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WIND BACK WEDNESDAY MOVES WITH EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL

January 16, 2018

A weekend of playing Everything But The Girl albums prompted a search through the files for this interview with the band’s Ben Watt (watch out in the near future for an interview with the other half of the band, Tracy Thorn) from 1997 as they prepared for an Australian tour.

 

 

Seven albums into a career which seemed to find ceiling when they wanted to soar and open skies when all they wanted was to hide, Everything But The Girl (aka Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn) send a gently rhythmic ballad from the album Amplified Heart to Todd Terry esq, remixer of note.

 

Mr Terry doesn't try for over-cleverness or overloading but sends the ballad, Missing, back with a house beat attached, and the song begins vaulting up the charts - into areas reserved for boys in plaid shirts and girls in evening gowns.

 

Missing is played in every cafe in the tres chic parts of big cities, gets aired next to Mariah Carey on "adult" radio stations, and Tracey Thorn's rich and almost mournful voice seems to be the soundtrack to every conversation of 1995.

 

EBTG's album Amplified Heart - which was deemed so unworthy of attention by their record label, a subsidiary of Warners, that the band was dropped - joins Missing on the charts.

 

Soon Virgin Records comes smiling, a new album is recorded, and the eighth EBTG album, Walking Wounded, becomes a hit. You know, tabloid stories, television appearances, sales and more sales.

 

Hello. Did someone hit the wrong button in the great pop music computer in the sky?

 

This is the band who had the jazz/pop sound of their first album, Eden, magnified by Paul Weller when he went all smooth a decade ago; who watched the Smiths take cascading guitar lines way past EBTG's Love Not Money; who saw the music scene simplify when they went all lush on Baby The Stars Shine Bright; who had a gorgeous pop record such as Idlewild ignored; who fell into and then out of Steely Dan territory with their next two albums (Language Of Life and Worldwide); whose return to Eden's sound for Amplified Heart seemed doomed to failure in the time of grunge - until Missing went ballistic.

EBTG seemed destined to be a band making music just to the left of popular taste.

 

"And sometimes to the right of what was happening," says Watt. "That's when things started to go awry for us. Up until Idlewild, we were making music which was fairly in tune with contemporary pop music and then ... we developed an audience which was large enough to give us the luxury of doing what we wanted. And that was bad for us."

 

In his reedy voice, somewhere between Sting's and that of a London money dealer, Watt - who plays guitar and writes or co-writes most of the music with Thorn - explains that the only solution seemed to be renewing their sound.

 

"We felt that we couldn't make the same album over and over again," he says. "We were getting bored as artists and we felt there was a whole new world of musical influences we should start tapping into.

 

“And Amplified Heart was in some ways a back-to-first- principles record, where we stripped away all the excess production techniques of the previous couple of records, returned to our favourite sounds: Tracey's voice, simple songwriting, strings, double bass, but started to try and incorporate ideas from what we believed the future may be.

 

"We started to experiment a little bit with breakbeats on Troubled Mind and Get Me, and Missing, at the writing stage, was written around a famous loop from a house [a style mixing disco, funk and soul] track from the late '80s right until the mixing stage, where we took that off and programmed the laid-back backbeat for Amplified Heart because that made it sit better with the record."

 

While Amplified Heart dabbled with drum'n'bass (as the pair also did on their collaboration with Massive Attack),

it was still a surprise to see them take up the style so enthusiastically with Walking Wounded. While Watt and Thorn - who are both 35 and have been a couple since 1982 - blossomed, not everyone liked the move.

 

"I just accepted that it was going to be difficult for some people to make that move with us, but I felt we had to make it.

 

“What I wanted to do was to move ourselves into a position where we could effortlessly blend old school with new school techniques to create a new sound where people felt that Tracey's voice felt right in this new circumstance, where we could still bring in acoustic guitars on tracks like Mirrorball or The Heart Remains A Child, but still experiment with cutting-edge drum sounds."

 

The danger was always going to be how to avoid the mistake of Language Of Life - swamping what worked about EBTG, in particular Thorn's voice, in this case with the programmed drums and new sounds.

 

"Minimalism. That's the one-word answer," explains Watt. "I think we realised after the popularity of Amplified Heart, where Tracey was heard for the first time in years singing with no backing vocals - a very simplistic production - we knew we were going back in the right direction, that high production techniques didn't really suit us.

