"I like mistakes. It's all about feel and energy for me."
October 2019. A rustic hotel in the Belgian village of Heist-op-den-Berg. The last place where you’d expect rock musician John Watts (of Fischer-Z fame) to be lurking. And yet, here we are, and Mr. Watts has agreed to talk to us. What follows, is an honest, truthful and highly interesting chat with a passionate man whose musical flame still burns as brightly as ever, and whose classics ‘The Worker’ and ‘So Long’ still get regular airplay on Belgian radio stations.
John Watts: 'Quite interesting, it looks quite a proper hotel but there's just nobody here.'
Julian De Backer: 'Perhaps it's like 'Fawlty Towers'?'
John: 'Yes, that's what I was suggesting. But it's more like some people have disappeared. Who are you writing for?'
Julian: 'It's a website called Keys and Chords. Welcome to Belgium, of course, I'm sure it's not your first time here. A few years ago, you released a book of poetry called 'The Grand National Lobotomy'. Don't you think it's funny that nowadays we seem to be heading towards a grand national lobotomy if you look at politics and the state of the world?"
John: 'Definitely. The title of the new album, 'Swimming in Thunderstorms', implies that as well, it's a metaphor. Basically, I have got a fundamental belief that it has to do with the way people receive their information. If they receive their information, they can then be controlled by their phones. The internet influence is so huge, it has changed all the different rituals in the way the world works. It's changed all the morality, and the ethics of politics as well. Hugely in the last five years. People are finding it difficult to differentiate between a television programme, a reality show, and a political commentator. People also think they're making choices.'
Julian: 'I'm sure it fuels your creativity as an artist.'
John: 'Oh yeah, I find it intriguing, but, just literally, the last weeks have been ridiculous. Trump is advocating an isolationist policy, but the isolationist policy can no longer work in an online world. The idea that any American regime, or any American president, would give Russia and Iran enormous power in the Middle East on a silver plate would have been unthinkable even three years ago. You need a really good competitor for Trump. Trump will get another term, unless you get somebody like, ooh, I don't know, one of the big rappers? George Clooney, perhaps? Who's married to Beyoncé?'
John: 'Jay-Z would have a chance as a Democrat, because you need that number of followers. He'd have a sporting chance. Chuck D would do the best job, but they'd never vote him in, because he's too extreme. We did a festival with Prophets of Rage. Amazing. Chuck D is quite a character. He's protesting with his music, and he's very lyrical and intellectual. He'd be a good president.'
Julian: 'You think it's a done deal that Trump will get re-elected?'
John: 'Well, at the moment, there's no opposition, is there? The point is: everything that Trump gets, Trump spins. Everything that he's criticized for, he says: 'You'd do that, wouldn't you?' and half of America would do that. In an internet world, everything's reduced to two sentences, and that will always favour the right. Plus the fact that the left can never ever agree, and they take too long to talk about it. That's just not internet-savvy. Boris Johnson has made some ridiculous statements, thoroughly stupid. The two things he keeps saying are meaningless, like 'Brexit means Brexit', which means nothing, and the idea that he will spin it. If the UK falls out of the European Union by default, they will spin it so that half the country hates the rest of Europe. They'll blame it on Europe. And people don't know enough to know the difference. They also don't care enough. The idea of giving everybody a vote, is very funny. The idea of universal suffrage, that everybody should have an equal right, is good in principle, but you'd like people to have knowledge on what they're voting on. The big reason that the Brexit vote went through is that a lot of people who had never had a voice, suddenly had a voice. Which is fair enough. Many of the middle class, liberal people didn't even bother to vote, because they thought: 'Nah, we're not going to leave Europe, it's crazy'. That's not the way it is.'
Julian: 'Your song 'Dark Crowds of Englishmen' also seems more relevant today than ever.'
John: 'Oh, you know that? Yes, it is! I love that song! One of my favourites. That one was about the miners' strike, but it was about bigger issues than that. Yeah, 'Dark Crowds of Englishmen', I'd forgotten about that, I must put that on my setlist. Obviously, over the next couple of years, as we play more things with the band, I try to put things like that in a set. Sometimes, when I play on my own, I can put them in. You've got to teach the band all these different bits and pieces.'
Julian: 'Can't be easy for your band to keep up with you.'
