Tuesday, March 03, 2015

An Interview with John Andrew Fredrick of The Black Watch

The Black Watch began in 1987, the brainchild of primary songwriter and frontman John Andrew Fredrick.  The band history until 2011 is detailed here; their 2013 album was my favorite of that year.  This interview took place over email in January 2015 into February.

The Snilch Report:  I just listened to the album [2014’s sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy].  It's very good, but I find it confusing -- it will take some more listens (perhaps many) to get to the heart of it.  My initial impression is that you were in a dark happy place when you made it, if that makes any sense. 

John Andrew Fredrick:  Yes in a very very dark happy place.  It is meant to be very much a "fuck off" record -- made by a person who was, in effect, heartbroken...by music itself. If that doesn't sound too terribly grandstandingly hyperbolic...

SR:  That's a very interesting idea... is it the process of creating music or the business of creating music that's leaving you feeling heartbroken?

JAF:  The metaphor of heartbreak is even more applicable, in that The Black Watch are over it, their heartbreak -- as one gets over it in life -- and are recording a follow-up EP to sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy.  Probably not surprising to those who said:  "You're a lifer, you won't quit," but I was mostly talking about feeling how I had a very bad time in the studio, on account of I did all the instruments save the drums myself, all the singing, all of it.  And it was very not-enjoyable. 

Tyson, Chris, and Rick and I are rehearsing four new songs for the forthcoming EP.  It's a nice space to be in.  I still think I may not make another LP, but obviously I kind of don't know what I will do, am confused and such, and should just shut up and sing.  Haha!  [Editor's note:  Since this interview, John has written other new songs, so now this release is going to be an LP.  Which is great news for Black Watch fans!]

For so long The Black Watch has been, in the picayune-scene indie press, "The band that never got even marginally as big as they deserve to be."  That got to me too.  I shouldn't have let it do so, but I did, more's the pity.  Tough luck and sucky hurts and disappointments, bandly-wise, music biz-wise, can be, or feel, at least, cumulative.  If you let them get like that.  Which I did.  More's the pity.  Now I will stop going on about stopping.  And go on.

SR:  You can't let the bastards drag you down!  Don't let them win!  For sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy, was the "solo recording for the band record" a plan you went in with?  Or was that forced on you?

JAF: I started by doing four songs that seemed like they'd be best acoustic.  The engineer at the studio -- guy called Luke Adams -- had been Pete Yorn's drummer, a studio session man.  I showed him some other songs, and because he speaks Beatles and is a one-take kind of guy, a "one-take Tony," as we say, he did the drums, all of them, in four hours for seven other songs.  I told the band:  “Look, if we rehearse and do this as a band, it'll cost four times as much.  Let me do this, and then we'll go make something afterwards.”

Having Luke play was like finding money on the ground.  How could I not use his tracks? (The drumming on sugarplum, I think, is stellar.)  Steven Schayer having left the band, after 6 years, you know, I sort of did it, the record, by myself as a way of going, "Hey, I don't need you like you always say I do."  He'd say it to me in jest, mind you, but not really.  I missed him being there, in the studio, being my foil and thorn in my side.  I was heartbroken over the person, Anne, many songs are about, and thinking I was going to stop doing the thing I love most:  recording music. 

Anyway, the work Steve did on Led Zeppelin Five and the end of when -- spectacular.  A great, great musician.  And, inevitably, someone who became unhappy playing in The Black Watch.  Someone who should do his own album -- and I really hope he does.  But now we have someone on lead, Tyson Cornell, who is just as good but different.  Tyson actually runs the publishing company here in LA that is my publisher -- Rare Bird Lit.  He has a spin-off label that's putting out a picture disc 7" of two songs we did this summer in Santa Barbara.  Geeky!  Collector's bait.  I mean, I love records but a picture disc?!  Haha.  I woulda been happy with a cassingle!!  Remember those?  Of course you do.  And, with Tyson, we're back to being a happy band.  Chris our bassist and Rick our drummer -- they've become great good friends with Tyson as well.  So we're fine.  Happy.  Obscure as hell, still, but happy.

The Black Watch - "Terrific," off the 1991 album Flowering

SR:  Sadly, I think I still OWN a number of cassingles.  Is it safe to say that the solo approach to the album was something you wouldn't attempt again?  Then again, you had a perfect storm:  a personal heartbreak plus a creative partner parting, and then the process of creating your potential cathartic outlet (the album) was not very enjoyable.  I can only imagine that you felt completely isolated.

