We’ve been following James Watson of Eightch since meeting him in a chance encounter a few years ago at Moogfest. For our tenth mix, he compiled for us a bracing mix of industrial drone, mechanical IDM, and more, with Nine Inch Nails’ “Eraser” setting the tone right off the bat, leading to Autechre, Pan Sonic, and some unreleased Eightch tracks. We also talked with him in-depth over the last few months about the project’s origins, touring as a solo synth project, balancing income and creativity, and much more. Check out the mix and Q&A below.
SBC: Hey James! We first met at Moogfest 2017. It seems that since then you’ve done quite a lot of traveling around to synth-focused festivals and workshops. Could you talk a little about where you’ve been, your recent performances and encounters etc.? Do you thrive in an on-the-go lifestyle or is it exhausting?
After Moogfest I went back to the studio in Colorado to start working on live material. Some of the songs had already been written but it soon became clear that I needed to be very specific about workflow, especially when I started to recreate the live environment by playing in the dark. So I started experimenting with different setups. Eventually I was able to get a working set but the amount of equipment I was going to bring with me night after night was going to be difficult. I decided to book my next performance of 2017 at Knobcon in Chicago and that trip almost killed me… but I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Example: Don’t leave your MS20’s patched for your upcoming performance when sending across the country by freight.
Tell us a little bit about the Eightch project, it’s origin, background, and inspiration.
I started Eightch back at the end of 2002 when I was living in New Orleans and realized that my previous band wasn’t going to make it. We had seen some success but the writing was on the wall. Many of the details I can’t talk about here, but we all had different ideas about the music and the project, and I was possibly the furthest from the original concept. There were attempts from the drummer and the bassist to make things work, but I was ready to move on, so I started a completely new project.
The name Eightch felt representative of my thoughts on balance in life. Some of the most beautiful things in life can kill you, whether that be sex or even sugar…everything in its right place. It also has ties to Planck’s Constant. As far as the spelling, I couldn’t trademark the letter “H” so I went to the dictionary and found the phonetic spelling of the letter. It had a mathematical sequential order to it that I liked, kind of like the name Autechre or any number of their song titles where they play with the visual aesthetic of a name.
And now, 15 years later, here you are. Has the Eightch sound changed or developed a lot over all that time?
Originally I was playing more traditionally-structured songs with verses and choruses, but I was always very aware of the Lego-block approach to arranging, and I needed something to break that instinct, which I believe came from working inside Logic. But I also was using bass and guitar to write music, which tends to rely heavily on parts or riffs. Using synths as an instrument to support chord changes could be interesting, but as I continued to explore patches I found myself even more interested in soundscapes, drone, and noise.
COIL was the first band that exposed me to that world back in the ’90s, when they did some remix work for Nine Inch Nails on Further Down the Spiral. I remember hearing those songs and wanting to find out everything I could about COIL. It was hard without the internet, but I did have access to some of their music. I just didn’t know I’d be inspired to go in that direction with Eightch until a few years later.
In your recent Knobcon Interview, you said that it was a community where you could be yourself and let your guard down a little bit. Is that in reference to meeting people who understand the gear and can talk shop with you, or is it another kind of likemindedness?
I was talking specifically about people’s willingness to get past self-important agendas in an attempt to find the greater good. Synthesizers give people a common thread at Knobcon, but it goes even deeper than that. What I found is that people of many different backgrounds want to connect with others in meaningful ways, and are genuinely interested in one another beyond making a business deal or selling another album. People can sit and talk, listen, and share without feeling as self-conscious as they might in another setting.
When I was in college I used to wear shirts of bands I liked, and I realized that people would see that as a flag of sorts. They would either want to say hello, or keep their distance. I think the same thing happens at Knobcon, but everyone likes the same band. Well…for the most part.
Tell me about your recent track, “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.” It’s a very personal song, isn’t it?
“I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.” was a song that I wrote in hopes that it would be featured on an ambient album that Richard Patrick (from Filter) was working on. I’m not sure what happened with all that, but after some back and forth it became pretty clear that it wasn’t going to happen. I decided to go ahead and release the song myself. Richard’s original idea was a collection of ambient tracks inspired by his kids, so I followed that thread and focused my emotions on how I might feel on the day that I cross into the next astral plane, and the emotions I might experience when I finally have to say goodbye to my kids.
