Reggie Watts on Jack White, Existentialism and Live at Third Man Records
I've never been a particular fan of the cookie-cutter interviews, lobbing softballs to subjects about their current project, injecting a witty anecdote particular to the product being promoted amongst the standard preordained canned answers. That being the case, I decided to let the moment guide the way as I called up comedian/musician/weirdo wizard Reggie Watts on the eve of releasing his new album, Live at Third Man Records – recorded at the Nashville-based label’s headquarters in front of a live audience.
The man who most people know as either the "Fuck Shit Stack" guy or the big-haired bizarro that opened for Conan O'Brien on last year's Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour is a one-man army of musical hilarity, armed only with a loop pedal, an impressive vocal range and an otherworldly ability to waltz with the abstract. Sure, we talked about hanging out with TMR mastermind Jack White while recording his new album, but we also dipped a toe or twelve into concepts ranging from existentialism, the upcoming merger of technology and humanity to creating our own worlds within our individual realities, among other topics.
When I call, Reggie picks up the phone to the sounds of a nightmare circus, a maniacal pastiche of chirps, squealing and children's voices.
CraveOnline: What's the soundtrack there?
Reggie Watts: Oh, I don't know, it's some kind of whacked out Southerny rocky stuffy… bizarre sorts of sounds.
CraveOnline: Sounds like the Teletubbies on acid.
Reggie Watts: Actually yeah, it's a bit like porno Teletubbies.
CraveOnline: My kind of morning. So let's break down how this Live At Third Man Records album came to be.
Reggie Watts: I was on the Conan tour, and we went to Jack White's studio for Conan's live show around the same time as Bonnaroo last year. And while we were there I was just inspired by the place, and how it was run and attention to quality. I just thought it would be great to do a set there, a live comedy set. And it's ultimately all up to Jack, so I mentioned in passing that it'd be fun to do something there, and he was like, "Yeah man, that would be great."
A few months later, I got an email saying Jack wants me to come perform, and I was thrilled.
CraveOnline: It's not hard to imagine you and Jack White making some appalachian jazz together… Did you go into it with a different level of preparation, knowing it would be put down on wax?
Reggie Watts: No, not really. I was just aware that it was a record and that we were going to break at 24 minutes to cut for the other side of the record. So I was aware of that, but for the most part it was just "Do your thing, we'll give you a signal at 5 minutes before," like during a normal comedy set where they give you the light. So that was it, I just kind of went for it, trying to have the maximum amount of fun possible.
CraveOnline: It might be a bit bold to say, but it seems that this recording is more random and off the wall than your previous recordings.
Reggie Watts: Haha yes! That's good, man! That's awesome. We got lucky because Tim & Eric were touring and were in Nashville at the time, and Jack called up Tim Heidecher (Tim & Eric co-creator) to open the show. And also Neil Hamburger was in town, so he did a set. And John C. Reilly was just there hanging, too. Jack was there as well, of course. It was just awesome. We hung out and got to know each other as best as we could within the limited time that we had.
I had met Tim before, and we had kind of shot the shack…. shat the shoot? Shacked the shot. Yes, we shanked the shack a while back. I did my set, and we all hung out afterwards, and it was a really fun experience. They all have amazing creative capacity, and it's really inspiring.
Check out "Every Day Is Like Sunday" from Live at Third Man Records:
CraveOnline: It's so inspiring to be within circles like that, where so much alien creative energy is sparking off around you. Jack's created a great little hub in Nashville to allow & encourage that to happen. You've said "Absurdity holds the key to surviving in reality" – everyone you just mentioned seems to adhere to that in a certain regard.
Reggie Watts: I think that's true. I don't know how prophetic it may be in these uncertain times (laughs), but it's a healthy sense of humor that really helps you get through the crazy shit.
CraveOnline: Speaking of crazy shit, just about an hour ago you tweeted, "Dear humanity please stop killing each other over religion. Can't you see that difference is an illusion and a challenge to be whole again?" Something must've prompted that – I imagine it was the morning's news?
