As one half of twee-core-folk-turned-shiny-pop-turned-soul-rock balladeers Slow Club, Charles Watson has spent the last decade learning lessons: how to collaborate, how to take your influences and process them into something that’s very much your own, how to make music that sounds timelessly classic, rather than soullessly retro; how to get your groove on and keep a straight face. Alongside bandmate Rebecca Taylor, Watson has made four albums, each illuminating a different side of the duo’s songwriting, each recorded in a very different way, and each uniquely satisfying. Now with Slow Club on hiatus and Taylor concentrating on her own slinky pop solo project, Self Esteem, Watson is using the lessons he’s learned at the indie coal face: jamming with friends in the studio, indulging in micro-management of synth sounds in his bedroom, and letting abstract words spark off lyric ideas.
The result of a year-or-so of “happy accidents” is Now That I’m a River, Watson’s warm, analogue-sounding solo debut, which takes in Americana, British folk and the melancholy end of 70s California pop and imbues them with an abstract lyrical tone that contrasts a lush and inviting sound. It’s the kind of album you want to curl up with on a Sunday morning. The sort of record the vinyl revival was built on.
On the eve of release, Watson joined us over lunch to take us through his recording process, lyric inspiration and the future of his band.
DiS: So why a solo record, and why now?
Charles Watson: Slow Club had stopped touring and for some reason, I had this burst of songs that came out all at once and I just thought... fuck it. Becky was off making her Self Esteem record, so rather than let them sit on a hard drive that will ultimately break and then be lost forever, I'd record them and see what happened. I emailed a bunch of mates and was like, “got these songs, got these dates, who’s in?” I was expecting only two or three of them to be free, but everyone turned up. I was, like, FUCK... better write some more parts. Once we started recording it was just one of those happy accidents of the right people at the right time - everyone was contributing. After that, it felt very easy to make.
There’s a lovely, easy chemistry to the songs
It felt like that in the room. Having the band together in the way we set it up, two keyboard players for the whole session, Fyfe Dangerfield and Paul Jones, who plays in Slow Club, these two monsters of piano left and right, it worked really well. Most of what you hear is six people just playing. In the past I’ve suffered from wanting to make the record sound like the demo, because I spent a lot of time on Slow Club demos at home, trying to paint a sonic picture. On this one it was much quicker, I didn’t bother doing proper demos, I just made an acoustic version of the record for the band, so they could hear the songs, so essentially the first proper demo of the album is the version with the band. There’s nothing that I was trying to hold onto, or trying to like replicate. I do like demos, it’s really pleasing to spend the whole day on a keyboard sound and really, really go deep on it. What I kind of did with this one was treat the band as the demo and then treat the sessions after, my own, as the bits I could spend time on. There’s lots of lap steel and synth that are just me at home.
I guess that’s a true solo project, isn’t it? End to end control, not handing it off to someone else to polish?
I produced it with (long-term collaborator) David Glover, I was there for all the mixes, it just felt very, very close to me the whole time. Not that Slow Club records haven’t been our own, it’s just the nature of having two people, there’s always going to be a difference of opinion at some point.
It feels like a more low key way of working, with less expectation on you?
Actually, we've been lucky with Slow Club, we've never felt a huge amount of pressure from labels or management, but I think our own expectations, based on what we'd done before can be the one thing that can stress you out. "I really want to make sure we're moving forward and not doing the same thing". I'll probably feel like that after making another record, because I'll have something to compare this too. This felt more like making something for the first time, I hadn't banked on that. It felt like the first thing, rather than an extension of something else.
You can hear that thing of it being people in a room, a natural groove. It sounds like it was a joy to play on.
There were some songs that took a bit more time to get there, but generally there were three or four songwriters in the room, and the production was also a collaboration with the band in an arranging sense, we'd have whiteboard with chords and the structure and we'd adjust it and everyone would chip in ideas. It was properly collaborative. There wasn't a defining vision, something that it needed to be, until the end of the first session, where we had the vibe to continue to the next session. We've actually just made another record with that crew for Alan Power. We just wanted to make it fun, everyone loved working together, it's something we're actually going to try and do more.
