One-hald of Everything But The Girl, Ben Watt releases new solo album Fever Dream on Friday (8 April). To give us an insight on the record’s creation Watt invited questions from his collaborators, namely American mastering engineer Bob Ludwig (Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Alabama Shakes) who “sweetened the final mixes”, the album’s lead guitarist Bernard Butler, Boston gothic-folk singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler who duets on the closing song New Year Of Grace, and M.C. Taylor of North Carolina’s folk-rock greats Hiss Golden Messenger who sings background vocals on the title track. Plus listen to the album in full via Q now!
Bob Ludwig: Your album is really haunting in many ways. I love it. Can you describe the process of making it?
Ben Watt: Thank you. Up until three years ago I’d stopped songwriting for a long time; after almost 20 years in Everything But The Girl with Tracey, in 2000 I needed a change and got very involved in instrumental electronic music for the next ten. But a few years ago I wanted to get back to words and songs again. I write in a very solitary way. I have discovered altered tunings for the guitar for the first time, and have used them extensively on both Fever Dream and the previous album, Hendra. They alter your perception of harmony – simple things become strange – and that then inspires the melody too, while adding suspensions and atmosphere. I also write and re-write the lyrics making lots of subtle edits, paying attention to the sound of words as well as their meaning. Once I have the songs in shape I invited in collaborators one by one. The most important recently has been Bernard Butler, my lead guitarist. He brings a lot of drama to the songs. Then I chose the rhythm section, then we rehearsed for three days, working on dynamics within the songs, then we went into RAK Studios in London and laid everything down as a band in a few days. It was a tightly focussed intense period.
Bob Ludwig: What about the inspiration behind the songs?
Ben Watt: There have been turning points in my family lately. Both my parents have died in recent years, as well as my half-sister unexpectedly. I think it threw a lot of stuff into relief. At the same time my kids have turned into teenagers and young adults. And my personal relationship with Tracey is thirty-five years old this year. I find myself at the mid-point of my life looking two ways, back and ahead. I wanted to capture those feelings unsentimentally but also honestly and sympathetically.
M.C. Taylor: You’ve been making music for a very long time. How do you keep the process of songwriting feeling fresh for yourself?
Ben Watt: Musically, varying the technology you work with is important. If you write with a six-string guitar in standard tuning for ever, you will surely run dry. In my lifetime I have watched affordable synths, turntables, drum machines, sampling, plug-ins all break existing moulds, but they are just another tool to work with that helps break old habits; I have tried to embrace them all. After years with electronics, lately I am into natural tone – wood, steel, valves, hollowness, reverberation, the raw voice, and – as I said to Bob – altered tunings. And then overarching all of it is my belief that I still have to correct perceived all my previous mistakes, to go one better; I look back at old songs and often say: “Was that what I meant?”
Marissa Nadler: Within the lyrics of New Year of Grace – the song which I sing with you – you seem deeply in awe of love as a bonding force between people. How do you keep the spark alive, and continue to find inspiration within a decades-spanning relationship?
Ben Watt: New Year Of Grace is the album’s closing track and is intended as the counterweight to the troubled opener, Gradually. If Gradually is about difficulties in a long-term relationship (how love shifts within it over time; how you can travel at different speeds; how you can still feel isolated; what that does to people; how you cope), then New Year Of Grace is about keeping a steady course, absorbing blows, and chancing upon an unexpected moment of beauty that makes up for all the hard stuff. I think you have to have faith that those moments will always emerge somehow in any kind of long-term complex relationship, that is at heart based on deep affection.
Bernard Butler: I don’t like to know what your words are about. When we play I pin what I do to the moods. Then you go and explain them on stage when I’m next to you. Then we never discuss it. Is that OK with you?
Ben Watt: Yeah, I love it. I think you can build a set of specifics into a song – the thread of the storyline, the inspiration behind the words, the pattern of the chords – but as soon as two people start improvising on it, it takes on an added layer of meaning, perhaps more like real thought, elliptical, not linear, where the feeling you generate from the interplay is just as important as the original written form. I know the scales you are playing over my songs, but I rarely ask you to play specific notes. Sometimes you show me a figure you are playing and ask if that is ok, but then we never discuss it again, and some nights I hear it shift and alter. I like it like that.
Bob Ludwig: Can you talk about the recording process?
Ben Watt: Small room, four musicians, isolation of instruments but a degree of spill. Vintage microphones. Attention to detail in mic placement to capture the sound of the room; it is a very famous space, RAK Studio 2; it is worth picking up its subtle reverbs. We spent time on the sound at source too to avoid too much processing. Thick guitar straight from the amp. Fat snare. Hollow toms and kick drums. Then all of it was routed back up through the original 1970s API desk in the control room. We recorded at 24/96 into Pro Tools. In the mix-down Bruno went for lots of bottom end and a rich saturated sound.
