Reggie Watts in Conversation with Pamela Z
A persistent hum, the radio, intermittent silence on the wire. These are all sounds that accidentally, but coincidentally, found their way into the conversation between Pamela Z, a composer–performer–media artist, and Reggie Watts, an internationally renowned vocal artist–musician–comedian. Watts and Z are both vocalists known for their use of looping technology and digital delays, which produce an effect akin to time traveling in sound, in real time. Onstage, Z and Watts achieve this, in very different manners and with varying degrees of improvisation, by rigging hardware or software to help slow down a moment, rejigger it, and spit it back out, different.
San Francisco–based Z—her legal surname, which is not short for anything and is not followed by any punctuation—is an interdisciplinary artist, making solo works combining a wide range of vocal techniques with electronic processing, samples, gesture-activated MIDI controllers, and video. She’s created installations and composed scores for dance, film, and chamber ensembles. Her work has been presented at venues and exhibitions including the Bang on a Can Marathon, the Venice Biennale, and the Dakar Biennale. Throughout her piece “Declaratives in the First Person,” some iteration of the phrase “I would like to think” recurs. Experiencing her work is akin to imbibing that track, thinking and feeling and charting the trajectory of a mind at work, in increments that are individually meaningful and that also accrue to something else that’s transformative and vast.
Watts is perhaps best known as the bandleader of The Late Late Show with James Corden, but he established himself as an innovative artist and performer in the decade and a half before his tenure on the late-night circuit. After being handpicked by Conan O’Brien to open on one of the host’s tours, Watts released his debut album, Why $#!+ So Crazy?, on Comedy Central Records in 2010. Since then he has gone on to compose for TV shows, including FX’s Louie and IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, on which he appeared as the bandleader. His latest comedy special, Reggie Watts: Spatial, premiered on Netflix in 2016. The show begins with a bit in which Watts manipulates his voice to sound sped-up, as if fast-forwarded by a remote control, then transitions into an improvised loop song. His T-shirt reads Chaotic Good, and this phrase sums up his art: funny, kinetic, head-noddingly, chaotically good.
The day after their conversation, Z flew to Chicago to give a solo performance at a venue called Constellation as part of the Resonant Bodies Festival. The following week, she performed in the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco. Later that month, Watts debuted a new season of Taskmaster, his Comedy Central game show, and prepared for the release of the album Casual High Technology, a dance-comedy album for which he collaborated with composer John Tejada as the duo Wajatta.
So the meeting was a rare opportunity for these busy, time-based artists to chat about time: the true value of two thousand milliseconds, sixty-second delays, and the mileage you can get out of even one second. Following one of Watts’s film auditions, and right before Z’s gig at UC Berkeley, where she was giving a colloquium talk and lecture demo for students, the two found an hour to speak on the phone about their work. At the end of the call, they made tentative plans to meet in LA, where Watts lives, at one of Z’s gigs. What resulted was a conversation that had an arc but returned to certain themes. Put another way, it looped.
I. “Laurie Anderson is Laurie Anderson.”
REGGIE WATTS: How often do you perform live?
PAMELA Z: All the time, because it’s basically what I do. So I have this kind of crazy schedule. I have several live performances a month, I guess.
RW: That’s awesome. I basically was doing that until The Late Late Show. [Laughter]
PZ: And then you suddenly got landlocked!
RW: Yeah, I got a little bit landlocked. I mean, I still do shows, but not as intensely.
PZ: Guillermo [E. Brown] was telling me that you sometimes do more than one show in a day so that you guys can have little chunks of time off. Does that work out for you?
RW: Yeah. Sometimes I’m tired of traveling, so it’s just better to, you know, let’s just stay home. But it’s also a pleasure because I’m trying to generate things that are based here [in Los Angeles].
PZ: Do you feel like you get a chance, with that kind of regular gig, to create things on your own that are unrelated to that? Do you still have the energy and the desire to do that after working all week on that show?
RW: Yeah, for sure. Because, luckily for me, since I don’t really plan things or rehearse, it’s just setting up the conditions for something to occur. So in that case it’s easier for me to have a vision and, you know, work with an assistant or whatever and say, This weekend I want to do this, and let’s find a studio. And then they set it up and that way I can walk in and make it happen.
PZ: You’ve got a collaboration right now with—is it Wajatta? Is that ongoing or is it just to make the one record?
