Reggie Watts will defragment your brain.

I had the privilege of talking to the artist-extraordinaire and all-around great dude Reggie Watts before his mind-altering set at the 2012 installment of Rifflandia. We didn't have a lot of time on the phone together but we still managed to cover audience expectations, Comedy Bang! Bang! and the mighty Doob. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it. Long live art! Long live Reggie!

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Rags Music: Hey Reggie, you’re on the East Coast, right?

Reggie Watts: Yeah, that’s right.

RM: Well, good afternoon to you.

RW: Good afternoon to…not you.

RM: My first question, before we really get into anything…Do you ever get the urge to just chop your hair off?

RW: I don’t know. Sometimes. It’s usually overridden.

RM:  So it’s just a fleeting thought?

RW: Yeah, exactly.

RM: I know when I had long hair it came across my mind often and now that I don’t have long hair I don’t miss it.

RW: I’ve done it before, many, many years ago and it definitely has a nice simplified feeling, for sure. But when you headbang there’s just nothing going on.

RM: So where does music start for you? Where was your introduction to music?

RW: My parents were definitely the ones. The listened to a lot of records, they loved music. They listened to a lot of soul and R&B and French music. They always loved music. So it was my parents.

RM: And how about comedy?

RW: Comedy was just something I saw on TV and movies, radio shows, things of that nature. Just goofing around with friends on the playground, being dumb and silly. Doing things to get girls’ attention.

RM: Was your mouth the first instrument?

RW: I guess so. The first instrument I really studied though was piano at age 5. I probably was singing and things like that. I don’t really remember. My mom would probably think different.

RM: When you did you start getting into sound mutator machines, delays and things like that?

RW: That came about at about ’98 or something like that. I was working with tape delays and they were like, like the first one I started using was a Roland Space Echo that’s not quite a looper, it’s more like a delay pedal. The notion of affecting my voice came from seeing other vocalists, mimicking other vocalists like my jazz teacher Jay Clayton used to use a Digitech 16 second delay that had a kind of looping function on it. And I had some friends that used Boomerangs and Jambands and things like that, so I’d seen people using things of that nature. I was using mostly delays and distortions and stuff like that. But in 1998 I got the Line-6 to replace the Space Echo because the Space Echo is too finicky of a machine. And then I started using that and discovered the looping function and it just kind of evolved from there.

RM: Was there anything specific about the sound that really drove you to it or was it just a natural thing for you?

RW: The first thing was that it sounded psycho. Space Echo and like all the analogue artifacts that had a delay and then the loop function was something I slowly started messing with mainly to get ideas across to the band I was working with. So I would sketch things out rhythmically. I’d always done mouth noises and things of that nature but having the looping power enabled me to actually create structures, ideas and grooves and things like that. It grew really quickly and I could just convey it to the band and they could do their thing with it. That’s kind of how that started.

RM: As you get more recognition and you get bigger audience do you find you still run across crowds that seem to fight back against what you’re doing or is everyone open and accepting? You’re not doing the most straight ahead stuff, it’s often quite challenging.

RW: It depends on the situation. I just did a gig a few nights ago opening for Quicksand, the New York hardcore group from the 1990s, my friend Sergio was playing bass, he plays bass for the Deftones. So I did this show in front of all these hardcore fans in New York. For the most part it went pretty well but there was definitely a few “Get off the fucking stage”-s or “You suck!”, those types of things. But because I get to talk and bands don’t usually talk much, I just did a song and talked about all the things were people were saying on stage. People were laughing and clapping along. It was pretty interesting. But yeah, it happens. It depends on the context. You try to read the room and see how much patience people have. Sometime it’s just quiet out there.

RM: Your sets, are they completely improvised or do you go up with a skeletal idea and build around that?

RW: It’s pretty much all fully improvised. I don’t really think of anything before I go on stage.

RM: Awesome, that sounds like a nice, pure way to do it. When you go up there are you purposely trying to fragment the audience’s brain? Because listening to your stuff it takes the brain in so many directions at once. Is it just the natural result of what you do or something you set out to do?

