Innerviews, music without borders

Kit Watkins
Serenity and Simplicity
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1996 Anil Prasad.

Kit Watkins

Keyboardist and composer Kit Watkins' creativity knows no bounds. He has released a diverse body of solo albums through his label Linden Music ranging from the kinetic to the serene and ambient. He also delves into world music, classical music, environmental sounds, and on rare occasions, pop. In his own words, his new disc, Beauty Drifting, is “a collection of contemplative piano works, generally mellow in flavor, but ranging from dark to light."

Watkins is best known for his work with the American prog-rock band Happy The Man. The act was responsible for creating some of the more expansive instrumental rock of the late ‘70s. Since the group’s break-up, the Virginia native has explored texture, color and imagery in both his music and album art.

His visual output is as diverse as his music. Fusing the surreal and abstract with the organic and earthy, his artwork, rendered on advanced graphics software, adds an additional sense of intrigue to the music. Fan demand resulted in Watkins offering his album art as a series of limited edition prints.

This conversation began by discussing his interest in exploring the romantic and tranquil side of his muse on his latest recording.

Describe the principles behind Beauty Drifting.

Serenity, beauty, stillness, and simplicity were the general guiding principles. It all started when I inherited my father's wonderful Yamaha grand piano. I rediscovered my love for playing a real piano, rather than the electronic or sampled pianos I had to use previously. I spent a lot of time just enjoying the playing of it, as well as the incredible sound and feel of it. Eventually, I started recording some improvisations. I tend towards the contemplative side of things when I play the piano, and decided to create an album of this sort with the piano as the central instrument.

The piano is an interactive musical instrument of a much higher level than most electronic instruments, although my new Yamaha VL1 keyboard is certainly approaching the same kind of level. What most electronic instruments lack is a full range of expression. A good piano has that, and allows you to converse with it in an intimate way. It's very responsive and gives back what you put into it. I have never had that kind of relationship with my sampled pianos, for example. Now, at the same time, I enjoy working with electronics too, but it takes quite a bit more work to create the illusion of a warm, responsive instrument. Each instrument has its place and its optimum application.

You recently chose to sell some albums in micro-runs, priced as pieces of art, rather than as mass-market releases. Describe the paradigm shift you’re pursuing.

Well, it's going to be a very slow paradigm shift, because I'm only gradually working in that direction. The goal is to create most of my CDs one at a time on a CD recorder. My audience is so extremely limited, for a variety of reasons, that marketing in the traditional ways is becoming less and less practical. These CDs are priced quite a bit higher than store-bought CDs, but are of higher-quality, longer-lasting gold media, made directly from the master recordings in my studio. They are much more personal creations, since I'm making them one at a time for each individual customer. I suppose this process is very similar to lithography or print-making in a lot of ways.

I've kicked off this idea with a new Signature Series of CDs, starting with the re-releases of my first two solo albums Labyrinth and Frames of Mind, both of which include bonus tracks not on the original LPs. I'm also making available all of my other releases, most of which are being remastered for improved sound quality. In addition, I'm offering a custom compilation CD in which customers can order a one-of-a-kind CD made with any of the tracks from my 13 CDs—up to 74 minutes of music. They give the CD any title they want, and it will be printed on the booklet, spine, and the CD itself. What I'm working toward is independence from the traditional record business, which is a broken system for those of us who put art before commerce. I may still find it necessary to manufacture limited numbers of CDs for the general marketplace—that decision is yet to be made—but these specialized products will help provide additional support for what I do.

Do you see any risks in taking this approach?

Not really, because I've already accepted the fact that my audience will always be very limited in numbers. I also don't make my living from music—which is actually a healthy thing for me because it allows me to follow my muse without the constraints of commercial expectations—so the risks are virtually nonexistent. And, even though I'm not a starving artist, I do believe my art has value and that I should be paid for my work, so I'm not about to just give away my music—I think that would actually cheapen it.

Do you hope to inspire other musicians to do the same?

That's not my intention, but I do believe that if more of us took a similar approach, the whole idea of broadened pricing structures for music would gain more public acceptance, which in turn could help support those artists who choose to put their music and integrity first.

You've started selling a line of prints of your album covers, too. Tell me about your interest in pursuing that universe.

I've wanted to do this for a long time, and I have the time now, since I'm between recording projects, to focus on the photography and digital art in order to put it in a form that's marketable. Besides being another step in my goal towards independence, it's also a way to help me focus my work as legitimate visual art in its own right.

Compare creating a piece of visual art to sonic art.

Well, it's really so different. With music, the whole aspect of time and flow and movement is what compels me. There are so many changing emotions and feelings that can be conjured up with music, whereas with photography or graphic design, it's more of a singular, static mood that's generally portrayed. I'm drawn to working in visual mediums, but my real love and passion is music. They really do tend to be completely separate endeavors. That's not to say that I'm not thinking about how the artwork for a CD will fit the music contained in it. It's just that the methods I use in each medium are quite different, so one isn't feeding off the other, at least as far as I can tell on a conscious level.

