Ben Watt isn't particularly interested in trying to figure out how he got to this point in his life. Even after a good 40 minutes of conversation over Skype about the many turns his career has taken over the past three decades, he bristles at the notion of looking much further beyond the tour dates on his calendar.
"There's no plan in this," he says, with a detectable note of frustration in his voice. "There's no project I want to explore or artist I'd love to work with. Things just need to happen as they happen."
It's hard to argue with that logic, especially when faced with the raw facts of Watt's life and music. His own interests and influences, and a fair amount of happenstance, have been his only guideposts—and they've served him well.
Inspired by her singing in the band Marine Girls, Watt arranged a meeting with future wife Tracey Thorn at their university, which spawned their fantastic pop group Everything but the Girl. Falling in with the underground dance music scene in the early '00s encouraged him to produce and DJ deep house tracks and start the well-regarded label Buzzin' Fly Records. After his father passed away in 2006 and he inherited a small cache of mementos, Watt was moved to write the book Romany and Tom, a loving and sometimes devastating look at his parents' fractious marriage that has earned glowing reviews worldwide.
And when the itch arose again to start writing guitar-based songs for his two recent solo albums—2014's Hendra and this year's Fever Dream—he scratched away, happening upon fine collaborators like former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour as he did.
Even the success of EBTG came while following his and Thorn's somewhat stubborn path. The music they made always seemed to run against the trends of the time. The same year that NME released C86, a cassette compilation of shambolic, fevered rock and pop from the UK underground scene, the pair were dabbling in big-band arrangements and Jimmy Webb–style country on their album Baby, the Stars Shine Bright.
"We were always a countercultural group," Watt says. "We weren't playing music that was successful at any time during our career. Robin Miller, the producer of our first two albums, told me that Seymour Stein was on the fence about signing us to Sire Records in the US. Robin told him, 'Give them time. By the time they reach their sixth or seventh record, they'll really take off.' Which is what happened, because our seventh was the one that had 'Missing' [the group's hugely successful hit from 1994] on it. But he said, 'I can't wait. I need success now.' Which is something you're hearing more and more these days."
Not that he is concerned at all about reaching the pop charts anytime soon. He knows he's lucky to be in the position he's in, mostly because he knows how lucky he is to be alive.
Back in 1992, as EBTG were beginning the sessions for what would become their eighth album, Amplified Heart, Watt became seriously ill. Diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the intestinal tract, he spent months in the hospital and was given a slim chance of survival. It wound up costing him nearly his entire lower intestine, but left him, as you can imagine, with a renewed appreciation for his existence.
"It's something that I'm still dealing with and will be dealing with every day," he says. "You could say that it has made me more driven, but Tracey would tell me, 'Hell, you've always been driven.'"
Indeed, what came out of that experience was an even stronger resolve to do only what felt right to him. That included writing his first memoir, Patient, which chronicled his illness with good humor and clarity, as well as his push toward dance grooves both on EBTG's final two albums, 1996's Walking Wounded and 1999's Temperamental, and in the DJ booth.
This could have put Watt on the path to a new kind of worldwide acclaim, but he managed to jump ship just as the juggernaut known as EDM was taking shape.
"I was playing a festival in New York, playing my typical deep house set," he recalls, "and the guy who went up after me was [DJ and producer] Kaskade. I was watching the reaction of the crowd and seeing the huge spectacle of his set, and I thought: 'Oh this is totally different than what I'm doing. Best to get out of the way.' Plus, I was reaching 50. The nights were getting longer and harder to do, and I didn't want to be the oldest swinger at the club."
It helped that, around that same time, the melodies and lyrical ideas that would form Hendra and Fever Dream started to take shape. And what came out are two thoughtful collections of lived-in, unhurried songs that allow elements of the late-1960s folk rock movement to coalesce with lite soul and hushed modern indie pop.
What haunts these albums more than anything Watt has done before is a reckoning with the past and a welcome, if slightly uncertain, glance forward. Some of that was spurred by the loss of his half-sister Jennie in 2012 from lung cancer, a death made all the more painful by the knowledge that she was finding some stability and peace late in her life after struggling for years with mental-health issues.
Hendra is suffused with that loss, not only in the album's title (it's the name of a road where Jennie and her husband owned a weekend home) but in songs written from the perspective of someone slowly rummaging through the fragments of days gone by and trying to fit them into an uncertain future. "I know it's only daylight that we walk through," he sings on "The Levels," aided by a sleepy blues guitar line from Gilmour. "And everyone has wounds that heal with time/And I'll get over mine."
Fever Dream works some similar ground that his wife covered on her marvelous 2010 solo effort, Love and Its Opposite: how our romantic relationships tend to evolve as we approach middle age.
"When I did the tour for Hendra, I was greeted at a lot of the shows by people from my past," Watt says. "Friends that I often hadn't seen for years. And I was hearing the same stories about how their relationship was on the rocks, or they were going through a divorce, or they were starting a new relationship that was going really well. There was a theme of sorts being built, and I wanted to look at that period of a person's life, when things start to shift and you're at a crossroads."
The album doesn't take a mournful or worried tone. It carries an air of almost shrugging acceptance of these concerns. The steady shuffle of "Between Two Fires" sounds downright upbeat as Watt peels off lines like "Sometimes love can last a lifetime/Other times it tires/I cannot blame you now you're gone." And amid the 1970s-style pop that marks "Faces of My Friends," he refers to love as a constantly flowing river that slows and deepens but is otherwise always moving forward.
In fact, he's only vaguely interested in trying to remind people of his musical past as he sets off on a US tour to honor the songs of the present.
"People in the audience are often my age," he says, "and I think even for them it would be strange to shift from hearing a 53-year-old's perspective on life to hearing a 19-year-old's with something from [his 1983 solo album] North Marine Drive or the 30-year-old who wrote '25th December' and is still not getting on with his parents. And I'm not going to put a 20-minute section in the set where I knock out all the hits, because I don't have those."