’30 Years Of Journalism – Celebration Interview’ with Ben Watkins aka Juno Reactor
Back in 1991 I started writing my first reviews for Side-Line magazine. I would have never thought to go on writing reviews and making interviews non-stop for 30 years. So 2021 is a special year to me, a kind of ‘celebration year’. I got the idea to celebrate this special event by interviewing people from the scene who all have a special meaning to me. ‘Journalists’ have to remain neutral, but it doesn’t take a way we all have our own favorite artists. Juno Reactor is one of my all-time favorites. Instigator Ben Watkins is an artist who each time again takes me by surprise. His work is mixing influences like Psy-Trance, Tribal and Cinematographic music. The Juno Reactor sound has something special featuring elements you directly recognize; a true sound-DNA. I already got the opportunity to interview Ben Watkins before, but I’ve been deeply touched he accepted to answer questions for this special interview. Great artists aren’t only composing great music; they’re still accessible and humble persons. I’d an endless number of questions to ask. Ben took his time to answer and it finally resulted in one of the most informative and complete Juno Reactor interviews ever. Thanks Ben and respect!
(Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries)
‘I Was Smitten By Girls And Rock’
Q: What have been your first experiments as a musician? What have been the triggers and, which were your favorite bands as a teenager?
Ben: I was born into a family of five kids, I was the second, my parents had both been actor’s. When I was between 5 and 6 years old I would wait for my brother in my classroom to finish his school -I would have about an hour, so about 10 of us kids and a teacher would do drawing, games etc. One day I suggested we do a “Top Of The Pops” (a popular TV show); I formed a band with air-minus-everything, sat my mate Jason down on drums as he had the biggest nose like Ringo Star, can’t remember the others; we would make what surely was a cacophony of made-up words and stamping to the beat. “She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah” must have rung out beyond the classroom as the headmaster, a demonstrative man, with a liking for beating kids with his sports shoe would appear at the window looking very irritated. As it was not the first time I had had the unwarranted shoe across my backside, a shiver would go down my back as his eyes and Hitler moustache bobbed above the door partition.
These pleasant heady afternoons were soon banned due to the repetition of “She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah”. I noticed the rather large female teacher was pretty good at the piano, So I asked if I could have lessons, even her non-stop smoking didn’t not put me off.
The headmaster had too much of a liking for giving me a sore ass, so I asked my parents if I could move school. I had joined the parish choir, the choirmaster was a man named Roy Massey. Roy Massey was cool and pushed me as he liked my voice. He suggested I go to a Cathedral Choir school and apply for a scholarship.
First I went to audition at St Pauls Cathedral in London. It was a bleak audition, I didn’t prepare enough, and glad I escaped what reminded me of a Charles Dickens movie. Next was Chichester. I could breathe in this atmosphere, I passed the audition of 200 kids for one place and felt very puffed up with myself, knowing my parents didn’t have to pay for my education.
Violin followed, along with daily practise -7 am wake up, 30 minutes piano or violin practise. 8 am breakfast, 8:30 practise piano violin, 9 am going to the classroom, 12:00 choir practise, lunch then school, sports, choir practise, choir service, dinner, do homework, play free games, practise then bed. This went on for 4 years along with a new disciplinary teacher who equally enjoyed punishment -this time a cane, up the wide massive stairs of the bishops palace, down a long dark corridor, knock, explain my crime, ‘Ben-d over Watkins’, a leather chair which when bent over lifted my behind into the perfect position. 6 whacks later, my hands firmly on my butt, dark bruises would appear later in the night. I had been born again to the boy I should have been in the first place.
Music school and punishment always seemed interlinked. Even now it annoys me that the first headmaster refused to put my name on the scholarship board, what a cunt. His name was Mr. Sandford.
I survived Chichester, I became the head of House, by this time I was no longer beaten, and had a champion in Mr. Ross, the disciplinary teacher, sports freak alto in the choir with a certain eye for pubescent males. I was good at winning in Rugby, as we had the biggest 13-year-old god or whoever made him, like a superhero he would destroy other schools and me riding on his coattails basked in his glory. Mr. Ross showed me how to take down a man, so we did with as much aggression as possible when he joined in.
I left Chichester, a remnant from the stone age of how not to teach a dyslexic kid like me through corporal punishment on how to learn -I didn’t. My choirmaster at Chichester I must say was equally odd, looking like Eric Malcombe (a British comedian). He again had a draconian delight in making sure the boys of the choir feared him, his eyes would hover over you like the follow spots of a prison camp from high above us in the organ loft. He had two mirrors focused on us, and if you looked up, the Vampire of Bela Lugosi would be there. I can’t say I cried when he died a few years ago, as I still hold a dagger that was thrown too many times my way.
So Wells Cathedral school was next, my introduction to the female sex… well, bye bye learning, OK practise the violin, do all the rest, then focus on bands, Led Zep, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, Queen, glam rock. I was smitten by girls and rock. My mate Simon Baggs was older and had a car, we would venture out of the school across to Glastonbury plateaus, a labyrinthian set of roads through old mash lands, country pubs to drink cider, smoke John Players Special fags, and listen to his 8 tracks (?) as the beams of his car entered the mists of the backcountry lanes. Alice Cooper’s “Love It To Death” album never sounded so sweet. I continued exploring musical possibilities by experimenting with my first band Spiritual Sky, influenced by David Bowie, whose concerts was the first I went to, the Aladdin Sane tour at the Earls Court Stadium.
‘I Was Listening To D.A.F. And I Realised This Is The Future’
Q: Hailing from London (UK) I can imagine the late 70s and 80s have been fascinating years when it comes to music and the (r)evolution of Electronic music. What did these years mean to you and do you still feel an impact today?
