Interview: Chris Watson


First published in The Herald on 7 February, 2014

Chris Watson will change the way you hear things. In the 1970s he was a founding member of Sheffield’s Dadaist art-rock band Cabaret Voltaire. Now he’s a sound recordist: he travels the globe recording the sounds of animals and the natural environment. A typical work day might find him eavesdropping on scuttling ants, groaning icebergs or (his most recent preoccupation) the mating call of the elusive blue whale. ‘Putting the microphone where you can’t put your ears’ has become his catchphrase.

Watson’s recordings are often used in wildlife documentaries; David Attenburgh is a regular collaborator, and a new series of Nature programmes on BBC Radio 4 kicked off this week exploring the dramatic soundscapes of Icelandic geology. But he also uses his material to create audio performance pieces that are a little more abstract – a little more obviously descended from his Cabaret Voltaire days. It’s this kind of performance piece that Watson brings to Glasgow next week.

Even if you’ve never heard his work, the vividness and enthusiasm with which he talks about it is enough to make you listen to the world around you with a fresh pair of ears. I’ve managed to catch him on the phone while he’s spending a rare few days at home in the north-east of England, between trips to the Kalahari Desert and the Norwegian fjords. In the background I can hear his collie dog hiding toys under the furniture. (Would I have picked up on the snuffling sounds if I’d been speaking to anyone else? Possibly, but I doubt I’d have visualised the scene quite so clearly.)

The material Watson brings to Glasgow is the result of three underwater years. He has been pursuing the sound of marine animals, following whales as they migrate from the rough waters around Iceland down the west coast of Scotland, across the Atlantic and finally to the Dominican Republic’s Silver Bank. It’s here, in calm, shallow Caribbean waters, that female Humpbacks go to give birth. It’s also here that male Humpbacks go to find next year’s mate. They do this by singing, and it’s these songs that Watson has recorded.

“By using several waterproof microphones, or hydrophones, I can create a surround-sound effect,” he explains. “What you hear when I play it back over speakers is actually better than what you’d hear if you were swimming with the whales. Sound travels better in water than it does in air, and because our ears have a pocket of air built into them the hydrophones are much more direct.” What we won’t experience, though, is the feeling of being up-close to these beasts. They’re 15-16 metres long, and Watson says their song (“they cover the sounds of an orchestra, from bass drum to piccolo”) resonates through your body when you’re swimming a mere arms’ length away.

Is he tormented by new-age association of 1980s whale song albums? “Nah,” he says, gruffly, sounding anything but new-age. “I try not to anthropomorphise any animal that I record. I don’t read anything spiritual into these sounds: they’re very musical, and they’re remarkable natural occurrences, but beyond that I don’t attribute any meaning.”

Watson started out with sound recording, even before he became a musician. When he was 12 his parents gave him a reel-to-reel recorder; it was then, he says, that he began listening properly to the world around him. “Now I’ve got three kids of my own and I think about that moment quite a lot. The power that a small, unsuspecting gift can have on a child.”

He enjoyed the tactile nature of chopping up and editing his recordings. “It was always a visceral thing for me,” he says. “To be honest, I don’t really get excited by computer programmes.” That said, he acknowledges that technological kit is important. “Choosing a microphone is the first part of the compositional process. And good speakers are crucial. With spacial recordings I like to explore a location, to bring it back, to work with it, to disseminate it to an audience somewhere like Glasgow. You have to have a good system, otherwise it’s like showing a beautiful painting in bad light.”

We live in a visually distracted culture, he says. “A lot of what we’re shown isn’t very good. It’s the old adage that radio is better than TV because the pictures are better. The point is, sound really prompts our brains. Apart from smell, I believe that sound is the most powerful sensation.” Except that most of us don’t take full advantage of it. “Right. Our ears and brains are very efficient at shutting off. We hear everything; most of the time we just don’t listen.”

Chris Watson is at the University of Glasgow Concert Hall on 11 February