Reggie Watts: Interview
“It’s essentially, how far can you take people out without losing them?”
Reggie Watts has a giant network of hair that wiggles when he dances. He seems to wear the same bright red sweater every day like a cartoon character. He beatboxes and harmonizes with himself into a loop pedal, creating fresh jams and enveloping soundscapes. He also plays the piano. In the bands Maktub and Soullive, he was a singer, but now he is a comedian or impressionist as well. Really, he is something between and beyond all three categories. His act sounds a lot like someone cycling through radio stations, only with fewer discernible it seems and a bit more profanity. His career is escalating rapidly, with an appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien taking him on the road as the opener for the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, popular appearances at an array of music festivals, and, most recently, the release of his album, Why $#!+ So Crazy?. The latter accomplishment has led to an album release party on July 1, 2010 at Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge. Three weeks before the show, I talk to Reggie on the phone.
This is Nat Towsen calling you for tinymixtapes.com. Call being recorded for quality assurance and training purposes. Could you start by spelling your name backwards for me?
Yeah sure. S-T-T-A-W-N-E-I-Z-U-L-D-L-A-N-I-G-E-R
Okay, that sounds right. Let’s start out with an easy question. What is really going to happen on December 21, 2012?
Well that’s an easy one… Probably nothing will happen. But it’s my hope that something cool does happen, something positive… I think it’s almost the same feeling that happens when you’re seeing an amazing concert. Or even if you’re on mushrooms or something like that, and you have this amazing realization, that kind of levity that happens, where you’re like “Wow! Life is incredible.”… that feeling, that’s what I kind of imagine it as. Perhaps people just get this perspective on their lives and see things as a whole for longer than a split second, and that allows them to — or allows people or humanity, to maybe reset the counter a little bit. You know? Just kind of go “OK, what the fuck are we doing now?” That’s all I want. That would be the greatest thing, just for people to just stop and go, “What the fuck are we doing?” and do something collectively instead of essentially cannibalizing ourselves.
Reggie Watts is used to winning over an audience, and has shaped his act to do just that. Tonight, however, at his July 1 album-release party at Le Poisson Rouge, that won’t be necessary. Every person in the sold-out 800-capacity downtown Manhattan venue is here to see him and him only. They are already fans, whether they discovered him on Late Night or have been following his ascent through the NYC back-room comedy scene for years. They are familiar with his unique performance style, whether they discovered it at a gigantic music festival or in a tiny dive bar. The room tingles with potential energy as they anxiously await his arrival to the stage. Still, none of them know exactly what to expect.
Do you do mushrooms pretty frequently?
No, actually not frequently. I do mushrooms maybe twice a year.
I just saw you post the other day something about learning not to take them on consecutive nights?
That’s correct. Yeah. I mean that’s… that was just because, well, that happened… I mean, I’ve taken acid for like a week before, but that was when I was 21. The resilience of a 21-year-old mind is different.
You’ve got a song called “Pot cookies.” The drugs, is it just a fun recreational thing for you or is it an intrinsic part of the creative process?
In many cases it has been an essential component to the creative process. Not essential in the sense that I always do that, because many times and idea is generated without them. But my total experience as a human being is the sum of not being on drugs and being on drugs. So the totality of that experience creates who I am. […] At the same time, the idea of what drugs are is much more vague than people who claim not to do drugs [think it] is. Many people don’t see how alcohol is a drug, and it’s a very heavy drug. And I don’t drink.
You don’t drink at all?
No. On a rare occasion I will. Rare, rare occasion. But I never get tipsy or anything like that. I like the taste of alcohol. If I’m having a special occasion I might have a sip of something. Alcohol, in general, is not a very efficient drug and it causes a lot of problems. You know, so does heroin. But somewhere in the middle are these nice, earthly kind of drugs. THC is a great chemical substance. And so [are] mushrooms, especially if you’re seeking some kind of perspective on your life or just growth in a certain way, or dealing with certain issues. Or even Ayahuasca or DMT. If they’re used in a research sense, I think that drugs are incredibly interesting and yield great results for people. For some people the result is, “I never wanna do them again!” But we take drugs all the time. Our entire society is based off of drugs.
