The Motet’s Dave Watts: ‘The Psychology of Improvisation’
I first met Dave Watts of The Motet in April of 2000, while eating spaghetti on the band's funky tour bus in New Orleans. A mutual friend (the infamous Rob Turner, former Jambands.com Road Trip of the Month editor) knew Watts from his early work with the Boston-based band Shockra. After knocking on the bus windshield, Watts emerged and welcomed us aboard with open arms. Dave immediately made us feel right at home offering up some of the band's dinner, which was being cooked by a heady, shirtless bandmate. As we ate, they seemed so excited just to be talking music with fresh faces and when they learned that I had never seen the band, their eyes lit up even more. It was as if they were about to play their first gig. They could not contain their enthusiasm for the impending show, a rare quality for touring folk.
The Motet left quite an impression on me that night in the Big Easy, its members jubilantly parading around the venue with their various percussion instruments, all the while seemingly oblivious to the fact that they outnumbered the audience at times. It was clear that music was serious business to this ensemble and improvisation an integral component of its repertoire. Today, the group continues to tour constantly, incorporating a range of percussion-heavy genres from around the globe. At the center of it all is Watts, who has quite a unique perspective on the jam band world. After all, he was the driving force behind one of this generation's original grass roots operations. At the time of Shockra's inception in 1990, the term "jam band" did not yet exist.
Jambands.com recently caught up with Watts, who was on a payphone in the middle of Colorado while the bus refueled [his cell phone was useless in the mountains]. I remembered his penchant for discussing the metaphysics of music and had the band not been late for a show that evening, I feel like we could have philosophized for hours. Indeed, asking Dave about improvisation is like opening a can of slithering worms.
JW: Let’s start with your background leading up to Shockra.
DW: Well I went to Berklee College of Music while I was in Boston, so I was playing quite a bit around that scene. I just sort of by chance, hooked up with the guys in Shockra. Once I graduated I was looking for a touring act.
JW: If you could sort of paint a picture for people, there wasn’t much of a jam band scene in those days.
DW: No, it's kind of interesting in retrospect. We were doing what a lot of bands are doing now, but there was no category for it. There weren't a lot of bands doing it. It was just sort of grassroots music that was something different. As I look back on it, I realize how it was catching on and how it has been made possible by a certain amount of technology and the moving away from having to be part of the industry of big record companies and all that sort of thing. Bands like Shockra and Phish and Blues Traveler were all starting out at that time. We were seeing a band like Phish being able to do it on their own and not having to have a record company, before they were signed, and seeing how there were dedicated audiences that were really getting excited. Now I see that it's really a coming together of a jazz scene and sort of alternate scenes that have come together. People really enjoy that and to me, that's what's exciting about what's going on right now.
JW: You must have had quite a bit of pride doing the Shockra reunion this past summer at Berkfest and seeing this thriving scene in your old stomping ground. It’s really come a long way since the early 90s.
DW: Yeah, exactly. It was really great to do that because I got to see a lot of friends that have come full circle. To play with those guys in Shockra, which I haven't done in a really long time and to play that music, really meant a lot to me. But I also realized how many other people really enjoyed that music and haven't heard it for a while. It was reaffirming to do that type of thing.
JW: So after Shockra disbanded, what was your goal when you put together The Dave Watts Motet [the group’s original moniker] in 1998? What were you looking to accomplish?
DW: In a lot of ways, it's very similar to what Shockra's done. I think combining elements of musical influences that I've felt over the years, but also opening up to the possibilities of improvisation is really what I'm all about. I connected with Scott [Messersmith], our percussionist, and we've been to Cuba twice now and we're making plans to go to Brazil and Africa. [We plan to] see the traditional music and the drum dancing which goes along with that tradition and then applying that towards what I've gained by studying at Berklee and the jazz concept of improvisation and a lot of the harmonic concepts that go along with a lot of the jazz traditions. Combining all of those worlds is really the goal. I don't think I would want to get too specific about what we really want to do except to be as creative as possible and every member of the group that's been with us, and that's been quite a few at this point, has brought a different sort of bag into it. We haven't been too defined except to bring in all the elements of what we all enjoy and listen to and try to be as creative as possible.
JW: Do you practice improvisation? It’s so integral to what the band does. Do you work at it in rehearsal or is it something that you just let happen in the live setting?
DW: Yeah, we haven't really shed-ed that sort of thing. We'd like to, but we're just playing so much that it's hard to give ourselves a chance to do it. We also have a lot of songs, so we spend most of our time learning material and then giving ourselves those spaces for improvisation once we're up on stage. So we try not to be afraid to just be out on a limb when we do that sort of stuff, but there's definitely always room for developing it. For the most part I think it's really just listening. You know, it's listening and playing and discussing things after the fact.
