John Andrew Fredrick (above, top left) on how he keeps time with his much-loved indie band. Hint: he’s smarter than you. Plus, he winds that timepiece several times a day.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
John Andrew Fredrick resides in a unique strata among indie rockers. A literate intellectual and an English professor at Santa Monica College in California, he’s been the singular constant mainstay in his band the black watch (the lower case is intentional), managing to maintain a creative credence that never falters, regardless of a sad lack of wider recognition. With a sound that’s unceasingly accessible—sometimes suggesting similarities to XTC, the Cure and 10CC when it comes to the more tuneful melodies—he also takes the indie route as an author, with three books (including The King of Good Intentions, reviewed HERE at Blurt in 2013, as well as his latest, The King of Good Intentions II) to his credit, alongside the close to 20 albums in his catalog. His latest album, the auspiciously titled Highs & Lows follows rapidly on the heels of his last effort, Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy released earlier this year. (Check out the new release HERE at iTunes.)
It’s a bit more brooding that his earlier works, but intriguing all the same. It also gave us cause to speak to Fredrick and ask him not only about the new album, but about his entire MO at the same time.
BLURT: Let’s start at the beginning. Please give us an idea of your early influences.
JOHN ANDREW FREDRICK: I would say I was influenced by The Beatles from the time I first heard them–when I was five, riding in a our family car, and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” came on the AM radio and I just started jumping up and down in the back seat. To this very day, I’m in still love with them. I just got the mono box set and I’m thrilled by it. Growing up in suburban Santa Barbara, there wasn’t–aside from sports stuff (Little League, Boys Club Basketball, pro sports on the telly) — anything more enthralling than records. I’d peddle over to the little record store in our local shopping center and just hand them my allowance every Saturday, without fail. Seven-inches, LPs, EPs… Hendrix, Creedence, Donovan, The Stones. But nothing compared to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. When I was ten, I broke my leg playing tackle football and, oddly, spent a year in bed; the break was so bad that it took that long to heal. My parents — bless their socks — didn’t let me watch more than an hour and a half of television per day, so I read everything I could and propped my little Silvertone acoustic on my cast and started writing songs. Just goes to show you — despite the cries of my friends playing games in the street outside would making me mental, what can seem devastating at the time can be and often is a blessing in disguise.
Your albums often seem to strike different themes. So do you come up with a concept for your albums in advance and write songs around them, or do you write songs and then fit them around the concept?
There’s never a calculated theme in mind when I write an album. It’s just a collection of things I have going at a certain time. I don’t read music, and I don’t write the chord progressions down. I reckon this — if I remember what I was playing, then the song’s potentially memorable, thus worth working through till it’s “finished.” Then I show it to the band. Themes emerge later, of course. The same thing goes for writing fiction. I just reread The King of Good Intentions II –which just came out last month — in light of the fact that I am doing some readings in support of it. And I noticed many motifs that my unconscious mind must’ve rigged up. Funny thing, that. There’s usually a spate of songs — twelve or so at a time. And I always seem to write the “hit” after the album’s been conceptualized. It’s like the muse or what-have-you sends me one more message, as it were. And that’s usually the catchiest song on the record. Never fails. So strange.
Please give us an insight into your songwriting process.
I only write when I am really up or really down. Which is a couple of times a year, I should say. I should also say I’m frightfully well-adjusted for an artist. I think I am. But maybe that’s just an illusion. Could be! Haha. I write about love and I write about altered states, dreamy dreams. The melodies come to me first, then the words. Never ever have I taken a set of lyrics and written a melody. Sometimes I just start singing. Mostly jingles, to amuse myself, I suppose. Every song, like every album, is a sort of reaction against the one that immediately preceded it. I’m not the sort of writer who has scads of songs — a backlog or what-you-will. I write it, we record it. Full stop. And I write a record every year, I suppose — and each time, I try to write The White Album. And I fail — I have said it in a zillion interviews — I try to make that variety of songwriting. And I will never do it. And I will always try. Haha. How quixotic. Every work of art is a failure, anyway. Except The Piper at the Gates of Dawn perhaps. (laughs) I’m kidding. But that record comes close! It’s the greatest record The Beatles didn’t make.
