‘Fluidity of Form’: An Interview with Ben Watt + An Inspired Mixtape

Browsing a record shop with Ben Watt is one way to learn about those artists he admires and those that inspired him.

In the mid-’90s, Everything but the Girl’s (EBTG) music moved from living rooms to dance floors as pop radio embraced a house remix of their song “Missing” by Todd Terry. It was sad when I realized the band had effectively been dissolved by the end of the decade. However, the EBTG duo, composed of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, would continue making music, just independently.

When Watt released Hendra in 2014, only his second solo album in thirty-plus years, almost every review noted that Watt’s very accomplished music career had most recently found him as the mastermind of a house music label Buzzin’ Fly and a DJ, solo or with Lazy Dog. I followed the Buzzin’ Fly releases, and occasionally his radio mixes, pretty closely as the music always felt cutting edge in a genre racing for the lowest common denominator. (If I had ever reviewed the evolutionary label, I wanted to write, the genomes of house music are found in Buzzin’ Fly.)

Watt’s return to folk-rock was an equally inviting treat for my ears however. Hendra is a solid album with cathartic and timeless qualities with a variety of influences present across the album’s ten songs. Watt demonstrably has a great ear for all different kinds of music and, as a bonus, he has again been creating mixes. This time the mixes are appraisals of the “deep folk” Watt is currently into (he shares them on Soundcloud). The mixes are enduring in their own right and inspiring as mostly these songs are “new” to me, even if they are decades old.

So, I thought: why not chat with Watt at a record shop in New York, ahead of his show at Le Poisson Rouge, to get a deeper impression of his musical influences and his upbringing (some of which Watt touches upon in his second memoir, Romany and Tom)? Then I’d create a folk compilation inspired by the discoveries made from artists he mentioned, specifically the ones that were triggered by coming across them by chance in the shop. During our conversation, Watt demolished one of the preconceived notions I had of him, explained the process behind his mixtapes, and primarily spoke about the artists he admires, especially those that have inspired him.

If I’m really honest, I think people imagine I’m more of an obsessive collector and crate-digger than I am. I’m half-curator but I’m also kind of half-writer. I don’t feel the need to own everything I like. So I hear stuff that inspires me but then my instinct would be to go and then try and create something of my own out of that rather than just own it and put it on a shelf.

I periodically got rid of some of my records. I find it quite oppressive to be surrounded by too much. I think forcing yourself to shed records and then reabsorb new music is actually quite a good process. But I certainly know plenty of people who need to have, you know, “all” the records that Steve Gadd drummed on or all the… whatever. I’ve never really been that kind of person.

* * *

[Regarding the mixtapes], I just usually pick things up as I go along and just keep them in a kind of iTunes playlist or just in my office. Things that I buy on vinyl. When I think I’ve got a new kind of selection that might work together I just go downstairs and throw it all together. It’s not that thought out. It’s usually quite spontaneous.

Once I’ve got the basic idea of the flow of the music then I just try and add a bit of colour. I often go to places like Freesound.org and pick up sound effects and field recordings. That’s just like adding the character to the mixes. Then I run some of it through old space echoes and things just to get the segues. It’s lots of little, separate processes really.

* * *

Bunny Berigan. Trumpet player from the ’30s. One of my dad’s early heroes. My dad was a jazz musician. Big band arranger. I remember one of his old school friends, who contacted me when he was in his 80s, told me about how my dad and him used to basically just talk about records like kids when they were in their teens. My dad once pretty much sold his entire collection of 78s to buy this brand new Bunny Berigan record that was coming out which he just said was changing the scene. That was the sound to get hip to.

This friend of my dad’s went on to become a jazz archivist and ran this big hi-fi store in Glasgow, Scotland. He was very old, very frail and he tracked me down just to tell me what an influence my dad had been on his growing up and on his jazz tastes. I just saw Bunny Berigan’s name and it made me think of it.

* * *

Well there’s a classic record. Fairly [laughs] appropriate given where we are standing. Fred Neil’s Bleecker and MacDougal. He was a folk singer with an extremely unique baritone voice. He wrote that song “Dolphins”. I think very influential on people like Tim Buckley. I’ve always liked that kind of intersection of kind of folk and jazz and blues and torch-song. The sort of non-obviously rock intersection. This was a great record — “The Water is Wide” that’s a good song.

* * *

Janis Ian. $1.99 that’s a bargain. Very underrated. “At Seventeen”, what a great song. That looks like an original pressing… he said pretending he wasn’t a collector. Great sleeve as well. Tracey’s a big fan of Janis Ian too. Underrated.

