Phil Lynott, John Hughes & Conan O’brien – Siobhán Kane spoke with Reggie Watts ahead of his show in Whelan’s last Saturday night. Reggie Watts is something of a renaissance man, as well as a lovely human being. He goes far beyond the remit of a traditional comic, bringing in musical processes that involves loop pedals, and the kind of improvisation that boggles the mind as well as the heart. His inventiveness comes with a huge appetite for chaos, which in turns lends itself to an openness to unlikely collaboration.
These collaborations have taken him from being part of the Seattle-based group Maktub, to writing music for Louis CK’s new show, appearing on Conan O’Brien, and performing with LCD Soundsystem as part of their “farewell” shows in Madison Square Garden. His tastes are as divergent as his talent, which makes sense, because he can confess a love of mainstream comedies, and then feature as part of a festival of performance artists, record a live show on Jack White’s Third Man Records label, then work with DFA Records on their Spaghetti Circus record, “culture jam” with The Yes Men, and produce experimental theatre with long-time collaborator playwright Tommy Smith. The list is long, and the possibilities are endless for this wonderful award-winning “comedic performer who specialises in benevolent confusion”. Siobhán Kane talks to him.
I saw your rendering of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Boys are Back in Town’ on the tour you did with Conan O’Brien last November, it was wonderful.
Oh my God, on The Conan Show! [Laughs] Oh my gosh, you saw that? I have seen that statue of Phil Lynott in Dublin, it’s amazing. I thought it was the perfect song because of Conan’s Irish heritage, and he was back in New York, and Phil was kind of Jimi Hendrix-looking – you couldn’t get any more perfect than that. That band was such a good band. I was having a meal at one of my favourite restaurants in Brooklyn recently, and when I walked in they were playing that Thin Lizzy – Live album, it was awesome!
Conan has always seemed like a really good person, that reaches out to interesting performers, comic and musicians.
Oh yeah, he’s a huge music fan, he’s actually a big rockabilly fan – I didn’t really understand that before, but that’s where his entire hairstyle came from, isn’t that crazy? He’s all rockabilly. He also loves rock and roll, who’d have thought? When we were on tour I would sit down with him a lot and learn as much as I could about him, he’s a cool cat.
Was it strange playing to such huge crowds with Conan on that tour?
For sure, but it happened suddenly, and magically, but in my music background I had played to larger audiences before. So when they were taking me on tour they were worried, they thought “this kid is going to be in awe” which I was in terms of the situation, but in terms of the crowd size it wasn’t nerve-wracking at all.
There seems to be a real community with people producing alternative comedy in America at the moment, is that the case?
I think there is a great community. In the United States the idea of the alternative comedy scene is very supportive, there is a lot of kinship here in America, but also there are huge fans here of British comedy, and people like Peter Serafinowicz come over a lot, I love him, and whenever I go to the UK, especially Edinburgh, I feel it is a great place to go as you get a huge crossover of comics. Also, the last comedy festival l I did in Ireland had lots of American acts like Tim & Eric, so all these American comics were mixing in with the Irish comics, it’s pretty cool. All these people know of each other. Comedians in LA are invariably a bit more disconnected, but mainly there is an appreciation.
The Occurrence nights that often take place in NYC, and that you occasionally host, also seem a great way of celebrating what is happening in counterculture, or alternative culture.
Oh yes, but you know, we haven’t done it in a while. When we used to do it, it was great to put together a strange variety show without too much explanation about what the acts are, where things happen without over-explaining it to the audience.
That is actually a lovely way of describing your own work, which is a perfect storm, where you thrive on the instability of the whole thing. I always loved that about Tommy Cooper, where you were never quite sure if he knew what was going to happen next, but the beauty is in the mistakes – he was beyond a comic, an entertainer, a real artist.
Oh I love him. For me, I think instability is a bit of a thing I like, I like things to just happen in a natural way, and really it is about a lot of listening, which is how I like to think of improvisation, listening and hearing what the idea wants to be, and coming into that. I loved Abbott and Costello too, and I was a big fan of The Muppet Show, and Sesame Street had some funny stuff once in a while, and I also really liked Gene Wilder and all of his movies, and Gilda Radner, she was totally amazing, unique and beautiful. Madeline Kahn and Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy of course, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Steven Wright, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Monty Python is a huge influence too – a lot of BBC comedy has been maximally awesome [laughs]. More recently it would be Stella with Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and David Wain, I love their work, SNL on occasion, and MAD TV sometimes.
The one thing all of those people have in common is a sense of complete individuality.
Absolutely, as soon as you hear their voice you would know who it is – and that is the premium thing in comedy, I think.
You certainly fit into that, but I was wondering how you would describe what you do, I would hesitate to try and explain adequately.
I appreciate that! [Laughs] But you have your perspective which is completely valid! I guess I would call myself a comedic performer who specialises in benevolent confusion [laughs]. For me I feel everyone is a creative individual, we all use different tools, but I suppose I use lots of tools because I love them all.
One of those tools is music, and you have had such a long varied relationship with it, especially in terms of your time in Maktub. Do you think that there might be another Maktub record at some point?
Yes, maybe, well… actually I don’t know [laughs] because we are not really officially a band necessarily, and so it has been more of a collective at this point. Before we were a band, but now we are a collective, maybe we will come together and do a record again, that would be fun.
That collective nature is something you seem to thrive upon, I also view that in terms of the best teachers, that sense of inclusivity – have you ever thought of teaching?
I have done a little bit of teaching in the past, nothing too formal. In the future I think if I teach I would teach improvisation, but in general, where it would be my take on it that you can apply to anything, from trying to solve a problem with a computer, to performing on stage, or relating to someone you dislike. I think improvisation can be used throughout your life.
