By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2008
“With this album, I just wanted it to be different, more like an iPod on shuffle,” says Juno Reactor’s Ben Watkins on why the recently released ‘Gods & Monsters’ is his most varied album to date. “The way people listen to music nowadays, and the way I listen to music, isn’t to sit down and listen to a whole album. I listen to a whole lot of stuff flung together. And I thought maybe that would be a good way to approach an album.”
Working with a wide variety of musical collaborators, Watkins has come up with a highly cinematic sounding collection that ranges from pounding dance tracks to jazzy down-tempo to the first Juno Reactor songs driven by his own lead vocals. In the following phone interview, Watkins discusses the making of “Gods & Monsters,” his approach to collaborations, why he chose to do his own vocals, and more.
What can we expect from the upcoming tour?
In Europe now, it’s the whole show. We’ve got a lighting crew now; I don’t know where we picked them up! [Laughs] In Japan, I met this guy named Yoshi who does these amazing visuals, pretty much like doing a VJ thing but it’s just really, really brilliant. A lot of VJ stuff I see looks like crap; they haven’t got much artistry to it. But this guy is just amazing. The music is cinematic anyway, and the way the visuals are working draws you much more into it. It’s almost like an installation at times.
So we’ve got the 4 South African percussionists, Greg from LA who is the kit drummer. Sugizo, who is this Japanese rock star guitarist. And then Taz [Alexander] singing and Ghetto Priest, who came out of Asian Dub Foundation. Sometimes Steve Stevens plays with us. So it’s quite a mad mix of people, really.
Do you have any specific ideas of how you’d like the live show to evolve in the future?
The thing that I’d love to do at the moment is to just tour throughout Europe the way that I want to, with this band. That is my dream, to be on a really solid tour where you’re not worried about how you’re going to pay for it. That would be great. To just get it out to the people who really want to see it. I think that what we’ve got now is so unusual, visually and in terms of the makeup of the band. Because it wasn’t really designed this way, it just happened. I think we’ve just found ourselves with something that is incredibly unique. You have to go back to bands like Parliament to really find something that is similar.
You’ve collaborated with quite a few people. How do these collaborations usually come about? Are they people you know, or seek out?
Usually, I just fall into them [the collaborations]. I think the only one who I’ve really hunted down was Yasmin Levy, who sings on the new album on a song called “Tanta Pena” I heard her on BBC Radio 3 here, on like a world music program. And I was just amazed, so I rang up the radio station and got in touch with her management and she came down to the studio.
Is it ever a challenge to integrate a particular collaborator’s skills and talents into what you’re doing with Juno Reactor?
It’s a challenge if they’re boring. [laughs] It’s a real challenge if what they play is a load of crap. It’s just exciting when you find someone like Mike Garson, Bowie’s piano guy from Aladdin Sane and stuff. It’s exciting when people have got their own personality and sound. It would be a problem if I had to keep it to a particular type of music, but I don’t feel like I have to.
Do you generally prepare in advance for a collaboration, in terms of perhaps creating the beginnings of a song that is tailored to the people you are working with?
Not really. Someone like Steve Stevens, with “Pistolero,” he came over to London for about 6 days and we spent the first days going ‘nah, nah, maybe too slow, too fast.’ And then I found a bassline that I thought we could really do a lot with. It was neither major nor minor. And then he started kicking out the beats. In that case it was very much a 50/50 type of collaboration. With Mabi, the bushman from South Africa, I took a load of his rhythms and just sampled them up at first to get a basic idea. Then I knew I had something that he could play over. So sometimes I do have to tailor it, and other times I don’t really.
Since you’re music combines so many different styles, do you strive to come up with a cohesive sound? Or do you just let the music naturally take it’s own course?
I’ve found this album to be the least cohesive of all. Because I think in the past it’s been easier to say something like ‘well this is a cross between a dance record and something you can play at home’ or ‘this is an out and out sort of banging album.’ With this album, I just wanted it to be different, more like an iPod on shuffle. The way people listen to music nowadays, and the way I listen to music, isn’t to sit down and listen to a whole album. I listen to a whole lot of stuff flung together. And I thought maybe that would be a good way to approach an album.
