Reggie Watts: interview
New York legend Reggie Watts brings his unique stream-of-consciousness comedy back to London. Time Out talks to him about his absurdist philosophy of life.
A lot of journalists have had difficulty describing exactly what it is you do? You're a musician, a comedian, philosopher, force of nature. How would you describe what you do?
'There hasn't really been a description that I've disagreed with. Because what I'm doing is not really based on a definite identification or a definition of what it is. It's intended to be open to interpretation. Whatever someone arrives at I am happy to say, “Yeah, it's that too.” It's entertainment. It's chaos. It's commentary. It's character work. It's like looking into a funhouse mirror where you can see what you want - and something extra you weren't expecting. Basically, I have no problem at all with whatever someone describes it as. It's whatever you want it to be.'
One of the things you're best known for is the way you use a loop machine to create your spontaneous musical compositions. When did you start doing that?
'It was probably 1998 when I first got a looper, but I didn't start using it in the way that I'm using it now until probably 2001 or 2002 , you know, creating these loops and singing dumb things over them. It was just kind of organic evolution really. I was still with my band, Maktub, when I got it and initially I was using it like a scratch pad to communicate ideas to the other guys. Then I started using it to back myself up on harmonies, and from there began using it in between songs and during the intermission the band would leave and I would do a bit by myself on it for a while - and so it began.'
Apart from the cartoonish, absurd nature of some of your work, there are often deeper satirical elements to it…
'For me, it's really important to modulate between different states of meaningfulness and non-meaningfulness. Sometimes I'm doing something because it's just really stupid and ridiculous, other times I go into these kind of weird diatribes to do with things that I'm thinking about at that particular time. Sometimes I'll use elements from philosophies I've read about, other times it'll be about stuff I've learned from people I've met on the road. I like having some substance to the work, and that it's not just a bunch of jokes, or a bunch of bits and silly things. I like that it's a big mix of all those things. At my shows you have time to relax, time to just enjoy something really dumb, time to laugh at something that's weird or unexpected and time to think. There's all sorts of things happening and it's great being able to go any way I choose at any given moment.'
On your website you call yourself a 'disinformationist' - what does that mean?
'It's something I was kind of resonating with a while ago. It still applies but I wouldn't necessarily say that's the main driving force of my work any more. Basically, in times of war, which we're perpetually in, unfortunately, there's always propaganda, misinformation and disinformation. Essentially, it's the tricks that governments employ to lead people down the wrong paths by mixing truth with lies. I like the idea of appropriating this concept for a more positive outcome and essentially it's what I'm doing on stage, mixing truth and lies to create something disorientating and new.'
Most of your shows are entirely improvised. Are you ever surprised yourself by what emerges from your fertile mind?
'Oh yeah, all the time. That's part of the fun of what I do - I get to be an audience member as well. I get into this kind of zone and all of a sudden things start coming out and I'm like, “Woah! That's awesome!” Or, “Woah! That wasn't the best of ideas, but let's see where it goes.” In general what manifests itself is a series of micro-spurts of things that I'm trying to get out. I love to be in a state where things are flowing and I'm discovering them as well. It makes it truly unpredictable. I like the idea of confusing an audience as well - I like that very much. I'm not doing it to be an asshole, it's because I think it's funny to be in a state of confusion and to be able to just let yourself go: “This is ridiculous. What the fuck is happening right now?” '
You've said in the past that you'd like to change the world with your art…
'Yeah, I mean, it's not so much like, “I'm going to change the world”: I think it's more that I feel a part of a system of artists who are engineers or thinkers who help shape the world - or at least help suggest an alternate ending to the course that we're on. I think it's more that. When I'm doing what I do, I hope that it gives people a slight moment where they can see other possibilities outside of the trajectory that they're currently on. That's asking a lot, I know, but I'm hoping it does because for me that's what it feels like. I'm hoping if it does that for me then maybe someone else will see that as well.'
Reggie Watts appears at the Bloomsbury Theatre, July 29-31.