I’m not really into guys, but there’s something about actor, sweater-model, comedian, musician, and vocal-looper Reggie Watts that warms my cockles. It’s not a romantic thing—the moist-eyed mirthfulness he arouses springs more from a sense of being witness to a plushie messiah.
Life and time have trained me to stop wanting, to stop expecting, others to share my inclinations, but back when I was more of an evangelist of all that I was into I would as good as compel friends and loved ones to open themselves like morning flowers to a wobbly old YouTube of Watts in the Bowery singing Appalachian music.
Singing both is and isn’t the right word. Everything to do with the plushie messiah is a touch confusing—a tad ambiguous. In this case it’s for a few reasons. In terms of singing, Watts does so much more than just sing: he loops. He records himself semi-beatboxing and then sets that looping before singing over the top in a sublime and transcendent moment of hillbilly ecstasy.
It pisses me off that people in the audience laugh at Watts and his performance. How fucking senseless they are to the sublime. Watt’s loopy Appalachian creation is stratospheres beyond funny. I hate people who laugh at it. So if you were one of the happy-pants little New Yorkers laughing at Watts at Webster Hall a decade and some back, then fuck you.
Although, maybe there is room for de-escalation. Maybe you’ve since grown in spirit. Perhaps more recently you’ve opened your wings enough to soar with the big-haired looping daemon to his rarified, spirit-moistening peaks of cross-cultural fusion.
I should shut up for a moment before discussing how I raise these pressing concerns with Watts himself, and unfortunately he doesn’t seem to get it either—he does kind of go through the motions of grasping my feelings, but deep inside I know he’s faking it in a lukewarm attempt to please me.
Doesn’t work. I just wind up feeling empty and used.
Yet first I will shut up so that you may experience Reggie lifting, looping, into a strange Appalachian heaven. If you’re impatient with the unrelated preliminaries, start at about 1 minute and 19 seconds.
See what I mean? Surely you too wonder what those asshats are laughing at? For this performance, this ritual, is and it isn’t pure. It is and it isn’t satirical. The moment goes way, way beyond its premise. It’s fake and it’s real. And Reggie’s so cuddly-looking. And the hair and the sweater.
Brings tears to my eyes every time.
So I call Watts. It’s via Zoom, so I’m nervous. If I was beautiful I wouldn’t be nervous. Beautiful people don’t have to be nervous about being looked at. Beautiful people charm others. Beautiful people get what they want.
Nevertheless, I remind myself that I’ve sprinted clear of charging Iranian riot police; I’ve stood in a shattered Kosovo graveyard yelling at seven Albanian Kosovars who had just stabbed and stomped my Serb traveling companion; I’ve regained consciousness in the Andes beneath a circling condor, awash in the serene wonderment of having survived an extreme harrowing by yage; I have been worn down in a Redfern boxing ring by the rocketing hooks and body rips of a world champion female fighter.
So surely an audience with the plushie messiah is no sweat. It’ll have to be a remote viewing, as Watts is in London, living the dream, touring, warming English cockles, while Great Falls, MT, his bildungsroman about growing up in Great Falls, MT, and more, is hitting the shelves of bookstores good and bad.
The Zoom opens. Sound there is, but no light: only darkness visible.
SPIN: I can’t see you. Is that you, Reggie?
WATTS: Yeah, it’s me. I’m here in a dark bedroom.
How’s it going?
We’re going good—just existing until my next gig.
[Who the fuck is we?] My introduction to you was your Appalachian performance, and it’s become this thing which brings tears to my eyes when I watch and listen. What kind of headspace do you get into when you get your voice going and repeating? Are you very conscious with it, or do you get into a trance-like state? Or is it all quite deliberate all the time?
It’s not really deliberate, It’s more extemporaneous—improvisational. I start doing something and then that triggers something else. Sometimes I have a loose idea. It just depends on the situation of the performance.
But the Appalachian one … the Appalachian one seems to me to have a real strong emotion through it. Are you in emotional states when you’re singing and performing? Do you feel all that stuff? Do you lose yourself? Or, are you being precise?
It’s relatively emotional.
I may not directly be doing a one-for-one emotional vibe, but I want to feel it. If I’m doing a mood I’m trying to channel what it feels like to do.
Did you play instruments growing up?
I studied piano, starting at age five until I was 16. And violin for eight years until I was 16.
Did it hurt your neck?
No. Violin’s actually pretty easy on me.
It’s not that bad. It kind of looks like it would be but, actually, when you put the violin under your [chin], you’re just kind of shrugging a little bit. It’s not so neck-intensive as it looks.
