Ben Watt: The Guy In Everything But The Girl (Q&A)

Edward Bishop

The musician turned memoirist remembers his bohemian childhood in "Romany and Tom," and releases a new album, "Hendra."

Best known as the male half of Everything But The Girl, the duo he formed in 1981 with Tracey Thorn, Ben Watt has many talents beyond providing the harmony to Thorn’s lead vocal. Since 1998, he has been an established presence on London’s deep house circuit, as a DJ, re-mixer, producer and proprietor of the Buzzin’ Fly label. He has also put in time as a radio host on the BBC’s 6Music station.

In 1992, Watt was hospitalized with the rare autoimmune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome. He went on to write about his illness and recuperation in the unsentimental 1996 memoir Patient.  Watt’s new book, Romany and Tom, is another memoir in which he chronicles the story of his parents. His father, Tom, a Glaswegian jazz musician, is nearing his last days as the book opens. His mother, Romany, a former actress turned broadcaster and celebrity interviewer for British magazines, retains only the faintest memories of her life and family. Watt’s memoir veers between his almost photographic recollection of his bohemian parents’ tumultuous relationship and his latter-years position as their caretaker. He contrasts the decline of his father’s career-- George Martin offered him a job arranging early Beatles demos; no fan of the style of music forcing his into obsolescence, the elder Watt refused-- with the rise of his mother’s writing career, and the resentment that caused.

Alongside his literary endeavors, Watt is about to release his first solo album since 1983’s North Marine Drive. Hendra, produced by Ewan Pearson, the dance music specialist also responsible for helming Tracey Thorn’s last two albums, is an electric British folk album, featuring the guitar work of Bernard Butler, and a backdrop of Eno-esque ambient noise. Lyrically, Watt recalls scattering his father’s ashes (“Matthew Arnold’s Field’) and comes reluctantly to terms with the fact that, at 51, he’s suddenly a bit too long in the tooth to stay up all night spinning deep house remixes.

Watt talked to about overcoming writer’s block, singing in his native accent and growing old when dance music stays young.

Your recall of your teenage years is impressive bordering on the surreal. You don’t just remember sights and sounds, you remember smells and contents of fridges.

Tracey always teases me I can never remember important things like anniversaries or birthdays, but I can always remember the color of somebody’s shoes. I do find myself with a strong visual memory. I wanted to make the book as vivid as possible, I supplemented my own memories with hard work and research. I went back to certain locations; I pored over photographs. I did the work a novelist might do with real-life memories.

PHOTOS: EDM Titans: Dance Music's 10 Highest Paid DJs

You even remember your junior high teacher running over a pigeon and the sound it made as it died.

Some things stay with you as a child.

You write about your father’s resentment of your mother’s career. He stopped playing jazz and became a house painter. At the same time, your mother was flying off to Europe to interview Elizabeth Taylor. Did your success cause similar resentment?

I think he was very conflicted. On the one hand, he was bowled over by the fact that I was making a career in pop music, the very area that he’d rejected. And I was making a success of it, which must have made him quite envious.

Did he ever make his peace with pop music?

I think he still had certain issues with it. Like a lot of jazz musicians, he felt that good music was a combination of self-expression and technique, whereas pop music is often about self-expression and concept. Technique doesn’t necessarily have to play such a large role. For example, when I told him I was going in to Abbey Road to record a country-pop album with an orchestra, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, in 1986, he said, “Well, why?” I said, It might sound like Phil Spector with Dusty Springfield singing, and he just rolled his eyes. But when we made a record that clearly leant its reference points to jazz, when we made an album in the late ‘80s with Stan Getz playing, he liked it.

You talk in the book about your depression and writer’s block being one of its symptoms. What brought you out of that?

I don’t know whether the actual process of seeing somebody and talking about it, getting it in the right order in my head, was part of it. Therapy helps you prioritize. It makes you see stuff in a more even-handed way, It’s neither too black nor too white. I don’t quite know what the process was that led me to this, but I just started to feel more confident about writing. I embarked on the book, but I had no intentions of making an album. The kickstarter for that was the death of my half-sister (Jennie, from lung cancer), which happened at the end of 2012 just after I’d finished the book. She’d really wanted to read the book, which was heartbreaking, and I went into a bit of a fog, not really knowing what to do. But I found I wanted to write about the thoughts that had been stirred up by her death. By the time you get to 50, you deal with quite a lot of shit in your life. How do you cope with that? Do you deal with it with resilience? Do you look for moments of hope? Do you get angry? Disdainful? What are those moments and how do you deal with them? I think that’s what the album’s about.

STORY: Kaskade, Avicii, Armin Van Buuren to Release EDM Remixes of Disney Songs

It’s also about getting older. “Young Man’s Game” talks about the end of the road in terms of being a DJ. What were the signs it was over?

That goes with the territory. But it gets tougher. The dance floor never seems to age, but you do. It’s never difficult to party one last time, it’s the recovery that’s hard. At times, I was playing three different countries over one weekend and I didn’t want to fake it anymore. It was a more honorable, graceful thing to withdraw. Even if I thought I had something left to offer musically, I couldn’t give of myself completely because I wasn’t enjoying the experience as much as I used to. Ironically, when I played the song to (producer)Ewan (Pearson), he’s 10 years younger than me and he recognized himself in it. If he’s feeling that way, imagine how I feel.

There are so many ever-changing sub-genres of dance music. Was there ever a point when you threw up your hands and said, I don’t get this?

I did find the rise of EDM fairly offensive. I thought it was a corporate construct and I think it’s disgraceful that the country which invented house, techno, disco and hip-hop didn’t have the good grace to recognize the  genres in front of them instead of lumping them all together into this...thing.

It’s been three decades since you last sang on a solo record. One thing hasn’t changed: here  isn’t an ounce of an American accent in your intonation.

I do believe in singing with the accent from where you come. I don’t like hearing American vowel sounds from English singers. There’s a tradition of singers like Robert Wyatt and David Gilmour (who sings background vocals on “The Levels” from the Hendra album)who carry the flag of an English sound as opposed to an American sound.

Do you plan to continue balancing fiction and music from now on?

[U.K. publisher] Bloomsbury, which put out the book, love the way I write and asked me if I’d write a novel, which is incredibly flattering. My editor looks after Richard Ford and William Boyd. It’s a little bit daunting. And now I’ve got this album to get out of the way. I’m just going to try to let the next project emerge rather than jump on it.