guitarist Bernard Butler (who brings intensity and a sense of danger to FEVER DREAM and Watt’s live performances). Watt and Butler tour the UK this month.
AS WE SPEAK YOU’RE AT – I GUESS – 30,000 FEET OR SO ON A PLANE ON YOUR WAY TO TOKYO FOR A ONE-OFF GIG WITH BERNARD BUTLER…
Yes, I’m on the plane to Tokyo now.
ARE YOU PARTICULARLY RECOGNISED OVER THERE? WHAT DOES JAPAN MAKE OF AN ARTIST SUCH AS YOURSELF – A WESTERN ARTIST I WOULD CONSIDER EXCEPTIONALLY ENGLISH?
My first album, NORTH MARINE DRIVE was a cult success in Japan back in 1983. It has never been deleted and really connected with people out there. I think it had a kind of passionate fragility that spoke to them culturally. There is even a bar in Tokyo now called North Marine Drive, and for a while there was a t-shirt range called North Marine Drive. When I announced my return to solo work after thirty-one years with HENDRA, there was a lot of anticipation in Japan. I was booked to play Summer Sonic, one of the biggest festivals out there. I decided to go as a duo with Bernard. We went on in between Metronomy and The Horrors and deliberately down-played it, kept it minimal, a calm in the storm. I stood up to sing the title track, NORTH MARINE DRIVE, and the first ten rows were men and women of my age mouthing the words back at me. It was very moving. I realised how important the record was to them. We went back a few months later to play headline shows and the reaction was wonderful. HENDRA ended up at number two in best albums of the year in MUSIC, which is one of Japan’s main music magazines.
YOU’RE TOURING AMERICA AGAIN IN MID-JUNE. WHAT DOES AMERICA MAKE OF YOU?
There are cities in America where I have always been well received. The legacy of Everything But The Girl and my solo stuff and my writing exists out there; New York, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, in particular… Everywhere I go I find similar crowds – people who connect with the lyrics, the subtleties in what I do. Attentive listeners. I played in Sydney, solo, for the first time in 2014. I was anxious. But again, it was a full club where people just listened. It was great.
IT’S FAIR TO SAY THAT THE CRITICAL RECEPTION FOR HENDRA WAS MAGNIFICENT, BUT DOES ‘CRITICAL RECEPTION’ MATTER TO YOU? DOES IT VALIDATE YOU OR IS IT MERELY A BY-PRODUCT OF YOUR TRADE, NOT TO BE TAKEN TOO SERIOUSLY?
I’d be lying if I said reviews don’t matter. Of course they matter. When they are good they are an expression of acceptance, and everyone wants that. I write to try and express common feelings. A reviewer is only another listener. If they get it, I think I have written good work. Simple as that.
DO YOU REMEMBER PARTICULARLY GOOD REVIEWS?
At a business level, good reviews help promote an atmosphere of success around a project which helps with album and ticket sales and encourages floating fans to commit to the project. Selling records is very hard these days. Breaking even is an achievement for many. Support from all areas is always welcome. I don’t take it lightly, not from fans or critics…
… AND HOW DO YOU COPE WITH LESS FAVOURABLE REVIEWS?
Bad reviews? Everyone gets them; I try not to dwell on them. Sometimes they do good, if they point out a flaw you hadn’t noticed that you can then attempt to correct. In the end you have to accept every time you release something you risk humiliation – it’s part of the deal with the public – and most of the time you simply wipe your brow if you get away relatively unscathed.
WORKING WITH BERNARD BUTLER IN RECENT YEARS HAS BROUGHT, TO MY MIND, A ‘NEW WEIRDNESS’ TO YOUR MUSIC. THERE IS REAL BEAUTY IN HIS PLAYING, BUT THERE IS ALSO STRANGENESS AND THERE IS ALSO DRAMA AND THERE IS ALSO A SENSE OF DANGER…
From the beginning, after we met in 2012, I knew there was potential there musically. There was mutual respect but also an acknowledgement of our essential differences. I have always written in a lush, suspended way on guitar, rich in atmosphere and lyricism. Yet my lyrics often tell a different, often unsentimental, story. I wanted someone who, as you say, would dramatise this contrast, respond to the deliberate moments where a beautiful chord lands with an edgy lyric. Bernard was that person.
