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Monday, 19 October 2020

Mick Dillingham Interviews : The Black Watch


Since the late eighties, songwriter and musician John Andrew Frederick has been the one constant creative entity behind the superb The Black Watch who have just released their 18th and 19th albums within a few months of each other.  Both records, like nearly everything that has gone before, are lovely things to behold and enjoy. Like Gregory Curvey, Robert Pollard and David Lowery, Frederick is a rare and welcome force of nature, always up to creative stuff. 

A seemingly unstoppable powerhouse, constantly bringing something new and special into our reality in numerous ways. His is an unmistakably individual voice aided and abetted by great songwriting abundant craft, inventive musicianship and a literate and intelligent approach, That makes his considerable back catalogue a treasure-trove of wonder to explore and cherish.  

Let’s have a word shall we?

 "I grew up in Santa Barbara, California at a time when there were scads of orange groves and avocado orchards, lots of colour television sets (I think Goleta, the main suburb, had the dubious distinction of most tellys per family in the nation), a collective mania for going to the beach, going surfing and getting kids into those big-three American sports: baseball, football, and basketball. 

My mum and dad would love to tell the story of how, one evening when we'd returned from seeing a film at the drive-in, The Beatles' I Wanna Hold Your Hand came on the AM radio and I, they giggled, just stood up on the back seat and started dancing, going mental.  Mental for The Beatles ever since.  And their ilk.  Of which there's none, really.  They really are the nonpareil.  For me, that is.  

There was a great record store within biking distance, so I'd use the money I got each week from cutting the lawn, digging out the weeds, doing whatever chores (very Puritan work ethic, my parents were as well), to buy 7" records, and, when possible, an LP by Hendrix or Creedence. On rainy days at school we'd put on Monkees records--as an entire class, mind you--and pretend to be the band, strumming brooms and things, air guitar, pounding on the desks, singing away in choirboy-and-girl voices. 

It was a frightfully quaint and innocent time, despite Vietnam and student riots, one quite famously taking place about a mile and a half away at UCSB.  I often joke that I had such an idyllic childhood that I don't think I'll ever recover from it!  I really did have lessons in everything, anything I fancied.  My mother chauffeured me to tennis, fencing (fencing!), German, French, sailing, the lot. and of course guitar.  

I took lessons for a few years from some really pretty hippie chick who taught me to pick like Donovan and Joni Mitchell, and who made me strum--without a pick--various strums with thumb and Spanishy-classical fingers.  I was a good, obedient, happy kid, encouraged to do well in school, get recognition from that and to go to church each Sunday and sing every hymn. I really hated going to church--'twas very fire and brimstone, as I remember it--which my parents denied all the time, which was weird."

Which music artists made you sit up and take notice back then?

 "Of course The Beatles.  I was thinking about this the other day--how there was so much mystery about bands back then, so little information.  A silly survey here, a tidbit of information on upbringing or relationships there--all of it gleaned from Tiger Beat and those sorts of 'zines which of course I bought up and devoured.  The Beatles cartoon show was a total must; you couldn't miss it or you'd be so bummed.  

I loved The Rolling Stones as well.  Like anybody, one would just stare at, say, Their Satanic Majesties, for hours on end, even when the record wasn't on!  Harmless, charming so-called activity.  I loved Donovan too.  He knew The Beatles! Hahaha.  Jimi Hendrix was a giant as well.  Smash Hits--gosh, I'm sure I wore out a copy or two of that on our crude sort of stereo."


When did you start playing an instrument and why?

"I think I was nine or ten when I took up guitar.  Beatles songs were nigh-on impossible . Why? Well, later on, we learned that good old Sir George had the songs sped up or slowed down half steps and all. Plus, of course, many had way too many chords and barre chords at that--which I didn't know, being a folky sort of player as a tike.  

When I was ten I broke my leg so badly (football) that I had to spend a year in bed.  Utter torture, especially as the parents didn't let me watch more than an hour of telly a day.  So I read heaps of history and kiddie novels like The Hardy Boys. I started writing songs, propping my Silvertone on my vast cast and banging out all manner of strummy, sub-Beatles imitations and all.  I think I peaked when I was eleven or so.  

I had all the time in the world to woodshed. It's really boring if you're a very sportif kid and can't go shoot around with your friends or chuck a football or play wiffleball.  Hearing their gleeful, suburban cries in the street made for some melancholia, let me tell you.  All of this has gone, not-coincidentally, into making me the person/artist I am today: obsessive-compulsive, a keen reader (very addicted--often read six books at a time) and rather insanely over productive, in terms of songwriting.  That whole Puritan thing at work, as it were, once again."


 How did The Black Watch begin?

 "I was teaching at UCSB after finishing my Ph.D.and I had a class that had a kid who just kept giving me tapes of stuff like REM and The Cure and Chameleons and The Smiths.  He drummed and rowed Crew.  Great kid.  I knew a guy who played bass and had been an undergrad for around ten years--living in fear of graduating haha.  Guy called Kenny who was an American Indian.  Then I got a metalhead surfer to play lead.  

