(Everything But The Girl - by Edward Bishop)
TRACEY THORN AND BEN WATT TODAY are seated in front of a window, bright clear sky behind them, a space in front of them big enough to include the full name of Everything But The Girl and the words Comeback. No, Really, They’re Back, in neon signs – if they were of a mind to.
While Thorn seems comfortably settled, Watt is leaning forward, almost in a slump, his body language saying “I don’t want to be here”, his early silence reinforcing it. His answer to my innocuous ‘how are you? Is a muttered “alive” while Thorn, offers a much perkier “alright thanks” and a laugh at his response.
Not looking good is it? But as with some 40 years of band photos where even an upward curled lip just vaguely suggesting a smile is rare, is it a misdirection or misread?
For a start, “alive” is no small matter as the immunocompromised Watt (his immune system highly vulnerable since nearly dying in the early ‘90s from the blood vessel inflammation disorder once called Churg-Strauss syndrome) had been unwell recently, hospitalised in a perversely unfair corollary to a couple of years of Covid which had seen him isolating and “shielding”, his few outings being solo as a born-again birder in land near their north London home.
Secondly, there is a faint whiff of ambivalence about him as the inevitable publicity circus around Everything But The Girl cranks up, the first singles as a duo by the off-stage couple (together since 1981 at Hull University, and married since 2008; parents of three children aged between 21 and 25) a series of exceptionally well received preludes to Fuse, their first album as EBTG since 1999’s Temperamental.
Not ambivalence about the partnership, rather the rigmarole accompanying it. Ambivalence which surfaced even before there was any thought to “new” Everything But The Girl. But ambivalence which cannot be detected in the music.
In my head, I tell them, despite its focus on a decaying world and the need for a thicker skin, asking a lover for comfort for what is left to lose?, the pleasure, the energy, spilling out of Nothing Left To Lose, made it such a perfect first single/lead album track. I have no idea the order of writing but I’d easily believe that was a dam bursting, spilling forth the rest of the album. Not surprisingly, I was wrong.
“It was the last one we did,” chuckles Thorn. “But I think both those ideas make sense really. Because what happened really is we kind of built up to that point of confidence in the whole project. There was a point midway where we threw out a bunch of tracks that were okay, but not exciting us enough, but then we began to pick up our game a bit.
"[Second single] Caution To The Wind was the second to last track we come up with, and we thought we’d pretty much nailed it by then. We were looking at the tracks going, this is really good. And then Ben just went, you know what, I think we’re kind of distilling this essence.”
Distilled became essence in that one more track, Nothing Left To Lose.
“As soon as we finished it we knew it was going to be the first one we would release,” Thorn says. “I think we could sense, okay we’ve got something here that’s really, really strong, it’s got a real sense of drama and urgency - that's very much a good thing to come back to the world with after a long gap.”
Watt looks up, a small confession brewing.
“I think as well we’re talking here about confidence and being exploratory with the music, but at the beginning we weren’t that confident. We weren’t quite sure what we were going to do,” he says. “We knew psychologically it would be really good for us to work together again. I think we experienced quite a long pandemic: I’d been shielding, we’d spent a lot of time isolating from friends, we hadn’t been out much, but we realised we didn’t really want to go back to how life was before lockdown, because so much had changed.
“We thought coming together on a project was a good idea but we didn’t really have an idea of what it would be.”
How do you reconvene a musical partnership that had, professionally, settled into what Thorn has described as “quite strictly independent of each other”, each saying “This is my work, I’m going to finish it, you can hear it and make helpful comments, but you’re not part of it”, even as the personal lives stayed completely entwined?
“It started from a very low base,” Watt says. “I just had some piano improvisations on my iPhone and some kind of, almost musique concrète kind of overlaying of field recordings and some things that I’d sampled as ideas during the pandemic, just to keep myself interested. We actually began with those as a starting point, and some of them ended up being songs on the record: Interior Space, When You Mess Up, the piano part on Run A Red Light.
“All this kinda stuff was very early in the process, and the confidence that ended up with Nothing Left To Lose was something that grew during the project when we suddenly realised it wasn’t just us messing around, it suddenly sounded like shit got real.”
When shit got real, is that when they said yes this is definitely an Everything But The Girl album? They answer “yeah” simultaneously.
“At first we’d been worried that if we framed it in those terms it would put the pressure on and intimidate us,” Thorn admits. “But once we were halfway through and feeling good about what we’d got, thinking about it in that way was actually inspiring, it made us think, okay if this is an Everything But The Girl record then that puts demands on us for it to be good.”
Instead of discomfort, the pressure of those demands all became a positive.