That sounds a lot like how you worked on the last Slow Club album, with Matthew E. White’s in-house studio band
I don't think that's inaccurate at all. We both learned a lot at Space Bomb [White’s studio in Virginia, where Slow Club’s One Day All Of This Won’t Matter was recorded with the in-house band]. Making a record in five days rather than two months really got me excited about the idea that you don’t have to spend a huge time in the studio, fall in love with something and then have the time to fall out of love while you're still making it. That really excited me. Even their working methods, like "ten-till-two: song one, three-till-seven: song two", it's sounds silly but it really works. That was one of the biggest influences on me, the non-musical side.
Can we talk about vocal sound? There's some really interesting stuff going on there in terms of how your voice is treated and how you use it.
There's a lot of reverb there, yeah. I seem to remember us using the Abbey Road EMT Plate. Rob Jones, who mixed it, had a lot of input in terms of that sort of thing. His job was crunching stuff up a little bit in a posh way. We tried to make everything dark, with the top end rolled off, so it was dark colours rather than big, spiky things.
Its a candlelit record
Exactly, that's what we wanted to do. Slow Club chatted about making records like this all the time, and then we'd get to recording and end up turning it up or making it upbeat, and you end up with something completely different. I think just because we made a lot of this record at night, working through to midnight, it's something I’ve always loved the idea of, but never actually did. The studio has a big, nice open space, we got a few bottles of wine in, it was a perfect setting to make a night-time record.
Some albums are headphones records, some are going to the gym records, or writing records – this sounds like a turntable album…
I'd like that very much. The vinyl is coming out on a peach marble vinyl, which I am so excited about. I'm super stoked about that. It's just nice to get to the point where the music's done and you can concentrate on the little touches. When I get a record and I can tell someone's really pushed it as far as they can to make it feel like a nice experience, I love that stuff, I'm a total sucker for it, even down to the feel of the card it's printed on. I don't understand why someone would go to the trouble of making a record and then let someone else handle the way it's presented.
Especially when it's a solo album, with your actual name on it.
Absolutely. The sleeve was total accident as well, I was doing a photo shoot for some press shots and there's a guy who lives on my road with a seventies station wagon with these two bench seats, with really dark navy leather, and the idea was to do a shot inside the car so it looks like it could be from anywhere from the 50s to the late 80s, I like the idea of it being ambiguous but not modern, not specifically retro.
Which matches the sound of the album…
I hope so. When we got the contact sheets back there was a test shot from outside, at a weird angle with me chuckling, and I knew that was the album cover. I'd done some paintings for the sleeve and I was working on a few different things that could go together to make the front and the back and it was like, “oh shit. That's definitely it.” I'm not very good in front of the camera, I never feel super comfortable, so using a found photo, where it's not a conscious pose felt really natural. I think that’s why, in my mind, I'd decided it wasn't going to be a photo, and then when I got it back I realised it had this sort of odd feel for it. It's raining and it had a similar vibe to a Peter Gabriel shot, but it just looked too perfect not to use. It's almost like it had been cropped especially for it. So we're using the paintings for the single.
That's the second time you've talked about a happy accident. Is that a theme here?
I suppose so. I just didn't want to plan too much for anything. I really just wanted to focus on the songs, rather than the bits that surround the songs. I thought if I really focus in on the core elements of what makes a tune, and I pick the right people to work with, and I trust them, and I'm comfortable enough to say when I don't like something, it's hard to know where things could go wrong. Maybe that's served the record.
Can we talk a bit about words and narrative? It feels like a very abstract record lyrically, which is a contrast to the natural feel to the music?
I've tried to do something totally different to how I've written before. It felt like I'd hit a wall, just throwing things away for being boring. I started going to the medical library at the Wellcome Collection in London, it's a free, really quiet place to sit down. I went there two or three times a week, just writing disconnected words, pages and pages of them. Trying to find words that were appealing and nice to say. I was carrying a few books with me, I had a copy of Hello America by JG Ballard, and if I reached a point where I was getting sick of stuff I'd pick a random page and see if it triggered something.
I started writing random words from the book, I had this notebook that was full of words. Ballard is super repetitive with his language. I haven't read the book, I've just read the words, out of order, if that makes sense, so it's not based on the book, it's based on the language. I might start at the back one day and work my way to front, and the tone started to inform the music that I'd been writing. That worked for one song, so I'd keep it with me and every-time I was stuck I'd open a page at random, like “what’s going on on page 76 today”. There are lots of parallels of what's going on at the moment in the novel, feelings of paranoia and uncertainty: It's a dystopian book written in 1982, that name-checks the 45th president.
