Beyond Nirvana

Maktub aims to prove that there's more to the Seattle sound than grunge.

Among the places on the planet Watts knows best is Great Falls, Montana, where he lived until he was eighteen. He doesn't remember it being a musical hotbed. "There's not much going on there," he says. "There's agriculture and farming and an Air Force base, but not a lot of music. I can't even think of anybody I know from there who's doing music now besides me." That includes Watts's parents and relatives: "There are no artists on either side of my family." But his father was a jazz buff and his mother, a native of France, felt equal passion for European vocalists such as Edith Piaf and Nana Mouskori and the proto-funk of James Brown. The roots of his musical diversity were planted early and deep.

After Watts saw Ray Charles on television when he was five, he announced that he wanted to play piano. This declaration led to eleven years of classical training on the instrument, supplemented by eight years of violin study. But in his teens, he also got into the Top 40 music of the '80s, which he continues to admire despite the low esteem in which much of it is now held. "I loved everything from Michael Jackson and Hall and Oates to Foreigner, Boston and Asia. I still think Asia had some great songs."

He was also a fan of the Cure, and at age sixteen he was testing a synthesizer in a music store by playing the group's hit "Just Like Heaven" when he heard the tune's guitar line ringing out from an ax "played by a really handsome white dude with big-ass hair." This bit of sonic serendipity led to the formation of Autumn Asylum, Watts's first band, upon which he looks back fondly. Nonetheless, he didn't immediately commit himself to a career in music. During this same period, he was heavily involved in theater and comedy improv, and he hoped to study drama in New York. "I told myself that if I didn't get into acting school, I would go to Seattle and pursue music," he recalls -- and that's the way things worked out.

When Watts pulled into Seattle in 1990, the local music scene was on the cusp of going national. Once it did, everything changed, although Watts says the transition was more subtle than outsiders might believe. "You know how it is when you're at the epicenter of something; it seems bigger in surrounding areas than right where it's happening. We knew things were going on, and you would hear about people playing secret shows and so on. But for the most part, my modus operandi was pretty much the same. We were all just having a great time." He was part of "a million bands during that time," many of which had only the most tangential connection to the grungy vibe commonly associated with the city. "There were black bands that played rock, like Action Buddy. There were funkier bands, and groovy, weird rock bands, too. Obviously grunge was huge, and it certainly influenced a lot of bands. But there was a lot more stuff than that going on."

The national spotlight that had been trained on Seattle was starting to dim by 1996, when Maktub was born of the same improvisational instincts that fueled many of Watts's dramatic projects. To this day, the musicians write songs by jamming, and frequently play club gigs at which all the sounds audiences hear are made up on the spot. But while Watts has an appreciation for jam bands like Phish, about which he wrote an admiring essay in the Seattle Times, he doesn't believe Maktub belongs in the same category.

"Most jam bands are similar to jazz, because they go off on these huge odysseys, and that's great," he says. "But what you see us do on stage is relatively polished, and all the songs are crafted in a way that's finalized as far as we know. We have a set list that's designed to have an arc throughout the evening, and we're trying to create an atmosphere of something that's tight. And when we improvise, it's more like pop improvisation, because we try to the best of our ability to create songs right then and there that sound as if you're listening to constructed songs. I've had people come up and tell me, 'I haven't heard that song before. You guys are doing a lot of new material.' But there's a reason they haven't heard it before. We don't rehearse on those nights. We just show up and play everything for the first time.

"When we're improvising, our songs usually range anywhere from five to ten minutes. On occasion, they'll go longer. But in general, I think everybody has an internal clock that goes off when they start to wonder if we're going on too long. I'd prefer to err on the side of being too short than being too long."

This methodology eventually led to Subtle Ways, Maktub's 1999 debut, which was named the year's Best R&B Album at the Northwest Music Awards. Khronos, put out by tiny Ossia Records, has generated just as much acclaim and is selling briskly by indie standards. But that doesn't mean the performers have reached the point where they no longer care about inking a big-league contract. Beyond music, Watts has become a well-known Seattle personality; he often does standup and sketch comedy in the area, and he was the namesake of A Very Reggie Xmas, a 2001 holiday revue at one of the city's hippest theatrical venues, On the Boards. But, he acknowledges, "We're not making enough money to live comfortably, by any means. We're still having to supplement by looking out for other gig-related music jobs to pay the rent.

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