RW: It’s one record as of now, but it was so quick to create. The first time we jammed together, we made three tracks in, I don’t know, probably forty-five minutes or something like that. That’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be able to create high-quality works really, really quickly. And so because of that, I think there’s no limit to how much we can create. It just depends on how much we want to support the record and tour and all of those things. That’s really the only variable. I also like working with many people that wanna work with me in the way that I like to work. So there’ll probably be more collaborations as well. As a vocalist, [the voice is] the most flexible instrument—
PZ: I’m always telling people that. It’s like we’re the only ones who can actually change the shape of our resonator. [We can] make whatever timbre we want, you know! [Laughs]
RW: Yeah, totally! I mean, look at Bobby McFerrin, like even back in the day, creating the illusion of all the different parts, and switching between them very quickly. Or even modern beatboxers. Whenever people call me a beatboxer, I don’t think it’s very accurate… [Laughter]
PZ: I can totally relate to that!
RW: ’Cause they’re like, “Oh, you’re a beatboxer!” Well, it’s like, “Oh no, I guess I’m a rhythmic vocalist.” [Laughter] You know, like a vocalist who uses rhythm. I always think that that’s funny, ’cause people obviously need shorthand to define things.
PZ: They want to immediately put something into a box as soon as they can. Or they want to find another person who is better known to them that they can compare you to. So they can say, “Oh, you’re the next so-and-so.” I used to get that with Laurie Anderson. People used to say, “Oh, so you’re kind of like the West Coast Laurie Anderson.” And I said, “I’m not any Laurie Anderson. Laurie Anderson is Laurie Anderson!” [Laughs]
RW: Yeah, totally. She’s done really well at being Laurie Anderson. That’s so funny. Sometimes people will compare me to my friend Beardyman; we kind of bleed a little bit, music and comedy. But, you know, however, if you persist, people are finally just like, “This is who they are.”
PZ: Right, exactly. I think that they’re just struggling to place it someplace they can understand. And also they want the work to be done of figuring it out. [Laughs]
RW: Yes, yes! Very much so. There’s a friend of mine, Amber Case, who’s like a cyborg anthropologist, self-proclaimed. And she works on all manner of interface design, and she kind of swims between the worlds, and it’s really amazing, you know, and people are always trying to put her into a box. Or Imogen Heap. And really she’s just a technologist geek, musician-composer, and so people will make all kinds of references and try to figure it out.
PZ: I get Meredith Monk a lot too. They’ll be like, “Oh, she’s the San Francisco Meredith Monk,” and I’m like, “Oh no!”
RW: Oh my god, no.
PZ: No, no, no. [Laughs]
RW: Like, stop, guys. I get it, but stop.
PZ: I love Meredith and I’m honored to be compared to her, but I am not her.
RW: Yeah, I know. Like, I’m the new Rahzel. [Laughter]
II. The San Francisco Sound Alternative
RW: How did you get started?
PZ: I’ve been playing music ever since I was a small child, but I played in a lot of different ways. Through childhood I played viola in an orchestra, I sang in choirs, I learned to play the guitar [and] became sort of a singer-songwriter when I was in junior high and continuing into high school. And then I was a voice major in college, so I have a classically trained bel canto voice. But through all of that, during the time that I was in school, I was singing—singing opera arias and art songs by day, and by night, playing in clubs. Mostly kind of folk, rock, and songs I wrote, and also a bizarre mishmash of cover tunes; you know, everything from Joni Mitchell to Talking Heads to whatever you might imagine. And somewhere in there—by this time, this was the early 1980s—when I got out of school, I started doing radio at a public radio station. My show was this kind of crazy mishmash called The Tuesday Afternoon Sound Alternative. And it was mostly experimental music from different genres all wildly mixed into one show. So I would segue from, like, Varèse or Stockhausen to the Ramones to… whatever. I was doing all of this listening and playing of more experimental music, and I realized at that point that the music I was playing didn’t resemble at all the music that I was listening to.
RW: Where was this, by the way?
PZ: This was in Boulder, Colorado. I went to school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, so that’s where I was at that time. And so I started trying—in kind of an artificial way—to figure out ways to make my own work more experimental: trying to compose differently, trying to write differently. But what really made it click for me was when I started playing with digital delay. The first time I ever heard somebody doing that was in a Weather Report concert. I heard Jaco Pastorius do this duet with himself, using his bass and a digital delay. And so that’s the moment where I was like, Hmm, maybe I could do that with my voice. And so I went to a music store the next day and said, “This guy had this thing, and what was that?” And the guy said, “Oh, that’s a digital delay.” I said, “I’ll take one!” [Laughter] And so he sold me one—
RW: Was it a DigiTech, or…?