Ben: I left school when I was 16/17 with the intent of going to a music college. At that time I played classical guitar, and would practise 8 hours a day, and got quite OK on it. I flunked the first audition as I didn’t present a second instrument. This depressing point changed the course of my life, I was so annoyed by myself, I stopped playing classical guitar and got more into songs of Dylan and people like John Martin. Smoked a ton of dope, started busking, went off to Paris with a semi pyscho guy called Lynn, a man with an addiction to Valium and a crushing right hand as a rhythm guitarist, and spent the summer playing on the streets of Saint Michelle and the Champs Elysée. After months of being arrested (and sometimes put into prison -the police were quite nice and would give me beers to play) I had had enough. I wanted to form a band! Due to my parents lengthily separation and all the conflicts attached to it, starting since I was 9, and final divorce shortly after my return home from Paris, life diverted and I ended up establishing a rehearsal room in the now deserted parental house, where I and my older brother would continue living alone, experiencing the newly found peace and evolving musical projects while rehearsing with my first band Panther. I started gigging, Punk-Rock was kicking off! I was playing, now with my band Rainstorm, the same pubs as the Sex Pistols, Japan, The Stranglers amongst others, we did a tour withThe Frankie Miller Band. A Glasgow singer that should have been born in Memphis -a great singer, wild and very much a Glaswegian. Back then I was booking shows from a red phone box -coins every 30 seconds. Rainstorm turning into I.O.U., we played pretty much every music pub in the country. I really wish I’d kept my bass player from I.O.U. for my next musical project, a guy named Ian Taylor, who I had a natural affinity with.
I was bored of being skint and driving up and down the country for 2 years in our Box Transit with 6 aircraft seats, a PA we had on HP (higher purchase/credit) and going nowhere, fun but nowhere. One time we had to be rescued by the police near Shropshire in Winter, heavy snow blocked the roads at midnight, and the Transit was stranded and being snowed in, the guitarist, also called Ben, had icicles forming on his moustache. I remember crossing fields alone to find a house, first one wouldn’t help us, onto another who did ring the rescue, six of us stuff into a police car -never felt so good.
I partnered up with some musicians an A&R man from CBS suggested. The A&R man was a guy called Chas de Whalley, the brother of a friend of mine from back in the days of the headmaster with a penchant for corporal punishment. We, The Hitmen, went on to be signed to CBS after a year of rehearsals and songs that sounded like a primitive AI had made for a pop audience. Much to the chagrin of CBS, the management and the band, we were incredibly unsuccessful despite all the money and machinery CBS provide. I hated it, the mentality of playing the same notes, in-jokes and seriously underwhelming emotions. I had to leave as I couldn’t stomach The Hitmen any more, the characters in the band were the antithesis of my mental state or desire. Luckily the second album decided to shoot itself in the head, due to too much fighting, no focus and CBS’s realisation The Hitmen were doomed.
Phil Manzanero’s studio (the guitarist of Roxy Music) was a white circular house -I had never seen anything like it! The engineer was a guy called Ian Little. We had made the last Hitmen record there, and I got on with him well. We talked nearly the same language, as opposed to the disconnect with the band. He wanted to make an avant-garde album, free of doctrine -just do what you want. So for a few tracks I threw away all concern and I was to be David Bowie, imagining myself on an alternative “Lodger”-album. Nothing was written, all just improvised. The band was called New Asia… This set my brain off into new ways of writing, like Brian Eno, as studios were expensive and this gave me a chance to experiment.
So in the ’70s and ’80s it felt like I was always playing catch up with what other people were doing. I had had the band signed to CBS – it sounded like another band (Elvis Costello mix), or my previous bands -we didn’t sound particularly individual. It was only when I was sick enough of all the ego’s, bullshit or the hatred that you got from possibly jealous band members, that when I got introduced to a drum machine and a sequencer I realised I could get rid of half the band. I was listening to D.A.F. -it was a two-piece and I realised this is the future.
I met Youth (the bass player of Killing Joke) in ’82, around the time when he had just left Killing Joke and was looking to start a new band, which became Brilliant. I was the only guy he knew with a sequencer so for a short time I joined. Toured UK and Spain. We went on to record under the Name The Youth & Ben Watkins on the “The Empty Quarter”-album and “The Empty Quarter” on the “Delirium” album. Both albums were extremely quick in making; first album -the official soundtrack to Jonathan Moore’s stage play “Street Captives” -2 days. Written, recorded and mixed with predominantly pulsating bass lines, drums, early Greengate samplers and synthesizers. Second album -5 days. We recorded “Delirium”, focusing more on rhythms and Electronic elements with still some instrumental aspect, ranging from Tribal to Industrial to Gothic-Funk. So many funny stories with Youth -the time in Spain on the evacuation of the tour, as it all fell apart after Barcelona; we took all our equipment back on the train, decided to eat all of our dope before the French border. By the time we arrived at midnight, the French border police wanted to play games with this group of English stoners. ‘Who is this woman’ they said, referring to a passport. We all looked and couldn’t identify her? ‘Go find her…’ so we all went looking on the train platform, bewildered and laughing, about an hour later we returned to their pigeon hole and asked to look again, as no way was she still on the platform. Upon second look we realised it was me they were referring to… Ha. Ha.
I heard DAF and Suicide around this time, I was saved! This music spoke to me. My grandmother died and left me 200£ which I immediately spent on a Roland MC 202, a sequencer with one monophonic synth. On HP I bought a cheap drum machine and a Moog Rogue. I formed The Flowerpot Men with Adam Peters, a classical cellist, who later became Echo And The Bunnymen’s orchestrator.
