Interview: Ben Watt
If there’s anyone well practiced in making musical plates spin successfully, then it’s Ben Watt. He’s a songwriter, acclaimed author, DJ, radio presenter and one time label head in a life which has been fully immersed in music.
As a songwriter Ben is best known as one half of Everything But The Girl (EBTG) alongside his wife Tracey Thorn. Their outfit enjoyed great success during the eighties and nineties with their homespun, electronically informed pop music.
When EBTG slowed down their output, Ben upped the ante surrounding his DJing and running successful house and electronica label, Buzzin’ Fly which released music from himself as well as the likes of Justin Martin and Ame.
He’s also an acclaimed writer and currently hosts a show on BBC 6 Music. M interviewed Ben as he announced Buzzin’ Fly was becoming an ‘archive label’ to allow him to concentrate on other projects…
Can you remember the first song which turned you onto music?
My childhood is awash with memories of music. My father was a jazz musician and my first musical memory is of the cuckoo clock on Dizzy Gillespie’s Serenade for a Cuckoo from his collection. I was also fascinated by chords from quite a young age and can picture my dad planting his hand on the piano in different shapes and lovely new sounds appearing. I bought Wings’ My Love as one of my first singles – in 1973, perhaps, I must have been ten – because I loved the chords. Same goes for Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly.
Were you from a musical family?
Like I said, my dad was a jazz musician. I learnt a lot by ear and from watching him at the piano. We tangled a bit when he tried to show me things – classic father/son stuff – but I picked up lots from him. I played a bit of basic classical piano and learnt the flute up to Grade 5 at school, but was bored by most of it. I just wanted to write songs.
How did you make the transition from listener to music maker?
The first two were never separate in my mind. If I heard something I liked, I immediately went to an instrument to try and work out how it was done. DJing came much later. I had never considered it until Howie B once looked at my record collection and asked when I was next spinning. It must have been 1995. I laughed and said I wasn’t a DJ. Plus I was 32. He said I should think about it. And that was it. The seed was sown. I suddenly saw how interesting it could be to get emotional responses out of people by stringing together pre-recorded pieces of music, rather than having to continually create new music from my own head. With the demise of Everything But The Girl (EBTG) around 2000, as Tracey settled down to raise our first kids, I turned to DJing as a way to vary my musical path.
Can you remember when you first fell in love with electronic music?
I started writing songs and having them recorded professionally as early as 1981. On one of my earliest EPs I collaborated with Robert Wyatt as a precocious 19 year-old and continued as co-songwriter with Tracey in EBTG for the next twenty years. Songwriting and electronic music are not mutually exclusive. There have been many writers/producers who’ve successfully blended the two since the advent of commercial synths in the seventies, but if you mean ‘electronic music’ as an instrumental form primarily aimed at the dancefloor, then I suppose I began to take a keen interest in that in the mid-nineties.
I latched onto drum’n'[bass quite early and used to go to Speed to listen to Doc Scott and Fabio. People might say, ‘what about hip-hop and acid house in the eighties?’, but the raw edge of those early sounds did not really suit what I was doing with EBTG in the late eighties. We had quite a sophisticated sound by then and were on our fourth and fifth albums. I loved a lot of those early house records, especially the vocal NY house stuff – Phase II etc – but it was not a sound suited to what we were doing at that time.
Buzzin’ Fly has just announced it’s retirement – why did you set up the label in the first place?
I always knew I wanted to start a label at some point. I grew up in my teens loving the indie label explosion of the late seventies and early eighties, especially the labels where artwork and music combined. Factory Records especially. Jazz has a history of great sleeves too.
Buzzin’ Fly was launched in 2003. My hand was forced to a certain extent. I had made a white label for club play only. I was a DJ at Lazy Dog at the time and the next thing I knew it had been bootlegged and was on sale in New York. I was of a mind to get control back and put it out myself. That was how Buzzin’ Fly was born. The track was Lone Cat. I had no business training, but had been in the industry for over twenty years so I had a fair idea of what things cost and how you promoted things.
Why end the label now?
Ten years felt like a milestone. And in reality, there are only so many hours in each day. I had been running out of time for my own projects: a book I am completing; another I want to write; a solo music project I want to embark on. Both DJing and running a label are full time jobs and require even more care and attention lavished on them than they did when I first started. So something had to give. I felt I owed it to myself to concentrate on my own work.
What was the highlight of running the label both in terms of releases and parties?
The live stuff was almost always thrilling. We ran great parties in the early days at Cherry Jam, and later the basement years at Plastic People were great. Of the bigger stuff, the packed nights at The End were very memorable. And Miami each year – the rooftop and pool parties – were always joyous and decadent in a good way. Trying to pick a favourite release would be like trying to select your favourite child.
How has the industry changed since you started running it? And have the challenges changed?
There is a still a path to success but the competition is ridiculously fierce. On one hand, the barriers to creating and distributing music have come down so there is a vast delta of music out there to compete with.
On the other, the revenue streams are constantly doing battle with free content. You need to be very dedicated to survive let alone thrive. I worry that streaming – the great new hope for the rock and pop industry – has no real place for dance music, which leaves a huge question mark hanging over the survival of many great mid-sized dance labels. The current picture seems to suit either hobbyists or big aggregators who don’t mind putting out lots of digital compilations and paying an army of accountants.
You could be classed as a veteran of the music industry – where do you still find musical inspiration?
I have not DJed professionally in clubs for quite a while now. The late nights and travelling take their toll and I didn’t want to fake it. I still enjoying creating sets for my residency on BBC 6Music, mind you. Songs come when you least expect them. I don’t sit down as a 9-5 writer. I try and react when the inspiration arrives – a phrase someone says, a story you read. Same old triggers. It gets harder to impress yourself but I keep going back to it.
Have you any advice for aspiring musicians/songwriters?
Think twice. Eat plenty of fruit. Be nice to your friends.