On the Hunt with Patrick Watson

Photo: Brigitte Henry

Patrick Watson is the name of the lead singer of the band Patrick Watson. Yet there's no joke about the group's music, which has lead to collaborations with the Cinematic Orchestra and a wildly loyal following. In this expansive interview, Watson tells us all about the journey to the group's latest record ...

Patrick Watson

Adventures in Your Own Backyard

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2012-05-01
UK Release Date: 2012-04-30

To say that Patrick Watson is a true vision of experimental musicianship would be a huge understatement for the Canadian based group. To get to the center of the eclectic cabaret pop, electric folk rock sound of the four-piece band (consisting of Watson on vocals, piano, and guitar, percussionist Robbie Kuster, and bassist Mishka Stein) one needs to climb underneath the sound and discover each layer as it displays the told tales of Patrick Watson, who spent the majority of their career touring in Europe. Once underneath those layers it's easy to find the eclectic group has discovered with each album the shifts and changes in moods that live in each town they've stopped in -- always on the hunt for a new sound.

This hunt started in 2003 and since then has pulled them in many different directions, including a huge collaboration in 2007 on the Cinematic Orchestra's album Ma Fleur, landing them new legs to stand on with television exposure for songs like "To Build A Home" and "That Home". The band kept on coming back together instrumentally to collaborate on a few multimedia projects and have found their purpose in the space of alternative sound. This sound has brought them to think outside the box from typical melodious numbers one might assume would be their staple sound especially when Watson's vocals on occasion might be compared to the lamenting edge of Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake.

Pulling a lot of their inspirations from images in their mind, the band -- with Watson in the forefront -- has thought up ways to manipulate the simplicity of sound. Whether it's using a bicycle to create a whimsical feeling on their last album with "Beijing", using a megaphone for warped vocals, or using two spoons on an electric guitar for a wavering effect on Wooden Arm's track "Man Like You". While these leaps have kept the band's imagination always churning, Patrick Watson decided to pull the reigns back for Adventures in Your Own Backyard, their latest effort, which feels more like a lush lived in dream, as opposed to being on the run from a Tim Burton-y nightmare of the albums before. If this is a real hunt then Adventures in Your Own Backyard is their final destination before the big kill.

Although it's not completely obvious how the band's previous efforts got them to arrive at this lush melodic, springtime sound, one should look no further than the backbone behind the quartet. Watson's voice is still as nuanced and sweeping as ever, and the images are more permanent instead of flashes of lightening. This latest effort is a metaphorical call back to simpler times, allowing the lyrics to float seamlessly to the forefront, creating an optimistic, falling in love in the woods feel. Tracks like "Strange Crooked Road" "Quiet Crowd" and "Into Giants" pull this 12-track disc into a motion picture worth sticking around to see the credits roll.

PopMatters sat down with the Patrick Watson to discuss his inspirations and the journey that led him to exploring his own adventure in his backyard on Montreal ...

* * *

People may not know that Patrick Watson is not just comprised of you; it's a whole band. How did that come about?

We were all studying music together. I met this photographer who was making this book of photos underwater, and then she asked me to make music for this book, so I made the soundtrack for the book. When we all got together to record for this project we really thought that we were just backing up her visuals. After we did that we decided to do a show for fun, so we did the show and it went super well. So the artist kept on doing these multimedia projects and slowly but surely we stuck, and people knew the music. We started getting known for the shows that we were doing with the artist. By the time we turned into a band it was really difficult to change the name. [laughs] It kind of just accidentally became that way.

You've done a lot of collaborations. My favorite collaboration was your work with the Cinematic Orchestra. Did you take away lessons from that experience?

When I got the gig they wanted this singer, and they had these three chords, and I heard them and wrote a song for them on it. They're all super nice guys but I think I just do what I do when I wrote it, and I didn't think much about the song after I finished it. Then they put the song as the first track of the record and I guess people just kind of took a liking to that song. I think if anything I took some stuff away. It showed me how a simple piano on a song can be so powerful to people.

I'm sure you've heard this before but your voice is striking similar to Jeff Buckley. As a listener and fan of the both of you, I feel like you know exactly when to pull back on the vocals, there's a distinct nuance in your voice. Is that a conscious decision?

I'm kind of a firm believer that singing is one of the most instinctual instruments in the way that you just do things that make you feel good when you sing. I don't think you ever make conscious decisions about it. Even the way you sing, you sing what you own in a way. You make the sound that you make. When you sing all you do is think about giving yourself goosebumps.

Your voice really soars at a pretty big range. What's your vocal background like? Have you trained classically?

I sang in a choir as a kid. I started pretty young at seven. I kind of always sang, and then I had a break from singing, obviously, [laughs] like at 14 to 18 like most guys. When I started singing again, I wasn't like "oh, I'm going to be a singer." I wasn't in that frame of mind. I was starting to be a composer for film, and then when I had the photos in front of me I found interesting ways of writing lyrics. I found a way of writing a song that really works for me and over the years I really developed that. I think that's why as you get later in the albums in a way, they kind of get better because I started so late in the game in terms of learning how to write songs. I think for this record I feel very happy about the lyrics and feel that the songwriting itself is really strong. I think it's going to get stronger because it's not what I started off to do. I just became something like that.

You seem to be a musician that lives and plays in the space of a sound, how do you capture that or is that just instinctual?

I think whenever you finish a record you start to open your ears to all sorts of different things, and then you go on the hunt to find all these different types of towns that inspire you and different things you want to bring into your music. Then you go on tour for a year, and you try to own and incorporate new sounds and new ideas, and by the time you get to the next record you're going to have a bunch of new ideas or stuff you want to try. It's kind of a constant of keeping your ears and eyes open. I think it's really important that you evolve, and each town evolves. You don't last long if you have the same song that plays over and over again.