Our first single sold well for an underground track. We toured with Dead Or Alive and Siouxsie And The Banshees. Steven Severin of the Banshee’s produced the first “Single Joe’s So Mean to Josephine”, a dark murderous story I had read in the papers. The police knew who had killed the woman in bed, but couldn’t work out how Joe had managed to tie himself up. For the track I expanded on the story a bit. The 202 was driving this with the added influences of T.Rex, sort of a suicide inspired track. It charted in the indie charts and you could hear it being played by John Peel on BBC Radio 1 and loads of underground Gothic Dj’s. “Jo’s So Mean (to Josephine)” was also on our own independent record label, Compost Records.
In 1985 we recorded a cover of Dr Johns “Walk On Gilded Splinters” with Dr John on guest vocals, at Run DMC’s Studio In Nostrand Ave, Brooklyn NY. The B side featured a track called “Melting Down On Motor Angel” which was an elongation of the new drug MDMA, which we sampled on a roof garden on 8th Street watching a shoot-out down below. “Melting Down On Motor Angel” was also the album title to Sunsonic’s only album.
Around this time also, Sigue Sigue Sputnik started turning up to our gigs in full dress, noting down all we were doing, later to make their own version of our madness. A single a year, then along came Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in 1986 completely out of the blue.
Another EP “Alligator Bait”, four songs inspired again by the time in New York… what wasn’t great about New York at that time? So much vibe, parties, gigs, the Danceteria, hanging out with artists, musicians, actors, painters, just walking down the street was like being in a Kojak episode, I loved it!
We were building a nice audience when Adam decided to go produce a Punk band in Denmark instead of headlining the Temple of Gothic achievement -the Camden Palace. The Flowerpot Men were no more.
Yello had come into my life with the “80 – 85”-remix album, it never left the record player, Sonic Youth, Front 242, most of the Mute Records catalogue, Beggars Banquet label, ZTT were making records I could only dream of creating…
So rethink time, 9 months of thinking, writing; rave music came in 86/87, early parties hanging out with KLF in their squat. Sometimes engineering their remixes, or going on the highland adventures with the KLF, making a copy of “The Wicker Man” for all KLF’s licencees, flown onto a small island on the Western Isles (the same place they burnt a million pounds in the name of art and cocaine), so like a twat, as again I was skint I did the opposite of good, and tried and succeed in going and signing with another major label, this time Polydor Records and with my Flowerpot partner, I started Sunsonic. Part of the deal was they build us a studio to save on costs, so what seemed a cool idea -and was in some ways -was us investing into learning how (and not) to become an engineer, an album that should have taken a few months turned into two years and sounded like it: over thought under inspired.
I worked with Alex Paterson (The Orb) again and formed a short-lived band called Peace In The Middle East, same name as the track we created, a sort of goodwill floppy dance sounding workout, nothing special.
When there was so much great quick music being made we were in creative limbo. So the impact changed. Find a new way to present a band, no longer did I want the ego of one partner, I wanted a collective or collaborators and keep the vibe and atmosphere good and exciting.
Adam left for the USA, I stayed and started Juno Reactor.
‘Juno Reactor Was Set Up As An Art Collective’
Q: I think Juno Reactor was originally set up as an art collective/gallery, right? Who was involved? What was it all about and how did it finally become a music collective centred around you?
Ben: Juno Reactor was set up as an art collective, with writers, installation artists, filmmakers, etc. Norma Fetcher, my girlfriend, took a surface to air missile and we drove it around London down past Parliament Square, Big Ben, Whitehall on a flatbed truck, with armoured personal carriers front and back whilst dressed as Arabs -an anti Gulf War protest, and installed it into an art Gallery, the Diorama, that was owned by the Queen and had a perfect silo shape in the middle where the rocket was newly erected. For this, I wrote “Luciana” -really Juno Reactor’s first album, which was also a suggestion of Jimmy Cauty (KLF) that I should do an hour mix as he had just done, as an experiment. The trouble with art was funding and much easier for me to get musical backing so it folded as soon as it began. Although R&S Records did sponsor that show as I had released a track called “I Love You” under the name of Electrotete with future JR musician Stephan Holweck (who later became Total Eclipse), a crazy French guy and brilliant bass player who also lived in the Benio squat with Jimmy.
The main people in the first two Juno Reactor albums were: Mike Maquire, a great guy I met at the distribution company Greyhound, when releasing a self-released title “Pycho SlapHead”, a brutal rave track with a sense of murderous humour. Mike was great, he had been in India many times and loved the early scene where DJ’s were already playing my tracks. I had to find out more, so we went into my studio in Bowl Court and Mike turned me on to the current sound of India. As it was so close to my Electronic sound it was an easy hop onto a train – Sci-Fi Landscapes, my 202 still purring like a train, we made the track “High Energy Protons”. Mike took it to India and immediately it became a big track there and abroad: Japan, Greece, France, Germany and UK. Tracks kept on hoping out in two or three days, with Stephan Holweck and Mike and soon we had about nine or ten tracks, so I took them up to Mute Records, intending to only perhaps sell one track. They loved it and wanted the album!
No one knew what this music was, so they called it intelligent Techno, albums were selling, gigs were happening, I was feeling more comfortable about the debts of Sunsonic being paid off.
‘For Me It Was A Sci-Fi Scene For Acid Party People’
Q: The singles “Laughing Gas” and “High Energy Protons” plus the debut album “Transmissions” (1993) were into Goa-Trance. Back in time this genre was something totally new and often introduced as ‘Electronics for hippies’. What did you keep in mind from this album and how did you see the Goa-Trance movement evolving?
