Of all the summer’s tours, I suspect that which true music snobs have been most excited about are the two exceptionally short strings of dates at exceptionally intimate venues that will have Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt accompanied by original Suede guitarist and producer extraordinaire Bernard Butler. After a decade as a DJ and label owner of Buzzin’ Fly, preceded by twenty years focusing on Everything But The Girl, 2014 saw the release of Watt’s Hendra, his first solo effort in 31 years (for which he had Butler accompany him in the studio, as well). The album has the musician moving away from the electronic music that earned his reputation and returning to his roots as a stripped-bare singer/songwriter, a side of Watt that longtime fans may be surprised to ever get a second opportunity to experience. The songs of Hendra are beautiful and sincere, almost to the point of being unnerving, something that begs to be experienced in small, quiet, dark rooms. In addition to this, Watt’s second book, a memoir, Romany and Tom, was released earlier this week on Bloomsbury. Ben Watt just completed a short string of dates alongside Bernard Butler (his first ever solo dates in the states), in addition to book readings, in New York and LA, but July will see Watt and Butler playing an additional six stateside live dates, which begin with a July 15th stop at Tin Angel. I must say that I’m quite honored that a legend like Ben Watt was kind enough to be willing to chat with me… but he was… and his musings on his latest work are as casually humble as could be imagined from someone with such a substantial stamp on the last four decades of music history.
Izzy Cihak: So you’ve worked in a lot of different facets of the arts throughout your career. What is it that inspired you to go back to doing the whole singer/songwriter thing after more than thirty years?
Ben Watt: I reached a plateau with DJing and with clubland and I knew that I wanted to get back to words and music again and writing songs, not just beats and working with other people’s music. It was an instinct. I don’t second-guess things. I usually just follow my gut feeling and my gut feeling said get back to words and songs again. I also realized I wanted to get back to playing the guitar – something that I’d hadn’t done properly for many years and bumping into Bernard only amplified that feeling.
Izzy: And what would you consider to be Hendra’s most significant influences?
Ben: I wanted to work without thinking too hard. I wanted to get back to the music that was important to me as a teenager growing up. My generation often talks about punk and post-punk being influences but I realized the most important things were probably the songs and albums and the music that I had heard in the mid-seventies – the jazz albums my dad played, the folk and rock of my older brothers and sisters, the discoveries I made on my own. These were the sounds that came instinctively. Bernard says we only ever really try and refine our first ideas and influences over the course of our whole lives.
Izzy: And, I have to ask, specifically, about “The Gun.” What was it that inspired that? I’m a humanities professor and spend a lot of time discussing things like Utopias/Dystopias, modernity, and urban and suburban planning, so it really stands out for me.
Ben: It was inspired by a true story. I was in California on a brief holiday. I was making a beach walk and I got lost and found myself up on the road again and somehow wandered in a gated community. It was both wildly opulent but also strangely intimidating with the cameras and the armed response signs. And the day before I had read an item in the newspaper about how recreational shooting sports were on the rise in America; and then I read separately a story about a local boy who been caught by a random crossfire bullet. I conflated all the ideas into a story set in this beautiful coastal town, in which all the money and armed response in the world won’t save a member of your family getting randomly shot, if guns are such a casual piece of one’s culture.
Izzy: Since Bernard Butler worked on the album with you and will accompany you on your upcoming dates, I’m curious, what is your particular process of working together if there is one?
Ben: We try not to talk much, we just play. I instinctively knew that Bernard’s sound – that distorted, gritty sound – would be the perfect foil to the sound that I was creating for the album. My sound was more one of open tunings, impressionism, folk stylings. He brings the darker edge. There is resilience and melancholy as well as optimism and light in the lyrics. The guitars try and dramatize that tension.
Izzy: What should be expected of the live experience, in terms of songs and the feel in general? I understand the set list is going to be fairly eclectic.
Ben: We just plug in and play as a duo. We focus on the new album and throw in songs from my distant past, when I was a precocious teenager who gave up his emerging solo career to work with Tracey Thorn. We improvise. We change guitars. Subtle changes of tone and tuning. I play some electric piano. The mixture is a clash of songs of experience – i.e. my new songs – and songs of innocence — i.e. my old ones. Strangely this clash is quite moving, I think.
Izzy: Since you do work in so many different mediums, I’m curious, is there one that comes most easily to you, or does the fact that you do so many things just show that that’s constantly changing?
Ben: We are constantly in flux. We are never one thing. But that said, I think I have a voice that speaks with a similar tone in whatever field I work in. I am interested in the boundary between beauty and melancholy, pathos and euphoria. I seem to explore it in songs, in my prose, and even in my DJing.
Izzy: And what’s next for you? Have you decided on the things that you’re going to focus on in the immediate future?
Ben: I never plan. I just let the future arrive and then react.