I’ve heard multiple people say after seeing you perform that it was like being on drugs without taking drugs. Have you heard that before?
Hahaha yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s funny, I do experimental theatre as well, and my writing partner… one of our tenets we’ve talked about with each other — and I use it in my solo performances as well — [is] I want people who aren’t on drugs to feel like they’re on drugs and I want people who are on drugs to really have a great time. That’s what I’m shooting for.
As Watts takes the piano to begin his encore, an audience member shouts a request for material from the Conan O’Brien tour. Watts replies in a British accent, “This one’s a different three chords.” Although he is no stranger to more-serious, less-ironic music (see Maktub and Soullive), Watt’s solo act is a fragmented, constantly shifting, postmodern pastiche culled together from various accents, musical genres, and degrees of sincerity. But in this first song of his encore, the fragments lengthen and, for a moment, as he plays a beautiful melody and sings sweetly of a moment in a hotel room somewhere, of lying face to face with a lover, too close to focus on more than one eye, of adjusting to a distance at which they can comfortably gaze at one another, it becomes easy to forget the frantic shifting of impressions and believe this one to be genuine. He sings quietly. The audience is silent.
You’re on tour with Conan. Are these the biggest rooms you’ve played? Or back with Maktub did you play more…Are you used to this?
On this tour, the maximum size audience we played to was about 6,000 people. That’s a big audience but it’s not the biggest audience I’ve played to. When I was with Soullive, we opened for The Rolling Stones two times, and that was probably around 30,000 people. Opened up for Dave Matthews about five or six times, and that was probably around 30 or 40,000 people. That was Madison Square Garden and places like that… In a way, these audiences were smaller, but every room counts so it doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s 400 or 40,000.
“I think that there’s a certain truth to “controlling” — and that’s in quotes — the trajectory of your life.”
Since it’s Conan’s tour, you’re being introduced as a comedy act. Are you doing music shows at all these days or are you mostly on the comedy side, at least in terms of billing?
It’s mostly the comedy. It’s almost all comedy. Essentially, It’s getting down to, “Here’s Reggie Watts and this is the show that he does.” That’s more what I’m going for. The comedy thing is, I love comedy, so I love making people laugh. But when I’m billed as a comedian, I definitely have to focus on people laughing a little more.
Do you think that there’s more freedom in the comedy venues that you’ve been doing lately? Or do you have more freedom when you get up there as a musician in terms of abstraction or improvisation or experimentation onstage?
With Conan, I can’t go too outside. What I’m doing is already kinda weird. For instance, if I’m doing an hour-long set at a festival… I can stretch it out and try some pretty strange things. It’s essentially, how far can you take people out without losing them? And then be able to bring people back to something that makes them feel good? Not like the out makes them feel bad. Some people are totally along for the ride. But it can be like, “I just can’t hang anymore, so I’m out of here.” With an hour you can really gain an audience’s trust and take larger leaps and experiment. But when it’s opening for Conan O’Brien, you’ve got 20-30 minutes to perform — which is still a good chunk of time. But a) it’s Conan O’Brien, b) it’s opening for somebody, for a show, and c) It’s those two things you have to consider to shape the show.
It’s not just opening for Conan O’Brien. I think that there’s a greater weight to the tour. I think that this is an important moment in the history of comedy. Is there any sense of that with the audiences or the people on the tour?
I think people know that it’s special. As far as I can tell, there’s never been a tour like this, under these circumstances, and this style of a tour. It’s definitely something that everyone working, whether it’s production or Conan’s writers, they all realize that it’s something special. Maybe people are thinking about it a little more and trying to analyze why it’s special, but for me that’s where it stops. It’s a really amazing thing. There probably will not — there won’t be another tour like this.
You were never on his show. You were on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon though. How was the Fallon experience? I noticed that, when The Roots played you on, you shook your head in sync with the last three hits. Did you hang out with The Roots before the show?
