Goin’ ahead

Motet drummer and chief protagonist Dave Watts dishes on the Big Wait, the creative process, the perils and seduction of recording at home, and watching the sun come up.

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We all know, this isn’t funny anymore.


Not that it ever was really funny to begin with, but the notion that live music for all intents and purposes went on hold felt, 10 months ago, a little like a time out. Touring bands caught an unexpected breather, a little time to toss out the old ketchup in the fridge and re-acquaint with the dog and get back to all the things, creative and mundane, that life on the road didn’t leave time for.

But if things still look grim, and 2021 is slow (really slow) in delivering on a promise of redemption, there’s an essential fact about the Big Wait that outlasts the shroud of pandemic gloom: Musical performance is, at its essence, an expression of positivity. The music still plays, and the crowd is still there… just not all in one place.


But perhaps the drought is lifting: The Motet just announced two socially distanced shows on April 23 and 24, at Cervantes, and the band’s drummer and founder, Dave Watts, will host an “…And Friends” gig at Mishawaka Amphitheater on April 9 and 10.


The Motet worked the road as hard as anybody in the year or two before Bowling for COVID, equally successful as a marquee and festival act, indisputably one of the area’s hardest working and most durable success stories. The blackout may have sidelined one of the best bands on the circuit, but Watts has been in this business too long to do anything less than move forward.


“I’m trying not to be grim about it,” he says in a recent phone chat, “seeing venues fall by the wayside, just the lack of gigs and work is rough. I really feel for the players, the freelancers, who have no work. I’m lucky enough to have a band that at least has the concept, if not performances. It’s just the kind of thing where you gotta have faith, y’know, that it’s all going to come back.”


Transition periods are sometimes planned, and sometimes imposed. This one feels a lot like the latter, and in The Motet’s case, there’s an added dimension to the road sabbatical: the departures last fall of vocalist Lyle Divinsky and trumpeter Parris Fleming, leaving the core band a five piece of Watts, Drew Sayers, Garrett Sayers, Ryan Jalbert and Joey Porter. Personnel changes can be a challenge or an opportunity, and Watts, who’s seen more than a few over the band’s 20-plus-year career, says this one is an opportunity, evidenced by the release a few months ago of “False Prophets,” a six-minute instrumental single that blends spicy funk with passages of retro-horn chill, hanging together despite (or because of) its competing instincts. The piece represents a bridge between pre- and post-pandemic, and it either suggests where the band is going stylistically, or simply suggests that they’re on the way.


“We were working on that before COVID,” Watts says. “It was one of those things that was just sitting on a plate while we were working on a way to put out new content. So most of it was written and recorded before COVID hit, and to be honest, we had envisioned it as a vocal song at first… while we had a vocalist. And when Lyle decided he needed to part ways, we decided, well, this is a good opportunity to feature the instrumental side of the band, which is something we’re going to do more of in the future, for sure.”


But Watts says the band is still looking for a vocalist.


“Yeah, absolutely… It can be a tricky proposition, finding a vocalist who also plays an instrument, which is really our goal,” he admits.


“The only thing I’m looking for, personally, is instead of having a ‘front man,’ is someone who is in the band, you know? Like, all the time, whether we’re playing an instrumental song, or a vocal song. And maybe the band moves in a new direction because of that. Anything’s possible, and that’s what gets me excited.”


That might be a big ask.


“Yeah, it is, but that’s why we’re giving ourselves time… I don’t think we need to put a timeframe on it. We’d all like it to happen as soon as possible, but the reality is I’m in a band with four other great players who can all hold it down in our own right, so we’re psyched to make music as the five of us as well. Whoever we get will just be icing on the cake.”


Quarantining at home means a lot of time for composing and strategizing. And long distance recording. Watts says the band’s recent release of “And the Beat Goes On,” a bang tidy read of The Whispers’ 1980 hit featuring Lettuce vocalist Nigel Hall at the mic, was assembled exactly that way.


