Patrick Watson : Q&A

<img src="https://www.qromag.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/patrickwatsoninterview.jpg" alt=" " />In between tours of Quebec and Europe, Montreal’s Patrick Watson sat down and talked to QRO....

  In it, Watson talked about touring, why smaller places like northern Quebec are great to play, why New York’s great to play, too (QRO live review), why Holland’s the best, why the rest of Canada’s hard, making his Polaris Prize-nominated album, Close To Paradise, why music awards are weird, the band’s plans for Europe & the States, working with The Cinematic Orchestra, playing acoustic in any and all circumstances, tipping their van in Fargo, and what he learned from the hardest working man in show business…

QRO: Where have you been touring most recently?

Patrick Watson: We’ve been touring like crazy.  Our last tour was a festival run – we did all of Europe, all of Holland, all the festivals all over Europe [Lowlands, Pukkelpop, Big Chill, others].  We did a bit of time with Besnard Lakes (QRO photos), that was fun, in Holland.  Then we came back to Quebec, and did the north of Quebec – You know the thumb goes from Quebec?  Near Newfoundland, this incredible island, we did three dates there, then we came down Quebec, really gorgeous.  We’ve got one more show in Montreal, then we head off to Europe again.

It’s been really good, all the touring.  We’ve gotten good responses from all the territories.  We missed Glastonbury this time because we’d already toured for three months, and couldn’t make it back out there.  We’ve been pretty much on the road since last January, pretty straight.

QRO: You’ve also toured with Lonely, Dear and Elvis Perkins…

PW: Lonely, Dear is excellent (QRO photos).  Elvis Perkins was amazing (QRO photos).  That show was a really fun show.  They got a great chemistry, a bunch of great guys.  A really good band, and then also they’re really nice, and we all get along, we all have a good time.  It makes the biggest difference on the road.  We’ve always been pretty lucky so far, who we’ve played with, and gotten along really well, had a really good time.

They’ve always been different, too.  We did it with Feist (QRO album review).  The last time we were in New York, we did this fundraiser for the Film Co-Op.  Philip Glass was playing that night.  It was pretty heavy, Lee Renaldo [of Sonic Youth].

QRO: Are there any places in Europe you’re really looking forward to going to?

PW: We really enjoy Holland.  Holland’s one of the places that you just go to that’s really enjoyable.  It seems like, of all the countries, in terms of its infrastructure, how it works, is the probably built on the most common sense I’ve ever seen.  It’s really nice to tour there, the people we work with there are really enjoying themselves.  It’s not very stressful.

I mean, England’s fun, it’s a bit more stressful, the gigs, though.  It’s not as well organized, it’s crazier, so it takes a bit more energy out of you.  Germany we’re just getting used to, it’s pretty new, but Berlin is a really interesting city.  It’s a neat place, too.  It’s fun going to countries like Germany that are going through a transition, really redefining itself in a lot of ways, and it’s really exciting seeing places like that.  And I’ve always loved Paris.

There are a couple big places, and then there’s always little small town surprises that are always excellent.  We generally probably enjoy small town shows more than big city shows, because it’s just a bit more chill, people are a bit more thirsty for music, anyways, whereas, if you come to big cities like New York, people are still great audiences, but they see a lot of music.  It’s different playing for people who see a lot of music and people who are just so happy to hear music.

We were just in northern Quebec.  We’d have people from sixteen to seventy there at the show.  We have really weird, loud noise sections, and they still stayed around.  It was quite a diverse crowd, but I think the thing about Quebec in general, the north of Quebec, is they’re extremely well-educated, musically; they love music.  So if we do odd time signatures, and stuff like that, we have audience reaction, they clap it out.  You’re like, ‘Really?’  It’s really quite interesting; they like it when you get experimental, they love that.  People you would expect to be afraid of that, they’re super-up.

Each different place has a different charm.  New York is really fun to play because, when you get on stage, it’s 110% from the get-go.  You can’t take your time, almost.  You have to give a hundred-ten to get it done here.  You can’t ease into a show, you have to really be there, present.  So that’s a big difference.

