Pic by Antonio Olmos
This Ben Watt conversation was to have run ahead of his April tour of Australia – a second solo visit; his third tour, after one here with Tracey Thorn in Everything But The Girl. We all know what intervened between chat and publication.
Mind you, even if borders hadn’t closed, it’s likely Watt, whose immune system has been compromised since he developed, and nearly died from, Churg-Strauss syndrome in 1992, would have cancelled anyway. (If you’d like to know more about that experience, his compelling, very human memoir, Patient, is well worth reading.)
Not that it was our health system which would have deterred him. I remind Watt that the last time he played Sydney, thanks to a sciatic nerve problem, it was made possible by Tramadol and red wine.
“I was certainly well helped out by a very understanding Australian doctor, who I think prescribed far more than any English doctor would ever prescribe,” he laughs. “So I think I benefited from his, let’s say, experience.”
This tour would have featured quite a few selections from Watt’s latest album, Storm Damage, his third solo record since a long period focusing on his DJ/production work in electronic and dance music that had informed the last albums of Everything But The Girl.
Storm Damage was a step away from its predecessors Hendra and Fever Dream, with a shift from folk/rock guitars and the sound he had begun his career with, nearly 40 years earlier, into a new line-up – principally piano, bass and drums – and a quieter, even more intense sound.
But it also connected to some of his post-EBTG career in its use of electronic touches and effects that complemented and accentuated the “natural” sounds being made by the trio.
To understand the sound and lyrical choices though you need first to understand the circumstances of Watt’s life at the genesis of Storm Damage. I suggest to him that while the album is more nuanced than this suggests, there is a sense of John Lydon’s famous line from Public Image Ltd, that anger is an energy.
“It is very clearly in the record,” Watt says. “I went through a really difficult phase trying to write this record. I finished the Fever Dream tour in early 2017 and I tried to go straight into writing another record. My half-brother had died the previous autumn and I managed to make it back for the funeral, and I had seen him just before he died, but I gone straight back out on the road and I don’t think I had really processed it. It wasn’t until I came off tour in early 2017 that it really hit me.
“I was surprised with the feeling that I had. I felt very angry with this kind of random unfairness to it, which is not uncommon in situations like this. And it came hot on the heels of the death of my sister a few years before. And each time I was turning on the TV [there was] this lurch to the right that we’ve been seeing in all these countries around the world, this political implosion that was going on.”
The feeling washing over him amidst this was one of powerlessness, both personal and political, which generated anger and frustration, but also at first a barrier to actually writing these feelings into his work.
“I think that was what I was trying to break out of when I ended up writing the songs. I think it is captured in the lyrics of things like Figures In The Landscape, Sunlight Follows The Night, Retreat To Find,” Watt says. “These are songs which are grappling with a kind of anger and powerlessness but finding a way out. Finding some hope, I guess.”
The hope was somewhat hard wrought. Just as he struggled to get the right tone lyrically, he found that musically, blockages presented themselves constantly.
“When I finally did get around to breaking through and writing the songs I found myself constantly disappointed by the guitar each time I picked it up. I just felt that I was repeating ideas that I had used on Hendra and I couldn’t seem to escape that,” Watt says. “In the end I turned to the piano as a source of inspiration and I started to write some things on the piano. In fact the very first thing I wrote was Summer Ghosts, and I was really pleased with the way that turned out: it was a little different chordally; it seemed to have a different mood; I seemed to be trying to do something different.
“When you been writing music as long as I have, to chance upon something like that feels very rewarding.”
The album’s concept came with more than just the intrinsic sound in mind, it being important for example that it be an upright piano, not a grand piano; that it be double bass, not electric; and that it be standard, not electronic, drum kit. It needed, he believed, to capture musicians “wrestling” with wood and steel and air in the clear constraints and opportunities of a genuine trio.
"But I also knew that the lyrics were wrestling with this sort of distressed psychological landscape, and I wanted to capture that in a different way,” Watt says. “And as a way of building towards this, I used a collage of samples and detuned sounds I found on the Internet, and hand-programmed patches that I was editing on my old Juno 106 synthesiser. No presets; it was all hand programmed.
“And that became the sonic texture, the cinematic atmosphere for the record that helped capture I think some of the psychological mood.”
As for that psychological mood, if you haven’t heard Storm Damage yet, this might all sound like it’s a grim collection, a covid-19 times album made before we even knew what was coming. That wouldn’t be right.
We were told in the promotional material for the album that it was the final part of a trilogy of albums (“Had I known when I sat down with my publicist to put the press release together that that would be leapt on by everybody in the way it has, maybe I would have chosen a different word,” Watt says ruefully).
If that trilogy idea were true you would have to say that Hendra and Fever Dream, both of which were dotted with death and loss and the accumulation of full adult issues and perspectives, had a retrospective sense, an internal examination of how lives got to this point and the potential for renewal. Storm Damage looks outward and maybe forward to actual renewal.
“I hadn’t thought of that before. You are almost saying that there is a great sense of action on this record, rather than wait and see?” says Watt.
There are some songs here which are in effect a call to action, saying this is what’s here and it’s up to us to move this. To channel the anger into something useful.
“Well that’s good and it’s definitely true of Figures In The Landscape. It is one of those songs where the opening position is one of powerlessness, of inertness: are we just random atoms, are we just figures in the landscape, do we have any agency in the world? And yet it comes to the conclusion that you do have a choice, and the choice is either to celebrate what you have or to take issue with it.”
That is balanced in Balanced On A Wire by the recognition of the contradiction in someone looking at the next generation and saying do this, be this, live this moment, when at the very least the constrictions and situations are different between generations, and we have no right to ask others for something like that from a lofty position of comfort unless we will risk ourselves.
“Balanced On A Wire is not prescriptive in any way, it’s just me synthesising the feelings of a 19-year-old, because I was a 19-year-old once,” says Watt. “When I thought about it, the feelings that my daughter were feeling - and it was written after a conversation with my daughter and her mixture of anxiety and determination: anxiety about leaving home and the determination to make something of her life - it made me realise that not only did I feel exactly the same when I was 19, but I felt exactly the same now, in my 50s.
“Even things we start late in life, we start with that mix of anguish and determination, and you do feel balanced between these two things. What do you do next? And maybe Figures In The Landscape answers that two songs later: it says, do something about it.”
Storm Damage is out now. Maybe consider buying it, not just streaming. #feedamusician