Being Everything But the Girl

Ben Watt on spiritual music, moving the dance floor and the subtle variations of house.

Published September 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Rich with the sound of classic deep house, Everything But the Girl's "Temperamental" captures the drama, the sweat and the rapture of an all-nighter on the dance floor. Following seven LPs and "Walking Wounded" (1996), an album that explored the harsher, moodier sides of drum 'n' bass, "Temperamental" is also an uplifting, deeply melodic shift for the London-based Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn. Again, the duo plays with drum 'n' bass break beats, but now they focus on the old-school garage sound, a form of house filled with smooth, soulful lyrics and moderate beats. Fusing Thorn's tender voice with Watt's bittersweet production, the result is an achingly sublime work of machine-derived art.

Watt and Thorn, who are married, have played together for 17 years. Here, they fool around with any genre that suits their fancy. Unlike most producers, they're willing to shift between jazz, jungle, house, downtempo and indie rock, never settling on any one distinct sound. That approach doesn't always resonate with the genre-obsessed underground. At the same time, the openness is part of what made Everything But the Girl instrumental in introducing electronic music to listeners beyond the small dance-floor circuit -- an achievement that peaked in the States with New York deep house pioneer Todd Terry's gorgeously melancholic remix of their single, "Missing," which charted at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1996.

The following is a recent e-mail interview conducted with Ben Watt, who wrote from his London studio.

What inspired you to start DJing in the underground again?

To be frank, I had never DJ'd before 1996. It was [producer and DJ] Howie B who encouraged me to start spinning during the making of "Walking Wounded." I began in the underground because my first contacts were through Howie. I was bored with traditional approaches to playing and arranging music. I wanted fresh input. DJ cut-up techniques, merging sounds, mood building -- they all appealed to me. It seemed more attractive than picking up a six-string guitar again.

Is it important for an electronic music producer to go out in the clubs in order to understand the energy of the underground?

Of course not. Many musicians work in the realms of electronic music and have never
stepped foot in a club. To capture the vibe of the dance floor is a different matter however. Dance-floor music needs a special approach to EQ, balance, weight. Drums need bass, presence and bite. Sonically this is very different to the hi-fi production techniques that suit home stereos. After the making of "Walking Wounded," I became more and more addicted to this kind of sound. I wanted to take that sound to a pop audience without losing sight of strong narrative songwriting and soulful singing.

Did Todd Terry's remix plant the seeds for your turn toward deeper house?

Todd's mix was part of a broader offensive. We were despondent with the position we found ourselves in in the early '90s, isolated from an emerging generation of listeners. We were adamant that ideas from dance culture should inform our songs -- not unlike our exploration of soul and bossa in the early '80s. We looked into areas that suited our mood -- downtempo funk, deep house, jazzy drum 'n' bass. I see Todd's mix, the collaboration with Massive Attack, my own remix of "Missing" under the pseudonym Little Joey and ultimately my submergence in the London drum 'n' bass scene as all part of this new broad-based offensive around 1994.

A tedious question: How would you describe the house on "Temperamental"? Basement Jaxx and Todd Terry say "deep" is over. What would be your new terminology?

Todd's mix of "Missing" wasn't really deep house in itself. It only had a kind of deep mood because of the melancholy melody and the sound of Tracey's voice. Todd's beats were pure prime time in themselves. However I still feel any house music that feeds off the rich, soulful, minor-chord sounds of soul and blues and funk will still be deep house to me.

When I DJ deep house, I look for a slow build towards a kind of bonded, almost spiritual feel on the dance floor -- not simply hands-in-the-air Saturday night frenzy -- and I know from experience that this works. Look at [15-year-old club] Body and Soul in New York if you want a really successful example. Modern deep house has learned how to hit the dance floor running, where the beats are fat and the grooves are funky. Gone are the days of limp kick-drums and ham-fisted Fender Rhodes solos.

I'm sure it's different in London, but here in San Francisco, harder drum 'n bass dominates the underground. Soulful house is always there to find, but the edgier underground can be rather gloomy.

I got depressed as darkcore drum 'n' bass stifled the soulful drum 'n' bass sounds of '95-96, but it came about because many of the main players in the scene were scared of it going overground too early and they pulled it back under a stone. That move has dominated the past couple of years. However, many of them are now realizing that this is a dead end. I have spoken with key players like Grooverider and Roni [Size] and I can tell from their latest plans that the funk and the soul is coming back into the scene.

The "Missing" track helped propel house music into the mainstream. Do you want house to go mainstream? A lot of people in the underground are snotty as fuck about that.

I would say that much of house music goes mainstream on a fairly regular basis this side of the Atlantic. The charts in Europe are dominated by house music, albeit mostly of the hard trancey variety. This is because Europe got used to house with the acid house and rave explosion in the late '80s. In America, meanwhile, house music still suffers ghettoization because of its origins in disco, and gay and black subculture, and this keeps it marginalized. But a good song is a good song and house tracks will break through onto radio with good songs. Broadly speaking though, the genre itself will stay underground in America as long as clubbing remains underground. Everyone in the U.K. goes clubbing at weekends. I can't see Midwestern and rural America dancing their boots off to Danny Tenaglia just yet!

One of the things Everything But the Girl have is the power to introduce new forms of music to listeners on a broader level than most electronic music producers. You can put jungle beats and house vibes all in the same album, and very few producers would try that.

I feel that a solely genre-based appreciation of dance music is utterly destructive. No one ever expected Stevie Wonder or James Brown to only play at one rigid tempo! Songs either swing and rock or they don't, regardless of tempo. In the end, I look for soul and drama and groove whether it is DJ Krust, Deep Dish or Massive Attack.

How can musicians in electronic music avoid getting stuck into that annoying "genre" trap?

By breaking out of it with good music at other tempos and by keeping their projects under one name -- not hiding say, their downtempo tracks under one pseudonym and their Detroit techno experiments under another. We could easily have ditched the name Everything But the Girl at various points in our career because of its negative connotations, but in the end I feel we have garnered respect for sticking with it and simply moving with the times.

I think the aggressiveness in drum 'n' bass is a needed component to dance music. How does drum 'n' bass make you feel spiritually?

Aggression is a necessary component in all music. Dark, nihilistic music has its place too. But in the end I want to go to a club to be filled up in a soulful and spiritual way, and darkcore jungle and drum 'n' bass don't do it for me in that context. Sometimes I will drop in at a drum 'n' bass club on my way home from a deep house night, just for a quick blast of dark, chilly air!

Here's the $10 cheeseball question: If you two were on a boat, sailing clear into the sea with nothing more than some beer and a fat sound system, what would you play?

Tomb Raider.

By Amanda Nowinski

Amanda Nowinski is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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