QRO: How much have you played the rest Canada, outside of Quebec?

PW: We’ve done a bit.  We haven’t done a lot.  We’ve done Quebec and Europe more than we’ve done the rest of Canada.  But the rest of Canada doesn’t have big cities.  It’s tough to tour, because it’s so far apart, so it’s expensive to tour, and they’re not big cities.  In Europe, you drive two hours, you’re in another city, in Canada, you drive seven or eight, minimum.  It’s a tough place to tour to begin with, financially.

We haven’t done it a lot, but we’ve done Toronto a couple of times, we’ve done the west coast.  We’re going to do the east coast soon, I think for the first time.  Newfoundland is supposed to be one of the most amazing places.  People there are supposed to be like, you walk down the street, and they’ll be like, “Come over for dinner” – and they don’t even know you.  I’ve heard it’s just outstanding.  I’m really stoked.  The place I’m probably most excited to see in Canada right now is Newfoundland.  I’m pretty psyched.

We got to see the north of Quebec, so I got that off the box.  I like the north; I like places that are kind of isolated and small.

QRO: Have you ever thought about going to Nunavut [far northern Canada]?

PW: I haven’t yet, because we’ve got so much territory to cover right now, but I’m sure we’ll go up there.  We get a kick – I really like going to obscure, small places.

QRO: How much have you done of the United States, outside of the northeast?

PW: We did the whole thing once, with Elvis.  Not so much the west coast, we stopped at California, we didn’t do Portland or Seattle, but we did like half of the horseshoe, almost, so we went down to the Deep South.

QRO: How was that?

PW: It’s amazing down there.  It’s amazing when you don’t know, you’ve never been there before, and what you kind of think it’s going to be like.  And then when you go there and you actually see what it’s really like – It’s kind of mind-blowing, it’s like living in a movie there.  When the waiter calls you ‘Sweetie-Pie’ or ‘Sugar’ – There’s something so homey about it. 

I was so happy and surprised by the South.  I was so excited to go there.

But you’ve gotta think about how almost three-quarters of the roots of music we play today come from there.

  Minimum half, to three-quarters, basically taking what was born there, and doing it our own way.

QRO: A lot of Canadian musicians are having visa issues, getting into the States.  Have you?

PW: Oh yeah.  But I’m a dual-citizen [born in California].  I always used to try to sneak the musicians over the border, until we got finally caught, and then we stopped doing it.  ‘Cause I used to drive all the gear, because I’m American.

You’ve gotta be careful when you cross.  We just learned that you can’t lie, just work at getting your visas; it’s just petty not to.  It’s tough, the U.K. and U.S. border, you have to have all your papers.  You’ve got to be really organized.  Anywhere else, except for the U.K. in Europe, is relaxed and pretty gentle, except for maybe Russia.

The only two, three places I can think of, that I’ve been to, in terms of the Western world, are those three places.  It’s ridiculous to go through those borders.  It’s over the top.

But we went though yesterday they were laughing and making jokes.  We were actually surprised.  It depends; everybody’s got to do their job.  That’s why it’s just better to do your papers and stuff like that.

QRO: Your second upcoming European tour is going to be with The Cold War Kids.  How did you get in touch with them?

PW: I think we’re on the same [European] label, V2.  We ran into them the first time in Dallas, when we were touring with Elvis.  Elvis had toured with them, so there’s common links there.  From what I got, they’re really nice guys.  I don’t know them super-well yet, but we’ll get to know each other pretty quickly.

QRO: What was the recording process like for Close To Paradise?

PW: Very mixed type of process and productions.  The thing is, I’ve worked with Jace Lasek six, seven years.  I like that mix.  There’s different types of production: you’ve got live, on the floor, type of production, you’ve got electronic production, and then you have tracking production.  These are three very different processes.

