One day during the height of the pandemic, as the UK was in strict lockdown, Ben Watt was sitting at home in front of the piano, jamming on its keys. As he started to play melancholic broken chords and minor harmonies, Watt felt one of those powerful moments of musical inspiration, took his iPhone out from his pocket, laid it across the piano and hit the record button.
While listening to him improvise, Tracey Thorn felt that wave of energy as well. “I’m coming up with vocal ideas just standing in the room with him,” she says. But it wasn’t until the pair went into the studio together that it actually began to feel like they were actually making music together again.
“We were tinkering with stuff at home and all the way through that it still felt low-key, then there was a day when we went into the studio for the first time with our friend, [music] engineer Bruno [Ellingham] to put some actual lead vocals down,” she continues. “I put a proper mic up, proper headphones on and I sang a proper vocal – honestly at the end of that afternoon we were sitting up straight in our chair going: ‘Oh okay, we’re making a record aren’t we?’ It sounded like Everything But The Girl.”
That record, ‘Fuse’, is set for release on Friday, April 21 via Watt’s Buzzin’ Fly label and Virgin Records. It’s the first Everything But The Girl studio album in nearly a quarter of a century since 1999’s ‘Temperamental’ – and it’s a stormer. While the name Everything But The Girl rings with pre-turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia (something they aren’t afraid of confronting), ‘Fuse’ is refreshingly forward-thinking – from the soaring breaks of ‘Nothing Left To Lose’ to the experimental electronica of ‘Lost’, it covers a broad range of modern sounds, tied together by Thorn’s unique atmospheric vocals.
But although it’s easy to associate their earlier music with sounds forged in past times – their iconic 1996 album ‘Walking Wounded’ features elements of house, jungle, drum ‘n’ bass and trip hop – if anything their new music is a continuation of what the duo have always done. Since forming the band in 1982, they’ve incorporated myriad genres, all in their infant stages. The charm of Watt and Thorn’s music has always been their ear for sounds before they’ve been sectioned off into boxes.
Having made music influenced by jazz, acoustic music, Latin sounds and early electronic beats, the duo blew up in the global mainstream with their 1994 hit ‘Missing’, and over clubland’s dancefloors in the form of Todd Terry’s classic deep house remix. It led to huge fame – perhaps not quite desired to the extent they found – and after a few years at the top of the music game, they quietly retreated from the project.
They’ve hardly gone missing though – easy to forget in the excitement of news of their first album in forever. Since Watt and Thorn put Everything But The Girl on hold, they’ve both released numerous much-praised solo albums, Watt launched a DJ career and the couple quietly married. To catch up with Everything But The Girl, Mixmag sat down with Watt and Thorn to talk about the new album, their journey to embracing electronic music, and staying authentic to themselves among all the noise.
Congratulations on the new album, it’s clearly got a lot of people excited. How has the response been for you?
Thorn: It’s been amazing. It’s something we don’t ever take for granted really. It’s a busy, crowded world of music nowadays and you can’t assume that you’re going to get a response or attention or anything. We made quite a low-key little announcement when we decided that we wanted to tell people we’ve made a record – a little Tweet. Ever since then there’s been this kind of atmosphere of excitement, so it’s good.
What were your biggest inspirations for ‘Fuse’ musically?
Watt: As musicians, we don’t really think of it in those terms. I think when you’re in the run-up to a piece of work, you don’t realise it but you are being a kind of cultural sponge. You’re hearing music that you listen to directly, but you also hear music coming out of cars, on the TV, in the background to Netflix, at parties. You’re basically absorbing things all the time and I think that when it actually comes to writing you’re trying then to switch all of that off, in a really unencumbered way. You have to be free not to think too much about where the ideas are coming from – just to trust your gut feeling that it feels right. Because if you keep trying to compare it to influences or other people’s records or things you’ve done in the past you start doubting yourself, so I think you have to create that freedom to work.
So is it a case of absorbing all the music that you hear but then subconsciously putting it into your music without really thinking about what you’re doing?
T: I think so much of making music is subconscious really. You almost want to get into that state of mind where you are allowing that part of your brain to be working. Because otherwise if it’s just your conscious stuff, then you’re working at quite a surface level all the time and it gets a bit rational and schematic.
