By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious.
“I’m in serious trouble,” Patrick Watson admits in a mild state of panic. “I’ve gotta get this done today!”
The Canada native and leader of “Patrick Watson” – the accidental band that he’s fronted for fifteen years – is hurriedly putting the finishing touches on yet another cinematic score; his first for a “big Hollywood film.” But even though he’s staring down a tight deadline, at least he’s procrastinating productively and making the time to speak to me from his Montreal home studio.
I confess that I’m simply going to ask him a few general questions and see where the conversation leads us, because Watson has a reputation for being a big thinker with a restless mind that’s constantly bouncing ideas and concepts off itself eachother. A few minutes after pleasantries and introductions, he doesn’t disappoint.
“You know what they say about people working on the business side of the music industry, right? That they were either drug dealers in high school or music lovers. And about ninety-five percent of you guys were drug dealers – people used to working outside the box.”
You can hear him grinning to himself over the phone.
“Or your houses were so stuffed with vinyl records you could barely go in through the door. You know what I’m saying? This conversation will go just fine.”
After remembering that I’d much rather be the one asking the questions than answering them, we get back on track: Twenty minutes with the great and prolific Patrick Watson, who has produced over a dozen film scores as well as six albums, spanning a broad range of sounds and aesthetics.
How do you make the transition from composing for film and television to writing music for an album? Is there any difference in approach?
Scores are research-intensive projects for me, and they’re an opportunity for me to get out of my box and write outside of my comfort zone. You’re not writing in your own head, and it allows you to explore things you might not have explored otherwise.
Doing film scores is a bit of a relief. You sit with the director and try to pinpoint the tone and feeling he wants. I’m always looking for the belly-gut feeling, and once I have that as a reference point, the question is really how you want to color the film, orchestration-wise. Orchestration really dictates what kind of film it is, in a weird way. When I use strings, you’re in your standard “Hollywoodland” film score. As soon as you go outside of the box, the film changes quite rapidly.
You’re not an artist anymore; you’re part of a team and helping someone find their way. This one that I’m working on is a big Hollywood film, which I’ve never really done before. It’s a huge learning curve, and I’ll find out when I go to the recording session with the full orchestra. I’m pretty excited to see what that does. [Laughs] I’m a little out of my comfort zone, and I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Even the music is beyond my element, but as long as I’m learning, I’m a happy camper.
How did you get your start as a musician?
I grew up in a really small town, singing in the church, with limited access to outside music. I had older brothers who listened to Tears For Fears and that kind of stuff, but I didn’t have a wild music collection as a kid. I would go skiing with my buddies and we’d listen to Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and I had the standard Radiohead phase when I was older, but I didn’t really start discovering the wider world of music until I was sixteen or seventeen. I don’t think I went to my first concert until I was fourteen.
At what point did you feel that you could do music as a career?
My listening and where I popped open and figured out where I was going were quite different. If you were to talk to me when I was thirteen – I loved singing and playing music, and it was a big part of my life, but it wasn’t like I knew I wanted to be a musician for a living. But I was singing in the church and at weddings and funerals, and it was more of the idea of being part of a community through music. I loved performing, but never had the kinds of ambitions to become a big singer. I was happy being part of a family of music.
What kind of musician I am now probably happened when I went to jazz school. My best friend’s dad would listen to jazz all night and drink wine, and we’d sit and play music with him. I went to jazz school and started discovering more classical music in music history class, and that’s really when it went click for me. I would say Debussy would really be the one that opened up the performer I am today more than anyone else. I didn’t want to just be a singer. I enjoy singing for myself, but I wasn’t interested in doing that by itself.
And then I heard Bjork. [Laughs] The way she mixed the neo-classical with pop music, it showed me that I could blend these worlds, and have fun with these weird multimedia performances. We didn’t think we were going to be a band – that’s why we’re just called “Patrick Watson” – the idea was to put on these elaborate, ridiculous shows in Montreal, with the audience filming the visuals, and then put on a tour. And then we just kind of became a band.
What’s your favorite Bjork album? What other albums have influenced you?
Homogenic, because of the string arrangements, but Vespertine has the best programming. Vespertine is the most groundbreaking record she’s ever done. It’s ingenious and super organic. There’s nothing really like it.
The only competitor for it is Amon Tobin, because it’s all about feel. Amon Tobin is the only other guy that can make you feel “off the grid” and that’s the real game changer.
My third favorite CD is Vrioon by Ryuichi Sakamoto with Alva Noto. Honestly, it’s this weird piano improv with crazy high-end beeps and low end subs. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s my favorite electronic record of all times, and it’s so gorgeous. It’s funny – I forgot about that record, and everybody’s asking me about the electronic influences on Love Songs for Robots, and I totally fucking forgot about this one. [Laughs] Vrioon was the record that broke the nice boundary between the tones on acoustic piano and the electronic sounds. They blend so naturally together, and so well, that you don’t even know what to call it anymore.
