The Motet moves with Madonna and Mylo
October 27, 2006
In the beginning, Dave Watts was influenced by the big rock bands. As a kid in Syracuse, N.Y., the aspiring drummer grooved to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. As a student at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, jazz pushed aside classic rock as a core inspiration.In Shockra, an early ’90s Boston-based band that featured Watts on drums and as writer of much of the material, he was influenced by funk and groove. (It could also be said that Watts had some influence on the jam-band world; Shockra was part of the nascent jam-band scene that began to coalesce in the early ’90s.) When he moved to Boulder in 1994, Watts took some cues from the folk-rock world, in the song-and-vocal-oriented band, Skin.When he formed his current outfit, the Motet, in 1998, Watts began by absorbing Afro-Cuban sounds. In fact, he and fellow percussionist Scott Messersmith, the only other constant in the Motet, made two trips to Cuba to study the Afro-Cuban style at its source. Over the years, the Motet, which has featured a revolving cast of players, has added the influences of electronica and the Afro-beat of the late Fela Kuti.Now, the 38-year-old Watts finds himself being pushed musically by two unexpected forces: Madonna, the 48-year-old pop-culture icon, and Mylo Maxwell Watts, Watts’ 1-year-old son.The birth of Mylo last October caused Watts to restructure his life. Touring was cut back; more time was spent being a daddy. And that has had a major impact on Papa Watts’ musicality.
“Having a kid, we had a lot of downtime,” said Watts, from his home in the Boulder area. “So I had a lot of time at home. That gave me time to work on the material and do things that were specific for an album, rather than the live show.”That influence is evident in “Instrumental Dissent,” the Motet’s fourth studio album, released last month. The album is tighter and more textured than the band’s previous studio recordings. “Instrumental Dissent” features samples of vocals by such influential writers as Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Alice Walker, as well as by singer and activist Harry Belafonte.”It’s much more of a creative effort, as opposed to a re-creation of what we do live,” said Watts, who has kept intact the core lineup from “Instrumental Dissent” – guitarist Ryan Jalbert, keyboardist Adam Revell, bassist Garrett Sayers and saxophonist Dominic Lalli, in addition to the drumming team of himself and Messersmith – for his current touring band. “We got to explore the whole electronic realm, which is really fun.”‘Material Girl’ and more
The other influence comes from perhaps an even odder direction.Over the past handful of years, the Motet has made a tradition of adapting a musical persona for its run of Halloween gigs. In the past, the Motet has dipped into the repertoire of such compatible artists as Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and the Tower of Power. Two years ago, the band started to veer off the expected course by devoting its Halloween shows to Prince, and last year it was the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.This year, the Motet goes fully off the track. The Halloween run – six Colorado shows, including Sunday, Oct. 29, at Belly Up in Aspen – is devoted to the Queen of Pop, Madonna Louise Ciccone.The unusual choice of tributee means the Motet also had to change its approach to the concerts. When tackling Hancock, Wonder or even Prince, Watts and company would simply learn an evening’s worth of tunes by the selected artist. But Madonna’s music is so far in the pop realm and so closely identified with the singing parts, that the Motet couldn’t just cover such songs as “Like a Virgin.””In the past, we’ve taken our favorite tunes and just played them as Michael Jackson or Prince would have,” said Watts. “This year we’re putting lots of time into making it as much of the Motet as possible, to give it more of our vibe rather than the Madonna vibe. Everyone took a few tunes and put a new twist to it. It’s a lot of energy, but worth it.”
The strangest aspect is that Watts would want to put any energy into Madonna’s music. “I grew up not liking the whole Madonna ’80s thing,” said Watts, noting that the Motet also considered covering Jamiroquai, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and Earth, Wind & Fire. “I was into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Madonna, for me, was not an artist I was inspired by.” Madonna’s ’90s turn toward less pop-flavored music, however, brought her closer to Watts’ universe. “Her later stuff was a whole house feel and electronica vibe, which suits us real well.”Watts, however, focused on the hits in creating the Halloween show. The set will feature some 18 tunes, “every single one of them a hit,” he promised. And Watts himself took on arranging some of the early pop tunes that he didn’t enjoy when they dominated radio. To make it palatable, he radically rethought the songs. The Motet’s version of “Like a Virgin” is reworked as a ska tune, “Material Girl” becomes an Afro-beat number, and “La Isla Bonita” gets a salsa rhythm. “Not liking her so much forced us to change it, so we’re not just a cover band,” added Watts, who was in the midst of compiling a best of the ’80s soundtrack to play over the PA for the Halloween shows.The Motet put energy into more than just the music. Halloweens past saw the band dressing up, naturally, but only the lead singer would attempt to impersonate the artist du jour. This year, the whole band will be decked out in Madonna-esque white tuxedoes, and the guest vocalist for the tour, Selina Albright, has six costume changes for the night, to better reflect Madonna’s skin-shedding ways. (The Motet will also add a second keyboardist, Joey Porter, for the concerts.) The shows also feature a Madonna-themed video component.Going deepWatts says the Motet gets something more out of its Halloween shows than just a goofy good time.”Last year we did Michael Jackson, and we appreciated the fact that people recognized every song,” he said. “That’s inspiring, for an instrumental band to find that on occasion. Madonna, too, has that massive pop appeal.”
And looking deep into an artist’s music, especially someone who, for Watts, was so far off his beaten path, has an impact. Several years ago, the Motet devoted a New Year’s Eve gig to the music of Nigerian singer and political activist Fela Kuti. Kuti’s Afro-beat style, Watts said, made its mark on the Motet CD “Music for Life,” written and recorded soon after.”Just researching an artist so in depth, digging into their material, opens up your mind to a lot of stuff,” he said Watts. Studying Madonna’s music “changed my playing a lot over the past year. I’ve worked on jazz and funk and world music my whole life, but never pop. This is an exercise in simplicity.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com