No I didn’t. I’d met ?uestlove in Philadelphia. He came to one of our shows, a Maktub show, and was just really cool, like a big fan. He bought tons of our CDs and T-shirts and shit, brought his sister. It was really nice because ?eus is one of those guys, when he likes something, he’ll support it for an amount of time. And then he has to keep looking for new stuff to support… He wrote about me once on this blog online somewhere.
That was a long time ago. And then… The Roots… I saw them a couple times in concert. Soullive, we opened up for them. Then I heard they were the band for Jimmy Fallon’s show. And then when I went to do the Fallon show I was given a tour — the reason I was on the Fallon show is that so many of my friends work as writers for the show, so they were all like, “Dude! Dude! Get him on the show,” and eventually they were like “OK” — they gave me a tour of the building including the set for Saturday Night Live. The Roots were rehearsing on the soundstage. So when I went to say hi, as soon as I came up he was like, “Hey Reggie!” And I was like “Ah fuck, crazy, man.” That was it. We just kind of met that way. And the only reason I moved my head to the beat is because it was an obvious [cue] — musically I knew where it was going. Thought it was kind of obvious.
Fair enough. I thought it was coordinated. Nice instincts.
Yeah, it’s just instinctual. Co-instinctual.
Without warning, Reggie Watts stops his improvised cunnilingus impression and starts to spit the beat of his final song of the evening, an uncharacteristically album-faithful version of his rap-parody single “Fuck Shit Stack.” The audience, pulsing and vibrating un-self-consciously as if all part of a single organism, screams the titular refrain along with him. It’s silly, and they all know it. They have followed Watts through every tangent, diversion, and alternate reality of the evening, so this sing-along is hardly a challenge to their awareness of the performance. It is merely the comfortable cool-down of a rare experience: a performer unafraid to explore uncharted territory and an audience willing to follow wherever he might take them.
Are you still homeless?
Yes, I am.
Are you sticking with the nomad lifestyle or are you going to settle down at some point?
Basically it comes down to me not having enough time to find a place because I’m touring so much. My plan is to try to get a place in September.
“That would be the greatest thing, just for people to just stop and go, “What the fuck are we doing?” and do something collectively instead of essentially cannibalizing ourselves.”
I don’t know if you recall, but you did a set for my friend’s birthday on her roof a few years ago. What convinced you to do something like that? What’s a guy like you doing hiding out on people’s rooftops on their birthdays?
Hahahaha. I like doing funny weird things, especially when people need help in some way. I like helping people out. If an opportunity to do something like that comes up, sometimes that’s more interesting than playing a theatre gig.
I was listening to your album, the track “My History Thus Far.” From that story, it seems like people latch on to what you do and are very supportive of it. And you seem to have a lot of people, whether or not they’re good friends, lending support and wanting to be a part of what you’re doing, or offering you support that is greater than the strength of your friendship. I’m looking at all of what we’ve talked about. You got selected for this Conan tour. The reason I asked about my friend is you’re making those connections on a very small level as well. And one of the things you talk about in there is this idea of, “Whenever you make a decision you follow a certain path, but that other path does exist somewhere.” On one hand, it seems to be a pretty great lifestyle you’re living. Maybe I’m missing the bad parts, but you’ve got all these people supporting you and you’ve had a lot of recent success, but it’s also on a very small level, just people to asking you to live with them and stuff like that. That means that somewhere there’s a Reggie Watts who didn’t get on the Conan tour and who wasn’t successful with all this stuff, and who eventually gave up, and who maybe has short hair and an office job. And I know this is a very long-winded way of asking, but my question is: Do you believe that there is some control over the totality of time? Are you making ripples in the bubble or are you just lucky to be the successful Reggie Watts?
