And how folk music is having its revenge
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In less than a decade, Quebec songwriter Patrick Watson has gone from playing in a locally popular high-school ska band to garnering international attention over the course of three solo albums. The songs he weaves with his pop-chamber and occasionally instrumental ensemble are so disparately lush that, when isolated, they would never imply being on the same album. That holds especially true of his latest, last year’s Wooden Arms, which surreally blends instruments electronic, acoustic, and otherwise (ranging from a bicycle to snapping twigs). Most articles about Watson’s music sum it up as being “cinematic,” a word that doesn’t really apply to anything audible: That’s why The A.V. Club talked to Watson before he came to Schubas on May 17 about the range of his inspirations, from movies and meals to Iceland’s eye-popping WTF-ness.
The A.V. Club: Do you agree with the description of your music as “cinematic”?
Patrick Watson: I don't know if the music's cinematic. I think people use that word when something's got a strong instrumental mood to it, or the vocals aren't placed in the front. So I think people's automatic reaction to everything that's more instrumental [is] "cinematic" right away. What would it mean, anyways, if you think about it really?
AVC: I don't know, either.
PW: If you really think about it, I don't know what that term would really mean about music. But I'll say yes sometimes, just because it's easier. [Laughs.]
AVC: To be honest, half of music writing seems like bullshit.
PW: I don't even know what they mean. I guess music makes people think of images. I guess that's what they mean by it? I guess that's fair enough; a lot of times when I write a song, I usually shoot a picture in my head to help write. It helps me find the right arrangement, so definitely it's a big inspiration.
AVC: Are there actual movies that have inspired songs?
PW: I guess they influence the way I approach writing songs. The one good thing about a movie and music and stuff like that: Sometimes it's a counterpoint between the movie and the music itself, the difference and the tension they build together. I think that could be something that helped with me, because when I write songs now, I write lyrics a bit like that. I try to make the music be an interesting twist on the lyrics and help tell the story in a—I don't tell crazy stories, you know? So a lot of times, the twist is in the subtleties. The twist is in the way the story's told. A film for me that would inspire that would be Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It's a very straight story told in a very strange way. But it's a love story, you know?
AVC: It’s funny you bring up Eternal Sunshine, because Jon Brion did the soundtrack for it, and in a way Wooden Arms reminds me of him because all of the songs are so completely different.
PW: I like albums that bring you all these different places. Not always; some albums are nice that stay with the same vibe, too. I think it's pretty rare in modern day—a lot of people have really cool content, really interesting visual stuff, but they lack a really good story. A film like that for me has all the things you want in a recipe, right? You've got potatoes, you've got the sauce, you've got dessert after. A lot of people just serve the dessert now without any of the vegetables or meat and potatoes.
It's a day and age where people get so hung up on the production, and they lost the focus of being a good storyteller. But that's normal because a lot of people are getting used to a lot of new tools with a lot more options. Electronic music was just discovery about sound, all our sound options. The core percussions and melodies, they forget about it, they didn't think about those those for a good four, five years, because they were just discovering the new tools and what they could do with them, you know? The big folk revival, I think is a backlash against that. And now, I think they'll probably try to find somewhere in the middle. It's interesting. It's like push-and-pull. It's always like that, you know? Music history is always like that, this repeating evolution of music. It helps forecast the future sometimes.
AVC: What’s a band you listen to whose influence you think hasn’t really been picked up on?
PW: Ooh, that's a good question. Supertramp! [Laughs.] No. I don't know, I'm trying to think. I listen to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel. It's ridiculous how much. I always listen to it before concerts. But I guess that wouldn't be that unusual, would it? I listen to a lot of cartoon music, like Warner Brothers music. I listen to a lot of that. I listen to a lot a lot of Stravinsky. I like listening to the extremes, like listening to the roots of all the different stuff. So if I'm going to listen to cartoon music, or if I'm going to listen to folk, I'm going to go right to the straight shooters. I don't know how to describe this. Some people are like music wizards, they know so much about every band and singer.
AVC: You're not a wizard or a mad scientist?
PW: I'm not a music wizard who knows all the different bands and stuff.
AVC: Your bio calls you a “musical mad scientist.”
PW: [Laughs.] I don't write that shit. I listen to a lot. That just helps me write, teaches me how to arrange. I listen to a lot of Bollywood music: Lata Mangeshkar. I love Lata Mangeshkar.
AVC: Do you watch the movies as well?
PW: No, just the music. Maybe I'd like the movies. I don't know, I just love the music. It's got this rare quality where it dances, but it still has a depth of a sad song at the same time. It's really strange. They kind of manage to do two things at once. We do a ballad, or a dance song, and it's very difficult. They kind of mix those two things together. It's pretty impressive, beautiful music.
I loved the score to There Will Be Blood. That score was genius; that was perfect. Just because [Jonny Greenwood] was really intelligent in the arrangement. He always had his own—I don't know what it is in the U.S., but the synth hidden inside the real strings. It was just a nice touch because it kind of gives a very classical tone, very contemporary classical music. Just that little tinge of the synth and the guitar, and they all match the notes inside the melodies, hidden. It was just a nice, smart idea. Like the first sound in the film, the Dolby sound with the orchestra? That sets the tone of the whole film. That's kind of more Morricone-style, where you have a sound that distinguishes the film in one sound because it's so original and so powerful. It's been a long time since I heard someone do that. Donnie Darko, I think, was an amazing film. The music really inspired me.