W: It’s funny, we went to see the David Hockney exhibition that’s on at the Lightroom in London at the moment, and I came out of there really inspired and thinking: “Oh god, I’d like to write some music this afternoon, but I’ve got interviews to do.” So you never know where it’s going to come from. Something that’s joyous and full of ideas makes you feel reactive.
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How did you switch off the noise when it came to making the album?
T: When we first started working at home we just tried to pretend that we weren’t really making [a record]. We didn’t know whether we were making an album – we just thought “well, let’s try and make some music”. You know as soon as you start saying “right, this is day one of the work on the new album”, you’re already on a kind of path. So we just went at it in a sort of playful way – just sharing ideas, trying to be really open-minded. Okay, we’ve made a lot of very different music in the past – what’s this going to follow? Is it going to be an acoustic record? Electronic? Is it going to be upbeat? Downbeat? We tried to not have any expectations.
T: We started working on a couple of the more downtempo, ambient tracks on the record – things like 'Interior Space' and 'When You Mess Up', which are these sort of electronic landscapes, piano improvisations that Ben recorded on his iPhone. So that was kind of the starting point, really quite sort of loose and unstructured.
I guess after 24 years you don’t want to put too much pressure on it right?
W: Yeah, sometimes it’s good to enter the project through the side door, rather than making a grand entrance – keep it low, just let it bubble on its own terms.
Listening to the record, the music sounds like Everything But The Girl, but Everything But The Girl in 2023 – instead of old skool sort of drum ‘n’ bass sounds or house sounds some tracks feel hard to define by genre. Given that there seems to be a revival in some ‘90s sounds at the moment, can you tell me how you keep your heads looking forwards rather than back?
W: From my perspective, I always move away from the idea of genre as quickly as I can, and I just break down music within a genre literally into its musical component parts. What’s the hi-hat doing here? What are they doing with the snares? What are they doing with the kick drum? How low is the tone on the kick drum? How are they syncopating the piano? That for me as a musician is what interests me. And there will be four or five elements of that where I’ll think: “I can really use that – I can export this into the music I make with Tracey.”
W: I don’t think “we’re going to do a jungle track”, but we start with a track and it might have some elements that I’ve taken from a particular genre, but that’s how we give it some life and sometimes it’s quite hard to pin down exactly what it is. I was quite aware as well that we wanted to make a record that owed a little bit to our ‘90s legacy but which wasn’t slavish to it, so I was looking for areas of electronic music we hadn’t explored before, like ambient. When it came to making ‘Nothing Left to Lose’, to use a more 2-step, breakbeat feel was something we didn’t do in the ‘90s – we were more drum ‘n’ bass and house, so we were constantly searching for elements that were fresh, but we could use within our signature sound.
T: I think we felt that if we go too much down a path we’ve gone down before we’re setting ourselves up for that thing of comparison. You [would be] buying into this kind of nostalgia, and look – I know there is a bit of nostalgia. Our kids are in their 20s and they would start coming home from clubs and stuff and go: “I heard one of your tracks playing.” So we became aware in the last couple of years that there was this bubbling up thing, and I think in our minds we were just thinking “okay that’s great, it’s lovely people are rediscovering your music” but you want to be really careful that you don’t get sucked in. We’ve always been thinking [about] where our minds are at right now and what we can do that feels like it’s fresh for us.
The Four Tet remix of ‘Nothing Left to Lose’ dropped recently, can you tell me a bit about how that came about?
W: We just asked him, you know! I think Kieran [Hebden]’s a really subtle producer, but he also knows how to make a track bang. So it felt like a good fit right from the off – we felt that he would give it something meditative but quite propulsive. And that was all we needed, to come up with that idea and we thought: “Well, let’s hand it to him and see what he does.”
From an outsider’s perspective, dance music remixes have seemed like an important part of Everything But The Girl’s story and output, would you agree with that sentiment?
T: Yeah. We have a momentous moment in our career, which is a remix – Todd [Terry]’s version of ‘Missing’. So having one track that [has] become such a big part of our story, we’re always just so relieved that it’s a great track. A lot of bands have hit tracks that they’re not proud of. Todd always said at the time about the track: “I didn’t really change much – the song was there, the production was there, I just really made it dance,” which I always thought was really sweet. And I think the reason that song went so deep with people is it’s a very emotional track as well – it’s a very emotional lyric, and that quality was hung on to I guess. That sort of emotional thing we brought to the dancefloor.
