Fresh off the release of its fourth full-length release Adventures In Your Own Backyard, Patrick Watson is seeking a hard-earned spot atop the indie rock heap. And with a voice that is equal parts Bon Iver and Jeff Buckley, Watson himself swoons over orchestral tunes so rich that many fans will wonder why they haven’t heard of the singer or his group years ago.
Trumpets, strings, piano – the band often throws multiple instruments into the mix without ever losing sight of the melodies which exist at the heart of songs like “Step Out For A While” and “Into Giants.” Even the title track of Backyard is a sweeping highlight. Beginning with the sound of a gate closing, the song builds while a rolling guitar figure gets slowly swallowed by triumphant horns and growing chants. It is the record’s longest track for a reason, leaving the voiceless closer “Swimming Pools” as a meditative afterthought.
The Underground recently got to chance to sit down for a chat with Watson, who was calling in from his home in Montreal. Read below to check out some highlights from the conversation.
Underground: What led to your involvement with Mass Moca in North Adams, Mass., and what did you initially think of the venue’s offer for you to perform as part of its Oh Canada series?
Watson: [Laughs] Sorry I have to laugh at the Oh Canada thing. But it’s hard to say. All we do is play shows almost every week. So, I think for us we’re always happy to go to places we haven’t been before. And festivals are always a fun to place to do it too because even if people haven’t heard of you before they come out to the festival, and you’re going to meet a lot of new fans.
I usually don’t have much expectation of places I go. I just like to go there and be surprised. I usually trust people to book shows in really interesting places, and I just go along for the ride to be honest.
Have you ever been to Western Massachusetts or the Berkshires before?
No, I haven’t been to that area before. Pretty excited to go there though. I’m pretty stoked to come. I’ve never been to that part of the country, and I’m very happy to discover it.
How would you characterize your preparation for this show? Are you doing anything different, or is it just another day at the office?
Well, you have to imagine we’ve done 45 shows in the last two months. At this point it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. We usually do big changes every six months, but every show we change the sets and do preparation. Every show is important. I couldn’t single out one concert and do a lot of preparation. I’m kind of preparing for all of these concerts at the same time.
Watch Patrick Watson perform the title track to “Adevntures In Your Own Backyard” at SXSW 2012 here:
According to the press release for the concert, you are known for your ability to incorporate so-called unusual instruments into your recordings, like a bicycle or some spoons. What might the audience expect and not expect at your concert at Mass Moca in North Adams on June 30?
We’re mostly known for our live show more than anything, more than our albums. Most people would enjoy our live shows much more. We’re five people on stage and we make a lot of noise for five people. I don’t mean just be loud, but our arrangements are pretty thick and everybody usually has a lot of interesting ideas from every angle possible. For sure it’s a pretty rich show in terms of a lot of different colors and it’s a very dynamic show. We go from everybody using one microphone to all sorts of other dynamics. But it’s hard to tell people what to expect. I do know one thing. I feel very confident about our live show. People usually love what we do live more than what we do on CD.
Every show is a little different. The ambience of the place really changes how we play our arrangements. It changes every night. It’s difficult to tell people what to expect until they go see us play.
Songs of yours have been featured in commercials, films like One Week, and on television series like Grey’s Anatomy. What do you make of exposing audiences to music through these different mediums?
You have to understand that we’re not a band that does radio because we don’t do radio-type songs. We’re not a hit-maker band, so radio is a difficult medium for us. And you also have to imagine that the record industry is very different. Most people break their songs through a TV show than the radio. Most bands have a song on a show or a commercial and that’s how the song breaks. That happens more than a song on the radio breaking. The industry has changed tremendously. When people put music on a commercial, you can be in Asia and people will come up to you because there was a song on a commercial that they really loved.
It’s a very different era. The people who work on those shows probably take the most risk in the music business in terms of trying new things out. So for a band like us, who has an unusual sound, it is by far the best medium for spreading our music in a way.
You also work as a producer and composer of film scores. How do you split your time between these different projects and your time with the band?
I just have the band and films. Usually I only do one film a year. I don’t do too many. It’s not my main gig. My main gig is the band, and most of the time we’re on tour for almost half a year. When I go home it’s nice to work on a film. It’s fun to do music for films. I enjoy it. I only take films that I really love, and it’s really fun to have spare time.
