(Photo by Edward Bishop)
The synthesizer swell that opens Hendra gives the brief impression that Ben Watt might be revisiting the clubby turf that made his erstwhile band Everything But the Girl global superstars -- but it's an acoustic guitar, not a gleaming '90s dance beat, that starts the song in earnest. From then on, the album is a beautifully restrained meditation on loss and endurance anchored to the interplay between Watt and Bernard Butler, the guitar god behind Britpop progenitors Suede.
Hendra is due out April 29 on Unmade Road/Caroline International; less than two months after that, Bloomsbury will publish Watt's second book, Romany and Tom, a memoir about his parents. Watt and Butler were set to play some US shows last week, but a bottleneck at immigration forced them to postpone. Skyping from London, Watt told us about the many influences -- from his wife and EBTG bandmate Tracey Thorn to Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour -- that shaped his first solo album in 31 years.
Grief is a big theme here, whether it's scattering a loved one's ashes ["Matthew Arnold's Field"] or "Nathaniel," a song about a memorial on the side of a trailer in Oregon.
A lot of people have said the album seems to deal a lot in loss and grief and death, and that is an atmosphere that hangs over the record, but I think each of the songs tries to deal with those subjects in different ways. Sometimes it's a sense of defiance that comes out of that story. Sometimes it's resilience. Sometimes it's anger. There's a sense of dealing with the shit that life throws at us and moving on to the next step, whatever it takes. I'm 51 now. You write about the life that you lead. When you were young, you were a rocket, you think everything's possible. But as you get older you realize that you're a train pulling carriages, and those carriages get heavier.
"Nathaniel" is also the loudest song. Working with Bernard Butler, were you ever tempted to get dirtier?
No, because I think the main musical dialogue is the way the two guitars interact. When I first went down to write this record, I played the first chord, and it bored me because it was in standard tuning and it felt like every song I'd ever written with Tracey. So I actually started that night just changing all the tuning pegs on my first guitar and suddenly it opened a door. It was like a new technology in my hands. But the songs I wrote ended up being quite languid, and the sound of those open tunings was very impressionistic and folky, and I knew straight away that whilst it was beautiful, it needed a foil, a counterpoint. And this is how Bernard came into the equation. I wanted somebody who would bring the blues, you know, who would bring grit and a sense of tension against what I was playing.
Dave Gilmour plays on "The Levels." Did you tell him that Pink Floyd is mentioned in Romany & Tom?
Absolutely. And in fact, the first time I ever met Dave Gilmour, I actually [ran into] him at a beach bar on this island when I was about 14, and I had a game of backgammon with him. The friend he was playing backgammon with had to take a phone call or something and I took the opportunity to walk up and go, "Excuse me Mr. Gilmour, can I finish your game of backgammon with you?" And he went, "Yeah alright, fine. Come on, then." When I met him again, I told him that we had met in a previous life.
Your first book, Patient, is about surviving a life-threatening disease. Is that all a thing of the past?
It's not over. I still take medication every single day. In simple terms, I suffer from Churg-Strauss syndrome, a hypersensitivity in the immune system that if it's left unchecked runs out of control and gets confused and starts to attack your own body tissue. And it ends up killing you, basically. So I have to take immunosuppressants every day to keep my immune system at normal levels. Luckily, touch wood, I've been taking it over 20 years, and the meds that I take agree with me, but if I stopped I would be very unwell. Most people have 25 feet of small intestine in which to do their digesting; I have less than three feet. Yeah. But I lead an incredibly full life. I've got three kids, I've got a record out, I'm going on tour. I was a DJ for chrissake, for 10 years!
How much do you and Tracey collaborate on each other's solo stuff?
We've always worked very much in isolation. When we first met -- the first time we decided to go to the movies together, when we were like 19, we got to the cinema and we couldn't agree on what it was we wanted to see, so I went into Screen 1 and watched Southern Comfort and Tracey went into Screen 2 and watched Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and then we met for a pizza afterwards. And that was our first date. We've always had this idea that you need to agree to differ to survive. And when it comes to writing, we believe that individual inspiration is very important to make good work. You don't want to compromise an idea too early, you know what I mean? So we often work very much on our own, quite secretive. And then when we feel we've actually got something that's worth showing, we then really do value the other one's opinion.
So no Tracey cameos on Hendra?
No, she's not on the record at all. I mean, we both agreed very early on that this was a very important record for me -- I was coming from quite a long way back in the field, I had a lot of ground to make up -- and I think we both realized that it was important that I did it my way. And you know, I was trying to reconnect with my 19- 20-year-old self, that precocious boy who had the temerity to ring up Robert Wyatt and ask him to be on his first record. And then I put that all aside to work with Tracey, and I think I just needed to go back and meet that person again, and perhaps make the record I might have made had we never met.