New York Opening: The Plaza Food Hall

It’s been something of a rollercoaster these last several years for New York’s most storied hotel. But The Plaza’s unquestionable bright spot has been the Food Hall, the first phase of which was unveiled in summer 2010 as The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English. Now known as The Todd English Food Hall, the superstar chef’s section, with its widely popular Pasta Bar, remains an anchor. But now comes this impressive new expansion, which puts the totality of the offerings under the concise moniker The Plaza Food Hall.

Added to the existing culinary delights is the Tartinery French bistro, the retro Americana style Billy’s Bakery, the heavenly FP Patisserie by Francois Payard, as well as Kusmi Tea, Lady M cakes, La Maison du Chocolat, Luke’s Lobster, Pain D’Avignon, Sushi of Gari, No. 7 Sub, WIlliam Greenberg Desserts, YoArt (chic frozen yogurt!), Creperie NYC, and David Burke’s casual and cleverly named Burke in the Box. In addition to the epicurean glories, new lifestyle shops include Town and Country Living, the Plaza Boutique, and perhaps NYC’s most high-profile purveyor of petals, Gramercy Flowers. A living green wall brings a bit of nearby Central Park indoors, for those who prefer a bit of lovely with their yummy. 

What Does $700 Gin Taste Like?

Cobra-heart wine notwithstanding, gin is easily the most polarizing spirit. People either profess their love for it or claim to hate it based on some bad gin experience in the past. I always tell the latter group to give it another chance, only this time with a higher quality gin, and not drink too much of it. But if they still balk at juniper juice, there is one final recourse: get them to taste the best gin in the world. That’s what I got to do last night at the Rose Club in the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, when I met with Carl Nolet Jr. to sample the recently-released Nolet’s Reserve Dry Gin. At $700 a bottle, it’s a pricey pour, but you really can’t put a monetary value on the experience. And let me tell you, if you don’t like Nolet’s Reserve, you definitely don’t like gin. No further tasting is required. 

 
Not surprisingly, I thought it was amazing, as I tend to feel about most über-premium spirits. As Nolet explained to me, Nolet’s Reserve is the work of his dad, Carolus Nolet Sr., who devoted a good chunk of his life to crafting the finest gin around. It’s a blend of botanicals, including saffron and verbena (the rest are secret), and it’s bottled in extremely limited quantities. But fortunately, one of the fewer than 700 bottles was sitting on the bar before us, and I was able to sample it. Lucky me indeed. 
 
We tried it two ways. First, Nolet poured some into tulip-shaped tasting glasses and we sipped it neat, at room temperature. Next, he poured it into large brandy snifters and had the barman add one ice cube to each. In both cases, the aroma was intoxicating yet exhilirating, like breathing pure oxygen. As for the flavor, I know "harmony" and "balance" are overused terms (by me) in spirits coverage, but it’s drinks like this that truly define them. Yes, it’s definitely gin, but the juniper was just one of an herb’s garden worth of flavor notes, none overpowering any other, all working together to create a smooth, complex, slightly sweet spirit that lingers in the cheeks for a dog’s age. Seriously, the finish is so long, and so pleasant, that I didn’t want to drink any water to wash it away. I was happily tasting it on the subway all the way back to Brooklyn.
 
As for the serving methods, it’s a bit sharper when served neat (the Reserve has a 52.3% alcohol content) but you hardly notice the elevated strength with all the botanicals dancing around on your tongue. With an ice cube, the flavors open up a bit, as with a good scotch, yet the aroma is a bit muted. I loved it both ways but would probably sip it neat next time, because it’s definitely smooth enough to stand on its own. Don’t even think about adding tonic. 
 
This is where I would normally say that Nolet’s Reserve is available at better liquor stores nationwide, but it has an extremely limited release, with only a couple hundred very chic bars carrying it. You’ve got to ask around. But I do know that the Rose Club has it. It’s on the menu at $150 a glass – though for a mere $3 more you can get a "martini measure". It’s right there on the menu PDF, so hold them to it … and hold the vermouth.  