This line-up did some gigs, but the first LP was made with some even younger kids who all went on to do great things after I left SB and moved to LA.  Thom Flowers (guitar) is a bigshot producer now; Mick Flowers (drums) has a studio in Austin, and Danny Rowe, the bassist, played for years in The Motels.  

We put the record out on vinyl and cassette and got some reviews comparing us to bands we'd never heard!  So we went out and bought LPs by those bands--American Music Club, The March Violets, Lloyd Cole.  I knew very early on that it would be crucial to try and mask influences as best we could.  

For some reviewers, I daresay, the disguise wasn't quite as sophisticated as we'd like.  One guy snarkily called us The California Cure.  I can laugh now. At the time it stung a tad.  I knew I was under the shadow, as it were, of Robert Smith, and The Smiths haha.  I really worked (there's that motif again) to sun, so to speak that shadow, to try and bleach it musically. 

 When I moved to LA, I met J'Anna Jacoby 'cause she was the drummer's roommate in this big Victorian house with lots of people and stuff.  She had never been in a rock band, so it was very exciting.  Even more so to have a romantic partner in your band, which everyone, for good reason, tells you is a no-no.  So many good times and good gigs and good reviews and things came out of it.  A lot of heartbreak as well.  

Every songwriter needs a foil and J'Anna was brilliant at that and at guitar ,as well as the instrument she's a virtuoso on, violin.  She would make the weirdest chords and not know what she was doing.  We listened to a lot of Sonic Youth and would marvel and try and do stuff that echoed that sort of twin guitar attack, but without distortion and with twin Roland JC20's.  Which everyone played through back then.

I have always written with only one person in mind: John Lennon…kidding.  It's John myself, actually.  The Black Watch is the only band I've ever been in.  I'm not a joiner. I didn't want to be a front guy, oddly.  But it was a job only I could conceive giving myself, rather than a so-called singer.  Had I just been the guitar guy and main songwriter, I'd have the burden of teaching someone all the inflections I hear and that would have been to onerous.

I think though the songs I wrote when J'Anna Jacoby was in the band, well, she was so intuitive and artistic that it was kind of cinchy.  For a while we had some managers who wanted to make J'Anna the front person on account of her prettiness and all.   was fine with that, it was a relief of sorts.  But it wasn't a long lasting thing.  She wasn't a natural front person.  

The first gig we had in Santa Barbara was supporting Toad the Wet Sprocket, faux-friends they were.  We were monstrously nervous.  After the show, my psychologist at the time (marital probs, you know) came up and said:  "Well, those kids [Toad] are going to be stars, but you, John, are going to be an artist."  It was a great moment.  I've never loved playing live. There have been many brilliant moments, but mostly I find myself faking my way through it.  

I love the studio.  I like practising with the band much more than gigs.  I like the first time a song comes together, so to speak.  Nothing better than that!  Where there was nothing now there's something! The label Dr Dream saw us play (we did put on a good show--the boys went crazy for J'Anna's sexiness and pulchritude) and signed us, thinking that the song Terrific would be a big hit.  It was.  But they never took it further.  

Too stoned, they were. Too complacent.  Never believed in us as a band--an album band.  So we ended up unsigned once again and we didn't care on account of there was always some A & R guy promising us a major label deal.  Which only happened in a minor way, eventually, with the mini-major Zero Hour--another nightmare."


Do you ever record the live shows?

"Thank God there are no live recordings that I know of.  That'd be most unpleasant.  The 90s were great days of college/university noon shows.  Wonderful to play colleges, do the interview at the local station afterwards, start in on the pints and shots by 3 pm.  Ha ha!  We met so many nice people at those gigs and sold so many CDs.  It was key for us to sell t-shirts and CDs and singles, we had to fund the band fund and keep going.  

I never wanted to be a star, get laid, dress up and I've managed that admirably, I'd say. Ha ha! Someone said "I saw you in a Lacoste shirt doing a gig 20 years ago."  And I said:  "It's probably the same polo!"  Ha ha! I can't stand rock cliches and bands that dress up in costumes. When MBV played the Club Lingerie to twelve people they came out in drab t-shirts and dirty jeans and boots. Ah, my kinda band!

 Well, we had a lot of people trying to influence us.  A producer, labels, managers.  We had serious loyalties and fears.  Trying to make everybody happy.  Which of course made us miserable.  Zero Hour were insanely dictatorial--be careful what you wish for!  

Touring was so much fun and so much work.  I booked two national tours myself.  Incredible in the days before the internet.  I spent a lot of time on the phone.  Despite all the setbacks, I never gave up.  Never will.  Can't do it.  I'm a fool for rock, really.  Live for it."


The King of Good Intentions Good, released on Not Lame, was the album that made you known to a wider audience by dint of being on the label.

 It was easily one of the most loose recordings--great job by Scott Campbell and drummer Jim Goodall whom I borrowed from Medicine.  My kid still thinks that that's the best LP.  He likes raw stuff.  KCRW played it a bit--which was gratifying.  