John: 'Also, I like things to be spontaneous. Many bands and many rock shows are fixed. I believe that a live show should be quite open. I don't mind chaos, I don't mind things that go wrong.'
Julian: 'Have you ever seen 'Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll', the Chuck Berry documentary directed by Taylor Hackford and produced by Keith Richards?'
John: 'I've seen it! Where he gets nasty?'
Julian: 'His band is trembling, afraid that he'll do something unannounced and unrehearsed.'
John: 'I'm a very minor version of that, not as bad as Chuck Berry. Ginger Baker just passed away, and there's a film in which he threatens to break the documentary maker's nose with his stick. (laughs) What an arsehole! Great drummer, though.'
Julian: 'You've been in the music business for forty plus years. Do you ever inch closer to your perfect day, as in your song 'The Perfect Day'? Or is that something you'll have to chase forever?'
John: 'I think that the chase is what it's about, the whole idea of the artistic process. If you take art in the broadest sense, as a view of the world, it has to be a truthful, and hopefully original view of the world. Whatever your form, whether it's music, art or literature, it needs to have a universality. That's the reason everyone looks at the Mona Lisa. We don't know why, but something about it is remarkable. The mystery appeals to huge populations of people. That's what you're aiming for. The idea of being satisfied with stuff never comes into it, really. I've always worked away from it. With the first Fischer-Z incarnation, I never wanted to be a rock star. I came from the art world. In their eyes, music is not high art, but it's on an art spectrum. The whole process of living longer, is the idea of searching. People, as they get older, often try to make their world smaller, so they can handle it easier. I like the idea of doing all sorts of things, and making it much bigger.'
Julian: 'I assume you never wanted to choose between being a conceptual artist and a musician?'
John: 'My art form is writing songs, primarily, but poetry is a different thing altogether. I have done a few conceptual art shows in Edinburgh, Berlin and Amsterdam. So there's that element to it, but music is the thing I'm most comfortable with and most skilled at. If I had kept going with Fischer-Z the first time with huge rock stuff, I would have done that for ten years, and then done something else. But the way my career evolved, I've been able to incorporate a lot of the other art forms, like film and poetry. I make records, I make music, I have to make money from the stuff that I do. I can't survive on what I've done in the past, and I think that's very healthy. I've never been very clever with money (laughs).'
Julian: 'Looking back, do you regret not continuing with Fischer-Z the first time around?'
John: 'No, I don't regret it on an artistic level. On a business level, knowing what I know now, if I had done one more record at that point, it would have set me up better to have people back some of the weirder stuff I wanted to do. I had to really fight to get money to do the stranger things, whereas if you get to a certain level you don't have to fight for that. That's all. But artistically, no, no regrets at all.'
Julian: 'The city of Berlin has proven to be a major inspiration for your work. It’s a city that inspires, and has inspired, many artists, amongst others Lou Reed and David Bowie. What is it about Berlin that makes it so rich to explore and mine?'
John: 'What non-German speaking artists - I don't speak German, not properly anyway - find intriguing about Berlin? First of all, most pop and rock music has existed since the wall, so in that sense, Berlin was kind of a magic island in the middle of Europe. That's part of its appeal. The appeal for me was primarily the cabaret aspect, the aspect that many performers and extreme performance artists took huge risks. They lampooned the Nazis from inside, for example, and the strongest base was in Berlin. I have huge admiration for those people, some of which were excluded. That magic maintained itself strongly through the wall. I first went there in 1978, when it was a very different place. I have also done concerts in what was East-Germany, which very few English bands have done. My ex-wife's family had a story, they were in Berlin during the war. I know Bowie and Eno went there, Lou Reed went there. There's lots of famous Berlin songs and I think I'm the only person alive that has done one. I'm sixty-four now, and sometimes, I have people come up to me at shows and say: 'We really enjoyed the show, we might never see you again' (laughs).'
Julian: 'Quite morbid.'
Julian: 'I suppose you're planning on sticking around a little longer.'
John: 'Depending on what I feel like, I'll answer different things. 'I'm planning to be stuffed, and animated by computer'.'
Julian: 'Speaking of Germany, I saw your excellent ‘Rockpalast 2016’ gig, which can be seen on YouTube in its entirety. Quite a shame the audience couldn't appreciate your jokes about German beer and Merkel. There were a lot of awkward silences.'
