I am sitting in Patrick Watson’s Montreal rehearsal/recording studio, a place that has hosted many late nights of carousing for the both of us. I guess I should offer full disclosure here: Watson and I have been friends for years, but I have managed to keep my status as fan of him and his band a heavily guarded secret throughout our friendship. In fact, Watson seems generally taken aback when I tell him I am absolutely in love with his new record.
As a friend of Patrick’s I can tell you he does not take compliments well and would probably much prefer if we were just having our regularly programmed chatter that ensues after a couple of libations. Unfortunately for Watson I’ve returned to his studio to discuss a subject that hardly loosens his lips – himself, his music, and his fifth record Love Songs For Robots. This new collection of songs shows Watson and his band absolutely gleaming and brimming with newfound inspiration and crystal clear vision that should stand as not only his best record thus far but should also prove to appease the most ardent fans as well as a great introduction to people who have yet to bend an ear in Watson’s direction.
As humble and tight lipped as the man is, he even admits Love Songs... is his best record yet and slowly begins to open up about his new record. Forthcoming only to a point, Watson does not take full credit throughout our two hour discussion and only saves the accolades for his band mates and full-fledged musical contributors, which include most recent member, guitarist Joe Grass, Watson’s dubbed “synth Jedi” François Lafontaine and his stalwart anchors, bassist Mishka Stein and drummer/percussionist Robbie Kuster.
Although it may be Watson’s name shining brightest on the marquee, Love Songs For Robots most definitely comes across as a collaborative effort and is their closest to a “band” oriented record yet. New recruit Grass’ guitar playing fits comfortably in the cacophony as if he’s always been there and marks his first collaboration with Watson on the beautifully serene “Alone In This World” and again with Stein and Watson on one of the record’s stand out tracks “Grace”. “As a band I think we’ve always been leading up to this record” says Watson between pulls on his ever-present cigarette. “This record definitely has the best performances that we’ve ever done as a band and definitely shows us at our most dynamic. A lot of people have this misconception of us as a singer/songwriter soft folky type of thing, but anybody who has seen us live knows that’s the furthest thing from the truth. By tracking almost everything live off the floor this album is the closest we have ever come to being who we really are”.
Watson and co’s fifth effort initially just started off as a busman’s holiday, with the band decamping to Los Angeles to record for three days at legendary Capitol studios just to see if it would catch a spark, or at the very least just have fun. Before the recording process began some songs went through pain staking permutations before finally settling in their finished form. Others, like the stunning “Know That You Know”, were born from an improvised session at a party the night before entering the studio. “Know That...” was quickly captured in the studio and finalized within two takes, with Watson improvising the lyrics directly off the floor with stellar effect. With an exception to the former mentioned song the “live off the floor” approach also required months of preparation. This included dialing in drum trigger sounds, mixing in prepared sound scapes and other musical textures long before the tapes started rolling. The songs that would make up Love Songs For Robots originally were debuted and test driven at clandestine concerts and small loft spaces before the safety net was whisked away and finalized versions would go directly to tape, a first for the already renowned live band. “We originally just thought that we would just go to Capitol and after three days we might have a half of a song finished,” says Watson. “After an hour of being in this beautiful studio we were already tracking and just playing music. We didn’t have to be technicians and worry about headphone mixes or our equipment and were just able to be musicians again. Halfway through the first day we had already had one song completely finished and mixed (“Bollywood”). After three days we walked away with five songs completely done and three of them were final mixes. It was obvious pretty quickly that we were going to do an entire record there.”
The original theme for the record was centered around Watson’s fascination with virtual reality and artificial intelligence, which remains the record’s lyrical centerpiece, especially in the title track “Love Songs For Robots” and in “Turn Into The Noise”. Before being fitted for a tin hat Watson proved himself once again as a deft lyricist and managed to remove the cold chill inherent in science and instill a beating heart. It was only halfway through writing the record when the artist found himself having, by his own submission, “a bad year” did more personal themes begin to creep in. “I started thinking about things in a very mechanical way. I found it interesting how we would use our senses to come up with an emotional reaction. As I get older you get to know yourself better and I realized that a lot of my emotional reactions were mechanical responses and that was hugely influential. I didn’t want to be a robot. But the reason why we are superior to computers is that we have emotions and I realized that emotions are mechanical so the only thing left between us and robots is curiosity and inspiration - and I don’t think you can program that into a computer. That’s definitely where I was at when I started writing the record”
Although Watson and band had initially questioned whether Capitol studios was the right place for them, it became quickly evident that there was indeed magic happening in the room of the famed recording studio which necessitated the band returning to finish the remaining tracks for the record. “When you are in a situation where you are walking down the hall with all of these pictures of The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole and other legends that made records there it kind of ups your game before you even start to record. With all of this amazing history you would just feel like an asshole for being there if you couldn’t get it together to play a good tune. It lights a fire underneath you and allows you to be better than maybe you allow yourself to be.”
