Raymond Watts wasn’t just my favourite rock star; he’d worked with all my other favourite rock stars at some point or other. I was pretty obsessed with the idea of meeting with him, and it turned out a friend of mine knew him pretty well so we got to hang out at his studio for half an hour or so. It just didn’t help that, a few minutes before the interview, our mutual friend told him, “Oh, she’s pretty obsessed with you, you know” – or that I happened to be really sick that day. However, we met a few times since at gigs and he seemed to like me well enough, as in, he’d stop and chat. I even spent New Year’s 1999 at his party, and slept on his guitarist’s sofa, though my fascination dissipated after the first meeting because I basically got to ask every question I wanted to know the answer to, and could just be a regular fan. Very nice guy, though.
Raymond Watts is the founder member and voice behind KMFDM‘s most memorable songs; the sole full-time member of formidable industrial act Pig and occasional drinking buddy of Foetus man Jim Thirlwell. The king of the catchy chorus and star of deep-voiced crooning – come in, Mr Watts, you have some explaining to do…
There is what looks like a steer skull on the wall. Underneath it hangs a huge neon cross, and the walls opposite are filled with images – logos, pop art and the face of one particular individual. The same man is featured in the videos playing on the screen in front of us – some live, some promo – all featuring a certain trademark blend of heavy dance-metal, leather, black cowboy hats and tightrope-walking between Ministry cool and Jim Morrison style aggressive sensuality. One side of the room is thick soundproofed glass – this is a proper recording studio – and there are musical instruments and samplers littered around the room. Fidgeting with the buttons on a mixing desk at one end of the room, is Raymond Watts.
“I hope you’re going to edit this, because I’m frightfully waffly,” suggests Raymond, possibly the only man to use the word “frightfully” outside of an Ealing comedy. Yet it’s hard to say who’s the more nervous – the tall, compact, muscular man sitting as far away from me as it’s possible to be without actually being in the next room – or the petrified ‘flu-ridden writer trying to find out more and sneeze less.
Raymond isn’t a cartoon character, unlike most of his peers. He looks nothing like his photographs – which portray him as an intimidating version of the Diet Coke man; or his videos, in which he plays the leather-clad lizard king like he was born for the part. In fact, in real life he looks disturbingly like the guy I go out drinking with on a Friday night. Raymond is fifteen years older than me, but has better skin than I do. He doesn’t loom threateningly. He doesn’t lay bare his soul; attempt seduction, suicide or both; take us through his twelve-step rehabilitation plan he’s worked out with his therapist or threaten to walk out because I asked a question about his previous band. In fact, he’s a very normal, pleasant sort of person. For someone who’s spent most of his life in a band, that’s bizarre…
Raymond: I started off in England doing stuff with various bands, just doing lots of recording but never really doing any gigs and spent a lot of time in Japan when I was quite young, in about 1981. It fell apart so I got really hacked off with being in a band, and I managed to blag some bass guitars that were worth quite a lot of money, so I sold them and thought, I don’t want to be in a band. I bought an 8-track recorder and some equipment and did some experimental tape-loopy stuff. Through that a friend of mine who produced a band called Einsturzende Neubauten, we would f*** about with a tape machine. Then we did funny little recordings for Psychic TV and funny little underground bands. I remember one called the Real Traitors, I don’t think they released anything, but they were the best band I’ve ever heard in my whole f***ing life – two mad guys from New Zealand. Strange stuff, and it was pretty s**tty here, and I ended up working with a band called Abwarts and we were opening up for, I think, Johnny Thunders. I ended up setting my studio up in Hamburg in, I think, 1984. I mean, do you want all this bulls***?
Raymond stops, looking at last in my direction. He’s a very interesting, complex person to talk to. He appears to be more of a caffeine addict than I am. At the start of the conversation, he talks in pause-ridden sentences and loses concentration rather a lot. He seems to be struggling to express himself and seems rather too keen when our friend Giles suggests getting the Cokes in. It’s the little things – the way both his arms and legs are crossed in classic defensive body language mode. He fidgets on a constant basis, with the controls of the mixing desk and pretty much anything that comes to hand. He tends to avoid eye contact and puts his hands near his mouth when he’s talking – chewing on his little fingernail or otherwise covering his mouth, like he doesn’t want the words to escape. Still, he talks eloquently and passionately about what matters to him: his music.
