Everything but the DJ
Sometimes, a couple of good lines from a pop song can explain in a few words what otherwise might take an hour: "Consider for a minute who you are/Then decide it's time to re-invent yourself/Like Liz before Betty, she after Sean/Suddenly you're missing, then you're reborn."
Neil Tennant's pithy lyric -- culled from the Pet Shop Boys' 1991 single "DJ Culture" -- was intended as a stinging indictment of the phenomena of celebrity reinvention, in this case a pre-Betty Ford Clinic Elizabeth Taylor and a post-Sean Penn Madonna.
Ben Watt -- writer/instrumentalist cum electronic superstar -- has, at times, risked being lumped in with the posers. He's definitely done some shape-shifting over the past couple of years. In 1995, Watt's band, the treacly and acoustic pop project Everything But the Girl, was instantly rechristened as a dance act when DJ Todd Terry transformed "Missing," a ballad from the band's release Amplified Heart, into a house hit. Following that introduction into the world of electronic music, Watt began a second career as a mixmaster of choice for British hipsters. Now he's attained the title of DJ as one-half of the spinning collective Lazy Dog.
Of course, Watt is hardly alone in his discovery that the tools of electronica are sometimes preferable to standard rock-and-roll trappings. Kids now shop for turntables and perfect their beat-mixing skills while electric guitars and drum kits gather dust in the garage -- which explains why former Housemartins bassist Norman Cook transformed himself into Fatboy Slim more than a decade ago. The bankability of the DJ skill set also explains why an aging pop product like Boy George earns more dollars behind the turntables than he does as the vocalist of a reformed Culture Club.
Everything But the Girl's re-creation from longtime British pop darling to cutting-edge electronic act, then, seems a foreseeable progression. It was certainly a commercially viable one: Terry's remix of "Missing" floated on Billboard's Top 100 singles chart for a staggering 55 weeks, including a term at number two. The single's break-out success seemed to fuel EBTG's aspiration to dive wholly into the electronica pool in which it had been dipping since the early '90s; the tinkling piano-driven sound of early long-players such as Idlewild (1988) and The Language of Life (1990) morphed dramatically into the dance-tastic beats of subsequent releases, including Walking Wounded (1996) and Temperamental (1999). The only common feature of both phases of the band's career was a morose navel-gazing tendency planted just this side of sentimentality.
Last year, Watt took things a step further by strapping on a headset, stepping to the turntables and releasing a Lazy Dog debut compilation CD -- the beat-mixed Deep House Music, which features a set from Watt and one from his partner, Jay Hannan. Once Watt had changed his focus entirely, some began to question whether his evolution was motivated by a desire to catch up with a new movement -- or simply to cash in.
On the phone from London, Watt is unaware that he even has a case to make. Pleasant but firm, he traces his artistic about-face during the '90s to a longtime affinity for beat-friendly music.
"I remember always buying house and garage," he says, "as well as some of the early hip-hop records, but thinking that movement was happening over there [the States], and we were over here."
According to Watt, he and Everything vocalist Tracey Thorn always shared a taste for danceable sounds. The band's recordings, though, were more in line with the Latin and rare-groove music predominant in England during the post-Jam and Clash period than the dance beats that later turned into techno, acid-house and trip-hop. "When we first started making records and appeared in the mainstream with Eden [EBTG's initial long-player in 1984], we were very interested in London's groove-based soul scene," he says. "That really informed our first major album."
This soul flavor colored the band's early output, with mixed results. When Watts and Thorn were both solo signees to the Cherry Red label, they teamed for a samba cover of Cole Porter's "Night and Day"; while crafty and pleasing, this introduction eventually led the pair deep inside the twilight world of lite jazz, which had a definite expiration date stamped all over it. Happily, fabulous collaborations with a Style Council-era Paul Weller, jazz legend Stan Getz and guitarist Richard Thompson saw the duo grow artistically -- and reap critical acclaim. Unfortunately, behind every one of the band's thoughtful, neo-mod recordings lurked a pointless hit from Curiosity Killed the Cat or Johnny Hates Jazz, turning a groovy scene into easy listening. Eventually, not even Watt and Thorn's killer new-wave haircuts could save them.
"I think what happened was, over the ensuing years, we became enmeshed in making grown-up records, if you like," says Watt. "We started to concentrate on making ballads for an audience that was growing up with us, and I think we just took our eye off the ball for a while." The duo drifted along successfully on the quality of Watt's writing and the melancholy beauty of Thorn's voice, but it washed ashore a decade ago with such commercially slick but empty releases as Worldwide (1991).