* * *

Mark Kozalek. I remember when the Red House Painters first appeared. I was really into that sound. He played a solo show, actually here in New York in what must have been like ’93-’94 at the old Fez café, which was under the old Time Café. They’ve all disappeared now. That was near where Joe’s Pub is now, on the opposite side of the street on the corner. He was great. I love his writing, his lyrics and his voice. Then I hung out with him earlier this year in San Francisco because he’s a friend of a friend of mine. We got on well. I think he tip-toes around new people. Slightly cautious. The ice broke eventually and we got on pretty well actually. He’s really nice.

* * *

Another great forgotten ’80s band, The Roches. They wrote a great song called “Hammond Song”. It was covered by Terry Hall after he was in the Specials. He moved over and formed a band called the Colour Field. Yeah there it is… great song.

* * *

Scott Walker is a fascinating character really. To be born with that voice. Those records that he made, after those initial Walker Brothers hits, like Scott 3 and Scott 4, they’re just sensational records. Again, amazing voice. Not rock at all. It was almost like he was… I mean the records he makes now are just so experimental and so atonal, nothing to do with the voice that everybody loved when he was growing up. It must be somehow psychologically deliberate. He’s got a fascinating character with the records he makes now.

There’s a very good documentary about him actually in which talks about just feeling the need to make the records he makes now. I don’t know, maybe he finds it too easy just to sing in his normal voice, which is a shame because I think we’d all love to hear him sing in it again.

* * *

I started in Japan a couple of weeks ago with the trio. Bernard [Butler] and Martin [Ditcham] who’s drumming with me at the minute. We played out there. They had to go back to London and then I flew straight over here from Tokyo to L.A., which I’ve never done before. And you actually get to live another day of your life twice. It’s like 17 hours behind. I had Saturday twice. It was a very strange feeling. But I managed to hook up with Beth Orton, who now lives in Laurel Canyon. She’s married to Sam Amidon and we ended up doing a couple of songs together, spontaneously at the Troubadour, at my show, which was great. We recorded together in the late ’90s. I did a couple of tracks on her second album for her. We decided to do them acoustically at the Troubador show. So it was really nice.

* * *

Jonathan Richman. Big hero of mine when I was growing up. Seminal gig I went to really when I saw him in London. Again by chance. I kind of picked it out. Went on my own. Sixteen. Bought a ticket. And the whole kind of minimalism of the show struck me. It really chimed with me. It was great.

* * *

I was listening to a bit of Steve Winwood‘s voice again the other day. A couple of people have been name-checking him recently. I saw Chris Swanson from Secretly Canadian talking about him the other day. I thought, ‘ah, something’s brewing’. It’s funny there is really great footage of him singing with Traffic on a movie, I think if it’s not the first it’s one of the first Glastonbury festivals in the early ’70s. It’s a documentary made by [Nicolas] Roeg, who went on to make Don’t Look Now. He made this documentary called Glastonbury Fayre and it’s like Glastonbury at its infancy. It’s basically just a late ’60s rave. Actually ’71 I think it was. It’s just like a couple of thousand people in a field. And the closing act is Traffic.

They play and you realize how close, in those days, rock music was to what we now call rave. And basically the band would just play up-tempo tracks with heavy percussion. It’s a bit like a trance gig. Really primitive trance. The crowd were just obviously all out of their heads anyway, completely wigging out. You realize that, in those days, rock was not the kind of corporatized “let’s just play the singles”, crystal sound, that you get now but was actually much more of a kind of tribal, almost shamanistic, kind of experience. It’s really worth watching that film just for that. It’s a film of the whole day as it develops and it culminates with the night time performance by Traffic.

Steve Winwood sings fantastic on it. I’m interested in Steve Winwood’s voice because he crosses boundaries between folk and soul and R&B. His voice is pitched quite high like mine. I quite like listening to him. I sometimes get a few ideas from him.

* * *

Richard and Linda Thompson. Very interesting connection. Early ’70s. British folk. He’s gone on to be one of my favorite guitarists. He played on a track of me and Tracey’s called “25th December”. He played the solo on it. He actually still lives near us in North London. I ran into him again recently for the first time in years and said, “should we do something together?” And he was saying, “Yeah maybe we should get back together.” But his work with Linda Thompson was really interesting. They were married. They made a couple of really great records.

Tracey writes about Linda Thompson in this book she’s got coming out next year. She’s written a new book all about singing and about singers and the process of singing called Naked at the Albert Hall. It’s going to be published in the UK in the spring. At one point she does an interview with Linda Thompson, who stopped singing at one point because of this problem with her voice. It’s quite interesting.

