Watson's first 12-inches arrived midway through the decade, keenly melodic from the outset. Eventually, these records won him a home at Omid "16DB" Nourizadeh's Alola, resulting in two albums and a handful of EPs, the classic Mystical Rhythm among them. Soon after, Watson formed his own label, Bio, and dropped another album. By 2006, he'd amassed five LPs and released on labels such as Planet E, F Communications, Delsin and Mule Electronic. Now based in Amsterdam, he continues to push dulcet sounds, both via his own labels Bio and Everysoul and since last year, on Berlin's Tresor. RA caught up with the Scotsman to talk about his two forthcoming albums, taking risks and the need for musicality.
I read a recent interview in which you said your career is really just beginning. That's a strange statement given you've been releasing for over 15 years...
Basically, the career that I've got at the moment is only one part of what I envisage as my grand career, which is many different things. And I'm starting very slowly at the moment to head towards the second part. [I'm] still going to be doing electronic music and club-based music forever. But I'm also focussing now on TV and film work, classical music, things like that.
So are you approaching people and requesting these gigs, or are they coming to you?
Well, the publisher we've got has just signed an exclusive contract with CBS in America to do all the shows. You know, like CSI and all that. That's a kind of stepping stone, but eventually what I want to do is actually make music for soundtracks. Not so much films, but you've got a lot of things like...I don't know if you saw recently, The Cinematic Orchestra did a fantastic soundtrack for a Disney film [The Crimson Wing]. It was an absolutely beautiful piece. That's kind of similar to the direction I want to go.
The music for CSI, would that be electronic?
Yeah, there'd be bits of electronic in there, but I think it's a very different entity altogether when you're doing music like that for TV and film. You know, sometimes you get given a brief and you have to write music to it, but sometimes they just want samples from music that's already been released. So, we'll do a bit of both and we'll see how we go from there.
Where did you learn to compose classical music? That's obviously quite a bit different to sitting down at a sequencer and putting a track together.
My dad was very musical, and when I was very young, I wanted to play piano, and I was given an old organ by my gran. Right away, I could start replicating tunes that were on the TV. My mum saw straight away that I had an ear for music and then it wasn't long until they started buying keyboards. By the time I was 15, I had all sorts of machines, you know? I was quite fortunate.
So what was it like growing up in Glasgow?
Yeah, it was good. The '90s was one of these eras where you would wake up at 9 AM on a Saturday morning, jump on the bus, straight into town, go through all the records in the stores, because you knew that the vans were delivering the records on a Saturday morning between half nine and ten.
Do you remember the first thing you ever bought?
Yeah, the first piece of music I bought was awful, actually. [laughs] It was some really obscure sort of soul/funk/hip-hop thing, but it was really commercial and not very good. And then, my parents bought me a Frankie Goes To Hollywood album. I think it was Two Tribes, 'cause I liked the bassline. After that, I started buying modern music. I remember I was in an under-18s' club in Glasgow, and MC Duke was playing, he was a hip-hop guy from the UK who used to wear these huge rings. And the warm up DJ was playing It Is What It Is [by Derrick May's Rhythim Is Rhythim alias] on Transmat and I was completely freaked out by it. I said, "What the hell is that?" I suppose a lot of people got the same kind of thing when they heard the first Transmat or first Detroit records. And that's where it all started for me. I was a great fan of Jean-Michel Jarre before that, so that kind of alien-sounding music was really attracting.
It Is What It Is was your first brush with "proper" electronic music, forgetting about Jean-Michel Jarre. From there, how did you become DJ Psycho? [a happy hardcore project of Watson's in the early '90s]
Oh my God. [laughs] It was a parallel universe, that's the only way I can describe it. I had the ability to make this really horrific music, where you get paid tons of money to make endless junk. At the time I was very young, and in Scotland and the north of England, that music was so popular, it was huge. I mean, it dwarfs any of the record sales that I have now by ten-fold. It was massive, you were playing in front 20,000 or 30,000 people every weekend if you wanted, there were so many different events.
Was it quite a laddish scene?
Not at that time. There were a lot of girls there as well, it was a 50/50 split, but the problem was the music was so one-dimensional; it was unbelievable. It wasn't very mature music.
Did you think it was credible at the time, or were you always planning to get out?
