The Black Watch
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Out of My Tree: An Interview with the Black Watch’s John Andrew Fredrick

The Black Watch’s John Andrew Fredrick: “I never wanted to be famous. I never wanted to be rich. I’ve succeeded in never being either one of those. I’m a rousing success!”

Future Strangers
The Black Watch
24 March 2023

“Plots are for graveyards.” Or so says John Andrew Fredrick, creator of the art-damaged indie-rock act The Black Watch, who just created and released their ambling new album Future Strangers.

“Sometimes I tear out my hair because I read interviews with people who are poets or writers of fiction who say that they don’t read,” Fredrick tells PopMatters. “I can’t read you if you don’t read! How can you be a good writer if you don’t read? I spend so much time reading. It’s made me and marred me in equal parts.”

It’s no surprise that Fredrick would want to talk about literature, given that he holds a Ph.D. in English and has written a few books, along with his 20-plus albums. Critics feel compelled to call his music “literate”, although he laughs that it’s “because I make tongue-in-cheek allusions to Wallace Stevens”.

A love of reading infuses everything Fredrick does (and he does plenty), including his songwriting. “Having lots of friends who are songwriters, when they’re having trouble with lyrics, and I find out that they don’t read, I think, ‘You’re never going to write anything that’s anything other than a concatenation of cliches unless you start to read.'”

Getting to the heart of Fredrick’s love of words and music requires going back a generation; as much as plots are graveyards, it warrants telling the story from the beginning. “My parents didn’t think they could have a child, but eight years later, they had my little brother,” said Fredrick. “They saw a picture of me being swaddled by a nurse at the hospital, and they clipped out the picture with something like, ‘Won’t you adopt this beautiful baby boy?’ They cut it out like a coupon and took it down to the adoption agency or the hospital and said, ‘We want this kid.’ More fool them – they never anticipated that this kid would be playing his drum kit to the Beatles, driving them out of their minds. They wanted a kid so badly that they used a coupon for one. It cost them very dearly, I’m sure!”

Fredrick’s parents were “very loving”, and he never bothered them with questions about his birth parents. At one point, his now ex-wife approached them to learn if there was any history of insanity in the biological family. Fredrick could have answered himself: “My tagline has been, ‘All you have to do is talk to me for five minutes to know I’m out of my tree!'”

It turned out that Fredrick had one parent who was a teacher and one who was a musician. Feel free to play with ideas about nature versus nurture, but Fredrick’s path seems like a logical continuation of a narrative.

Fredrick got a Ph.D. and became a professor for a time. He “loved it [but] hated the politics.” He came from the “hickory stick old school” where “you don’t just give out As and Bs like candy”. He loved his strenuous and rigorous professors and got an advanced degree mainly because he could, even at the risk of spoiling his love for Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford during his dissertation process (he didn’t spoil it).

He taught for a while and started his first novel, but he was so meticulous that writing even a sentence would take him forever. “[I’d] set the timer for five hours and try to put a period in after that,” he said. “I realized I could write five songs in the time I could write five paragraphs. I did write 500 pages before I realized plots are for graveyards. This is truly just too harum-scarum. I put that away and started the band, thinking I love writing songs. I love melodies. This is way more satisfying, and we all must do things that are satisfying to ourselves.”

He truly misses teaching and especially “helping people and editing people”, his joy in the work coming through. As he explained, “I loved being a professor. I was a hardass, and I think that’s what the best students really enjoy. To go, ‘Whoa! This guy’s not just shuffling us through. This is really a challenge.’ I had a great time teaching but not a great time being around other professors. As a mega-snob, I couldn’t play any of those games. That’s part of the game, a la publishing and rock. Not that I’m not a nice person or I don’t try. They kind of went hand in hand. It’s in my blood to teach and create, and they’re interrelated. Someone could be a really artistic teacher or – not didactic – but an informative artist who we could learn things from.”

The end might have been inevitable, though. “I’m a quitter,” he said. “I quit being married. I quit smoking. I quit trying to be attractive. I don’t seem to be able to quit music.”

