by Nickie Shobeiry
(Image Credit: Ella Guru)
For those who don’t know, could you share the history of The Wattingers with us? The name came from a children’s programme, In The Night Garden, where there are characters called The Wottingers. The sound of the name evoked a sense of the old American West, an inbred family of outlaws, living out in the swamplands.
The Wattingers started sometime in 2008, and was formed after I left London to work in Plymouth. I wanted a really simple set-up, and was interested in the idea of using a harmonica instead of guitar (which is what poor blues musicians who couldn’t afford guitars did back in the day). I also wanted live bass - this is probably my favourite instrument and I have played bass in a few bands previously. My brother lives in the South West and plays in Catherine And The Owl; he joined me in the first line-up of The Wattingers until work commitments led to him leaving. At this time we had more gigs in London than down South, so I had a friend in London, Andy Blythe from The Probing Cranks and currently The Drift, play the bass for these gigs. Unfortunately, the two main venues in London that we played at closed down (The Montague Arms in New Cross, and The Bull and Gate Kentish Town).
Ren (Laurence) who had also played in Catherine And The Owl offered to play bass and he has been with me since. It was Ren who suggested as a joke that he should wear a sack hood, as the bass players kept changing, so no-one would notice any future line-up changes.
To keep the whole project practical, we have no drummer. I create the backing tracks and initially record all the music - the first CD, Slaughterhouse Blues, was recorded in this way. The next CD release will have some tracks with Ren and Andy Blythe playing bass.
You describe yourselves as “Slaughterhouse Steampunk Blues”. What does that mean? Initially we had no conscious link to Steampunk; I knew of it from years before, having been totally inspired by William Gibson’s books and his vision of cyberpunk. It was when an old friend made a comment on one of the sack hoods I had made that I could see the connection, and beyond that we were “discovered” by Fey Pink of The Mysterious Freakshow - she asked us to play at the first Steampunk Yule Ball in Exeter that she had set up. This was really the start of us being seen and making connections.
I have always tried to work on visuals in bands I have been in before - this is an element of Steampunk that appeals to me: the range of creativity and craftsmanship, from the rough-and-ready ‘punk’ element to specialised fabric, leather, and metal work.
Initially, I described our sound as ‘Slaughterhouse Blues’, inspired by Howling Wolf’s Killing Floor. I have also described us as being ‘Slaughterhouse Steampunk Weird West Gothic Blues’, which covers most of where we’re at! I also feel that we also have a lot in common with the early Goth genre, such as bands like The Birthday Party.
I would say that it is up to other people to decide whether or not we are part of their Steampunk world - we probably fit into a niche that may be a bit uncomfortable for the more genteel of the Steampunk community.
How has your sound evolved since your first ever performance, and what was it like the first time you played as The Wattingers? Our first gig was at Tiggaz Bar in Exeter, with my brother John playing the bass - it went very well, and pretty much set a standard that we tried to maintain. Until Fey Pink contacted me, we found it hard to get gigs after this one, apart from at The Wells Tavern, which was a great place to try out new songs and any new technology I had made.
I would say that our sound has evolved to include more easily accessible songs like Arkansas Beardstalker, partly due to wanting live gigs to be dynamic and powerful. Initially, when our set was made up of songs from the first CD, we had more songs that were slow and people talked all the way through them, so I wanted to get a better balance for future gigs. We have more songs that kick ass now, and it seems to work well live with the mix. As we get to play longer sets, we have brought some of the older, slower songs back in and the balance seems to work.
Ren’s bass playing has added a new nuance to the sound, and he has created his own bass lines to some of the new songs. He is also very dynamic on stage, and I think it adds a lot to the overall Wattingers performance. I have also introduced a background ‘swamp’ soundtrack which runs all the way through the set, to add to the ambience.
What has been your favourite performance so far? And what’s your favourite song to play? I think the recent event that was put together following the demise of Alt-Fest would have to be a memorable event. This was Full Steam Metal Racket, and was extremely short notice. It was a great atmosphere and attracted a really good diversity of bands, performers, and audience members. It was set up at Llanfyllin Workhouse in Wales.
Also the first gig at the Yule Steampunk Ball in Exeter was memorable for being the first big venue with a good sound that we had played at. We always play Arkansas Beardstalker as it really helps pull people into our world, if they aren’t too sure at first. Killing Floor seems to go down well too, and it has always been on the set list. It is one of the first songs I did in The Wattingers.
I really like doing Mockingbird Hill - this is where the Goth element comes into our music; lyrically, it’s quite moody and reminds me of the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. It also helps pace the set out.