I think that there’s a certain truth to “controlling” — and that’s in quotes — the trajectory of your life. The whole idea — making choices and other choices sprouting off from there and leading to other consequences — I definitely believe that there’s a truth to that. It’s similar to a Choose Your Own Adventure. The good thing is you can always choose yourself back to a good place in life if you work hard enough. It might not be perfect, but it definitely is more on course with your potential. I talk about the link between creating a great relationship with your intuition or your inner child or whatever you want to call it, and then doing this with your larger-scale awareness, higher awareness, hyper-awareness, God, or whatever you want to call it. There’s that macro and micro, and somewhere in between is this momentous place, this place that’s just happening in the moment. The relationship between that micro and macro aspects of life is something that I’ve worked on. And I think art is a great place for that, because you essentially are listening to your intuition, but you’re also listening to a… larger awareness. And between the two, you’re able to create these really (hopefully) great things, and sometimes not-so-great things. But you’re always working toward gaining a really good balance between those two things. So art, in a way, is a form of practice. Anything really can be. It doesn’t matter. You could be a juggler, or a racecar driver, or someone who’s really super into doing taxes. What makes someone great at something and why someone else isn’t as good at something generally has to do with their relationship to their intuition and larger-scale awareness. And some people are just born with certain really strong tendencies just to be good at a particular thing. But there are many people that weren’t good at something but were fascinated by something and became pretty good at it. You don’t have to be the champion. I think that that relationship with the intuition, that’s what causes the opportunities, the recognition of the right opportunities to take. So instead of just throwing spaghetti at the wall, you’re — someone’s like, “Hey, do you wanna go to this thing?” and everything logically says, “If I’m going to this thing at four in the morning, when I’m really, really tired and should be going to bed because I have work in the morning, if I do that, that’s gonna really suck for me, for work in the morning.” But then there might be, if you have a good relationship, something might say, “You know, you should try it.” And then you end up going to this party at four in the morning and you end up meeting one of your greatest friends that you have for the rest of your life. So it’s really about that. It’s about following your instincts and your intuition and creating a great relationship with that. But also having that higher awareness — I should say “larger awareness” or “situational awareness” — because the comparison between the two leads to really really great, exciting choices. And sometimes, we all make mistakes, and sometimes they’re really bad choices, but at least we took a risk.
Or sometimes you have the rest of your life to decide whether they were good or bad choices.
Absolutely. But at least if you’re trying. […] I know a lot of people that are like, “Man I wish I could be doing something real exciting with my life.” If someone says that statement, it means they have the option to not do that. They have the awareness what that isn’t. People only have themselves to blame to a certain extent. Obviously there are earthquake victims and people born in the wrong country at the wrong time, during a revolution, and horrible things happen…
You have a remarkable, uncommon amount of agency at this point in your life. What exactly is the next step? I saw you once in an interview say that the great comedians are great philosophers.
I’m really excited to experiment more with different ways of creating shows onstage or creating interactive technology for people to experience things in different ways. I’m excited to make more theatre and I’m excited to make short films and I’m excited to create large-scale games that span over countries… What I’m doing now is hopefully getting me to a point where I’ll be able to gain more resources, money or help, knowing more people, to be able to do even larger-scale things. And I would love to give talks on improvisation and talk to people about the art of improvisation, tour schools, and talk to engineers. I would love to play TED. There’s a lot of things I have big plans for.
Like the TED Talks?
Yeah, TED talks. It’s that world that I’m really interested, because all those people: the geneticists, the engineers, and the various scientists, those hold amazing potential for humanity to move in a really amazing direction. It’s exciting to me to see technology used in a benevolent way, in a very helpful way. And I like connecting people. And I like the mind, the human mind. That’s what we have. That’s all we have: our minds and our awareness. It’s fun to be able to create things that put people in different space. That cause them to think about… the creative discussion. That leads to other people being inspired to take chances and maybe create some things that will help other people. I’m encouraging kids to pursue the arts, try to get more support for the arts and show how the arts are incredibly important and how they create better minds for children. There’s a lot of things I would love to do and it’s really just getting to the point that I have enough resources coming in that I get to do really fun stuff, but also use it responsibly and give back in an intense way to all my fellow human beings.
[Photo: Nat Towsen]