PZ: It was actually an Ibanez.
RW: Oh, word.
PZ: You know, it’s like a rack-mountable Ibanez. I think the one Jaco had been using was probably a stomp box, but the guy at the store sort of warned me off of that thing: “If you’re gonna be putting your voice through this, the sampling rate is really low; it’s going to sound really terrible.” So he sold me this Ibanez; I believe it was a DM1000. Then I just became completely addicted. So I started buying more digital delays. And shortly after I started playing the delay, I moved to San Francisco, because at that time there was just nothing in the way of a contemporary music or experimental music scene in Boulder. So I moved to San Francisco and there was this incredibly fertile music scene here, and performance art, and all kinds of experimental, interdisciplinary stuff. That was 1984. That is when I took root and really figured out what it was I was up to, you know? And I went from there.
RW: What area do you live in in San Francisco?
PZ: Do you know the city?
PZ: I live in the northeast Mission. So if you know the Mission District, it’s kind of on the edge of the Mission. I live in an artists’ building. I live in a warehouse, basically, in what was once the industrial section of town, but is now totally gentrified and… [Laughs]
RW: Right. Coffee shops.
PZ: Yeah, exactly. Very much.
RW: Bacon doughnuts. [Laughter] What was it like when you moved there?
PZ: When I moved here it was kind of an amazing scene. Mid-’80s, all of the famous punk-rock clubs like Mabuhay Gardens and the CW Saloon and all those were still going strong. And there were all these art venues that were, like, really interesting performance galleries. There used to be this big space called Club Nine and they had people like Diamanda Galás—
PZ: —[who] would play there all the time, and so I used to play there. There were just all these amazing venues. Some of them were art galleries that had new music series. Famously, there was one called New Langton Arts, which was a wonderful place. There was the Lab, and many other venues like that. And also just a really amazing scene of people doing all different genres of work: choreographers and filmmakers and visual artists and performance artists and composers, electronic-music people all collaborating and making these big events. So I immediately absorbed myself into that scene.
RW: And you were interested in looping at that point?
PZ: I started doing looping when I was still in Colorado. And that was part of why I needed to leave—because I had this fan base there that was used to hearing me do this kind of singer-songwriter stuff with the twelve-string guitar, and they were like, “Your voice is so pretty. Why do you want to do this weird thing?” [Laughs] So when I came to San Francisco, I was welcomed with open arms by a lot of people who were experimenting with all kinds of different things.
But interestingly enough, there really weren’t very many people doing exactly what I was doing. So it was really easy to find a niche for myself doing that and making work. When I got here, I started to develop my craft with making these works that were much less predictable, because they weren’t completely one sort of rhythmic figure that stays there for the entire song.
PZ: That being said, I started working with multiple delay lines and very long delays so that I could make things where it wasn’t so obvious that it was a loop, or where the loops are moving in and out of phase with each other and giving me multirhythmic structures and things like that.
RW: Oh, yeah, I love that. I love when that happens: independent generative phasing.
PZ: Indeed. [Laughs]
III. Burning Time
PZ: When did you start doing looping stuff with your voice?
RW: I was going to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. I had a voice teacher named Jay Clayton, and she was using a DigiTech sixteen-second delay, and that’s where I first heard someone using it in an artful way.
PZ: What was that year?
RW: That would’ve been, like, ’95, ’96? Something like that. And she was building off of phrases. I really liked it, but really when it started happening was when Line 6 came out with the DL4, in ’99. It had a loop mode on it. I started messing around with that. It sort of evolved. It was kinda the scratch pad that I’d use with my band, and so I’d be like, Oh, this kind of an idea! And I would do it through the loop and they’d jam on it, and I’d take the loop out and do the song. Then I started doing solo stuff and using that as the way to basically burn time.
PZ: That’s pretty cool. It’s funny that the first delay you had was sixty seconds, ’cause my first one was only one second! And you think at first, Oh, that’s not very much time. But actually in music you can get a lot of mileage out of even a one-second delay, which I totally did at first. And then memory was so expensive back then that it was like hundreds of dollars for a little SIM to add some seconds to your delay. [Laughs]
RW: That is hilarious. I know, it’s crazy like that, the advancement. What’s your process for creating? Are there predetermined pieces?