Plans for Expansion at the Plaza Food Hall

Hotels exist in a sphere somewhere between public and private—however intimate the activities in the rooms upstairs, their public spaces are a site of ever-increasing interaction with the neighborhood. A hotel like the Plaza Hotel, in New York, has traditionally held a strong place in public life, from hosting dignitaries to serving high tea to generations of little girls, and as we head into a new year, their latest public effort is expanding as a result of its success. The Plaza Food Hall, created in partnership with celebrity chef Todd English, has transformed the hotel’s retail corridor into a feast of culinary delights that’s drawn in thousands of visitors since its opening in 2010. We spoke with Kristen Franzese, executive vice president at the Plaza and the managing partner of the Plaza Food Hall along with English, about what’s coming next.

How did the Plaza Food Hall take over the luxury retail corridor, which was something of a mixed success?

I think we had a two-phase approach—the first piece was to expand the Todd English component, which will be the anchor to a culinary destination. It’s not that the shops didn’t work, but we’re on a remarkable shopping corridor, so it’s hard to find those that belong here that don’t already have a presence here. Then, people kept asking for more of the food hall, so we thought it would be a logical expansion to take over the whole of the second level. Think of Harrods or a similar market that showcases great New York companies and brands.

What were your criteria for selecting the vendors?

We really had to think about the aesthetic components and how we’d create a distinct footprint and we just started talking to people, purveyors and vendors that we know, and virally we just got passed along to get to over a dozen new vendors. It was a really organic process.

What are some of its unique visual design features?

Our designer Jeffrey Beers really found a balance between nodding to the Plaza’s heritage with the mosaics and unique lighting fixtures and great elegance, but updating it to look more modern. There are also specific things carried over, like the laylight in the food hall that references the laylight in the Palm Court. The Plaza to me always felt very warm, and everything will be redone with that in mind, in keeping with the current food hall.

When is the new space set to open? Is it open in the meantime?

It’s due to open spring of 2012. The current food hall is open and it’s been tremendously busy over the holidays. The traffic has been astounding. It’s a combination of the draw of the food itself, where the wait can be 40 minutes, to some of the holiday offerings—there’s a line around the corner for Santa. It’s great food in a great area near great shopping, and there’s a nice mix of visitors and local, it’s the go-to lunch place in this area.

Why open a food hall?

The food hall was always part of our company plan when we reopened the hotel. It was just a matter of developing a concept, finding a partner, and thinking about what it would mean—the price positioning, the offering. We wanted an eclectic menu, with a market component, that could be reasonably priced and not feel too precious. Todd really understood what we were trying to accomplish, and we had a very specific idea in mind of what we wanted it to look like, and we just brainstormed together. He loves European style food halls, so it was easy to envision for him.

What need does this fill for the hotel, and for the neighborhood?

The current food selection is just unique in the range of offerings and how well we execute them. There’s not a lot of places you can go if you want sushi but your girlfriend wants pizza—it’s a great casual place to hang out, business travelers can dine here alone surrounded by great energy, and you’ll see your food prepared; it’s a whole experiential offering.

Who can we look for in the spring additions?

William Greenberg, which has had the best cherry pie and black and white cookies for years; Luke’s Lobster is a really new and unique product. We didn’t want a tremendous amount of overlap. Francois Payard will be with us, he’s been at our café for the past year so he’ll take a new space, and then Lady M makes the most amazing crepe cake I’ve ever had. But we also have Sushi of Gari, which is a completely new and different component. They all collectively work together.

Big Surprise! New York Hotels Blacklisted Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen has begun to book hotels for his cross-country ‘Violent Torpedo of Truth’ tour, making his New York appearance on April 8th. His top choice for hospitality? Why The Plaza, of course. Sadly, after Sheen’s last less-than-quiet stay (he trashed the hotel room and locked an adult film star in a bathroom, to jog your memory) the Plaza isn’t rolling out the red carpets. Same goes for a slew of other New York hotel properties.

After Sheen racked up $7K in damages done to his Plaza suite last October, the iconic hotel has blacklisted him. According to Page Six, Sheen has also been banned from The Waldorf Astoria and the Trump Soho (actually, it may be safe to put all of the Trump properties on that list thanks to Sheen’s mom). It’s good to know that the whole world is not on crazy pills!

