What Reggie Watts does onstage has been described in many different ways the last few years. Mostly it comes down to “comedian” or “musical comedian.” After all, Comedy Central Records released his album Why Shit So Crazy? last year; he’s toured with comedians (Conan, anyone?) and cut his teeth on the national comedy scene.
But he barely tells any jokes.
Onstage it’s all about music– music that’s improvised every night and created under the most unusual circumstances and with an arsenal of modern musical technology But are his songs funny? At times. Does he have a wicked sense of humor? Indeed.
What Reggie really is: a reminder that labels and categories too often distract us from just enjoying art. It’s something to keep in mind while listening to Watts’ latest release Live At Third Man Records. And the way this album was created and is being distributed is almost as telling as the music itself.
Third Man Records, as you may know, was born from the White Stripes’ Jack White, who runs the operation in Nashville, TN. Third Man, like Reggie, is a lot of things and can’t be constrained to a single label: it’s record store, label, live venue, and production house (equipped with a rehearsal and photo studio).
Reggie recently chatted with Punchline Magazine about how this marriage came about, what touring with Conan O’Brien has taught him about show business and how he sees his art evolving. Check it out!
I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about how this new album with Third Man came about.
I rolled through there with the Conan tour, and spoke with Jack [White, of White Stripes] and when they had a moment, just kind of timidly asked him if I could maybe – or just kind of put it in his mind, the idea of me doing a comedy record there at Third Man Records. And then a few months after that, I got an invite from him to do that. It’s kind of a dream come true.
That’s awesome. How was it working with him?
It was awesome. He’s very hands off, for the recording he just made sure things looked good. He’s into not only sonic quality and so forth, but also visual aesthetics. It was cool to see him tweaking the room, making sure it was nice and right for bands to come in and check out the show.
What was playing in the space like?
The space is amazing. The space is very nice, it’s like a multimedia room in a way. Big space, nice walls in the back, so you could do a video shoot there if you wanted to. And it’s got a nice stage, pretty big stage, high stage, with monitors. It’s just a nice, well-balanced, aesthetically minimal, pleasing space.
Third Man is notorious for producing vinyl records in lieu of digital CDs and music. Could you talk a little about why you’re releasing on that medium, are you a fan of vinyl? Have you worked with it before?
I like the idea of vinyl. I’m not like a vinyl fan, I don’t even own a record player. I plan on getting one, actually. But I like the idea of what’s happening with it, what it symbolizes. If it’s never released to digital, at least legally, the value of owning something that has artwork and is large enough that you can put your hands on – it means you actually own that experience. That’s a special experience that you own. You own a physical piece of artwork along with the content that’s on it. I think that is just a great idea for creating a better appreciation for what people are getting into.
Right, and they say that’s the one of the only segments of the music industry that’s really taking off right now.
Oh, that’s awesome. Good. It’s just ridiculous. All the digital stuff, you can’t keep track of it. It’s good for convenience, but it’s like – I forget what I’ve gotten, I have no record what I’ve gotten.
Is this album a departure in any way from your earlier albums?
No, it kind of encapsulates what I do a little bit more honestly. It’s just a solid live recording performance, and I kind of gave myself permission to be a little bit more abstract. I think it’s the most honest representation of what I do. Not all of it’s perfect, there are some dumb ideas that don’t work, and that’s what I kind of like about it. My shows are kind of part failure, part success.
I guess that would come about if you’re improvising most of it, right?
Yeah, that just happens. It’s a product of improvisation. I’ve become more and more okay with that, not to say that I’m okay with having shitty ideas, but it’s okay to fail if you try for something. In this particular recording, I think it does that fairly well.
Could we talk a little more about the improvisation? Is there a particular reason why you’ve leaned that way instead of doing specific songs and jokes every single time like a more traditional comedian or musician might?
Improvisation is a survival mechanism, really. I can’t memorize anything, even words. It’s very painful and difficult for me to memorize something on a sheet of paper. Or to keep track of things that I want to do, like on a set list. It’s just easier for me to not have to worry about any set list at all, any particular construct. It’s much easier for me to perform under those circumstances.
Have there been any moments in recent memory where relying on that improv spirit has maybe not done so well, or has turned the audience off in any way?
