Jail Weddings drummer Brian Watson started the 13-piece cinematic jazz band Watts Ensemble after one of those wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if? barstool conversations that almost never go anywhere. With no formal compositional training, he brute-forced the music from his mind and assembled a band out of professional musicians captured on Craigslist. Their first album Crime & Time is out now. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You got into Stravinsky by asking for the punkest classical record—so what is the next punkest classical record?
Brian Watson (drums/composition): What would I call the next punkest classical record? Fuck. I could tell you probably the Andy Kaufman of classical music, which is probably Terry Riley’s ‘In C.’ Don’t get me wrong—I love the piece but it almost feels like it’s daring you to like it. ‘In C’ is typically 45 minutes to an hour long and it’s everyone playing the phrases at the same tempo—but they play it staggered so it creates all these different patterns. It’s an amazing piece. But I’ve shown it to people before and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is driving me insane—I can’t deal with it.’ It’s kind of the same thing with Andy Kaufman. Some people were like, ‘Wow, this is fucking amazing’ and other people were like, ‘I can’t stand this guy.’
If you could carve out a little niche in classical music for yourself, who would you want to be? The Mitch Hedberg of classical music?
As long as I don’t die when I’m 37, that’d be cool. Fucking Mozart died when he was like 33.
Multiple gunshot wounds, right?
A heroin overdose. He did a speedball. One of those old time-y 18th century speedballs.
It’s not really true that you have no musical training, is it?
Not zero, no. When I first started writing I had zero idea what I was doing—I had a keyboard and a lot of time on my hands and that was it. I started hitting a lot of walls where I would hear something in my head but I wouldn’t know how to get that out in the real world. So I started seeking a theory and piano teacher and those lessons were mostly comprised of me coming in with a chord that I really liked and being like, ‘Why do I like this chord?’ ‘You like that chord because it’s augmented diminished blah blah blah’—see? I don’t even remember what it is! The reason I have a hard time is that there’s a lot of math involved and I’ve always been terrible at math. I took drum lessons when I was a kid so I had rhythm knowledge, but here’s the thing—what I’m doing now is all because of fucking technology. I would write shit on my computer and then import it into Sibelius and it tells me this is what it looks like.
So Watts Ensemble is the next step up from using GarageBand?
Totally. I mean—I did read books and I did study. I did what I usually do which is do the bare minimum just to get by—that’s what I did all through high school. I was totally a C student. Just satisfactory, you know?
But you satisfactoried your way into a whole ensemble.
Honestly, when I first started looking for people I was really nervous that…
That someone would call you out?
Yeah, and some people did. My friend Brad—I gave him a copy of the record and he said, ‘Man, it’s a beautiful record but you can tell you don’t know anything about jazz harmony—but beautiful record!’ I loved that because it was so honest—complimentary yet kind of like, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ When I’m writing, I’m just trusting my ear. Just like I would if I was writing on guitar—the way I’m used to writing music. The only reason I had to learn how to do this is when you’ve got 15 people playing different rhythms and different notes, you can’t necessarily show them like you could on a guitar when you’re just part of a three-piece garage band. When I first started I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll just show them the recording and they’ll listen to it and be like, “Oh, yeah—I know what you’re doing right there.”’ Someone was like, ‘You need a conductor!’ and I’m like, ‘Why do I need a conductor? I’m a drummer—I’ll keep the beat!’ The first time we got together a few of the people told me right away—‘I’m not going to be able to do this. This is going to take way too much time.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ It was super painful. I had been listening to pieces that I had mocked up on my computer, and I got human beings together and naturally it’s not going to sound like it does coming out of a sequencer. But I didn’t get it—‘Why doesn’t it sound like this? I wrote the notes, everything was there—I don’t get it.’
What was the problem?
Technically it was still written very, very poorly. I’ve learned a lot. People look at the charts I’ve written and say, ‘This doesn’t makes sense and this would be better this way,’ so I’ve learned a lot just from doing this. I’m super grateful that they have been so patient with me because it would be really easy to be like, ‘This guy, what does he think he’s doing? I’m out of here.’
What makes them stay? This is the complete opposite of the confident visionary band leader.
That might be part of it—since I’m not like that. Practices are usually really fun and we drink beers and joke around all the time—it’s like a normal band that I’m used to being in. I just go out and I buy two 12 packs. I’m going to have to start upgrading to three because halfway through practice they’re gone.