Raymond: In about 1984, I hooked up with Sascha and Nick (En Esch) and started doing what would have been early KMFDM stuff. We played a few gigs and got wonderful reviews saying that we were the worst band ever to come out of Germany and should definitely never ever be seen by anybody, which I thought was great. Then, because I was based in Hamburg and would sometimes do recordings with bands that were based in Berlin – Neubauten were based in Berlin – I sort of ended up gravitating towards Berlin, that was a sort of pleasure concentration camp. A sort of island of debauchery in the Eastern Bloc that seemed quite fun. That was when Pig recordings happened.
I was working as a sort of producer-engineer and I used to find it frustrating sitting in studios working on this sort of dirge, so I started noodling around on my own s***. As a result those turned into recordings and somebody turned around and said let’s stick them out. I decided to call it Pig, and blah, blah, blah, it started like that. It was born as a result of frustration, working with other people.
It wasn’t a sort of burning desire to thrust myself out and lance the artistic boil within … I was just f***ed off with doing s*** for other wankers.
So, why did you call it Pig? Any particular reason?
KMFDM started out as a p-funk band, following in the footsteps of the George Clinton mob. Sascha Konietzko and En Esch worked with Watts on a track called Zip, and Raymond regarded it all as “really funny”. Watts had a number of side-projects including one called Rotting Sausage, opening for Laibach – a deliberate ploy by Watts to mock the “Teutonic pomposity” of the mid-80’s German music scene. Watts still has the sampler from those early days, and soon began to throw in suggestions for the fledgling KMFDM, the sample-use leading the band away from p-funk to the more familiar industro-funk sound that they still have today. Konietzko and Esch were the core of the band, but Watts’ input grew until he was often writing tracks on his own that were considered KMFDM songs. Despite the eccentric natures of those in the band – particularly the fearsome Esch – they are all still firm friends. Raymond and Sascha keep in regular phone contact.
Raymond: It’s like all relationships, they’re a bit funny – I’ve had some really good times with them and some really serious, nose-to-nose, finger-jabbing screaming matches. But that’s the nature of the beast. I think there was a period when we lost touch for a bit, but they are just people I like working with and I really think that Nick (Esch) comes in at things with a really weird angle. He comes in with a spanner that is completely a strange shape but it seems to fit the nut. For example, when I did Sin, Sex and Salvation (Pig vs. KMFDM EP) that led on to doing Nihil it was based more on me and Sascha and Gunter doing the main body of the stuff. I keep in touch with them, especially Sascha and Gunter. I’ve done some remixes for them, and Sascha helped me mix the last album. I went over to Seattle and we’re talking about doing something again, whether it comes together, I don’t know. It’s just one of those things, I really don’t like the idea of rigid parameters of bands – these are members – it’s like being in a golf club or something. It’s nice to basically fly from nest to nest and infiltrate and leave a f***ing great turd on the thing and buzz off somewhere else.
By this point in the conversation, it is occurring to me that Raymond Watts is something of a master in interesting similes that nobody else has thought of. Perhaps if he ever tires of making fantastic records, a career at Roget’s Thesaurus awaits him …
It’s a difficult point in Raymond’s career at the moment, as label problems have put a lot of his plans on hold. Despite the twelve or so Pig releases (including EPs and remixes) he hasn’t been too busy of late. He’s even threatened to get a job in a supermarket, claiming to be “utterly demoralised and beaten to submission” by his unsympathetic label.
Raymond: If you’ve got a non-responsive, non-proactive label, I can’t really be bothered so half the time I just go home or go out and get drunk. That’s the way they want to operate? F*** them, I don’t care. I don’t have some burning desire to tour America for four months. I don’t have a desire to f***ing make it. If they don’t want the f***ing record, f*** it, I don’t care. Just give it to these people in Japan, I’m quite happy with that. At least they are honest, honourable citizens rather than a bunch of sleazy, f***ing, twisted, f***ing crooks!
