Interview: Patrick Watson On Why You're The Best Part Of His Show

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 1, 2012 10:35PM

2012_6_1_PW.jpg We recently caught up with Canadian artist Patrick Watson as street protests were going on outside his home in Montreal. The Polaris Prize-winning musician chatted with us about NATO, protesting, Japanese border security and the biggest lessons he learned from touring with James Brown.

Patrick Watson: Tonight everyone was out with heir pots and pans and the whole city was pretty crazy.

Chicagoist: We just had the NATO summit in Chicago so there's been no shortage of protests around here. What's going on in Montreal?

PW: There are student protests because [the government] is raising student tuition. Now there are anti-protest laws and the whole city is in the streets, banging buckets.

C: Some parallel situations going on, eh?

PW: It's interesting because if you get [Montrealers'] blood going, they'll protest about anything. These are bad policies, they're not a good idea. But I'm glad people are protesting. These ideas from the 99 percent, these are big challenges for everybody. Times get crazy.

C: In the U.S., we sometimes idealize the government situation in Canada because of the healthcare system and such. The myth is blown!

PW: The problem is whenever there's economic crisis around the world, people get nervous and go in a certain type of direction. I think that's kind of people's intuition when things get tough: hold on to the past and look at an old formula even if it didn't work. It's not necessarily the most effective way of thinking because a lot of the time, you have to look ahead and make changes so you don't end up in the same place again.

C: the last time I saw you perform in Chicago it was almost two years ago to the day and you had quite the megaphone contraption. Do you think you could go outside today and lead a protest?

PW: Protesting is something you want to do when you really feel the cause.

C: You don't want to jump into the fray just for the sake of protesting. What kind of cause would spur you to hit the streets?

PW: For me, I'm a pretty big into science and conservation. I was invited to this weekend with all these scientists and economists and really interesting people. And they were kind of just comparing data and I the thing that I learned was that the environment and the economy are really part of the same equation. For me, I would go to the streets for that. I think we're really in trouble [regarding the environment]. If a top scientist tells me there's a 40-70% change of losing a certain species if we don't change our habits, that's a scary thing.

Sometimes it feels as if people are living in a fantasy bubble that isolates them from the consequences of their actions. Even if people didn't change their ways but had knowledge about the outcomes of their daily decisions…like, "OK, I'm doing this I accept responsibility for these outcomes"—to me, if there's anything that bugs me is people living in denial of consequences.

I guess we should talk about music now, huh?

C: This is interesting!

PW: Well here's another weird thing: music for me is not a political thing. I mean, take Bob Dylan. As much as people thought he was a political writer he would actively deny it. He'd say there was no political intent. He was just speaking his mind. I don't think it's a musician's job to tell people what to think. I think a musician's job is to inspire people to look at things in many different ways, not just one.

C: On this album you just released, there are a lot of scene setting. The music seems to inspire thoughts about a place—maybe a specific one. Can you talk about what you were trying to inspire or evoke on this album?

PW: No one's ever really asked me that question! It's a very good question. I mean, I guess when I first started playing music as a kid, at the end of the day, I'd go the piano and I would just improvise all night long—for two or three hours until the middle of the night. And I'd walk to the woods and listen to music—I lived in the middle of the woods when I was younger. I'd walk on train tracks in the middle of the night…I don't know it'd say I was creating a specific place but…aw, fuck. It's a very fun question to ask! I don't know that there are words I can give you that describe the place I want to bring people to [with this album].

C: So it's not necessarily a place that exists?

PW: I think it's more of a feeling than a place to be honest. As difficult as it is to describe an emotion, I try, and I guess I do describe landscapes in the lyrics. "Lighthouse," for example, captures a lot of that feeling you're asking about where it brings you to a certain place. Maybe all of that is because I come from an instrumental background…instrumental music tends to take you different places.

C: I was curious because the album is called Adventures In Your Own Back Yard. And you recorded this album at home.

PW: Yes! It's a pretty nice studio for being at home. It's a little loft, and it sounds pretty good. It's not like recording in a bedroom of your apartment. But the idea behind that was that we're always traveling so much and recording in a studio wasn't doing it for us. We just kind of wanted to go home. The thing about when you're always traveling, you get inspired, you meet a lot of different people. But when you come home, you bring that attitude back to where you live. And it's kind of amazing what you can discover about your own neighborhood.

C: You seem to remember the last time you played in Chicago. At that point, your most recent album had come out a few months prior and still a lot of people hadn't heard of you despite winning a Polaris Prize and all that. Yet the audience was kind of eating out of your hand. And then you strapped that megaphone thing on your back…

PW: What a contraption!

C: Are you still playing with that instrument?

PW: I like to change it up. This [tour] has been going pretty well without it. I think the other reason is because one is stuck in Japan and the other one is broken. The Japanese border security didn't seem to think it was too funny having all these megaphones strapped to a backpack powered by a car battery.

C: How are you going to get it back?

PW: I don't think we're going to get it back. It's at the border.

C: So there are some Japanese customs agents that are having a great time with your instrument?

PW: Yeah! I think we're probably going to build another one. The shows have been really fun so far. The reason why we came up with that thing is because we used to play a cappella and then go into the audience. But as we're getting bigger shows, it's harder to do that.

C: Are you still shuffling people around the room for better acoustics? It was almost like theater, or at least, there was a very theatrical quality to the show because of it.

PW: Well, "theatrical" would imply a script in some way. I think I'd be afraid of the word theatrical because it's not my intention to make the show "theatrical." I want to make it touching, and warm people up and make an evening together with the audience.

I remember from going on tour with James Brown at one point, his attitude on stage and how he was a front man was very interesting. He wasn't putting on a show, he was putting on a show with the crowd. As if they were doing the show together. An example of that would be how each chorus of the verse would be called by the audience. He would never go to the chorus unless the audience asked for it.

He would wait like, 15 minutes before going to the bridge. And it wasn't him telling the audience what was going to happen, it was like a conversation. It was a beautiful way of looking at being a front man. I guess when I thought about doing shows, I could go up there and play my music for people and then finish the set and walk off, but to me, an amazing show isn't just the band. It's the audience, and it's the evening and it's creating an event together. When it's an amazing evening, it's not because the band was amazing, it's because the room was amazing.

Patrick Watson plays tonight at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N Lincoln, 10 p.m., 18+