“That thing with Nigel was all of us playing basically at our houses, or at a studio separately, so that’s been kind of a new skill, writing and recording separately and putting it all together. Which is pretty cool.”
But while the single amply displays the band’s R&B chops, stanchioned in Watts’ and Sayers’ brawny rhythm section, longtime fans of the band know better than to bookmark The Motet’s post-COVID re-emergence as an R&B outfit. In fact, don’t chuck labels at The Motet at all.


The day after I interviewed Watts, I caught a germane quote from the late jazz pianist Chick Corea — who passed on Feb. 9 — in an obituary in the New York Times:


“It’s the media that are so interested in categorizing music,” he told the Times in 1983, “the media and the businessmen, who, after all, have a vested interest in keeping marketing clear cut and separate. If critics would ask musicians their views about what is happening, you would find that there is always a fusion of sorts taking place. All this means is a continual development — a continual merging of different streams.”
Watts expressed a similar sentiment about The Motet, and why he avoids buying into the labels that diminish the band’s evolution and feral stylistic restlessness.


“In the end, it’s music, that’s all,” Watts says. “People get so attached to … the band, the ‘thing,’ the song… and it’s just about the music. Music isn’t supposed to be one thing, and the same thing forever. Music is supposed to be about whatever gets the musicians excited and put themselves into it and share that. And that’s number one. None of us are going to be around forever, so you might as well be in the moment, as opposed to recreating or imitating yourself the whole time.”


As for Corea’s passing, Watts points to his Trio work, especially with Roy Haynes as one of his own influences.


“Chick Corea, along with Herbie Hancock, have been the two most influential keyboardists in my life,” Watts says. “Chick had the great musical sense to use my favorite jazz drummer, the legendary Roy Haynes, throughout his career. The record Trio Music with Miroslov Vitous and Roy Haynes is one of the greatest expressions of musical improvisation ever recorded. And a recording of the Chick Corea Freedom Band Live at Jazz in Marciac (2010) can be found on YouTube, which over 30 years later shows how relevant his live performances have been.”


Recently working in DAW programming, I shared with Watts some of my own epiphanies about the creative process, particularly the challenges of composing, recording and mixing in isolation. Especially that weirdly elusive phenomenon where an idea grows into a song, but very subtly morphs into something quite different from its original concept: dressing your daughter for the prom and then sending her off instead to a technicolor rave in some imagined desert landscape leaves you wondering who needed the prom in the first place. It makes sense that this sort of thing happens to amateur hobbyists like me, but I wondered if that happened to a disciplined and trained musician like Watts as well.
“Oh, yeah. I think it happens more when you’re home recording,” he says. “With Motet, we’re heading into the studio, we’re rehearsing ahead of time, we’re listening back to the rehearsal. It’s a different process.


“When recording and mixing and producing all the tracks yourself, I feel like you start out with a certain thing in mind, and it shifts, it always shifts. It’s a matter of making that shift sound good. It shifts in one direction, and the next day you’re like, ‘Ah, gotta shift again,’ and two weeks later you’re listening to it again, and it’s not what it started as, but it’s cool.


“When I’m recording, a lot of times I’ll add tracks, and it’ll be too much, like a tangled head of hair, and you’re combing through the hair. Every time you do a pass, and you hear something that doesn’t quite work, and you’re cleaning it up and straightening it out, and by the end you have this beautiful head … of straight hair.


“For us, all we need — I’ve discovered this over and over — all we need is the simplest spark of an idea… eventually it blows up into a song. We know we can create a song. I think that’s how bands that are really successful have always worked: A certain combination of people always work creatively, and always come up with interesting material.”


So there’s the collective work — the collaborative process — where players work off each other, build up ideas, find their way into the material and create something coherent and representative. But also that individual thing, where the only collaborator is your own ears.


“I love that sort of time in the wee hours where everyone’s asleep, and you just start listening to a track, and trying ideas, and it just keeps going and going, and then all of sudden you realize the sun is coming up, and you’ve been on this thing all night,” Watts says.


“There’s a magic during that time that I really like. I can’t always do it, having a kid, or life on the road the way it used to be, but when I get that opportunity, I always enjoy it.”

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