"We got to the beginning of the '90s, and I felt that we were in a bit of a cul-de-sac," says Watt. "I wasn't really enjoying the music that we were making, and Tracey wasn't really enjoying the music that we were making. I became more and more interested in dance-based music and less and less interested in just sitting down at a piano and writing. And, to be frank, I thought our audience had become a bit complacent -- they wanted to just sit down and hear the old stuff."
Watt's life changed dramatically in 1992 when he was struck by a rare immune-system disease called Churg-Strauss Syndrome. The disease's progression was swift, and Watt nearly died from it. Today he views the malady as cathartic -- and as having a positive impact on his art. "When I came through that, Tracey and I faced each other and said, 'Look, if we're going to go on making music, I want to begin again; I want to draw a line here, I want it to be fresh,'" Watt says. "So we started hunting around for new ideas.
"It is a misconception that I somehow led Tracey along some wicked path to dance music when she would really prefer to be out there singing Burt Bacharach ballads," he adds. "That's just bullshit. It was like the old style coming back to the fore. It was more like dance music was always in there somewhere, and it just needed tapping."
In fact, it was Thorn's solo work as a vocalist on Massive Attack's trip-hop masterpiece Protection in 1994 that first signaled a change; it was followed by the "Missing" remix the next year. Then the brilliant Walking Wounded surfaced in 1996, flaunting a heavy drum-and-bass influence that was radically different from anything the band had ever released.
Following Walking Wounded's release, Watt became a DJ himself; during the band's world tour in 1996, he opened all shows with his own drum-and-bass sets. This transformation eventually led him to the happy deep-house pastures of his Lazy Dog side project.
"I was doing a lot of record shopping and spending a lot of time up at Black Market Records in London," says Watt, referring to one of the foggy city's preeminent vinyl retailers. "In order to get to the drum-and-bass section in the basement, you have to walk through the house-music section upstairs. And I just kept hearing these fantastic deep-house records, which I'd never really been aware of. So I got talking to the guy who was selling the records, and it was Jay Hannan, the shop manager at the time.
"We struck up a friendship," Watt continues. "The records playing in the shop that I liked always seemed to be ones that he put on the record deck, so we started talking about how it was really hard to hear decent music of that kind in London."
Watt's statement may seem surprising considering London's current dance-capital status. "There has definitely been an upsurge of interest in the deeper and more soulful side of house recently," he concedes. Without question, Lazy Dog deserves some of the credit for the renewed interest in deep house. Like Groove Armada, Lazy Dog began as a small club event; in 1998, Watt and Hannan began spinning in the Notting Hill Arts Club in the trendy London neighborhood of the same name. "It sounds quite grand," Watt said, "but really it's just a club bar in a basement that holds about 250 people. We stuck our necks out and said, 'Let's just do it. Let's find a small space and do it on a Sunday.' The decks are right on the floor, and there's no DJ booth, no superstar DJ status," he adds. "We let almost everybody in for free because we're crazy, and it's just a big party."
Lazy Dog's are among the coolest parties in the world, as a matter of fact, according to global scene bibles like Wallpaper and Mixer magazines. And if Deep House Music, which streeted last October, is any indication, it's all about the music: Watt's selections include smokin' cuts and remixes from Sandy Rivera, Mood II Swing and Lisa Shaw, deep-house diva and wife of formerly Denver-based DJ Swingsett. And, of course, a few Everything But the Girl songs have found their way into the mix, including EBTG vs. Soul Vision's "Tracey in My Room."
The Lazy Dog project fills an emotional place in Watt's life that is evident in his voice.
"I was pretty sick of playing to 3,000 people every night, getting on tour buses and doing promotional schedules," he says. "I wanted to do something rootsy again, like playing in a sweaty club for 200 people and putting up the posters myself. I found that really appealing. It's just about Jay and I getting in there and playing great sets, because that's where the buck stops."
Watt has reason to tout his ability behind the wheels of steel: In 1996 he was chosen to spin at Virgin Records' post-MTV Awards party; this year, Lazy Dog will do a residency at Chicago's Smart Bar. For now, his current tour will provide a chance to prove that the former pop auteur's entrance into the dance ring is legitimate.
"If you play the right music at the right moment, you can really engender the same sort of heartfelt, intimate feeling on the dance floor as you can with a live audience at a concert," says Watt. "I think people fail to realize the similarity of the emotional communication between those two experiences, but I really get off on that."
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