JAF: Yes, I won't be recording on my own again.  I do several other things professionally that are lonelyish.  Writing novels –- you can't do that with anyone else around.  I've just finished a book on the early films of Wes Anderson that is coming out soon -- you can't do that by committee.  Haha.  I wrote a musical over Christmas.  It's about Dr. Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, with an indie rock/contemporary twist.  When I teach Freshman English, that's kinda solitary 'cause you can't go "Hey, great class today, you guys!  Let's all go down the pub and talk about how great it was!" 

I like the perfect storm metaphor.  That's apt.  I think the record is at once very spare and very honest.  I could barely open my mouth to sing.  Hence the vocals are a bit "safe."  It was risky enough just attempting to sing the lyrics because I kept thinking I was going to burst into tears... instead of into song!  See what a jolly-melancholy person I am!  I never cry.  Never ever.  I didn't when my mum, whom I loved very much and was very close to, died six years ago.  I probably should cry.  It'd be cathartic.  I don't seem to be able to, however.  Oh, well.  That sounds rather monstrous, actually.  Makes me wanna cry. Hahaha.  

SR:  It's not a stretch to say we all have different ways of coping and dealing with our grief, although I appreciate your stream-of-consciousness self-analysis -- it sounds like something I would do!  I can't recall off the top of my head whether this is the case, but have you written anything about your Mom since she passed?  I'm also wondering whether or not it's coincidence that you stopped releasing music for a few years (2009- 2011) right around that time.

JAF:  We didn't have anything out from 2009-2011 just because we didn't have a label then, that's all.  We recorded Led Zeppelin Five in 2009 and it took a year for it to come out in New Zealand first and then here in 2012, I think.  It's very hard to keep track of the records, and I’m not good with numbers.  There's a bit about my mom in my first novella, The Knucklehead Chronicles, but that's it, really.

SR: Fair enough.  I did want to touch on something you mentioned earlier -- how great the drums were on sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy.  I've always maintained that the drumming is a huge part of your sound and you are well served by having a strong drummer; to my mind, you leave a lot of space for percussion to really move the songs along.  Is that a factor in your composing?

JAF:  Yes, it is a factor.  I am a huge fan of drums, and am moved by great drumming and drummers, having started off as one, at 10 or so?  Played for 3 years, drove my parents crazy.  They were so happy when I just played guitar when I turned 13.  Of course, as a serious fan of musical drummers -- Ringo comes to mind of course, and Mitch Mitchell of the Hendrix Exp., as well as, oh, David Narcizo, the great cymbal-less guy from Throwing Muses -- I think about how the drums will go. 

But even though I played for a few years, I don't really "speak" drum.  I just know what I want... when I hear it.  I can only direct the drums sort of derivatively -- a la, "Do a Ringo fill here that goes into a sort of XTC kinda vibe."  I think it's driven Rick a little crazy over the years -- like, "Yeah, sure, John.  Whatever you say."  Does that make The Black Watch a bit of a pastiche?  Perhaps.  We try to hide our influences, that's for sure -- all the way down to the rhythm section.

The Black Watch - "Uncheerupable," off the 1999 album The KIng of Good Intentions

SR: I am a huge huge HUGE fan of musical drummers. I think that a great rhythm section can take good to great and great to unbelievable.  People underestimate their power and their impact.  But don't get me started.

So since let's talk about the new stuff.  What can fans expect from this one?  And, of course, will you be doing a cassingle promo release?

JAF:  Hahaha.  No cassingle.  One song is a nine-minute guitar freakout.  Another one is a drone like "The King of Good Intentions" off Amphetamines.  One is a very catchy song, very poppy -- called "There's No Fucking Way" (so that it won't ever get played on the radio).  Another is an old thing we've had from The Hypnotizing Sea days.  A song called "Beautiful Sleeper" that is both acoustic and full-band.  We're going to work with Rob Campanella who has been in and out of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.  A great guy with a super basement studio in Toluca Lake near Warner Brothers.  He has two mellotrons -- so look out.  I might compose a sort of psychedelic symphony on those things, just because.  Rob is big on The Byrds and on space rock, as are we.  So I am sure it will be way more trippy than sugarplum was.  He was telling me how dry the vocals are on this new record.  He'll maybe hose them down some.  And Tyson's definitely singing on the new LP. 

So there will be some harmonies, whereas we eschewed them for sugarplum.  I have been listening to Hϋsker Dϋ around a thousand times in a row, so I am looking forward to loads of fuzz guitar, flanged fuzz, overdriven, screaming screams. I took a year off from listening to anything but classical.  Well, a bit of The Beatles and of course I had to get MBV [My Bloody Valentine].  I mean, they are my second favorite band -- next to TBW, of course. Hahaa.

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