Please share some thoughts on the new album. Did you do anything different this time around? Some of the titles seem a bit foreboding — “She’s a Mess,” “There’s No Fucking Way,” “If Upon a Time That Never Happened,” “He Must Needs Go That the Devil Drives.” So were you feeling a bit darker this time around?
The new record is dark. You’re right. I am a very dark person, anyway–with a very jolly demeanor. Many arty types are, you know. Friendly ghouls. I think Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy is much darker, however. There are some very vicious songs on that LP. Just because the entire half is acoustic doesn’t mean it’s all nicey-nice and lollipops. The fact that there are more minor key songs on Highs and Lows is the thing. Those are darker-sadder as a rule, anyway. I’m not the person to ask, I dare say; I’m too close to the source. Ask me in six months or so.
So is the black watch an ongoing actual band or is it mostly you and whoever happens to come along at the time? Is it your vision for the most part?
The black watch is a band. It’s just that it’s my band. The drummer, Rick Woodard, has been in the group for 15 years. The bassist, Chris Rackard, for six now. We just lose members sometimes. Just because I made Sugarplum… on my own with a studio drummer didn’t mean anybody was out; it was just easier on account of money. I made that record in a week — tops. Highs and Lows was done over months and months. Sugarplum was really lonely the way I did it. I don’t think I will record like that again. I like the Muskateerish feeling of four people against the world. At times it was me against Rob Campanella, the producer\, on account of we both have such strong ideas about arrangements and parts and sonic stuff. And, oddly again, we have so many of the same musical influences and sensibilities. I loved working with Rob, but it was a struggle. A good one, I think, in that what was borne out in the process turned out to be our best record yet. All bands say that, though! We shouldn’t listen to them when they do say that!
How did you come up with the name the black watch? It’s a bit of a challenge when one googles the name because these traditional Scottish bands come up first.
The black watch is named the black watch on account of I am mostly Scottish — and English and Irish — and I was obsessed with military stuff and bagpipe music as a kid. The regiment has never taken notice. It’d be infra dig for them to do that, I believe, and besides, we always — except for the new LP — use lower case. I wanted an historical name and a dark name and a traditional name and a very aggressive name. We’ve been admonished to change it by label people, who are often overly concerned with “the new,” but, to me, that’d be a terrible compromise. Moreover, who would be fooled? It’d still be my voice. Voice in both senses of the term.
In addition to being a musician and author, you’re also an academic as well. Do your students think it’s pretty cool because their professor is also a rock musician? Does your music making become a subject for your classroom discussions?
Even if they like indie rock, the students never let on that they think it’s cool to have a prof who is a very minor rock star. It doesn’t figure in our discussions, for sure. They are invited to gigs. I tell them that’s the only time they can heckle me! I’ve seen a few of them over the years in TBW t-shirts. That’s charming. I’m really super grateful when I learn that anybody likes what we do. I can’t stress that enough. These days, fewer and fewer college freshman listen to rock. But when they do, they seem to know a lot about it. It’s like a former TBW guitarist, Steven Schayer, used to say — “Either you know it all or don’t bother.” That’s precisely how it should be.
Do you feel like your literary and academic careers have made you a better songwriter?
Being a voracious reader has made me a better lyricist, I would say that. I would also say that you can tell how much someone reads when you scrutinize his or her lyrics. But no I’m not a better songwriter ’cause I write fiction and teach it.
In fact, how does your day job impact your career as a musician? Has it hindered it in any way or made you lose focus? Has it hindered you as far as touring or the need to divide your energies?