JW: So you do go back and study the tapes of your performances? Some bands are reluctant to do that.
DW: Yeah we do. I think it's a really an important part of the learning process. It's a tool of technology that we have available now which allows us to really analyze and dig in to what we do and develop it. So I think it's very necessary to utilize that. We definitely go back and listen to all of our shows and say, "Oh this is working. This wasn't working. How about this idea?" We've got a guitar player with us now, Mark Donovan, who's from Boston and he's really adding a great element to that whole improvisational concept.
JW: So I would assume that when you listen to improvised sections on tape, it often times leads to songwriting. Spontaneous in the moment, but then you write a song around the theme.
DW: Oh yeah. I do that all the time, really. We don't write as a group as much as we set ourselves up for improvising as a group. I do most of the songwriting and then we take a certain amount of cover tunes and traditional tunes or music that we all know and try to work around that. No matter what we do, we try to make a creative arrangement out of it. I think that our forte is our arrangements more than our improvisations, but we're always continuing to develop both of those worlds.
JW: Improvisation is such an inexact science. Have you had any revelations about what causes an amazing night?
DW: [laughs] Oh God, yeah. Well, you know it's really a psychology, almost more than anything. In a lot of ways, it doesn't take a whole lot of technique to make great music and it doesn't take a whole lot of technique to even improvise great music and sometimes technique gets in the way. There're some bands out there that obviously don't have a lot of technique but are able to create great music because of the chemistry they have between each other. Some musicians sound so great in their element, but when you take them out they sound like they're lost, you know? I think a lot of that is really about the chemistry and about the mindset of the musicians and the environment in which they're playing. It's really a psychology when you get into it. Music becomes a metaphor for life in general and how to relate to people. It's all about relations. So being open and honest and real as people really helps you communicate on stage as well. Sometimes you just have to discuss the music with an open mind. There's a certain amount of acceptance of a sound and a certain amount of saying, "We really need to change this." The more you're able just to talk about things, there more open you are to being able to really go to spaces live. So really, what makes a good night or a bad night depends on a lot of factors; even just your energy as far as reading the crowd or reading each other because it's been a long day or whatever. I think that setting yourself up for improvisation is such a great way to grow as a person, even more than a musician because it teaches you to really get to know yourself and why you're feeling a certain way or dealing with things a certain way. There're a lot of ways to look at it and it's hard to say if there's one or more ways to be able to create it. I think that besides giving yourself certain skeletons of material to work around, as opposed to being completely freeform, but giving yourself certain harmonic patterns or breaks to lead into – or target points, you can set yourself up with that stuff. It's more about giving yourself the clarity of the air between the musicians to be able to feel good about going for that.
JW: You mentioned the importance of chemistry. When you bring new musicians into the mix, what are the pros and cons? A lack of chemistry can also bring new energy. Talk about that balance and how the addition of bassist Garrett Sayers has changed the band’s sound.
DW: Well he really started kicking our butts [laughs]. You know? He's that kind of player. He doesn't slack and he doesn't ever just play a bass line – especially when we're improvising without driving the musicians who are playing; without looking people in the eye and saying, "Okay, where are we going from here?" That's key. It's just like conversation. You know, music is a language and most people have mastered that fairly well without even knowing it and are able to be creative conversationalists just sitting around a table, bullshitting or whatever and it's the same way with music. If you get the vocabulary together enough and then you say, "Okay, how am I going to be creative here? How am I going to spark some kind of conversation that's going to be interesting?" You don't wanna just tell the same story every time. You wanna be able to throw in nuances or create different ideas and that sort of thing. You have to be up to that every time you go into those spaces and Garrett is constantly there and almost playful. Sometimes you want to be funny on stage or with your music, as far as playing tricks with each other and messing around or throwing the beat around just to keep people on their toes you know? Sometimes when you're on the road for four weeks and you've been playing every night, it can be a trap to go through the motions, but I think that we're all sort of in a space right now where we're able to push each other in ways that keeps us from falling into those routines. Garrett's been really good for that. Instead of just laying down a bass line for a soloist to play over, he's playing with it and trying different harmonic ideas and playing over the bar line and that sort of thing.
JW: You’ve been playing with so many different musicians and adding new members to the group, what is your introduction for a Motet "rookie"? How do you break them in?
DW: [laughs] Sometimes less is more, you know? In some ways, you don't want to give too much instruction. I have a very strong musical vision. When I hear them, I hear them very specific. Sometimes it's a little bit of a curse on my part for maybe defining things too much. So lately I've been trying to be more open about other people's instant reaction to the music. Sometimes I try not to say much at all and just let the music do the talking and be okay with things being different and going there. With Mark, we just gave him all of our music and the recordings we'd done before, the melodies and that sort of thing. He's just such a great player. He learned it in a couple weeks. Now that we're on the road together, he's got all that stuff together and we're just gonna explore any other ideas as far as how we can mix it up.
