Q&A: Ben Watt
By Andy Malt | Published on Wednesday 20 March 2013
Last week, Ben Watt announced that he was winding down his record label Buzzin Fly. Launched by the Everything But The Girl musician a decade ago, initially to release solo track ‘Lone Cat’, the label has since released music by innovative electronic artists like Flowers & Sea Creatures, Jimpster, Tevo Howard and Alain Ho.
Ceasing to release new music, though staying operational to control the company’s catalogue, Buzzin Fly will mark its semi-closure with the digital release of five label retrospectives over the course of this year, the first, ‘Buzzin Fly Anthology: Volume 1, 2003-2004′, on 22 Apr. Further releases, each comprising two years in the label’s history, will be released on a monthly basis until September.
With the news out, CMU’s Andy Malt spoke to Watt to find out more about his decision to scale back Buzzin Fly, and what the future might now hold.
AM: So, let’s get the big question out of the way first, what made you decide to stop releasing new music through Buzzin Fly?
BW: To run any label you need to be close to the centre of the scene that you are representing and have plenty of time at your disposal. Lately I have begun moving away from the centre as my interests have been drawn towards other things – non-fiction writing, the reactivation of my own songwriting, time around the family.
My connection with Buzzin Fly’s ‘scene’ was very much linked to my DJ work. And clearly late night international DJing is a young person’s game, and I’m not getting any younger! The late nights, the long weekends. Office hours for independent labels certainly aren’t getting shorter either. In the end, I saw myself instinctively edging away from it all. And I didn’t want to fake it. Plus ten years was something to be proud of.
AM: Absolutely. You’ve said Buzzin Fly will become an ‘archive label’. Beyond the retrospective releases coming out over the course of this year, do you have other active plans for the label’s catalogue?
BW: Not at the moment. The five anthologies and a couple of vinyl nuggets will make up this year’s releases. But in the digital age there will always be incremental income coming in – the drip-drip of sales and streams. I felt we had to retain control over the catalogue, firstly for the ongoing benefit of our artists and secondly because if I had made some kind of dramatic gesture and stopped completely, within a year all our releases would be have been scavenged and endless versions and poor quality uploads would have been all over the internet with no controlled income for anyone. At least the modern digital world makes archiving achievable at a reasonably low cost.
AM: Sister label Strange Feeling Records is still going to release Tracey Thorn’s new material. How will that work? Will there be many or any in-house staff remaining to work on those releases?
BW: The Buzzin Fly office has always been an umbrella for several projects. Buzzin Fly itself plus Strange Feeling, Fruit Fly (our small publishing company), the management and admin of both my and Tracey’s careers, enquiries relating to Everything But The Girl. It acts as a meetings space too.
We have always run a tight ship. I steer most of the creative direction. Tracey is very involved in the decisions surrounding her own career. Marianne is label and office manager. As I began shrinking the Buzzin Fly release schedule and stopped the regular parties we let go of our in-house publicity and promotion staff and we now outsource all that to a small network of trusted companies and individuals. We also have a relationship with Merge Records in the US for our American licenses. When the online shop gets busy we employ interns to help. We have a part-time accountant.
Much of that operation will continue. With reliable third-party partners, email, Skype, you can get a lot done with a small amount of hardworking people.
AM: The first Buzzin Fly release was one of your own solo singles. Was it always the plan to sign other artists, or did that come later? Did you even imagine the label might grow as much as it did?
BW: It’s true, my hand was somewhat forced by the bootlegs of ‘Lone Cat’ that were circulating as far as New York. I needed to get control back of the record and put it out properly, and that led to the formation of the label.
Though in my heart I knew it was coming anyway. I grew up loving Peter Saville at Factory and the older jazz labels where artwork mattered like those Alex Steinweiss designs, so always had some ambitions in that space. And DJing was regularly throwing me into the middle of a scene where often great music was being overlooked. I realised I wanted to help get some of it out there, and make it look great.
Did I think the label would last? We never looked very far ahead. We weren’t acquisitive or stockpilers. We signed stuff – we put it out almost immediately. I never really thought about it. It was fun and instinctive.
AM: What are your highlights of running Buzzin Fly?
BW: Some of the parties obviously – especially the early ones at Cherry Jam, the bigger more intense ones at The End, the two basement years at Plastic People and some of the rooftop Miami WMC parties we did – they were insane. I have my favourite releases but naming them would be like naming your favourite child. Retaining a strong visual identity also gave me a lot of pleasure.
AM: You’re due to publish your second book, ‘Romany And Tom’, next year. Tell us a bit about it, it’s kind of a biography of your parents?
BW: My dad was a Glaswegian jazz musician – a Big Band bandleader and composer – whose heyday was on BBC radio in the late 50s. My mother was a Shakespearian actress who had triplets in her first marriage before becoming a top showbiz feature writer in the 60s and 70s with unique access to people like Burton and Taylor. They were both divorcees from very different backgrounds who came together like colliding trains. It is a book about their life as I experienced it, as a child, as an adult and ultimately as their protector in old age.
AM: How does it compare to your previous book, ‘Patient’? Are there crossovers between the two?
BW: There are comparisons obviously as it is another non-fiction account of my own experiences, and my parents appear in both books, but where ‘Patient’ was a tightly focussed story largely covering a few weeks in hospital, ‘Romany And Tom’ takes in a much wider social sweep across 70 or 80 years.
AM: You’re also planning to relaunch your career as a solo musician. Can you tell us anything about that yet?
BW: I still lie awake and feel there is something I left unfinished. I gave up my own solo career to work with Tracey on Everything But The Girl. Since we stopped she has had a chance to re-express herself as a solo artist with three albums since 2007. Yes, I have reached different heights as a DJ, and been very proud of all that stuff, but there is something else I feel I need to do. I have started songwriting again. I really want it to turn into something concrete, but what form it will take is more than uncertain at the moment. Sometimes you just need to stop to start again.
AM: And finally, what else does the future hold now your focus is less on running a record label?
BW: Never second-guess the next corner.