After half an hour of intense chatting with Canadian indie-pop singer-songwriter and film composer Patrick Watson about his band’s latest record, Love Songs for Robots, a nagging question remains: Just who is the robot, here?
“I did this really crazy hypnosis thing last year for fun with this really quiet old Russian lady,” says Watson, speaking from his studio in Montreal. “There were no dreamcatchers on the wall; it was really kind of, like, heady. Not spiritual in any way. She just sits down and talks to you, and it’s like this key to the back of your brain. When you understand how powerful the back of your brain is…when you really get into it, you see how all the commercials and stuff we see and hear builds your identity. You’re not really aware of it, even if you think you are. You think you’re super in charge of your decisions, but you’re not, which is why they spend millions of dollars on advertising.”
All of this Matrix-type “free your mind!” stuff comes as Watson sips some much-needed late-morning coffee to help him hit his deadline for the latest movie score he’s working on, the Aaron Paul–starring The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. Besides heading this band, which takes his name, for over a decade, Watson has scored about fifteen movies. It makes sense that he’d focus on the audio/visual ramifications of multimedia.
“All these years of putting people in squares and making them wear dumb little hats has really worked. It’s really taken its toll,” he continues. “I know that sounds cliché, but I think people underestimate the effect of what an ad can do. It’s all there in the back of your brain.”
But it gets worse. What we allow in our heads shapes our minds, our bodies (hello, junk food ads!), and thus our destinies, but Watson thinks it’s just as scary that an awareness of mass cultural hypnosis creates cynicism, which is really a defense mechanism and a barrier that prevents the brain from operating naturally, instinctively.
“All those defense walls make us cynical — it’s a pain in the ass. We talk about true love, or we hear those big love songs from the Forties, and we get really cynical. All the big topics have been stolen from us. As time goes on, all these walls go up and no song can ever touch those subjects. So people turn off.”
But not Watson.
On the next page: “I don’t think the future is going to be as loud as we think it’s going to be”
[Love Songs for Robots doesn’t tune out from the romantic and the beautiful, the small and the quiet. Things that aren’t valued in the commercial world of being big and noisy find a home here. Even when Watson and his longtime bandmates — Joe Grass (guitars), Robbie Kuster (drums/percussion), and Mishka Stein (bass) — are going full bore, with intricate arrangements, and sensual sonic layers, there’s a calmness and quietude about the music. Ultimately, the songs are uplifting, not downers.
“I always have this conversation about quiet meaning melancholy. Why does quiet mean melancholy?” Watson demands. “Why is reflecting a bad thing? Being quiet can be just being quiet and enjoying yourself. It’s so new, all these things, these ideas of loud being happy. It’s all very fashionable. It’s like right now everyone wears yellow pants,” he adds. “It’s also a very short chapter. I don’t think the future is going to be as loud as we think it’s going to be. I don’t think things are getting any louder.
“That’s the thing about the ‘Strangers’ video,” he adds, referring to the Sundance-winning virtual-reality short film he created with French Canadian directing duo Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël and fellow directors Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski. The film, which began as Watson looked around for interesting options for videos for some Robots cuts, shows Watson in his studio, at his piano, but it feels very much like you are there in the moment with him, and with the stillness.
“What it says is that if you’re really fast and loud, it’s really annoying. A quiet moment doesn’t mean sad; it’s OK to be quiet. In fact, it’s better. There’s a lot of things that are coming that are going to change people’s minds. It’s a wild future, but I think people are going to have to be very conscious.”
As conscious as he is, though, Watson says he isn’t immune from all this 21st-century conditioning, but when it comes to making music, his real brain kicks in. “When you sit in front of a piano and sing, it can only be instinctual. When I play music it happens to me naturally. Even the band, we don’t sit and think about it. It’s how we’ve always rolled.”
Patrick Watson plays May 28 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, with the Low Anthem opening. The show is sold out, but you can find tickets on the secondary market. Love Songs for Robots is out now on Domino Records.
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