"The bands that practice for four hours are awesome because that's their process and that music sounds awesome but for me, I like knowing you can create really high quality things with very little effort."
– Reggie Watts
Guy MacPherson: How are you?
Reggie Watts: Uh, I'm good.
GM: Are you?
RW: I think so, yeah.
GM: Where are you?
RW: I'm in New York.
GM: Do you still have a place in New York?
RW: I do, yeah. Same old, same old.
GM: Last time I spoke to you, you were boarding a plane.
RW: Oh, yeah. Sounds about right. I'm going to board a plane tonight.
GM: You were actually in the process as we spoke.
RW: You caught me at a better time this time.
GM: Oh good. Yeah, that was 2009. And I first saw you and wrote about you in 2008.
RW: Oh wow.
GM: How early was that in your career? You hadn't hit yet like you did after that.
RW: I don't know. It just depends on what the criteria is but I'd been playing music in Seattle for ten years before that. Or more than that, I guess. Fifteen years before that. So it's hard to say. I guess it depends on if you count it as comedy, then that's the other version of it.
GM: Do you remember your first comedy show, when you broke away from doing straight-ahead music?
RW: Yeah, I guess it would have been in Seattle. I was doing some sketch comedy in the mid-'90s. But I also did standup in high school as well and travelled around Montana doing standup. I guess I've been doing standup since I was 18.
GM: Was it just spoken word standup, like more traditional stuff?
RW: No, it was pretty much exactly what I do today, minus the loop pedal.
GM: Wait a second. But that's a big part of your act. What do you mean "minus the loop pedal"? What were you doing then?
RW: I was still doing music. Just doing weird à cappella music stuff and accents and characters and things like that. So yeah, same thing.
GM: I remember a set you did at the Vancouver festival. It was on a rock comedy show. Howard Kremer came out after you and he'd never seen you before. He said, "Reggie Watts is bad for comedy because he's funnier than comedy!"
RW: (laughs) Oh, that's an amazing thing! That's awesome. He's great.
GM: You were turning heads in that festival back in 2008. You certainly turned mine. It was like, 'What the hell is this?'
RW: (laughs) That's awesome. Yeah, it was a fun time to kind of do a little bit of a sneak attack.
GM: That's just it. Now you're all over the place so anybody who wants to know about you can see you and figure out what you're all about. But I walked into your first show not knowing what to expect. I kind of envy people who see you like that for the first time because it's just mind-blowing. Now you don't have that sneak attack thing.
RW: There are other ways to still do that, where you can subvert what people think they know of you or what to expect. So it's just kind of a different approach but I can still achieve a type of that result.
GM: How do you do it now?
RW: Well, I just kind of read the audience and try to do the opposite of what they expect, whatever that is. It could be they think they know or they're yelling out names of songs I've done and I can play off of that or I could be really super straight and do comedy straight for a while or whatever. There's a bunch of different things you can do to help throw people off again.
GM: Are your shows still largely improvised?
RW: Yeah, it's the only way I can do it, really.
GM: Except you do have certain songs you get to, that are largely the same throughout, right? Like you used to have the Fuck Shit Stack.
RW: Yeah, I don't do those. I haven't done Fuck Shit Stack live probably in four years.
GM: But I mean things like that, where you have a prepared song to perform.
RW: No, I don't really do that. I mean, there's types of beats and things but I don't really have songs that I think in my head, "I'm going to do this song." It's mostly what's a cool beat? And then I just start adding stuff on top of it.
GM: Do you have any favourite musical comedy acts, either through history or contemporary?
RW: Yeah. I love Weird Al Yankovic, of course. And Victor Borge. I really dug him. Smothers Brothers. I'm trying to think of other cats from the past. I guess contemporary-wise, Becky & Murray (?). They're pretty cool. They've been at it for a long time. They're these southern guys that make these really weird songs. They're great. They do these great parody songs and they're awesome. I'm trying to think of anybody else. But those are some good examples. A good range.