One source told Page Six, “Many of the big New York hotels don’t want the drama. He is now looking at renting a private residence.” But another dismissed this reason, claiming, “The real issue is finding him a hotel that allows smoking. He has to be able to smoke. And it’s hard to find a place that will accommodate him, plus his entourage that will be more than 30, including the lighting people and of course the goddesses.”

I’m filing those hotels under “Classy Establishments That Don’t Need a Media Circus to Stay Relevant.”

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Industry Insiders: Brad Wilson, King James

Back in September, the James New York opened in Soho. It’s hard to make a serious racket in New York’s over-saturated hospitality market, but with their rooftop bar Jimmy attracting a young, professional crowd, and the recently-opened David Burke Kitchen fast become a hub for foodies, the James is staking its claim as one of the city’s premiere hotels.

Brad Wilson is the man largely responsible for the James’ emergence, having spearheaded their first major opening in Chicago. As VP of Operations for W Hotels Worldwide, Wilson was a member of the founding team of what’s now one of the world’s largest and most popular hotel chains. He jumped ship in 2005 to join The James Hotel Group as its CEO, and is now the COO of parent company Denihan Hospitality Group. Here’s Wilson on his start in the hotel business, why he left W, and the future of the James.

What was the first job you had in hotels? I was an elevator operator in Chicago at the Drake Hotel.

Was working in the hotel industry aspirational? It was, actually. That was the year before I went to college. My mother owned a catering firm and bakery, so I kind of grew up in the kitchen, working catering jobs, leaving school and chopping carrots, then eventually serving. So I always wanted to progress, originally thinking I would go into the restaurant business. The whole events process kind of defined my life, and so my mom taught me to throw really good parties, and that’s kind of been the direction of my life since then. When I was young, I was first thinking about going into restaurants.

Where did you develop the business acumen that you obviously need in your position? I went to Cornell hotel school, so I have a Bachelors in hotel management, but I have a MBA from my mother. After I left Cornell, I actually did work at the Plaza in NYC, and was the manager of the Oak Room. After being there for a while, my mother had started a commissary bakery, baking desserts for a lot of the big restaurants in Chicago, so she asked me if I would come back and take the wholesale bakery she was working on and develop a retail line of bakeries for that. So after a couple years at the Plaza, I left and went to Chicago to open this new business, which was a chain of retail bakeries. We did everything from really great brownies to cookies, and the world’s most amazing cinnamon rolls and coffee cake. It was my job to go out and find a location, hire an architect to design and build it, staff it, open it, develop the delivery systems, the accounting systems, and all this stuff to just build the business. So I jokingly say I got my MBA from my mom, because she gave me this truly entrepreneurial opportunity. It’s a very small microbe of what I do today. Today we find locations, we build hotels, we design them, create them, and open them. A lot of what I do is not that far off from what I did before, but just on a much larger scale.

What mark did you leave on the W that we can still see today? I’m the guy that actually coined the phrase, “Whatever, whenever.” So I guess that’s a big one, because they overuse that today. Back then, I was proud of it.

During what stage of W’s evolution did you get on board? I was one of the first people hired for W. I think there was one woman, Diane Briskin, that did the marketing, that was hired before me. I came in right after her to develop the operations side of the branch for our first opening, which was the W New York on Lexington. I was there before it was called W, when it was called Urban Eclectic Group. image The lobby at the James.

Were you involved in the birth of the James or did you come in when it already existed? I guess I was pre-birth. I came in shortly after the first James opened in Scottsdale. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the James Scottsdale, but it was kind of this fun-in-the-sun little resort, not so much the James you think of today. The guys that had partnered to do that hotel — which was Danny Errico, the founder of Equinox gym, and Steve Hansen, the owner of Be Our Guest restaurant — opened that hotel, and then turned to me. I had worked with Steve when he had done some restaurants for us at W, so we were all friends, and they really wanted to get into the hotel business and create a company, so I came in to build a hotel company out of this initial hotel project.