And the song “In Circles” on this record would never have happened without the Sakamoto and Alva Noto album.
Where did the inspiration come from for Love Songs for Robots, specifically?
I remember doing interviews for the last record, which had a very warm-folk, and acoustic and woodsy feel. And nowadays, all I read is science fiction. I can’t even read the regular news anymore – the genre is the only thing I have left in this world that touches me, and makes me feel awkwardly human, you know? [Laughs] When I was doing interviews for that last album, I kept thinking about finding a way to incorporate this genre into my work.
I find it really warm and touching, and it’s one of my main interests. If I tell people about it, they find it so cold. I wanted to break that concept with this record. It was all recorded live, and the electronic instrumentation was done live, and the title was all about finding that warmth in that world.
What was the recording process itself life? How long were you in the studio?
We recorded this album in ten days, and did the pre-plot for months. I would build a couple of demos for tunes, particularly for the most electronic stuff, and then export it so real instruments could play it live. After that, it was just months working on the arrangements to make them smooth, and recording it with a little hand-recorder we had in a room – once it passed that test and gave us goose bumps, then we recorded it. There’s very few overdubs on this record, but we wanted the album to have the depth and variety of colors of an album with overdubs.
Recording with one microphone is really the best secret of the trade, and it makes everyone focus on finding their home. You can’t have too much crap so you don’t overload the microphone. And recording at an old studio like Capitol Studios is amazing. This is not a place you go to figure out how you want to sound – there’s definitely a learning curve. If you know what you want, and have it ready to go, it’s cheaper than sitting at a medium studio and taking forever to get the sound you want because you don’t have the gear.
We worked with the house engineer there, Chandler [Harrod], and he was a super sweet guy. The engineers there care! He [Chandler] gave his all the whole time. I mean, we got four songs done in two days, and Capitol is a museum of equipment. All of those electronics are built by hand. They have a Fairchild compressor! It’s almost like having a magic trick. It’s an amazing place, and you walk down the hall and see a picture of Judy Garland. It was an amazing adventure for us, and we’re an adventure band. We always decided to make things that were adventurous for us.
So, you’re an adventure band about to embark on a world tour. Where does the line between pleasure and work come for you? Are you enjoying yourself on these road trips or are focused on the performances?
Well, it’s kind of all of the above, isn’t it?
There are days you’re not going to want to be on tour, and there are days you love it. It’s a collage of all of those experiences. We want to be able to play outside of the box in music, and that means you have to be better at getting your music out there. All of us are very privileged because we don’t make any compromises in the music we make, and we are still able to pay our rent. That’s a huge privilege just right there. We know loads of musicians who don’t have that privilege and who are just as good as us. We know that, and we don’t take it for granted. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have days you’re not like “fuck this!” [Laughs] You’re away from your family, and it totally destroys your home life, and it is what it is. But at the same time, it’s all a balance.
We were lucky, though. Our first tour was with James Brown in Europe, and he was in his 70s. His band was older, and they’d been around the block, obviously. And when we met them they were super, super humble and nice, and before every show his band would huddle up and pray for fifteen minutes. They weren’t too cool for us, or shoving us off to the corner – they brought us in, and it would have been really easy for them to be any other way. We were so lucky to play with these wonderful people from a different generation who really understood the privilege of what they were experienced. And I think that really planted a seed in this band that we would never take this all for granted.
You’ve had some really great highs in the industry, like winning the Polaris Music Prize and the critical recognition for your solo work, as well as with the Cinematic Orchestra. What has been the moment you’ve enjoyed the most?
Easy to beat all of those moments, really: Playing with the [Royal] Orchestra in the Concertbegouw [in Amsterdam]. That was more of my dream as a kid than winning prizes. Getting that orchestra to play my music; I mean, that’s such an absurd experience. People study their entire lives to have the Concertbegouw orchestra play even two minutes of their music. I could trade all the awards for that, hands-down.
Another weird, young, and lucky experience was in New York at the beginning of our careers. Philip Glass, Elliot Scheiner, all these people – we were invited to make music for these short films. And we were punks! We hadn’t even toured yet, we were not ready for that. I remember setting up the piano, and Phil Glass asking me if I had readied the piano. [Laughs]. “To be honest, Phil, I’m used to playing on a crappy keyboard, so I’m pretty stoked.” I remember we practiced so much because we were so scared, and obviously nobody else gave a shit, so they weren’t practicing half as much [laughs].
I also remember the first time we played on a fjord in Iceland – just, like, “Wow.” [Laughs]
All those experiences I’d trade for any accolades, you know? We’ve made our tours all about memories, and that’s why we’ve been together for fifteen years. Those adventures are our glue. It’s not the notes you play; it’s why you play the notes.