I don't know if you know, but there's this film director called Robert Morin in Quebec cinema. He's of a last-century school of cinema. He never gets budget. His films are pretty fucking weird and dark. He just films himself with one camera a lot of times. His scripts are probably the most intelligent scripts I have ever read. He's got loads of films. They're all French films. One of his films, Petit Pow! Pow! Noël is a film of this man who's taking care of his father at the end of his life. The man doesn't like his father. The thing is, the director plays the role, and he actually cast his father. I think in real life he didn't like his father. You're watching him give the father a hot bath, but it's his real dad. And you're like, “This is so weird.” The best part about his writing is the villain's never a villain. Everybody's half-half. Even the weirdest and dark films—people in other films, you would hate that character—he writes in a way that you have empathy for the villain. You're confused. You don't know where to put the blame. And not many people can write like that.
AVC: Sort of sounds like Charlie Kaufman movies.
PW: Yeah, he's obviously [among] the strongest writers in the world right now. Being John Malkovich's script is brilliant.
AVC: What did you think of Synecdoche, New York?
PW: I never watched that. I watched the beginning and I just wasn't in the mood for that kind of thing. I'm a bit of a health nut, and as soon as he started being like that I was like, "I don't want to. That's cool, I get enough of that at home."
AVC: Would you ever want to write a movie?
PW: Oh, definitely. It's definitely something that I don't know if I'd be good at, but it's definitely a dream of mine. We’ll see. I'm going to start doing short films. This summer I'm going to try doing a couple for fun. I have this one thing I have to shoot 'cause I wrote a song. I found these photos in Hong Kong about this flood. These crazy photos with piles and piles of cars making dams in the middle of the street. Crazy photos, doesn't make any sense. And I just saw that photo and kind of built this song called "The Flood." So I think it's going to be a short film in a living room with a family reading a newspaper, everybody's doing their thing and the water rises and they do everything they can to not pay attention to it. It's just a short film like that. So I just want to make a living room and drown it. But that's still more of a music video, it's not really a film.
I think [my being referred to as “cinematic”] has a lot to do with people just not being used to listening to instrumental music without watching a film. I'm still pretty convinced of that. You'll play Chopin in place of something average and like, “Wow, that'd be great in a film.” People say it every time, swear to God. I don't think people have a good relationship with instruments and music anymore. But it's definitely visual; I started writing with this band because of the pictures. I can't really deny it either, you know?
AVC: What’s an influence that hasn’t really been picked up on by others?
PW: Iceland. It's one of the most beautiful places on earth by a landslide. It's completely surreal. It's like going to The Land Before Time. It's like being where The Lord Of The Rings actually is. It has a psychedelic, fantasy feeling to it. As soon as you get there, if you look at one side it's [got] these huge valleys of volcanic rock and this weird green rock grows over it, bouncy like a mattress. And then on the other side it'll be a black volcanic thing, and then there'll be these kind of green mountains, and then there'll be the ocean. Everything's super weird; there's nothing you see that's a normal nature thing. It's always you look and you're like, "What the fuck is that?" Constantly. It's so stunning. That's where I shot the music video, the last one.
PW: That makes sense to me, the music she does, when you go there. I think she captures the place quite well. The place feels like that, you know what I mean?
AVC: What place does your music represent?
PW: Walking on train tracks in the middle of the woods, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. You walk down the tracks and you're walking every two tracks, and you've got your headphones on, and on both sides you've got forest, and in your rear is this long line of train tracks that's weaving through the woods. It's a very cool place, to walk along the train tracks because of the rhythm of walking every few feet through the woods. It's a good place to go dream.
AVC: In an interview earlier this year, you were asked about your high-school ska band Gangster Politics. You mentioned that you guys just caused trouble. What sort of trouble did you get into?
PW: [Laughs.] Well, we were just 17, 16 years old. I just joined that band. It's the first band I ever saw live, that band. I come from a small town. So my first show was in front of 1,000 people. That's ridiculous. I was a small-town boy at that point. I didn't even know what ska was before that. We just kind of went around and caused trouble and had fun. It was just a very fun band. It was a good band. For what it was, it was pretty good, you know?
AVC: How did you guys cause trouble back then?
PW: [Laughs.] I can't even go anywhere near that part.
AVC: Is the statute of limitations still in effect?
PW: Oh, from making people jump from a second-story building to a guy chasing with a machete knife around cars to—you know, I could make a long list. That gives you an idea of some of the moments of that tour.
AVC: Well, none of that this tour, right?
PW: [Laughs.] Well, the same guitar player...
AVC: No comment?
PW: Yeah. No comment. We tour the old-school way; we're not the greatest band in the world. The last tour we did, we went on this helicopter ride with this fucking cowboy pilot. He was going under these power lines with the helicopter, weaving through poles. We were like "Jesus Christ!" Probably the best ride of our life, but the most dangerous and terrified thing. But it was a good adventure. We always go for adventures when we tour. We have good luck with that shit. We always stop in weird places.
AVC: You’re not supposed to get in strange vehicles with strange men, though. Stranger danger.
PW: Well, we signed papers before we got in the helicopter, but really we just kind of got in a helicopter and hoped for the best. He's a fucking crazy pilot. It's was like we were in a Vietnam movie or something. We were going low to the river. He's like just missing a tree. It was amazing. Bizarre. I was like, "I've got 17 gigs in a week. Don't kill me now!"