Ben: Well, I never saw it as music for hippies -for me it was a Sci-fi scene for acid party people, hippies were still listening to Dylan in my mind. I had come from the Industrial-Rock routes, with heavy sense or brutal Electronica, which was also being played out in India, so for me, it was not much of a diversion, more like an extension of what I had already been doing. So I hooked up with Mike and Johann Bley, a great writer and drummer, who lived in Goa for 6 months of the year whilst I stayed in the UK and carried on writing tracks. Youth by this time was also indulging in holidays out there. It was a great way to write with no commercial interest, and just get what was great feedback from India and the parties. Essentially it was a very positive way of producing after what was a rather grim time whilst with Sunsonic.
“Transmissions” was the first real beginning of something special, Mike Maguire – Stephan Holweck – Johann Bley even Turnip the Swede Jens Walderbeck, had an important part to play in the new playground. Mike and Johann would go to Goa and live there for 6 months of the year, send feedback on tracks, that even in these days of fire hilltop communication, managed to pass on the vibe of the parties, as I worked on new tracks to send out, or wait for their return. I had no idea of the lazy days on the beaches, rented houses year round, with cleaners and cooks, small or large jungle parties where monkeys would be interactive with the monkeys our tracks (“Jungle High”) -I have sampled a lot of monkey sounds.
These new Cyber-Punks would network in the blessed out Goa sun, to return to their homelands, far away from paradise and the free love of this un-celebrated underground unknown music, their generation accepting of all ages, colours race. Would telegraph their passion, create parties in on hidden mountains in Japan, sex clubs in L.A, warehouse London, gymnasiums in Paris, disused airports in Germany, Outback volcanos in Australia. We were invisible to the industry of wannabe stars and bankrupt music.
This kinetic energy of knowing you were onto something new was the drug, like a secret society that anyone could join, if you had digested the shared psychedelic values.
Our new world was fresh, driven, invited around the world, “Transmissions” was transmitting on a global level, that music magazines and house DJs couldn’t fathom.
The studio building was from the time of Jack the Ripper, a 3 story warehouse used for god knows what, the atmosphere had not left it, along with some of the rather back street people you might expect in that area of London. Prostitutes would use the car park at the back, working their trade. Sometime city guys in suits would be aggressive and attack the women, so we kept a baseball bat by the door and if we heard their screams we would run out in the name of protection.
Q: Your next album “Luciana” (1994) was something totally different and not exactly the most familiar album from your discography. But I think there’re a few interesting things to say about this work; it revealed your interest in Soundtracks while it got released on Alex Paterson’s (The Orb) own label Inter-Modo. What brought you to write this album and how did you get in touch with Alex Paterson?
Ben: This goes back to the Missile Project and the involvement in installation art. Alex (THE ORB) heard the album and loved it, he said ‘Can I release it?’, why not I thought, so I spent an afternoon with Alex in the studio, he added some elements over the stereo track and that became the album. I met Alex in 1986, as he is Youth oldest and best friend, an ex roadie of Killing Joke with an amazing record collection, a massive ability to smoke more than London can produce and speak in a way you need a hearing aid to listen.
Q: I’ve always linked Juno Reactor with solid bass lines and transcendental drums. “Beyond The Infinite” (1995) perfectly symbolizes these elements, but also your interest to explore new ideas like Tribal drums. What did this work say about your perception of ‘sound’ and eventually your passion for drums?
Ben: “Beyond The Infinite”, by this time Mute and cool London were not fans of Goa or Trance anymore, and decided to call it ‘Tarquin Techno’ in the media, because of the image that rich kids were behind the scene, which -looking at myself, was obviously bollocks, but in Goa there certainly were a few, and maybe the other scenes sensing danger, ridiculed it. They were about to steal the name of trance. Paul Oakenfold(like ‘Sique Sique Sputnick’) was hanging out at parties, listening, collecting ideas and tracks, the house was moving to Trance. Clever, to take this and add all the crap vocals and sell it off to the sheep… Their power and media savvy then became ‘Trance’. Not sure what our scene was, Psychedelic-Trance? Along come all these pigeon holes. Name it, sell it. We didn’t give a shit and stayed as far away from the cliché as possible. Mike was so great at this time, he had the best tunes of anyone, and was in great demand as an international DJ, from the USA to Japan and sometimes we would join him as a live three-piece. Brilliant days, we were a family.
Q: I think you’re an artist with a very unique sound DNA! What I’m trying to say is that I instantly can recognize your work by the bass lines, the orchestral arrangements, the hypnotic drum sections… What makes this DNA and where does it come from?
Ben: I have no idea. Like all musicians, I have collected and been inspired by what I needed and wanted. I love all types of music, still do, these DNA strands are unique, the hard part is how to lay them out for others to share and enjoy. I wanted to be a photographer when very young, my dad said it was too expensive, so film, TV, pictures, music all collided and formed whatever I am in my tastes for music.
‘I Decided To Become More Grounded In Earthly Sounds From The Percussion’
Q: It’s impossible not evoking “Bible Of Dreams” (1997), which revealed new ideas and collaborations. I consider this work as your magnum opus, which even today hasn’t lost its original magic. How do you look back at this work 24 years later and are there some aspects of the production you would do differently?
Ben: So the time of “Bible Of Dreams” came along. Robert Trunz, CEO of MELT2000 -the umbrella company which ran Blue Room, and Simon Ghahary, the managing director of Blue Room -a sub-label based in the UK specialising in Electronic music, had signed Juno Reactor to Blue Room/Melt 2000 for “Beyond The Infinite”, as Mute didn’t want it. Robert was a jazz freak, and he got me involved in his great love for African music. Robert and Simon were different, business was easy, as Robert was pretty loaded and loved to invest in his artists. He took over my shabby warehouse studio, put in a massive Raindurk Symphony Desk, massive monitors that would be anyone’s wet dream, 9 bass drivers aside, they blew the roof off. He took over landlord costs, God I was free of all these costs, and could make music without the fear of losing it all.