SO THOSE WERE THE SPECIFIC QUALITIES YOU WERE LOOKING FOR FROM HIM?
I encouraged him to roll the tone off, add the distortion, find the feedback, and be the dark edge. He is the counterpoint, the voice on your other shoulder, the door that slams on the song. I knew it was very different to Everything But The Girl. But that was the point. I was trying to find a new voice. My own voice. And Bernard has helped articulate it.
GIVEN THAT IT’S YOUR VOICE, YOUR NAME ON THE TOP, HOW PRESCRIPTIVE IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP?
We don’t talk about it much now when we play. There is a strong intuition. We improvise. We know the roles.
HENDRA WAS A DEEPLY PERSONAL WORK AND VERY INVOLVING – DESPITE THE LISTENER BEING ‘ON THE OUTSIDE’ OF A LOT OF THE DETAIL OF WHAT YOU WERE WRITING ABOUT. FOR ME, LISTENING TO IT WILL FOREVER BE TIED TO THE EXPERIENCE OF READING ROMANY AND TOM; THEY FEEL LIKE COMPANION PIECES… CONFIDENT WORK.
Touring with HENDRA brought increasing confidence. I played sixty shows around the world. My voice got stronger. I was able to sing with more intensity. And my relationship with Bernard and the band deepened.
WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE OF WRITING FEVER DREAM, THE NEW ALBUM, LIKE? DID YOU BEGIN WITH SPECIFIC THINGS YOU WANTED TO SAY THIS TIME?
I had a notebook with me and was sketching out ideas for a possible novel, but I kept running into friends and acquaintances on the road, whose relationships intrigued me – failing marriages, long-term affairs, the shadow of a parent, feelings of isolation in adulthood – capturing short snapshots of relationships, and then turned the lens on my own. And this became the core of FEVER DREAM…
HOW DOES FEVER DREAM DIFFER FROM HENDRA, FOR YOU?
When it came to the execution of FEVER DREAM I realised I was able to sing some of the songs in a more dramatic way than on HENDRA. The first two, for example; GRADUALLY and FEVER DREAM. And this helped add fervency to the recordings.
THE ALBUM SEEMS TO BE BOOKENDED BY TWO VERY DIFFERENT BUT RELATED SONGS. ON OPENER GRADUALLY AND CLOSER NEW YEAR OF GRACE I THINK YOU ARE SINGING FROM TWO DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES ABOUT THE SAME THING – THE SINE WAVE OF A LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP…
Yes, the two songs are about the same relationship.
WOULD THESE TWO SONGS BE ABOUT YOU AND TRACEY? OR ARE THEY MORE ‘IN CHARACTER’, DERIVED FROM OBSERVATION OF OTHERS?
Yes, my own relationship with Tracey is in part reflected in them. Tracey and I have been together for almost thirty-five years. It is a long time. There are ups and downs. And I wanted to articulate how that works; how you cope; how you differ; how you resolve things. Our relationship is, of course, based on a deep well of affection – but I wanted to try and be real about it.
FROM A MAN’S PERSPECTIVE – FROM YOURS – WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS OF A LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP, AND WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS (THE MOMENTS YOU SEEM TO SING ABOUT ON NEW YEAR OF GRACE)?
Life isn’t always rosy. But you hang in there because at heart you believe. And then moments of great beauty emerge and it is transportive. But as with everything I try and make it relatable to the listener, invite them to stand in my shoes, make it real for them. Intriguingly both songs have struck chords with several of my male friends, which interests me as they were not the songs from the album Tracey initially responded to most strongly – so perhaps the outlook in them is already quite male-centric. Perhaps it’s that they focus on the battle between self-absorption and feelings of isolation versus engagement and selflessness. Is that a man thing?
IN THE LAST FEW YEARS TRACEY HAS WRITTEN A COUPLE OF VERY WELL-RECEIVED BOOKS (BEDSIT DISCO QUEEN AND NAKED AT THE ALBERT HALL)… OBVIOUSLY YOU WILL HAVE READ BOTH OF THESE BUT I WONDERED WHETHER, DURING HER WRITING PROCESS, TRACEY WOULD SEEK YOUR COUNSEL ON HER WORK?
