Patrick Watson has been busy lately. In addition to working on a virtual reality project, his new album, Love Songs For Robots, is now out and focused on technology as well. The singer-songwriter's interest in science fiction has always been prevalent, but this is the first time around which he let those ideas for a record grow and take shape. It's still Watson baring his stark emotional soul as he's done on every record but the thematic concept is different
I had the opportunity to talk to Watson on the phone last week to discuss technology's place in the world, his new album, and got him to offer up an answer on the Star Wars versus Star Trek debate. Check out the interview below to find out why the printing press put a lot of town composers out of jobs.
[Writer's note: Due to technical difficulties involving poor cell reception making it impossible to transcribe elements of specific answers, portions of the interview have been omitted rather than blindly guess at what had been said.]
How does it feel for the album to finally be out and how long have you been working on it?
Patrick Watson: Well I've been working on it...I guess it took a year and a half to make...a year to make, but it's been about like 6 months since we're done, but it feels pretty good though.
So you obviously have an interest in technology. When did that start for you?
Well, I got an interest in science in general, not so much technology, but more like interesting questions. I'm a science fiction lover and I guess for me good science fiction is stuff that makes you ask good questions. Not necessarily stuff that has to do with computers. I just like when stuff kind of like challenges me and what I kind of think about how things work. I think it's more of a love for that. I've always loved science fiction in terms of knowledge. Even when I was a kid. I like when worlds can take you out of your life and you can see things in a different perspective. Like a Trojan horse for me is good science fiction. I like really clear and imaginary types of ideas. That's kind of what I love. I don't get fantastical so maybe I like that part of it. I just haven't done a record like that. I've done a lot of records that are more kind of folk-lore or folk-ish genes where the lyrics are kind of more witty in a way. I think it's kinda weird that I've never had to put myself in that headspace for a record. I guess I didn't want you to feel cold and I didn't know how to do that before and I feel like this record it'll make you a bit warm and super sensual in that kind of tone.
So you're excited for the new Star Wars movie then?
Yeah, I'd be more excited for the new Star Trek but Star Wars is fun for everybody. I think I'm a little more of a Trekkie than a Star Wars dude. I like under the the skin films too like Donnie Darko. Those are kind of my favorite kind of things. I'm not a huge CGI guy. I kind of feel like it's the death of science fiction [Ed. Note: Same.]. I find it takes away all the fun instead of the director thinking of some crazy place, or some crazy idea, he's too busy thinking of how he's going to make the spaceship look, and sometimes it takes away a bit of the fun in science fiction for me.
Yeah, I definitely know what you're saying. I'm definitely a Star Trek guy as well.
Well, the new ones are good. I like the red planet more than the explosion. I like the ideas in science fiction more. I don't need to see them for me to like them. The whole Alien thing; you never saw them, but when you got a peep on the screen you were like 'oh crap'. The imagination does a much better job at scaring you than the visuals do.
Are you a fan of the use of technology in our modern age or do you think it's being abused lately?
I don't have an opinion on moral ideas in technology. It will happen whether you like it or not. I don't think of it as a good or bad thing. There's a good or bad thing about everything...like when the printing press first came out. You don't ask too many questions about the printing press and that changed things forever. You could listen to people's music in town for the first time and ideas started flowing, but you no longer had the town composer cause you could play Mozart's music. There's always ups and downs about any kind of technology. I think the better question is what's the best way to use it now so we can never go backwards. I'm kind of in that mind about it. I'm not really a romantic about it. I try to be a romantic more for the future than the past.
You have a very natural sound. Do you ever think you'll plug in and make a full electronic album?
Electronic music is a baby. The tool is a baby. It's brand new. The tools we have to play it live...we don't really have it still because it's in the box still. It's not really finished kind of developing into what it's going to be. MIDI controllers for example are just the beginning. Imagine prosthetic arms touching glass and it relays the touch back to your brain. It's just a matter of time that electronic music can be guided more by our bodies in general ways. It's zero to one electricity. I'm dreaming of bio-feedback synthesizers. It's just a zero to one frequencies being picked up. It's only a matter of a time before those bridges are crossed. I think there's a much more organic electronic scene to come.
Did your virtual reality project Strangers affect the way you made this album?
