Innerviews, music without borders

Kit Watkins
Elemental Immersion
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1993 Anil Prasad.

Kit Watkins

To say Kit Watkins has been prolific across the last two years is an understatement. Between 1992 and 1993, the keyboardist and composer has released four albums: Wet, Dark and Low, Kinetic Vapors, Circles, and Thought Tones Volume 2. Each album occupies its own unique sonic environment. Pulsing rhythms, ambient music, global sounds, and natural environments are just a few of the universes Watkins explores on these diverse, innovative recordings.

Prior to pursuing a solo career, Watkins was part of Happy the Man, an American prog-rock act that focused on instrumental works, imaginative arrangements, and wild time signatures. To this day, the band maintains a global cult following. It’s widely considered one of the most intriguing and adventurous bands the U.S. produced within the genre. At one point, Peter Gabriel considered the group as his potential backing band. It’s one of the many intriguing stories Watkins relays in this conversation.

You’ve released four albums in short succession. Take me through the records and the approach you took on each. Let’s start with Wet, Dark and Low.

It was meant to be a fairly rhythmic album and I think I stuck to that notion pretty well. I tended to veer off here and there. I do that with every project though, because I tend to get tired if I'm going to stick to one kind of thing. I think Thought Tones is probably the most successful in terms of staying in one mode. But with Wet, Dark and Low, I wanted to explore a lot of rhythmic things. I've always enjoyed rhythm, in fact, I did an album way back in the early '80s called Frames of Mind and side two of that was a little bit like Wet, Dark and Low in terms of creatively working with rhythm and more open kinds of compositions.

Provide some insight into the making of Circle.

I can tell you about an influence on that one, which is Wendy Carlos' Sonic Seasonings from the early ‘70s. At that time, she was Walter Carlos. It was a double album that he did. It really had an influence on me for that genre—the environmental sounds mixed with music thing. Although I don't think Circle sounds like it, it has a similar approach and, to me, it's not like the new age environmental albums. I was trying to avoid that. That Carlos album was unusual at the time. First of all, it was a double album—each side was one continuous piece. They were just called the seasons of the year: “Spring,” “Winter,” “Fall,” and “Summer.” I wanted to do something like that because I've been living up in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia for years now. I wanted to create something that fit with what I hear up here when I'm out in the woods. I had this portable DAT and was collecting a lot of sounds with it. For a couple of years, I've been collecting thunderstorms, rain, birds, and crickets—all kinds of stuff.

So, the album focuses mostly on your own samples.

Mostly—everything except a few of the owls on there which I purchased from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But some of those I've heard around here. They're just really hard to capture because you have to get them with a shotgun mic.

It sounds like it was a very organic project for you.

It was. I enjoyed doing it. It was several months of assimilating everything that I'd been collecting and putting it all together and making sense of it all. I did several long pieces and then I cross-faded them together so the entire thing would be continuous. I'm very pleased with the results. It's a reflection of what it's like out here in the mountains in terms of getting back to nature. I think a lot of people miss that. They don't have the luxury. A lot of people in the cities don't hear silence. It's not totally silent on there, but there are a lot of passages where it's just crickets or just what's going on with water or something like that. I really value that so much now that I'm up here. I can't imagine living away from it. I used to always be in Arlington, which is right outside Washington, D.C. with Happy the Man, or I was in London with Camel and just out and about all the time. I've kind of settled down now. I was definitely not in any kind of environment like this.

Kit Watkins

Kinetic Vapors strikes me as an album that balances many of your musical leanings.

I was exploring a lot of things I had. I always like to try going into different territories. With this one, I was trying to do some more with the flute because I've played flute since I was in fifth grade, so I thought I'd experiment with that some more. I've got several pieces that the flute's prominent on or, at least, it's part of the orchestration. Also, I wanted to use some more live instruments, so I've got some live percussion here and there rather than just sampled stuff. I didn't have a particular direction on this album, which is kind of strange, because I usually establish one in advance. For this one, I was just doing a bunch of pieces and it wasn't until six months in that I thought I had something. They fit together, even though they weren't planned to originally.

Describe the creative process that informed Kinetic Vapors.

I generally look at one piece at a time. I have an idea and I work on it and I tend to work on it from start to finish. Each piece on there was done that way, but there's a different emphasis on each one. For example, the first track is very much just a rhythmic piece with quirky sounds. It's meant to be silly but interesting to listen to. It had a certain approach. It doesn't necessarily start out that way when writing, of course. With that one, it started out with just that log drum, which is the first thing you hear on it. That piece is very much a sound piece, it's not so much compositional where I'm writing a chord structure in a pattern. It's much more based on sound, so that one I would add things to and loop ideas so that a cymbal crash or a particular sound might repeat every 45 seconds.