At all times during the process of making it, I was...I wouldn't say cringing, but I was kind of leaning towards stopping doing it at all times. But I didn't have that much equipment and I think at one point in 1990...I think it was around '92 I said, "I'm gonna do three big records of this, then I'm gonna stop. I wanna get myself a studio." I only had to do two, thankfully.
In those days, were you mainly hanging out in Glasgow? There's a lot of attention paid to England's scene at the time—London, Manchester, Birmingham—but you don't hear people talking about Scotland.
Yeah, there was a lot of really good parties. They were mostly underground until the Slam parties started. When they kicked off it became quite serious...Some of the parties that they have now have grown from that. We used to travel a lot, as well. I mean, we used to go down to Middlesbrough to go to some of the really nice house clubs down there. We used to go to Manchester, London. It's one of these things where it's cool to be in your own city, but when you're young you're always wanting more.
music these days is...there's
more people making music that
can't play their instruments."
You started producing first, not DJing?
Yeah, I started messing around with samplers and stuff before I started DJing [at my school disco]. I think even now I regard myself as a musician first and a DJ second. I remember, we used to get a budget [for the school disco]. I used to get off at lunch times at school and she [the teacher] used to give us 20 quid and then say, "Go and get yourself three or four records for the weekend." That was once a week. They were expecting me to buy really commercial chart music, but I was coming back with Plus 8 records, all sorts of stuff like that. [laughs] And playing it, people were freaking out. Like, "What is this nonsense you're buying?" Like, "It's the future, you just don't understand." [laughs]
Do you think Glasgow itself had an influence on your music? Is there a Glasgow sound?
There used to be a Glasgow sound, yeah. I think that unfortunately, at the moment...
What, happy hardcore? [laughs]
No, I mean, I don't know what sound that is. [laughs] It's still going, that says something for it I suppose. In the mid-'90s moving forward, Glasgow had so many good artists and had a real sense of quality electronic music about it. I think at the moment, it's kind of lacking that. There's a few kids that came up through the ranks and have made it quite big, like Gary Beck's an example. He's doing really, really well. But his generation of artists are doing something completely different, and in terms of music, there's not much "musical" input there, it's all track-based and effects-based and it's great for what it is...it's just not for me, really.
What was that '90s sound though?
It was very organic; chord-based, definitely music-based. I think one thing that made Glasgow artists stand out a little bit was the fact that they were all musicians; everyone could play their instruments. And that makes a big difference. When you're making sort of, emotional pieces of music, and you want to express something in a piece of music, if you can play what you want to get out, it's beautiful. The problem with a lot of the music these days is there's not as many musicians. Well, there are as many musicians, but there's more people making music that can't play their instruments. So you end up with a situation where there's like 5,000 records coming out every week that don't have any music on them, and a thousand that do. So actually discovering that music is harder now than it used to be.
So playing an instrument should be a pre-requisite for making electronic music?
No, I wouldn't say that. I would say it's a pre-requisite for making beautiful music, yeah. I think music's a very sort of, personal thing. And music can be defined as anything; any instrument, any sound, that's all music. How we define that is really up to us, and you either like something or you don't, really. I think beautiful music has to be made with different instruments, different sounds, chords, techniques, layers, and that makes something really special. It gives it a longevity. I think one of the things at the moment with a lot of the sort of laptop-based music and the plug-in-based music, is there's no longevity to it. The digital age has sort of made these, throw-away tracks. You play something for a week, something else comes out so you replace it. It's one of these things where, "Where's the classic?" The classics in the digital age are becoming harder to find, and I think a lot of that's because there's less music in the tracks.
Have you ever considered making something "non-beautiful"? Stark, cold?
Yeah, to be absolutely honest with you, I still do. I don't release some of it, but there are tracks there that have something about them that's alien to what you might think is "me." I think it's important that you have some kind of balance in your output, as well. As far as I can see, I'm a really versatile producer; there's not that many versatile producers out there. They're quite hard to come by, so I'm quite grateful that I'm able to do that.
As far as your released work goes, I disagree. I don't think it's particularly versatile. Can you elaborate on why you believe that?
