All of us who grew up with MTV and the techno era of the nineties have a few strands of Ben Watkins in our DNA. We spent an hour on the phone with one of the forefathers of all that’s goa and psy with the saw leads and the bubbling basslines and the samples that cut knowledge in our forebrains and we know – he loves working with new people, he thinks dubstep is the new shit and he’s just a master chef… or so he says.
(Originally published in THE DOSE #2, 2007.)
First of all, what was last year for you like?
BEN: Well, in the beginning of 2006 I did the full orchestral score for the film Brave Story and that was wonderful, I mean, that was actually one of my most favourite musical experiences so far. We went to Bratislava to record the orchestra with the Bratislava Symphonic Orchestra.. and a 40 piece Vienna Choir? It was just amazing, absolutely divine!
How much time did you spend in Europe then?
BEN: I was recording there for just a week, but I absolutely adored it, can’t wait to get back! The whole experience was really exciting! Apart from that, we did some gigs, some work in Japan, made a DVD, a new live one that’s coming out next year with a ten-piece band with Steve Stevens playing live for the first time and adding this new singer from Asian Dub Foundation called Ghetto Priest..
How did you hook up with him?
BEN: Well, I sort of produced their last album so that’s how I met Ghetto Priest. I just got on really well with him.. I didn’t realize how good he was as a frontman until we actually played live, it’s just amazing. It’s quite surreal, his approach on it is not like what you’d expect.. that’s one thing that him and the African guys weirdly connect, there’s this magic feeling between him and them.. but he’s got this surreal approach to how he performs, it’s somewhat like miming, he’s on another planet. He takes these characters and suddenly you’re watching his film, it’s quite amazing to see him do it. It’s not like a straight type of MC’ing, he’s very off the wall, I would say. When I saw him live with ADF, I knew he was Juno Reactor.
And when will you release the tour DVD? There were gossips about February..
BEN: I think it was meant to be then but we’ve had problems communicating with the Japanese company and so I think it will be ready maybe in April or even May.. or June – July the latest.
And is it just the video or are there any extras?
BEN: We have got extras, we have them, yes.
Can you talk about those?
BEN: I think I should wait a little bit more with that *laughs*
There’s this piece of news on reactorleak.com that there will be an EP out soon which is called Superman the Immaculate Crucifixion. Could you tell us some specifics about it?
BEN: Well, I was gonna call it that and we were going to release it last October when we did the dates in Japan but again we had a problem.. well, it’s not really a problem, we still haven’t finished the contracts and everything, so we can’t release anything yet. And in the meantime, I’ve got bored of the title, so I’m changing my concept of the whole thing. There again I might change it back…
And what was that concept all about? Sounds like an all-European religious collective subconscious…
BEN: It’s funny, I’ve done a lot of tracks looking at the religion aspects of things, like God is God and other ones, but the Superman concept is really just about one person, who thought he was a superman, more than anything else. I keep on changing my ideas and in one minute it’s about this and the next it’s about that, so I suppose the trouble within instrumental music is sometimes when you’re focusing on it and when you’re writing it, you have different things that trigger emotions and usually I get an idea of what I want or an image or a film and I really focus in on that – until it’s finished. And with the Immaculate Crucifixion it has kept changing.
I was actually wondering when Christianity would sort of show up in Juno Reactor’s music. This project is really a powerhouse of religions..
BEN: I wouldn’t say that.
And everything gets mixed up. But I haven’t really met Christianity before.
BEN: Well, in God is God.
I didn’t really think about the Christian God here..
BEN: Yeah, I see what you mean. An absolute, more than a jumble mixed together, I should really prefer it that way *laughs* Making one out of all of them is a good idea!
Juno Reactor started as a goa trance project. In 2007, what do you think of this goa – nowadays psy – scene? Are there any bands or projects that are worth talking about?
BEN: I think there’s a lot of positives about it, you know? It’s positive that a lot of people out there start making music and still the events that you go to that are based around that genre of music, they’re generally pretty good, pretty fun. I think, though, if you’ve been to a lot of them, it can be boring. I enjoy going to when we’re touring if we play a festival like in Mexico or Brazil, places like that. Musically it hasn’t changed a lot, musically the scene hasn’t developed. It’s become very sterilized. Which is a shame as I like the people more than the music.
So you’re not up to date?
BEN: I sort of listen out to DJ Xavier, the guy who’s the DJ I sometimes work with, he always keeps me informed, he’s got really good tracks, He doesn’t care where they come from, he lives and breathes Vinyl, soundtracks, whatever, he finds the interesting music.
What are you listening to nowadays?
BEN: I listen to a lot of orchestral music, cause that’s where I get a lot of ideas from.
Is it classical or contemporary?
BEN: Modern, modern orchestral music. From growing up I listened to a lot of, say, the classics of orchestral music but now I listen to mainly the stuff that I find really interesting. Those that have been written from the 1950s through to the present day. Pendereczki, Martinu, John Adams..
