Patrick Watson discusses his recent album, bizarre characters encountered in the rural Southwest and the ska band he played in as a teenager
Just before he took the stage at Bowery Ballroom this past Friday night, I sat down backstage with singer/songwriter and frontman of his eponymous band Patrick Watson. We talked about his most recent album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard, some interesting characters he’s met while touring the world and about his first gig as a teenager playing keyboards in a ska band.
Where did you record your latest album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard? How did this album differ from the other albums you’ve recorded?
I recorded it in my home. I have a home studio that has a nice loft with big high ceilings. It was kind of a simple thing where we’d have the same kind of setup for about 6 or 7 months where we just came in and out and played songs. We wanted to not move around technically too much. We wanted to just capture moments and not be so worried about always changing mics and pre amps like in a studio. We just had a simple set up so that, when we had a moment, we just sat and recorded.
We used to record in other cities while we were traveling. When you’re in the studio, the clock’s ticking and there’s a lot of money—it’s an expensive thing. This time, if we didn’t get the right take, it didn’t cost a lot. I could be a lot more patient with things. And in that patience we found better arrangements.
You’ve done some pretty extensive touring over the last few years. What are some of your favorite places to play?
Iceland’s probably one of my favorites. When you go there, it feels like you’re on another planet. It’s amazing. It looks like another planet with really exotic landscapes. It’s this orange moon and mountains that go down into this blue-tinged water. It looks like you’re on the moon sometimes. It’s a really wild place. I also love playing Portugal. It’s a really interesting part of Europe where it’s still kind of old Europe where it hasn’t changed. It’s kind of a secret spot in Europe. And then in the States every city has its own special thing. I still love playing Portland and San Fran.
You played SXSW recently, correct? Had you played at it before?
Yeah, we did. That was fun. We played there years ago, but not in a nice setting. This time we were in a nice setting. Those festivals aren’t the easiest things for musicians because you get such a short sound check. If I was going to organize a festival, I’d have fewer bands, but of better quality. Because first, no one in the audience can see everything and then all the bands go on stage pissed off because they had a 10-second sound check.
How do you guys travel?
In Europe we have buses and in the States we have vans. It’s tough. In America its big drives, which means you have to wake up really early after staying up really late the night before. In a bus, you just wake up in cities and you don’t really see the road. We’ve done it a couple times and I’m glad we did it, but now we use a bus.
I remember being about two hours outside the Grand Canyon and we’re pulled over at a gas station and this Jeep comes roaring up and stops near us and the guy says “are you guys aliens?!” and we said “no, not particularly” and so he said “well you guys are avatars!” And it was like he’d written a scene from a Cohen’s Brothers movie. I never would have believed that had ever happened for real, except that we were all there to see it.
But this country’s unique. America’s a place of dreamers. I’ve never been to any other country like it. It’s a country built on dreams and ambition and it just kind of pulls the crazy out of people. In a good way and maybe a bad way too. But mostly in a good way. I’ve never met more colorful people than I’ve met in America.
You’re from Montreal. Do you play there much?
Yeah, of course.
How would you describe the music scene there?
It’s a really nice community. It’s different now with everyone on tour all the time. There’s a moment where there’s load of bands in the city and we’d have improv nights together and it was very communal. It’s a very friendly and supportive scene. And everyone does something totally different. Nobody’s walking on each other’s toes. It’s not competitive. Montreal’s kind of an island because of the language barrier. There aren’t very many music labels. It’s not New York or Toronto. It’s very strong for the arts. Look at bands like Arcade Fire who set this indie tone where they built something very outside of what the music business would have told them to do. People made all of these different kinds of formulas up. So I think that’s kind of a nice thing about it.
How do you like playing here in New York? Where else in New York have you played before?
I love New York. It’s a tough place to play, but I love it. We played Pianos on the LES, we did some Brooklyn shows. My favorite show was a benefit night for the film co-op years ago. It was with Steve Wright, Phillip Glass—all these crazy people. And we were just kids at the time and were so scared, ya know? It was in an old synagogue on the LES. Before that, we played in some galleries about 12 or 13 years ago because when we first started it was much more of an art project with visuals. We played in the old gallery called The Cave, in Brooklyn.
Was music a big part of your life growing up? Did you have any other bands prior to your current one?
I never even saw a band until I was 15 or 16 year old because I grew up in a small town. I sang in church when I was a kid. I took piano lessons all my life too. Music was always part of my life. I even did musicals in small towns like Oliver Twist. And then when I was 15 or 16 this guy told me to come see his band and that was one of the first bands I saw, and I actually ended up playing in that band.
What kind of a band was it?
It was a ska band (laughs).
Yeah, so I was a ska keyboard player for a while.
So how did you and all of your current band members come together?
I’ve known Simon since we were 7, living in a small town. And the rest of us met at music school. We were studying jazz together and I got asked to do music for this underwater photography book and project. So I started building this band. We were playing together in school every day, but we didn’t think we were going to start a real band. We were just backing up our visuals at the time. And then when we came to New York for the show with all of the crazy visuals, we ended up going in the direction of forming a band so that we could travel and tour.
What new bands or albums are you listening to these days?
I know this isn’t too new, but I just discovered and am freaking out about the new PJ Harvey record. That record’s amazing. I love Connan Mockasin. It’s very weird psychedelic rock, but very good. His videos are insane. You should check him out.