Before touring the U.S. you toured Europe. What did you think of the experience overseas?
Europe’s different. It’s a lot like the U.S. in the way that America is not just one place either. As you tour the different regions there are different types of audiences with different tastes. Touring America is as diverse as touring Europe.
How would you describe your current sound and artistic outlook?
We write songs. Our musical goal is to touch people. Ultimately what you want to do is tell a story. And in terms of the arrangements, we just take the liberty to put in the lyrics. Like at the beginning of “Lighthouse,” when the big trumpets come in. That feel, for me that’s kind of telling the story of this intimate Adventures In Your Own Backyard, but also this huge, big adventure.
The way I look at arranging and the style of music we pick to tell a story is also a way of telling a story lyrically. This album has some very folky stuff, it has some borderline rock stuff, and there are a lot of classical influences as well. We just kind of use all these different tools to help take people on a little bit of a journey.
Ultimately it’s pop music. Like the Beatles, who had some songs with classical midsections, string quartets and orchestral sections. Ultimately they were just making pop music. It’s funny how people have forgotten how diverse music was before. Some people will ask, ‘What type of music do you do?’ And I reply, ‘What type of music did the Beatles do?’ They would have one song that was completely rock ‘n’ roll, then they would go folk, or there’s a crazy orchestral classical part. Ultimately they were just telling stories that touched people. That’s pop music to me.
How would describe your songwriting process? Which comes first the story or the music?
Music probably comes first a lot of times, when I sit down at the piano at have this nice melody or chord structure to give the architecture of the music. Then the story really helps. They kind of come hand in hand. Music comes first just because I’m a piano player. I don’t write words and then write music that’s for sure.
How has your music evolved?
Well, I think we had an ambitious type of music that we wanted to make. I think it took us awhile to perfect our formula for ourselves. I feel like the last record we found the most subtle way to have all these different kinds of inspirations and different kinds of music to put together. On our last two records we were trying out different things and some of the moments were really nice, but this record [Adventures In Your Own Backyard] is the most well-sown together. All the added arrangements don’t weigh the songs down. They work really well together. It’s taken us a long time to perfect our sound. We didn’t have any examples to take the formula from. We had to do it ourselves, and it’s taken time. I feel we’re starting to get really good at it.
Your most recent record Adventures In Your Own Backyard was released in May. What were some of the challenges you encountered while recording the album in your apartment in Montreal, and how did you deal with these obstacles in such a small space?
Well, it’s not that small. It’s like a 1200 square foot loft. There definitely wasn’t a space problem. We’ve always loved to record all live in one room with mic leads. We’ve always loved that way of doing it. Most of our record were recorded live.
The biggest difficulty is we were used to being in crazy studios around the world, which from the get-go are sort of inspiring because you’re in all these crazy places. New places are sometimes easier to work out of because you get inspired quickly. At home it’s a bit more patient, and the ideas you do find are ideas that linger around for awhile that you just can’t get rid of. Usually that’s a good sign, and that it’s a good idea. The stuff you do at home is sometimes a bit more durable because it’s not just a passing moment, you have time to fix them, change them or not do them again. When were in bigger studios before and traveling, we’d record an idea and when we got home we didn’t like it as much, it didn’t age as well.
What is it like to perform songs from AIYOB in front of an audience? What has the response to the material been like so far?
Really good, especially people who are listening to it for the first time. There’s more of an immediacy to these shows and songs than with our other albums. Also, we’re a live band. We’re really not a studio band. We’re good at it, but our live show is what we’re really good at. That’s where we shine, and that’s where we feel the most comfortable. I think that’s the best way to see this band is live. I don’t think our recordings ever do us justice. When we’re in front of an audience, we’re very impulsive musicians, we’re very reactionary. Audiences change our music. Each night is different. Most people prefer our live show to our CD hands down, across the board.
How would you compare playing now to the experience of the first time you played music in front of a crowd?
Well, I’m a singer and I guess a frontman in a way. I think I’ve grown so much as a frontman with a certain confidence level. The art of taking an audience on an adventure, you learn that, it’s not something you necessarily know right away.