You can make these things so that there's some random elements to it. In fact, that's one of the Brian Eno influences in there, because he uses random stuff. For the second piece, it was completely different. It was a chord pattern that I played on the keyboard and then I worked out how I was going to re-orchestrate it for the final piece. That one was much more based on a musical idea rather than a sound idea. So, each piece has a different approach and structure. Sometimes, I'll approach one from a very improvisational point of view as opposed to a planned-out point of view and there are a couple there like that. "Nodes," which is the second-to-last piece, is like that. It's got sort of a jazz feel, but it's really just totally improvised. Sometimes, I'll take something I've improvised and take the sequence to build a structure from it, which is kind of interesting to do because you get the original spark when you play something that isn't planned or preordained. It's just a natural kind of thing that occurs. Then you can use that to structure music from. I like that because it provides more of a fresh sound to the piece.

Contrast that with how you put together the Thought Tones albums.

Well, those aren't writing. Those are just finding sounds and doing things with them. Each one is done differently, again. The first volume has three pieces that have a lot of processing, the first tone, the third one, and the fifth one. Each of those were actually other sounds that were run through digital processors that add notes to them and things like that. For example, the first one is a thunderstorm on tape which was actually some of the sound that I was going to use for what eventually became Circle. In fact, I was working on what was going to be Circle, but I got sidetracked with Thought Tones. But then I didn't get back to it for a couple of years. When I was doing Thought Tones, I was running things through processors and creating these chord washes that were just sort of going on. It's sort of analog meets digital because the sounds, like when the thunder would hit, would make the chord louder and would change the tone of it. It was a combination of organic and digital stuff going on.

The intent was that each piece would have a drone character. Later, I figured out what I would call it and how I would characterize it. Once I started discovering the drone aspect of what was occurring, then I immediately went into that direction because that really did something for me. I liked the way it sounded. When it started out, these drones were going to be underneath and they were going to be subtle. They were going to be under the crickets or under the rainstorms or whatever—they were going to be things that just came in and out. They weren't meant to be by themselves, but in the process of working, I would take the storms out and the rain and stuff and end up just listening to those tones. They sounded so much more interesting without all that high-end noise, which is what rain is. That's when I started getting into the direction that was Thought Tones.

Another recent album you’ve worked on is Coco Roussel’s Reaching Beyond. Provide a snapshot of the making of the disc.

We've known each other for a long time and we used to gig together. Of course, he was in Happy the Man the last year before we broke up. The process was interesting. Coco wrote all the stuff and he would send me cassettes of how he mixed them on his modest system at home and then he would send me sequencer disks that are compatible with my system. I would reassign all the sounds to some of my samplers and various keyboards, then I also added a bunch of parts, because he needed solos here and there and other keyboard contributions.

Give me an overview of the technology you use to make music at the moment.

I'm impressed by how they've got all the devices talking to each other through MIDI. That has opened up a lot of doors for me because I like working alone. Ever since I was a teenager, I was in bands all the way up through when I was 30 when I left Camel. MIDI really opens up the possibilities for doing creative work with a lot of different sounds and multitrack systems, much like the way a band does it, except without having to argue with each other. [laughs] So, it's wonderful.

Samplers are the latest thing for me. I got one about two years ago which I couldn’t have done Circle without. It's called a Roland S-770. It can record CD quality-sound and transpose it and do everything with it and still sound wonderful. With Circle, I recorded these long passages of crickets and things and looped them, so you don't really hear the loop at all because it was too long a period before it repeats again and something else is changing anyway. You can really construct lots of different things. A sample doesn't have to be orchestra hits or things like that. It can be really long stereo digital sounds comprising anything. The thing about the sampler is it's sort of like a chameleon. You tell it you want to do certain things and it'll do those things because it can record any sound. So, anything is possible, within limits. Ever since I bought a sampler, I haven't even needed to buy new keyboards for my system because it covers so much territory. Instead, I end up buying new sounds or spending a lot of time recording my own sounds. I definitely like to use new sounds and avoid using the same ones over and over.

How do you look back at your days with Happy the Man?

I look back at the band not just as the music, but as a life, because we were really like a family. With any family, you have your good times and your bad times. I don't look back on it and think I'd like to be there again, because I've moved on and am more comfortable now. I was always working factory jobs. The music is what kept it all together and I think it was pretty strong. On the other hand, the music doesn't do it very much for me now because it was such a different stage of my life, and also because we played it so much. To hear it again isn't refreshing to me. Rather, it's regressive. There are some pieces I still think are very timeless, especially some of the ones that Frank Wyatt wrote. Sometimes when I hear those I get a little nostalgic for the way I felt about the music and the emotional side of it.

Happy the Man was never trying to compete with anybody, so we had our own world to ourselves. That's why it was a cult thing. It’s interesting, the original intent of Happy The Man when Arista took interest was to get us doing a soundtrack. They were trying to get us to do the soundtrack to Star Wars, which, of course, would have been a joke because we weren't writing orchestral music like John Williams was. At the time, we didn't even know what the movie was. We heard about it a year before it was out. There was all this "Well, maybe we can find a movie for them to do" talk. They knew that having our music in a movie might make it more accessible.

