Interview: Reggie Watts talks ‘Central Park,’ Adele, Jon Hamm and Radiohead

Reggie Watts kicked off a headlining tour this week, but it wouldn”t be fair to say that the stint is in support of one single thing.

The musician/comedian/musical comedian dropped “Reggie Watts: A Live In Central Park” on CD/DVD on Tuesday, with airings having ramped up the week before on Comedy Central. He”ll be featured in each episode of new IFC show “Comedy Bang! Bang,” which debuts on June 8 (you can get a taste of him collaborating with Jon Hamm on the theme of “Taxi” here). He”s warming up for festival season with stop-offs like Bonnaroo and Electric Forest this summer, and he”s dropped off everywhere from SF Sketchfest to Sasquatch! to Fun Fun Fun. He continues to work with Louis C.K. on his show “Louie,” writing incidental music, and made his own score to Ridley Scott’s “Legend.

The Williamsburg, Brooklyn resident opened for Conan O”Brien on his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour” last year and gained rep online through the word-of-mouth success of “Why Sh*t So Crazy?” from 2010 (featuring “F*ck Sh*t Stack”) and his CollegeHumor “Blowjobs” bit. He also held down a high-profile gig singing with LCD Soundsystem at their last show at Madison Square Garden in 2011, a performance captured in “Shut Up and Play the Hits.”

Watts is mesmerizing to watch, as he blends pre-planned comedy bits and banter with himself in with improvised music composition, beat boxing, experimental motifs and rapping. He looks like a crazy person. He can make himself sound like Chaka Khan and Fred Rogers in the same breath.  

Below, we talk about “Central Park,” Jack White, lazy pop production, All Tomorrow”s Parties and just how ugly Steely Dan are.

HitFix: So just how drunk was Jon Hamm in your “Comedy Bang! Bang!” bit?

Reggie Watts: I think he was more just like tired. Being drunk and being wiped-out have similar symptoms, y”know, minus the obvious smell of alcohol… He was commenting, riffing, just Don Draping, Draped all over that couch.

You”ve recorded numerous comedy and music albums before, but with sets like this Central Park CD/DVD in particular, it almost seems like people might miss out if they don”t actually see you. Do you feel like audiences might miss some of the visual experience if they don”t actually get the DVD? It has so much to do with your style.

I don”t know. It”s kind of like how every experience is different no matter what, as long as someone plays live and they put out recorded material there”s always that discrepancy. I think you”d still definitely get a good idea of what I do, for sure.

You”re kicking off a tour next week. And you don”t ever do the same show twice. Every show is 100% unique. So there”s kind of an audience expectation that you”re touring off of something in particular, but it”s never that thing, right?

Yeah, It”s more about the experience, I suppose. I think a lot of fans have just kind of given up on yelling out things that they want me to play. It”s not that I”m denying them, it”s just I forget what the bits are and how to do them. I think people are mostly just coming to get the experience, fortunately.

I enjoyed the “Reggie Watts Live at Third Man Records” set. Are you developing more records with them. Are you going to be working with Jack White on any certain songs?

I hope to. We”ve talked about it briefly here and there, and he”s definitely down, but he”s always got so many things going on. I never really feel like pushing him. He”s down. I think it will just line-up one day and then we”ll just do something. It”ll probably go pretty quickly and then release it. Yeah, it”s definitely in the works but at its own pace.

With Third Man, there seems to be more and more borders knocked down between what is comedy and what is music, and what is musical comedy and experimental comedy. White”s put out stuff with Conan [O”Brien], Stephen Colbert, John C. Reilly, stuff with you. And, um, Insane Clown Posse. Do you feel like there is more room for comedians and musicians to explore that space now? Do you feel like that”s new territory?

I think so. There”s a whole psychedelic-ness to doing those sorts of mixtures or combinations of things. I think that it just opens the doors to different ways of cross fading and mixing in various genres and mediums of performance skill sets in interesting ways. It doesn”t have to be forced, it can actually make sense. There have to be some periods of uncertainty because we”re just used to things being labeled really well. It”s nice when you”re unable to label things, and you kind of just have to surrender to the experience.

We”re used to that categorization, the idea that pop goes under “pop,” rock goes under “rock”… your own music integrates so much of it, especially with rap, soul and dance-pop music from the radio. You show the audience how beats are built and how it”s layered. What do you think are some of the laziest production techniques in pop music today?

I always have this discussion with my musician friends. There needs to be an emphasis on musicianship and the ability to write songs and to perform them. There was always the visual element. If you look at any Steely Dan video, you”re like, “Well those guys are definitely not handsome.”

