A conversation with Ben Watkins of Juno Reactor
edited: Tuesday, March 29, 2005
By Wa -- Conner
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, February 14, 2005
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Like Clark Kent to Superman, Ben Watkins lives in the shadow of his alter ego, Juno Reactor.
A child of the punk movement, he has for the past two decades become as synonymous with electronic music as producer/innovator Brian Eno. His incorporation of live performances from some of the worldís most accomplished musicians on traditional instruments in his song arrangements has placed him in the rarified pantheon of artists like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. His new release Labyrinth is a patchwork puzzle of life, death, hope and dreams. Like Clark Kent to Superman, Ben Watkins lives in the shadow of his alter ego, Juno Reactor.
How did you get involved in music and what is your musical background?
I sort of a came from a classical education. When I was four or five my father exposed to me a lot of classical music. My dad was really into classical music. So I started off just listening to a lot of that when I was young and began lessons learning the piano, violin and classical guitar. Then when I was around 14 I became more interested in rock music. (Laughs)
How did you get started in Electronic music?
I was interested in many different types of music and I tried my hands at a quite lot things it was only when I got involved with electronic music in the early 80's that I felt at home.
I noticed Budgie (of Siouxsie and the Banshees fame) appears on your new release LABYRINTH, how did he end up playing drums on the song "War Dogs"
Iíve been wanting to do something with him for ages. I had done some remixes for them over the years and I wrote a track ( Iím Here...Another Planet) for them that was used in the film Lost In Space. That track was very much a patchwork thing. I produced the track for their album and so he was already around. The weird thing is that I hadnít really planned on recording a 3/4 track but when he came to the studio it just seemed appropriate. Its great having acoustic drums. I can get kind of bored with electronic drums and just electronic everything. To have more players with real drums can only make the recording that much more exciting.
When one thinks of a Juno Reactor record, one canít help but notice all of the virtuoso musicians you tend to work with, how do you find these wonderful musicians from all over the world?
(He laughs loudly) Its sometimes a bit daunting! You kind of wonder who the heck you can persuade to come over do some work and then there is also quite a long period of time where you are just looking for different musicians that could bring something to the table that havenít been used before.
Whom did you work with on Labyrinth and how did you meet them?
The new people I worked with while recording Labyrinth was Diane Charlemagne, who sang with Goldie on their track "Inner-City Life". I met her through a friend of mine, Danny Brighton, whom she had been working for. She sang on the song "Giant". When you meet Diane she seems like a really nice and quiet person and when you hear her sing itís just like blowing your head off. (Laughs). I really wanted some other voices on the record as well. In fact, I was working with this Israeli woman, Jasmine Levi, whoís a fantastic singer, but her management company completely fucked the whole proceedings up and so I had to take her off of "War Dogs" and re-write the whole of War Dogs pretty much. That ended up being a real pain.
Eduardo Niebla, I had heard him play on Deepak Ramís album. Deepak who had played on my previous album Shango introduced Eduardo to me. What I love about Eduardoís playing is that at times it sounds really simple, you know and then you sort of really check out what heís doing and then when I try to play it, its like fuckiní hell! That is what I like about it. Its deceiving, like a beautiful fly eating flower, it draws you into its petals, and then it cuts you up. A brilliant, great player! That is what I really love about great players. Its not that they show off their skill as a virtuoso, its just that they do what is really great for the track. And if its really simple then that is what they do.
Iím very impressed with the work you did for the Wachowski Brothers on the Matrix series. I presume working with Don Davis, who scored the film, had to be a pretty incredible experience?
It was definitely a learning curve that I wonít forget in a short time. It felt like I was going to film scoring school for three months. You had to learn very quickly.
How did you and Don develop the tracks Mona Lisa Overdrive and Navras?
I got asked to go out there to write the music for the freeway chase scene. Iíd done some film work before but nothing had really prepared me for that job. So I went over and Iíd gotten some ideas together and the Wachowski Brothers told me what they wanted. I pretty much had meetings with them for literally two or three days and they took me over to meet Don. The first meeting I had with them I went over and played what I had for them and they were talking right away and I had to write down all of these notes. I think I had about four or five pages of notes. Add this.. Do this right here... my brain was just falling out of my ears at this point. And that was strange. And I donít think Don was that prepared to work with an electronic musician, and then eventually he was. I think from his early reticence to the final outcome... I think he was very happy, and we ultimately got along very well. For the freeway chase scene I took my classical ideas in with me. Iíd sample people like William Walton and these other sort of composers and sort of do it my way and add those elements through samplers. And then Don would take it and say, well, we could do this but weíd have to do in a different way. If I was too heavy handed Don would lighten it up. Don did all the orchestral stuff and what the Wachowski brothers wanted me to do was go in and look at it because all the other people who had tried it had failed. They wanted something heavy.
So they brought in others before you?
