The Motet Delivers Music For Life
Dave Watts isn't afraid of change. In fact, since construction began on the Motet, the Bounder-resident’s Afro-Cuban/Latin/Funk/Jazz ensemble, change has been a consistent ingredient in Watts’ recipe for success. A former student of the Berkley School of Music, and drummer for seminal jam-outfit Shockra, Watts has weathered close to two decades in the live music scene, watching jazz blend with jam into a single term. With a clear vision of the Motet’s potential, and a solid canon of charted improvisations, Watts isn’t shy about tweaking his outfit’s lineup, creating an open forum for exploration. With friends in all corners of the country, Watts has remained busy outside the Motet, participating in a California offering of the Everybody Orchestra and jamming with String Cheese in such varied locals as Colorado and Alabama. Mixing the layered funk of Fela Kuti into his musical stew, the drummer continues to sharpen his compositional skills, as evidenced on the Motet’s newest release, Music for Life. But, over the years, Watts has remained true to one ideal: change is good.
MG- It has been a few years since the last Motet studio effort. What element of the group’s sound has most evolved since your last recording?
DW- Having a horn player instead of a vocalist has definitely pushed us in a more Afro-beat direction. We've been exploring a lot of new melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic concepts. Recently, a big influence has been Fela Kuti. Though we're not an Afro-beat band by any stretch of the word, he has definitely influenced my writing. Even more than a style, it's a melodic and rhythmic concept, which has helped me rediscover my sound as a writer
MG- What spurred this Fela Kuti rediscovery?
DW- Every year we do a Halloween Show where we feature a different artist. This year, actually, we did a Fela Kuti show for New Years. Learning his music and performing it really opened me up to that whole way of writing. It was really a revelation for me in terms of writing efficiency: a melodic concept in writing, which is so simple, yet effective. We have sort of been milking that and basing things around that ever since. It's the same with the rhythm parts too—-finding some sort of rhythmic skeleton to use as a base. That's how I usually write. I'll find a drum pattern, guitar pattern, or bass pattern and use that to build all our rhythmic patterns.
MG- What instruments do you compose on?
DW- When I am writing, I'll play bass, guitar, Rhodes, vibraphone, and all different percussion stuff and drum sets.
MG- Which of Fela’s song has most influenced your writing style?
DW- Last year we did a song of Fela's called "Expensive Shit." I wrote a song based off of that called "Cheap Shit," which is the first track on our new album.
MG- The Motet’s lineup has been in flux for years. Do you have any plans to solidify a permanent roster?
DW- We'd been trying to solidify a band as long as we've been touring. We were always like, "If we get a band, we can make a difference with our sound." At the same time, it seems like the most difficult thing in the world and, I think, it adds a lot of pressure to the musicians. They sort of say to themselves, "I am in this band and we have to make it." So actually, just in the last few months, I've released everyone from that concept. I am just going to take it gig by gig, and tour by tour. I have players I think work best for the group and I try to approach them first, but if they have other things going on or need a break, it really helps that they don't have to commit to everything we do. It also really helps me not to be so tied down to everyone else's schedule. It's been a great thing, mixing the lineup as much as possible. It's also helped me to define our sound, which is important when you're shifting players so much. I've always been really defined by my charts—-which parts to open and which parts to compose.
MG- Recently, you’ve brought vocalist Jans Ingber back into the Motet’s fold. Yet, this tour, your collective has been focusing largely on instrumentals.
DW- We are actually only doing one vocal tune this tour "Shine," which never made it on an album. So Jans has really been functioning as our percussionist. It's been a bit challenging—-a contingent of fans definitely love the vocal material. But again, it's a matter of defining our sound and sticking with it. It's way more exciting for me as a writer and a player to focus on instrumental music. It's more of my calling. The whole concept of releasing everyone from commitment opened the band up for me to ask Jans back on the road, you know, just for a couple of weeks.
MG- With an open door policy in place, does the Motet still utilize certain practice rituals regularly?
DW- Not really. When we were trying to do more of the band thing, we were about that sort of thing. But now, it's a matter of finding great players. I've found that when you have the same guys on the road for five months, things get a little stagnant and you need those sorts of exercises. But, when you're using different players, there is more excitement. Every player throws in something different. There is different banteradding new players mixes in more of that creative, improvisation element than just trying to work on those exercises.
MG- Do you still work from a set list?
DW- Yes. It's important to have a set list when people are reading charts and so many new players are coming in and out. I start most of the songs and, at some point, I'd like to just start and groove and be able to have anyone go from there: sort of feel the next song coming on. It's difficult for a drummer to be a band leader. I am in the back and people can't catch my cues as easily. I can't just whisper in someone's ear. It's a lot easier for horn players or someone in the front. So, sometimes, I have to preconceive or lay things out a little more than I'd like.
MG- What drummer-band leader do you look to for inspiration?
DW- The late great Elvin Jones, who led the Jazz Machine for years. I was fortunate enough to be in New York at the time of his funeral [in May] and went somewhat undercover, though it was open to the public. It was an open casket funeral and it was pretty intense to be in the same room as someone who was so inspirational. Max Roach, Wynton Marsalis and all these great New York Jazz musicians were there. It was really inspiring to see someone's life come and go in a celebratory way, not in a depressing way.
MG- Like Hot Buttered Rum, this summer the Motet has also been sporting a pretty nifty tour bus.
DW- We are using a BioDiesel bus. Hot Buttered Rum actually use a bus which converts vegetable oil, so they travel for free, as well. Living in Boulder, you see all sorts of alternative sources of energy and concepts for trying to make the world-go-round. We just bought this shuttle bus last year and it's been a great thing. People have been sponsoring us and providing BioDiesel for us to go on tour with. Even more than our impact on the environment, it's been great just being able to go out there and tell people about this great thing.
MG- HeadCount has also been tabling on Motet tour this summer.
DW- I just read an article about Vote For Change, which Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews and all those supergroups, and I agree with those guys. There is no sort of "Beating Around, so to speak, the Bush." His administration has been a huge detriment to anything that is not the elite of America or involved in the military. People on the fringe of society are all taking a huge beating. I've seen in the mom and pop festivals. The Bush Administration supports giant cooperate media. The Clear Channel Corporation has basically destroyed grassroots music and art. The Bush Administration has no plans of controlling thatin fact they support that sort of thing. It's a very distressing thing that's happened in America. We have to do something to change that. If there is anything that makes me feel good about America, it's that we can vote to change the government. I don't see a huge difference between where the Bush Administration is going and dictatorships.
MG- As a former student at the Berklee School Music, how has the jazz-jam scene evolved?
DW- I think more musicians branching into a scene that supports more than just jazz. It's great to see these jazz musicians playing clubs, which would normally just be rock or pop oriented. But, it's the audience which has changed: before it was homogeneous, now it's old and young. Jazz-fusion has added all these new elements. For us, the world-dance-funk thing definitely brings in more people. People love to dance and I can get more creative with the chord changes. It's a great evolution from something which has always been there, but never had an outlet.
MG- Any plans for a Shockra Reunion?
DW- Nope. A couple of them are out on the east coast raising children, so it makes it harder to bring that together. But, I think we'd like to do a reunion at some point [laughs].