GM: It's great when they're really good musicians, too, rather than just a novelty thing. Legitimately good musicians as well as being very funny.
RW: Yeah, it's nice when people have music talent, when they actually know music. You can just tell the difference immediately. It's just nice when they're knowledgeable in that sense and also have a natural sense of what's funny.
GM: I see that you have three middle names. Then I noticed your mother is French so that explained it. My mother was French and I have a long name, too.
RW: (laughs) Yeah, it's a Euro-thing, I guess.
GM: But you've always been Reggie?
RW: Yeah. I mean, my parents call me Reginald, but other people call me Reggie. I think it's just an American thing. People just shorten names.
GM: Do you speak French?
RW: I do, yeah. I was just in France for ten days a few days ago. I just had to speak French there. It was good. My girlfriend actually speaks more fluently than I do but I can understand it.
GM: I never picked it up. My mom was from France but we just spoke English.
RW: Yeah, it happens often with a parent from another country. They just end up speaking English because it's more convenient for everybody.
GM: How are you enjoying being a late night talk show band leader?
RW: I'm having a good time. It's definitely a weird thing to suddenly be doing. But for the most part it's pretty fun.
GM: I imagine you have to have music prepared for this. You have to plan out the show, what you're going to do to intro or outro. Do you play with musical guests, too?
RW: Not that often, actually. We had... what's his name? He has like a Russian last name... He did a little bit recently and the band played with him. Some kid wrote lyrics to a song, this elementary school kid, and he created music for it and sang it, and the band would sing on it as well. But it doesn't really happen that often. Most of the time the artists perform their thing and we kind of hang out on the side. I try to avoid being a backing band for artists as much as possible.
GM: But you're still playing with Karen. That's still the band's name?
RW: Oh, yeah, yeah, Karen. That's right.
GM: So is it good to be in that group dynamic again after being solo for so many years?
RW: It's so cool. I picked some great musicians. I needed some really good improvisers. Everybody improvises so well, it's just a natural extension of what I do. I was in bands for so long, I completely remembered what that's like. Yeah, it's been a really easy transition. Something that I have more experience in so when I'm playing with other musicians, it's pretty immediate how to do that.
GM: But it had been a while.
RW: Yeah, it had been a while. But at the same time when I started doing it, it was so immediate it was crazy.
GM: I know you were on Comedy Bang-Bang, but you were alone there. Was there a steep learning curve to doing a network late-night talk show in that capacity?
RW: Not too much. I'd say the learning curve is more just production. Like when you're on stage and you've got a guy in your ear saying, 'Commercial break in 5 seconds' or something like that. Or if they're showing a clip, 'Coming out of clip in 10, 9, 8...". That type of a thing. That's really the only thing. Everything else was pretty easy: the band playing and stopping when we need to. That stuff we kind of had to figure out a little bit but it didn't take too long. It's a pretty simple process, actually.
GM: What are the hours like?
RW: On average, I would say it's like 2 to 6:30, Monday to Thursday.
GM: So you're able to get out and perform on weekends. Or is it preventing you from doing more road stuff?
RW: A little bit, but we get chunks of time off. We just had three weeks off. But also we have three-day weekends so if I need to do gigs, I can usually go fly out somewhere and do a gig for a couple of days and come back.
GM: When you're out performing on your own, how do you weigh blowing minds versus getting laughs?
RW: I don't really think about it in that way. I just try to make sure the audience feels like they're being entertained. As long as they seem to be having a good time, and that can range from silence to laughing hysterically, that's all I'm really concerned about. It doesn't have to be funny all the time; it can be kind of serious and introspective or just get really huge and be blown out of proportion and be very absurd.
GM: I know you love getting laughs. And you're such a great singer. If you had to sing seriously, non-ironically or non-humorously, would you feel self-conscious to do a heartfelt song?
RW: No, not at all. I love singing, whether it's seriously or a parody or an absurd example of something. I like all of it. It's really up to my mood. Sometimes I feel like doing something seriously; sometimes a song can be mostly serious with some funny stuff. There's all sorts of mixtures and ratios.