He practically spits the last sentence out, lacing every word with pure disgust. TVT are a legendarily difficult label. Trent Reznor had, shall we say, a few problems with them. Once Reznor had been bought out of his contract by the benevolent Interscope, he set up Nothing, who licensed one Pig release. Raymond describes them as a “tiny operation with two huge bands, so there is no proactive thing there.” He was happy with his A&R woman, Patricia, at TVT, but has found few other label staff willing to promote his material.
Raymond: WaxTrax was Jim and Danny and Jim’s dead now, and they got bought by TVT. Jim put out the first Pig album so I went back to TVT to talk to WaxTrax which was now just Danny. They’ve closed down the whole Chicago thing now. I did a couple of projects like Schaft in Japan where we had quite a lot of money and got the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in and various big tours and it was all just done on a handshake and a glass of sake.
The Pig albums and videos were all done by saying, we’ll do this and you do that. I’ve never signed a contract with them, apart from a two-page agreement for the last record, a very simple one. Schaft never signed contracts. Pig do okay, but Schaft sold a lot more than Pig did. Schaft was a project with two guys who asked me to sing with them and do the odd bit of recording with them. That’s where I come from, and having done stuff for them on that level, it was horrible to have this lawyer shouting and foaming at the mouth about option clause subsection C paragraph E says this. I said, “Excuse me, do you want me to do this record for you or what? You can f*** your contract, I mean, I’m an “honourable man”, I’ve done all this for these people on much bigger budgets so why are you frothing at the mouth about the number of options?” Then they said, “Well you’re not signed to us,” then “You are signed to us” and I’m saying, “Do you want this f***ing record or not?” It ended up with nobody talking to me and then this thing came out in Japan, and all these people in America started emailing TVT, asking when the EP was coming out.
Then, TVT decided to call me after ignoring me for six months. I said, “That’s nice of you to call, what’s going on?” They said that they were being bombarded with emails from people, could I please stop them. I said, “I’m not even on the f***ing internet, I don’t know anything about this.” They ignore me until some kids from Illinois send them emails. It’s all up in the air now, so f*** them.
Pig’s output has been influenced to no small degree by sometime WaxTrax labelmate Foetus. Jim Thirlwell’s blend of jazz, Danny Elfman-style orchestral atmospherics and seriously hardcore techno-metal provided the blueprint for Pig’s eclectic sound. Watts was in Thirwell’s band for some time, and the two worked on Jim’s project, Steroid Maximus. Raymond loved Thirlwell’s tongue-in-cheek attitude – a refreshing breather from the wrist-slashing angst of many of his peers. Foetus’ use of samplers, and habit of what Watts describes as “drinking deeply from the whole musical cup” was a tremendous inspiration for the young piglet. The two found each other easy to work with, with intensive bursts of mutual idea-swapping interspersed with the legendarily debauched Thirlwell habit of getting really smashed. Still, Watts’ own personal degree of confidence has prevented him from being overwhelmed by the charisma of his companions.
Raymond: I remember doing a stupid house record years and years ago for a laugh, and I got Blixa (Bargeld, from Einsturzende Neubauten/The Bad Seeds) to do vocals. Everyone thought, Blixa is this great icon of anger and internal … but I just thought he was an extremely funny person. I used to go out drinking with him and when we were in the studio; we just had a complete laugh. I found him extremely charming and very good company. The people who have blown me away are, I suppose, Depeche Mode, Ricky Martin…
Raymond: I was a real fan of Depeche Mode and I’d got into Fan Mode with them which I wanted to be in and it was fun, but John Taverner really blows me away. But they aren’t people I work with. I’ve never met John Taverner but apparently he’s a very eccentric guy. I read an interview where he said that whenever he gets angsty he goes out and buys another Bentley. Fair enough!