Yeah, theyíd had like The Prodigy try it, and then Fluke tried it. And I think they didnít like any of those. I think they may have asked other people and didnít like those others and then they asked if I wanted to have a go at it. And I did.
Was it Don, The Wachowski Brothers, or you, who is a fan of William Gibson novels?
You mean with "Mona Lisa Overdrive"? (Laughs) It was a cheeky thing on my behalf. In meetings I kept on calling it "Overdrive" and I could see that it was raising eyebrows. I didnít give the complete name right up until the end. They had no idea it was going to be called "Mona Lisa Overdrive".
And the use of the Upanishads in "Navras"?
In a meeting with the Brothers and Don Davis they decided they wanted the Upanishads to have a place in the film. Most of "Navras" had been written when I came in. They wanted that whole section re-written for the end titles, and at first they said they wanted it to be two and a half minutes duration. And I thought, Jesus, I mean I can practically fart and it can last two and a half minutes. (Laughs) And they liked what I did with the two and a half minutes, so they said why donít you try four then? It took me a few more days to get it to four minutes. And they liked that and they kept asking me to add to it. So it went to six minutes, and then to eight and to nine minutes. And that was it.
"Navras", is one of those tunes you donít come across very often. It just writes itself for you. You know, you donít really have to do any work. It just keeps coming out. Itís a product of the great people who are playing on it, you know? Lakshmi Shankar came down and sang and did that in a half-an-hour. And then Deepak came down and he was enjoying himself so he stayed for a week. It was brilliant having him around because he just made the whole place light up. I think actually my favorite thing about the whole time I was working on those two films is that I had such a great time with all the people who were there. They were all fantastic people. None of them had massive egos. Really easy to work with and no nightmares.
You will be touring soon, how is the live show developing?
Good so far. In America we are coming out in April, May, and June. I think it would be quite funny trying to do "Navras" live. I donít know if it is possible. I think what we will have to do is use the musicians that are there with me and see if we can adapt a version that meets the requirements without having to lean on the computer too much. (Laughs) I donít know though, its pretty entertaining, that one.
Do you find that your European audiences are a little more open-minded to receiving new ideas artistically than your American audiences?
Iíve always had a really good thing with America. Iíve always found America and Americans to be really open minded about things. In fact Iíve almost found the reverse in Europe. In England, say itís a dance thing, there is sort of like a mafioso like control over their little type of dance music. It all became very snobby. In America it didnít seem they had all that snobbishness about it. Maybe its because they didnít feel like they had given birth to it, you know? Although they had, with the Detroit music scene and all. Iíve never found that same sort of snobbish with Americans that Iíve found with Europeans. But then again America is a massive place. I think in England and Europe the reason you get that kind of response is because they are trying to protect their areas. Thatís why I am so glad that the whole music industry has changed so much and even in the last couple of years. That whole DJ culture is just dead here. Theyíve been crying for a change because its just boring. Because people who didnít know what they were listening to would promote really horrible music.
Will you be bringing an opening act with you?
Iím not sure. Iíve heard that we might be doing some dates with Meat Beat Manifesto and maybe DJ Shadow.
Have you worked with either before?
No. I think our agents are looking at creating a really good package, something that will really allow people to come out and have a great time. That is what I hope happens; that whatever show we put together will be really great for the people who travel. Because you know, people travel so much further in America than they do here in Europe. Iím just going to have to wait and see what happens.
Iíve noticed there is a real prevalence recently of artists re-releasing CDs in SACD 5.1. Have you considered doing this with your past or future albums?
Its weird because I bought a mixing desk, specifically to be in 5.1. But when it came time for the album I didnít really bother. I donít why, I think it was because I really didnít have the time to get into that whole frame of mind. And it didnít seem like the record company had much of an idea about how to market that kind of thing. All of the tracks we did for The Matrix films were all mixed in 5.1 Iím also working on a Japanese animation film which will be in 6.1. So, Iím learning about surround sound through the film work. Maybe Iíll do something in the future. Weíll have to see.
What is the name of the Japanese animation film?
At the moment its called Shinkoo. And its with a director who the directed the short film entitled "Beyond" that appeared on the Animatrix. Its funny because that was my favorite one. A real story. Its about twenty to twenty five minutes long. I think they are going to bundle it with some other animation things for theatre. What is strange about it, is that they havenít told anything about what the story is. What I am working from is black and white storyboard without motion. Itís the complete opposite of working on The Matrix as I am able to dictate pretty much what I want. The director has not really engaged in much conversation at all, rather the collaboration elements completely open.
With all the different changes in the music industry, particularly digital files, how do you feel about them and their legitimate and illegitimate uses?
I really like them. Iíve got my iPOD and I like having access to all of that music at the touch of a button. Itís a little confusing at the moment about how musicians will make money from it and whether they will really sell anything or just license their work. What I love about it is that it really buggers up the whole music industry. And that is a good thing. Maybe it will stop all this rubbish the music industry pays for and promotes. If there is no money in it, then they wonít be able to promote so much crap.