Marissa Nadler: Is it strange to embark on a solo career after being in a band with your wife? I know there are kids in the picture. Does that create any awkward dynamics within your personal relationship? I know you’ve both done solo stuff but I just wonder how you navigate around certain expected domestic roles when both of you are highly creative artists.
Ben Watt: Some forget that we started out separately. We both had emerging solo careers as teenagers – each of us with successful indie solo albums in the early 80s – so the recent solo stuff is not such a shock. As for “awkward dynamics”, in practical terms with family life we have just tag-teamed over the years. We share the burden, and alternate work schedules. If Tracey has a book out, I do more domestic stuff. This year, I have a new album, so Tracey will let me tour. It’s give and take. And if you mean “does it ever get competitive?” I will of course be ruthlessly scrutinising our respective sales figures later.
Bernard Butler: When I was 14 I stole a poster for Everything But The Girl’s Eden from Harem Records in Enfield Town. I had to buy the record to find out what it was. Now I’m here. Do you think I made all this happen?
Ben Watt: Hahaha. What like some kind of stalker? Or some kind of magic spell? I often wonder about our first meeting in 2012; we’d clearly been very aware of each other for a long time. I remember being in my late twenties and hearing the early Suede stuff and thinking it sounded so fresh – distorted, bluesy. I used to play Sleeping Pills loads and didn’t know how you did it. So different to my style. I certainly never imagined I’d end up playing alongside you every night. I also remember the first time we jammed round at my house – you with your broken leg in a cast – and it was really awkward because I had no songs at that point, and we were scratching around.
Marissa Nadler: You have been releasing music long before the major technological changes within the industry reconfigured how it is heard and how musicians connect with the outside world. You seem to have adapted well and are active on social media. Do you enjoy the new closer interactions with your fanbase or is it just something we all have to do?
Ben Watt: Before social media and the web – back in the 80s – I used to reply to fan letters with a hand-written postcard; I have always valued fans and try never to take success for granted. I was fascinated by the possibilities of the emerging World Wide Web though. Believe it or not, Everything But The Girl were one of the first bands with a website. I taught myself basic HTML and built one myself in 1993. It was such a novelty that Internet Today magazine put us on the cover in 1994 just because we HAD A WEBSITE. It was the days of Netscape Navigator and dial-up modems. You would click on a link then have to go and make a cup of tea while the page loaded. When Everything But The Girl went on hiatus in 2000 and I started my underground record label Buzzin’ Fly, I saw the power of nimble cheap niche marketing online and used internet radio and email newsletters to link fans together. That then blossomed into social media. I admit that fan power can dilute the mystery surrounding projects, which I think can be a loss sometimes, but it is possible to still hold stuff back while being available to people.
Marissa Nadler: What are your thoughts on streaming services?
Ben Watt: It is complex. First of all licensed streaming services are a wonderful music discovery tool. I use them all the time to find new artists and old gems, but I am aware how little it gives back to those artists financially. There are calls to reconfigure the royalty payment model, but it is easy to forget quite how much competition there is out there for the money the services generate. In 2010 seventy-five thousand albums were released in the US alone. If you’re an artist, that’s 1,500 other albums coming out on the same day as yours all seeking attention. And that’s before all the other self-released stuff. To compound things the vast proportion of people are only interested in the music of about five per-cent of artists, so that’s a hell of a lot of other artists scrabbling for the small change. As more subscribe to streaming services, I’d hope the pie would get bigger and the payments will increase, but streaming will never keep most artists going on its own. Fans need to support their favourite artists in other ways. And some artists have to accept that music will just have to be an expensive hobby. But is this really so new? Concurrently we have this increasing fascination with rediscovered and undiscovered music of the past – the re-issuing by labels like Numero Group and Light in the Attic of lost albums, forgotten artists, deletions, private presses. It should remind us that earning next to nothing from music is actually nothing new, even in eras we look back on fondly as being better rewarded.
M.C. Taylor: I know that you’re not only a songwriter, but a writer too, with two books to your name. What do you like to read?
Ben Watt: I start then stop many books. It is not something I am proud of, but it takes a lot to hook me. That said, writers I like very much include Colm Toibin, Richard Ford, Evelyn Waugh, Kent Haruf. Recently I loved Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway. And Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. If I had to re-read a couple of classics I’d choose Hardy’s The Return of The Native, and Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.
Bernard Butler: I’m always late. You’re always early. We have never missed a plane. Have you never considered I’m hiding behind the pillar at Paddington just to wind you up?
Ben Watt: Yeah, I saw you once, peeping out. I just re-lit my pipe, adjusted my monocle and pretended I hadn’t seen you.
For more head to Benwatt.com.