Watson was so inspired by recording his record at Capitol he immediately started recording demos in his home studio upon Love Songs For Robots’ completion. He plays me a snippet of a new song that could easily shoulder up against any of the songs on Love Songs...but insists that he’s saving it for the next record. In sharp contrast to Watson’s decidedly disheveled and slightly “chimney sweep” look, the man is actually struck with an iron clad work ethic that has him darkening the door of his studio everyday without fail. Although he is probably best known as the man serving at the helm of the S.S. Watson, he is probably most busy as a man behind the scenes having already composed fifteen music scores for both film and television, including a trailer for TV show “The Walking Dead” and, most recently, for the film “Cochemare”. It would seem that his immense talent at scoring and his craft at songwriting would be kept at two different polarities but Watson insists that composing musical moods for visuals definitely informs his work as a songwriter. “I recently discovered all of these demos on my computer and I realized that all of my favorite songs started off as movie score ideas first. It was strange because it was all of my favorite songs without exception. When you’re writing for films you have to remove yourself from the picture and you’re no longer trying to satisfy yourself as a songwriter so you write much better. You can work much more naturally and then you can bring that to your songs.”
Recently legendary filmmaker Wim Wenders handpicked Watson to move from his regular behind the scenes film score position to being thrust in front of the director’s lens. Watson and band can currently be seen in Wenders’ current 3D film “Every Thing Will Be Fine” performing the songs “Cynical World” (an original for the film) and “Lighthouse”. The film was first shown at the International Film Festival Berlin on Feb 10, 2015. With Wenders’ film introducing Watson and band’s music to a whole new audience, Watson’s CV continues to get stacked. His accomplishments within his career thus far include performing for over 100,000 people at 2009’s Montreal Jazz Festival. No small feat to be sure but Watson insists that his band doing a set of solely improvisational moments in front of 12 people in Northern California was as memorable. Being a pop star just doesn’t seem to ever come into Watson’s picture and if anything he seems to rebel against the tag. Despite all of the accolades and praise heaped on him pop adulation and other hollow victories are hardly what ignites his creative spark. He does admit there is one singular inspiration that makes him tirelessly work – fear. Proving himself a gifted composer through his film scoring and with the watermark of his song writing craft appearing on his new record, Watson insists he will forever be chasing the muse and admits his recurring fevered nightmare is losing his creative spark. “I look at all these great artists that I love and I can’t figure out why they stopped making good music and it scares me. I’m so terrified of losing that fire. I don’t think I have ever written a song that I can’t beat so maybe that’s what makes me not want to write songs that are similar to things I’ve written before. If I’m really honest with myself I don’t really feel accomplished with what I’ve written up to date. I haven’t done what I really want to do yet. I’m only as happy as the song I’m working on now. Whatever happened in the past is already over.”
What Watson and his band has managed to achieve, in a career that falls just shy of a slim decade, definitely underlines his iron clad work ethic as well as his obvious gift and passion for songwriting. Check it: From his days as a pool technician in his sleepy burg of hometown Hudson, Quebec Watson quickly burst through the gates with his 2006 debut Close To Paradise which would go on to sell well over a whopping 100,000 copies and garner a Polaris Prize in his native Canada. One of his true achievements more recently was playing with a full piece orchestra in Amsterdam in 2011 followed by full orchestra shows in his hometown of Montreal, Paris and Quebec City in 2013. “Playing with an orchestra was easily the scariest thing I have ever done. When we initially did it in Amsterdam I almost flew back home during rehearsals because I didn’t think I could do it but we pulled it off. One of my lifelong goals was to play with an orchestra so I guess I got to check that off of my list. It was really nerve wracking but I think those concerts were some of the most special concerts we’ve ever played. I don’t think as a band we will ever play a concert as special as those again.”
With so many truly magical moments happening for the man throughout his career, Watson refuses to romantically sit back on his haunches and take a look back on his success’ with rose-colored lenses. Even on the cusp of releasing his most stirring and most accomplished record yet he’s already looking forward to the next record, the next film score and the next musical challenge that lies in waiting. “I don’t really like to look back on highlights too much. I just don’t feel comfortable about relying on the past to feel good about myself. I have to think that my highlights are still waiting for me because otherwise I’ll feel like I died. I can only live in the moment and if I’m doing that I’m happy.”
Jonathan Cummins is a Montreal based freelance writer, weekly columnist for Cult Montreal and a member of the experimental pop band USA Out of Vietnam