Putting out a comedy record on Third Man Records [Reggie Watts: Live at Third Man Records] last year seemed a good fit, since it seems to elevate non-confirmist ideas, just like you. It seems like a real distillation of your work – people should perhaps start there, and work backwards?
I like that idea! I think it would be a great place to start because it represented a cool moment in time and there were some new things in there for me that I got to do, because it was a much more musical place. Being in Nashville with that audience created a unique situation.The recording goes all over the place, but it seems like a grounded performance, perhaps as well because it is on vinyl.
You mentioned Nashville, and environment means a lot to you, I read an interview where you said Seattle was an important place for you, and you love living in New York, but Portland appears to have taken your imagination more recently, why?
The aesthetic is very similar to Williamsburg and Brooklyn in a way, but it’s like a more real version. Pendleton comes from Portland, Oregon – a great wool maker, it was actually an Irish family that started it in the late 1800’s, they make great high quality wool wear, and it has become an iconic brand in the US. It is also quite an eco-friendly place in the city, and the city is designed to human scale, which means that the blocks are smaller, and it makes more sense as you are walking to get through the city. There is a strong biking culture, so there are lots of bike lanes, and there are amazing restaurants – a few years ago The New York Times voted it the best city for food in the US. It has more movie theatres per capita than any city in the United States – big multiplexes down to small forty seat theatres, old scrappy places, and in terms of arts there are great festivals TBA, which brings in performance artists from all over the world, and Nike is there, which I know is a huge big evil corporation, but there are lots of good things about Nike too.
They did give Michael Jordan his own shoes, and acknowledge his inherent greatness.
That is true, and Michael Jordan is great.
Has working with Tommy Smith helped you a lot? He has such a grasp on language, and is so sparing with it, realising its power. Do you feel that working relationship has had a ripple effect on your work?
For sure. With him, it has been great, as I can stream a bunch of different ideas, just from hanging out, and doing a writing session, then he will record it and look at them and organise them in a way that he is great at, structuring narrative and so on, then we bounce ideas off each other and then he will finalise it. It is a really nice relationship that way. He is a perfect collaborator, if I could have a collaborator like that as a director, technology expert… a team of people that worked in the way that Tommy works, that would be great.
Do you really feel like you are constantly looking for that? You have such an openness which lends itself to diverse people and projects.
It’s the best way to be, and I am genuinely interested in what people have to say. I love the production and process. If I have a chance to go into someone’s studio and see how they work, that is very interesting to me. It is important to be where you want to be, instead of doing it for appearances, which happens most of the time.
Your contribution to the Yes Men documentary was funny, and like Stephen Colbert, or The Daily Show – they are good at playing with boundaries of political activism, but without being po-faced, doing it through satire and art, which is important. How did that come about?
It’s true. It’s all about actualising things you are about and believe in. You know I am not exactly sure how I met them, it’s a really weird thing [laughs]. I think it was through IBeam which is a place in New York that focuses on the convergence of art and technology, and they give out grants, so they were in there editing videos, as they got a grant. I got referred to them somehow through IBeam, and I ended up doing that really dum, whatever-it-is-we-did thing in the movie [laughs], they filmed it, and didn’t know how they were going to use it, but they did – it is what it is!
You quite like your films from yesteryear, particularly John Hughes films, and I keep thinking of Goldie Hawn in things like Foul Play, lovely, off-kilter little films.
Oh yeah, and Overboard! I love that one. With John Hughes I loved that he treated teenagers like people, acknowledging they are complex, and with the intellectual respect that they have, and the issues they have, because growing up with hormonal changes and social anxiety, and being an outcast, or wanting to belong…those are the things in those important years that determine our personalities and the way we relate to the world. John Hughes got all that, he saw things through teenagers perspective, and that was a revolution of sorts in movie-making. Some Kind of Wonderful is probably one of my favourite films of his actually. It was a different take on his thing, and all the classics like Weird Science and Three O’Clock High that a lot of people don’t know about, it is in a John Hughes style. It’s about a kid that gets transferred to a high school, he is known as a troublemaker, and is a touch freak, no-one can touch him or he will freak out. Then the nerdy guy that is the main character, meets him in the bathroom and accidentally touches him and they have to fight at three o’clock after school, and the whole day is about him doing everything he can to avoid fighting this guy – it’s great.
The worst part isn’t the fight, it’s the waiting for the fight.
Oh definitely, it’s the anticipating of it. Oh and you know, Better Off Dead is great, and One Crazy Summer, which is basically the same cast, but with Demi Moore [laughs].
It is unsurprising to know that your musical taste is as diverse as your film taste, growing up listening to Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams, you now also take in Beach House, The Cocteau Twins, and Skinny Puppy, who else are you listening to at present?
I have been listening a lot to Datarock’s last album [Red], there is a song on it called ‘Amarillion’ which is great. It is a very eighties inspired album, quite literally one of the songs is called ‘Molly’ after Molly Ringwald, and they are a Norwegian band, so I don’t really understand what is going on a whole lot, but the whole record is just genius. I like it anyway. I don’t get to concerts as much as I would like, but I got to see Bilal a while back, who really destroyed it, his band were amazing, and I saw Mos Def as well, it was good to see him again.
What other projects are you working on at present?
I am releasing a Comedy Central special called Alive in Central Park, which is just me doing a show there for people, with some video sketches inbetween, and I am filming a new show for IFC – Comedy Bang Bang for the web, which is like a fake surreal talk show, and I am the bandleader, the Paul Shaffer [of David Letterman] guy. I’d like to get to Edinburgh for ten days or so as well, but we’ll see.