Is there a conflict with such kinds of music that are instrumental and abstract but also specifically themed?
For me there is a large conflict, but only when I look at the art as a way to generate income. Obviously, being a professional musician has its blessings, but there are curses as well. On of those for me is constantly trying to figure out how to package and market my emotions. I don’t like it and I’m not very good at it. I never start writing thinking “how will I make money from this?” It’s always about self-expression, or often working out some sort of emotional tension. I also love the exploratory element of writing, because I get to delve into places that have yet to be revealed. However, at some point I have to put on the marketing hat and figure out how to generate some income from the art, which isn’t easy. I like my life and I want to be able to do this next year, and the year after that, so creating a packaged theme is essential. Otherwise, I can go work a regular job and write on the weekends, but I tried that and it almost killed me.
Do ideas get lost in translation on their way to the listener, and if so, how much does that matter?
I’ve learned to leave all my expectations behind, but sometimes that’s difficult. Especially when you’ve put so much effort into a project. They don’t know where it’s coming from, nor do they know the reasons why it moves me so much, nor do they care, and that’s ok. All I can do as an artist is be honest, with myself and with the art. Everything I do is my best attempt to capture myself mentally and emotionally. Like a snapshot. It may not be perfect, but it perfectly reflects who I was at that moment in time.
And so much of it can be blamed on social media algorithms, and just the swarm of competition out there. Scrolling Facebook for new music can be a mind-numbing experience.
I had asked friends on social media whether or not they would have been more interested had “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH” been produced by some incredibly famous person, featured in a blockbuster film or video game, associated with a major label, etc., and the response was interesting. Most of those people just don’t listen to music on social media. They want to see videos; music, especially ambient, cinematic music, doesn’t present well in that forum and I shouldn’t take listens personally, nor should I gauge the success of a track off of likes. Although, it was pointed out that for the genre, I’m totally kicking ass, haha.
If by chance someone appreciates what I’m doing, that’s great, but I can’t get wrapped up in the excitement of adulation. That’s when the world around you starts to warp and distort, and not for the better. Everything in its right place and all in good time, I say. Appreciate what you have and stop making comparisons. Right here and right now. Just like it says on my website, “The Future Does Not Exist.”
Tell us about the mix you made for us.
I considered going a lot of different directions, but thought I should stick to songs that impacted me in meaningful ways sonically. While there are many other songs from these artists that represent what they do in a more focused way, I find these songs to be educational and influential in what I’m doing in music today. Even as I prepared this mix in Logic, I was comparing and contrasting techniques from each of these artists, and will take some time later this afternoon to see if I can recreate some of what I hear. Kind of like a cover, but from an engineering standpoint.
“Eraser” might just be my favorite song. As far as the Eightch songs are concerned, these probably won’t make any official releases, but they have been important to me over the last couple years as I’ve experimented with numerous live performances and different setups. I wish I could keep working on these songs, but I have to keep pushing forward with what I’m doing as an artist. It would have been nice to have had them mixed and mastered in a controlled environment, but it didn’t work out that way. Sometimes you just have to let go, and releasing them here is my way of doing that.
With 2018 coming to a close, where are you at and what does the future have in store?
I just got back from Los Angeles after doing some work with Korg at the Synth Expo, and I think we plan on doing more events together in the future as my schedule permits. Everything is a balance of time. I’m currently in the middle of writing a soundtrack that we hope to submit to Tribeca and Sundance film festivals, but I need to finish that up in the next few days because immediately after I’m heading to the Pacific Northwest to finish recording my album. That will take me through the end of December. Then I start preparing for more live shows next year.
I’m even going to start posting to social media again, at least for a while. People seem to enjoy watching the developments from the road, and I meet a lot of people at shows who wouldn’t have come otherwise. I know that there’s a Modular Night in Seattle on January 5, and then shows in Portland, Salem, Reno, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Diego, before ending up back in LA at the end of January for NAMM, where I’ll be back with Korg.
After that a little bit of time in February to look at other film and video game projects, which I want to do a lot more of. There seems to be an expanding universe of possibilities there, and I like the work, but I’ll have to put that on hold in March for my Synthplex performance in LA. Then I’m off to Europe, and Japan toward the end of 2019!
-Giving shape to the daily escape since 2015-
Slow Breathing Circuit