I had been introduced to the African musicians on Melt 2000. All the scene was doing was still making chemical noises, and stick in an alien landscape for the acid heads. Although this is enjoyable, it became very repetitive. So I decided to become more grounded in earthly sounds from the percussion. The only percussionists I had been introduced to before Amampondo were generally white guys, flipping away on drums in a sloppy-sloppy fashion, or German-style timpani military way which I had found pretty useless and saw no advantage in it on a track. So my mind was blown away by Mabi -power, rhythmic complexity, fun, tradition, amazing rhythms that propelled the track! My eyes were opened and I felt stupid I had not seen what so many others had -say for example my favourite drummer Ginger Baker -why hadn’t I noticed African drumming that years before? Anyway, I was now awake to its potential in my world of cross over, not interested in world music in its pure form and wanted to create a fusion with electronic music and see what comes out.
Working with Mabi was so instinctive, we both saw tracks in the same way as pictures and thoughts, I literally fell over him in a music studio corridor where he was asleep on the floor when I was producing a Zulu Band for Melt 2000 in South Africa. We got talking and I invited him and Amampondo to play all the percussion, so in a way, our future was laid out there.
I felt I knew what I was doing, none of my UK band wanted to tour the USA with Moby for just 30 minutes a night, so I called Mabi and Amampondo , did a few rehearsals and off on tour! This moment diverted the future of the project for the next 12 years where I would tour with Amampondo.
“God Is God” could finally be added to a Juno Reactor album, as now JUNO RREACTOR was more interested in the earth sounds, leaving sci-fi behind. “God Is God” was written around the end of “Transmissions”, needed a better mix, but was ready. The album fell into place so easily.
I wouldn’t touch “Bible Of Dreams” as it is a record of where I was musically at the time. I firmly believe people walk on our path for a reason, be it for a short or long period. How we interact with them is up to us. Some people unexpectedly turn out to be far more important than you could ever have imagined. Some you will love until you die, while other return to the mist of being.
Q: I read somewhere that after “Bible Of Dreams” you got the feeling to be done with Electronic music. What was it all about? Was it a kind of exhaustion or blank page syndrome?
Ben: It happens a lot to me, especially with Electronic music. Far too many people seem to be happy to create a platform. Be it Trance, Techno, Ambient, Drum’n’Bass, Bass music, whatever. It gets like an L.A motorway full of polluting gases all sounding the same. So I go left, maybe my mistake there, but as I am totally useless at being commercial, I prefer my way. And hope others enjoy it.
‘The Track Was Built Around My Love For Tarantino And Westerns, Clint Eastwood And “Once Upon A Time In The West”’
Q: The opening song “Pistolero” from the “Shango”-album (2000) probably became your biggest hit ever. It sounds differently because of this guitar play and yet it remains 100% Juno Reactor! I remember my reaction when I heard it for the very first time: ‘this guy is crazy’! Was this song a kind of antithesis to all what you’ve done before? And how did you imagine the future of the project right at the new millennium?
Ben: On tour I met up with Steve Stevens. After speaking with him on the phone about the recent Traci Lords album that I produced, I invited him to play on a show in L.A, a great venue, like an old-fashioned sports hall with a running track above. Now, I think how freaked out he must have been, as I patched him into my desk, he would play, and I would cut him off at random, he kept on looking over as if to say ‘WHAT THE FUCK?!’, he must have thought I was crazy, he didn’t complain but you don’t do this to a Rock Legend. Anyway, we got on, he asked me to produce a track for his album – yep, “Pistolero”.
Steve wasn’t used to my regime of endless hours in the studio and I think after six days his eyes were somewhere down near his guitar swaying hips, exhausted he returned to the USA. He wasn’t that impressed, so I agreed to pay his costs, and I would release it. I worked on it a ton more, and out popped the track we know.
The track was built around my love for Tarantino and Westerns, Clint Eastwood and “Once Upon A Time In The West”. When it was released I named it the “Tarantino Radio Edit”. Quentin loved it and Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino then wrote “Once Upon A Time In Mexico” after being inspired by my “Pistolero” track, which they credited in the CD booklet.
Currently, I’m working on the new album, Steve Stevens, Sugizo and Amir Haddad will hopefully all on the same track.
Working with Amampondo was a dream, we never argued, just laughed a lot, after having lived in each other’s pockets on tour we got on well. I learnt more from them than they did of me. Their sense of rhythm, spontaneity, improvisation, the humour of dance, the humour of anything. We would do shows, stop the machines and go into full-on Tribal rhythms, songs of the Pondo’s. Every night was different. Mandla and Simpewe would perform acrobatics when we played “Feel The Universe”, crowds loved this, even though injuries happened, the next night they would do it again. I carried on working with them for 12 years until it became impossible to bring them from South Africa due to rising costs and falling promoters budgets.
I should add that Traci Lords was also very cool to work with, and had several enjoyable sessions with her, which led to a top 5 USA billboard track titled “Control” and a number of movie syncs from these sessions.
‘“Matrix” Was Like Being Shot And Landing In Heaven With A Ticket Back To Earth’
Q: Your songs got more and more featured in movies and you wrote different songs for Soundtracks. I can imagine the “Matrix”-experiences must have been a kind of ultimate dream and accomplishment? But what has been the impact of all these experiences –and more especially “The Matrix”, on your career?
Ben: I love films, first of all, so for it to combine with my music is a dream job no matter what the film is. I will score a bug on a wall, and still enjoy it. “Matrix” was like being shot and landing in heaven with a ticket back to earth. After the initial meeting with the Wachowski’s I had to smash nails into my boots to keep me from flying off to the stars. Reality hit in a good way and was the toughest discipline mixed with the excitement of being able to please the directors and myself. What do I take away from it? A sense of achievement that I did something very special. I still get composers coming up to me and saying it is a landmark film for integration of Electronics and orchestra which is what the Wachowski’s wanted. It helped me believe in my writing al lot more, although confidence is like the wind, some days you have it others not.