One surprise for me was Midival Punditz. You wrote in one of your interviews that you really liked them… do you plan to cooperate with them somehow? Any remixes, a score perhaps?
BEN: There is intention to work together, I respect them and they wanted me to work on some of their stuff and I’d like them to work on some of my stuff, who knows. The trouble is, we sort of do the same kind of thing, they on their own way. They use so much of the classical Indian music against their electronic music and that’s an already wonderful combination. |
You don’t talk too much about the early days before Juno Reactor.. could you make an exception for us?
BEN: My early bands taught me what sort of band I don’t wanna be in, more than what kind of band I wanted to be in. It was a strange thing, because I didn’t get on with anyone in the band. I wanted to make records, I wanted to be gigging, touring and someone said „you know, do you wanna join this band and do the vocals and stuff, nightmare, bloody nightmare, I didn’t like anyone” and that sort of woke me up to what I wanted to do. And around that time my grandmother Chico died and left me a few hundred pounds, bless her soul, for which i still thank her. I heard DAF around that time and so I brought myself a sequencer! And a drum machine. And that was it, I thought, fuck it, I don’t wanna be involved in any of this bullshit, I just wanna work by myself and do electronic music like DAF and Suicide and those sorts of bands. And I very much like the punky style of electronics and I loved it. That’s how I got to play with Youth. I was the only person he knew who did that style of electronic music at the time, I met him from Killing Joke and he said “I fancy your music, come play with me”. I thought why not! he looks a bit like a sexy Sid Vicious and his girlfriends a bit of alright, that was the first Empty Quarter, writen recorded and mixed in two days. that led me through into doing this band called The Flowerpot Men. It was very electronic, wanted it to be DAF, very much like early German electronic music, then Yello came along. I bought that 80-85 remix album and I played it to death! It became a bible, I had it on vinyl and every day I was listening and listening, they became my god, I wanted to be like Yello.
Do you still listen to that album?
BEN: I never listen to it now. Never. Ever. It’s part of my blood, you know? I think I became Boris Blank. *laughs* I listened to it so much, I transformed into him and I don’t need to hear it anymore. It’s like the Beatles. I was listening to the Beatles when I was younger and I’ve listened to everything so many times I never need to hear it again.
What are those genres, bands or producers that show that amount of innovation that you like listening to?
BEN: The Midival Punditz, I think they’re really fantastic and then there’s people where production isn’t really so important, it’s more about what they’re singing and I find that interesting as well. And the orchestral thing, it’s not about production at all, it’s all about writing. I’m maybe not so stuck on the whole idea of what I used to be, how things should sound electronically, you know. I think I had such a coming from being bands to listening to Yello is such a life-changing experience, I don’t know if you can keep on having those same sorts of life-changing experiences. Because technology hasn’t leaped that amount in the same period of time. I like it when I think I hear a bit of music where it’s got some soul in it, and I don’t mean the Regurgitated nostalgic crap selling zillions world wide today, something vital about it, some validity to its writing.
Dubstep that’s exciting. Check myspace.com/dubstep, you’ll find a lot of dubstep producers, it’s like very slowed D n B, dance to 70 BPM, they have all the beats inside.. and I think it’s another modulation of electronic music like drum’n’bass or whatever. I really like the way electronic music can keep morphing itself.
And as long as people keep on bringing a new plugin *laughs* – not that I use many. There’s a guy here, Tom, where my studio is and he’s 19 and he’s into doing the latest thing, approaching it with a whole new energy, that I don’t have, that’s always gonna be there. With rock’n’roll, guitars, vocals or electronic guys, there’s always gonna be the need to produce some music that you can make your own and thankfully that’s going to carry on, no matter what the economic climate is or whether there are any records or CDs or downloads, there’s still gonna be people who want to represent themselves musically.
It’s always continuing changing and morphing. Maybe electronic music is the true vanguard music out there, it’s the music that isn’t nostalgic. Sometimes from what I’m hearing, it’s standing still, it’s like there’s no room, it’s not moving anywhere particularly fast … but… it can do, it’s got the scope to do it. Maybe more in combination. African Electronic bands like Congotronics @ congotronics.com
So it’s basically all about fusion.
BEN: Fusion is a Spinal Tap word, I mean to spice it up, like a good chef.
Do you actually cook?
Are you a good cook?
BEN: I’m wonderful! At making pancakes. Special strange way of pancakes. And I’m really good at making scrambled egg. But all the other sorts of menus I find I can’t be bothered with!
Ookay, I’ve got the point *laughs*
BEN: So I get pushed into cooking when I have to..
One game I wanted to ask specifically was Mark of Kri. Couldn’t really find anything that you talked about that game so could you elaborate on it, what was it like working on it?