Being a prof has hindered and — paradoxically — helped my so-called career at the same time. The job is easy and enjoyable and somewhat lucrative. The main thing is, I only teach two days a week. It leaves me heaps of time to write and play tennis. Touring is tough. I would say that money from labels has been more of an issue. And the fact that TBW members also have grown-up jobs and lives makes it hard to tour. But we have done some sporadic touring. Just not enough. That’s about to change. My work — and I know this sounds immodest now — is about to take off in ways I’ve never dreamed of. Or maybe it’s not immodest on account of it is about the songs and the books…not about me personally. I have worked very very hard indeed for years and years and never doubted that making things was what I was meant to do. This is no overnight sensation motif. (laughs)
Talk a bit about your literary pursuits. How do your books and your songs intersect? Or do they?
I have published three works of fiction, and have a book on the early films of Wes Anderson coming, and I’ve written three other novels, one of which, after five hundred pages, was scrapped. I’ve written a musical about Dr. Johnson and his biographer Boswell that’s an indie rock thing as well. Very experimental. And unexpected. I hate musicals. But I wrote one. Very curious. I don’t know if it’ll ever be produced. I love film and theater and have minimal desire to become involved with actors and their world.
“The King of Good Intentions” was a terrific novel. We understand that you just published a sequel. Isn’t there also an album associated with it?
There is a sequel to “The King of Good Intentions.” It’s out now from Rare Bird Books/A Barnacle Book. It’s actually a trilogy. Part three, “The Hollow Crown,” is also finished. I didn’t set out to write a trilogy; it just worked out that way. Maybe I’m a graphomaniac. I just have a lot to say! Or at least I think I do! The King of Good Intentions LP by the band has loads to do with the novel. But one should just read it and see!
What authors have influenced you? And how important is it to you to continue to write and publish?
Salinger, Martin Amis, Henry Green, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, John Updike, early James Joyce, Saki, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Lorrie Moore, Kingsley Amis, Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, Steve Almond, George Saunders, and especially Vladimir Nabokov. Huge influence, Nabokov. It’s very important for me to write fiction. It’s been a long process. I write when I am bored in order live in my own world, I suppose, and make words sing, I reckon. I try to crack myself up — and put down poetic locutions. Hyper-literary comedy — that’s my game. That I try to play, I suppose. My question to people who’ve read the books always invariably is, “Did you laugh out loud?” And if they did, well, my work was worth it, the effort and strain and hours and hours on my own with the computer.
Who are some of the bands and artists you’re listening to these days? Do your students turn you on to new or up and coming artists?
New bands? Not really. Deerhunter, a bit. Two or three of their records. I took a year off — an entire year — from listening to anything but KUSC, the classical station here in LA. Not even The Beatles or the Velvet Underground or New Order did I listen to. Now that New Order’s put out a great new album, I am back to listening to pop and rock. Now that that’s my MO again, auditioning things, I would love to find new things to listen to. Ah, but I just end up with the old stuff, you know — XTC, The Glove (the Blue Sunshine deluxe edition with Smith’s voice on all the songs was heaven), Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees and Future Games, the first four Eno records, Sly and the Family Stone, Echo and the Bunnymen up through the eponymous one. The new thing by The Church…beautiful! Rob Campanella’s always pushing these neo-psychedelic bands on me. I can’t hang with them, however. I don’t hold with bands who don’t, artfully, mask their influences on account of that’s what I have essayed to do quite strenuously. I liked Yuck, the first one. Weird how with some bands you don’t care if they are derivative. But somehow it doesn’t matter. Radiohead’s new LP is something I will buy straight away. I am more motivated and influenced by bands that I can’t stand. I write in part in order to get songs by — fill in the blank here — out of my rock and roll head.
Have you always been a story teller? Where do you think that talent came from?
I am not a good story teller. That’s a strange thing for a novelist and songwriter to say. Not live, at least or in person. I can’t tell a joke, either. But I can write one! (laughs) That much I know. I was a terrible liar as a child. I hate lies now. I save them for the page, I reckon.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to add one thing — thanks for this. Indie scribes are the best! I like reading about music sometimes more than listening to it!!!