The staff at your New York location is stunningly nice. We believe that nice starts at the top, and in turn we try and really build a nice culture. We use a term around our office, “Classic hospitality,” which at a boutique hotel seems kind of odd to say. We really try and come back to the ideas of a guest-centric focus. It’s nice to be well-designed and all that, but in the end it’s nice to be well-designed for the guest. We really try and focus on that and we really feel that if you’re in the hospitality business and you start with nice, hire nice, be nice, nice will come out to the customer. Every comment I get is like, “Your people are so nice!” We get it all the time from Chicago, and everyone was saying it’s because you’re in Chicago and it’s the Midwest, and that you won’t be able to do it in New York, but we do.

Were you worried about opening another hotel in an already crowded New York Market? How will you distinguish yourself? We’re going to define ourselves by quality. A lot of hotels go through whatever their trick is of the moment, whether it’s the shark in the lobby or whatever. But if you build it on quality design, not just trendy design, but quality design — our top designers are really rooted in classic modernism, and you’ll find we’re going all the way back into mid-century hand-craft that you’ve seen in Frank Lloyd Wright — not on things that are flashy and unique, a true sense of elegance that’s a little more sophisticated will emerge. It’s more subtle than a lot of our boutique competitors. Hanging out in our lobby is not quite so showy.

The lobby in New York is incredibly welcoming and homey. It’s kind of interesting, because when I was at W, we did a lot of the “wows,” and we had this flaming bar and all that kind of stuff. One of the things I saw a lot of earlier in my career, as far as boutique hotels go, is that people don’t actually want to come to their hotel and have people in their face with martinis and that kind of stuff. Sometimes you just want to be a little intimate and have a quite moment. We have those opportunities, where you can retreat.

Can you talk about the future of the James? One of the reasons I left W was because I thought it was becoming too big to be kept into a consistent model. So big is not necessarily our goal. I do think we can be in several cities, and we certainly want to be in LA and Miami, and then after that, San Fran or Seattle, Boston, Washington…

Do you view W as competition? Not really. I can see us competing with Morgans to a certain extent. We do independent luxury and it’s a slightly different niche than the W — the customer is a little bit different, and they might even reject the idea of W being too much of a chain.

The Full Fashion Report: Thakoon, Wang, Mandy Coon, & More

Only during Fashion Week do you see industry folk bright-eyed and dressed to the nines on sub-zero, it’s-so-early-it’s-still-dark-out weekend mornings — all in spite of hard-partying the night before. You can catch them dashing like trained athletes between shows at Lincoln Center, Milk Studios, and various other obscure venues for hours on end, fueled by copious amounts of caffeinated beverages (sometimes spiked – I mean, who’s really that chipper in the am?).

It’s all for good reason, though, since some of the most hotly anticipated FW11 collections showed on Saturday and Sunday, like Alex Wang (see the show recap here) and Thakoon. But in case you couldn’t bear to give up your sacred R&R for 48 hours of fashionable mayhem, me and my fleece-lined tights (they’re lifesavers, trust me) were there to brave all the shows, parties, and eerie doll encounters for you.

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Rachel Antonoff Stages the High School Dance We Always Wanted When someone invites you to a party that’s meant to remind you of being a teenager, your first instinct might be to cringe. Admittedly, I winced a few times before RSVPing, but only because I was jealous of the girls that have Rachel Antonoff in their lives to make them look way cooler in high school than I ever did. But unlike the lunch table-isolating mean girls from yesteryear, the designer filled her presentation in the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School gym with happy, cool kids that just really like to dance. And she covered every last detail to make it as authentic as possible, from puppy love slow dancers (inspired by a still from Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides), to shy students observing from the bleachers, to a live chick band – all dressed in Antonoff’s whimsy-prep collection. This has to be one of my favorite themes for a presentation yet.

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Alexa Chung (who’s good friends with the designer) and two adorable looks from the collection.

