Ben Watkins of Juno Reactor talks about "The Golden Sun... Remixed"
By Bob Gourley | Published on July 19, 2015
Fusing trance with global and cinematic orchestral elements, Juno Reactor have constantly been redefining and pushing their sound in new directions. Now the acclaimed 2013 Juno Reactor “The Golden Sun Of The Great East” has itself been reinterpreted as a full remix album. “The Golden Sun… Remixed,” features remixes from Extrawelt, GMS, Bliss, Ritmo, Zeologic, Cylon, Modus, Tortured Brain, and Jitter. While Juno Reactor tracks been remixed in the past, this marks this first time that a complete album of theirs has been given the remix treatment.
Juno Reactor was founded in 2010 by Ben Watkins, who remains the driving force behind the project. A variety of talented musicians and singers have been part Juno Reactor over the years, with the live line-up often varying based on what country they are performing in. In recent years, Budgie (Siouxsie and the Banshees/The Creatures) has been serving as drummer. Outside of Juno Reactor, Watkins does film soundtrack and DJing work. The following is a phone interview with Watkins conducted in June 2015.
You just got back from performing in Japan. Do your live shows differ at all depending on what country you’re in?
Ben Watkins: In Japan, it’s easier to work with Sugizo. He’s a really famous guitarist in Japan. He plays with two of the biggest acts in Japan, Luna Sea and X Japan. They are massive bands; they sell out 50,000 seat stadiums in a couple of hours. But he’s always loved playing in Juno Reactor. Sometimes he comes out to Europe and plays, but lately he’s been so busy. So this time we were able to play with him on this tour [of Japan.] He brings a whole load of his Luna Sea and X Japan fans along with him. We also had taiko drummer Leonard Eto, one of the main drummers and a founding member of Kodo. So it was quite unique in Japan. We had Sugizo and we had Leonard Eto playing with my main drummer, who is Budgie from Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Creatures. I’ve got a new singer from Slovenia, and a dancer/percussionist from Israel. The main stable of the band who goes out around the world is Budgie on drums, Mali the percussionist/dancer, Taja on vocals and myself. Then there is either Sugizo or Amir, who is a Palestinian guitarist who plays electric metal guitar and flamenco guitar. He’s an amazing virtuoso at flamenco. So the line-up differs. We’re trying to set up a tour of America for September or October, and I might end up putting together a whole American band for that, just because it’s so difficult to bring everyone. I’m trying to look at different ways to tour America.
What is your approach to live performance? Do you compose music with performance in mind?
Ben Watkins: I really like the idea of reaction, and interplay, going off on a tangent with improvisation. I love that, I love the idea that you can fall on your knees at any point, and make songs up as you go along through the set. That to me is live. I know that we go through certain sections which are very much syncopated to the computer and it’s got all the electronics, blah blah blah. But I like when it’s free from it as well, and you can go off into anything. That’s what I love best about it, that it is live and you can improvise, you can change it. It can mess it up. It’s a different world. I don’t want to just recreate what we’ve done in the studio. I know that people come along wanting to hear something, but I do like it when it all goes wrong.
Do you feel that this goes back and influences your studio work?
Ben Watkins: Sure, I think that what you learn on stage you can then push into the studio. When I was working with the African percussionists, who I’ve worked with for nearly 15 years, it was constantly this sort of reinvention of what we were doing live. I’d take it into the studio and be hearing things in my head that we’d done live and putting it back into the studio. The studio can be a very sterile, cold, and boring hermit cave. Unless you have the experience of doing the live stuff, it can be quite boring.
How did you come to work with Budgie?
Ben Watkins: Well I’d toured with him when he was in Siouxsie and the Banshees around 1984. I had a project called The Flowerpot Man and we did the Hyena tour. I’d known him and Siouxsie and Steven Severin; we were always hanging out in London. He sort of resurfaced when he separated from Siouxsie and I thought, wow … With my drummer at the time, it was getting too expensive bringing him over from LA and I thought, ‘’I wonder if Budgie would do it?’ And he was into it. So he’s been with us about 5 or 6 years now.
[Note: “Beat City” from The Flowerpot Man was featured on the soundtrack to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – listen to it here.]
How did the remix album come about? Did you have the idea and then seek out remixers, or did it come about because you already had remixes?
Ben Watkins: Well, it sort of started off with like one or two tracks being done. The Extrawelt remix was done and then I bumped into GMS and thought “Zombi” would really suit them. And then thought, ‘ooh maybe we can do like a parallel album.’ We’d never done that before – with remixes it had always been a bit of this, a bit of that. It seemed to make sense, because I do really love ‘The Golden Sun of the Great East,” the album itself. It was a nice way to reintroduce the original album and also I was really impressed with what these guys had done with the tracks.
Did any of the particular remixes take you by surprise or stand out in other ways?