What made you decide to do two songs driven by your own vocals?
I think I just wanted to write more songs. For a long time I’ve been doing things where the tracks and the music do all of the speaking.
I don’t know why … I’m definitely not a poet, and I don’t sit around writing words all the time. But on this album, I just found myself writing loads of lyrics and sitting at the piano writing songs. And I thought maybe something was telling something me here. So it was natural to do it. I love working with Ghetto Priest. That writing partnership was really easy and relaxed and fun, and all the lyrics just came so easy. Before when I used to write songs, the lyrics were a nightmare. And I quite like the idea of the path of least resistance. I think that was it really, those songs just naturally came. The hardest part was finishing the songs and thinking ‘hmm, people are going to think I’m fucking blarney for putting these on!’ But some of it is really autobiographical, and I’d never written an autobiographical song before.
Did you put them at the end because they are different from the rest?
Well I had thought about it. I play around with a lot playlists all the time, and I found that’s where they sat best. They’re not trying to be hidden [laughs].
Do you have a particular approach the naming songs?
Well I always know what the track is about. For example, there was a track called ‘Jardin De Cecile’ that I wrote. That was about this French girl, about 18 years old, who got murdered on the motorway in England. And where they found the body, her father wrote on a tree ‘Jardin De Cecile.’ And I read that and thought …. I think it was because I had just had my own daughter as well … I was working on this track at the time and thought, ok, I’m going to re-arrange it and turn it into this sort of magical garden, the garden of the afterlife. I tend to have a film in my own head as to what a song is about. The hardest part is if you don’t have an idea of what a song’s about, then I can’t really be finished.
Are there any particular instruments or pieces of studio technology that you feel are key to Juno Reactor’s sound?
I’m a whore really, I use everything. Anything that is good I use.
Has the evolution of musical technology had an impact on your creative process?
I’m sure it has. I’m sure it makes me want to sit at the piano a lot more. Sometimes you get so bored sitting in front of the computer nudging little buttons and looking at the bloody screen that when you actually sit in front of an instrument it’s almost like you’ve reached nirvana. I think it’s really made me appreciate the sort of physicality of playing my guitar or the piano or drums. I love programming as well, don’t get me wrong. But I spend so much time doing it. And then you’ve got every bleep and blop that everyone else can make. You’ve really got to dig quite deep to find something unique. I think. It seems that every bleep and blop and compressed noise has been created now. Everything has been done, it’s been cooked and overcooked. For me, it’s down to the individual and the musician’s expression that then makes something hit a chord or a soul or connects people more. I mean I can make a really massive thumping demonic dance track that’s great for that night or whatever. But you want your tracks to live, and have their own soul. And that is down to the players.
Can you describe the recently released live DVD?
It was shot in Japan over one night. It was really the first time I’d taken the band [out of Europe] with it that big. We had Steve Stevens on guitar for the whole gig. Paul Jackson on bass. It was quite a magical night, because it could have gone really badly. But luckily the gods were with us and it all went really well.
Do you plan on touring America to support this album?
Well I’m hoping so. I’m hoping that we get the right agent who can put a tour together.
Will it need to be scaled back at all from what you’re doing in Europe?
I hope not. There are a number of places in America that really want us and think they’ve got the audience to be able to pay us for the full caboodle. I mean if we can do it in Europe, in places like Ukraine and Croatia and Bulgaria, surely we can do it in America. But maybe not? Maybe George Bush has taken America too far into the third world for you to come back [laughs].
Do you have any more film work planned?
I’ve got some coming up later in year.
Why do you use reactorleak.com for your official website, as opposed to junoreactor.com? Was junoreactor.com taken by someone else?
It was started off by a Juno Reactor enthusiast and he let me take if over. I just quite like it really. I’ve still got Junoreactor.com, but I quite like using reactorleak.See all interviews →