The unquittable Black Watch have been around in various instantiations for over 35 years, steadily producing music somewhere in the areas of post-punk, jangle pop, and indie rock. Fredrick absorbs an array of music, speaking of his desire to “marry goth and the Beach Boys” even as it all comes back to one band. “Everything I do is an homage to the Beatles that’s disguised somehow,” he said.

After forming the original version of the band, he began touring steadily while he worked in bookstores. He then moved to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara because he couldn’t find serious artists in the latter town. “The goal in Santa Barbara is just to stay in Santa Barbara and luxuriate in Lotusland,” he said.

The Black Watch then began a steady string of critically lauded albums that never brought them commercial success, making the act a quintessential example of an act of which everyone asks, “Why have I never heard of them?”

“It’s kind of a cosmic joke, in a way,” Fredrick said. “It amuses me. I don’t take it seriously at all. In the ’90s, we used to tear our hair out. I’m amused and bemused about the whole thing these days. It’s not in my control. It’s in the control of labels and how much money they want to put into forcing people to discover stuff. Or music supervisors who want to put you in the vogue show du jour.”

The Black Watch spent time with labels that wanted to control everything, from picking the songs to mandating extensive touring. They have a publishing deal with Chrysalis/BMG, but, in Fredrick’s words, “They have no idea who we are. I’ll continue to do what I do. I never wanted to be famous. I never wanted to be rich. I’ve succeeded in never being either one of those. I’m a rousing success!”

With a core following and a steady persistence in anonymity (the band’s compilation is titled 31 Years of Obscurity), Fredrick follows his own impulses, sometimes changing modes between albums for something new, mixing up production style, musicians, or “flavors”.

“I try to make The White Album every time I make a record, and I fail knowing that I’m going to fail,” he explained. “I try to do some acoustic workouts like “Blackbird,” and a silly song, and a dirge and a rocking rocker. That’s been the template. The last one, we had a whole bunch of strings and lush kinds of things. On this one, I tried to be a little more shoegazey and straightforward. I’m not a reliable source or narrator. That’s what I try to do, but if that’s a rationalization, oh well, you have to try to theorize somehow. Don’t take authorial intention. We’re all just interpreters of each other and our own stuff.”

Fredrick laughs in explaining his unreliability in discussing his work – “I’m just trying to write things that are poetic and pleasing to me, and I’ll try to figure out what it means later on” – but he clearly understands some of the drive behind Future Strangers. The album blends Britpop and post-punk for its melodies, all delivering lyrics that can be challenging and less bleak than the album title might suggest.

“‘Future strangers’ is almost a Zen-like acceptance of the fact that we’re going to lose people and become estranged from them. It’s almost a carpe diem sort of thing. Don’t bask in complacency. Somebody close to you dies; you’re right behind them, mate. They just got to find out what happens in the Great Beyond sooner than you did.”

Much of Fredrick’s current thinking comes from his “lack of belief in time”. “It was just yesterday that I formed this band in 1987,” he said. “It was just yesterday that my kid was born. It’s all just gone by so bloody rapidly it’s not even funny. You have to have a great cosmic guffaw at the whole thing. The noting of that – that we’ll all become estranged from everything if not life itself through death – it’s something to cherish and celebrate.”

As much as Fredrick can be prone to ranting (and laughing about it), his sense of celebration comes through consistently, his speech energetic, and his manner both constantly engaged and playful, similar to what comes across in his art. And that art now includes another medium.

He was seeing a therapist after the loss of a long-term relationship, and the therapist suggested he find something to do that “isn’t for recognition’s sake.” Fredrick believes that “what all of us want is recognition. Not a purple ribbon or trophy, but for someone to say, ‘I see the real you.’ That’s what helps us get up in the morning.” To avoid seeking recognition but to have something to put himself into, he turned to visual art. “I can’t draw a stickman. The nuns [in his school days] would give me a D+ on my artwork, and I’d say, ‘Mommy, I got a D+’ We can’t put that on the refrigerator!”