My released music...maybe the 12-inches I do are not versatile at all. They're all club-based, and they always will be. A couple of albums I've done, they've been very different from each other, because I always make sure my albums are artistic-based and very different. The next two albums I've got coming out will definitely change your opinion of that.
I had the chance to catch your live set last night. Can you talk about what you were doing?
I was basically programming the 909, the 101, the Korg [Triton] on the fly. The Korg is more of a preset keyboard for beautiful strings, pianos, a lot of natural sounds, but it's got some really fat basses on there that you can edit quite well.
The thing I found interesting about your live set is that you weren't afraid to use lengthy beatless sections of two, even three minutes. Or stop the music and then re-start with something different. Plenty of DJs will do the second one, but only a couple of times per set. You did it five or six times in just two hours. Both those techniques would appear to go against conventional dance floor wisdom. Can you explain your thinking there?
It's very simple really. I'm an artist that's performing, not a DJ. And DJs can let the beat drop for like, four or eight bars, they can go ahead and do that and that's fine. But when I'm playing on stage, I want to give people a sense of a story and the tracks flow into each other, but sometimes they don't. And when those beats stop, I want to do a breakdown and use different tracks to let the crowd appreciate that I'm taking it into a different area of the set or going in a different direction. It doesn't have to be done by beats all the time. I think it's important that we get back to the musical side of what it's all about. So, to actually have so many breakdowns, it's nice because you get appreciation from people for the musicality that you're doing. When you're actually playing the keys on stage...doing that over a beat, somehow it loses its appeal because there's so much other music going on. But when you actually drop everything and play something, people actually go, "Wow, he is actually playing that live."
You know, there's so many people turn up with a laptop and a controller now and call that a live set. So when I turn up with machines now, people look and go, "Wow, what's all this equipment you've got?" because there's a lot of young kids coming up that have never seen keyboards on stage before, it's unbelievable! I think that's actually a problem, and that's why I want to at least help try and alleviate some of that, by playing on stage. At the end of the day, I'm a musician, and I DJ well and I DJ a lot, but I'm a musician first and foremost. So I want to show people that I'm actually playing live on the stage, and breakdowns are a great way of doing that.
The title comes from when the digital years started really kicking off and there was a lot of souless music out there. I could see a lot of people at the time were walking around and they needed music, there wasn't a lot of [proper] music kicking around. I hadn't released anything for a while, because I didn't feel it was the right time. I wanted to just try and make lots of tracks and get a nice catalogue together ready to go. So I took a bit of time out, and when I came back I wanted to do this jazz album. Laurent Garnier asked me to do one for [his label] F Comm and I put together this collection of tracks. At the time, I wasn't 100 percent happy with them, because it was my first attempt to do a jazzy, broken-beat album. Luckily or unluckily—whichever way you want to see it—F Comm went down and the label stopped putting out music. So I took the tracks back, and I decided to make the album a bit differently. I had the idea of basically, using all my different influences and putting all my versatility into making the best album I've ever made.
So how long ago was it that you started that initial version for F Comm?
Yeah, I probably started the project in...2006, maybe? About five years ago, which is actually when my last album was released. It's been five years since I've done an album and there's going to be two in quick succession, so it's one of these kind of, paradoxes.
And what's the other one called?
The second one's called Serenity. It's a classical and ambient album which will come out on Rekids. The first album's on my label, Everysoul, which is the Bio sub-label which I'm just re-launching.
What's the difference between your two labels?
Bio is basically my club label, pure and simple. Everysoul...I wanted to put out tracks that I thought were really nice, beautiful tracks that maybe weren't for the club but had more of a broken-beat, jazzy or house sort of edge to them. Just a nice offshoot for beautiful music. I put out one single—Love In F Minor—and it did really well, but there was no vinyl attached to it and that was just so hard to do.
When I re-started Bio in 2009, we did the Funk D'Void remix of A Very Different World and that did amazingly well, but again, I never did any vinyl and it crushed me, it really crushed me. I had no physical product to hold in my hand, and it was the first time since I started Bio ten years ago or 11 years ago, that I didn't have anything to hold when I'd finished the work. And it just hurt, really badly. It made me re-think things, you know? So I stopped Everysoul because I just wanted some nice products to hold in my hand. I didn't care how many they sold, but I thought it's important if you're an artist and you've got a piece of work, a digital file's just not good enough. You know, you need something there. So what I decided to do was go back to the drawing board with Bio. It took another year of getting the tracks right and getting the distribution deal right, and now we're doing vinyl releases with Bio. The album on Everysoul is going to be CD and digital. Can't do vinyl on the albums, it's just crazy.
