What follows is an email interview with Brian Watson, founder of / composer for the Watts Ensemble.
Never heard of them? How's this? (The tune is called "Funny Cigarettes.")
Based in LA, and supposedly created on a dare, Watts is an impossible, outlandish creature after my own heart, a kindred spirit if ever I met one. The group recently released their first album, Two Suites for Crime & Time.
N.B.: I recommend reading the Chris Ziegler interview over at L.A. Record before reading this one.
Durkin: First of all, to reiterate -- I really dig the record, and thank you so much for laying it on me. I find it a pretty remarkable document for 2009. In some ways, it's very retro (to my ear, it could be a backbeat-ified version of a lost Alex North or Leonard Rosenman soundtrack), but in some ways it's pretty "progressive," at least in the sense that it's quite unique in the musical landscape right now.
BW: Thank you! That means a lot to me coming from you. That's exactly what I was going for. I've always believed that it's important to look back at the history of music and to dig as deep as you can to fully appreciate where we are now. John Coltrane has a quote that really resonates with me; “I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” I couldn't encapsulate my musical philosophy any better. For me, there's nothing more uninspired than a group who recreates something from an older era to the tee. It feels like a novelty act, or like nostalgic fetishism. Conversely, I find it underwhelming when I see a band that's only influenced by modern music.
Durkin: Since Los Angeles played such a crucial role in my own development as a composer, I have to say: there's an eerie LA-esque sound to this, maybe the sort of thing that you can only appreciate if you've lived in that town for a while. So I'm curious: are you a native Angeleno? And does the record sound like LA to you? And what's with the name of the group -- is it a play on your last name? Or a reference to Watts?
BW: Yeah I'm basically an Angeleno. I've lived within 50 miles of LA my entire life. I've never really thought of the music sounding particularly LA-esque, but now that you mention it, I suppose that living in this city has had an impact on my musical language. There are certainly many phrases and parts on the album that I had written in my head while slugging my way through LA traffic or walking around my neighborhood.
As for the name, when I first thought of it, it was supposed to have two purposes. One was that I would have part of my name in the group without it being "The Brian Watson Super Orchestra Concert Band." The second part was, I thought it was kinda funny to call it "Watts" since we were (at least in the beginning) an all acoustic group. I didn't realize that my last name was actually in the name of the group until I heard it out loud. At that point it was kinda like "ha, oh well."
Durkin: I totally missed the "watt" angle -- that's hilarious! And actually, I kind of like the name "The Brian Watson Super Orchestra Concert Band," because it's so absurd. But no one would be able to remember that, I guess.
And now I need to interrupt this interview in order to insert an album cover featuring another great LA musician, standing in the Watts I thought you might have been referencing:
Anyway. One bit I loved in the Ziegler piece was when your friend Brad said "Man, it’s a beautiful record but you can tell you don’t know anything about jazz harmony—but beautiful record!" I love that. I'm curious, though, did you give it to him with the expectation that he would hear it as a jazz record? I definitely hear jazz inflections in it, especially that cinematic "crime jazz" sound. But do you consider what you do to be "jazz"?
BW: What's funny about a lot of the music on the "Suite for Crime" is it's mostly influenced by the likes of Stravinsky, who was himself influenced by jazz music. So the piece is really only jazz by proxy! Brad is a very sharp, very well rounded musician, he's one of those guys that can basically play anything on any instrument and do it super well. So I gave the record to him hoping that he would dig it, especially given the fact that he knows what he's talking about. I wasn't sure if he would hear it as straight jazz or not, but I'm just glad he thought it was a good piece of work.
As far as what I consider the music to be, it certainly has a lot of jazz influence, but it has just as much classical, and just as much rock and roll influence as well. I could point out specific parts where I was thinking of Hindemith, Philip Glass, Rocket from the Crypt, Devo, hell, I even rip off a Deep Purple riff in there! So I wouldn't call it just jazz. There's definitely more going on.
Durkin: Along those same lines, I'm fascinated by your openly-stated lack of formal training, and I'd love to know more about the path that led you to start your group, given that background. It reminds me of a favorite story about the writer William Faulkner, who, when he was asked to give a professional talk at a college writing program, advised all the students to drop out (who knows, maybe he was drunk).