The daily routine of waking up in heaven is not always as easy as it sounds, as even in my camp I would experience jealousy, I had brought with me a programmer (Stephan Holweck) an engineer (Greg Hunter) Singer (Taz) Stephan more turned into a cook and this frustrated his, as he wanted to be more involved, but the way out worked out there was no real room for him. Greg brought in his friend, which added to the annoyance of Greg; Greg would come in and say as I was working on “The Burly Brawl”, ‘that is a load of crap’ in-front of his friend as a light heated joke, which they all found very funny, I took Greg outside and suggested he return back to London as he wasn’t on my team, either buck up or go home. I should have sacked Greg as he would do things like after a mix was finished, he wanted to polish it more, so first time I agreed and I went back to the Paramore to sleep. I got a call from the dub stage early in the morning saying ‘what is this mix, it is horrible!!!’ I asked what time it was made they said 8 am, I replied please listen to mix from 1:00 am . They did and said thank you this is great.
Greg Hunter had in the hours between, added noises, effects I knew would be unwanted, and a rebalance uncalled for. He had become a liability to me, as now Warner were clocking his over times. I could not get rid of him as I didn’t know another great engineer in L.A. I would never use him again. These unexpected invasions add a colour I would have preferred had not happened, as these were not the only times he tried to unravel the job.
Zig Gron (my Music Editor) on the other hand, a man I did not know previously was my guardian angel. He walked me through all of the landmines, I asked him to teach me all he could, and I was in a 100 milesper hour world on information upload. Zig was funny, informative and such a bloody relief to have near me. God save Zig Gron and all who sail around him.
Q: The Soundtrack you composed for the “Brave Story”-animation film (2006) must have been something really special. For the very first time you composed the entire Soundtrack and here again I discovered some new aspects like the song “Juno Waltz”. How did you prepare and finally composed this work?
Ben: This was composed under my name Ben Watkins rather than Juno Reactor. I had done another one, like “Beowulf”. I asked them why they wanted me to write for mainly orchestra, and they said we would like to hear how it sounds. So I sort of did my impression of ‘a man who knew what he was doing and what they were talking about’. There were a few production problems re-budget, as it wasn’t cheap for an Anime film. Once that was over, it was surprisingly easy, maybe a lot easier than writing for pure Electronics as the orchestra tone is defined by what you want, and once set, you have your pallet of sounds more or less. “Juno Waltz”, funny you mention that one, as it was the one I most feared to write, as again it has been so defined by other writers. I wrote it last, and it just popped out, it was also the one I felt the orchestra liked the most as they would tap their music stands like clapping.
We recorded the Orchestra and choir in Bratislava, The Bratislavian Symphony Orchestra and a Vienna choir. I remember on the way to the massive radio sound stage all the older ladies at the bus stops had bright blue/purple hair. A hangover from communist times maybe, thought it looked great and definitely a way I wouldn’t mind my hair, like Quintan Crisp on acid.
Q: You also composed music for animation games. Does it need a different approach than for soundtracks? Any preference and/or favorite?
Ben: “The Mark Of Kri” was a sort of nightmare, in as far as I had to create on each level two hours of non repeating music, on 0.5 MB, which now sounds insane huh. So you have an excitement engine, 0 – 100, fight mode is 50 plus. I had to build the macros to enable this. So deep learning curve, endless nights on the phone to Scott in San Francisco. This is a bit like the early beginning maybe of programs like WWise.com -which is a sampler on Crack, and hold so many possibilities for AI and VR, which makes me really excited for the future of music and sonic displacement for composers. My preference for games is really to write and hand over in stereo or 5.1.
“PS4 Gran Turismo” -I made special mixes of tracks from the not so soon to be released album “The Mutant Theatre”, I didn’t have much involvement on this as they loved the tracks I presented and it was done.
Thanks of the Galaxy was a scored mobile game. Despite it being for mobile-only, I really enjoyed working with the team in Finland, in which I presented a Sci-fi industrial orchestral score made from orchestra libraries by George Strezov well worth checking out.
‘“Navras” Is The Biggest Track I Have Written’
Q: “Labyrinth” (2004), “Gods & Monsters” (2008), “Inside The Reactor” (2011), “The Golden Sun Of The Great East” (2013) and “The Mutant Theatre” (2018) are the studio-albums released after 2000. How would you analyze the evolution of these productions considering items like influences, technology vs. production and new collaborations?
Ben: “Labyrinth” is “The Matrix”-album, and after the experience of the last track for “The Matrix Revolutions”, “Navras”, I couldn’t write a thing. “Navras” is the biggest track I have written, or been involved in with 120-piece orchestra, 80-piece choir, soloists, percussionists… So for three months after that I was bashing my head against a wall back in the UK. I think mainly as I was still missing the vibe of L.A, the people always around, the buzz. Until “Conquistador” Parts 1 & 2 came to save me along with guitarist Eduardo Niebla. I was mainly working very analogue, real drums, humans playing, and I still do, but now I am 75% out of the box and 25% in the box. Loads of new software have enabled me to make it more expansive.
“Gods & Monsters”-I wanted it less epic than “Labyrinth”, write some songs that spoke to me at the time, and try a sort of Jazzy feel to some of it. Not very popular with the Juno Reactor dance crowd at the time, I still love certain tracks. A lot of artists musicians feel constrained by the genre they are in, main thing to me is to stand by what you write, and try it, it ain’t going to kill you.
