Beginning his career in folk-rock in the ’80s as part of Everything But the Girl along with partner Tracey Thorn, then taking a turn into the dance world in the ’90s (remember EBTG’s mega-hit “Missing” remixed by Todd Terry?) and ’00s, Ben Watt’s first solo album in 31 years, Hendra, returns him close to the starting point on his musical path. Watt, 51, sees it all quite rightly as a good thing.
Known for championing emerging DJs for a decade with his roving Lazy Dog party and London-based Buzzin’ Fly label, which released bespoke floor movers from Justin Martin, Jimpster, Spencer Parker and many others, Watt gave up his career as an indie dance-music mogul a year ago to focus on his third book, Romany and Tom for Bloomsbury due in 2014 and his BBC 6Music 6Mix.
Out of his departure from dance music came a renewed interest in his guitar, and before long his noodling led to a collection of songs that became Hendra. Before a three-stop jaunt to America — which was suddenly canceled due to last-minute visa issues — Watt explained the genesis of Hendra and why he has no regrets for going back to his musical roots.
Many people were surprised when you shuttered Buzzin’ Fly in 2013. Now that a year has passed, how do you look back on that decision? Any regrets?
None. It was a considered decision over a period of time. I put ten great years into the label, helping young artists and producers, throwing ace parties, travelling the world, but something was beginning to change in me. I needed to get back to words and my own creativity again. And I simply didn’t have the time or the resources to do both. I am very proud of Buzzin’ Fly. And I shuttered it without ever having to compromise.
You started the label partly to promote young talent. Do you still get excited by new producers? Is it impossible to turn off the A&R part of your brain?
Sometimes a friend sends me a hot new track — Tevo Howard sent me something deadly recently — and I miss the chance to release it for a moment, but the moment quickly passes. I feel I am on the right track. Being true to my instincts. And that’s how I have always worked. I am not in the house scene very much at the moment. It would feel like a fake to keep dropping tracks as though I was. I still keep up for the radio show I do on 6Music but it is a lower workload than DJing every week. These days I find my head turned by stuff more in the area I am working. Folkier stuff. But rather than putting out their work, I can just be a fan. In some instances — as with Zachary Cale and Matt Kivel, both young and who both released great albums last year, I am getting the chance to have them up on the same stage as me. I want to see them play, watch their technique. Which is great.
“Some people never thought I would return to songs and guitar and I have done, so people should expect that it is entirely possible I will come storming back as a veteran DJ at some point!”
At the time you closed Buzzin’ Fly you said you were going to focus on your book. Do you think you would’ve been able to write Romany and Tom had you not closed down the label?
No. I had started the book but I needed to make a proper space for it. Sometimes you just have to have the courage of your convictions to make a break. You sometimes need to empty a full cup to be able to fill it up again.
Hendra is a real delight. You’ve described it as “a folk-rock record in an electronic age.” How did the sound evolve as you were writing the songs? Did anything in particular influence your songwriting?
As I was finishing the book, my half-sister Jennie died unexpectedly. We were pretty close. It was a heavy blow. I felt my head fill up with more stuff. Just after Christmas 2012 I went down into my studio and picked up a guitar for the first time in a while. The first chord bored me. It sounded too familiar. But then I decided to re-tune and de-tune the guitar – something I never really did when working with Tracey — and suddenly it sounded new and fresh, like being given a new piece of technology. It was the spark I needed. I retuned all my guitars, made them unfamiliar, and the songs just started to come.
Someone we’re our own worst critic. Did you ask Tracey for her opinion during the making of the album?
We work very much in isolation. We always have done. We were never the Brill Building type of writers, hammering out tunes round the piano together, 9 to 5. We are very private about our work, wait until we feel we really have something, hone it, and only then do we reveal it. But that is then the point when we value each other — the editorial input, the first sounding board. With Hendra I was very secretive. I played her nothing until the songs were pretty much written. They she got to hear the demos and was really supportive. Then I recorded it with her being involved.
Having David Gilmour and Bernard Butler guest on your album is a pretty nifty thing. How did those collaborations come together?
I met Bernard at a party 18 months before working with him. We tiptoed round each other. I liked his playing. He liked mine growing up — me, Johnny Marr, Roddy Frame, etc. When I started writing, the sounds sounded very open and loose and impressionistic. It was open tunings that made them blurry and languid. I knew I needed a foil. I thought of Bernard. He brought the grit, the blues, the overdrive. It’s a great match. I met David Gilmour the week before I started the album. By chance. We got on. He invited me to hear his latest demos. I was flattered. So I returned the favor and invited him to hear mine. He loved “The Levels,” so he ended up playing slide guitar and singing backing vocals.
I’ve heard you DJ a few times and always loved your sets, especially your set at Electric Zoo in NYC. What’s your relationship these days with DJing? Does it still excite you?
I feel I have compartmentalized recently. I have put my DJing self away in a box up on a shelf for a bit. I don’t think about it apart from when I do the BBC 6Music sets. I am all about guitars again at the moment. This week I recorded a short house mix as part of the 6Music show, just a 15 minute mini-mix. I played Admin and Martyn and a new thing by Samuel on BRSTL and I can feel the old juices start to flow again, but I know it is only temporary at the moment. But some people never thought I would return to songs and guitar and I have done, so people should expect that it is entirely possible I will come storming back as a veteran DJ at some point!
Has a DJ saved your life in the recent past?
Not a DJ. But I am still enthralled by enthusiasts. We are chest-high in music these days. It is easy to get overwhelmed, but I admire anyone who has the energy to sift through and find the good stuff – and by that I mean great bloggers, indie record shop people, specialist radio DJs … like the good club DJ they all deserve our respect. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it.
Images by Edward Bishop
Ben Watt’s Hendra is released in the US on April 29 via Unmade Road.