Like you, I lack the proverbial music degree, and am without formal training in composition. But so were most of my musical heroes -- particularly Zappa, who never hid the fact that his career path was non-institutional. He listened to records, he read books, he worked hard and went through a lot of trial and error. But in a sense, for better or worse, his primary teacher was his ear.
BW: Yeah, since I have such little training, I really only have my ear to trust. I'll play a chord and look at it spatially and I'll guess what it's going to sound like (sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong!), yet I have no idea what kind of chord it is. I could sit there and count the intervals and figure it out, but initially, it's all instinct.
In regards to the path that led me to start the group, I suppose it was time for me to branch out. I had been playing in rock and roll bands since I was about 14, and I think I had just exhausted all of my ideas. I did the Dead Kennedys style group, I did the Mummies style group, I did the Stooges style one, I did the Karp style one. So I began listening to classical music and when I first heard "Rite of Spring" it was just as exciting as it was the first time I heard the Stooges "Raw Power."
I did basically what Zappa did, I listened to a ton of music. I would go to the Brand Library every week and get the maximum 15 classical cds and listen to them intently and I made sure to make playlists of the pieces I want to emulate. I read Rimsky-Korsakov, Hindemith, Schoenberg, and some of it made sense, and a lot of it didn't. I bought a keyboard and some sample libraries and started messing around with it, and eventually I would write something that I liked. Once I had written about 5 pieces I thought, "Well shit, maybe I should try to find some people to play this stuff!" And luckily, I did.
Durkin: The Brand Library! People who don't live in LA might not get the reference, but that place (in Glendale, CA) has a truly amazing music collection. I visited there often (and accumulated many fines!) when I lived in LA. It was perfect for the starving artist trying to stay on top of all the music that comes out in a given year.
BW: The Brand is an amazing place. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing without it for sure.
Durkin: How else do you find music? It seems like you tap into the network provided by your band, that there's a lot of word-of-mouth that might point you in a specific direction. Do you also rely on blogs, or music magazines, or other media?
BW: I don't really indulge in [other media], other than people sending me random youtube videos (just saw a P.P. Arnold one). Most the time I'll hear a record or an artist either from somebody in Watts or from somebody in the other group I play in, Jail Weddings (which the aforementioned Brad is in), since both those groups have a collective 25 people with varying musical backgrounds.
However, I still find that the biggest thrill for me is to see a band that I've never heard of and have no preconceived notions of and absolutely loving them. It reminds me of being young and hearing things for the first time, and it reminds me why I love music so much. That sort of thing usually happens when you least expect it. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's fucking magical.
Durkin: Back to the educational question for a moment. I bring it up because in the jazz and new music worlds, it is pretty unusual these days to come across people without formal musical training. I don't at all want to imply that it is necessarily "better" to be trained or to not to be trained -- there are risks and benefits that come with each, and a lot depends upon the personality of the individual involved. But I'm curious: what do you think is the value, if any, of being unschooled in compositional techniques? Do you regret your lack of formal training? Do you think your music would be different without it?
BW: When we were recording at CalArts, I made a comment that I wished that I had gone to school there when I was younger, and the pianist, Philip, who was a student there said "Yeah, but then your music would probably sound completely different." And the more I thought about it, the more I tend to agree with him. I think for me personally, not going to school was beneficial, it's certainly not for everyone. I do much better by simply diving in and getting my hands dirty, and yes, making mistakes, lots and lots of mistakes. I've learned the hard way that you can't have a bari sax play eighth note triplets at 180 bpm or have a trumpet jump octaves back and forth. And hey, did you know that you won't be able to hear a bassoon over an entire sax and brass section going full blast fortissimo? Now I do!
There's certainly two sides to the coin. On one hand, I don't know what's considered "wrong" which can be good or bad. I've certainly heard that I've voiced things wrong, and I've written odd looking charts more than a couple of times. Then again, they used to say that parallel fifths were wrong and that's a power chord which is the basis of all rock and roll, so those old time baroque guys where full of it!