I think it kind of reinforces certain things, a couple ideas in my head. The more I read about bioengineering, the more I read about all these things, and the more you read about math computers...there's one thing that says, "Everyone looks at math as this cold thing and a cheap way to describe the universe, but what if it's actually the language of the universe. In fact, it's the most beautiful language." It's a different way of looking at it and everyone will be like "na" or "no, no" and then you get virtual reality helmet and you put him in there and they'll look at you and have this reaction as if a person's there and they have a different sense of empathy than photo and film, but ultimately that's zeroes and ones making people feel things. It's nothing more than zeroes and ones. Zeroes and ones capturing the moment and you relay the zeroes and ones and you take them in a certain way that makes you feel things. For you, you don't make that connection. It's just humans--the way a person is performing. I guess for me ultimately bringing it back to the most simple thing because virtual reality, it kinda reinforces that concept to me in a way that---it's kind of a beautiful thing that it's actually so powerful and it's kind of embarrassingly cool. The record isn't about technology though. The record is about people anyway. No science fiction is about robots, it's about people and how they integrate together and how people change. That's ultimately what science fiction always is.
What was the creative process like for making this album? Did it come slow or did it kind of all trickle out at once?
I did like a bunch of really weird demos for the first half. I did like hip-hop tracks for fun just cause we had some time off and wanted to know what it's like to make a hip-hop track. We'd make demos and rap for fun. We threw a lot of paint at the wall at first without taking ourselves too seriously. We just have fun for the first few months before we even think about making a record. We get lots of little ideas and then we start throwing more paint at the wall about how to approach the process. We kind of have fun and work hard and look at things in different ways. It was a quite fun record to do. The studio was amazing because we did it all live so that was really fun. That was quite rewarding actually.
Live is always better.
Not necessarily! For me music is more than a song. It's about capturing a moment, not reproducing it, but capturing it. So I guess for me there's a certain magic to it, but that doesn't mean it's any more magical than something that was pre-done right?
True, I heard your new tour is going to have some technology that hasn't been revealed yet. Any hints on what to expect?
A stage is a stage so you have to keep it pretty simple and human. I would never bring like robots or anything to come light my cigarettes, but we usually have a pretty nice light show. We go bankrupt trying to do it so you should enjoy it.
Where do you think the future of music is headed in lieu of the recent streaming debates?
I mean the first rule of thumb is you can't go backwards so you're never going to get rid of streaming so you just have to make the best of it you can. I think it's been good for people who listen to music for a long period of time and for people who listen to a song once. And one good way is it's kind of a filter for instant pop where fast money means you get a lot more jerks in the business so when you lose the fast money you lose the jerks. That's a really good element. I think streaming is a bit cheap. I think it should grow a bit. I think people could stand to pay a little more. I know everything is tight but if you buy a phone for $600 you can buy $5 worth of music to listen on your phone, but I think that can happen naturally. Like, now it's streaming and I that's what I have to do with. I don't have time to complain about it. I think the one thing we don't want is a music industry is something only 20 year olds can get involved in. I think we need different genres and styles and stuff. I think musicians should be able to afford the rent and make a living; I don't think they should be rich. It's like a 3D printer is going to put all the businesses and shops out of business. Why go to the store when I can print my toy off the internet? The same problems we have everyone else will see as normal soon enough. We're just the guinea pigs. Music is always the first person to deal with problems of technology, like the printing press. We are always the guinea pigs for that.
What would you do say is your biggest hobby outside of music is?
I'm a dad so my biggest hobby is being a dad. When I'm not playing music, I just spend time with my kids at this point. I like to play sports with them and stuff. I work a lot but as soon as I'm not working it's straight to my kids. I'm a nature dude. I go skiing or play outdoor sports. Or I read science fiction and that's been my life for a couple years now. I'm a pretty happy guy. I wake up and make some crazy noises and then go home and take care of my boys so I kinda like that combo. It's a big deal for me.
What would you say the most challenging part of making this album was?
I think when you get older as a songwriter, a lot of things you said on past records come back out and obviously there's some thematic ideas that as a person are part of you and it's hard to not repeat what you said already. So you can't make new music without changing as a person. You have to change how you see things and grow as a person and the music will as well without you noticing it.
What genre are you a fan of that maybe your fans wouldn't expect?
Good question. I love pop music. I love Tears for Fears and stuff. I love pop music cause I can't do it right now matter how hard I try. I wish I could write a great, great pop song. Some people don't see it as deep, but I appreciate someone who can write a radio song. I think that's awesome. I don't really have any boundaries in music. I want people to do what they do and do it well and I'll be impressed.