Their daughter, Kami [Thompson], is part of The Rails. English folk-duo. Made a lovely debut album called Fair Warning this year. Island Records reactivated the Pink Label to release it because obviously she’s the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson, so there is a bit of history or folk-heritage that they were cashing in on. But it’s a beautiful record. She’s got a lovely voice and he’s a great guitarist, Jamie [Walbourne]. They actually played with me at my Islington show in London in May.

* * *

Grant Green. When I was growing up and I first started playing guitar, my dad, a jazz musician, was very keen that I should try playing jazz guitar. He would push all these records on me, like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. They are brilliant records but I realized that it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was actually more interested in simpler kind of stuff. I actually really like the playing of João Gilberto, the Brazilian player, who ended up obviously playing most famously with Stan Getz. But those warm chords… His own albums are really good as well. Then I heard John Martyn in the mid ’70s when I was a teenager. That seemed to really join some dots for me. Folk and jazz.

I probably picked up a guitar when I was thirteen or fourteen and tried to write songs. Had a couple of school bands and all that kind of stuff. Then started playing on my own cause I couldn’t really find anyone else who was into what I was doing. In the early days, I was experimenting with primitive drum machines and delays and guitars a little but like Vini Reilly was doing on Factory Records.

Do you know the Durutti Column? Factory Records, early ’80s. That interested me. Mixing that with John Martyn ideas. Those were the sort of things that were interesting me. Of course it wasn’t very contemporary, in that no one else was really doing it. I think some people thought I was just ‘out of time’ in some way with my peer group. But it was just what I did. That was my early sound really.

* * *

Here’s someone else I listened to when growing up. George Benson. With all this jazz that my dad was pushing on me, at least [Benson] seemed slightly contemporary. I can remember going to see him play live at the Albert Hall, when I was a teenager, on the Weekend in L.A. tour. That completely slick jazz-soul kind of thing. I was seeing that and the same time I was seeing people like Jonathan Richman and Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Then I would go and see people like George Benson and Earth, Wind and Fire. So it was quite…. I was very receptive and open to it.

* * *

Springsteen. It’s funny. Yesterday, actually two or three days ago, I was in Austin. Woke up. Had to get ready and go out to the airport. For some reason I just thought I wanted to listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album. Put it on from start to finish as I was getting up. I thought, “Fucking hell, what an amazing record”.

Then the next day, Mark Richardson (Pitchfork) was on Twitter and said, ‘just by chance I listened to the whole of Nebraska from start to finish yesterday.’ I said, “I cannot believe it.” It was like some sort of serendipitous moment. I did exactly the same.

I think [Bruce’s], less so now but, there’s been a period when he was hugely misunderstood. I still think he’s a great writer visually. Brilliant encapsulator of time and place and motive in songs. I think he is great. Still a fan.

* * *

The thing that interests me most is content, and after that, fluidity of form. It’s about, “do you have a voice?” And I mean not just a singing voice, conceptually a voice. Do you have interesting things to say and to sing. And if you do, then I think the form should be fluid and you should be able to move, like an artist would move through sculpture and water color.

But I do think we’re often hidebound by the way music is written about. Into thinking very genre based. We also have an idea that authenticity is somehow genre-based. So if you’re just a folk singer, you should just stay a folk singer. That somehow denotes your authenticity. I think that is very restrictive on people. I’m always interested in artists who move… Ray Charles and Miles Davis and David Bowie. These people didn’t stay in one place. They roamed around. You risk making a fool of yourself but you also risk changing boundaries. For me that’s always been more interesting.

* * *

Ben Watt during his Le Poisson Rouge performance December 9th 2014

Inspired Playlist

Bunny Berigan – “Let’s Do It”

Fred Neil – “Little Bit of Rain”

Janis Ian – “When the Party’s Over”

Mark Kozelek – “Carry Me Ohio”

The Roches – “Hammond Song”

Scott Walker – “Sons Of”

Beth Orton – “Concrete Sky”

Jonathan Richman – “Corner Store”

Steve Winwood (w/ Traffic?) – “Empty Pages”

Richard and Linda Thompson – “Walking on a Wire”

The Rails – “William Taylor”

Grant Green – “Corcovado”

João Gilberto – “Estate”

John Martyn – “Fly on Home”

Durutti Column – “At First Sight”

George Benson – “Ode to a Kudu” (Live)

Bruce Springsteen – “Used Cars”

Everything but the Girl – “25th December”

Ben Watt – “Spring” (Demo)

Splash image: Unearthing folk gems with Ben Watt. Photo by Sachyn Mital