Courtesy of Living Indie here’s a replay stream of the gig with our full written interview below.
In 1983 Ben Watt released his debut album North Marine Drive on indie label Cherry Red. Then he met Tracey Thorn and they formed folk-infused venture Everything But The Girl. In the early nineties the band collaborated with Massive Attack and 1996’s Walking Wounded melded with future-facing collaborators Howie B and Spring Heel Jack. This diversion won Watt a nomination for producer of the year at Q Awards and started a loop into dance music. Thirty years later he’s seemingly back where he started and has finally got round to recording his second solo album.
You recently won the difficult second album award, did it feel difficult or were you just diverted for 30 years?
The album had been in the back of a mind on and off for years. I had an emerging career aged nineteen back in the early eighties. I had recorded with folk mavericks like Kevin Coyne and Robert Wyatt in spite of my relative youth. Then I met Tracey and took a fork in the road. I thought it would be for three months. It took 20 years. But someday I knew I would return to a solo record of some sort. In the end I wrote it out of a kind of compulsion because of certain triggers in my life, and I just tried to be natural, true to my earliest influences, relaxed, with good stories to tell. Yes, there were moments when I felt daunted by it all, but I guess I have always been a person who opens the lion’s mouth and sticks my stupid head in.
In what way does the new album echo where you were at the beginning 30 years ago?
The interface of folk and Brazilian and rock still fascinates me. I grew up discovering artists like Joao Gilberto, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young and they still leave a big imprint on me now. Back then no one was talking about Nick Drake. Unlike now. And my dad – a big band arranger and jazz composer – was always playing jazz in the house. I also listened to mid 70s Eno stuff like Before and After Science and Another Green World. I loved the ambient textures, the buzzing polysynths. We used that as background texture on Hendra.
As you’ve completed your 20 year musical orbit around electronic music what is your relationship with it now?
I was completely absorbed by it for a long time. But somehow I hit a plateau a couple of years ago. Things seemed to be either running out of control with EDM, or returning to where I was at the beginning of my DJing with people asking me to play all my early Lazy Dog deep house records again, or elsewhere I saw young bands and duos mining the jagged electronic pop seam Everything But The Girl worked at in the mid-nineties. It felt like a turning point. I had no desire to commercialise Buzzin’ Fly nor did I want to spool back ten or fifteen years, so I hit the pause button, and realised what I really wanted to do was write again – words, songs. Another beginning perhaps, perhaps even an older one, but it felt like a fresh one.
What’s your creative process?
I never plan. I never second guess. I just wait for ideas to mass up and then I commit. Always out of a need. Sometimes I work on something and realise it is actually the middle of a good idea and it needs a start and end point. In the end you just hope to impress yourself in some way. And that gets harder.
For Hendra did you work from your home studio or did songs come to you when you were elsewhere with a guitar?
I wrote everything for that record on one guitar or at the piano. I did basic old school demos. Tried to make sure they worked as songs in the raw form first.
Is there any electronic residue left behind?
Yes, me and Ewan (Pearson) spent a long time on the background electronic textures on the record. The opening of the album actually starts with a heavy ARP chord, but we also used found sounds, old polysynths, vintage Solina all over the album if you listen. Often it is there creating subliminal mood – fizzing and buzzing around the edges. Nathaniel has some serious motorik drum programming behind the real drums. Wait till you hear the extended edits Ewan has done of it that we are releasing next month!
How did it feel taking centre stage again for the live performances?
I have always loved being on a stage. It doesn’t phase me. The first comeback show – in a friend’s record store in Indianapolis after hours in April 2013 – was nervewracking but I soon fell back into it again.
Solo albums can be singular pursuits but this album has some great contributions. How important to you is collaboration with good musicians?
I turn to people when I need them. I knew I was writing in a very loose impressionistic – and at times melancholy – way on the record, and yet the lyrics were quite heavy, so I decided I needed a counterpoint in the music, a darker voice, some grit. And that is how I turned to Bernard Butler. He brings the edge, the distortion, the foil.