We try to have drums, bass, and piano live, off the floor, and we try to travel to different studios, and we’d been in abandoned churches, country houses, country inn…  We basically had an abandoned church two years ago.  We had it for two months, a giant, fifteen thousand square foot church that some guy just lent to us.  It was kind of broken and abandoned.  It was pretty crazy.

So I record a lot of those sessions like that.  Things we needed at the end, we went to a studio and touched up the things that needed.  We recorded one of them in a loft here in New York, when we started, whole mikes…  But if you use whole mikes, you just have to make sure, in terms of your mixing set-up, you have to compensate for that.  So when you mix, if you did a lot of home computer recording, it’s good to send it through board, you get it out of your G-bass, split all your channels.  There’s tricks to record cheap, and then you got to put a bit more money into your mixing.  That’s how you can compensate.

But there’s a lot of different things, a lot of different styles of production on this record.  We kind of steal from everywhere.

QRO: How did it differ from making your last album, Just Another Ordinary Day?

PW: It’s really more of a band, live off the floor.

QRO: Was Ordinary Day mostly just you?

PW: Yeah, I did tracking it, really not playing it live.

QRO: Do you have new, post-Close material?

PW: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

QRO: Do you play any of it live?

PW: We do sometimes; I think tonight, we’ll probably play a new one.

Usually when we change records, we change sounds completely, so we change our sound set-up as well.  So right now, we run a couple of ‘em as test for songwriting and arrangement-wise, but I think they’ll be a lot different once we get the proper orchestration for them.  We’re trying to do a really rhythmical record, the next record – a lot of percussion, really fast, more like an action film.  So it’s gonna take us a while, I think, to develop it, to finalize what we’re going for, but we came close a couple times.  It’s really exciting.

QRO: Does that mean when you play, you have to play from the record you’re playing?  Like now, you have to play from Close To Paradise, you can’t play from Just Another Ordinary Day?

PW: Just Another Ordinary Day just wasn’t very good songs for live.  It didn’t translate well, live, and it’s probably a reason why, when we tracked this record, we really came from more of a live approach.  ‘Cause it was boring to play them live.

Now, when we build songs, we build them thinking about both.  A tune, live, how it works on-stage, works very different in the studio.  And if you do too many studio tunes, you get live, you’re bored with the new songs.  It’s about finding a kind of balance.

QRO: When do you think you’ll be back in the studio?

PW: Oh, we started already.  We’ll do little sessions.

QRO: Who is ‘Tom’ of “Mr. Tom”?

PW: He’s a guy from New York, a painter from New York.  We stayed in his loft for a month, when we did that song.  He’s this crazy guy who lived downstairs.  He just became one of our really close friends over time.  We’d hang out in the studio all the time.

QRO: Is there a ‘Mary’ of “Mary”?

PW: That was based on a friend of mine’s dream.  She was trying to find me, and she got to this place, it’s kind of a direct translation.  She’s trying to find me, and then she gets to this place, and she’s freaking out – long story…  Anyways, it’s kind of based on that.


QRO: Close To Paradise was just nominated for Canada’s Polaris Prize, but it’s up against some pretty stiff competition (Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, The Besnard Lakes’ The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse, The Dears’ Gang of Losers, Feist’s The Reminder, and others).  What do you think your chances are of getting your hands on that $20,000?

PW: Oh, 69.25%…

It depends though, you know.  It’s definitely an award not for record sales.  It’s a musical award.  We’re probably the most mixed, instrumental and pop band.

But who knows?  Music awards are weird.  All those records do very different things, but all those records, you kind of need in your life.

  So one’s not really better than the other.  Something like Arcade Fire pumps you up, something like Feist is nice songs, nice voice, something like ours, you put headphones on, go for a walk or a drive.  So all these records have really different purposes and listeners; to compare them is kind of useless.

[Update: Close To Paradise won the Polaris Music Prize, and the $20,000 – Canadian, which is more than $20,000 American these days…]

QRO: You’re also up for six of Quebec’s GAMIQ Awards, and were nominated for a Juno [Canadian Grammy] for “Best New Artist”.  What have you taken away from all of these Canadian music award nominations?  Do you have a big head yet?

