A Conversation With The Black Watch’s John Andrew Fredrick

As Henry David Thoreau so eloquently observed in Walden, the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Other men’s lives are considerably louder in their desperation, which they set to a jangly baroque pop/psych/folk/rock soundtrack and deliver to the barest sliver of an audience that cultishly lauds and loves both message and messenger, massage and masseuse, master and masturbator. One such desperate man is John Andrew Fredrick, who has spent the last three decades as the sole constant in one of music’s most perfect and unheralded rock outfits, the black watch. Using the Beatles as a tracing template, Fredrick has applied a kitchen-sink approach to the album at hand since his 1988 debut, St. Valentine, the opening volley in a catalog that would ultimately encompass 15 albums and five EPs, all of which inspired varying levels of critical halleleujahs and a deafening chorus of crickets at the nation’s cash registers.

And yet, through a dozen or more lineup changes, nine record labels and 30 years of glowing reviews and commercial neglect that borders on criminality, Fredrick has soldiered on, tilting at music industry windmills and churning out pop/rock masterpieces and a quartet of novels at a fairly dizzying pace. Although the Fab Four is Frederick’s beacon on the hill, he’s never been afraid to color outside the lines he’s established for himself, but that still doesn’t explain why filmmakers at every level haven’t flocked to include the black watch’s rich imagery in their movie music arsenals. Perhaps they are much like Fredrick himself, who once noted in “The Wrong People,” “I wouldn’t know love if it fucked me in the eye.” Which is likely why that wasn’t the single from The King Of Good Intentions.

At any rate, Fredrick doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the industry blockade that’s been constructed around the black watch, and it looks like he’ll be sending exquisite missives out to the wider world well into the foreseeable future regardless of how they will be received by the mass of men. Maybe, just maybe, Fredrick’s turn as MAGNET’s guest editor will change his fortunes. While we hold our collective breath for that eventuality, Fredrick was kind enough to take a little time for the following email exchange to offer a peak into one of music’s most tenaciously creative minds.

I’ve loved everything that I’ve ever heard by you over the years but, like Tommy Keene, you seem to be trapped in the industry amber of critical acclaim/cultish commercial appeal. Do you accept that as your place in the musical food chain, or does hope spring eternal for you, that whenever you release an album it might be “the one”?
“Industry amber” is very good. Plus sad because true. Speaking of Tommy Keene—swell fellow—we did a gig with him in San Francisco three or so years ago at this great club (The Velvet Singing Door or Red Plush Reverb Hall, can’t recall its vaguely synaesthetic name) that was dying, just like Tommy’s and our respective hopes for breakthroughs? Isn’t that just too professorly, to make that into something analytical-critical? Yeah, we give up and go on. The people who are into us are into us, keeping their terrible tragic secrets. Now even the same writers write about us, almost! You’re one of the new ones. Bienvenidos a este banda-even though, as you say, you’ve heard all our stuff. Why so quiet, Brian, knight-in-arms and palely loitering at the keyboard and pitch-making place? Hahaha [bittersweet laughing]. Thank you for loving us, wheezed the band on its twilit deathbed.

The longest time you’ve taken between releases is three years. Is there an internal alarm that sounds for you telling you it’s time to start recording?
Well, obviously I love the studio, so it’s more of an itch to get back to my perennial sexy place. It has to do with whatever philanthropist comes along fundamentally (sorry) and the magnanimous attitudes and availability of the revolving cast of producer friends whom we amuse and reward with musical creation and glee and artistic conception and beer. Rob Campanella, Scott Campbell, Tim Boland—they’re so very much in our corners and in our pockets that it’s remarkable. We owe them so much, love them so much. I mean, they’ve practically been in tbw all these years, just not had to turn up for every rehearsal.

Are you writing all the time and then pick out the songs that will make up your next album, or do you write specifically at the point you begin the new album process?
Well, I just start writing one song and then I must think—if you must pry me open—”No sense in orphaning this one; better make some siblings.” And when I get 10 or 12 I’m happy with (all bpm’s different, keys sorted and varied, feels distinct and themes ricocheting off one another, lyrically), then we look around, make calls, prepare to starve for a spell, and go in and have the greatest and most challenging time in our favorite place, the studio.

What kind of influences guided you when you first started making music, and have they expanded over the years?
Influences? I have none of those. Haha. Brian Kehew, old friend and now Pete Townshend’s ace techie and another of those “tbw believer” producers, has this tape of some wretched muso braggart going, “We are mostly influenced by ourselves.” You gotta laugh at that one. The Beatles, of course. The first time I heard “I Want To Hold Your I Saw Her Standing There,” I, at five, in the back seat of my dad’s big bulbous Buick, started jumping up and down. I was five. I am now not five, and still jumping to the Fabs, and now need Glucossamine and Chondroitin for those poor old joints. Of course my influences expanded with the times. But my tastes have been called “brutally narrow,” and I’m not offended. Chuffed, rather. I can name you 12 very, very obscure artists I am crazy about as well as way huge loves like Radiohead and early U2.