**The Wattingers are a two-piece band, but on your website it says, “the mortal remains of Ezekial Obediah Wattinger supplying percussion and rhythms” - could you tell me a little about this Ezekial?** Ezekial is essentially the container for my radio microphones (one for vocals and one for the harmonicas), a mini disc player for the backing (old school technology, but reliable), and a mini mixer for the backing, harmonicas, stylophone and ambience soundtrack. The cabinet came from my brother who had an idea to make a ‘Spiricom’ out of it, a theoretical instrument for contacting the dead. He gave it to me in the end, and I have run with the idea of it being a Spiricom, connected to my great ancestor Ezekial. So bits have been added to it, including Ezekial’s skull, as time has progressed. It is now very heavy, and is in danger of collapsing or causing an injury to anyone who tries to lift it (him). I always introduce him to the audience with an explanation as to who he is, who we are, and where we come from, which is the Seven Devil’s Swamp in Arkansas, where we run a family butcher’s and slaughterhouse business, established back in the 1800s.
A lot of your songs seem to have a black-comedy narrative to them. Where does the inspiration for your songs come from, and how do you write them? I have always liked dark humour and narrative songs. Nick Cave was a big influence on me, particularly from The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds – and also Tom Waits. The ideas can come out of nowhere; Arkansas Beardstalker came to me as the song title first, so I had to write a story about it.
Fish Eye Jill and Cotton Eye Joe came about because someone made a comment about someone else, referring to her having a fish eye. So I thought of Fish Eye Jill as a name, which reminded me of Cotton Eye Joe - then I thought, “What if they were together, what would they do”?
Weak is an early song, and it is probably the only song that is influenced by my daytime job. It is about domestic violence, drug dependency, co-dependency, and murder - it’s based on real events, but generalised for the song. Weak sort of has a “happy” ending, unlike the real story; most of my songs end up with folk being dead or missing bits of their body.
Another way I have written is to use the cut-up method, where you write out lines that may or may not make narrative sense, then cut them up and randomly re-arrange them to see what you’ve got, then re-write what you have, or add bits.
When I first saw you play, your song Lazy Town seemed to have everyone rooted to the spot. Could you tell me a little about the inspiration behind the song? It was partly inspired around the culture shock of moving from a big city where everything works on a very high level of activity to a place where everything is a lot slower. Lazy Town isn’t about anywhere in particular, but I did have the experience of waiting for a ridiculously long time at the barbers for some guy with hardly any hair to have it cut. In Lazy Town, even the birds can’t be bothered to spend time there.
Did you always know you wanted to be a performing musician? And did you have an interest in the Steampunk community before you joined it as a musician? I always wanted to be in a band, probably from the age of 12 - at that time, my favourite band was Black Sabbath. I used to do a bit of singing around my mate’s house when I was 15; he was a guitarist, and we attempted some Thin Lizzy songs, I seem to recall. It wasn’t until I went to college in 1977 that I actually started playing in bands. I have always been doing stuff on and off since then, from experimental industrial stuff where people throw glasses at you (think Throbbing Gristle) to slightly more straightforward rock. I was unaware of the Steampunk community until Fey Pink and my friend pointed out our connection. Since then, I have become very interested in a lot of bands, met and befriended performers and individuals, and I guess I’m very glad to be a part of something as eclectic as this.
You’re very creative with the costumes you wear on stage. Do you create all of your artefacts yourself? Do you have any favourite pieces? Yes, I make everything. I am currently experimenting with mould-making and casting, and I’ve made a skull-headed cane, which is featured on the short video, Dead Men Walking, along with a voodoo-style top hat. I expect I will be sporting both at the Frome Halloween event this Friday 31st where we are headlining.
The last thing I make is usually my favourite piece, which currently is a modified paintball mask. The hood above that Ren wears most of the time is one of my favourite artefacts - it’s the piece that links all the threads together - Steampunk, Gothic Horror - and is a good visual way of describing The Wattingers without hearing any of our music.
What can we expect from The Wattingers in the future? Any upcoming gigs, tours, music releases? After Frome, the next gig is the Steampunk Yule Ball on the 13th December. We are managing the Voodoo Lounge room at the Phoenix on that night, so the idea is that when one act finishes, another starts in the other room (alternating between the Main Auditorium and the Voodoo Lounge).
I am working on the second CD, which has the working title Dead Men Walking; I have to write one more song, which is taking ages to do. This one I hope to release properly, not burned at home. It should be going through Steampunk Records, run I believe by Dale Rowles of BB Black Dog. Realistically, it will be early next year when it’s out. There will be some industrial dubby remixes on it, which are being worked on by a colleague. I’m also looking at collaborating with Miss Von Trapp, Gurdybird (Tamsyn Swingler), and also Fey Pink on new songs in the future.
And finally – if you could have any rider request, what would you ask for? Someone to drive us around and pack everything after the gig, so I can drink, then drink some more!