PZ: If I do a solo concert, they’re all through-composed little pieces, but they’re short, almost like pop-song-length pieces. Usually, like, five-to-eight-minute-long things, or four, even. Sometimes minute-long things. There are people who come to hear me play and they say, “Is that improvised?” And they hear me do another concert, and they go, “Oh, she did the same piece.” So they definitely have structures that are the same. Some of them have structured improvisation built into the structure of the piece.
So there might be a very clear pattern for eight bars. I capture these three out-of-phase loops of the sound of a five-gallon water bottle making a booming percussive sound. And then that loop continues, and then for the next eight bars I sing a melody over the top of that. And then I go into this section where I do all this wild muttering. Now, you know, the wild muttering happens for a very prescribed amount of time within the structure of that piece, but I don’t prescribe exactly how the muttering is. So the muttering might differ from one performance to another. But you see what I mean? There’s, like, a clear structure of what the actual piece is. And I combine all kinds of different vocal techniques. I sometimes sing full-voice operatic bel canto. Sometimes I sing in an airy voice; sometimes I sing in a strange, squeaky voice. So I use all kinds of different extended vocal techniques and also just normal Western singing techniques.
And I tend to use a lot of sampled sounds that I mostly trigger by using gesture-control instruments. A flick of my hand or movement of my arm will trigger samples that play. And the samples are generally samples that I’ve made that are of concrete sounds, mostly sounds of objects that I’ve recorded in my studio. And also speech. I like using fragments of speech. I’ll have sample banks that are either my own voice speaking or other people who I’ve recorded speaking, and I take fragments of their voice and trigger those within the structure of the piece. That’s how my solo work is. In recent years [I] have had a lot of commissions from chamber ensembles. A couple of years ago I made a piece for Kronos Quartet.
PZ: For those pieces I will often create what we still like to call a “tape part,” although it’s not on tape anymore, that will maybe be a text collage or something like that, and then I compose the string parts.
RW: So there’s somewhat-traditional compositions that you do.
PZ: Well, I would say it’s traditional in the fact that I’m writing for strings or winds or whatever I’m writing for, and I’m notating it, but I’m not sure it’s conventional in terms of the sound that I create.
IV. “Uncertainty is your friend.”
PZ: It’s interesting with your world. My first awareness of you was mainly as a music person, even though it was obvious that—I don’t remember what the videos were; they were YouTubes that somebody sent me—there was obviously some humor in it, and, like, a little, odd, quirky sort of leaning, but it seemed to me like basically a music thing. And then I came to know you more as somebody who would be referred to as a comedian. It’s really interesting to me—that blurry line. I think you’ve got some kind of a new Comedy Central show that’s happening?
RW: Yeah, so a friend of mine who created the show called Taskmaster, Alex Horne, and Andy Devonshire is the producer—they created the show in the UK. It became a hit there and they subsequently have other versions of the show in different markets. They pitched this offer for me to be on the show, and it’s exactly what I wanted. It’s all real-time, improvised, wacky, weird, fun, kind of high-concept stuff. It’s always a line I’m dancing.
I had an audition today—I do, like, three auditions a year, maybe—for a film, and I’m just terrible with scripts, you know? [Laughs] It’s like I’m looking at the script and going, How am I supposed to go over here? Oh no! Oh, I see. Oh, I see, you’re asking [me] to do that. Let me try again. How am I supposed to…? I’m just the worst. However, if I’m in a scene with other actors and we’re just improvising, I can do things that sound fully written. Like, fully written dialogue with a lot of introspection and thoughtfulness. If I’m allowed to improvise, and someone just gives me the context of the scene, then I can shine. But a lot of people are not as comfortable with that. So to a certain extent I have to kind of generate that idea myself. So this year I’m doing Taskmaster, which is really great; I’m doing a few more kind of sceney bits at The Late Late Show, but I’m trying to do an improvised ’90s sitcom that I’ll be live-streaming in a few weeks.
PZ: That’s great! That, I’d love to see.
RW: It’s called The Crowe’s Nest. But, you know, as a creator, as an artist, I never view myself as using one set of tools. The creative mind is capable of using any tool. And I’m interested in all of them.
