Inside With: Reggie Watts

It’s difficult to pin down Reggie Watts, literally and figuratively. The extremely busy 35-year-old performer manages to squeeze acting, impersonation, social satire, improv, dance, rap, singing, and storytelling into his ferocious live act. Constantly on the bill somewhere in the city (like UCBT, Comix, and Rififi) and currently touring nationally, Watts, the former frontman of jazz groups Maktub and Soulive, is a consummate performer whose original approach to comedy has garnered a cult. We spoke to Reggie after his performance at “It Is It” at Pianos.

Where did you grow up before moving to Seattle?

I was born in Germany. We traveled around Europe because my dad was in the air force. When I was four, we moved to Montana. I grew up there until age eighteen. Then I moved to Seattle for a longass time. And I came to New York last year.

When you went to Seattle, was that with the intention of becoming a musician?

I guess so. I mean, I’d been a musician. I’ve been studying music since I was a little kid. I was in the school orchestra playing violin. Then I was in a rock band in high school and I decided to move to Seattle because there was a great music scene going on and I’d just heard about Soundgarden… so I moved there for that.

You describe the current format with which you’ve found recent success as “disinformation.” Can you explain what that is?

Sure. I started calling myself a “disinformationist” because I was kind of inspired by situationism, which was studied by a French guy called Guy Debord in the fifties or sixties, if I’m not mistaken. It was this artistic movement that turned quasi-political, but their whole thing was, in a nutshell, that they were practical jokers. Their whole mission was to provoke to the edge of violence, but just before violence occurred. So I kind of became obsessed with that, and I was a joker all my life. When I go up on stage, it’s really [that] I’m just telling a lot of tricks – some of it is true, some of it isn’t true. I like, in the end, for the audience to be confused. So when I think of it that way, I think of it as “disinformationist” because it’s not just lies – it’s lies mixed with truths and all the shades in between. I like that aspect of it.

Your sets, though, usually follow a pattern of dialogue or narration followed by song, and they’re always interwoven beautifully. How much is improvised?

Some stories are loosely structured. Sometimes I’ll make a joke about racism, sometimes I’ll make a joke about my grandfather… But even with those, I’m improvising. So, yes, most of it is improvised. Usually if it’s a ten-minute set, I’ll do the whole thing improvised. If it’s a longer set, I’ll try to bring up subjects, like stories that I’ve kind of told before. And I’ll play with them, as well. So, yeah, it’s mostly improvised.

Reggie Watts: Out Of Control from Jakob Lodwick

Have you always found yourself naturally inclined at putting on accents?

Well, my mother’s French, and I think it was growing up in Europe and being exposed to all these languages and speaking French and Spanish (which was technically my first language, although I can’t speak it now). I had to learn English when I was four years old. I think it was that – growing up in a European household. I was fascinated with the BBC as a kid, and I used to imitate [the anchors all the time]. I imitated singers, I imitated sounds, I imitated anything. I was just fascinated, always trying to get as close as I could to it.

Your music is a dense format, where you’re layering vastly different sounds on top of each other – bass, hooks, beats, riffs, raps, etc. It seems like you can easily recognize aural aspects and then weave them into your act.

Definitely. I travel a lot, and when I do, I try to experience wherever I am as much as possible. So I notice the behavior of people and how they talk. I’m not doing that to look down on people or be a dick (because some people do do that), but mostly I’m just truly fascinated with people and hearing their stories and where they came from. Mostly, it’s an obsession and fascination with human beings in general. Some of what I internalize comes out and some of it doesn’t. At some gigs, a lot will come out. It really depends if I’m on the right frequency or not. It’s a stupid analogy, but it’s very similar to surfing. You’re just out there, waiting, using your experience of the sport. You can sense when that “wave” is coming, and sometimes there are small waves where you just have to keep things moving. But you know when that big wave hits – you know you’re on, and you just ride it. It’s very similar for me to skateboarding or surfing (I do neither), but going up on stage feels similar to that when I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know that it’s going to be fun.

Tell me about the machine you use to make music onstage.

The machine is called a Line Six DL4. It’s a delay modeler, so what that means is that it imitates real delays – analog delays, like those you’d have heard in songs from the sixties and seventies and eighties. But it’s also able to loop, so I can loop things but I can also use the effects of the loops – I can add to them or I can screw with it, as well. It’s a great way of creating a larger structure with very little. I first used it for my singing. I was going on tour in an avant garde chamber jazz group and there was no way I was going to take this old, 1971 Space Echo device on the road with me. And they had just come out with these Line Six delay modelers, and I was like, “Oh my God – it imitates a space echo!” So I bought it and started using it just as a delay, but as years progressed I started using the loop function to delay myself live. Then I started using it for beat boxing and layering and by the time I got into comedy, I …thought it was a cool, unique element to add.

What was the catalyst that pushed you into comedy?

I was in a band for a long time and we’d been through the ringer in regards to label interest. After ten years, I thought to myself, “I’m not getting any younger” and I needed to do something that could assure me the chance to continue on with, so I decided to just go for it, full-on.

…Which you started once you came to New York.

Yeah. I was coming to New York to rehearse with Soulive, and I just started getting into comedy nights and people didn’t think I was awful. So I was like, “I can do this, I can do this!” One thing led to another, one of my friends had a place open up, so I said, “Fuck it, I’m moving.” I put the band on hold, moved out here, and started doing comedy.

…For which you’ve already received awards.

Yes, The Malcolm Woody Oye Oye Award – that was two years ago, the summer of 2005. And this past November was when I was given the Andy Kaufman Award.

You’ve done quite well for someone who’s only been doing comedy for a relatively short period of time. You’re going on tour now, but what are your goals for the future?

In terms of goals, I really just want to do as much as I can. When I think of goals, I just think of having a system to make my stuff a reality. I have a low-budget system – I’ve got my writing partner, Tommy Smith, who’s an amazing Julliard playwright. He writes dark plays, but together we make and write short web films [for Super Deluxe and College Humor] that are… really stupid. I guess my goals are to continue performing at performing arts spaces and comedy clubs, but most importantly to amass a small media empire – really small. I don’t need it to be [Ted] Turner-sized or anything. I just want to have the tools and the means to be able to produce whatever I want.

And now the lame question: your hair is very characteristic and basically served as the cover art for Khronos [Maktub’s most recent album with Reggie as lead]. It’s your trademark, you might say. Is it intentional? Do you maintain it or just let it be?

I’ve had always had weird hair. In high school, I got into new wave and industrial music and was, like, a new-wave/goth kid, so I had shaved sides. But when I moved to Seattle, I grew a huge, huge afro. And then I decided to shave the sides again and comb my hair out to the side. And that’s what it is now.