I have to say I didn’t get ‘dystopian’ from listening to the album?
I didn't want to write a political record, I wanted it to be non-specific and ambiguous but feel paranoid. It's published by Flamingo, so I wrote "Flamingo" down and there's a reference to a flamingo in one of the songs. Little images that you're able to distort a little bit. I was listening to Kubrick documentary on the BBC, about his relationship with Arthur C Clarke, and there's a recording of him talking about how the first 15 minutes of Space Odyssey he had to fight to not have dialogue. You want to make the listener or the reader do some of the work themselves, so they relate it to their own experiences. In no way am I comparing myself to Kubrick, but I like that idea. I'm drawn to stuff I don't understand straightaway.
So even with the lyrics there was this sense of letting it develop and see where it took you, of it having a life of its own? Is that a more enjoyable was of working?
Just different. When you're in a band and you're feeding back off each other, you get really excited about things in a way that making a solo record you maybe don't. Obviously, you get excited with the producer or the rest of the band, but when they've left the studio you're on your own and you're not quite able to get to those giddy heights, but then you also don't get the crushing lows as well. I guess it's early days with that.
It feels like the opposite of the last few Slow Club records, which were very "let's make an album that sounds like this.
I knew how I wanted the record to feel, but I didn't know how I wanted it sound. It was about trying to evoke a feeling, rather than an artist or a sound or an era. I didn't really have any reference points at all, aside from "I really like using these slow synth sounds and I'd like it to be on most of the songs". The references were equipment and textures, rather than artists and genres. It's easy to go "I really love how this record sounds, can we evoke this?" But I've made four Slow Club records and it's now more interesting just to sound like me, to know you have your own voice. You might have confidence in some things and be insecure about others, but to a listener, it's about how it feels when they turn it on. I know I'm not the best singer in the world, but most of the singers I really love aren't amazing singers. It's about embracing the feeling behind it.
How did you approach the singing, given you’re not that confident about your voice?
Slowly. I can't go very fast, that's one thing I need to work on, so I can feel comfortable doing faster music. Whenever I do faster songs it always feels like someone’s speeding me up, it feels unnatural. When I listen back to earlier Slow Club songs it sounds like I'm doing a fucking meat raffle. Maybe the slow thing is a reaction to that. Having your late teens and 20s documented online makes you want to say "I'm a man now, and I sing like this".
Maybe you should do some secret hip-hop records to practice your spitting?
Maybe I have. (I haven't). Maybe I'm just a slow singer. I don't listen to fast music, so why am I getting so het up about it? People like Bill Callahan, there's so much space lyrically and vocally in his music and that shit does it for me so much.
Or Neil Young's acoustic stuff, the better end of the Eagles…
Yeah, you've got it. That west coast thing, I feel like that was one of the feelings we wanted to capture. Not so much about this record of that song, just a general mood. We used a CP70 for a lot of it, which is kind of like a grand piano version of a Fender Rhodes, and then we had a Rhodes as well so we had to two electric pianos going, doing the same part, one pokey, one softer, using lots of instruments like that. [bass player, Paul] Rafferty's 70's Rickenbacker through a DI straight into the desk. That's a massive part of the record, because the way he's playing bass is more like a lead guitar part. He's not been able to play bass on the tour, so Glover, who I produced the record with, is having to learn all of these weird bass parts. It's not until you solo them until you think "how the hell did he get away with that without us ripping him for it?" He's been a massive part of the other session we've been doing. He's got all the sexy bass notes.
I guess the obvious way to finish is to ask about the future of Slow Club?
It's really open-ended, to be honest. We've reached a point where we've done four records back to back, we've never had a period where we've gone off and done different stuff. We've both got interests in other things. It felt like a good point for a break. We talked about doing it after the third record, but it felt like something wasn't quite finished. Then we got really excited about going to Space Bomb and that injected a bit of fresh blood. We spoke last week, we're both excited about each other doing stuff, I'm so excited about hearing the Self Esteem record because Becky’s such a talent, and she's had that record in her mind for a long time. I'm really excited for her. We'll do something at some point, when we're both ready.
Now That I’m A River is out now via Moshi Moshi. For more information on Charles Watson, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit his official website.
Photo credit: Laura McClusky