“There has to be some element of pressure when you’re making something. You can’t remain in that completely ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude; there has to come a point when you have to really start caring,” says Thorn. “And at that point the kind of pressure we put on ourselves was good pressure, the pressure to make you really reach a bit further, a bit further, try a bit harder.”
Ok, there is one element of pressure not welcome. I'm not even in a band but one thing I find tiresome is how immediately on making something or finishing something artists will be asked what’s next?, what else? Some of us are less worried about whether there will be more Everything But The Girl records after this and more concerned that we get everything we can out of this one: as many songs as possible, as many chances to hear them, as many ideas.
“We are being asked what’s next and we’re trying to sort of pull the conversation back into the present, and not do this thing of almost skating over where we are right now and moving on into something imaginary,” says Thorn. “I mean we are very aware that this moment in time is quite unique for us. We can’t come back after 24 years again. This is an exceptional kind of experience and we’re trying, we are trying to enjoy it and experience it properly for everything it is.”
Are they enjoying it? Are they enjoying the post-record-making business of the music business again?
“We had to kind of get ourselves back into the groove of doing it,” reveals Thorn. “Not just because we’ve had a long break from being Everything But The Girl, but this two or three years of the pandemic and life being so quiet. So yeah, there been moments when it has been really stressful and we've been reminded of how high-pressure they can all get, how everything turns into an emergency.
“The music industry operates in this atmosphere often of slight hysteria and panic, and we had slightly forgotten that. Even our solo records that we’ve been working on the last past few years, they have been operating at a slightly lower level, with less expectation around them, which means a bit less hysteria around everything.”
(A still from the film clip for Caution To The Wind, directed by Charlie Di Placido)
It’s been more than useful, if fact you could go as far as saying inspired, that this latest phase of EBTG has involved a strong emphasis on the visual components, but devoid of the presence of Watt and Thorn outside the obligatory (unsmiling, of course) press photos. The cool, almost clipped cover art for singles and album, the filmclips built around sometimes highly stylised, sometimes earthly organic dance, work wonders for us, but most certainly for them.
“I don’t think we knew it would go so well,” says Watt. “On the artwork side, I’ve worked with John Gilsenan [of graphic design agency Iwant Design] for over 20 years now. He was doing club flyers for [Watt’s London nightclub] Cherry Jam in the early 2000s, and he is still doing our artwork. I always think he comes up with something exciting, and I love that kind of futuristic classicism of the sleeve artwork, which I think really captures the record.
“But stumbling on Charlie [Di Placido] to do the videos, I don’t think either of us could have imagined it would have gone so well. Tracey remembered the stuff he did with Jungle, which were really buoyant dance videos but feeling very modern, and that’s why we went to him: we thought choreography might be really good way of dramatising our songs without having to be too literal. [But] I don’t think we ever realised he would get it so completely.
“I think the art direction that he uses, the choreographer he uses, the clothes, the lighting, it all just feels like a kind of Everything But The Girl world. I really, really think he’s really nailed it, and it’s made life and lot easier, because we’ve made some bad videos [he laughs] over the years and here are a few that seem to have happened, really quite effortlessly, to be right on the money of what we want to do.”
Thorn takes it further. “At the beginning, some of the things we didn’t want to do were: we didn’t want to be doing many photo shoots, and be on the cover of the album – that’s such hard work, we don’t have to do that. We didn’t want to be in the videos: again we’ve struggled in the past with what are you going to do in a video? Do you just stand there and sing the song? Is someone going to give you some kind of lame scenario to act out?,” she says. “So we had these rules, let’s look at the things we don’t want to do.
"But that can sometimes set up a slight atmosphere of negativity in the mind of the record company and stuff – 'oh God, they are not going do this, they are not going to do that' – so I think when John came up with the artwork and everyone looked at it and went, oh my God it’s actually brilliant, and then we delivered the first video from Charlie, and everyone went okay, this is actually better that if it had just been you guys standing and singing it, I feel like we made a positive out of something that could have looked like a negative.”
Under-saying as much as understatement then?
“We are being deliberately a little bit, I don’t know what that word is … elusive,” says Thorn. “We are trying not to present ourselves as WE’RE BACK, IT’S THE COMEBACK! LET’S TAKE THE BAND BACK ON THE ROAD. We are trying to present ourselves more as artists in the studio who made this music. Here’s the music, now the other stuff around it doesn’t need us to be out there presenting it.”
TOMORROW: in part two of this interview, Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn talk about how taking a remixer’s attitude of anything goes saw them gleefully playing with and manipulating what many might have thought sacrosanct in Everything But The Girl.
THURSDAY: in part three, a deep dive into the sonics, styles and (is it true?) scat behind the new album.
NO GODS, NO MASTERS: Read part two of this interview here.
ALL ROUTES OPEN: Read part three of this interview here.
Fuse is released on Friday, April 21.