GM: You were in the LA alt-scene and now you have perhaps more of a mainstream presence, at least on network TV. Is that helping gain new followers?
RW: I think so. My Twitter follower numbers haven't really gone up too crazily or anything, but I think there's definitely more visibility and people can share more things now, but not like a massive, noticeable difference, I would say. Which is actually great because I don't want to get too big, in a way that makes it difficult to walk down the street or something like that. Right now I think I'm at a comfortable level and the people that do approach me are really super sweet. Just cool people, really. Very respectful. That's the perfect level, I think.
GM: I imagine you also don't want to get too big that you can't do what you want to do.
GM: And use whatever language you want to use even though people aren't used to seeing that on TV.
RW: Yeah, you just want to be able to do what you wanna do. You're aware of context. I'm not going to swear all the time or do weird shit just because I'm on a large channel or whatever; it's mainly just context-based behaviour, I guess. And the show's good because they really let me do whatever I wanna do. It all works out.
GM: And they get you involved on the show, too.
RW: Yeah, there are definitely sketches that we've done in the past and some other things that are upcoming. It's a real mix of not knowing – and purposely not knowing, like I don't really read scripts or anything like that; I just kinda show up and hope the show is easy to understand – so that and an awareness of things that they're looking to do in the future.
GM: Is the show doing well, do you know?
RW: I think it is. It's nominated for a Critics Choice Award, which I guess is very rare for a first year show. We've submitted stuff for Emmys. We submitted the theme song for Best Theme Song or something like that. And critically I think it's been received pretty well, I suppose. I don't read a lot of reviews about it, but in general it seems to be doing pretty good.
GM: So you're playing the Pemberton festival. Do you know much about it?
RW: No, not really. I guess it can be compared to things like Bonaroo or Sasquatch or Coachella. Something like that, but in a different geography, different vibe, I'm assuming. I don't even know how long it's been going.
GM: It would seem that you'd be in your element in that kind of environment.
RW: Yeah, for sure, like mountains and trees. That's my favourite kind of terrain. Something more up north that's got more forests and more familiar terrain that I'm used to growing up with is exciting to me. Sasquatch is cool but it's not really a foresty kind of a thing; it's the Gorge so it's a cliff-plateau kind of vibe. And Coachella's more desert. Bonaroo's definitely got trees and stuff but it's really hot and dusty. It's just different when you can be in a place that's got a little bit more wetness and greener. That's kind of exciting to me.
GM: Hopefully there will be some wetness and there won't be forest fires like there have been.
RW: No, I know it's always the worry.
GM: But I was thinking more that it's a big, outdoor music festival that has comedy. The crowds, I'm assuming, would be mostly there for the various bands that are performing and here you come out and do your thing. I could imagine even though there's no roof, you blowing the roof off the place.
RW: Yeah, I hope so! That's the great thing about what I do is I can decide how much music is going to be in the act or how much talking is going to be in the act. It's a music festival. It's kinda great because I can mostly do music and people can dance and respond to what's going on and that's really fun. So I can adapt to the situation. But yeah, for sure, if it's a music festival, I'm stoked to check out music, get inspired by that and use that inspiration on stage for my set.
GM: Do you envision a time when you return to straight-ahead music?
RW: Yeah. I'm working on a record deal right now. I'm going to record some form of an album or a series of EPs in the next half a year. We'll see what happens with that. It's open right now but it's definitely going to occur. That's something I've been wanting to do for a long time. It'll be great. Whatever it is, it could be a mixture of serious music or it could all be serious music or it could be some serious, some jokey stuff. I don't know. But I'm definitely going to put out some music this year for sure.
GM: I know you have catholic tastes in music. It's wide-ranging, from the Carpenters to jazz to hip-hop. Is there a particular style that you would play or would you be all over the map?