I read an interview a while back in which you mentioned that most labels these days don't take risks. Do you think Bio and Everysoul do?
Everysoul is definitely going to take risks, yeah. No question about that. The whole idea behind that is to put out the music that I feel should be out there, and at the moment that's risky, there's no way around that. It's a very different world that we're living in, because as I said, the risks that are taken by labels now are few and far between. It's all...safe, everyone plays safe; putting out this because they know it will sell, they don't want to put out that remix because you know, the kids might not like it, all these kinds of thing. I think these are part of a growing trend that's kind of worrying. We have to stop that, we have to put out the music that's correct, the music we love and the music that we really want to listen to. That's what artists do, that's what the scene is meant to be all about.
But surely when labels put out music they know is going to sell, it's because people do love that music? It is the music they love and want to hear?
Yeah, I mean you could say also that the reason the kids are buying that music is because they're going onto Beatport and downloading the top ten. These names are being pushed in their face all the time and being promoted really well, so they're not getting a chance to hear other types of music.
the best way forward...because
no one wants to go to a club
and listen to just endless loops."
That kind of top ten music—some, not all of it—it's almost as irrelevant to you as Lady Gaga or Britney Spears, though, isn't it? It's a completely different scene and a completely different kind of person who buys it.
Yeah, but the problem is that the people who are buying that kind of music are not getting the opportunity to listen to other types of music because they're being bombarded with other things. So like, when we were growing up, we had access to all the forms of music and we could then make our choice very easily as to what we wanted to listen to. I think that's why my generation and the generation even a lot older than me, they have so much variety in their music. Whereas now, a lot of the younger generation who are buying music don't have that sort of freedom of choice as much as maybe we did, because the promotion now is very different and the ways of getting music is very different. You know, you don't have that thing of going into a record shop and looking through all the different types of music and listening to it. You're going online, listening for two seconds; but most of the people are going online and searching for certain labels, searching for certain artists, because you're not going to sit through five, ten thousand records every week on a digital website to look for good music. It's just very, very difficult to find that.
You once said that computer music sounds too mechanical—that it doesn't sound natural—when compared with hardware music. That seems a bit contradictory given that both methods are entirely machine-based.
It's not so much that it sounds too mechanical. It's just the process is too mechanical, because when you're making music with computers, you're taking away the sort of, natural touch and feel of the instruments. I made my first three albums without a computer, and at the time everyone was using Cubase and starting to get into Logic and using all these new plug-ins. And I didn't feel I needed them, at all.
You still don't use any, do you?
No, the only plug-in I do use is Lounge Lizard, because I don't have a Hammond organ. Which would be amazing. And that's probably the best Hammond organ replication that I've heard. That's the only one I use, yeah. Other than that, I'm hardware-based.
So you talk about having some kind of scene-wide renaissance and getting back to musicality. Do you see any practical way that's ever going to happen?
The only practical way that I can deal with it is to totally believe in what I'm doing.
But do you think that at large it's ever going to happen?
Yeah, I do, I do. I think at some point, there's going to be...maybe, I wouldn't call it a renaissance. What I would call it is a step too far, maybe for...the current predicament can only go so far. Things change, you know? People change, music changes, formats change, and the digital age that we're living in now, who's to know what's going to happen three or four years down the line that we don't know now? And I think at some point...it's almost like saturation, you know? The saturation point will come where the current way of doing things and the current amount of music that's getting put out that's of a lower quality will stop.
These people will grow up as well, and these people will grow up wanting to play music, they'll want to get keyboards and there will be more musicality coming into it. Whether or not the generation that comes after them will be able to do the musical side of things, who knows? But all we can do is try and show them that that's the best way forward, because no one wants to go to a club and listen to just endless loops. It's just not fun. I think most people get bored after two hours now, they go home. Some people I hang around with, they're lucky if they're in the club for two hours now, they're like, "Right, OK, let's just go." It's just not exciting enough a lot of the time.