There’s always a risk of that. I’m sure it’s happened on many occasions. I can’t recall any particular incidents, but I’m always thinking about that when I’m onstage. Or sometimes, maybe not always. There are moments when I feel like I’m not quite connecting to an idea, and then I kind of flip it to the audience’s point of view, and I’m like, “Is this kind of shitty right now? Are they bored?” And then I’ll come up with something in that second. It’s always a battle that I’m having onstage, so it’s hard for me to know what was really that way, or what was me projecting it onto an audience.
Right. That, in addition to the fact that you’re sort of in a genre of your own and your content traffics in absurdity and surrealism a lot of the time, has that made it harder to connect with the audience, especially with your greater notoriety these days with the Conan tour?
Yeah. I think that people catch on. It’s not even catching on, it’s more like letting go. I think that people, when they come to a show, and they’re like, “Oh, what am I going to get into? What’s this going to be like?” I don’t have the answer for that. Really, the answer is – I don’t know, let’s just go on a ride together. I think that once people get back, they can really enjoy themselves. It’s not for everybody, I don’t expect everybody to dig it, I’m just kind of going for it. Hopefully it’s something really entertaining. I’m only doing stuff that I think is entertaining for myself and hopefully translates to the audience as well.
This is your first post-Conan tour album. Can you talk a little bit about that touring experience? Has that influenced your music and performance in any way?
It hasn’t really changed what I do necessarily. Because it’s improvised, I don’t really have a format. When I was on tour, I had to figure out what kind of vibe to come out with for the show. My part, when I was opening, I always had to make sure that I came out with a good starting vibe, and left people in a relatively happy state so that they were excited about Conan coming on, which they would be any way. I was really concerned about integrating into the show and not standing out too much.
I saw you in Chicago for the tour, it seemed like people were really into it and that it meshed well.
Yeah, it did. In the beginning, there was a little bit of a question, but it was fine after the second gig. Conan was happy with it, everyone seemed happy with it, the writers seemed happy. And then after that, we just kind of got closer with one another and I just kind of fell in love with the whole Conan family.
And you’ve appeared on the show three times now, since it’s started?
Yeah, that’s right.
How has that been?
It’s a blast. It’s amazing. I want to do more of it, I want to get past the theater thing a little bit more. They’ve been incredibly supportive. I have no complaints, not like anybody would, but it’s a perfect experience. The place is run really well, production is tight, and everybody is laid back and they love each other. It’s good.
I think that comes across on the show too, it seems like a positive environment.
Yeah, it really is. Production always has its stressful moments, but they handle it really well, and it always feels good and positive back in the green room and onstage.
Your act draws in a lot of traditions and genres and sort of crosses a lot of boundaries. Based on that and your performance history, it seems like you have interest in spreading your performance beyond the theater, and perhaps the kind of comedy you’ve done. Do you have any hopes for future projects that leak more into other genres, or that extend beyond what you’re doing now?
Yeah, of course. I’m interested in making as many things in various media as possible. I really enjoy installation, I enjoy dance, I enjoy visual arts, I enjoy all the various performance and performative art forms. I love it all. I just am so excited about making things in all sorts of different ways.
Are there any specific projects that you’re thinking about or working on at the moment that you could share with us?
Well, I’m trying to get involved in an installation in Berkeley, it’s still in talks right now, but I think that’d be interesting to do. Creating an installation is something I haven’t done before, so that could be cool. Other than that, just working on film ideas, that kind of stuff.
I was watching the second Yes Men documentary the other day and was pleasantly surprised to see you playing a part in that. Is that sort of the kind of thing you’re looking to do, or was that more of an anomaly?
That was kind of an anomaly. I definitely like where those guys are coming from. They’re pretty awesome. I love that they coordinate things at such an intense level. It’s great. It still feels punk rock.
That movie has a very overt political ideology beneath it, did you ever feel like that was conflicting with the kind of stuff that you do that’s more apolitical, or not concerned directly with those issues?
No, not really. I view them as – they’re more artists than political activists. They’re politically motivated and highly educated in what’s going on in the world politically, but I still think of them more as artists. They come across as the – their fuel is the things that happen in the world, how governments are affecting things, affecting people’s lives, and corporations and so forth. They use that fuel to make some pretty amazing artistic stunts, and in that regard, there’s a quality of art to it. I’m always behind it. Art is an important ingredient.