The Human Metronome A Conversation with The Motet’s Dave Watts
In a world dominated by producers, new guitar gods and vocalists with LSD (Lead Singer Disease), the Motet offers a refreshing alternative. Their drummer leads the band’s sound with steam directed from that proverbial engine room as opposed to the normal routine of a guitar lick and a witty sheet of lyrics. Instrumental Dissent is the new album by the Colorado quintet, featuring a nearly year-long exploration through the mind of a band excavating that elusive new sound. Some songs are linear tapestries while others are a wonderful hodgepodge of various elements mixed and matched from multiple jams. Jambands.com caught up with drummer Dave Watts, who leads the Motet, after a recent two-gig series of Herbie Hancock tribute performancesan homage, which dates back to the band’s first unofficial Halloween theme night from 2000. Watts discussed the new album, an addition in his family, life in a Pro Tools world and the everchanging but timeless devotion to the hard lessons of the road“we look at the schedule and we keep playingwe’re lifers,” said Watts and jamband fans are continually grateful for that fact.
RR: How were the Herbie Hancock tribute gigs you played recently in Colorado?
DW: The Motet did a Herbie Hancock tribute around five, six years ago at the Fox [Theatre in Boulder, Colorado] and it started our traditional Halloween theme night featuring a different artist every year. Herbie was probably my favorite out of all of them. I’ve grown up loving his music so much that to be able to play a whole night of his stuff is really exciting for me. The keyboard player, Joey Porterwho is in this particular lineupis from Portland, Oregon. He had a group out there and they’ve done this tribute for about three years now. When he moved out here, it seemed like a natural progression to put it together again and it’s highly successful.
RR: Who played at the tribute gigs this year?
DW: Myself, Garrett [Sayers], Dominic [Lalli] from the Motet and Joey Porter on keys.
DW: Yeah, people just came out in droves. It’s amazing; people love that stuff. You forget as a musician when you’re listening to it but a lot of people listen to it and a lot of non-musicians appreciate his stuff. There’s a balance of jazz and dance music.
RR: What Hancock songs did you play?
DW: “Actual Proof,” “Spank-a-lee,” “Palm Green,” a lot of stuff from Thrust, from Secrets, from Headhunters, we even did “Chameleon”we covered a pretty big gamut from his funk era.
RR: His music has aged rather well.
DW: (laughs) It’s amazing that those sounds have because some of that stuff becomes so dated. People are kind of going back to those sounds; harmonically and rhythmically, it will never be outdated. That stuff is so cutting-edged.
RR: My other feature this month is on Keller Williams and we spoke about your own “cutting-edged” sound. He called you “the human metronome.” Do you have any projects lined up with him in the future?
DW: (laughs) Classic! Wow. I wish we did. We haven’t really done much since that trio album that we did Laugh. Man, his bag has gotten so much deeper since then, too. When we were playing together, it was just the tip of the iceberg compared to what he’s doing, now. Actually, it’s no wonder we haven’t played together because he doesn’t really need me. (laughter) His thing is so happening, covering all the bases by himself; he’s just a phenomenon, really.
RR: He barely needs himself; he’s got so many loops going on.
DW: Yeah, his gear is just going to show up to gigs; his soundmanfor the harmonies. (laughter) It’s amazing. I couldn’t believe it when we first played together. Actually, I’ve known Keller since around 1995. He was living in Colorado playing at a coffee shop. He’d play acoustic and sing and then he’d bust out a trumpet solo. I said, “Wowthis guy has some different stuff going on.” Before you know it, he was doing stuff with String Cheese, his guitar playing had really come together, creating this sound that he is known for and then, he got into the looping thing after we played together; he was just getting into it when we did that trio album. Now, it’s through the roof. He’s just insanely talented. He’s one of those guys that’s going, going, going and it’s music all of the time in his head. The funny thing is that it’s all feel for him. He doesn’t really know the technical side of musicat least when we were playing together. Our bass player would explain the chords to him and he would say: “O.K. That’s what you call it.” He didn’t really have any theory for it but his ear is so big that he’s just a monster musician.
RR: I hear your baby in the background. Keller’s 17-month old daughter sings on a loop on the last track on his new album.
DW: (laughs) That’s great. I put my kid on an album, too. I can’t resistjust a little snippet on the way in and on the way out.