PW: It’s really weird.  Part of the Polaris Award is kind of crazy, ‘cause it’s money.  The other ones, you don’t really think about it.  Picking out music awards is impossible to do; you can’t pick what’s the best music.  It’s the most abstract thing in the world.  So even if you pick, you know, it’s an abstract decision; it means nothing.  It’s different people’s opinions.  I don’t even read critics, even if it’s good critics, on my record, either.  I just kind of stay away from that whole thing.  That’s for other people to enjoy.

[Update: Patrick Watson swept the GAMIQ Awards, winning Arist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, and Best Indie Pop Album]

QRO: How much state support do you and other Canadian musicians really get?

PW: A lot.  We get quite a lot for touring.

It takes a while.  Once you start getting funding, it works, and it continues funding, but at first, it’s difficult to get.  Well, it’s not difficult, but this project’s always been pretty lucky with that.  I’ve gotten lots of state funding.

But the thing is, there’s no music labels in Montreal that really work.  I can’t really imagine it, doing without it – How would you tour?  You get $100 a show, and you have to rent a van, and six guys have got to eat.  There’s just a reality of starting a music project.  A lot of people who are in cities like New York, or in Europe, have labels, so that when they start doing well, labels just picks them up and pays for it.  But we didn’t really have that many options in Montreal, in Canada, so I didn’t see how it would really work without it.

But we did a lot before.  I’d done loads of touring before that.  I racked up a big debt before, but then once I started getting funding…  But you still have to find a way, at first.

QRO: Is it weird in Montreal, ‘cause it feels like the Montreal scene has blown up in the past few years?

PW: No…  The thing is, all the bands are really different.  It’s not a lifestyle scene, it’s not like Seattle, where Seattle’s more of a lifestyle; it sold a ‘lifestyle’ of music. 

Montreal is just a place that has good music.  We have a really good bunch of different bands, so even if it blows up, there’s always a different band that sounds completely different, that’s not ‘in tune’ with the Montreal sound.

If you look at all the bands from Montreal, none of them sound alike: Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Besnard Lakes, Land of Talk – they’re all real different.

It’s so different than what people think it is.  There’s not a Montreal ‘scene’, necessarily.  We all know each other, but we’re not all together, we’re not selling a lifestyle.  It’s not the same thing as a Seattle or wherever…

QRO: Do you ever sing in French?

PW: I just started now.  The first time I did it, was that island show, I found a song.  Tough.  It’s a different type of phrasing.  It’s hard to get your mouth around the words in the same type of way.

We speak in French in interviews.  For an English band, we have a really good relationship with our French audience.  We have a bigger French audience than an English audience in Quebec.  They’re the first ones to get on board, ‘cause they love experimental things, things that are different, so we’re really up their alley, no matter what language we speak.

QRO: Are any of you guys Québécois, French-Canadians?

PW: Simon [Angell, guitar] would be the closest one.  [Mischka Stein, bass] is Russian, and [Robbie Kustler, drums] is Swiss, from Switzerland.

QRO: With all of this Canadian press, and European exposure, what are your plans for the States?

PW: What’s going to happen, I think right now, with touring the states, is we’re just trying to get Europe on the go right now.  When we get to the next record, then we’re going to pile on the States.

You can’t do the whole world at once, so right now we’re trying to do Europe.  I think we’ll do Europe, some of the big cities – but we’re not going to go crazy on it – and then, by the time we get to the next record, then we’re gonna really hit up the States.

QRO: Close To Paradise is coming out on September 25th, in America.  Do you think you’ll support for that?

PW: Right now, we’re just gonna do one thing at a time.  We’re just getting Europe going.  You have to prep the States for like six months to a year.

QRO: Has Close To Paradise come out in Europe yet?

PW: It’s just coming out now.  Right now, that’s our main concern.  The States is a complicated place; it’s huge.  It’s not an easy place to break.  I don’t want to do it on the cheap.  I want to do it when we can really do it.