BEN: Well, it was hard. I got asked to do it by Chuck Dowd, Sony people, they wanted me to write for the PS2, and it’s god awful sequencer and inbuilt sample.
It was a murderous amount of work and I think Chuck sort of did it to torture me *laugh* It was painful. I could have made a track and they could have done whatever they wanted to do with it, that would be really simple. But instead, they made me get through this very torturous experience and although it’s fun to do, it was incredibly difficult, time-consuming, laborious work. I got the feeling Ii was being made to jump through hoops for fun.
Would you repeat it?
BEN: Never! *laughs* I have been asked to do quite a few games lately but haven’t had the time, but hopefully soon.
What would you recommend to beginner bands as a piece of wisdom?
BEN: How to start a band with so many people around? Phew, who knows? Marry someone rich and powerful..
You obviously have to have talent..
BEN: I produced this young Scottish band not a long ago called The Xcerts, great band, and this is the first thing they’ve ever done. They’ve got an agent, they’ve got a record company, a single out.. fate came knocking.
I think sometimes the bands expect the world, they say “okay we gonna make records, we gonna make music and tomorrow we will be famous”. the best thing to do is to make music… All you can do is put one step in front of the other and not look where you’re walking. And then suddenly hopefully you’ve arrived somewhere. It’s the journey of making music that’s important, not where you end up.
Do you have any personal recommendation for a music software?
BEN: My personal one that I love is Digital Performer. There’s so many out there! From Live, Reaktor by Native Instruments is brilliant, Andromeda is amazing keyboard by Alesis, I think if you find yourself working with the right people or people that you really like.. turn them into software so when they become a pain in the ass you’ll be able to switch them off.
If you could build up your dream team, who would it include?
BEN: New people. I love working with new people. There’s never really one person I’d love to work with. I think the most refreshing way is to like, I heard someone, I went to see this performance of a modern dance, and I thought the singer that was singing behind the curtain was amazing and I’d like to work with that person but I don’t know who he is! I’d really love to work with Joanna Newsom, she fits into the Juno universe.
Did working with Amampondo change your perception of music in any ways?
BEN: In millions of ways. In so many ways, it’s hard to document them all. Their sense of thythm, their sense of fun with rhythm, their sense of dancing is so comical and so organic, bloody brilliant spirit of having and entertaining other people within the dance. Their take on music is very relaxed, it’s not pent up. If you came to see Juno Reactor backstage before a gig, it’s very cool, there’s no-one having crazy moments. If we’re touring for months or 6 weeks together, it’s a very good vibe. Musically that works as well, you know?
What plans do you have for 2007?
BEN: I’m ready to do some more film work. I love doing films. I really like drama, animation, I like adventure, thriller, whatever. I just get the biggest buzz out of doing film music, you’re constantly being challenged, I really like that.
In one of your earlier interviews you said that JR is a very filmic project with all your tracks being soundscapes for imaginary movies in your head. What’s the most important of them all?
BEN: Well, I’ve had quite a number.. there’s three or four running around in my head any one time. There’s this one, never quite finished, the one about the place where people go to commit suicide. There’s another one – I read a story about these gangsters in Puerto Rico and one of them had a daughter with a deformity where her head is too big. Her father is the godfather of Puerto Rico and he LOVES his daughter and there isn’t anything more important in his life than his daughter. He gets her surgery in Japan and all through all his racketeering and drug dealing he pays the surgeons to try to help his daughter. I think it was already painful to the poor girl. And eventually he gets caught, he was the FBI’s number one wanted man and they got him because of his love for his daughter and surrounded him when they knew he was going to visit her. That’s a very touching and strange story, like a David Lynch film with this man prepared to murder a whole wedding party with children and grandparents, yet at the same time having this strong embedded love..
This sounds like a Takeshi Beat movie!
BEN: YES! Completely! *laughs* It’s interesting, all those stories. I’d love to be in a position when I could just turn them into films but I just can’t.
What do you think about London, what are your favourite places?
BEN: Well, my favourite places.. my studio used to be in Shoreditch for like 12 years, that’s where the early Juno stuff was done. I used to love it around there, but I haven’t lived there for a while, I live in Brighton now. I miss London a lot because I think it was easier working with people in London when I was there, it was my hangout for so long. I used to have an old DS23 Citroen, I always used to love bombing down the embankments right by the river Thames. I love Soho, I think Soho’s my favourite area, sort of tacky but it’s got a lot of life in there, Chinatown and all the Chinese restaurants, you’ve got some great cinemas in Leicester Square. Me and my girlfriend used to live in Nassau Street, which is a road north of Oxford Street, so we were sort of embedded in there, she used to run a club off Dean Street and we used to live and eat and breathe London Soho.
Ben, thank you so very much for dedicating your time to us, do you have anything to say to our readers?
BEN: Well, I just hope Juno Reactor can come over and play in Hungary, we’ve never been there and it’s got such a fantastic musical history. I’m longing to come out there!