RR: We’ve got six-month old twin boys but they don’t sing, they shout. Anyhow, the Motet Trio has a gig on March 2 and you have another side project gig on March 7.
DW: The trio project is really cool. It’s kind of like what we’re doing with the Herbie thing, minus Herbie with me, Dominic and Garrett. We’ve been getting into some freeform stuff with non-tune oriented music. We’re really trying to strip down the music as much as possible and just play. I love the trio format; it’s a pretty amazing synergy.
Garrett and I also have a trio with Dan Lebowitz from ALO called Magic Gravy. We’ve gotten into some spaces with that trio where we basically play one song per set. The whole ability to stop on a dime, cruise around and do different things in a telepathic way is pretty exciting. We’re milking that and applying that to our Motet trio, too with Dom and it’s been really fun. The March 2 gig is actually the opening of a coffee shop here in town.
RR: The Motet’s new studio release, Instrumental Dissent paves new terrain while being an extension of the pasta varied and confident exploratory work.
DW: I think it stands out from our other albums because it really was a true studio effort. We gave ourselves quite a bit of time over the last year to work on it. For one, me having a kid took me off the road a bit. That was a good excuse for me to want to stay home and still be creative. The album is partly an expression of thathaving the time and space to be able to do it because we also recorded the whole thing at home. We did a bit of mixing in a studio but all of the recording of the tracks and a main part of the mixing happened at home. It was great for us to get with it and try different ideas. I think that’s what makes it work really well because we were able to try different ideas and it wasn’t just a capture of what we do live in a studio settingsomething onto itself. Part of the flow of the album is the result of us sitting back and saying, “O.K., what needs to happen here?” We’d write songs for certain moments on the album. That’s a general synopsis of what makes Instrumental Dissent stand out from our other albums.
RR: Does that define the organic flow of the album? Were tracks culled from various sources or were the songs pieced together en masse in the studio?
DW: It was all done in the studio at the time but that time period was over nine months. With Pro Tools, you can kind of do anything at this point. I remember the days of tape and all of that stuff and trying to cut and splice and overdubthat process was really laborious and time-consuming. It’s now gotten to a point where if you can hear it in your head, you can make it happen without having to spend $100,000 on a producer and a high-end studio. You can do it at home. Reallythat’s the exciting part about being a musician because it’s all about being creative and trying to work out the sounds that you hear in your head. We’d just go into our rehearsal space and play; play a bunch of tapes of tunes, play some different ideas. I would go in there after the guys had gone and spend a few days mixing and matching all of the different takes, improvs and tunescutting and splicing something consistent.
That was something that we’ve never done before. There are some areas with solo sections and what not that are what they are but there are other areas that are completely created in the editing mode, which is really exciting. Not only is that something that we’ve never done live before, but it was something that we really hadn’t done when we’d recorded it. There might have been a keyboard from one improv that was put with the drum part of another improv to mix and match something that was even more exciting. For us, that was what being in a studio was all about. I grew up listening to Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel and some of the later Beatles where you can tell it was all about sitting behind a desk, creating something onto itself. The album encompasses a whole slew of different processes towards making it what it was. Like I said, there was some takes with us going in there and playing and that’s what it ended up on the album; there were other things that were all mixed and matched; some areas had scratch tracks where I would overdub the drums or record one instrument at a time to get a clear, clean sound. There was no one consistent way to making any of the tracks. It’ll be interesting to see how we do it next time.
RR: It’s also interesting that you mentioned Peter Gabriel because he revolutionized how drums could sound in a studio settingpost Genesis. The drums recorded on those solo albums would sound like percussion from a claustrophobic tube segueing into a vast surround sound environment. In the early 70s, the classic example is Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and his drum kit in the hallway of a very old British castle being recorded by Jimmy Page for “When the Levee Breaks.” Are the drum sounds of the 70s and 80s easier to get on tape these days?
DW: Right. Right. You had to actually go to the place. That’s why, back then, the bands that were able to do that had to be highly successful because there had to be money behind it to be able to create all of the drum sounds. Now it’s like you can record all of the drums in a tiny little room and replace them with drums recorded all over the world with different programs that will do that sort of thing, automatically. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it has the same spirit. I think there are sounds and there is the spirit of music and you can’t necessarily confuse the two. If you’ve got the sound, it doesn’t mean that the music is going to suddenly make sense or have that much more relevance. There’s a balance there, for sure, but I definitely appreciate the fact that I don’t have to go into a high-end studio or do it at home with mediocre results. There’s other possibilities that really opens up our world.
