Lazy Boys

Everything But the Girl's Ben Watt used to be half of a soft-pop duo; these days, he's manning the decks and pumping the bass

Feb 20, 2002 at 4:00 am
Fact: There are a lot of turntables in the world right now, as well as an avalanche of shitty thump-thump house records. Fact: The number of humans with DJ pseudonyms is mathematically proportional to the number of lost, wandering, what-the-hell-am-I-gonna-do-with-my-life-now-that-my-dot-com-job-has-vanished young men (and a few -- too few -- women). Hmmm. Maybe I'll be a house DJ. That would be an awesome job! Fact: Although we have compassion for their plight -- we're all lost, aren't we? -- that doesn't mean we must bow down before them on the dance floor or that they know much about any music other than the 20 records they just spun.

Within this ever-expanding universe, one that is fracturing into tinier and tinier bits (microhouse, jazzy house, progressive house, deep house, cheese house, diva house, Chicago house, acid house, brick house, tech house, tribal house, ad infinitum), few souls understand the music's history, and even fewer are able to make connections between disparate musical styles and structures. Few seem to have any interest in thinking about the music in a way that transcends the music's ephemeral, celebratory nature. As a music specifically designed for revelatory, blissful moments, house lacks people with the ability to spin, compose and speak eloquently about it.

Who's gonna represent the music?

Ben Watt, for one. He appears at Velvet this week with Jay Hannan; together, they spin twice monthly at Lazy Dog, a London club. And as Lazy Dog, the two have released a double mix CD, and another, Lazy Dog, Vol. 2, will be released by Astralwerks on March 5.

Watt didn't start DJing at clubs until 1996. This was 12 years after he and wife Tracey Thorn, as the duo Everything But the Girl, released their first record and a year after their international smash, "Missing," redefined them for a new generation. No longer were they simply a soft, smart pop duo; after "Missing" (specifically, the Todd Terry remix of the song), they were at the forefront of the electronic-music explosion in the U.S. -- one of the first groups to achieve popular success by harnessing the sound of house and drum & bass. At that point, Watt had performed as a musician in front of huge audiences, so he understood how to move a crowd. But when he started spinning records in front of a dance crowd, he says from his London home, he didn't know what to expect.

"One of the things that struck me," he says, "and really surprised me when I started DJing, was how intimate you can get with an audience. And I think that what struck me most of all was that realization that when somebody moves from the bar to the dance floor -- that first move you make when you say, 'I'm going to put my drink down and go dance' -- it's a real expression of vulnerability. Those first dance moves, what you're saying is, 'I'm putting all my faith in that guy in the booth over there.' And I feel, as the DJ, a real degree of responsibility because of that. I want to strike a bond with those people. They're dancing in front of me. They're giving themselves up. To put it bluntly, I want to play the right records in the right order. I think that's as intimate a relationship as you can get. What you're saying is, 'I've chosen this record because I think it suits this moment, and you clearly think it suits this moment, too. Isn't that great?'"

Watt's transformation may seem more strategic than inspired; in the years before "Missing" hit, Everything But the Girl had stalled, at least stateside. They had lost their American record contract, their previous few records had failed to make much of an impact and Watt was recovering from a debilitating disease that nearly cost him his life (he wrote a fantastic book, Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness, about his fight).

In fact, the shift was a natural extension of their aesthetics. Both Thorn and Watt contributed to Massive Attack's transcendent Protection, and Everything But the Girl's sound was an inspiration to the deep, dub-infused trip-hop that spread through England in the mid-'90s. The evolution was the result of a lifetime of musical obsession -- as well as the rational realization that music changes. "Inevitably I think if you're going to survive in the music industry for any length of time," he says, "you're going to have to absorb generational changes, you're going to have to accept new ideas that come along and be broad-minded -- pick up on what works for you and what seems appropriate. When I run into DJs who have been around for a long time, someone like [influential British tastemaker] Gilles Peterson, for example, Gilles remembers our early days, the bossa nova/Brazilian stylings, and as soon as we moved into deep house and jazzy drum & bass in the mid-'90s, he just thought, 'Of course. Where were they all those years? It doesn't seem that odd to me.'"

But structurally, the house and drum & bass music and remixes Watt now creates are a dramatic shift from the three-minute pop tunes he and Thorn made in the '80s. As a result, Watt had to reimagine their sound on a new songwriting template, one that lacked the quick epiphanies that define the pop hooks for a more extended type of revelation.

Explains Watt: "Every form of music has its peaks, doesn't it? They have those moments that you latch onto. In pop music, we call them hooks. They're the choruses that happen every 40 seconds. In dance music, you look for those wonderful breakdowns and the resurgent builds back into the bass lines. Those are the hooks of dance music, and when they're executed properly in the hands of great producers, with great fat beats and wonderful production and perhaps a great vocal or musical hook, you think, 'Wow, that's dance music at its greatest.' And I think dance music has its own hooks. I don't miss pop hooks at all."

On both Lazy Dog and Lazy Dog, Vol. 2 -- and, presumably, when they perform at Velvet -- Watt and Hannan prefer house music tempered with the female voice. Theirs is a smooth, jazzy sound with a load of acoustic instrumental flourishes, breakdowns and solos; the four-on-the-floor booms remain consistent throughout the two-and-a-half-hour mix, and the line between what's sampled and what's recorded live is often blurred. In a microcosm of Watt's career, his inspiration in track selection is derived from a lifetime of musical obsessions. The sound is far from cutting-edge, and those who prefer their house music more complex or booming may be disappointed with the track selection. This is smooth, inspired dance music, designed not for armchair contemplation but for maximum dance-floor penetration.

With Everything But the Girl on hiatus while Thorn devotes her time to her and Watt's three children, Watt has found himself without the steady musical mission he's known for close to 20 years, a dilemma he's solved by remixing and producing tracks (he's producing and mixing Beth Orton's new record). "I can live in both worlds," he says. "I have a studio at home, so when I'm in a period of work where I'm doing remixes for people -- recently for Sade and Maxwell -- I can be mixing upstairs but I can come down and see my kids when they come home from school. It's great. But also I can cut loose from the kind of domestic side of life and go and tour with Jay, or go and play Lazy Dog and feel connected with a younger, kind of more vibrant social culture. I'm very lucky to have both worlds, really."