Reggie Watts: Yeah, it was about those U.N. workers that were killed in Afghanistan because of the guy in Florida burning a Quaran. When I read about that, it's like "Really? Someone burns a book and you decide to take people's lives? It's not just Muslim extremists, either. At any point in history, damn near everyone's done shit like this for their various religions. It's really unfortunate, and I try not to get too upset, but at the same time you have to have some kind of consciousness.
That's why I embrace the absurdity as well, because if you have that, it increases your ability to have empathy with people. The lack of empathy, being extremely loaded on one side of something, makes all sorts of rationale okay. It rationalizes "Oh, I'm gonna go kill them because they burned up one of our religious texts." That guy didn't kill a Muslim person, he burned a book. And it's like "well, the rules are…" … but who made those rules? I don't think you understand how incredibly unhelpful that all is for the world in general.
CraveOnline: The difference is heavily cultivated, however. The indoctrination and spiritual propaganda supporting it has no goal of enlightenment, but for propaganda to get us to absorb these false realities and replace our own concepts of truth with them. There's an existentialist message in there, but a spiritual tie-in as well. I find that the people who are most engaging and eager to discuss higher concepts and deeper sensations of possibility are also the same people who consistently laugh at life, or are able to see the humor in it.
Reggie Watts: Yeah, yeah. Humor basically allows you to zoom out. I compare a lot of life to looking at a map through a straw. The less ability you have to see life in a humorous way, the smaller the straw is that you're looking at the map of life. You're not looking at the whole picture. You can't see the whole topography without it, and it can help you to make better choices.
CraveOnline: That was another line you mentioned a while back that stuck with me: "When in doubt, zoom out."
Reggie Watts: (Laughs) That's right! That's the same concept. If you're confused, or fucked up or whatever, move away from it. Try to give yourself a break and move away to a place where you can see it more clearly. Then you can either let it go, or try it again.
CraveOnline: Apply that to the concept of the Singularity, where technology takes a front seat in the scientific realm. Within a few years of that point, it's possible we'll be completely symbiotic with machines. We're already feeling the techno-claustrophobia, so it's hard to imagine that. What are your thoughts on the Singularity, where technology eclipses human consciousness?
Reggie Watts: Technology is a wonderful tool, but also if used incorrectly a horrible tool. We're fascinated by all aspects of it, whatever makes our human lives easier on the planet, but eventually there will have to be some sort of merger. The fascination isn't going to die down. But I think technology is just really a metaphor for humanity's curiosity and figuring out who we are. And I think the way we're going to do that is by potentially creating ourselves outside of ourselves.
Sentient synthetic beings we can then commiserate with. We love this idea of being immortal, and we won't stop until we accomplish some form of that. I don't think immortality is necessarily the key to understanding the world. You have to be careful with what you think you're achieving. I'm all for science discovering amazing and fantastic things about our world, but I think the motivations behind it are slightly askew. Just because you live longer doesn't necessarily give you a greater edge in quality.
I think it's going to be an interesting future and I think that ultimately… humans are lovely experiments, who love to explore and discover things. If people are able to use it with any kind of morality based on empathy for another person, that's the kind of technological evolution I would want to be a part of. As opposed to more war machines. In a fantasy world, I love that whole imagination. But in the real world, I don't know if I want unmanned drones that run like panthers with guns mounted on their backs. That sounds more like Terminator.
I just hope it all appeals to a higher aspect of human consciousness, and not a base aspect.
CraveOnline: Unfortunately, all the indicators seem to the contrary.
Reggie Watts: It's sad to think that the only way that could forseeably change is if something really bad went down and a lot of people got hurt. After so much carnage, you have to reconfigure a little bit. You have to look for something brighter to live for.
The Live At Third Man Records LP and limited edition black/blue vinyl is available for purchase at the Third Man Records store in Nashville or online at www.thirdmanrecords.com