(Photo by Edward Bishop)
THEY DIDN’T DISAPPEAR you know.
A reformation album will always excite interest. A reformation album after nearly a quarter of a century especially. This is what some people have been waiting for to fill that vacant space on their CD or record shelf since 1999: Fuse, a new Everything But The Girl album, finally Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt doing what God intended when he threw them together at Hull University in the early years of the Thatcher reign.
But it doesn’t have to be a replacement or an answer to the question “what have Ben and Tracey been doing all this time?”. For a good number of fans who kept track, this is an opportunity to have Ben albums and Tracey albums and another Everything But The Girl album. It’s not greedy to want more.
“I think that’s a bit more how it feels to us really,” says Thorn. “I do think some people may be framing this in terms of [she affects a semi-exasperated tone] ‘oh finally they’ve come back together: this is the real project and now they’ll carry on doing that for ever.’ And I think we’re going,’ look we’re really delighted to have made a record together, but we see it as this year’s project’. Who knows what we are going to do next year?
“We don’t see this as being in necessary full stop to everything else we were doing. So I agree with you, this is part of a long process of ongoing projects that we both get involved in.”
It’s not like the solo things they did were rubbish and we/they needed rescuing. Watt’s reclamation of his folk/rock roots after extensive work remixing and DJing, on the albums Hendra and Fever Dream, and more recently moving to a keyboard-driven trio for Storm Damage, reward repeated listening. Thorn’s exploration of night time roots and love of pop were equal parts fascinating and highly enjoyable on records such as Out Of The Woods, Love And Its Opposite, the unlikely alternative Christmas album, Tinsel And Lights, and most recently, Record.
Not to mention the memoirs each has written, from Watt’s Patient and Romany And Tom , to Thorn’s run of Bedsit Disco Queen, Naked At The Albert Hall, Another Planet, and most recently, My Rock’n’Roll Friend.
“Well, people only have certain amount of time and you can’t expect people to pay attention to you all the time. People took their eye off the ball for a while and missed all that stuff,” says Watt, much to the amusement of a laughing Thorn, which in turn sets him laughing too at his somewhat gloomy tone. “A lot of people don’t even really know what I did with Buzzin’ Fly [the electronica and club sounds-focused label he’s run for a couple of decades], and the years I spent DJing every weekend, remixing, producing. That’s another black hole for a lot of people.”
If there is some frustration in there for Watt it is at least in part because none of it exists in some separate universe from Fuse and Everything But The Girl.
“No one brought up the fact that that experience, remixing for clubs, was extremely instrumental in how I approached producing this record,” he says. “I learnt a lot in those years, more than I’d learnt making Walking Wounded and Temperamental [the last two, dance-based, Everything But The girl albums], on how to make things sonically sound really rich and wide and 3D.”
Initial reaction to the first singles from this iteration of EBTG – in those late 2022 days when speculation ran wild about which period of the band, which of their styles, would be represented in 2023 – quickly settled on the assumption that this would be in the electronic mould of late ‘90s records. However, sonically this new album does not really comfortably fit that assumption, nor least for showing a greater depth in sound than those alluring, occasionally skittish records.
“That’s partly technology,” says Watt. “Walking Wounded was made with 8bit technology. They were S900 samplers from the mid-‘90s: it had that very crunchy, punchy but quite small sounding quality to it. That’s what Akai samplers were like and why so many records from the ‘90s have that sound. But these days, sonically, things are much richer. Pro-tools have much greater bandwidth and bit-rate to work with so immediately things become a little more cinematic and you’re able to put more dimension into the records. That’s just production technology that’s changed.”
What about their thinking? What changed there? Thorn takes up the answer.
“I think people have identified we’ve made a more electronic album, so obviously it connects with the last two albums we made in the ‘90s,” she says. “But I feel that we deliberately didn’t redo any of the actual song templates that we did then. There’s a kind of ‘90s drum&bass revival going on at the moment but we haven’t done that. We thought that would be too much like ‘oh here we go, this is ‘90s Everything But The Girl'. So there are a lot of things we looked at and didn’t do.