Have you trained vocally much?
Growing up I didn’t do much formal training at all. For a second I tried out for choir in high school, but the choir director hated me, so I didn’t get in.
Why’d he hate you?
I think it was because he was an asshole. We had this vendetta.We hated the shit out of each other. He was well respected because the choirs from my high school were really great and winning awards. He got amazing results, but he was very crude in his approach to teaching. And I was very, mouthy—if someone was being unreasonable, I would ask why. He didn’t like that. We almost got into a fist fight in the hallway once. He was a fucking dick.
But then when I moved to Seattle, I decided to go to the Cornish College of the Arts, where I studied jazz voice. So for about two and a half years, I had vocal training in the jazz tradition.
What kind of music do you want to do next?
Looking for a full wild cathartic physical release in it?
I wanna drive this fucking car and have the audience react—to believe it—to not care what I was doing a second ago: to not care that I’m a comedian. I want to blow up the perception of who I am and highlight what I love.
Why don’t you take over Tool? Kick out that Maynard dude.
That’d be cool, ’cause Maynard … I’m not a big fan of his voice.
Something missing from his throat?
As much hype as they get, I just don’t get it.
And they’re also not very nice. I saw ’em in Big Day Out Tour, and I was trying to get side-stage, and they were giving us all this grief. It was like, you could see everybody—all the artists could see other artists from the side of the stage—but they were like, “No, only selected people.” And I’m just like, for this, are you fucking kidding me?”
Rammstein were sweethearts. I could go sit on the side of the stage and watch those guys. Or LCD Soundsystem. Sia. Anybody that was on tour that year was super cool.
But they were the ones who just, “No, we’re Tool.” And I’m “Sorry guys, but you aren’t that good that you can have that kind of attitude. Ultimately no one is—although I could imagine it for Prince, like “Whatever you need, Prince.” Totally fine. But Tool? I’m like, “You’re just math rock.”
And there’s something missing from his voice, right? He doesn’t have that raspy-
Or Diamanda Galas.
Her stuff scares the fuck out of me. She’s an insane vocalist—a true vocalist.
Jack Black can do anything. One of the best vocalists in the world.
Do you ever try to cultivate hatred in your musicians to get that edge that Jane’s Addiction and other great bands had when they were really wild? Do you set people up against each other?
I sit at night and create graphs and plans and timings and take notes on what people don’t like about each other. I love that. It’s my favorite.
[The light comes on. Watts is on his back in a luxury hotel bed. He appears only top be wearing a hair band.] Thinking of doing any more rapping?
I actually do wanna make a hip hop record. I was working with this guy, Kenny Beats [aka Kenneth Charles Blume III], for a moment, but I think he’s too busy being a hot producer. We could do it very quickly. I just wanted to release an EP of hip hop. I would quickly generate beats andwork with a producer and they would produce it up and make the beats sick. And then I would improvise vocals over it, and we would just release it, you know, as rap, because a lot of modern rap, modern rap, are mumble-core. You can barely understand what they’re saying anyways. And once in a while there’s some new slang term they’re introducing, so I think for me, it’d just be so easy. Hip hop would be fun. It’d be fun to quickly generate hip hop that sounds like any hip hop track that you hear on the radio, but it only took like two hours. I love that idea of undercutting the whole creative process.
Ever get into battle-rapping?
Sometimes I can flow pretty good, but I’m not consistent in any way so I’ll go into gibberish or fake languages.
I mostly hate it. It’s really lazy. I definitely don’t wanna be too old man on it. I posted something about it on Instagram a few years ago, and people were like, “You’re just old.”
Obviously when Cher first released that song that was the first time we heard it.
It still sounds bad.
Yeah. It still sounds bad.
It’s just like a cheap production factor that a lot of people put on songs now. It’s everywhere. There has to be a little bit of it in order to indicate that it’s a modern recording. It hides the ability of whoever’s singing. I’d rather hear someone sing in their natural voice.
There are always modern affectations that happen that areannoying, like the Billie Eilish hushed singing or Lorde’s way of singing—that baby ASMR. They’re amazing vocalists, but the style they’re choosing to sing in gets tedious.
Are you going to do some baby ASMR?
I definitely want to do that.
Eventually a voice pipes in telling Watts that he has to be somewhere, at which he rises from the bed and gets decent. We farewell one another. Scene fades. Later I start reading his memoir, Great Falls, MT. It takes 147 pages to get to the first sex scene.