What really gets me excited about the music from the 70s is the liveness of it. Once the 80s came around, the focus was on drum machines and perfection of time and all of that stuff so that it squared things out. I love the old Herbie Hancock stuff and every song speeds up. (laughs) That’s great. You never get that anymore; everyone plays in a grid. It has to be like a metronome so you can edit it really easy. It’s unfortunate because it’s really a legitimate musical form to have music accelerate. It creates a certain amount of dynamic energythat was sort of a given at a certain period of recorded music. Now, it’s a given that everything is going to be metronomically correct. I miss that to a certain degree and also some of the rawness. You listen to some of Herbie’s stuff and the drums are really raw. You put on the headphones and you say, “Wowthey let that slide?” When you hear the whole thing, it works. I think there was also a certain amount of acceptance to a raw, edgy quality.
RR: With all of the technology to get what is in the head on tape, is there the opposite problem where a drummer or band has no outside inspiration anymore?
DW: Yeah. Yeahthe whole option anxiety; there are so many possibilities, what works? That’s a difficult one because you can get so deep into your head, so focused on the possibilities that when you stand back and listen to the whole thing, you say: “AwwI haven’t gotten anywhere.” That’s definitely something to keep in balance at times. I think that’s a challenge for any musician at any time. You always need a bigger picture when you’re trying to work on music.
RR: Is it safe to say that the Motet increased the big picture the old fashioned wayyou went on the road and continually redefined your sound via multiple gigs? If so, does having children reduce touring, in turn reducing influences?
DW: I don’t think that’s going to change because of my situation. The touring is a little bit challenging at times especially, when you’re on the club circuit and you’re having to schlep gear until 4am. Honestly, I look forward to going on tour so I can get some sleep. (laughter)
RR: I know. About a month after our twins were born, I was in New York on a feature assignment, woke up in a hotel room and had no idea where I was but that full night’s rest felt damn good.
DW: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing when you realize that at home you get less sleep sometimes than you do on the road. I think that there are plenty of bands that focus on trying to make it big and their presentation and all of that. My own personal thingand the rest of the group knowsis all about playing. We’re players; we grew up playing jazz, loving to hear guys that would walk up on stage and put their heart and soul into it. It’s not about just the song. Pop music can be so much about the song and the presentation that that influences emotions. None of us really want to ever end up like that. I don’t think we have that fear, at all. If we stay at home, we have all of these different side projects and possibilities that it’s just a matter of being creative one way or another.
Going out there and playing every night? We still do it. This past summer we played sixteen shows in a row, driving six-to-eight hours a day between shows. It was insane. We said, “We must really love what we do to go through this.” You look at the schedule and you keep playing, keep playing. It builds you to a certain point with your character in playing that you can’t get any other way where you are dedicated to making the music. Those years and miles under our belt are definitely worth something. You’d think it would all build up and at some point: “O.K. Done,” but everyday is a new day. When you get back from touring, there’s a recovery period but then you’re suddenly saying, “O.K. When are we going out, again?” It becomes a habit. We’re lifers.
RR: I told Keller Williams in our interview this week that one of the main reasons that I like the Motet is they are a drummer-led band. He said, “What a concept too, because the drum is the most important instrument.” How important is that to your sound and what is the effect of percussionist Scott Messersmith leaving the band?
DW: Well, I definitely think, in the past, it’s been really important to our sound. I tend to write music from the rhythm up so I’ll write a song from the kit or percussion part or a bass line that has a good rhythmic sense to it. Our music has been very rhythm-oriented. Of course, with Scott and I having a vision of all of this Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, West African music, there has been a lot of that influence in there, as well, with the traditional rhythms. I think it’s been a big part of our sound. Also, the drummer writing the songs is definitely unique. Now we’ve gotten to a point that Scott’s left the band and, at the same time, a lot of other guys in the band are starting to write tunes. It’s actually becoming much more of a democracy as far as people bringing music to the table. I think we’re going to focus more on an indie jazz rock sort of vibedefinitely a different sound as opposed to the traditional world music. I think it’s opened up a lot of things for us. It puts more focus on the bass and drums without the percussion thereGarrett and I have a nice synergy. It’s only been a couple of months now so we’ll see where it takes us.
Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.