The Black Watch’s John Andrew Fredrick Talks New Album The Gospel According to John: frontman for underrated indie act discusses his band’s new album, his recent literary pursuits and much more in our exclusive interview.
The Black Watch are one of the best kept secrets in indie/alternative music. The band, which formed in Santa Barbara, California in 1987, have quietly released 18 albums (and 5 EP’s). While their releases have garnered significant critical acclaim, mainstream success has proved elusive, but as USA Today stated they “should’ve become a household name a long time ago.”
Perhaps the group’s latest effort, The Gospel According to John will help to change all that. It’s an engaging set of songs full of post-punk atmospherics and vocalist John Andrew Fredrick’s evocative vocals and clever wordplay.
I recently interviewed Fredrick regarding the new album, the recent publication of not one, but two books, and what The Black Watch have in store next. Enjoy the spirited Q&A that follows.
This is your band’s 15th album–did you approach it any different from your earlier releases, and was there an overlying theme?
Well, we set out to make something stripped down–à la the two Joy Division LPs–and we failed. I sort of blame Rob Campanella, our beloved most recent producer: he just has so many ideas. Haha. A plethora of them–in the true as in superfluous sense of the word. Rob is a very accomplished guitarist and keyboard guy: hence the ideas. He kept hearing new parts. Moreover, he encouraged the two lead guitarists we toggled between, Tyson Cornell and Andy Creighton, to go further and further out there. We all love The Pink Floyd, is what I am trying to say.
Wait till you hear the new LP–Witches. It’s very Meddle meets Obscured by Clouds. There wasn’t a particular theme with The Gospel According to John. Not that I can limn. Perhaps others can trace one; I cannot. I will say that we wanted a looser feel: we under-rehearsed for it, that’s for sure. Often we will play the songs to death. I am of the opinion that the very first time a new song comes together as it were–that’s the best and perhaps last time it is perfect. I hate live music. Yet I love to rehearse. I fake my way through shows, yet we have done scads of them. You’ll get nary a straight answer out of me I am the most sincerely insincere interview. Terribly open, frightfully guarded. Perhaps there’s your theme, Michael!
In addition to your work with The Black Watch you’re a novelist and a college English lecturer. You have a very clever sense of wordplay in your songs. When you’re working on a song, do lyrics come first or do you need the music as a foundation? Or does it vary?
The music always comes first. Lyrics are too easy to write. They aren’t poetry and Dylan should not have won the Nobel for Literature. I love Dylan. I love literature more.
Way Strange World is my personal favorite, and your lyrics really paint a picture with lines like everything will work out fine in the end, or perhaps it never will, it depends. I love the ambiguity, and how you conjure optimism and pessimism all at once. Do you recall what inspired the song?
Way Strange World emanated from wonder, the notion of. Could contemporary anything get any more strange? I have a very Across the Universe approach to lyrics. Considering that they are not poetry, they are frosting or dressing. What mattereth it if they are brilliant. It’s like saying “That wallpaper is a work of art” Bad, trite lyrics–now those are offensive. The appalling Mark Kozelek and the egregious Anton Cumberbund Newton Jonestown come blundering to mind. Go to university, already, you guys. If you can get in anywhere. Lyrical atrocities both. Great melodies, mind you–but, gosh, you just cringe madly, don’t you?
I must admit I’m a newcomer to your music, and I’m kicking myself for not discovering you sooner. You’ve got quite the body of work. In my research, I’ve found many articles and websites that peg The Black Watch as underrated. Why do you think your music is such a best kept secret, and do you feel this album is gaining more attention than past releases?
We had two great publicists is why–Josh Bloom in the USA, Shauna McLarnon in the UK. I don’t know why, Michael. Something touched people with this one. It’s not our best LP. It’s terrific, of course–top stuff. But it is not the definitive TBW record. Again, it isn’t for me to say which one is! Hahaha. Rob loves Highs and Lows–probably because he did it (A) and because he belaboured it (B). I would say… I wouldn’t say! What a quiz–to have to listen to all 15 to find out. It’s daunting. Just go back to your Cure LPs and leave The Black Watch discography alone. We’re fine in our glorious obscurity. Send us your money, anyway. And books and records, please.
You’ve also recently released two novels: Your Caius Aquilla, and Fucking Innocent: The Early Films of Wes Anderson. Were you working on those while you were recording the new record? How difficult was it balancing that workload?
I am just as horribly prolific as a writer as I am as a songwriter. You do anything long enough, it becomes easier. I spend and lot of time thinking and thinking and reading heaps, then in bursts I write songs and novels and books on film. It isn’t that I don’t sleep. But I do get up shockingly early. I suppose that’s why I get a lot done. I don’t party hardly at all. I used to–madly. Not anymore. I don’t miss it. I drink a lot of tea and one nice pint a day. It tastes so good, that way.
I read an article with Margaret Drabble, the English novelist, who said that some great writers wrote too much. Iris Murdoch, Henry James, Dickens, Updike. And some not enough–Malcolm Lowry, Salinger, Flaubert. I don’t want to be overproduced. Susan Sontag said it was a singularly American malaise. I think Bob Pollard must be terrified somehow–how can you do so many records? Go to India or something, Bob. Stop! I wonder if it’s a sort of bulwark–a false one–against mortality. Fuck that. Take up painting. I want to stop. Can I? We shall see.
I have a new ally, however. My girlfriend, the wonderful Christina Campanella, needs to do a solo LP, after years of composing for theater and art installations. I’m plotting something with her. Perhaps with our other great producer friend Scott Campbell. Perhaps that’s my way out of overproduction. I never wanted to be a frontguy, a singer. It’s just who could do my songs the way I heard them in my head? Elisabeth Fraser wasn’t available. Hahaha. Nor Harriet Wheeler.
I see on the band’s Facebook page you posted “Our 16th and WE SWEAR final LP, Witches, is now being mixed–a dance LP w/out drums!” What else can you tell me about Witches, and Is this really your last album, or were you being tongue-in-cheek?
Witches–is being mixed by Scott Campbell. I did a wee bit of work and told Scott and Rob (who produced) to do a mess of noises and soundscapes. There’s only a kick drum. I didn’t even tell bassist Chris Rackard and drummer Rick Woodard I was doing it. The interesting thing will be to see what those two plus Andy Creighton do with it live! If we ever play again. Which we will.
I think that concludes my questions: is there anything else you’d like to add about the new album or any of your other projects?
I got around 100 pages into writing my autobiography–then realized I wasn’t really all that interested in the topic.