The band couldn’t have been a better fit for Antonoff’s retro theme: The Like. The ’60s-inspired pop band, who performed playful tunes that got even the most straight-faced editors tapping their feet, includes the designer’s friend and the face of her recent footwear collab with Bass, Tennessee Williams. Here’s a moment I really liked:

Mandy Coon Dresses the Futuristic Globetrotter Next up was Mandy Coon at Lincoln Center. It was a looping presentation like last year, so new guests were able to see the complete collection at various times. And each time, French singer and composer Émilie Simon was behind the piano, performing the same beautifully haunting song, causing me to stick around for a few encores. Just as captivating were Coon’s highly-structural designs, which reminded me of some kind of nouveau crusader, complete with outerwear for the sequel to Blade Runner that I really wish was happening.

image A corseted leather tank, a jacket for the hard-edged Eskimo, and a tie-dye-to-die-for maxi dress.

image As proven by last season’s vivid splashes of print, Coon has an eye for introducing color in creative ways. Here, she adds a burst of unexpected hot pink to an otherwise muted color palette – a major theme for FW11.

Charlotte Ronson Throws it Back Again No one does recent retro like Charlotte Ronson. Last season was straight out of an episode of My So-Called Life, and this season edges into the same ’90s territory, but with a dash of inspiration from the ’60s. In addition to flowers, plaid, and holey tights (sometimes found all in one look), the designer introduced a collection of oversized angora knits that would blend right in at any vintage store. Another throwback I was delighted to see was Irina Lazareanu’s return to the runway for two looks, even linking arms with Ronson’s half-sister and nightlife fixture, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, during the end parade. The designer again commissioned her twin sister, Samantha, to direct the music for the show, which started with a tune by Adele.

image Irina’s finale look—and I spy a Man Repeller!

Belve and Baubles with Bijules Although I was spent by the end of Saturday, I couldn’t miss BlackBook friend and fierce jewelry designer Jules Kim’s presentation at Gramercy Park Hotel. Her latest line of fine jewelry pieces, called “The Seize Kind,” were circulated throughout the event (more party atmosphere than presentation) on silver platters held by suited men. From single ear pieces to edgy-elegant pendants, designer Jules Kim delivered another collection of covetable accessories. Combined with an open Belvedere Vodka bar and a packed after-after-party at Rose Bar downstairs, I couldn’t think of a better way to unwind after a marathon day of shows.

image Kim and some of her designs.

Art Imitating Life at VPL Sunday morning started with a trip to Chelsea Piers to see the always innovative Victoria Bartlett’s latest effort. The collection was inspired both by progressive artists Piero Manzoni and Joseph Beuys, and by the human form, evident in her stretch-and-constrict designs that shift with the body’s motion. For fall, the VPL girl is wearing layers upon layers, wrapped in a plethora of textures in a range of neutrals and well-chosen hues like vivid orange and bordeaux. As each look came down the runway, myself and everyone around me was quite and focused—as if we really were at a sculpture exhibit. We all started to clap as the music faded and the lights dimmed out, until suddenly the loud beat returned, the room went bright, and out walked an army of latex-clad models in classic VPL cutout bathing suits, culminating with a primitive finale piece that was a nod to her interest in evolution.

image Layers, suspension, latex, and a furry close to VPL.

Timeless Thakoon at the Historic Plaza Although Sunday night was jam-packed with NYFW events all over the city, there’s no doubt that Thakoon was not to be missed. As I entered The Plaza Hotel for the show, I felt the history within those walls. After all, it’s one of two hotels considered a National Historic Landmark (the other is Waldorf-Astoria), and it’s where The Beatles stayed during their first visit to the U.S. As a designer with a deep respect for the past, it makes sense that Thakoon Panichgul would select such a venue for his show, which drew an equally historic crowd of fashion influencers, there to witness Panichgul’s designs.

image This collection felt very Baroque for its more regal details, but also had a cultural feel, especially with this yellow bustle skirt in an eye-popping floral batik print.

image There was also some heavy pattern-clashing, mixing stripes with plaid or paisley printed separates—or even more stripes. Cigarette pants were also a big focus for him, which just might be the next pant style designers will start experimenting with.

image And then there were Thakoon’s signature ultra-feminine dresses, like this delicately innovative silk taffeta tie-waist style.