So you started in the early ‘80s, and made all sorts of different albums, can you tell me a bit about the process of how you came to embrace dance and electronic music as part of Everything But the Girl?
T: I think for us it felt like it happened kind of gradually, and then I think to the outside world it felt like it happened more suddenly. I think with the ‘Amplified Heart’ album that had the original of ‘Missing’ on, we were incorporating beats and samples and stuff along with acoustic writing style, with guitars and stuff. I remember when we wrote the original of ‘Missing’ with the loop from Raze’s ‘Break 4 Love’.
W: That was the placeholder groove on the track for a long time, but then obviously we had to remove that.
T: I guess in our minds from that point onwards we were thinking “okay, this will be a great track to get mixes done”. So that’s what I mean, it was a kind of process that was emotion – us gradually going: “Wow, this sounds really good”. And then I did the collaboration with Massive Attack, which kind of happened at the same time, and then ‘Missing’ kind of happened at the same time, so it kind of snowballed. Then we did ‘Walking Wounded’ and I think to some people it looked like a big change, but to us it felt more like a gradual, evolutionary sort of change.
W: I think if you dig even deeper into the story, you can go back even before ‘Amplified Heart’ – which we recorded in 1993 – [in] 1990 there were a couple tracks on ‘The Language of Life’ we had remixed by Bristol Baseline Productions. They did what was called the ‘Clifton Remix’ of a track called ‘Take Me’, which was quite a big underground white label hit for a while. I remember being really intrigued by the re-interpretive quality of remixing.
W: I grew up with a jazz musician for a father, so [he was] constantly reinventing tracks, reharmonising them. Jazz musicians doing different versions of the Great American Songbook – never sitting still on a version of a song has always interested me, and in the early part of our career we would do quite heavily arranged tracks and then go out on tour and break them down into acoustic versions. So we were always experimenting with putting the songs across in different ways, and I think remixing as soon as it started to bubble up as an idea for us in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, we were very quick to embrace it as a way of being able to harness the song – that was the key to us.
It's a way of giving it new life or different lives.
T: Different lives, yeah. I always like that there doesn’t necessarily have to be one kind of ultimate version, they’re different incarnations that work in different ways and have different lives out there in the world.
What would you tell a 1984-era Tracey and Ben?
W: You couldn’t tell them anything actually.
T: That’s very true, we wouldn’t have taken any advice from anyone. But I suppose we would never have expected it all to have lasted so long – when you’re young you’re not even looking ahead. I think if you said to us “well you won’t believe it, but you’re still going to be doing this in 40 years time”, we wouldn’t [have believed it]. But there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, I guess I would say: “Look, brace yourself. Because it isn’t a straight line and it isn’t a neatly ascending curve – it’s a proper old roller coaster.” And yeah, “just be prepared”.
W: I think also when we got to the end of the ‘90s, when we were arguably at our biggest, it actually felt quite precarious and not very enjoyable. I found playing to biggish audiences by that time, in big theatres and small arenas, thousands of people, that our music started to lose something in its translation. Because our music is quite subtle – it’s as much about the lyrics as much as about the music. Tracey’s voice isn’t a belter, there’s a great subtlety in what she does with her voice and I suddenly felt we were being forced to make quite two-dimensional gestures in these venues just to get across to the audience.
W: And it felt uncomfortable – I thought to myself: “Do you know what, I don’t really need to get any bigger and I wouldn’t mind actually stopping for a bit.” There’s a lot of pressure on bands just to keep going, like “we’ve got to get the festival main stage!”
I guess there’s pressure to make music to fit that setting as well.
T: Exactly. For some bands that suits them. There are some artists where it’s great – the bigger the show, the bigger the spectacle, it worked for them. I would agree with Ben, I used to think “oh god, I used to like it when we were in little clubs”, that kind of more intimate atmosphere.
W: I went from that to DJing in places like Lazy Dog, which was one of the first DJ nights I started in the late ‘90s to 150 people on a Sunday in West London playing music that wasn’t even mine. You know, I loved it – it was just really fresh and liberating.