I remember when we first started touring we had this crazy opening, where we had to open up for James Brown. We were a very different type of music. Obviously as the frontman I had to find a connection with the audience to make it through the gig without them killing us. I feel I learned the ropes from that tour in terms of growing thick skin, and getting a basic understanding of the fact that whether or not you’re playing the style of music that people love it’s not really the most important part of the show. The most important part of the show is sharing the evening with people, having a nice moment together. Most people just want to see people pour their guts out on stage. No matter what kind of style of music it is, most people are touched by people that are touched when they’re playing the song. When I look back in hindsight at being scared of playing those gigs, now I know what I know. Just going up there and playing your heart out is the only thing you can do on the stage.
Now I know how to work a room. I know how to react to things when they go wrong. All those type of things make it a lot more fun on stage because when I go up there I’m relaxed. I’ve dealt with so many different things. At this point it would be pretty tough to surprise me.
Any special tips that you picked up from that tour with James Brown?
You’re not there to tell people to dance. You’re not there to tell people what to do. You’re there to kind of work as a team with the audience. And it’s together that you make a show great. It’s not if you do something great on stage and people react, it’s more like you make the audience feel part of the show and part of the experience.
For example, [James Brown] would call every arrangement by his finger. And if he felt the audience wasn’t with him he would stay with the bridge for like 15 minutes sometimes and say, ‘Oh, they’re not ready for the bridge.’ And he would let the audience tell him when it was time to go to the next part. He worked the room like they were part of the band as well, and they were part of the decisions. I think making the audience feel that they are part of the show really changes the dynamic of a concert because you’re all on the same side. It makes it a much more fun experience for people.
Watch Patrick Watson perform several songs as part of NPR’s Tiny Music Desk Concert here:
What is some advice you have for other artists and musicians who are working to break through?
There are two different ways of going about making a career in music. You can try to find detours and the quick way, like when you’re stuck in traffic and you try to changes lanes to get in the fast lane, then you get stuck and you watch everyone drive by you eventually. I think ultimately if you don’t want it to be a gamble, because if you try and take short roads it’s a gamble, when you put the leg work in, you tour, you do all the small little details it pays off because a lot of people don’t have the patience to do that. Working hard, being patient and taking all the opportunities you can but not being fooled by all the quick little detours because they’re not really going to be that fruitful in the long run – I think these are things you learn. All the bands I see are bands that toured all over the place, toured hard and worked very hard. Those bands are the bands that make a living. Then you see the bands that tried to go for the big shot, and you see them for about six or eight months then you never see them again.
If you really want to make a career in music, all the little details – building an audience, building by hand, building by word of mouth – is a secure way of making a career in music. If there is anything that I would like back at, I think that’s what I would say.
Who are some of your inspirations?
Tough to say. I don’t think we had anyone who was doing what we are doing. When we started we were doing multimedia projects and other weird things. We’re an amalgamation of many little pieces of many different bands. If you’re looking for like three of four main influences, I couldn’t give them to you, even if you were looking for 15 or 20 influences. Musically we’re like that. We take little pieces of the puzzle from many different types of stuff.
What are some future projects/ recordings you have planned?
There’s a couple of things. I mean we’re going to keep touring this record for the next year. Aside from that we have a couple of little orchestra gigs. There are some string ensemble gigs that are really fun to do. Those are in Holland. I’ll be doing another short score sometime in the fall. Then we’re going to start thinking about the next record, and I don’t necessarily know if it’s going to be a record or it’s going to be a film. I don’t know if doing another record is the right way of going about it. I think right now the dust is just starting to settle from what we just finished, and all the leg work that comes with releasing a record is taking up all my time for now. Until I get to maybe next January, I won’t even be able to have time to do anything else.
What is one question I should have asked but that I neglected to mention?
I never know what to say to that question. That’s the only question I can never answer [laughs].
I think it’s important for people to know that [my band] isn’t singer/ songwriter music. Sometimes people see the name Patrick Watson and they think I’m a singer/ songwriter in town. When people see us live they realize we’re a band and much more of a project, a band that works collaboratively.
How about some final thoughts you would like to share with the readers of this article?
Nope. I’m a happy guy.
Patrick Watson performs, June 30, 8 p.m., $10 students, $12-16 general, Club B-10, Mass Moca, 1040 Mass Moca Way, North Adams, (413) 662-2111, http://www.massmoca.org/.