One track for example, “Tanta Pena” from “Gods & Monsters” -I was driving to the studio at Ridge Farm when a voice came on the BBC world music show, I had to stop and listen. A cross between a butterfly and a thunderstorm, it took the wind out of my lungs. As soon as the song was over I rang the station and asked who it was. Yasmin Levy! I contacted her husband who was also her agent/manager and asked if she would be interested in recording with me.
Yasmin and the manager arrived on a beautiful Summer’s day. Ridge Farm is in the Surrey countryside, an Elizabethan Estate with grounds, a swimming pool, beautifully landscaped gardens, all made possible by Frank Andrews never-ending building work on his estate.
I had moved into Ridge Farm after “The Matrix” films when I heard the studio on the estate was laying bare. I was able to bring my equipment and use one of Englands classic studio’s. Muse, Queen, Ozzie Osbourne and so many more had recorded here…
Yasmin was shy, and maybe only 20yrs old when she visited the farm. I played her my idea’s, talked a little, not much really and went into record! With one take it was done on both tracks, no need to do any more, she had nailed it! It is quite amazing when this happens, like Lakshmi Shankar on “Navras”.
I carried on working the track to bring it to her level, with an amazing Zook player from Arminia, Tigran Aleksanyan with the merciless drumming of Greg Ellis, who, when I started working with him in the studio, sounded a bit like a session player. His appearance was that of a typical tattoed L.A drummer, calm, spiritually balanced in appearance -and a very amiable personality.
I asked Greg to let his rage out for this track, really hit those fuckers! I unleashed a beast, a monster, his whole countenance changed, Fire and brimstone drumming, an apocalypse of anger and frustration came out! Drum skins didn’t last long, an inverted blister would appear on the snare within one take! Greg loved this approach, which you can also hear on “The Immaculate Crucifixion”. After this, “Tanta Pena” was complete.
The original song dates back to the time when the Spanish ejected the Jewish population or made them convert to Christianity around 1492. It is sung in Ladino by Yasmin Levy whose father was a famous archivist of Ladino music, “No More Blood” –“Tanta Pena”.
“Golden Sun Of The Great East” -I went to India to record a lot of the soloists, and this opened up my world to new horizons, as I found Bombay very “Blade Runner”-ish, ancient and modern all running parallel, crazy, mad, tragic and beautiful.
Magical things happen, even when you are not looking, I was on a day trip around the studio’s of Mumbai with a potential agent for me in India. We entered a black and gold studio, very camp, I would expect Freddie Mercury of Queen to pop out and say ‘Hello darlings, welcome to my fuck fest!’ instead it was a wonderful Panjabi singer being recorded for a film. Our next appointment was with the Mozart of Indian film music, A R Rahmen. Excited I jumped in the taxi, horns blaring, rain falling, a bright night journey. Next to me in the taxi was the Panjabi singer, ‘Hey can you sing me a song into my zoom recorder, as we wait for my agent to say his goodbyes’. 4 minutes later, a song that never varied off its pitch, was in my data control. Leaving out the A R Rahmen meeting as it was nice, but nothing special, I returned to the hotel where eagles would fly high above in the morning light, I listened back, to the Mumbai traffic and the voice of a celestial being. I started writing “Invisible”, the second track on the album.
“The Mutant Theatre” was written for the show -a Sci-Fi extravaganza where choreographed performance really took over the direction.
For me, the last two albums speak to me how I want to hear them, and possibly my favourite albums.
“The Mutant Theatre” was designed as a show album. In 2015 I was asked by the Ozora Festival to come back the next year with a new show, I had thought of a show to be called “The Mutant Theatre” 5 years before when in Russia and working with two amazing Performance groups, Agnivo, from Moscow, and Stigma Show from St.Petersburg. I presented this idea in pictures to Ozora, which they loved. It was expensive as it involved around 18 people.
Eyal Yankovich had been my agent for 5 years or so, also the head of Hommega Records. He was an OK agent, getting me the occasional gig or tour, what he was really good at was igniting my imagination with tunes, and suggest I listen to many great tracks, ‘How about a new “Pistolero” Ben?’
Eyal Hung himself before he could listen to the final “Return Of The Pistolero”-version or the album, which still a saddens me.
Sanja Music, our tour manager, started to really help me, not only from a business perspective, but also from a listening view point. Despite being unable to discuss in a musical language, she would always hit it on the head, find a way to describe the best versions, enthusiasm, insights, referenced insights how fans can view it, how it might work on stage. Spend hours discussing and evolving ideas. I met Sanja many years before in Slovenia when we were playing with Laibach. A tall shiny girl in Japanese fashion appeared solo waiting for the doors to open, a Sugizo fan I believed. We stayed in contact through Myspace and later meeting up in Japan when I was having tours there. She came to the 2015 Ozora Festival and I’ve asked her to photograph Juno Reactor. After we went to Budapest to sight see the city, when I realised what a great addition she would me to Juno Reactor, little did I know how central to my thinking and the project she would become.
‘I Want To Give Something To The Audience That They Might Not Have Seen Before’
Q: You’ve always worked and composed your albums with guest musicians and –singers while going on tour with dance companies, drummers ao. It all feels a bit like the initial goal of creating a ‘collective’ has never changed. What did you learn from all these meetings, collaborations and exchanges?
Ben: I want to give something to the audience that they might not have seen before. Maybe this goes back to my days of loving David Bowie, and his great performances, always looking for a new way. I feel a sense of family when we are on the road, not always possible with some people, but when it is good it is great. I am still learning how best to be, and how to navigate the waters of human interaction. I feel most comfortable in my studio along with all the other me’s talking.
Q: Your brother Simon Watkins has been often involved in the artwork of Juno Reactor. It all looks like arts is a family thing. Where does it come from and is there a next Watkins generation to hold on this artistic fire?
