Although the Atlantic Ocean separates them, at most times, Ben Watt and Todd Robinson stay close. But I'll let them explain that. First, a bit about how 2014 has looked for both.
After 30 years of solo silence – but not actual silence in the slightest, as he collaborated with his partner Tracey Thorn as Everything But The Girl, DJ'd all over, released two books, founded and ran label Buzzin' Fly – Watt returns with solo release Hendra, a collection of 10 meticulous, meditative jazz-folk songs. He told Mother Jones that each song "was all about protagonists at some kind of crisis point and how they deal with it and move on." Thirty years after his first solo album North Marine Drive, Watt has written an album that feels just as vital, as fresh, as his 1983 cult classic, a reflective, resolute album.
Robinson is spending the year celebrating his record store, LUNA Music, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. He's busy planning a smattering of special shows (both in and out of the store), releases and other events — but not too busy to catch up with his old friend, Ben Watt. To celebrate their milestone anniversaries, I asked Robinson and Watt to interview each other about how their friendship came to be and what music has happened along the way. And they made a playlist for us, too, packed with meaningful songs they've found and shared with one another.
Ben Watt will play at the Hi-Fi with KO on Saturday.
TODD ROBINSON: We first made contact after I saw a photo of Ben and his partner in Everything But The Girl, Tracey Thorn, in Q magazine promoting their 1994 album, Amplified Heart. Ben was talking about how much he loved Liz Phair so I sent him one of her limited 7" singles and popped a note in with it. Ben fired right back and sent me Marion's Toys For Boys 7", and so began nearly two decades of record trading, turning each other onto new music, trying to best the last suggestion and becoming close friends.
BEN WATT: I remember not long after that Everything But The Girl was on tour and we played a tiny show at the Magic Bag in Detroit. Todd was friends with someone from our label and turned up and drove us to an in-store appearance and then came to the show. We just hit it off. I think we were looking to reconnect with our roots again and Todd was perfect company. We stayed in touch, swapping records and faxes, and then when I got into electronic music and started DJing internationally around 2002, Todd would come to the US shows, traveling to Chicago, New York, Miami.
TODD: And then a few years ago, Ben stayed over in Indianapolis for the first time, and span a free DJ set at LUNA. A three-hour set! It was so warm with all the people inside, the windows were streaked with condensation! It was a killer set, rife with re-edits (Common, Sonic Youth, Fleetwood Mac, Bon Iver) and some obscure bullets. It must be noted that this reel is what gets played to start off every Record Store Day at LUNA.
BEN: My main memory of that trip, it must be said, was a fierce evening of duckpin bowling in Fountain Square! But I also remember being really struck by the shop. Beautifully curated. The little details. The layout.
BEN: And then in 2013 I began writing the songs for my recent solo album, Hendra. I'd hit a wall with DJ-ing and wanted to get back to words and music. I'd begun the writing process with a long book about my parents — a portrait of their marriage — called Romany and Tom [published by Bloomsbury 2014 / Longlisted for Samuel Johnson Prize 2014] and the songs for Hendra just bubbled up right afterwards. I needed a break in the middle of writing and suggested to Todd we went on a road trip to clear my head, and I flew over and we spent ten days driving down Pacific Coast Highway; but more importantly Todd invited me to roadtest some of the new songs at LUNA before we headed out. I hadn't played solo on guitar for years. It seemed like a safe place to begin again so I took a guitar with me. It felt important to be starting again.
TODD: No one really knew what to expect. Is he DJ-ing? Playing samples and guitar? What happened was one of my favorite events at the shop, ever. Ben showed up with a clutch of lethal songs and blew the roof off. People still talk to me about that show. Now they have the chance to see for themselves at Hi-Fi on December 6.
BEN: LUNA was definitely where my comeback as a live solo artist started. While I was there Todd passed me a copy of Michael Chapman's 1969 debut album Rainmaker that had just been re-issued after years in the wilderness. I listened on headphones at LUNA. It really chimed with me. I was working with a lot of alternate tunings at the time, and Chapman's approach was similar, and so passionate and committed. It was a real booster for me. And the story came full circle last week when I finally got Chapman to open for me in London. He was insanely brilliant and such a nice man. And it all began with Todd handing me a record.
BEN: Twenty years since birth of LUNA. Pretty much 30 years since my solo debut North Marine Drive. What have we learned, Todd? What is the same?
TODD: Everything. Is. Cyclical. And we'll never be as smart as our wives.