John: 'Haha! I talk a lot between songs, I still do it, regardless of where we are. In some places, people get it. The average age of our audience five years ago was fifteen years more than the average age of our audience now. We've proliferated online. People of all ages now come to the concerts, which I like more. To answer your question: the younger the audience, the more they understand my jokes. I'd much rather have twelve million people hear my music, than have one hundred thousand buy it. You make music because you make art, because people hear it and see it. It's wonderful. There are young bands in Brighton that have six times as many Facebook followers as me, but if they play a show, only four people come. And I find that really weird! Obviously, we've got a million views on our classic songs, but when the next big thing arrives, they've got three hundred and fifty million views. I'm left thinking: 'Hm, what does that actually mean?' It's also being manipulated. We've had a huge increase in the number of people that come to see us. This tour is virtually all sold out. We're back performing at the level we were in 1991, which is really good. I now make and produce the kind of music which I like, which is modern. If I was producing singles sounding just like the 1980 singles, we'd be getting much more play, because all the radio stations that feature 80s music would be playing it. But we fall between the two. They'll play our old stuff, but they won't play our new stuff, because they don't recognize it as their format. The younger radio stations don't play our new songs, because I'm much too old for them. Funny! But I won't adjust what I do. The live audience loves it. They enjoy the new stuff, the middle stuff and the old stuff equally. I have never had huge hit singles, only "well-known tracks". People who had huge hits will sometimes have an audience craving only the last two songs. With us, it's much better to have fifteen well-known tracks, than two hits.'
Julian: 'Just yesterday, the day before this interview, I heard 'The Worker' on Belgian radio. That was a nice foreshadowing.'
John: 'That gets played a lot.'
Julian: 'Have you ever heard of the Belgian musician Toots Thielemans?'
John: 'Yeah, of course, yeah!'
Julian: 'He called his big hit 'Bluesette' his retirement fund.'
John: 'Haha, I know what you mean, but that doesn't happen so much these days. Over the last few years, the fees for getting played on radio were halved, then halved again, then halved again. But you do obviously get something. If you have a big worldwide hit, sure ...'
Julian: 'One of your best songs is 'Wax Dolls' ...'
John: 'Oh, I like 'Wax Dolls'.'
Julian: 'Was it inspired by the famous horror movies 'The Mystery of the Wax Museum' (1933) and its remake 'House of Wax' (1953)?'
John: 'Not specifically. 'Wax Dolls' was inspired by the idea of voodoo, the idea that the wax dolls were the secretaries that wouldn't pass our tapes to the record company, and I'd imagine sticking pins in them. But the imagery, yes, that could come from film. Often when I try to tell stories, there's too many words in my songs, really. At some stage, I'd like to make a film. Write and direct. Film is a wonderful storytelling device, especially for impatient people like me. If you're writing a novel, you really have to build character and be patient, and I don't do that well.'
Julian: 'A good movie needs character development as well, of course.'
John: 'Absolutely, but in a different way, because you're putting together lots of different pieces and angles to build a character. What I'm saying is, in a novel, you have got to slog your way through description. You have to intrigue people, so they develop the character you want them to have in their head. Whereas in film, you're showing them the character. It's different. You don't need to give the same level of dialogue information. Some of the best bits in a film could be the right image at the right moment, with no dialogue at all. That's what I mean.'
Julian: 'You can show, and don't tell. Is your eventual film in the planning stages already?'
John: 'No, I'm always fiddling around with stuff. Once I do something, I tend to do it relatively quickly.'
Julian: 'Could be interesting. A feature film that combines everything you love and do, coming together in a sort of John Wattsian universe.'
John: 'That's what it needs to be. 'The Grand National Lobotomy' was very well received in the Huffington Post, that was a real surprise to me. They liked the dark and sardonic humour about politics. Several bits and pieces of my poems have been used. I wrote a poem about Amy Winehouse, and in London, I was invited for a special Amy Winehouse poetry event. A lot of music journalists were involved in the event, I read the poem, and they came up to me and called it 'marvelous'. The bloke who used to be the editor of NME, Neil Spencer, said to me: 'I'm surprised we've never met before', and I said: 'We have met before'. My first album was reviewed in NME with the words: 'There was a lot of money spent on this'. Full stop. He said: 'Really?'. I said: 'Yeah, I came into your office'. He replied: 'You're the Fischer-Z bloke? We always thought you were now a psychiatrist writing film scripts in California.' (laughs) I never had much contact. I only met my own generation of artists and journalists in Britain over the last five years. People ask: 'Why were you never successful in England?' The answer is: we played two hundred shows in two years, and only two of them were in Britain. If you don't play your shows in Britain, you don't get the support. If you don't play your own country, people don't know you. Unless you're a professional footballer, in which case you have to go abroad to get these mighty contracts. But then you still come back! Vincent Kompany is back, isn't he?'