“Caution To The Wind is a house tempo but it’s not like Missing or Wrong, which are very straightforward pop song structures put over a house tempo: verse, chorus, breakdown in the middle. We said okay, if we’re going to do something at this tempo, let’s do one that works on repetition and cycles of vocal, filtering the vocal in and out.
“Nothing Left To Lose [she says to Watt], you said when you started on that the idea that was to try to come up with a really punchy rhythm track that wasn’t in territory we had done before. So we think we have really been stretching ourselves and experimenting within this world of electronica we moved into in the ‘90s.”
As we pondered earlier, what then defines an Everything But The Girl song? One that is not a Tracey Thorn song, that is not a Ben Watt song. Is it subject matter? Production? The combination of their writing? Her voice?
“Most of the songs that we collaborate on, especially on this record, Ben has created the music, I’ve written a lot of the lyrics – though Ben has written 25–30 per cent of the lyrics – with Ben’s production, and then the space that’s left for my voice and what I choose to sing over those chord structures,” says Thorn. “I think that becomes the basis of it.”
She says that even they were surprised what emerged from their combination initially, the project which had no name (Tren – Tracey and Ben – was all Watt wrote on the tapes) and no plans, moving into the studio with some rough backing tracks ready for lead vocals.
“When we heard that [combination] through the speakers we sat up and went, oh my God it sounds like Everything But The Girl,” says Thorn. “Okay, so how’s that happened? It doesn’t really sound like your solo stuff; it doesn’t sound like my last album, Record. So we thought there is something a little bit intangible that happens when the two of us work together, and we’ve got to go with it.”
Watt chimes in that musically a lot of it is to do with the “voicings” he uses when he works with Thorn, leaving a lot of room in the tracks for her, rather than crowding in sounds and instrumentation.
“I also use a lot of notes in the scale that imply suspension and dissonance, or ambivalence. So there’s lots of 6ths and 4ths and 9ths in the chords: sometimes you’re not clear even if it’s major or minor,” he says. “There’s a great interview Wayne Shorter did about working with Joni Mitchell, and when he first sat down with her, he said wait, what are these chords? These aren’t guitar chords, they are not piano chords, it’s just one suspension after another.
"Jazz musicians are taught at places like Berklee you can’t continually stack suspensions on top of each other, you have to resolve, but Joni Mitchell’s point was you can repeat suspensions over and over so that when you finally land on a plain major chord it becomes doubly major. It becomes beautifully surprising.”
It's an area Watt has enjoyed exploring with his guitar-based albums.
“I used a lot of open tunings, a lot of the chords I was playing I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing,” he says. :I’d go to Bernard [Butler, guitarist and producer] who I was working with at the time and go, look Bernard this is some kind of A minor sixth, four, there’s a 13 on the top, and he’d go ‘I’ll just play an A minor’.”
Watt and Thorn laugh delightedly in musician.
“And actually, that really worked,” Watt continues. “Because he would play the crunchy bluesy chord and I’d play the big jazzy suspension.”
Thorn interrupts to say “maybe there’s a bit of that goes on with us as well”.
“I don’t sing over your suspended chords like super improvisational jazzy style vocalist stuff; I tend to sing really pure, plain, straight melodies,” she says. “Maybe that’s what we’re getting at really: the combination of the way he hears it, the way I hear it, and put that together and that’s Everything But The Girl.”
Watt, maybe to reassure some worried jazzphobic fans reading this, says “there’s no kind of scat singing!”
“You might expect a slightly more R&B approach to the singing,” he says, “But Tracey sings pretty much dead straight, that kind of unadorned direct approach.”
Look, they’re not entirely ruling it out so is it fair to say their future as a 21st-century Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, the former vocal and sax playing married monarchs of British jazz, is still a possibility?
“I’m working on it,” laughs Thorn while Watt, son of a band leader and product of a jazz-loving household, chuckles.
BACK FOR NOW…: read part one of this interview here
NO GODS, NO MASTERS …: read part two of this interview here
Fuse is out Friday, April 21.