How did the Ben Watt Trio come about? At what point did Bernard Butler and Martin Ditcham get involved?
Bernard has been playing with me since I began this whole project. My first comeback shows last August in Clerkenwell were with Bernard alongside. So he is integral. I have known Martin for years. A brilliant percussionist and drummer. He played on the album and has been on Everything But The Girl stuff in the past. I like building atmospheres with few components. Two guitars and drums is intriguing to me. And different. We can rework a few of the songs in a new way. Stick to arrangements but also improvise.
How big an impact did Amplified Heart have on your electronic trajectory?
It was the first time me and Tracey started mixing our songs with breakbeats and samples. We began the album in 1993. The producer John Coxon was very instrumental in helping us along that road. I still love the original version of Missing that we did with him. But obviously Todd Terry’s remix and the work we did with Massive Attack at the same time showed how it could really translate to a wider audience. We stepped up through the gears in nineties with some confidence after that. Making Walking Wounded in 1995 was very exciting – a new dawn in many ways. We were already a band already ten years into their career. Not many bands get the chance to break through big with something new. Looking back, it was like like the Bee Gees or something.
What motivated you to start DJing at Lazy Dog, was it wanting to share exciting dance music with people?
Everything But The Girl were playing big shows by the end of the nineties. It was starting to feel too big. Also Tracey was feeling the urge to break away and start a family. In the end we decided to call it a day on a high point and I wanted to go back onto the underground and start something new and fresh. I bumped into Jay Hannan who worked at Blackmarket Records in Soho. We dreamed up the night. Deep house on a Sunday afternoon-thru-evening. No one was doing it back then. Sunday clubbing was in its infancy. It took eighteen months to build but when it took off it was one of the best five years of my life.
Why did you want to start Buzzin’ Fly, was it an insatiable urge bring electronic music to an enthusiastic audience?
I was just immersed in at all at that point. People would hand me great tracks and I thought it would be great to help put them out. Then one of my own productions, Lone Cat, which had been made for Lazy Dog play only was bootlegged off one of only fifty white labels I’d made for friends, and suddenly a couple of thousand were kicking up a storm and I was getting calls from New York about it. I realised that was the moment to act. I got control back of the track and released it properly. That was the first release on Buzzin’ Fly in 2003.
The plateau of creativity you’ve said you reached in 2011 – was there a specific day or moment when you felt you had to return to writing and performing live?
Not really. It creeps up on you. The late nights, the travelling, the disappointing DJ gigs – you start to resent them, rather than brush them aside. And the
office hours were long too. In the end I felt my own self-expression was being stifled in some way. I needed a change.
What irks you so much about EDM?
The name is the worst thing. The American music industry was always rubbish at respecting its own underground electronic movements. You could argue America is the home of house, techno, early disco – and yet at a mainstream level – none of them were respected or understood or given grassroots support. In the end all of it was lumped together in a huge rebranding exercise when the big players and labels realised a firestorm was brewing as various things came together – the underground teen rave scene, organised corporate-sponsored festivals, superstar Djs, laptop producers, mash-ups – and saw the money that could be made out of its worst excesses.
On the flipside, do you miss DJing regularly and creating electronic music? Do you find yourself drawn to other ways of using technology in your life or has it all gone very puritan?
Puritan is a strange word to use; I know plenty of techno puritans if you want to put it like that. I am just a musician who responds to the things around me and tries to be always inspired not just playing by numbers. I don’t want to fake it. At the moment wood, steel, amplifiers, words are exciting to me. I don’t miss Djing at the moment but that’s not to say I won’t ever go back to it. Everything is a cycle.
Do you feel like you have any unfinished business?
Always. Everything you ever do is done to make up for perceived mistakes in the past.
If you could live any year of the last 31 again, which one would it be?
None. The next one is always the best.