Julian: 'Yes, he's back.'
John: 'He's back. Where has he come back to?'
Julian: 'Uh, Anderlecht, I think.'
John: 'He's EXCELLENT. Sorry, I'm a football lover.'
Julian: 'No, that's okay. I know nothing about football, but luckily, I do know Vincent Kompany.'
John: 'He's a hero. Great man.'
Julian: 'He has played for Manchester, right? He has inspired thousands of kids. His whole family has done very well.'
John: 'He's a fantastic advertisement for modern Belgium. He's also so reasonable, and very clever. We like clever. 'Clever' and 'footballers' normally don't go together. He can talk about politics.'
Julian: 'He's no George Best.'
John: 'Ha! But George Best was very interesting, too. He didn't go to bed early, he didn't need good food. He could play snooker. And he was hairy, very hairy!'
Julian: 'The new album 'Swimming in Thunderstorms' - great title, by the way - is also coming out on vinyl. Isn't it great, the big vinyl revival?'
John: 'The idea of vinyl for me gives value to the artefact. Ideally, if I had the money, I would be happy for people to download music for free. All of it. If they'd do that, large numbers would come and see you play. That works if you're a performing artist, which I am. As long as I can walk and talk, I'll play. Our original fans don't go to concerts anymore, they don't read music papers, they don't do anything, it's a totally different form. Some bands from the 70s and 80s that are very successful play for seven hundred people anywhere they want in the world, which is a very good living, but when they go to Ghent, they know there'll be a man with an orange anorak, and there'll be a woman with chequered trousers. It's the same every time.'
Julian: 'The regulars.'
John: 'Yeah yeah! That, for me, is strange. I really appreciate people who follow you over a long period of time, but if they have got no time for the new material as well, they shouldn't come to concerts, because they won't enjoy them. There's a balance between the classic and the new. Also, the bands have changed. I've had more people in my band than Mark E. Smith did in The Fall. Sixty-three people have toured with me. In the early era, Fischer-Z was me and the band, and people expected a band brand sound all the time. They knew Mark E. Smith was absolutely raging bonkers. Genius, genius. Unlistenable shit, but fantastic. Probably the most important punk, actually. But then you get Captain Beefheart with 'Trout Mask Replica', an unlistenable piece of shit, but amazing. Just amazing. His paintings are genius. My heroes are people like Captain Beefheart, Andy Warhol, et cetera. I met Mark E. Smith once. I didn't know him, but I thought he was just fantastic. People accepted that he'd change things all the time, and defied his band. That was quite normal for Mark.'
Julian: 'He never took any prisoners.'
John: 'I'd like to think I've done the same, artistically. But I'm friendlier (laughs).'
Julian: 'And you're still alive.'
John: 'I'm still alive, that's good, yeah! Good point. (to Anders, his tour assistant) Hey Anders, I was just saying, I can guarantee we'll be continuing. I can be stuffed and animated by computer!'
Anders: 'Right. Yeah.'
John: 'Mind you, my youngest son Dylan, who's now twenty-one, can sing like me and looks like me. So we figured, we could send Dylan out with Fischer-Z easily.'
Julian: 'Future-proof. You can just go on and on.'
John: 'I like Kim Wilde very much, I've known her for years. She's very honest about her live performances. She's touring with her niece, who sings Kim's high bits. Kim doesn't hide her. They'll sing 'Kids in America' together.'
Julian: 'If you're honest about it, why not?'
John: 'I just change the keys, so I can still perform my songs. Whether you like Paul McCartney or not, he's a genius. I saw him out doing a tour, two years ago, doing some of the high stuff, and he was wrong. It was too difficult. Why would you do that? Just bring it down. It's easier for the audience to sing as well. We were debating today, because now we have to leave off certain numbers of new and old songs. I was discussing with the band last week if we had ever played a Belgian show without playing 'The Worker', and we have.'