We’re both quite secretive writers at the outset. We need to carve out our own ideas, find the bedrock, build the shape. But towards the end we invite the other in to comment as a good editor might. We respect each other immensely. We do different things, specialise in different areas, have different voices, and we can both offer dispassionate criticism of the other without feeling judged. We both want to do good work. We both want to connect with the reader, or listener, and we use each other’s judgements constructively as a means to that end.
DID YOU TALK TO HER ABOUT WHAT YOU WERE DOING DURING THE MAKING OF HENDRA AND FEVER DREAM?
With HENDRA and FEVER DREAM I waited until I had written six or seven keepers for the album and then played Tracey the demos. In each case there were one or two she was unsure of, at which point I either ignored her or rewrote or abandoned stuff, depending on how strongly I felt. Once the recording was under way, I kept both albums under wraps until we were ready to mix them.
SO THE WORK IS VERY MUCH ‘MY OWN THING’ FOR THE BOTH OF YOU UNTIL THE FINISHED ‘PRODUCT’?
It’s important not to offer – or ask for – too much by way of comment. We each have a unique tone – something that I think has become more marked in recent years. Sometimes you don’t want to muffle it too much. Like a bell, it needs to be allowed to ring true.
YOU AND TRACEY HAVE TALKED REGULARLY ON SOCIAL MEDIA ABOUT TV SHOWS SUCH AS THE VOICE – MUSIC COMPETITIONS. I WAS QUITE SURPRISED BY THE FACT YOU WATCH THESE SHOWS, AS IF I BELIEVED ‘CHICKEN IN A BASKET’ ENTERTAINMENT IS BENEATH AN ARTIST WITH YOUR INTEGRITY. SO, ARE YOU GENUINELY ENTERTAINED OR DO YOU HAVE POST-MODERN TONGUE IN CHEEK?
I enjoy the vocal talent shows – THE VOICE, THE X-FACTOR… In essence, it’s just ordinary people trying to sing in public, trying to make something of themselves. Trying to not fuck it up. I identify with that. Who wouldn’t? I think in that sense they’re bursting with integrity. And what these shows often demonstrate is that lots of people sing really well. What is harder to find is character, something unique, someone who doesn’t just ape an existing style, and someone who can choose smart material and avoid the traps. That is much rarer. Rarer than even the shows suggest. I find the search for that quite fascinating.
McALMONT & BUTLER’S YES WAS USED ON THERE A LITTLE WHILE AGO… I VERGED ON FEELING EMBARRASSED… IF ONE OF THESE TV PEOPLE WANTED TO USE, SAY, THE EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL SONG COME ON HOME WOULD YOU ALLOW IT?
Every now and then – as happened on THE VOICE recently – a judge suggests a non-obvious cover version for someone to sing and it becomes extremely moving. The edition where both Kate Bush’s A WOMAN’S WORK and Antony and The Johnsons’ HOPE THERE’S SOMEONE were tackled by two singers trying to put the other out of the competition was utterly brilliant. Great, great singing of great, great songs. I loved it. If someone sang COME ON HOME I would be welcome it. Why not? Our song MISSING has been done a couple of times, once very well. I’m no snob about any of it.
WHEN THE FEVER DREAM ALBUM AND TOUR WIND UP, DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING IN MIND? ANOTHER BOOK? ANOTHER RECORD? DO YOU MAKE THOSE KIND OF PLANS?
I always write out of a compulsion. I have no idea what is next. I make no plans. I think my illness in 1992 taught me that anything is around any corner. You just have to throw yourself into what you are doing now. Make the most of it. When it is over, take another fork in the road, but don’t try and guess where it will be, or where it will lead.
HAS FEVER DREAM BEEN AS REWARDING AN EXPERIENCE FOR YOU AS HENDRA?
If you had asked me five years ago would I be where I am now – with both HENDRA and FEVER DREAM released and well received, and heading to Japan to sing for the third time in two years – I’d have said you were in dreamland…
Archive interview on ROMANY AND TOM and HENDRA here