Ben: Simon, my brother, helped me focus on art and how to look at it. He always had an unusual taste, a black comedy in his work that I loved. My parents were actors, and despite we were a family of 5 kids, and totally squint, I have no clue why our blood directs us to the arts, as it would be much simpler if we had just wanted a normal life. My parents gave up on their careers too early I always felt, and so I have to live with the musical sword in my hand.
Django, my younger son, is at film university learning the art of script writing and direction, Tim, my older son, is a great musician and records tracks I love. Scarlet and her friend wrote a track for a Japanese singer that was pretty successful. Scarlet at one time wanted to take over Juno Reactor, maybe she still does who knows, but she has chose marine photography for now.
‘AI, VR & AR Have So Much Potential For Young Musicians To Escape The Old Models Of Creation And Start A New Chapter In Music’
Q: A lot of things have changed/evolved since the early Juno Reactor years; think about technology, new equipment & music programs, streaming, social media etc… What have been the pros and cons?
Ben: I started out on an MC 202 and now I have a museum, a laboratory, loads of instruments that I play. I miss the hangouts in the studio, as everyone has a studio, so we became moles. I love the independence of starting a Juno Reactor label, which I and Sanja Karin Music, who is my manager and for a number of years has also collaborated on artwork, future NFTs on knownorigin.io and other platforms, and a variety of creative projects and activities, which we will be rolling out in the coming year.
The new possibilities of NFT’s and blockchain, which might well help the independent musician into a new economic model. AI, VR & AR have so much potential for young musicians to escape the old models of creation and start a new chapter in music, independent from middlemen and greedy manipulators from the dark alleys of the old music industry. A new world awaits in the decade to come, and I am excited by it, and what it will become. This doesn’t in any way exclude the old ways, or purity of the orchestra, classical musicians, just a new voice in the galaxy.
Q: Covid-19 has seriously affected artistic activities all over the world. How did you keep yourself busy and what are you actually working on?
Ben: I am learning the Viola, this has kept me in focus at times, writing new tracks with this has been very enjoyable, as well as testing, as I am still learning, and it will take me a long time to play the way I would like. I swim in the sea, this I love when I can afford the time -a sea swim now takes me about 2:30 hours compared to the pool of 1 hour. It blows all the cobwebs and bad thoughts away -of which there have been many through the past year, no question. I think a lot of artists had a very hard time, a lot of artists might have been forced to stop doing what they love, which is very sad. Like many others as well, I have been forced to look into the paperwork side of the project and face all the different misdemeanours and manipulations from a number of people I preferred not to face while gigs were still bringing in enough money to keep going.
‘Sooner Or Later An Autobiography Could Certainly Happen’
Q: I read in a post you got the idea to write an autobiography, which I think is a real interesting idea. Is it something concrete and are there some next ‘big’ dreams you want to accomplish?
Ben: Well, it is odd, as I have lived long enough to tell stories other people find interesting, or so they say. Sometimes I get caught up in them, and it reminds me of talking to family members before they died. As you can ask them a historic question of how life was, and you can see their eyes glaze over as they reminisce as if they are walking the streets and cafes they used to. It is beautiful to see and hear. I don’t want to become a broken record and recite story after story, so maybe one time if I can write it OK, it might be interesting. My manager Sanja has been pushing me to write down or talk about times in my life and slowly collect all these to be turned into an entity at some point, so sooner or later an autobiography could certainly happen. It might have been silly of me to suggest I’m writing it on a simple social media travel picture that looked to me like a book cover, but perhaps having the public know and expect it will give me an extra boost to keep working on it, with my managers help, as an dyslexic person I was surprised to find that I’m really enjoying this process.
‘The Older I Get The More I Want To Do Music, Scuba, Swim, And Exploring New Horizons’
Q: An interesting item for the autobiography could be to know what you would have done in life without music? And do you have specific hobbies/passions next to music?
Ben: I remember one day my father said ‘If you pass this exam, I will buy you a pony’. I tried my best, but still failed, and thus had to grow up pony-less. I wonder what would have happened had I passed the exam. Would I really have gotten a pony? Would I perhaps be in a completely different profession today? I should ring up my dad and ask if he actually planned to get that pony …
A lot of people through-out my life have mistook my dreamy exterior to think I am lazy, when in fact my brain has never stopped talking, the conversations I have in my mind seem to me to be more interesting than the ones outside, so I can be non responsive, come over as aloof. The reality is I have drifted off into my own world again. Where I might think I have answered a question asked by someone, just to realise it was only answered in my head. Dyslexia has strange traits, and for me it is this, I am word blinded sometimes that also raises my pulse to a train, panic. I envy people who can be logical, and competent in social exchanges. Stage is my way out, a sort of nether world between reality and dreams where I feel confident of its power.
Without music, I would be a shadow, maybe worked in a stable or farm all my life, something that didn’t need a searching brain. The older I get the more I want to do music, scuba, swim, and exploring new horizons.
Q: “Pistolero” is the Juno Reactor-song I make people listen to, who aren’t familiar with your work. Which one would you choose?
Ben: At the moment, Ummm my latest one: “Coyote You Me And The Stars”. As it was written for a very special moment and one I will forever remember. I bought an amazing keyboard at the beginning of the crisis, which has been my main frame and primary sound source, the Quantum keyboard by Waldorf, it is such an unusual instrument. It is possible to create sonic textures I haven’t heard before, a 3D motion I have been looking for, this along with the viola.
I am more interested in how I can hold the sound in the stereo field to give depth and spatial pleasures. Political events don’t usually invade my thoughts yet this has been unavoidable.
Witten by: Ben Watkins
Co-editor: Sanja Karin Music (management & shrink services)
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