Patrick Watson Blinded By Science
Published May 28, 2015An album about robots may seem suited for the kind of experimentalism seen in science fiction, but Patrick Watson — the Montreal-based songwriter who has been praised for his ability to turn everyday objects into musical instruments — has surprised his fans once again, this time by using a comparatively conventional approach on his new album, Love Songs for Robots.
"We really just wanted to focus on the songs," Watson says, adding that the album was created by simply "sitting around a microphone, working on one song until we were ready to record it. It was all done live, we didn't use a click track or any overdubs. That was a good way to do it, because we knew if we could make it work in that simpler setting then that meant it was a good song."
Patrick Watson (the band) first began utilising this more direct approach on 2012's Adventures in Your Own Backyard. These new sessions were refreshingly straightforward after the offbeat tinkering of their Polaris Prize-nominated 2009 album Wooden Arms, which involved Watson (the frontman) "playing" a bicycle and recording its spinning wheels as instrumentation. Percussionist Robbie Kuster took that inventiveness a step further on the song "Man Like You," on which he created a tremolo picking effect on an acoustic guitar by using two spoons.
Watson opted for subtler tinkering on Love Songs for Robots. Instead of strange bicycle and spoon noises, the new full-length features a nuanced mix of analogue synths and acoustic instruments. "We used one Yamaha synth that looks like it's right out of Blade Runner," he says, with geeky enthusiasm. "We wanted to make the record sound acoustic, even though there are loads of synths on there. We didn't want people to think about how some of it is electronic."
That melding of acoustic and digital instrumentation is a fitting backdrop for the new LP's lyrical themes. The title track, for instance, features a whirring guitar riff and throbbing synths that mimic circuitry on the fritz. Watson enunciates his vocals gently, but coldly, until every lyric sounds like it's being uttered by an artificial intelligence, especially lines like: "Watch over you, you watch and fall down / Your nuts and bolts are all over the ground."
"That song is about a robot that's trying to put his head back together, trying to pick the nuts and bolts off floor and fit them back into his head," Watson explains. "The tone of the song is how I feel after reading science journals. I wanted to convey that feeling."
Those science journals are part of Watson's morning routine. He thoroughly enjoys thumbing through articles about livers being created in 3D printers and a woman's entire reproductive system being grown in a lab. "It got me thinking: 'What is the last part of us that we can call ours? What part of our bodies can never be recreated by a 3D printer?' The woman's reproductive system being grown in a lab — that's happening today. It makes me wonder about what technology will be like ten years from now, and it made me want to try and capture that feeling of curiosity and anxiety on the record. And now I also wonder, if things are changing so much, what will people think of my new record ten years from now?"
Just under a decade ago, many fans and critics were asking the same questions when Patrick Watson won the 2007 Polaris Prize for their sophomore album, Close to Paradise, beating out other nominees like Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Feist's The Reminder. Patrick Watson was poised for an illustrious career — performing with Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and being invited to open for James Brown on a European tour that would become some of the soul legend's last performances. Watson says Brown's band was particularly influential on the young Canadian troop during those formative gigs.
"They're legends, so we expected them to be standoffish. But they were super sweet and super nice," Watson says. He has fond memories of roaming around Amsterdam with his bandmates and Brown's band, as the elder performers showed them old venues where they'd performed. He also recalls those veteran players' onstage rituals, and how they affect him to this day. "Some of these guys were in their 70s, they'd been playing for years, but before going onstage, James would always lead them in a prayer together. It was like going to church for them. It was good to see that when I was young — it set the standard for how you respect the stage and other musicians."
That early humility helped ground Watson and his bandmates after they won the Polaris Prize, and after they landed placements on a Tropicana Canada ad and on the soundtrack for Grey's Anatomy. Instead of letting those achievements inflate his ego, Watson employed the modesty he had witnessed while touring with Brown's band.
"Those guys were so nice and humble that I now think nobody else can can afford to be a fucking dick," Watson says. "Now, if I meet someone arrogant in this business, I feel like saying to them: 'Don't try to be so cool, because you're not.' We never allow that bullshit in our band, because James Brown's band taught us that you're super fucking lucky to walk onstage, and that you should treat that opportunity with respect."
That humble outlook also cushioned Watson as he faced rejection. Some of his failed efforts include a soundtrack demo for the 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are, which was refused, and another song called "Noisy Sunday," for the hit TV series The Walking Dead, which was also turned down (the showrunners eventually changed their minds and used it later, but not before Watson included it on Adventures in Your Own Backyard). Instead of being crushed by those disappointments, Watson behaved like the robot that he now sings about on his latest full-length— picking up the nuts and bolts and other broken pieces, and pulling himself back together.
"A lot of the demos that I wrote for movies and TV were rejected. But I got some good songs out of them, because it's a different mode of writing," Watson says. "You're writing to capture something outside of yourself, not inside yourself. And when you do that, sometimes you make much better things. You hit something bigger than you."