Highs And Lows came out two years ago, so presumably you’re starting to get the new album itch. Anything on the horizon in that regard?
Goddammit, I’ve just started writing three new songs. Why, for christsakes, why?

Are you still on Pop Culture Press Records?
We put The Gospel According To John out on our own imprint, the eskimo record label. We might work with Pop Culture Press again; we’re still in love. Just taking a break.

Who’s in the band currently?
Me, Andy Creighton (of the shockingly underappreciated the World Record); Chris Rackard (bass), Rick Woodard (drums); Peter Gabriel (flute, just joined up); Kevin Shields (noises, just quit after two rehearsals; said he wanted to go solo).

Do you have a favorite album in your catalog? Is there one that baffled you in its inability to connect with a wider audience?
I can’t say I do have a favorite. I have always maintained that J’Anna Jacoby’s guitaring is my favorite of all the guitars, however. She formed the weirdest chords. Without all the odd alternate tunings I employ as a kind of crutch. I think Lime Green Girl was quite ill-favored, in terms of exposure. Old Jack Rabid bangs on about Jiggery-Pokery (which was done with a drum machine, which to this day doesn’t make me wax sentimental about it); and my kid Chandler (who is quite the dab hand at songwriting and guitar and piano and who’s contributed on a number of the LPs) thinks we peaked at The King Of Good Intentions in 1999, and that’s his favorite, probably because of the lo-fi element of that record; I mean, it was recorded in five days, a non-eternity. Plus he is way into a song called “Your Mary Janes,” which I don’t rate all that highly. Who knows why certain songs connect with people? Or records. I took a year off, just before Highs And Lows, from listening to indie pop and only had KUSC on all the time, brushing up on classical and all. It was great. George Martin bitched about there not being long melodies in current bands’ songs. Too true. I have gone back to obsessing on Talk Talk and Echo & The Bunnymen. Early Bunnymen reminds me I don’t want to write too many slow songs anymore; gotta pump it up and keep it pumped.

Let’s get in the hot tub time machine and go all the way back to the late ’80s. You’ve just graduated from University of California at Santa Barbara with a PhD in English and you embark on a music career. Was that your plan, to spend an inordinate amount of money on a degree and then pursue a path where you would make less money than a teacher?
I didn’t spend any money on my education. I got TAships and nice parents. The whole of my education, AA to BA to MA to PhD didn’t cost what one year and a top “public ivy” costs now. It’s a sham and utterly scandalous, the cost of higher education now; and going to be the undoing of this poor sad philistine country. I got out of teaching for the first 10 years after I left UCSB and concentrated on my art and poverty.

Given that you’re not moving platinum units and building trophy cases for your Grammy collection (and to be clear, neither one is a measurement for good music), what motivates you to keep writing and recording after 30 years?
No-hope hopelessness motivates. I still love the sound of my own … guitars.

You’ve also written two novels and I’m so jealous; I can barely find time to get a chapter done. Is there a third book in the bottom drawer?
Published four novels now, Brian. Get it straight. Hahaha. There is a part three to The King Of Good Intentions, loitering at the publisher. And a novel-length Nabokovian horror story (I don’t know why; the only scary tales I’ve ever read are Poe’s stuff and Henry James’s!) that’s also very funny, I think. I wrote a musical about Dr. Johnson, my hobby horse, that also takes place in contemporary times (very Stoppardian); but I don’t know any theater people so that’ll prolly be a posthumous thingy. Would love to produce the songs from that thing, though. Musical-style the black watch. A new genre?

From your personal perspective, what is both right and wrong with the music industry as it stands today?
Please don’t ask me about that moribund-reanimated thing, the record industry.

Have you written a song or several songs addressing the current sociopolitical situation?
I hate political writing, unless it’s Christopher Hitchens or Hannah Arendt. In music? Please. Old Vlad said in Speak, Memory or Strong Opinions or something, something to the effect that all political art just turns to tawdry sloganeering. You reckon the Clash changed anything, anything at all? Dylan? He shifted things in people, sure, but no towers toppled or armaments manufacturers ceased production. George Harrison had a few laughs with Gerald Ford one photo-op day. That’s all.

The whole lower case device … e.e. cummings homage or broken shift key?
e.e. cummings all the way. Though you can only read him well into spring and at no other time. Say, from Mayday to the 15th. It’s coming up, cummingsdays. Get your poems out, kids. Dust ’em off. Let those jumbled, beautiful words set you dreaming.

—Brian Baker