And J'Anna, having quit, came back for that and for Jiggery-Pokery, before she left again and joined the Rod Stewart circus.  Where she always belonged, you know, she was never meant to be an indie chick.  I'm happy for her-and losing her pushed me to try and write differently and not rely on her astonishing musicianship.  

Even she came to dislike the violin on our songs and would often rather utilise her Telecaster. The Rod Stewart gig gave her stability, a house in LA and in London, a gig that wasn't an office job, a chance to travel the world and hobnob with a bunch of.... people.  Good on her."


You sign to Stonegarden for the next few albums.

"Stonegarden gave me licence to do whatever I wished, a mobile phone, a retainer and a record contract that lasted four LPs I think?  I was sad for a long long time. I missed my girlfriend terribly (we split up as a couple. I hated the Stewartworld she loved); but I got through it by making records and writing and reading and listening to Dylan (a serious rabbit hole)."


Some important new collaborators get on board.

"Yes.  Scott Taylor, Gary Sullivan, and most importantly Tim Boland.  It has always been my goal to be the worst musician in my band- and that line-up helped to achieve that. Ha ha ha!  Those chaps are incredible musicians.  I'm only really very good at strumming and picking and fashioning weird tunings.  Plus a lyric or two. Ha ha! 

Lyrics come from reading T.S. Eliot, Shelley, Gerard Manly Hopkins, French poems in French and not from other people's lyrics.  Most lyrics are just rubbish.  I like bands that are sort of sans lyrics:  MBV, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive.  I hate cleverness, unless it's done really cleverly, a la The Jazz Butcher."


In 2013 you sign to Pop Culture and the release dates narrow with an album coming every year…we are entering a very creative time for you. How have things changed for you?

 "I am a guitar maniac.  I have a mess of Epiphone Casinos and Jazzmasters and twelve-strings, so I think that each guitar brings new songs, new vibes, new cadences and tempos.  I write every day, not religiously; I just enjoy it.  Same thing with reading…I think I would go mental without novels and poems.  

I structure my very narrow life around making LPs, I am very blessed with heaps of friends who have studios here in LA.  I despise most LA bands and hate the scene, but love the fact that there are so many talented, like-minded engineers and producers of my close acquaintance if not fast friendship.  Scott Campbell, Rob Campanella, Tim Boland, and of late, Andy Creighton have contributed untold good things to the Black Watch.  Can't say enough good things about them." 


Two years ago you sign to Atom and you’re on a roll…four great albums in a row 

"Thank you.  Each record, by the by, is a reaction against/to the one that precedes it.  So if you didn't like Witches! maybe you'll dig Magic Johnson. Same writer, but way way different vibe.  Songs pour out of me; I can't stop them.  Or stop."


Last year you compiled two archive collections…how was all that revisiting?  Some artists cannot bear listening to their own past output…others are fine…which camp do you fall into?


"Well, Rob Campanella and I often talk about how silly it is not to listen to your own stuff.  Robert Smith said that when he wants to hear a great record, he makes a great record.  I'm with Smith. I do revisit the past; but mostly I am so busy shaping new songs that there's no time for that sort of aural nostalgia.  

I never want to re-do stuff a la John Lennon, who said he'd wanna re-record the canon.  That's not for me. I love my own band--why be in a band otherwise?  I love what my collaborators/bandmates do,:  they inspire me as well.  I can't wait to make another record.  I'm hoping to do some more stuff with Scott Campbell soon."


How does the recording process work for you?

"Usually I just record acoustic or electric guitar to a click track and then build the track from there.  I like to work fast and I hate talking in the studio.  I am there to work, not socialize.  Not that it isn't fun.  I don't do a whole lotta takes, save with vocals. Which I don't love doing on account of I like spontaneity.  I like to play on the hurry-up.  

It makes some producers like Rob a bit cheesed off-at how I like to hustle things along.  It's a product of not having big budgets and all and something of a challenge.  As much as I admire very perfect LPs like XTC's Skylarking or much of Radiohead, I don't wanna make such records, I don't think.  

I am a Virgo, but not one of the painstakingly meticulous ones.  My sensibilities are with the messy ones.  We make messy LPs and that is how I like it. Recordings should, to my way of thinking, showcase the human elements.  And how! Ha ha ha!


You have two new albums out. When do decide its time for a new album?


When it's a Tuesday? Ha ha!  I reckon it's when I have ten or twelve songs that are finished in a notebook and ready to be taking in to the studio. I think that the two albums from this year "answer" one another in a way. Quite different yet of a piece, you might say.  The next one, whenever it comes, will be a reaction against both. "


What drives you forward? 

"I've always been a very ambitious person and a curious one.  I just wanna see what I will come up with.  That's terribly exciting.  Isn't that what art is all about?  I'm amazed by making.  I wouldn't have done nineteen LPs and published five books without a bit of wonder.  It's all wonder, Mick.  I wonder what I'll do next!!!  It makes for a rather suspenseful existence, don't you think?"

You can listen to and but The Black Watch back catalogue here. Don will be posting the review of the latest album, Fromthing Somethat, in the very near future. 



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