QRO: Why so long between the Canadian and American release dates?

PW: ‘Cause there’s no point in just ‘throwing’ a record out.  You can’t just release a record.  When you put a record out now, it’s quite difficult.  You have to make sure you tour the place at least once.  You gotta make sure that you can get it in the stores, or you’re gonna spend a bunch of money for nothing, make no money back, and just lose money and get discouraged.  It’s better to be patient when you do things, and do it right, than just rush.

Thank god we did that.  We learned because at [our label] Secret City, the guy is really smart.  We’re lucky to have him on our team, because he really understood the process of releasing a record. 

If you’re a band, you don’t just throw out a record for the sake of throwing out a record.  You should wait, and prep it properly.

QRO: How did you end up writing & working on Cinematic Orchestra’s Ma Fleur (QRO review)?

PW: Because I played hockey on the Ninjatunes [label] hockey team.  I played goalie there, and the owner, they’d been looking for a singer for a couple of songs, they took my CD and they just called me up, came over.  I did some co-writing, laid some tracks down, and that’s it.

 With Cinematic OrchestraQRO: Are you not playing anymore with them?

PW: I like them, they’re all really nice guys, we get along, but it’s not really my kind of thing.  I’d much rather play on my own project.  It’s more fun.

I do it sometimes, when I get the chance – I like to see the guys.

QRO: Your first solo record, Waterproof9, was an accompaniment to the underwater photography of Brigitte Henry.  How and why did that come about?

PW: We met, and then she just asked me.  One day, she was like, “Wouldn’t it be fun if you did music in my book?”  And I was like, “Oh, that’ll be fun.”  She just gave me an image per week, and I’d write a song per week.

It was fun, ‘cause it also helped me find a way of writing.  Before, I wasn’t writing to visuals.  Then, when I had the pictures, it helped me devise my way of songwriting.  I learned how to do it that way, and all of that was really good.

We’d do like a song a week, she’d give me a picture and we’d finish it, over like two months, really intensive.  That’s how this project started.  We were very much more instrumental, visual type of shows before, and then we started being simpler, and we’ve been enjoying this kind of playing tunes, without the visuals.  We’ll probably go back to back to a little more of the multimedia stuff a little later.

QRO: You toured with the late, great James Brown?  What was that like?

PW: It was an amazing, live, James Brown.  It’s James Brown.  We got along really well with the band – Those guys were great.  I think we learned lots of lessons about how he had a certain generosity to him, how he plays shows.  He kind of made the audience a fifth member.

For example, every show would be different: he’d call all the arrangements by his fingers.  So if he goes like this [holding up two fingers] would mean like a very specific fill, or go to the chorus, or go to the verse.  He’d watch the audience, and instead of him directing the audience, he would wait for the audience to get ready, get really excited, and then, as soon as he’d see them get really excited, he’d call it, and BOOM!  He’d hit ‘em.  The audience started really feeling part of the show, because of that, which is great.

I learned a lot about what it is to be a frontman.  If you’re generous about it, it’s a really great thing that happens onstage.  So I learned a lot from that.

QRO: How did you meet Simon – and what happened to your ska band, Gangster Politics?

PW: Well, I had to do ska – it was our first band.  I’ve known Simon since I was eight years old.  We came from the same little small town.

 Simon Angell sittingQRO: Do you know why Simon plays sitting down?

PW: Yeah, because it’s really hard to do the things he does, a lot of pedal board things.

We’re still an instrumental band, in a lot of ways.  We move when we feel like moving.  We’re not like someone who tries to put on a show.  You can play the guitar a lot more intricately when you’re sitting down.

He stands up when he gets excited, when he solos, sometimes, he stands up, but he’s doing all sorts of weird, prepared, guitar stuff.  There’s no point in standing up just for the sake of standing up, unless you enjoy that.

QRO: How did you meet Mischka and Robbie?