Though Bentley-buying is certainly not in the books, the whole KMFDM and Pig image is a carefully tended machine. Raymond describes it as a personification, a branding of the band image that is a trademark to help them be readily identifiable. He likens it to buying a car to say something about yourself. The song-titles, logos and artwork are all part of it – even down to the photographs of Raymond that appear on the Pig album covers. Although whatever message he’s trying to put across is somewhat confused – are those pictures supposed to be aimed at boys or girls, or is he simply trying to look scary?
Raymond: I’m not really interested in songwriting and songs, because people have done that really well and I can’t write songs and I can’t sing – I don’t consider myself a musician, so titles are more important to me than melody.
He’s lying of course – I don’t seriously think anybody could be that proud of their output without recognising his own true ability – because what Raymond Watts has been doing for the last fifteen years is singing (in a rather pleasant voice) songs with extremely catchy choruses.
Raymond: When I wanted to do Find It F*** It Forget It I didn’t know what it was going to sound like but as soon as I had the title, I knew what it had to sound like. It’s like if I was going to do a sculpture of you, I’d start off with a lump of stone and chip away at anything that didn’t look like you. So, that is my approach to the thing. I don’t sit there with an acoustic guitar singing “You’re my thunderball” or whatever the f*** they’re singing. Wonderwall? Whatever. Anyway, I don’t know about songs. I did this track the other day – it was only when I’d done a rough mix of it that I picked up that guitar over there, which I can’t play for s***, and actually tried to work out what the chords were. I don’t know what a song is, it’s something I can’t write. If it happens to sound like a song, that’s sheer coincidence.
A lot of your songs lately seem to be about cars, sex and guns.
Raymond: No … Do they? I don’t really take much notice of them once I have finished doing them. It’s only years later that I actually listen to them and think about, what’s this about. I don’t know if they are. I thought they were as much about fois gras and rhubarb steak as guns. Check out this guitar sound, he says, suddenly turning up the sound on the live performance of Wrecked that is on the monitors.
You are also very fond of the word “f***”. ‘F*** Me’, ‘Find It F*** It Forget It’, and ‘F*** Me I’m Sick’. Do you think swearing is funny?
Raymond: Yep. Although they got paranoid on ‘F*** Me’ (on Sin, Sex and Salvation) – It was listed as ‘F Me’ on the record because TVT got really paranoid and said “Oh, you can’t put the word “f***” on it. I forgot about that song. That was a bit funky, come to think about it – a bit of a return to the old funk routine …
How did the gig with Pulkas come about?
Raymond: We’re just doing that for a laugh. We don’t release records here and we don’t have a following here and we’re not really interested in releasing records here. This is literally just because Pulkas rehearse in this building and they hang out and I’ve known them for ages. They’re a proper full-on metal band and they’ve got a following. Nobody knows who the f*** we are, but we thought, let’s go and do one for a laugh.
Feeling exceptionally cheeky, I ask how Raymond gets his money. He has a beautiful studio, a house in Islington and seems to always be jetting off to other countries. Pig records are virtually impossible to buy in the UK, and though popular are not multi-platinum abroad. So, how does he get his dough?
Raymond: I don’t know, I’m hardly making a living at the moment at all. It’s just music, really. Nihil sold quite a lot – it was the biggest selling KMFDM album and I wrote quite a lot of that. One of those tracks (Juke Joint Jezebel) was used in a couple of movies. One of them was called Bad Boys, which I think was quite a big box office hit and the other one was Mortal Kombat, so they provided a lot of royalties.
Next, conversation turns – thanks to our mutual pal Giles – to whether Pig songs have been used in computer games (“Don’t know. Maybe…”) and whether he gets stalked by crazed Japanese groupies.
Raymond: Well there was a woman who went a bit strange once. She flew over a few times and used to hang around outside the studio, which was rather odd. It was all very harmless, though.
What are your plans for the next few months?
Raymond: I’m going to scrape together enough tracks to release an album in Japan within the next four or five weeks. Then I’m going to do something with some other people.
He can’t tell us who.
Raymond: It’s just been so f***ing demoralising working on my own with these people in New York that I can’t be f***ed with it any more and would rather go and do something else with other people. I’m not going to sit here and make another album, even if things got sorted out with TVT tomorrow, I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather work with other people for a change.