PZ: My practice has sort of really expanded over the years. There was a time when somebody could have called me a musician and that would [have been] very accurate. But these days my work has just expanded into all of these different things, and so I’ve become this very hyphenated artist: the composer–performer–sound artist–installation artist: all of these different things. And sometimes my biggest influences are visual artists or experimental-theater artists or filmmakers. And then I start making video and including that in my work. So I feel the same way. You want to use whatever tools you have at your disposal. You don’t want to just stick with one set of very defined things and try to become virtuosic there, instead of expanding out and trying other things.
RW: Yeah, uncertainty is your friend.
V. “You have to learn the mistake.”
RW: What do you see moving into the future, considering things like AR, VR, AI being incorporated into various means, or just traditional bare-bones onstage stuff?
PZ: I guess I’m open to all of those things. And people think of me as being this kind of high-tech artist. For a very long time I’ve been using gesture controllers and real-time processing on my voice, projected images, manipulating the projected image and all of that. So people think of me as right on the cutting edge. I know there’s people who expect my next thing to be, like, a VR opera or something like that. I think I’d like to make a VR piece. But I really enjoy the physicality and the presence of actual physical performance, and the audience and performer being in a room together. So I don’t relish the idea of making work that has to be experienced with somebody wearing a mask on their face, you know? [Laughs]
I guess now you have the augmented reality thing, too, where you could have the people there and this additional material overlaid on top, which may or may not be interesting. At least at the point it’s at now, it strikes me that it’s more interesting conceptually than it actually is when you experience it.
RW: That’s the trick. With these modern forms of interactive technology, you really have to be careful not to use it as a gimmick, because most of the times it’s like, Well, how do we use it? Oh, I guess I’ll just do something with it because it exists.
PZ: You’re right on target with that. That’s always been my feeling. I sometimes go hear people do work, and they’re saying, “Oh, we’re using this new technology!” And you go, and the performance is like a trade-show demonstration. It’s like, Where’s the art? This is like you’re trying to sell me on this device. I’m not seeing anything actually in the work that’s worthy of the hype. I love using these things, but I see them all as instruments for making my work, and I want to always see the work itself as being the focus and not like a way of showcasing this thing.
RW: That’s exactly right. I’ll give anything a fair shot. I will try to adapt to the technology by breaking it, essentially, as much as possible. I like breaking the rules. ’Cause engineers always freak out, like, “No, that’s not how you’re [supposed to use it!]” It’s like there is no way to not use it—or to use it. Just let me do my thing and I’ll determine [how to work with it].
PZ: Some of my best work comes from happy accidents: those times when you’re trying to use a new thing [and] you don’t know what you’re doing, and the mistakes you make end up being way more interesting than the thing you were actually trying to do. And then that becomes the piece, and then you owe that to, like, your ineptitude [at] using this new thing you didn’t know how to use. That happens to me all the time. I have really interesting pieces that came out of mistakes that I made, and then you have to learn the mistake because the mistake was so much better than the boring thing you were trying to do.
RW: That’s my favorite thing. The best example of that was [when] I was doing a hangout session with—are you familiar with the cartoon Rick and Morty?
PZ: Oh! I know that name but I don’t know what it is.
RW: I’m not really a cartoon person necessarily, but this one feels like it came straight from my brain. So [I’m] a huge, huge fan of it. It’s incredible. I kinda became friends with Justin Roiland, who’s the cocreator and voice guy. We had a hangout session in AltspaceVR, which is a social VR platform. We hung out in there, and they made a custom set for us to hang out in. There were a bunch of avatars floating around watching our thing. And at the end of it, we were wearing
these perception neuron suits, which are kind of relatively cheap but fairly functional suits for body tracking, and they just use associative sensors on them. There’s no outside sensor device; it’s just all sensors that are calibrated—they’re just loops. They’re Velcro loops, one that fits around your arm, one that fits around your waist. And so by the end of it—we were supposed to be in there for about, I don’t know, maybe, like, forty-five minutes—we were in there for an hour and forty-five minutes. And we were having séances, and we were stacking our controllers on top of each other… It was just complete chaos. And then by the end of it I started taking off my perception neuron suit and crumpling it into a ball so that my avatar looked like a smushed spider. And the engineers were freaking out. They were like, “No! What are you doing?”
PZ: “That’s not how it’s used!”
RW: Like, “Don’t do that! What’s happening?” And they’re all freaking out, and, like, the server melts down. [Laughter] But that’s where the fun comes out of it. Because if it doesn’t engage people, then what’s the point?