So I have to ask since the album is called Adventures in Your Own Backyard, what was your greatest adventure as a kid?

[laughs] My favorite memories are always as a kid. I used to live behind train tracks in the woods. I used to walk really late at night. I'd walk down the tracks into the woods in the night and have my headphones on. Those are my favorite adventures. Still to this day I don't think anything beats it.

So you recorded this album in Montreal, would you say it kind of meshed with the theme of coming home as finding your place in the world or finding the sound you wanted to put out?

We spent a lot of time traveling and recording. We've been to Iceland. We always love to travel and record while we're on tour. On this record we wanted to go home and take a year where we went in and out of the studio daily with a simple set up, and concentrate and make sure we got the right songs to put out next. I just wanted to put out an album with 12 beautiful songs and I just wanted to wait until we had those songs, so for me, I think just having more patience on this record, and a simple set up when you come in every day or if have an idea you can run to the studio. There's no clock ticking with cash going down the toilet, it's just a natural place to do that and I thought it was fun.

You were saying that you find the sound along with your experiences. I feel like this more than any of the albums have a real, melodic approach. Were there any places you went to specifically just to feel that?

I think there's definitely one melodic aspect, especially in the second-to-last songs. We were traveling to the Grand Canyon at one point, and we stopped at this gas station. Then we see this guy who peels up in his jeep and he rolls down his window and asks, "Are you guys aliens?" and we say, "no!" And then he goes on this 20 minute monologue as if the Coen Brothers wrote it, and at the very end he said something that was very elegant, and very crazy at the same time -- it was a strange combo. He said, "You have to ask your piano for a song." We got back in the van and said, "Well that was a pretty interesting thing to say." Then we put on some Ennio Morricone, with all the western kind of spaghetti, beautiful kind of big expansive melodies as we were going to the Grand Canyon. I think that drive had a huge influence on this record when I look back. The trumpets in "Adventures in Your Own Backyard" and "Lighthouse" in the very beginning kind of gives it that sense of humor for an adventure of people's dailies lives. I guess that would be how I approached the big melodies on this record.

Do you see this as a particular sound you're going to go forward with for the next album?

I'm feeling pretty melodic these days. The last album felt extremely melodic too so I don't think I'm changing course yet. It's difficult to say.

Is there artists that you particularly like as far as inspirations in your own work?

There are a lot of amazing artists out there. Contemporary or older?


In terms of the bands out there now, Grizzly Bear is one of them. They're a band that blew me away in terms of newer upcoming bands. That was the one that made me go "wow". We're touring with Andrew Bird right now and he's an amazing musician, he makes this beautiful music that just happens. I've always loved Sufjan Stevens -- he's probably the closest to what I do in a way. There's always great stuff like Beirut. In terms of older stuff it goes anywhere to classical musical like Ravel. In terms of beautiful, melodic songs I love Simon & Garfunkel. I think they would win the award for writing the most beautiful songs.

My personal favorite song on the album is "Strange Crooked Road". It has a really upbeat; springtime, feel, and the cadence of the drums are in there as well. Can you tell me how that song came about?

Yeah! Our bass player Mishka [Stein] has been working on that idea for a year and I kept on having this melody. I watched our Festival de Musique Émergente documentary that was shot in Quebec about his family and stuff; there are always these crazy surreal stories. This first story is about this woman who's husband was mean to her her whole life and abusive. One night he fell drunk in the bed and she sewed him to the bed and she said, "I'll never let you get out of this bed until you promise to be nice to me." There was a series of incredibly, colorful and amazing stories that came from the documentary that gave me the words for that.

Your lyrics are heavily based on nostalgic images. Is there a specific lyric on this album that stands out to you most?

I think my favorite is "Quiet Crowd" in terms of a lyric -- "Everybody's got a little wrong in all the right places / It just depends on where you're around." I think that's one of the best lyrics. I always wanted to say that and it was nice to do that in an elegant way that I felt comfortable with. I think the "Quiet Crowd" has a little of little jewels in it in terms of lyric ideas and things you kind of look back on. I felt really happy when the song was finished.

You have two instrumental tracks on this album. How do you figure out the placing? I felt like this whole album kind of takes you on a cinematic journey and that "Swimming Pools" was the rolling credits.

It took me about a month and a half to place the songs in order on the record. It wasn't easy and when you didn't place it the right way it really didn't work. Funny enough, lots of advice from friends helped. When you're making the pacing of the record all you want to do is make the songs shine the best that you can and make sure that the song doesn't ruin another song after. I think it's like a puzzle and when you get it right the album makes you feel like it rolls right by and you don't notice. If you don't pick it right you get stuck somewhere and it'll feel long. It's all a matter of trying different combinations, and feeling the album. That's when you know it's good.

Is there anything you want people to take away from this album as a whole?

Yeah, I just want to give people an adventure while they're walking to the metro with their headphones on. I'm just trying to give a record that will be touching. I had a very simple ambition for this record. We weren't going to put something out that made people say "oh this a sound we never heard." It's just 12 gorgeous songs that really touch people and have nice arrangements that do the songs justice. Our other record before it was pretty ambitious in terms of our arrangements. I just wanted something more natural, and simpler. I wanted the songs to shine more than the arrangements. That was the goal.

What do you look most forward to when promoting the album?

We always tour Europe so much, and they have pretty big rooms over there. We never got to tour the States properly. I'm pretty happy that there's a place for this album in the States and I think we're ready to tour there. When you're discovering a country and exploring a property it's probably the best part. Once you're playing a big room there's a different kind of thing that happens when people are discovering your music for the first time. I want to get a new audience; it's my favorite part.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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