Katie Gallagher Designs Life-Sized Voodoo Dolls Katie Gallagher has been a designer to watch for quite some time, due to her limitless creativity and no-boundaries design approach. Held at Milk Studios, her latest collection is called “Gris-Gris,” after the tiny doll charms meant to ward off evil in Voodoo culture. And her models definitely looked the part. In haunting eye makeup and witch-like hair, the mood was dark and a little scary, though the actual designs were beautiful. Gallagher’s signature leggings were back, sliced and diced in various styles in shades of grey, black, and nude, with an expected pop of color—another example of the season’s trend. I can only describe the collection, with its capes, cloaks, and tunics in moveable fabrics, as sporty witchwear.

image The voodoo dolls in action, which most guests were too afraid to look in the eyes.

Ken Doll’s Great Dream Date Debate My second encounter with life-sized dolls occurred at Christie’s auction house, which was quite a contrast from the doll situation earlier. In an event hosted by Mattel, Ken’s “Dream Date” party was part of the big PR push the brand’s been focused on as of late, themed around Ken’s desperate attempt to win Barbie back by reviving his wardrobe. All I can say is: It’s about freakin’ time, Ken! I mean, have you even seen the range of looks Barbie attempts while you’ve been wearing those same damn Hawaiian print board shorts? Believe it or not, the event drew a massive crowd of supporters thoroughly concerned with Ken’s heartfelt dilemma—or they just really liked the idea of Christie’s, free drinks, cupcakes, and music by Paul Sevigny. Either way, it was a perfect ending to my fantastic two-day NYFW bender.

image Designers like Billy Reid, Nicholas K, and Simon Spurr were commissioned to dress the new Ken doll for his big night.

image Ken can learn a thing or two from the always-dapper DJ Paul Sevigny. When in doubt, just throw on a suit and dance.

Betsey Johnson Designs “Eloise” Suite at the Plaza

Betsey Johnson, known internationally as a fashion designer, has beefed up her resume. She recently collaborated with the Plaza hotel in New York City to design the brand-new Eloise Suite, which was unveiled last Thursday. If you don’t know—and if you’re Generation XYish, you most likely won’t—Eloise is a precocious six-year-old, a fictional character who lives inside the Plaza. Her eponymous book made her the mascot of the hotel back in 1955. Since Eloise is a whimsical, curious, outspoken girl, Betsey Johnson couldn’t have been a better choice to custom design the suite.

“‘I absolutely loooove The Plaza!’ as Eloise would say,” says Johnson. “Now I hope she says, ‘I absolutely loooove my new room decorated by Betsey Johnson! She’s so pink, so fun…neon, and stripes, and flowers, and yipes!!! …petticoats, princess crowns, and even pink chandeliers! Ahhhh…absolutely home-sweet-home.” On the 18th floor (where Eloise the character lived), the two-bedroom suite is rendered in an Eloise-approved palette of pink and black, and a signature Plaza chandelier fitted with pink bulbs casts a rosy glow. Candy cane-striped wall panels are outlined with gold-leaf molding, and two chairs are upholstered in Johnson’s signature rosebud prints. Rates for the Eloise Suite start at $995 per night and include a monogrammed Eloise bathrobe and $100 gift card.

How to Get a Free Night in NYC’s Top Hotels

NYC & Company, the official marketing, tourism and partnership organization for the City of New York, has partnered up with 16 Signature Collection hotels that really want you to visit the Big Apple in high style. When you book two consecutive nights at one of the partner hotels—which ranks as some of the best in the city—you get a third night free.

This type of sale isn’t new. We’ve seen it with almost every global hotel brand, but they were struggling at the height of the recession. But these hotels are brimming at capacity during high season as it is, so getting the free night is a major bonus, considering they don’t really need to bend over backwards to fill house. We’re talking major luxury options:Mandarin Oriental, Rosewood’s The Carlyle, The Plaza, Ritz Carlton and several others with a similar pedigree. What else makes this promotion so glorious? Consider that just one night at the Ritz Carlton runs approximately $600 per night. Then again, if you’re rolling high enough to spend two nights at the Ritz-Carlton, a third night free is kind of an insult.

Canadian Troubadour Patrick Watson Embarks on His Biggest U.S. Tour

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.