INTERVIEW : REGGIE WATTS

Reggie Watts performs tonight at Ace Hotel New York with The Dance Cartel at On the Floor in Liberty Hall. He woke up early to do his hair and found a few moments to talk to us about life, love, luxury problems and Comedy Bang Bang.

How is your morning, er afternoon, going?

Uh, it’s going good. Not out of bed yet, but I’m getting there.

You’ve just been taking interviews from bed? That sounds pretty good.

It’s not bad, it’s fun.

You’re a busy man. Last week when we were having technical problems you were like “Okay you have ten minutes. I have another one in ten minutes, then ten minutes before that.” That doesn’t sound like very much fun for you. Or maybe it is.

Well sometimes it can be. It’s just a matter of it lining up or not. Sometimes people will not call or they will forget. Something like that. Then sometimes they will call a little bit later and then the whole thing is derailed. “I’ll call you ten minutes later, then ten minutes later.” That can be weird, but it’s fine. Literally almost everything is worse than that.

They are first world problems, it’s true. Have things been kind of blowing up since Comedy Bang Bang premiered?

Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think I definitely noticed people a little bit more. I mean people notice me more is what I meant to say. Ha.

You and Alex (Calderwood) are old friends from Seattle.

Yeah, I’ve known him probably since, I’m going to guess like 1996 or something like that maybe. He was throwing parties at — I can’t remember the name of the club, it was right under the monorail. It was the only thing in town that really had any elegance or sophistication to it when it comes to parties. They were killin’ it. But yeah they were cool guys, I’ve known them forever. I love the Ace.

I interviewed Vijay Iyer recently when he was coming to Portland for the Jazz Festival. We were talking about jazz being this democratic wildland where anything can happen. And I was watching some videos of your work on YouTube and various places over the last week, and thinking that jazz and comedy feel kind of related. Especially the sort of performance you do — it’s pretty singular — you have peers in the comedy world and peers in the music world, but what you do with them is sort of unprecedented. I was wondering if you feel like there is some feedback loop with how you approach comedy and how you think about improvisational music, and if they feel related to you in any way?

Yeah, they are definitely related. I mean, if you can improvise in music and if you have a love of music you can just transpose that to being more lyrical. It’s the same technique, it just depends on what you understand. Improvisation is inherent in any art form.

I was also watching your Ted Talk where you kind of do this incredible gymnastic leap between personalities and voices. Does that process feel like acting for you, or is it just sort of being parts of yourself? And, related to that, I’m wondering if acting feels like imitation or if it’s more like channeling these different personality types.

It definitely feels like kind of channeling personality types because the various voices and the way that they sound can trigger different ways of behaving. It’s really like the voice leads the results I suppose.

You actually have this incredibly strong, really beautiful voice. Does using it in this comedic way — in this channeling — gives you more space to play? Do you ever wish you were re-focusing on making music or “seriously using” your voice outside of a comedic context?

Yeah, I mean, the thing is I did music for most of my life. I guess now I’ve done comedy almost as long as I’ve done music professionally. But in that time I did music, I’ve done a lot of “serious music” — several albums and played everywhere and toured. I’d really like to get back to making standard music records at some point. I’m working on it sometime this year, it will probably happen hopefully. I had to catch up for a while with comedy and to get that more solidly rolling.

It seems like the work you do requires a lot of alone time and just kind of tripping out by yourself. I’m wondering about that threshold between being alone and creating pieces and working on stuff. Do you take that directly to the stage, or do you have any process of working with an editor or showing it to friends first. How do you emerge from that cocoon and take it public?

It’s kind of a reality shift. It’s kind of like what I do on stage when I shift between different things — it’s the same idea. I definitely require a lot of downtime or alone time, whether that’s good or bad. Definitely because I just need to recharge or research things or try to complete things, or however you want to say it. And yeah, it’s not that hard to translate ‘cause sometimes I’ll be cooped up for a while and then I just need to get out and do stuff. So it’s a welcome change for sure.

Your work is, in a way, genre-less — you are tagged as a comedian and as a musician, but I feel like I haven’t ever seen a performer do exactly what you do or even anything close to it. There is this bravery to just being yourself and kind of following your own aesthetic, visually and musically and even socially. I’m wondering if that comes naturally to you, and, if not, what it takes to just be yourself and be unprecedented and be the first one to do something up on stage.

A lot of it is the same thing that motivates kids to sing in their hairbrushes in the mirror. And doing that in front of other people. It’s really kind of something you learn quickly if it’s something you want to do or not. You either feel empowered by going on stage and having people respond and feeding off of that and giving that back, or not. You either like that exchange or it immobilizes you. For me, audiences are great fuel for doing what I do because it’s improvised. So in a way they are kind of helping me create the performance.

What’s it like then performing just for a camera — I don’t know if you guys have a studio audience, but how does that feel different than performing in this wild, improvisational way on stage?

Yeah, no, it’s a totally different thing. It’s about making sure that you’re getting performances that are being captured by a camera. And just making sure that you’re giving the right amount of energy to a situation that’s being caught by cameras. It feels different than an audience, but there’s still an audience on the other side of it while you’re making it. It’s just there’s a huge time delay — ha. It’s kind of the same but the camera is a different instrument. You have to develop a relationship with the camera.

Some people don’t realize you have a really long, very grand name — Reginald Lucien Frank Roger Watts. I know for obvious reasons that’s not your stage name because it’s quite long, but is it a family name?

It’s basically just a European thing to throw in different or various family members or friends that have had a positive impact or whatever. Yeah, so that’s usually how it happens. It’s awesome.

Thanks, R.L.F.R. Watts. See you tonight!

Photo by Steven Dewall


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