PW: At music college.  We were basically a musical ensemble.  The band’s actually our musical ensemble since college, since we were twenty-one.  We’ve been playing together for six, seven years.

QRO: When did you decide to pick up the accordion – and why?

PW: It’s close enough to a piano that it’s exciting, but it’s not too much of a drag to haul around.  I like the sound.

I try to pick up as many instruments as I can.  I’m not good at guitar, so…  It’s backwards for a piano player; it’s really fucked.  The spacing is in four’s, not chromatic.  We do a lot of sound research.  I’m sure the next record’s gonna have lots of interesting ones.

 AcousticQRO: Live, you often perform some songs acoustic.  Is it hard, making it happen in not necessarily ‘acoustic-friendly' places?

PW: No, it’s exciting – It’s even more fun.  The biggest room we’ve done it, with no microphones at all, seated 3,500.  We did it in London Symphony Orchestra, where we did the Cinematic gig.  That was designed for orchestra, so there were good acoustics.

Outdoor festivals, we’ve put two acoustic mikes, off the stage a bit, so it picks up a bit, so when we do the big outdoor shows, we do that.  That works out really well.

So we’ve found ways of doing it, but that’s what makes it exciting for the audience member, ‘cause you’re like, ‘Fuck!  If this doesn’t work, they’re in deep shit…’  That’s what makes it fun.

QRO: Are there any songs you really like playing live?

PW: It changes on the night.  It depends how you feel, and your mood.  Every song changes, and we change a lot of the arrangements live.

“Giver” has always been really good.  “Weight of the World” is probably the most still fun song to play, ‘cause it gets all free at the end, you get to make crazy noises.  That never starts to lose its charm, for some reason.  It’s always the most fun song to play.

QRO: Are there any songs you don’t like playing live – or just don’t play anymore?

PW: “Daydreamer” we never play, ‘cause it wasn’t fun live.  But it depends on the night – Who knows?…

QRO: You’re going to be playing at Montreal’s Osheaga Music Festival this Saturday.  How does playing outdoors, in festivals and the like, compare with playing indoors, at ‘regular’ shows?

PW: Well, it’s a different set.  It’s always more rock ‘n’ roll, outdoor.  You end up playing more rock ‘n’ roll.  Big crowds, it’s more of a party atmosphere; it’s not an indoor club.  It’s a very different type of show.

QRO: What have been some of your favorite cities to play?

PW: Reykjavík, Amsterdam, Quebec City is really good…  Well, I love New York – it’s always been kind of a second home to me.  Those are my top ones.

QRO: Have things really changed for you, since Close To Paradise came out?

PW: Well, we’re professional touring musicians now.  That’s a pretty big lifestyle; you miss your girlfriend a lot.  It’s a big change.  You’re always away.

We’re getting used to it; that’s a pretty big change, always being on the road.  You adapt your whole lifestyle around that.  There’s tough things about it, there’s great things about it, but it’s a hell of a lifestyle change.

QRO: Have you ever lost instruments?

PW: We tipped our van and lost instruments out of our window after our van crashed.

QRO: Your van crashed?!?

PW: We crashed in Fargo, actually, right on the highway where he [Steve Buscemi in the movie Fargo] buried the money.  We rolled over there; we had guitars hanging out of the windows.  That’s about as close as we got.  Some stuff was broken.

QRO: You never lost anything flying?

PW: No, but you’re gonna jinx us, [knocks on wood] and I’ll be really pissed off that you jinxed us!!!  And I’ll make sure I’m gonna call you when we lose stuff, too, I’ll be like, “Now that you’ve jinxed us!”

QRO: Do you have any favorite tour stories?

PW: Tipping in Fargo and getting picked up by this great guy called Tony, in this little jeep, it was just me and him.  We ate dinner with his crazy mother, with our van, squashed like a sandwich.  That was a great tour story.

Touring with James Brown, being in Amsterdam, going out with the band in Amsterdam, where they’re all wearing the purple suits still.  That was a pretty good moment.

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