What is the biggest disconnect between you and the band?
I have a feeling that some of them would get a kick out of hearing the Pope and then some of them would not get a kick out of it. But if you’re thinking of something musically, it’s probably my background playing with noisy shitty garage rock bands because I’m pretty sure most of them had not done that.
Is this a DIY band in the sense of Jail Weddings or the Pope or other bands you’ve been in?
Yeah. Everyone is doing this because they want to do it—there isn’t a whole lot of pretense other than I wrote a bunch of music and these people like it and they want to play with me. And we play in a garage and we play in the same places that we did before. Obviously I would love to play at REDCAT but I don’t know if that’s something that’s going to be in our realm or not. I’d be just as happy to play at the Echo. When I first moved into this house, I was like, ‘I’ve got to go check with the neighbors and make sure that they’re cool with my band because we practice on Monday nights.’ So I went next door and the girl’s like, ‘I’m a jazz singer—go for it!’ And the guy across the street was like, ‘I’m a jazz professor.’
Do they come sit outside in lawn chairs?
One of the guys says he opens his windows so he can hear us. It’s like a jazz ensemble garage band, basically. Everyone in the group has a pretty standard background in jazz and classical. I took one of the guys to the Echo not that long ago—I can’t remember what band we saw but it was one of those bands who are super loud and noisy and droney and he turned to me and was like, ‘I’ve never seen music like this before.’ I was like, ‘Really? This is what I’ve been into for the past twenty years.’ I don’t think I knew any of these people before the group. I just put up ads all over the place. It was one of those things where I wanted to see how far I could take it and when it would crumble. When we finished recording, it was like this huge thing was lifted off me. That was the whole milestone that I was building up to because I didn’t know if it would work—I didn’t know if it would come out the way I wanted it to come out.
Is this band taking you different places than Jail Weddings would?
That is something I’ve thought about. One of the hindrances of the band is that it’s so large we can’t play at the Silverlake Lounge—physically we couldn’t play it. But we can’t play the smaller jazz clubs because they’re used to having quartets. That’s one of the major hurdles—it’s hard to find places to play where we can fit.
Where do you feel you fit philosophically?
That’s one thing that I’ve always thought of. The thing is that we’re not straight jazz enough for a normal jazz crowd and I don’t know if we’re too jazzy for the Echo—I don’t think we are. I don’t know what shit’s going to be like in a year. I’ve been talking to one of the dudes at the movie theater about doing a live soundtrack. We were talking about doing Duel.
How would you de-jazz yourselves?
If we all got mohawks.
What films and directors are you thinking of when you write the more soundtrack-style pieces?
I was thinking a lot of—well, at least for the crime stuff, The Conversation and The French
Connection. I was basically just watching Gene Hackman movies.
So Gene Hackman is your muse.
Yeah, he is. I imagine him running around and beating dudes up and the music just comes out of me—that’s all I need. I don’t know. I’m not really sure what my muse was. I wrote a lot of this and I showed it to a friend at work who is like a musical dictionary and he was like, ‘Oh, wow, I can tell you’ve been listening to a lot of Mingus.’ And actually I haven’t listened to a lot of Charles Mingus. I never really listened to Mingus or Coltrane or any of those guys until after I started writing and then I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ That’s something that I think is so awesome about having all these different players and different instruments—the possibilities are as much as you can think of. You can always think of something that’s new—maybe it’s not new for the world but it’s new for you, you know? When I first started off with the pieces they were on paper and we had the computer recordings which were not at all what I wanted them to sound like because it sounded artificial. The song that came out the most different than I imagined was probably ‘Theme to Cold City’ because that’s the kind of song that pulled everyone into it. Because of the way the chords are being formed or something—I don’t really know what it is. That’s one of those songs that I think affects me the most whenever I hear it and whenever we play it. And that’s the thing—having everyone there and having everyone playing in tandem with each other results in that sort of thing. Now whenever I present a new idea, I can tell right away if it’s going to work. Before it was like, ‘Well, let’s just keep trying it.’ And I now I know the way.
So this whole thing is a brute force journey to something really elegant and precise?
Yes. It’s like forcing yourself to do something you don’t know how to do.
Like if a gorilla carved a swan out of a block of ice?
That’s exactly right—it’s the perfect analogy.