 

"And that was emphasised with the work with Massive Attack, who just provided two of the emptiest, most dub-ridden downbeat tracks for Tracey's voice, and there was this huge amount of space for her and it just sounded so appropriate. And the same technique was applied to Missing, a big empty house track with Tracey's voice just massive.

“So I looked at the recording process as you might look at a jazz quartet: OK, what do we need here? We need a breakbeat, we need a bassline, we need something to state the chords and Tracey's voice. We don't need much else."

 

Simplifying is not just a musical mantra for Watt, though. It is also a life choice. Or to be more accurate, less a choice than an acceptance.

 

In 1992 he was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss Syndrome, an obscure auto-immune disease which feeds off the body's connective tissues. Three times he was declared near death, five times he was operated on. He saw the disease destroy a considerable portion of his small intestine.

 

On the cover of Amplified Heart he looked thin, though far from the almost emaciated figure we saw after he came out of hospital. But with a wasted intestine he will never put that weight back on and the illness may yet return and kill him.

 

In Flipside, from the ironically-named Walking Wounded, Watt prefigures talk about his reassessment of life and music by singing: "London, summer '92, I think I've changed, do you?/Ideas that I'd held for years, emotional baggage, hopes and fears seen somehow in a different light, not as wrong but not as right as they seemed before."

 

"All I'm saying is that [the illness] was like a catalyst for discontent," he says. "In retrospect, after my illness I could see how we were drifting. Flipside is very much an analysis of self-image. It does question the kind of fluctuations in the certainties in our lives.

"We're given this impression as one grows through one's teens and into our 20s that we grow wiser, that we can actually suss out life more. And then we take on a marriage or a long-term relationship, a house, children, a good job and we get more and more sensible. But it's just bullshit, really. There are periods in our lives where we are just incredibly stupid and there are periods in our lives where we do a few perhaps smart moves. I don't think we go through this graph of wisdom.

 

"We do go through endless cycles of reassessment, re-evaluation, repositioning. And I look at my mother, who is in her 70s, who has been completely knocked sideways by the person I've become since my illness. Apart from being knocked sideways by my illness itself. My relationship with her is very weird these days - she seems like a child in her inability to grasp some of the finer points of what's happened to me."

 

Has it made him fatalistic? Or, almost perversely, more optimistic?

 

"It's weird. I have to say it was equal measures of both. I do feel I can manipulate the present and in that sense I am optimistic. I do feel I can be creative and affect my progress in life but, at the same time, I have to accept an intense amount of fatalism in my life because my illness struck me down out of nowhere.

 

"So I run this gauntlet of the two emotions. I know that at any point my illness could strike back and everything that I've built since I've recovered could be washed away. But I have to keep running away from it, keep distancing myself from it just to make sense of my life."

AMPLIFIED SOUNDS

 

EDEN (1984)

Bossa nova and Latinesque jazz in a rainy Sunday afternoon mood. The perfect record to stay inside to.

 

LOVE NOT MONEY (1985)

Johnny Marr-style big chord guitars and shimmering pop melodies make this a bop and singalong pleasure.

 

BABY THE STARS SHINE BRIGHT (1986)

If Owen Bradley returned for a session with pop musicians instead of his old friend Patsy Cline, it could sound like this. It's lush and arranged for fullness in all things.

 

IDLEWILD (1988)

A simpler, almost self-effacing, album, with possibly the band's best songwriting and some poignant images.

 

THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE (1990)

The disappearance of Watt and Thorn as Tommy LiPuma took charge and set the controls for the heart of middle-brow, nondescript pseudo jazz pop. The band's low point.

 

WORLDWIDE (1991)

An excessively pleasant record, with Thorn and Watt seemingly on cruise control and sometimes sounding like an anonymous session crew.

 

AMPLIFIED HEART (1994)

The stripped-back sound reminded us of Eden, but it's not stuck in retro mode, with the rhythm a little more obvious and the hint of things to come. A great return to form.

 

WALKING WOUNDED (1996)

Occasionally wonderful, sometimes undercooked, melding of past and present. More dance-oriented, though in a subtle and still elegant form.

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