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Published: 2015/06/30
by Matthew Inman

The Several Realities of Patrick Watson

I know in my mind that I am sitting on a couch in a sunny Manhattan office, but my eyes are telling a different story. I look at my surroundings and see a sprawling studio apartment in Montreal, filled to the brim with pianos, keyboards, organs, music memorabilia, a sleepy dog and Patrick Watson, who is softly plinking away at his piano and crooning into a microphone. He gives me a smile. I look behind me, and instead of the wall that I know is there, I see the rest of the apartment, the floor strewn with various items, and the dog raises his head as if he notices my movement. Above me is a different ceiling than the one I saw two minutes ago.

This is my first experience with virtual reality. Watson, the California-born and Canada-raised purveyor of understated yet wholly powerful piano-driven music, made this experimental pseudo-music-video as a demonstration of a new camera technology, and it was unexpectedly picked up by Oculus as a go-to illustration of their virtual reality headset. “It’s going to change the world,” says Watson, and I have no reason to doubt him.

The night before our virtual encounter, I had the pleasure of seeing Watson in person for the first time at a sold-out show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. With the band that shares his name, Watson sang and played and talked and chuckled his way through a truly impressive performance. The band’s finely-tuned compositions and technical ability with their instruments and voices—coupled with a fantastic light show that included several medium to large flashbulb-camera-looking lamps, some of which also emanated smoke throughout the evening—filled every corner of the venue with emotion and energy. Though I was not familiar with the Montreal group’s music before walking in—a fact well-illustrated by me being possibly the only one not singing along when Watson and guitarist Joe Grass ventured into the middle of the crowd for an acoustic encore performance—when I walked out, both Patrick Watson the band and Patrick Watson the person had themselves a brand new fan.

After my mind-rattling virtual meeting with Watson, I was back in New York City and sitting across from the man himself. The conversation, much like the concert, did not disappoint. Watson, amiable as hell, munching on some grapes that sat on the table between us, spoke of his beginnings in Canada, some lessons he’s learned in his over a decade in the music business, his new album, Love Songs For Robots, and the science—both fiction and fact—that inspired it.

So I was at the show last night. And I have to say, I’d never heard your music before.

It’s more fun to see a concert like that, though!

It’s good to go in having heard a little bit, but honestly with your music that wasn’t even necessary.

I mean, I remember the first time I saw Godspeed [You! Black Emperor], I didn’t hear the recordings first, and that was my favorite show ever, that was amazing. We’re a live band, so we’re meant for that, more than a record. It’s a live record, but there’s just something when we play live, the sense of humor of the music, and the tone of it is more natural, where on the recording it seems a bit more serious than it actually is in real life, for me. People feel like it’s more melancholic that it than it actually is, and when they see it live you have a much better idea of what it is.

How did you get started in music?

I grew up in a really small town of like 3,000 people, so I started music singing in a little church for like thirty people. I started music around six or five, and I just sang—but it was not like a really religious church. It was quite nice, actually, because it was pretty open, easy going. So it was more like people would just get together every Sunday.

What was your first instrument?

Piano—I’m a piano player. I don’t play anything else really that well.

Well you were playing guitar last night.

Yeah, I mean, on a very limited basis. I can write—every once in a while I’ll just write a song on the guitar and I can play it, but I can’t play the guitar. That’s different.

Speaking of growing up, I recently read that Debussy was a big influence on you, which makes sense. When did you first hear him?

I was discovering Debussy late in the game—about seventeen. Especially the orchestra stuff; I like his orchestrations. And at the same time, I was discovering more electronic music. So I was meeting the two in the same world, and what I really wanted to do was kind of crossbreed them, from the get-go. Why Debussy’s interesting is he’s like the first arranger, let’s say, that didn’t arrange in a concept of music, more a narrative. So he would break all the constructions of music’s rules just to make a sound effect. So in a way he’s naturally one of the fist sound effect-y kind of musicians. Like, for example, this one day when he’s practicing piano, this guy comes to him and says “What are you doing?”—he’s doing this weird chromatic stuff. And he’s like, “I’m imitating all the characters going by,” like sound effects. So that’s why he kind of broke all the tonal boundaries in terms of his arrangements, but at the same time it’s really melodic, so it’s not like Stravinsky and all experimental either. It’s super touching, because it tells a really awesome story. That’s what I clicked on with him.

In a similar vein, you had the opportunity to play with Phillip Glass early in your career, right?

We were really young, and we got really lucky. We were invited to this film co-op benefit show where it was Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, the dudes from Sonic Youth were there. It was a whole bunch of crazy guys. We had met this director in a bar, and he’s like, you guys should come play this show. So we practiced our ass off for like a month. And obviously no one else really gave a shit when they got there. We were scared out of our brains. It was amazing. It seems to be that all the kind of people I’ve met who have done really great things—not great things as popular, but just great things that blow your mind—they’re generally pretty grounded, nice people. It seems to be the rule. I don’t know why. So he was like, “You like this piano?” And I’m like, “I have to usually play a crappy keyboard, so I’m pretty happy about this piano right now.” So that was a pretty lucky—the things that give you confidence and wind at your back, when you’re that young. And obviously we practiced a lot, so we killed it. It was pretty amazing.

What is he like as a person?

I mean, I didn’t talk to him for very long, but again, he just makes you think of a New York taxi driver kind of nice guy. It just seems how all those kind of people in that other land are just generally nice and warm and no-nonsense. They’ve got nothing to prove, right?

They’ve already proved a lot.

But even probably before he proved it, he was probably the same kind. They don’t have anything to prove. They’re just confident people. They like what they do, and they just do what they do. So usually when you meet people with a lot of attitude, it’s because they’re not good with themselves, and they’re trying to prove something to themselves more than other people. That usually when you have that shitty attitude thing, you know? It’s a defense mechanism. Usually when people are fucking assholes, it’s because they don’t feel good with themselves. They want to prove they’re really cool, because deep down inside they know they’re not. I mean, I toured with the James Brown guys, and it was the same story, you know? Those guys are legends, and I expected them to be really standoffish with us, because who the fuck are we to open up for them? Like, we’re not a funk band—we’re so far from what they are—and they were so open and so graceful with us. We were lucky to have those kind of experiences, right, because it was a good steering point for us.

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