Nope. They”re not.

There are a lot of bands in the ’60s and ’70s that were just not beautiful people, women and men. But they could play their asses off and they were amazing. People just kind of accepted them. I think that now it”s all about the studio, it”s all about production. It”s mostly the producers, that the producers are the talent. The performers are kind of the interpreters. There are always exceptions, but in general it”s all about the studio.

So now when you see a band there”s not really that much excitement with them playing on stage. What”s celebrated in pop mainstream is relying on a producer to make a really dope beat and then have your voice sound really weird and affected with a bunch of Vocoder effects or auto-tune effects or whatever the effect flavor-of-the-day is. Kudos to the producer, but on an entertainment level it”s very, very lazy. Sometimes dance music is just making music to make people dance: no statement behind it. I love that, too, but if it”s a solo artist trying to present their material or some band, I don”t know. It”s just not good enough.

I think that”s part of your art, is exposing how easy it is to manipulate the voice, and how easy it is to make those ground level tweaks, to cook a beat in a moment”s notice. In a way it”s calling bullsh*t on the entertainment industry. Do you feel like that is your role?

I think it is definitely some of that, yeah, for sure. The thing is when there”s not that much competition for bands, certain people fill the talent vacuum. You get artists like Adele, incredibly talented vocalist and she co-writes great things, but she”s just really kind of more of a placeholder. She”s a throwback to an era that we missed because we don”t have that anymore. So she fills that talent void of that talent vacuum.

Another example… and they”ve been around a long time, they”ve had a huge career so it”s not totally fair to say, but… look at Radiohead. They kind of filled a vacuum after the music industry collapsed. In a way, it kind of crashed in the late ’90s and they just took it upon themselves to do what they wanted to do. They”re amazing, but at the same time there was really no one else sticking out to me.

When I started hearing more of their records, they started sounding a little samey to me. In the ’70s, there was Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, The Carpenters… There were tons and tons of bands and musicians playing and they had kind of kept each other in check. They inspired each other. Whereas now, if someone has exceptional talent, they usually are just glommed-onto and there”s only room for three of them on the radio. You know what I mean? Gotye was an underground half-Belgian half-Australian dude that wrote really great music and did a great show. Now they”re just killing him.

They just burned him to death.

Totally, because they”re not willing to take risks and they don”t see other options. So the one thing that does work they just bank on that instead of opening it up to all the other artists that are doing great things like that.

What artists do you feel like deserves more championing? I just want to make sure that we, together, ruin everything that”s good.

I really like Buke and Gass. I think that they”re phenomenal.

The guys from The National”s label, on Brassland?

Yeah. They”re amazing, they”re friends of mine and I just think that they”re total geniuses in so many ways. They make their own instruments. They create these hyper-complicated compositions with beautiful hooks. The singer is incredible and they”re both great musicians. If you put them up next to some pretty boy indie rock band, it”s really unfair. They”ll be rendered irrelevant immediately.

Maybe that”s the fear too. Maybe the industry chooses to go for more superficial easier messages because it”s easier to control in a way. Because then you can sell more crappy things in total. Then once in a while you can have your prestige artists. You know what I mean? The ones that actually have talent, because you know that they”re out there.

Then again maybe it”s not necessary for everybody to be on that massive level. Maybe it”s good the way it is, but I know that those guys can be definitely way bigger than they are, and making some good money.

Speaking of which: James Murphy. Are you going to work with him on anything else?

I hope to. It”s kind of like the Jack White situation. They”re all busy. We”ve talked about it. I would love to. I think he”s a brilliant producer. It would be a huge honor, but we”ll just have to see.

I saw you at [All Tomorrow”s Parties] last fall and you did this bit about Pat Metheny. I felt like it would have gone over the heads of people of people at, say, Bonnaroo — no offense to Bonnaroo or anything — but it was definitely nerd-specific. Do you like doing music festivals specifically so you can adapt your material and adapt your music dorkery for certain audiences?

Yeah for sure, of course. If there”s a lot of rock going on I”ll tap into my rock trivia side and talk about things like that. If it”s a more arty crowd, I”ll talk about getting art grants and grassroots advertising. It just depends on the situation. I”ll just kind of modify it depending on what it is.

Are you going to be back at ATP this year? With the whole Louis C.K. connection and all?

I would love to, but I don”t know. I haven”t heard anything but… maybe.

You should just go for fun.

Okay. I”ll go for fun, now that you said that.

Glad I could talk some sense into you.

I do appreciate some good, common sense.