Ben Watkins: Bliss really hit me between the eyes because he’s such a full-on artist anyway. Sort of a bit ravey, but he’s great with guitars and great when he plays live. I love his energy. And GMS I thought took a great angle on it.
Have the remixes had any impact on how you’re performing the ‘The Golden Sun of the Great East’ material live?
Ben Watkins: No, not really. It’s a very much a live band, though it definitely has had an influence on my DJing. But I have been thinking about it quite a lot lately. I’ve been wanting to get Budgie in a rehearsal room because there are definitely things that I think we can improve in the live show by adding some of the mentality that I’ve been hearing on the remixes. But we’re not necessarily incorporating those remixes themselves into the live show.
Are you currently working on a new album?
Ben Watkins: I don’t know if I’m going to do another album! Because it seems like a long, lengthy process that isn’t necessarily suited for today. So I might just do sort of two or three tracks and release them that way. And then when I’ve got an album’s worth of material I’ll re-release it, maybe with different mixes. I’m working on a couple of films this year. That’s always a great way to get new ideas for dance music, and also a good way to get away from dance music.
Can you tell us anything about the films?
Ben Watkins: They’re science fiction
Could you discuss your past film work?
Ben Watkins: “The Matrix” films were where I spent 6 months in LA, working to picture and getting to know how you really do it. And then I’ve done a lot of Japanese animation stuff. I’ve done enough scoring to really love it. It’s one of my favorite things, to sit down with a piece of film and try and work out the best way to present the music. The other way it happens is that directors come along and just want to use my music, which is fair enough and I’m very happy they do. But I much prefer sitting down and working on a film.
What do you think you get out of it creatively, compared to your regular Juno Reactor music?
Ben Watkins: I think it gives you the story. The biggest dilemma I suppose when I’m writing an album is aiming the track, knowing what the story behind the track is. And then when I’ve got the full story in my head, it’s really easy to finish it. But until that point comes along, it can stay there for years. I’ve got tracks in the sort of cooker that are still waiting to be finished. But with a film, it’s already planned out, the story, and you’re supporting what the film is doing. In some ways, it’s a lot easier. It’s harder maybe because the director or the producers might stick their fingers in, and maybe they don’t really know what they’re talking about. With ‘The Matrix’ and stuff like that, they really did know what they were talking about so it was easy to work with them. I haven’t actually worked with a ‘horror show’ director who’s constantly going ‘no, no, no this is crap!’ I’ve always worked with really positive directors, so it’s been pretty easy.
Is there ever overlap between Juno Reactor and your film music? For example, might unfinished ideas from one be used elsewhere?
Ben Watkins: I can do. Like if I see a bit in a film that thematically goes with an unfinished track, I’ll put it out and try it to see if it works. But usually, I’ll kick off with something fresh.
What is your current studio set-up like?
Ben Watkins: It’s everything that I’ve had in the past. I still use an analogue desk, an Amek Media 51. I’ve got loads of outboard equipment. I’ve got a load of outboard hardware synthesizers. I suppose what’s changed is that I use a lot more plugins these days, a lot of Waves and different sort of strange ones. I use some soft synths that I really like, like the Zebra. Some strange little synths that I don’t think I could find in the analogue world. But generally, I’m like half in the box and half out of the box. I still love the breadth and depth of the desk, and when I mix it I start to put it back into the box and focus on it from there.
You’d said you don’t know if you want to do another album, but when can we expect some new Juno Reactor music?
Ben Watkins: I’m working on it, slowly, and when I’m happy with it I’ll try to find a way to get it to people in a good way. I’ve got a lot of bits of music, I just need to get in there and feel like it is worth releasing.
Of all the changes the music industry has undergone since the start of your career, which do you think have had the biggest impact on you as an artist?
Ben Watkins: Well I think it’s the death of the CD. And then you’ve got the death of publishing. Now, your income streams definitely rely upon going and playing out live. So I DJ a lot more, like in the last 3 or 4 years I’ve been DJing a lot. So now I’m very much in demand with that, doing 3 or 4 DJ sets a month. You think ‘that’s pretty easy’ but it’s like you’ve got to get there, do the show, get back and then you’ve got maybe 3 or 4 days to stay at home before going away again. So there isn’t that much time where you land in the studio spend a lot of time there. I’m trying to find that time where I can be in the studio for a few weeks. That would be great.
Has DJing has an impact on your own music?
Ben Watkins: When writing music, I wasn’t necessarily writing it for the dance floor. I’d sort of write it for people to listen to, like in their cars. I think DJing has made me come into falling in love with really writing full-on tracks for the dance floor. I did a track with Ace Ventura that came out in May called “Ingonyama.” I really like that collaboration. At the moment I really like collaborations with other DJ artists. I’m doing one with Astrex, another one with GMS. I’m sort of falling back in love with writing tracks that I can really play on the dance floor. My brain is trying to think of ways to do it in a different way.
For more info on Juno Reactor, check out their official website.