Canadian troubadour Patrick Watson is a world-weary traveler. The title of last year’s excellent album, Wooden Arms, was even inspired by a forest he visited in Eastern Europe while on tour with the band Cinematic Orchestra (Wooden Arms is also the name of his backing band, but as for why the naming happened after four years of being eponymous, Watson explains as: “We’re not very good at naming things.”) So with all this traveling it’s a bit of a mystery why the Polaris prize-winning artist isn’t more known Stateside. Well, maybe it’s because you don’t know what the Polaris prize is (a prestigious music prize in Canada that comes with $20,000 cash money). Or maybe because his layered, cinematic pop isn’t easily categorized into a genre that gets radio airplay, unless you count NPR. Or maybe because after playing in bands since high school, this month’s 11 dates will be the longest he’s headlined in the U.S. We spoke to Watson about his experiences touring, using crazy instruments on stage, and unintentionally making people cry at his shows.
I’ve seen you play the Plaza Hotel in New York and Mercury Lounge at CMJ last year, where you waded into the crowd. Has there ever been a venue that you didn’t fee comfortable in?l [Laughs] The only place I wouldn’t go into the crowd, maybe out of fear, would be England. That’s about it. They’re a pretty rowdy bunch.
What differences do you notice touring Europe and here? Differences in audiences and different types of lifestyle too, you know. They’re both fun, they’re just very different. Obviously for a band when you tour Europe, you get spoiled. You get really nice bottles of wine. There’s that little line of difference. At the same time America is fun to travel on the road because of its car culture. So when you drive through America and you see these weird tings, like the biggest doughnut and ridiculous things like that.
You use some rather unconventional instruments, like bicycles tires, when creating your sound. What’s the most unusual instrument you’ve used? Maybe a wind machine?
Is it that you try a whole bunch of different things and it sounds cool, or do you look at, say, a jack-in-the-box and say “that’s gonna sound cool, I’m gonna use that.” It depends on the thing. But one of the reasons we approached this album that way was because we started playing live a lot after [previous album] Closer to Paradise. And Closer To Paradise had loads of post-production effects. In the live context it’s pretty boring, so we were trying to figure out a way of bringing the rich sounds of post-production to the stage in a way that you can play it live so it was interesting-sounding rather than playing samples. So it had to be made by hand. And when we started doing that approach, that’s when we kind of got the knack for doing different things and building up percussions and different sounds. It’s nice because then you get to the stage and sounds as rich as an album but it’s still live.
You were trained classically but your first band was a ska band. How did that happen? Well, that’s like, how did your first boyfriend happen. You’re not that picky at that are, are you? I was a young guy from a small town and my friend was playing in a band and they lost a keyboard player and they asked do you wanna play keyboard and I was like sure. I wasn’t really a big kind of fan—I didn’t even know what ska was at that point. And even back then I didn’t consider the idea of playing in a band. I thought I’d be more of a writer or a composer than playing in a band so even when we started this [Patrick Watson and the Wooden Arms] project we really started making soundtracks for visuals. It kind of became a band when people started coming to the shows all the time and then we started playing without visuals a bit more and then it turned into a band because of that.
Your music has an intense quality. Has anyone ever cried at one of your shows? People tell me they do. I don’t really know. It’s strange because it’s not really that type of music to me—it’s not sad music to me. When I write the music it gets me excited and gets my imagination going. I kind of like making food for the imagination. I like telling strange stories and bringing it into fun spaces, that’s more my goal.
Okay, I want to wrap this up so you can get packing, but I want to get back to your high school ska band. And then we’ll talk about your first boyfriend, and we’ll all have fun. Was he a nice guy? Why’d you pick him?
Oh, he was great, thanks. But you guys were called Gangster Politics. What were your gangster politics? Oh, Jesus. We were like 16 or 17 years old, for crying out loud. It’s a good name, though. They were like 14 or 15 when they named that band. I don’t know if they necessarily had gangster politics but they were a really good band, though. The bass player now is one of the top jazz bass players in Montreal. It wasn’t really a ska band, if you listen to it. It’s much more of a jazz-orientated ska band. It wasn’t like Madness or something like that. It was pretty fancy-pants a bit, I’m not gonna lie.
Are you working on anything right now? I’m kind of want to do some singles, because I’ve never done that before. Rather than putting a whole album together just releasing one song or three songs at a time as little EPs. I’m releasing one soon for the first time on iTunes to see how it works. And then if that works I want to start doing little mini-albums. Because if you do a full album you have to make all the songs work together. So sometimes you have to hold back songs to make it all work together.