Really, I think the biggest introduction to our sound is the percussion and the traditional West African, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban stuff, because we love to play salsa and we love to play sambas. We do some West African drumming, which really involves everyone in the band. You can't let anyone just sit aside and watch the rest of us play. Whether it's having our keyboard player [add a percussion part] or having Mark play the clave during a salsa number, whatever it takes to get everyone involved. That's like the biggest introduction for most musicians to an area that they haven't been exposed to: the percussion. But, when you look at that kind of music, percussion is the foundation for all the rhythms played by the other instruments. In a samba, the keyboard player might be playing the tambourine pattern on his keyboard to sort of lock in with the clave of that feel. So everyone can use that sort of introduction to help their own playing on their own instrument.
JW: What about Hope Clayburn’s involvement with the group recently? How did that come about?
DW: We've known Hope for a while because we've done a lot of gigs with Deep Banana [Blackout]. She's just a great player and a great person. Our lead singer, Jans [Ingber], left the group in October and so I just called Hope to see what she was doing in November and she happened to have the month off. So we did a bunch of dates around the Northeast with her in November and having two horns at that point was really great because the melodies just really come out. It was great to hear her do some singing too. She actually flew out and did some dates with us in Colorado this last month. Right now, it seems like with a strong foundation, adding horn players to the mix is a really great option for us because it's easy for those guys to just jump right in and site-read these melodies, you know? The rest of us can kind of push it along. There're so many great horn players in the scene right now. I mean, the thing about the jam band scene right now is that it really reminds me of the jazz scene, even more in a sort of nationwide sense, in the 50s and 60s. Whereas it was a scene that was just starting up, but there were so many great players and there's such a communal vibe about the whole thing that people are excited to play with each other. It's like going down to Jazz Fest this year. More than you're seeing bands playing, you're seeing these groups that are being put together by promoters and other musicians of great players from all sorts of bands. It really reminds me of the music that was happening in the 60s. If you look at a Wayne Shorter album, with so many great players from Miles Davis' band or Freddie Hubbard's albums. It's like all these groups are being put together with great players that are just out there in this national circuit in the jam band scene and a lot of these players are jazz musicians, but the jam band scene is so supportive and offers such a wide array of styles and the audiences are open to listening. It really is inspiring for most musicians. It's like seeing a group like The Slip or Living Daylights or Jacob Fred [Jazz Odyssey] that are able to tour nationally now and make a living playing music that would really be considered jazz twenty years ago and probably be kept in one little scene in say, Boston or New York. You know, these bands are now able to tour across the country and have people come out and see them.
JW: You mentioned making a living. You’ve been doing this now since the early 90s and I’ve seen so many jam bands come and go during that time. It’s certainly not commercial music and there’s no widespread radio airplay. Do you have any advice for younger bands struggling to survive?
DW: It's all about building a team. You have to have people helping you. Really, what I'm learning is that you don't need huge organizations to help you make these sorts of things work. You just need a few people that are dedicated to it. You need publicity, booking and tour managing. If you can find people that are interested in doing it and have them really put the time and energy into doing it, the resources are now available, you know? Before, it was much more difficult to make these sort of things happen, but now it's like, if you want to do publicity you can get online and find all the media contacts you need to get for any city in the country. If you want to start booking, you can do the same thing. You can find all the resources you need to make this sort of thing happen. It just takes a little time and energy. So people can do it themselves and that's why this grassroots thing is really kickin' because the resources are so much more available and contact is so much easier made across the country. It's changing a small band's ability to get out there in the world and do it. As opposed to trying to shop around to major organizations, I think it's more about finding people in your scene that want to help and working at doing it from scratch. It's really possible these days to make that happen. Of course, the more help you get, the more time you get to work on the music and that's number one. When you play great music, it gets out there and it's really possible at this point for anyone across the country to come across it with tapers and all that sort of thing.
JW: You recently did a month-long residency in Colorado called the Motet Playground. How did that go?
DW: Yeah, that was great. We had a lot of great local players come in and play with us. It was just a way for us to experiment. We didn't really bring any of our old material to the table at that point. We just played new ideas so it worked well. Some of it didn't work so well, but at least we got to give it a chance in front of some people. It was a really great opportunity for us.
JW: We’re hearing more rumors of another Shockra reunion this summer. Is that going to happen?
DW: [laughs] Yeah I think so. Maybe people should put calls into Andrew Stahl at Gamelan Productions and push his buttons. I think he was even talking about releasing last year's recording for a live CD. He's been with us a long time and the Berkfest is kind of a cool expression of how everything has grown since those days.