Do you still DJ much Ben?
W: No. I drew a line very quickly around 2012, 2013. I felt like I was faking it a bit – I was getting too old. My ears were starting to hurt, I didn’t want to be the oldest swinger in town, so [I thought] “let’s make a clean break and move onto something else”.
I know you’ve been asked recently whether you plan to do any gigs or to tour the album, and your answer is “I’m not sure”. Is that still the case?
T: Yeah. We didn’t plan this as a comeback in the sense that “we’re going to try and reignite our whole career”. The thing for us is if we did go out on tour, there would be a lot of expectations on what we’re going to play. It would have to be a back catalogue package of tracks from the past. When we sit down and we look at each other across the kitchen table and we go “do you want to do that?” We’re like “no”. And it’s not because we don’t like those songs, it’s just I can’t imagine myself getting back into having to sing songs I wrote 30 years ago when actually I could be writing something new now, and doing something new as the person I am now, it doesn’t feel appealing.
W: I think it’s interesting, when you think of rock ‘n’ roll – for the lack of a better word – began as a revolutionary break with the past when it first started. There is now a huge part of it that is incredibly nostalgic and locked into this kind of heritage trail, and artists now are expected when they go on tour with any kind of legacy behind them to play the past, not the future. And as an artist it’s quite suffocating. I’ve always been very jealous of jazz artists where the whole idea of the art form is to reinvent, to reinterpret, to do something different every night.
W: You would never expect Miles Davis to be asked to perform ‘Kind of Blue’ note for note as it was recorded for its 40th anniversary vinyl reissue. It’s unthinkable, but with pop artists you are expected to constantly revisit your past, and you become an entertainer as much as you are an artist. So for us to be able to say what we want to do is try and make a contemporary studio record, and those are the parameters of what we’re doing here – it felt sort of freeing.
T: Yeah, and then we didn’t have to think: “Oh my god, now we’ve got to work out an arrangement for playing electronic music live.” We’ve done that, we did that in the ‘90s when a lot of the technology was raw and in its infancy, and you’re trying to work out how to have your fucking samples and drums playing every night. We had nights where the kit would break down and you’re suddenly doing an acoustic version while someone plugs everything back in.
W: We played a gig in Sheffield, where all the samples were coming out of two separate Akai S3000s, and there was no voltage stabilisation on the power supplies in the venue. Every time there was a lighting change it randomly triggered samples from all different songs. It was probably the most radical we’ve ever been.
T: Avant-garde noise it was.
I know you’ve both been in and out of the music industry since Everything But The Girl went on pause, but it’s a very different landscape now with streaming and social media. Was there anything that surprised you during the process of announcing and releasing the album?
T: No, as you say we’ve been making records, so we know what the changes are. The big difference has been that the records we’ve released solo over the last few years have been at a lower level so we’ve been operating at a quieter level [with] announcing things. This Everything But The Girl record has meant that everything’s been bigger, demands of social media presence, your release schedule, teasing every announcement etc.
T: It’s a lot more intense. We’ve had to up our game a bit. But the rewards of it are that you get a lot of immediate, quite heart-warming feedback from people. So the morning ‘Nothing Left To Lose’ came out, [when] it got its premiere BBC Radio 6 Music airplay, everyone [was] tuning in and hearing it at the same time then responding to you. Instagram’s going mad, Twitter’s basically going mad, we’re getting all this outpouring and we were just sitting in the other room listening to it with our phones in our hands. It was very beautiful really, my heart was racing. I was so nervous, it felt like I was in front of all these people having this debut performance. It could have been live for all that it mattered, and everyone loved it so it was a real moment.
What does ‘Fuse’ mean to you personally?
T: It does mean a lot. The title ‘Fuse’ is partly about this idea of lighting a fuse and something explosive happening. But it’s also about coming together. And as a long-term couple who have worked together for a long time and then separately for a long time, there is a kind of emotional element to us coming back to work together. And this record is the product of that to us – we’ve put our heart and soul into something together. And the world’s had a hard time, with COVID lockdowns, that isolation and separateness from people, and some of this music comes out of that mood, so putting it out there into the world and getting an emotional response again feels like quite a big, amazing thing.
Isaac Muk is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow him on Twitter