Everyone assumes the band’s name came from the Genesis b-side. I understand that’s incorrect.

It really didn't. It's a very strange thing. When we started the band, it was in early 1973. The guitar player's brother was going to be the sound engineer. He was a year or two older than Stanley Whitaker. He named the band. He was taking some courses on the great books like the Bible, Goethe's Faust and some of these other big books. There was some phrase, "Happy the Man who..." this that and the other that was used over and over in one of these books and that's where he got it from. It's really odd because we didn't even know about the Genesis song until about a year later. We were doing a gig somewhere and this kid came up and he said, "What about this Genesis song? Are you using that for your name?" We never heard of it before. We were amazed because we were such big Genesis fans, but we never heard the track because it wasn't on one of the albums. So, eventually we got a copy of it and heard it and it amazed us that our favorite band had a song called that. It seemed real strange and it still seems strange. I don't know how it happened. They didn't know us and we didn't know them. We didn't know about the name and they didn't know about our name.

There was once a jam session with Peter Gabriel and Happy the Man in 1975. Tell me the tale.

It’s true. He was searching for something to do after leaving Genesis and in the process he was bopping all over the world trying different musicians out. We were one of the groups that he tried out. It came about because our manager knew somebody. I don't know how the contact was made, but Peter heard some of our music and he wanted to come over and try playing it, and see how it would go. The original idea was that we would back him as his band and we would also open up the sets for gigs. We'd open up as Happy the Man and then he would come out and we'd be the back-up band for him. I don't think that really would have worked too well because obviously we would be more interested in being who we were. We didn't want to just be Peter Gabriel's backup band. We had our own music. We felt very strong about that. We had been writing it for years. We really wanted to be Happy the Man. So, we didn't like that idea and I don't think he liked it either, so I think that's probably one of the reasons it didn’t happen.

There’s another part to it as well. His first album ended up almost totally different from Genesis. When we were working with him for just that one day on his new music, they came out sounding like Genesis. I was using the Hammond. Stanley had a guitar that sounded a little bit like Steve Hackett. It was funny because we didn't sound all that much like Genesis before that. But when we were working with Peter, we did, because we were working on his songs. I think he didn't like that, either. He wanted to sound different. He wanted a different thing, so he got a whole different group of musicians together that didn't sound anything like Genesis. But it was a real nice time. It was very cordial.

What went through your mind when you first jammed with Gabriel?

We were blown away as soon as he opened his mouth and started singing. It was like, "God, there he is—the guy we've been listening to all these years on these records and went to see live a few times." It was really wild. We drove a long way in the car. We got there and talked a long time. I remember at the time he was raving about Bruce Springsteen. He loved Springsteen. He liked Springsteen’s energy. Ever since then, when I hear him sing, I hear him trying to sound like Springsteen. He does—he tries to get this really guttural, kind of deep sound that Springsteen has. I know that's where he got it. He's influenced by the guy. There are places on his first album where he was doing that, so it's interesting.

Are there tapes of the jam?

There was a tape that we made when it happened. I don't know what happened to it. It wasn't with Peter singing, though. There was tape of the piece we were working on called “Slowburn” from his first album. The jam happened in a warehouse. It didn’t sound very good.

What made you want to revisit the band’s early and latter day recordings on the Beginnings and 3rd Better Late albums?

I was involved with them because I had the tapes. I like some of that music, although not so much Beginnings because that was pretty early, Some of it’s okay. But I like some of the pieces on the 3rd Better Late album. That was the very last stage of the band and I think that's some of the best material even though it wasn't the best produced because we didn't have any money. I think some of the pieces that Frank wrote are just wonderful, like "At the Edge of This Thought" and "Chrome Yellow Shine." those two are my favorites.

Would you ever consider working within the rock realm again?

Never in a million years. I don't have any interest in rock music. The closest I get to it is some rock-ish rhythms on some of my own albums, but they're never in a typical rock format. My interests changed. I burned out on rock. I found other things that intrigue me more.

What advice do you have for other musicians pursuing an uncompromising path?

That's a tough one, because in the past, the advice I've given has been "Don't!” [laughs] What I really mean is don't try to do it with the thought of making a living—that's the main thing I tell people. It's a really nasty thing to say because it takes all their hopes out of it. At the same time, it's realistic because doing left-of-center music is not a money-making business. The few people who get away with it are the lucky ones and there are not very many of them. Brian Eno broke through because of his connections, particularly when he was with Roxy Music. He had a place to start. I had a place to start because of Happy the Man. I had a certain base following. It was small, but it was there. It's not easy to start from absolutely zero when you're doing something like this. Anyone that does want to do it has to believe in themselves, and in the end, that's all that really matters.