Describe the process of putting together album art, from the inspiration side through to the technical side.

I tend to look through my various photographs on and just experiment with various croppings of a given image. I'll play with Kai's Power Tools or various filters and gadgets in Photostyler or Photoshop, and then maybe try cloning parts of separate images into each other. I did this with the butterfly for Beauty Drifting, superimposing it over the driftwood. This was one of those images that sat for a couple of days in an interim stage—it needed something, and I tried lots of things until finally settling on that sphere around the butterfly. The whole process is really one of trial and error—lots of the latter. I try to keep as many interim versions on the hard disk as possible, so I can go back to previous ideas and try other tangents.

A Happy The Man reunion was in the works recently. What happened?

There just wasn't enough interest from Stanley Whitaker or Frank Wyatt to really make it happen. We were attempting to do it all through the mail, and I really don't think they could adapt to that as easily as I could—partly because neither of them have done that much recording on their own, but also because I think they needed the band atmosphere. So, it probably would have worked if we had all been locked in a room together like in the old days. But, of course, that was totally and completely impossible considering the proximity effect—me living on the East Coast, Stanley on the West Coast, and Frank in Hawaii—each of us bound by his own commitments and newfound interests. I really believe that the only way it could happen is with a pile of money—and I mean a huge pile. It would have to be enough that each of us could risk putting our current careers aside without serious consequences. Now, consider that Arista only sold 8,000 of each LP, and that the CDs have only sold a fraction of that. I mean, it was more likely that we could have a snowball fight in hell. So, there you have it.

One track on Beauty Drifting is a collaboration with Frank Wyatt. Was that a leftover from the reunion attempt?

Yes, but he told me that it was originally an old piece he wrote out in L.A. during the recording of the first Happy The Man album. It’s a beautiful piece.

There's a piece called "Gay Spirit" on 1993’s Kinetic Vapors. Describe the meaning of the title.

Well, it's my not-so-subtle way of declaring myself to be gay—plus, it fit the feel of the tune. I've actually referenced being gay a number of times previously in song titles, but without anyone knowing it, as in the Happy The Man tune "Hidden Moods"—that song being written when I was in the closet, too afraid to come out. Here's another one: "4 Bars - 1 Unit" which was about me—1 Unit—going out to meet men at bars. Of course, there was the expected meaning that "bars" was referring to measures in music, and "unit" was likely an individual note, but nevertheless, there was that other intended, but hidden, meaning. Another kind of funny one is "Over the Andes" which represented my getting over my attachment to various guys named Andy.

When did you come out and what was the impetus for that decision?

It was in early 1976—before Happy The Man got the Arista contract. I had told one or two people and felt really relieved because of their acceptance. Next, I sat down one-on-one with each band member and told them. I also visited my parents and sisters during the same period of time and told them. There wasn't one person who wasn't accepting. Looking back, I realize how lucky I was and how great all my friends and family were.

What sort of liberation did that offer?

Mainly, it lifted the big lie and the big pretense. It took away the constant burden and fear—a lot of completely unnecessary baggage in my relationships with friends and family.

Do you have any advice for musicians who remain in the closet because they're afraid of what negative perceptions could do to their career paths?

Well, I have a lot of opinions about musicians who put their careers ahead of their lives, regardless of what form that takes. For me, it just wasn't worth it to continue expending incredible amounts of energy on a facade, just to make other people comfortable. I never once considered that it might have a negative effect on my career, and it never has. In fact, I looked at it quite the opposite—I felt, and still feel, quite proud to be gay. My advice to any closeted person, whether a musician or not, is to come out right away and live your life with honesty and dignity.

What's your theory on why discrimination—be it related to race, sexual orientation or gender—remains so prevalent despite the “global village” the Internet is supposedly fostering?

Well, there really isn't a global village in the sense of accountability across these lines. In fact, I've seen a lot more hatred and juvenile behavior on the Internet than I've ever seen in person as an adult. It all comes back to a lack of accountability. It's so easy and safe to send hate mail at someone when you know they can't punch you in the face, or when you don't have to deal with even subtler consequences, like seeing the anger or hurt in a person's eyes. I don't think we'd have as many wars, for example, if people had to physically go out and have fist fights with their enemies, rather than just pushing buttons remotely at each other. Concerning discrimination more specifically, it's always a result of fear and is generally learned behavior, reinforced in closed social circles.

Can technology act as a mask for society's deeper problems?

A lot of us tend to think technology can solve all our problems. I probably do this to a certain extent as well. It's difficult not to, when so much has been achieved through technology, and also because we depend so completely on the infrastructure created by it. But, in terms of our social structures, I don't think there's much evidence that we've gained anything from technology—in fact, I think we're more isolated from each other because of technology, which has led to sharply increased tensions. Again, it's the lack of accountability in our interactions.

Fear will always be part of human nature, and discrimination just grows out of that. The solution lies in education at an early age. That's not very likely, though, given parents' increasing polarization about what they think is appropriate for their kids to learn. So, the real solution will probably occur when the Earth's magnetic poles shift and human nature moves to a more feminine inclination.