Fredrick had to experiment a little to find his path, keeping artists like Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombley in mind. “I would use material from the 99-cent store because I’m a 99-cent painter,” he said, “That’s what I’m worth. I did all this stuff on the thick cardboard with kiddie paints. I showed it to some people, and they said, ‘Let’s do an exhibition of your things.’ So they had them up and had shows and sold a couple of them to some fool or other, so that turned into a recognition kind of thing. I only do it when I feel like I want to make a painting, something out of nothing. It’s not something I do in a devoted sort of fashion.

“I’m pretty much convinced most painters – I kid around about being mad – but I think they’re almost all of them absolutely out of their trees, just insane. Maybe it’s the acetone that they’re breathing in. I’m not prepared to be that bonkers to be a serious painter. It’s very meditative; it’s cool, it’s frustrating. It’s like music. That’s something that I like to look at the same way I go, ‘I want to hear a record that sounds like this,’ and then go ahead and try to make it. I make paintings to have something I’d like to look at.”

Fredrick’s work to stay away from recognition led to a certain amount of attention anyway, but that all works out just fine for someone who – after diving into literature, music, and art – continues his ceaseless explorations, which often bring him back to books. “I’m on this mad quest to read everything important that’s ever been written,” he laughed. “It’s the most quixotic, stupid thing. Of all the stupid things I’ve done.”

He taught his adult son Middle English so they could read Chaucer together, and he’s always “so happy to be home and have a stack of books”. “It’s damaging, though, because your friends call you up, and you’re like, ‘I’m hanging out with Dostoeyvsky tonight, and you can’t compete.’ Being aware of the fact that can lead to great pretension, I try to keep it tongue-in-cheek. I’ll do anything for a laugh. On my gravestone, it’ll read, ‘I’m just kidding around.'”

And there’s plenty of humor in Fredrick’s approach to, well, everything. It connects to his “very oxymoronic view about everything in the tragic comedy way”. “I wanted to be this detached person who made fun of himself, took on serious things in a light sort of way, light things in a serious sort of way. Careful…in a way, I might think it’s meaningless. There’s a part of me that’s a super aesthete who lives for art for art’s sake.”

He can’t settle on that idea, though, as much as it seems to appeal to him. “Maybe there’s something soulless about that. It discounts the idea of wanting to improve ourselves through….art in general, whether it makes us better people or not,” he said. “Everyone’s been toying with that notion since Plato and Aristotle. Just like the question of God, I don’t think we’ll ever answer it, so maybe we should just be like the bass player in Spinal Tap and try to have a good time all the time. But I really object to that, too, because I’m a recovering hedonist in a way, but not really. I don’t think we’re here to live this unexamined Spring Break kind of life.”

Fredrick holds these ideas in tension, a potent uncertainty that might suggest Keats and negative capability. He never wanted to be like Wordsworth, but there’s more than a touch of Romanticism in him. Driven on, he continues his art without flagging and without worrying about the cultural standards of success. “There isn’t any point in [being bitter],” he said. “It’s not productive. I like bitter people. It means that they cared too much at one point. I refuse to be that myself. I’m hyperproductive, perhaps too much so. That’s what I do. I’m always just chuffed beyond that anyone likes what we do.

“People who don’t have any hope don’t view things in a cynical fashion. Not at all. I’m intensely cynical. It just bespeaks my hopefulness in things. Some people have read more widely or suffered more. It’s not bitter people I admire because they cared too much and didn’t rise above themselves, but cynical people are the most optimistic and sanguine beyond if you ask me.”

These words come from an artist who senses that “bad reviews are good for artists, to get them to question themselves,” who reads and thinks deeply and joyfully, always with a wry phrase. “My studio’s a library filled with guitars and books,” he said. “I’m sure in the next earthquake; they’ll all fall on me. I’ll be killed by the things I love.”

That might be true for all of us, so in the meantime, we embrace what we can and keep at it. The Black Watch just released one album but already have another one, The Morning Papers Have Given Us the Vapours, due out in just a couple of months.

Fredrick doesn’t slow down, and he’s happy to open up about everything that drives him, a serious lightheartedness for the ephemeral nature and profound challenges of life, providing relief and direction. But then again, he says, “I don’t think I’m a reliable source at all about my work.”