An interview with Ben Watkins of Juno Reactor

By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2001
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How did the recent US tour go?

Ben Watkins : I always enjoy trying to mess around with this idea of playing electronic music live. Where on the Moby tour we only did half an hour or 35 minutes, on this tour in some cases we did an hour and a half. You learn a lot more about pacing. When you just do a 35 minute set opening for someone, it seems like it’s gone so quickly. It seems like you blink and you’ve missed it. When you’re doing an hour and ten or an hour and a half, you’ve settled into it a bit more. I just love working with the African guys, and experiencing the improvisation that we do.”

How long have you been working this them?

Ben Watkins : “Well I met them I suppose 95ish, or 96. And then I started working with Mabi (Thobejane) for “Bible Of Dreams’ and through him I started producing some tracks for them. And literally 10 days before the Moby tour started we were offered it, and I thought it would be a great idea if they came along and played just to give the whole sort of electronic thing a bit more of a kick, really. More of a live show environment. Sometimes electronic music gets to sterile in the studio environment, and to take just that studio out live is again sterile and doesn’t really connect with the audience.”

How do you try to avoid that?

Ben Watkins : “It is a funny form of improvisation. Because basically what I’m doing, apart from playing guitar, is remixing our stuff live, with the added involvement of the guys playing percussion. If they do something, it makes me do something , and if I do something, that should make them do something. You sort of do things, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Generally, it’s not really thought about. You try not to think while you’re doing it, you just let the impulse take you. And I think maybe for some techno purists, it might not be the right thing. But it feels right for the moment, and that’s what I like about it. I think what we do live, we do it for the moment. You can’t package it, you can’t re-sell it. You can’t put it on the internet. You’ve got to experience it there, then, at the moment. Nowadays, everything is so cosmopolitan. I can find sort of Aztec Indian earrings down in the corner shop. I can find anything I want almost by accident on the Internet. But the thing you can’t access is like the vibe and emotion of a real performance, and how that can psychologically affect. you.”

Are there any songs that surprised you in terms of the direction they’ve taken in live performance?

Ben Watkins : “Yeah, there’s certain tracks, like ‘Insect.’ It’s on the album and I don’t think it’s a particularly good track, it’s not my favorite. But live, because it’s so open and empty, you can do a lot with it. That surprised me.”

What type of set-up do you use?

Ben Watkins : “I use a G3 computer with a PCI expansion bus, and I’m running Cubase, and I’m running 8 outputs of audio, and I’m running a program called Reaktor. I’m also running MIDI stuff. So essentially, depending on if everything’s running and working, I’m allowed a great freedom to cut things up, put new things in and generally be a sonic nuisance.” Have you run into any problems in using a computer on stage?

Ben Watkins : “Not with Powerbooks, because I think before I got the G3 Š when I first started doing live stuff, I had an MC500, years ago, in like 84 or 85. I’ve always trusted hardware that’s been made for live. And then I went from there to early Powerbooks, like the 165 and I was running lots of MIDI then. I couldn’t put audio on it. And then when I wanted to run more audio, I started using DA88’s and I got ahold of a G3 literally just before this tour. It allowed me a much greater freedom to put sounds where I felt they should go. Just a much greater freedom. I’m going to carry on with this Powerbook. I’d love to get one of those new G4 Powerbooks!”

How is Reaktor working out for you?

Ben Watkins : “I’ve seen a lot of software synthesis now, but Reaktor to me, comparing the others to Reaktor is like comparing a bicycle to a Ferrari. Reaktor is the only program I’ve come across that really has got it’s shit together in a massive way. A lot of people find it very hard to get into it, because it’s relatively complex. But to me, it’s almost like a reinvention of the wheel. There’s a revolution waiting to happen with that particular program. It’s absolutely stunning, I don’t think I can praise it any higher. It’s just so amazing. You can throw everything else away, and just use Reaktor, and you’ve got yourself enough sounds until the end of the world. Which isn’t too far away [laughs].”

How big of a roll did it play on “Shango”?

Ben Watkins :“I used it just on the very end of the album, I got hold of it on the last two tracks and I didn’t really have any knowledge of the capabilities of it at that time. So the extent that I used it was minimal. But I’ve written god knows how many tracks with it now.”

How has it affected your more recent music?

Ben Watkins : “I’ve just gone completely back to doing heavy electronic stuff. I think the next album will be a really fuck-off electro album, if it keeps going the way it’s been going.”

Do you see any danger in tools like Reaktor giving you too many options?

Ben Watkins : “Well sometimes, yeah. But I tend to trust my psyche and on this album I think I might have overdone things because it wasn’t so easy to see the best way forward. There wasn’t an easy way forward, I didn’t really want to do a dance album, and it’s not a world album. I was working with people that come from a world background, and it’s really about the collision that we all have together. I just always try to trust my psyche, what feels good, what do I like. I wrote a number of other tracks that didn’t appear on the album, and the reason they didn’t appear on the album was because I didn’t like them.”

Are about to write at all while on the road?

Ben Watkins : “I haven’t been able to yet. The thing I like about being on the road is meeting people that are into Juno and going to a lot of parties and meeting different musicians and stuff. Going to funny places like Denver or Pittsburgh, it’s gives you a different way of thinking. Sometimes it’s good to have a rest from writing music. You come back, and you find you’re full of it.”

How did you come to work with Steve Stevens?

Ben Watkins : “I bumped into him through Tracy Lords, when I was producing some of her stuff. And she had turned Steve onto Juno Reactor and he rung me up and I said ‘look, we’re in LA, do you want to come down and play.’ And I thought he wouldn’t bother, but he did, he turned up with his guitar. We had a good chat then and decided to get together and do a track sometime. He came to London, and we sat down and did that together. I think he’s a fantastic guitarist.”

What else has he been up to lately?

Ben Watkins : “He put his own flamenco album out recently. And I haven’t heard it, which is bad, really, because I should have gone out and bought it. But I haven’t yet. He’s been playing a lot in Japan, he’s sort of a mega superstar in Japan. I’m really hoping we can do a real heavy metal techno track!”

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