RW: Probably all over the map to a certain degree. I mean, not all over the map to be all over the map just for the sake of it. I think it'll definitely be very beat driven. I don't know, it could be somewhere in the realm of anywhere from indie rock to electronic stuff and also some straight-up pop tunes. Just dumb pop stuff. I like pop music but I like to create pop music very, very quickly where I'm going to hook you very quickly just to show how easy it is to make that kind of music.
GM: Is it that easy?
RW: Yeah, I mean it's pretty easy to create hits. People approach it like a science, some of those songwriting teams. But it's pretty easy. It's just listening to what's current, picking up on trends, infusing that into what you're doing, and then writing some lyrics that evoke some kind of dramatic feeling or quirky absurdity that makes no sense, and then put a really hooky melody on it and tighten it up and make it sound good. It's pretty easy. So one of the things I'm interested in is writing some "hit songs" quote-unquote. My interest is to show that it's not that difficult to make art.
GM: As a way to expose it or as a way to celebrate it?
RW: Celebrate it but also to expose, to demystify it a little bit, to de-preciousize it. When people are like, 'That new Rihanna song is so incredible,' it's like, yeah, it's a great song, it's really hooky. But I think sometimes people think, wow, it takes a team of incredibly talented people to put something together like that. If you listen to a Tame Impala album, that's someone doing something artful. They're amazing. They're making really incredible, artistic music but when you listen to a Rihanna track, you just have to hit the right tropes. You know what tropes to hit and have a production style that sounds current. That's kind of all it takes. And if you get someone that looks good, you create a music video. So my thing is I just want to kind of expose just how easy it is to do that kind of stuff as opposed to writing a song like something the Talking Heads would have come up with. There's a huge difference, a vast difference and it's nice to educate people between the two.
GM: And if the byproduct is that it becomes a runaway hit and makes you millions, it's a win-win situation.
RW: Yeah, for sure. Because it's just an experiment but if it blows up it'd be great because then people would be like, 'How long did it take to write?' And I'll be like, 'It took about ten minutes to write the essence of the song and maybe about a day to record it.' Even on the Late, Late Show, all the music that we're doing is mostly improvised. We're creating it right before the show and sometimes playing it for the first time. Or even sometimes during the break just before we're about to go out of commercial, I'll just start humming something into the microphone and the band will learn it real quickly and we just play it live. I want people to know that it's super easy to create all the in and out music that you hear on late shows. The bands that practice for four hours are awesome because that's their process and that music sounds awesome but for me, I like knowing you can create really high quality things with very little effort.
GM: My dad was a jazz musician and when he would record a CD, it was a day. It was done in one day.
RW: Yeah, exactly.
GM: You think of jazz – or I do, anyway – as a higher art form than pop music, but the pop music records take months. I'm always thinking, 'What are they doing?'
RW: (laughs) Yeah, I know. It's usually way too many cooks in the kitchen. It's just a lot of people hemming and hawing about, like, 'Should it be "the" or "and"?' or 'She's got me feeling so good but her fire... I don't know, there's something about fire. Fire seems old.' It's just this weird discussion debate form about whether this sounds hip or not. They take a long time doing it because they want to make it a perfect, perfect pop attack as opposed to Nirvana writing Teen Spirit relatively quickly and recording it in a pretty low-fi way and it becoming this gigantic hit, where it was just natural. A lot of pop music is manufactured and designed. And the more designed, the more produced, the more people are involved and the longer and more complicated the process is. A lot of it has to do with people just justifying their existence and participation in the process. Because it doesn't take seven people to write a song. It takes one to three, maximum. If it's a group, it could just take the group to write the song. But in modern pop music you'll have, like, three lyricists and four producers and a remix artist or whatever. They're just unnecessary positions to creating a good song.
GM: It's like Hollywood movies with all the executives giving notes and it costs so much, whereas an independent film is so much more interesting and takes two weeks.
RW: Oh, totally. Because the passion's there and there's a clear vision. There's less complexity obstructing the creative process. If there's more money involved, there's more people involved.