Julian: 'Probably, the audience went berserk.'
John: 'No, I can't remember. But they like 'So long' just as much. When 'The Worker' was recorded, it was in such a funny high key. It's much more sensible these days. We can do it.'
Julian: 'That's why it's a timeless song. Because it doesn't sound like a 70s song. It could be released today, and still be a hit.'
John: 'It could be released today, indeed. When you have a band that's as good as mine. The new record, 'Swimming in Thunderstorms' is really a band record. Everybody can very much play it, their characters are coming through. So therefore you have got to spin on it. All the songs that we play in the set obviously have a spin of those musicians, which is great.'
Julian: 'Would you say the recording process of 'Swimming in Thunderstorms' was easier than recording a record forty years ago?'
John: 'Just different, it's always different. With this one, we didn't rehearse much, because we live in different countries. So we did a couple of days in Brighton, very fast. All the band tracks were done in three days. And then I'd add, mix and fiddle around. But the process is different each time. Our previous album was just two noisy electric guitars and drums, very straightforward. The one before that was done in the studio in Wales. The musicians were quite technical, they spent quite a long time fiddling around getting the exact sound that they wanted.'
Julian: 'If you take too long recording, perhaps you lose the spontaneity.'
John: 'I never sing anything more than three times. Never have. If you haven't got it in that period of time, you're not going to do it. You'll come back to it later. Guitar-wise, I did some recording recently with some new stuff, and if I play the electric guitar at the same time as I'm singing, you get a totally different vibe. I can go back and play it better when I'm not singing too, but there's something about the take that'll be interesting. I'm not an advocate for live albums, there are very few brilliant live albums. In the pop idiom anyway, for there are a lot in jazz.'
Julian: 'Guns N' Roses spent 12 years recording 'Chinese Democracy', and then the reviews were savage. I still like the album, but perhaps it's possible to overcook something.'
John: 'In the 80s, when there was too much money in the music business, people spent three days getting a bass sound. I couldn't believe that. Some of the things that have been most successful for me have always been the things that have been the easiest to do. I like a framework, because then you can do crazy things around it. There's always space for serendipitous elements when you have a plan. I like mistakes. It's all about feel and energy for me.'
Julian: 'What's the weirdest Fischer-Z echo you ever heard in daily life?'
John: 'You occasionally hear music that you think is one of your songs. And then it isn't (laughs). Going over twenty albums, people will assume you know how to play everything. Some songs, I just don't remember at all. I was always very much in control of my consciousness, but some things, you just forget. The way you see yourself from a different era is not yourself anymore anyway. It's slightly different.'
Julian: 'Seeing yourself on an old 80s video can be jarring, as if it's someone else.'
John: 'Certainly the old English TV shows we did. It seemed so manic. But it's good, I like it. Some songs are better than other songs, but I honestly don't think I've every made a bad record. Some people put out brilliant ones, and bad ones, but we always had a consistency.'
Julian: 'Final question. Did you ever get feedback from any Marlieses about the song 'Marliese'?'
John: 'Thousands of them, over the years. Little baby Marlieses. Marlieses with a twin sister. All sorts of different Marlieses. And a couple of Talullahs as well, from the song 'Tallulah Tomorrow'. I've had girls come up to me, and say: 'I was named after your song'. People sometimes ask you if they can use a particular song as part of a funeral service. If you end up creating something that's really good, it often means more to other people than to the person who has made it. Whatever people think about it, is valid, even if I meant something else entirely.'
Julian: 'It stops being your song, and ends up becoming the public's song.'
John: 'Yeah. The Berlin song became so big because it was taken up as the signature tune by all those students who went to Berlin to avoid military service, and they used it as kind of an anthem. That was amazing. In England, they don't play an awful lot of my songs. But ‘Berlin’ became a theme tune, it connected. People's appreciation lives on. On the one side, it's incredibly positive, because it reminds them of that era, on the other side, people want to wear you like a pair of trousers they wore thirty years ago. And you can't be that pair of trousers. I can still wear my trousers, but most of my friends can't.'
Julian: 'Thank you, sir, for your time.'
John: 'You're welcome.'
Julian De Backer © 2019 for Keys and Chords