Ben Watt has been many things over the course of his 20-year-plus career — half of internationally revered British pop duo Everything But the Girl, prime mover behind the acclaimed tech-house label Buzzin' Fly, club DJ, record producer, remixer, author and more. Right now, however, he is just plain tired.
Cleveland is the second-to-last stop on Watt's two-week club tour to promote Buzzin' Fly Volume III, his latest mix CD, and he is starting to feel the burn. He arrives about 20 minutes late (“We couldn't find the place!”) and, at first, begs off Remix's scheduled trip to the record store. He has just flown in from his club dates in New York — the city that never sleeps and apparently doesn't allow anyone else to — in the middle of a sweltering heat wave, and he hasn't had a bite to eat since breakfast some 10 hours previous. With some assurances that it will be a quick, painless trip and a promise to drop him off at a downtown restaurant in plenty of time for him to grab a bite before his gig, Watt checks into his room and drops off his bags. Then it's off to Bent Crayon, Cleveland's finest purveyor of the type of electronic fare that Watt favors these days.
After coming to the dance-music scene on the crest of the “intelligent” drum ‘n’ bass wave that hit the UK in the mid-'90s, Watt has since taken a shine to minimal tech-house, although his tastes are still wide-ranging. Everything But the Girl was primarily a pop group (albeit one with Latin, jazz and R&B leanings), but following Watt's discovery of dance music, the group did an about-face, and he hasn't looked back since. Though his days of recording regularly with partner and vocalist Tracey Thorn are apparently behind him — at least for the time being — Watt hasn't gathered any moss, founding Buzzin' Fly in 2003 and discovering as much dance music as he can since then.
Watt burns his own custom CDs to DJ with and creates his own edits of tracks to get what he wants from the music. For example, he mixes cut-up parts of a cappella tracks from the likes of This Mortal Coil, Björk, Donnie Hathaway and even the Beach Boys over beats, making for a unique sound experience. “I try to make something new out of two things, which is what I always thought DJing was supposed to be about, rather than simply stringing a bunch of tracks together,” he explains.
Despite the technology involved, Watt says that he stays flexible in the booth: “I always have what I call the spine, but then I have little loops and side roads I can travel down if something starts to work well with the crowd, then get back down into the main thrust of where I want the set to go. Too many DJs are simply a conduit for a genre, and it becomes just like a jukebox, and there's no sort of identity to the set. Having said that, I do get very angry when I get to the end of two hours, and there's four tracks that I really wanted to play that I never got around to!”
Even with the success of his second musical career, Watt's new music might be a shock to fans of the classic pop style of EBTG. He maintains that they are far more similar than they might appear. “I still look for the same sort of emotional thrust as I always have from music,” Watt explains. “I'm just looking for them in different environments. When I first started to DJ, I was struck that the intimacy you can have with the dancefloor is identical to the intimacy you can have in pin-drop silence at an acoustic show. When I realized that was the case, I saw that all you're doing is working with different tools.”
With his ear for the emotional, Watt is ready to start digging for vinyl. After a quick word with Bent Crayon owner John Cellura, Watt straps on the headphones and works his way through an ever-growing pile of wax. Once the conversation turns to the tunes at hand, Watt quickly catches his second wind.
Tired? Naw, he's just getting warmed up.
“Lost Paradise” (Kompakt)
The first cut, “Lost Paradise,” has a really nice contemporary Ibiza sunset sound, so I can see that getting played. But the second cut, “37°2” — ooh, I like that. Immediately, there's that element of pathos to it that always grabs me. When you mix the drive and the bass with that sense of dimension, I love that. I would buy it for that track alone, definitely.
Speicher 38 (Kompakt)
It's good, but you've got to be really careful with this stuff when you play because a lot of it has fantastic production, and the bass is so warm, but some of them are so tracky. If you play too many one after the other, you just sort of zone out the audience a little bit. You can see their eyes go. I'm always searching for that record with a slight little chordal modulation or a great breakdown that really catches my ear.
DELIA GONZALEZ & GAVIN RUSSOM
“Revelee” (Remixes) (DFA/Astralwerks)
The Carl Craig mix, that's gorgeous. When it breaks down to that jazzy Rhodes in the middle, it is just great. He's supposed to be doing a remix for Buzzin' Fly. I asked him if there was anything on the label that he would like to do, and he visited our Website and found a spoken vocal track that he liked. I said, “I won't hold you to anything, but if you find some time, just lay it on me.”
Spectral Sound Presents No. 1 (Spectral Sound)
This has that fantastic warm, fuzzy underlay of sound, like what you get on the Los Hermanos records. It needs a bit more edge in the bass or some kind of grit somewhere, but the actual track is very nice. It's a lean-backward record rather than a lean-forward record. But I'll take it because you need those in your box from time to time.
Day Return EP (Kalk Pets)
It's pretty nice, very ambient, almost like a modern version of Brian Eno's Music for Airports, but I'm not sure if I can play it in a club. It sounds like an Everything But the Girl track at the end.
Speaking of which, did you see those records that came out on Playhouse last year, and the sleeve was a photograph of the very first Everything But The Girl single from 1982? I had this bizarre experience when a friend and I were talking about the whole German minimal scene, and we were walking down to Satellite Records in New York, and I said, “Let's go in here and look in the section, and we can see what's going on.” So we march to the back of the store, and there's a big sign that says “Minimal Techno,” and the first record I pull out is this cover with me and Tracey on it! It was like, “What the…?”
Beretta Grey Vol. 1 (Berettamusic Grey)
I like this a lot. It's got that nice bittersweet touch to it underneath the drive. I'd play this out, but not at peak time. It's pretty minimal, but not so minimal that I can't make it work. Some of it verges a tiny bit on the trance side of things, but I like it. Now we're splitting hairs, though! The Keith Kemp track will be a nice antidote because everything I'm playing right now is a bit heavy, and it has a light, summery feel. I need a record like that around.
“What You Say Is More Than I Can Say” (Isolée Remix EP) (Sisterphunk)
I love the production and the swing to it, but I can't stand the voice. It's too druggy for me. I couldn't play something like that. [Flips the record over] Actually, it's growing on me a bit now…. Oh, never mind, I can't take this. There's only so much room on the old shelves, you know?