One of the downsides to having no formal training is I'm not able to deconstruct things the way that others can. Sonic Youth wasn't simply making a bunch of noise. They were knowledgeable enough to take something as simple as a 3 chord riff and make it sound completely unique. Yet, I'll see drummers who are self taught, and what they lack in coordination they make up for in innovation. I've heard some of the most interesting yet simple drumbeats come out of self taught drummers and it's all because nobody was there to say "don't play that because it's weird." So I suppose not knowing what you're doing is both a blessing and a curse.
That being said, I've learned a lot from everyone in the group. My musical knowledge now versus when I started the ensemble is probably 1000 times more informed. When you think about it, I have 14 theory teachers coming to my house every Monday night. Whenever I present an idea to them, I always ask for their input and many times they'll enlighten me to something I wasn't aware of. I love the fact that I get to basically go to school by writing and performing with these amazing musicians as opposed to sitting in a classroom. It's the only way I think I'd be able to do this.
Durkin: Are there examples of things that you tried, not knowing whether you would like them or not, and that ended up working, but that you later learned were "against the rules"?
BW: The first track on the album, "Good Morning" (hear it here), was written in one sitting one morning. I woke up, rolled out of bed and just heard this pulsing eighth note. It worked out because my right hand was just hitting the high E over and over, and since I can't really play piano with both hands playing two complex rythms, I was able to do the whole thing. After I recorded it I said, "ah what a piece of garbage," but I never throw anything away and put it in my "Retired" folder. Months later I was digging through there, heard it and thought, "What the fuck was I thinking?!" And now it's one of my favorite pieces.
As far as doing things "wrong" I know that I write a lot of unison / doubled parts for the entire group, which isn't necessarily wrong, but I think I employ it more than usual. Then again, that's because I wanted the band to have a rock & roll feel to it, I wanted it to be as loud and focused as a "power trio," hence the areas where everyone is essentially playing a power chord. There's not a whole lot of melody in the pieces either, it's a lot of texture, but that's what I've always been attracted to. Don't get me wrong, melody is great. However, it can sometimes be annoying when you get a nice melody stuck in your head and it won't go away. That's how I'll justify the lack of melody in my compositions. Thank you very much.
Durkin: Another thing that I thought was remarkable about the way you approach this project -- particularly given the size of the group -- is the humility you bring to it. We hear so many stories of artists who are so self-assured in their "vision" that they feel justified enacting a sort of "my way or the highway" approach. Not that that never works. But you seem to strike a nice balance: your lack of training may put you in a position where you depend upon a certain amount of band-generated goodwill for the project to succeed, and you're open to that -- but at the same time, you clearly have a vision for what you want to do. Does that sound right? And have you ever been tempted to be more of an asshole?
BW: You know, Buddy Rich has influenced me in two ways. One, he's a fucking amazing drummer. Two, he was a monumental asshole. Have you ever heard that tape of him yelling at his band after a gig?
It's ridiculous. That is the antithesis of how I want to lead a band.
But yes, you're right, since I'm relatively new to this, it doesn't behoove me to make up for my lack of training with some sense of faux confidence and chutzpah. It's not really who I am, and it would just alienate the rest of the group. And besides, there really isn't a need for it since everyone in the group gets where I'm coming from and what I'm going for. I honestly can't say how lucky I feel to have so many talented people taking time out of their schedule to come and play music with me. It's insane when you think about it.
Durkin: Last question. You mentioned how beer is a part of Watts Ensemble rehearsals. How important is "fun" to what you do (for the band or the audience)?
BW: It's extremely important for rehearsals. I don't want it to feel like a high school class or some stuffy orchestra. Since there's no money involved it has to be fun, otherwise they wouldn't do it.
As for the audience, our live show really consists of us playing the compositions as is. I've thought about doing a visual show by incorporating a projector (in fact, we're writing and rehearsing a live score for DUEL which we'll play at the Silent Movie Theater in October, and may do other performances of it in other venues if all goes well). But generally speaking, I'm hoping that people have fun watching a band our size squeeze onto a stage and play the music I've written.