RW: I like it when audiences are confused and it’s funny you used the word ‘fragment’ because in a way it’s kind of like defragging my audience, similar to a hard drive. Hard drives just get all this memory overwritten and shadowfiles and all these different things and you’ve got to defrag to get the hard drive in line again and that’s kind of what I like to do for my audience, just kind of defrag the expectations and the experience they get and try to stay enough of ahead of them, not everybody, but I’m hoping generally people give up trying to figure stuff out and just enjoy the moment.

RM: Do you find people, fans, entertainment entities, trying to force you to stay in one lane or the other or do they pretty much let you do your own thing?

RW: Luckily at this point they really let me do my own thing. It’s been long enough, I’ve stayed the course long enough, I think audiences just think “He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do and I’m cool with that.” There’s definitely still going to be people that are coming for the first time that are going to get to experience this weird show, but most of the people around them know what’s happening. Also, it’s just the result of, the biggest after effects or side effects of what I’m doing onstage can kind of inform people on how to see the show in a way.

RM: Obviously there have been a lot of internet videos that you’ve done that have gone…I don’t like using the word ‘viral’…but that have spread themselves around, but now what’s it like working in such a visually intensive medium like TV with Comedy Bang! Bang!? Has it changed anyway you approach performance? Is It something you’d like to more of, the visual aspect?

RW: I definitely want to do more video and more acting and directing or at least co-directing. That’s something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve done theatre and I’ve done a few different videos but I’d like to more video work, short film work, based on the ideas I have.

RM: I’m sure there’s no end to those ideas, you seem to be full of those. How has the experience been with Comedy Bang! Bang!? Are there any drawbacks you didn’t expect?

RW: It’s an incredible crew of people running that thing and I’ve known a few of them for awhile. Leo Allen’s one of the writers and I’ve known him I first saw him doing things as Slovin and Allen with Derek Slovin. He was there, Scott Aukerman I’ve known for awhile just going to LA and doing shows at UCB theatre and helping with theme songs and being a guest on his show. Everyone else they’re all just friends, Tim and Eric, Freelancers, just getting together to be part of this crew. They’re all just really amazing people. I’ve never shot a TV show before but I[‘m pretty sure it’s rare to have that kind of level of just unified awesome crew. And of course the guests were off the chain too, so I got to experience and hang out with and act a little bit with some of the greatest improvisers of our time.

RM: Some of those ‘Reggie Makes Music’ clips are priceless. I could watch them over and over again. I HAVE watched some of them over and over again.

RW: Hold on one moment please…(30 seconds later Reggie comes back on the phone) Hello. That’s another interview…I got time for another question, is that cool?

RM: Something I’ve been curious about because it does seem to come up somewhat frequently…How does doobage help in the artistic process, if it does at all?

RW: The doob? <laughs> I usually ingest it, cookies are my preferred method because I like to trip out and save my voice. It helps because it gets me into my zone a little bit differently. It’s also a little bit challenging to create when you’re really high. I kind of think of it like when you see athletes dragging a weight behind them or wearing baggy clothes and running through a swimming pool, the resistance that it gives you, you’re purposely making it hard on you for training purposes. In a way it’s very similar to that when you’re onstage and you’re really high, you have to really focus and really commit to doing something good because you’re live in front of an audience and you need to still maintain a respect for your audience and respect for your creativity. In a way it helps in that, it makes me work a little bit harder to maintain that focus. The good thing is once I find that zone it’s also incredibly freeing and it doesn’t allow you to delve into too many repetitive things. It actually kind of opens up your experimental side which at times is great. I don’t do it every time but certainly like 60% of the time.

RM: Can I just get a quick word of wisdom for our readers?

RW: Sure. Never treat two fonts the same unless you know that one of them is slightly different.

Photo from Rifflandia 5 by Blake Morneau.

Photo from Rifflandia 5 by Blake Morneau.