Patrick Watson, the man and the eponymous band, won a Polaris Prize for 2006's long player, Close to Paradise. Furthering the quartet's sound, freshly minted follow-up, Wooden Arms, brims with subtle beauty, opaque instrumentation, and sonic enchantments. Strolling into folk science fiction territory - it's a genre - via a quasi-dungeon, Dollywood, and the People's Republic of China, the record craftily piles on layers. Prior to heading out on a mammoth tour, the band's front-man and namesake chatted with Exclaim! about storytelling, shots in the dark, and a luminary country songbird.
It's spring. The record's coming out.
Our windows are open, finally. Our place smells like a dungeon, so it's good news. I hope the smell goes away pretty soon. I'm excited about that.
Incidentally, Wooden Arms references nature throughout. Were you spending time in the woods? Reading the Romantic poets?
We wanted to have more of folk aspect to it. We kind of wanted to make a science fiction folk record. I guess, in that way, I think that stuff comes out naturally. I always grew up in the woods, though. Every album kind of has that feel to it at some point.
How do you go about constructing a science fiction folk record?
We wanted to make it pretty acoustic. We wanted to stay away from rock on this record. We listened to a lot of Gillian Welch to Dolly Parton to god knows what. We're pretty big country fans and folk fans. We wanted to bring in that element and we wanted to do it in our own way. And I was watching a lot of Twilight Zones at that turning point when we started thinking about that. And a lot of times the Twilight Zones were not always weird episodes. Sometimes they were just really kind of simple stories that just had this unusual twist. I found a lot of country music I like was that, like "Big Bad John," so I tried to take those two extremes and find a meeting point when I was thinking about bringing out the colour of the record. Does that make any sense?
Yeah, that makes sense. A Twilight Zone tells a story. How important is it that the songs tell a story?
Sometimes songs like "Traveling Salesman," I think, should. I don't know if it's necessarily just a story, but it paints a picture of a scene or a situation, almost like a photograph. I want people to get that photograph so I do my best. You know, people like Johnny Cash, for example, are really good storytellers. I don't think I'm as good of a singer or a songwriter to be able to tell stories that are that literal. I think it's half way. I think you get the idea of a story and I think you start making up your own story while you listen to it more than necessarily a super-literal story, except for maybe "Big Bird in a Small Cage." I think that's about the only one I really succeeded in doing that.
You wrote "Big Bird..." for Dolly Parton.
Yeah, I wrote it for her to sing... it was kind of a shot in the dark, but it would have been great. We traveled in the South last tour and we were quite touched by the Deep South. It's a pretty strange place. Part of the lyrics happen in New Orleans; there's something in the air down there. It's funny, one night I was at my friend's place and he was playing some music, country music, and I was like, "who's this singer?" He's like, "It's Dolly Parton." I never knew Dolly Parton could really sing. I always had the image of her being this kind of Barbie Doll with big boobs, that kind of thing. I never really listened to her as a singer, not as an entertainer, and she blew my mind. She's an amazing songbird, so it makes sense for the song, too... I am not making any sense in interviews today.
Nah, you're fine. Did you call her?
Like, "hey, Dolly, how are you? You don't know me..." I tried to do an old school, letter type thing. I had some good lines in there, with a nice stamp on it, nice old handwriting. I tried all the stops. I don't think it worked.
She didn't send you a signed picture or anything?
Well, I met her once in Nashville at one point, or not Nashville but in Dollywood, actually. It was in a weird context and it was impossible to talk about doing anything. I don't know if she actually got [the letter]. I think if she really got it she would have written back even just to say "no." She seems like she's that type of person. Whenever you're dealing with a situation like that you just take shots in the dark and hope for the best.
Do the shots in the dark ever work out?
No, I don't think it's ever really worked out. Usually, anything ridiculous, like touring with James Brown, happens by accident. I think it's worth trying to do it every once in awhile. Taking shots is a humbling experience. It's a funny thing to do.
The last record took years to come together. Did this one happen faster?
Well, we were on the road for three years straight and we did it in about six months.
How important is self-producing?
The sound man said, "I don't think a producer would come within ten feet of you guys." I think we have enough ideas and people to worry about without having another one.
It has a wealth of instrumentation and disparate sounds. Was it difficult to make it flow together?
I didn't think about it too much when we were writing off the top because we were having so much fun finding each song having a strong personality. I think the pacing was pretty difficult. It took me like a week and a half to pace it. I sat around with my girlfriend and we tried about 25 different pacings. We just looked for the pacing that made the songs shine the most... I still don't think we ever found the right place for "Where the Wild Things Are;" that's like the odd sheep on the album for me. For my version, actually, I don't know if it would have made the album, but we just took a giant vote and it ended up on the album.
You're not going to put out a director's cut?
I think the vinyl pacing's the best. It's without "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Big Bird..." and "Traveling Salesman" are reversed and, plus, when you turn the vinyl over you have that "errrRRRR" sound that I find kind of amusing.
"Beijing" uses atypical percussion while the lyrics talk about the sound of the city. Is the instrumentation a way to complement the lyrics?
Usually orchestration has a lot to do with that. We take the lyrics and try to look at it like we're making a movie; we're building a set behind the story. Whenever we want to use strange orchestration it's a way of making it not sound heady. It's not just there for the sake of being there; it helps tell a story. We're usually pretty strict about that or else... it doesn't sound like it's coming from the heart.
Aside from giving you some cash, what effect did the Polaris have on the record?
It helps the band out, but it doesn't change our artistic endeavours in anyway.
No added pressure?
No, I think we have enough pressure by ourselves. Even before we won the Polaris, the band didn't feel like Close to Paradise met where they wanted to go artistically, in some ways. I mean, we had enough pressure on ourselves to make a good record without anything to add to it.
Do you feel the same about this record?
I think you do well as a band and, for ourselves, we felt, let's put out a really amazing record. Let's put out something that blows our minds. This band's really hard on itself. We don't flatter ourselves at all. As soon as there's something wrong or people think we're repeating ourselves we're pretty much on each other's cases more than anybody else ever could be. It would be pretty difficult to compete with that.