Dave Watts photo by Scott McCormick
The Motet’s Dave Watts on Their Instrumental Album All Day
Colorado-based band The Motet, who work with a blend of funk, soul, jazz, and rock, released their new album All Day at the end of January and immediately took it on the road for a winter tour. In that time, they’ve been playing a mix of their new album, which is purely instrumental, and their previous albums which combine instrumental and vocally-led tracks. The band, consisting of Dave Watts (drums), Joey Porter (keys), Garrett Sayers (bass), Drew Sayers (keys and saxophone), and Ryan Jalbert (guitar), personally overcame some life events that easily could have derailed their trajectory, and instead turned those things into a source of energy that we can feel on the album. Those ranged from the departure of a vocalist and horn player from the band, to founder Dave Watts losing his home and all of his possessions in The Marshall Fire in Colorado.
The change in the lineup immediately suggested to the band that they ought to do another instrumental album, their first since 2009, while the loss that Watts endured led to a realization of community support, and gratefulness that the four songs which he wrote on the album were all products of his home studio and a record of that time for him. Hearing the positivity and energy behind an album like All Day is a real testament to the therapeutic role that music continues to play for the band members. Now, writing songs alongside a new vocalist, they hope to incorporate some of the lessons learned making All Day into future work.
We spoke with Motet founder and drummer Dave Watts about these notable developments as well as his thoughts on the relationship between instrumental music and audiences.
Americana Highways: I know that the album was out at the end of January, and you immediately jumped into touring. Did you introduce the new album right away in your live sets?
Dave Watts: Yes, we did a show in Denver at Cervantes and the first night, we did the whole record, plus some older material. That was really fun, doing a whole night of instrumental music.
AH: I know that this album is a little different in that way. You’ve done instrumental music before, but when you come to a concert setting, the fans will be familiar with multiple albums and it’s a choice to make in what to play, whether purely instrumental music, or a mix.
DW: It’s pretty interesting. You have to judge it by the event, the venue, the time frame. We love doing instrumental stuff, but we also love vocal material. We actually have a new vocalist now who we’re focusing on and we’re trying to write a bunch more stuff with her, Sarah Clarke, who’s from Portland, Oregon. She’s touring with us now.
AH: I heard that something rather devastating happened with your home and studio between your last album and this one.
DW: That was quite an experience going through a loss like that. We lost everything, really, but it’s also been a beautiful manifestation of community support. We have friends and family supporting us and that’s been a realization of how much support we have out there. That was the Marshall fire that happened around New Year’s last year where 1200 homes were caught by wildfire. People stepped up. There was a huge GoFundMe. I’ve gone from having zero stuff to having eight drum sets. It made me realize how much we have each other’s back. I’ve been regifting some of these drums and thinking about ways that I can now give back in some way.
AH: Was it an even that you shared with your fan community? Is that part of the community who were showing support?
DW: Yes. Aside from clothing and disaster relief, I was gifted snare drums, cymbals, and drum sets by people who even wanted to remain anonymous. We were touring right after that, and I didn’t have any drums, so people were giving me their personal sets. It’s amazing.
AH: It’s amazing that you toured right after that, though I know it’s your livelihood.
DW: I feel like playing music is really the best therapy that you can offer yourself as a musician. It just gives you perspective. We didn’t have a house, but once I was sitting behind my drums, I felt like I was at home. That really gave me a sense of grounding.
AH: How do these events fit in with the creation of the songs we find on All Day? Was writing interrupted?
DW: I’ve got four songs on the record, and all of those songs were ones that I had written in my home studio at my house. I had demoed them there and basically completed them. We recorded them mostly last year around this time. We finished the album last fall. It was a cathartic experience getting those songs out there on the record since they were the last vestige of my creative efforts in my previous home studio.
AH: Do you feel that effect when you play those songs live? Is it a positive thing?
DW: Any song you want to stay new, and you don’t want to live in the past, but all those songs are special in that way for me. I’m not someone who tends to be super-nostalgic. I’m forward-looking. It was a traumatic experience but I’m just happy that me and my partner are alive. Fortunately, I was out of town, and we were all safe. The songs are something that tell me that that experience that I had at that time was real and that the space meant something to me. It’s more of a celebration than a nostalgic look back.
AH: That’s an admirable way to look at it. I can tell that from at least 2014 onwards in the band, there’s been a focus on everyone contributing songwriting, and that’s what we see on this album, right? Was that something you discussed together before starting to write?
DW: I tend to push people to submit material and put ideas out there, even if it’s just a spark of an idea. We can really build off something very simple. Before that 2014 record, it was mostly my efforts for the few albums before that since the band was often in flux. They were materials I had put together with afrobeat and electronic stuff. But we did make a concerted effort to collaborate with each other and bring in ideas to make it a real band effort. This is the fourth album with that paradigm in mind, though the first that’s been instrumental. For this one, it’s been a pretty even playing field in terms of new material. It’s something that we all want to do so we constantly throw ideas at each other.
AH: Do songs ever get tried out live in their development, or does it happen more in the studio?
DW: For this record, we really made an effort to play the songs live first, so that when we went into the studio, we could really knock it out with less editing to do. I really believe in having a studio version of a song, though, and then a live version. They are such different environments for people to listen that it really doesn’t make sense to try to play the same versions live. But the studio really got the grooves under our fingers. Hearing that in the studio can be really inspiring, so there are benefits to both approaches. I don’t think there’s any perfect way to do it. Sometimes you just get lucky when things fall into place in the studio. Sometimes there’s something to playing it live that really helps you adjust the feel and give the song what it needs.
AH: One song that came out as a single that you wrote is called “79.” I heard that the retro aspect plays a role for you in the feeling of the song. Where do you think that song came from, for you?
DW: All of my songs come from a very simple concept. I usually try to have it come from drums first. I’ll just be playing a groove and record it, and then I’ll start to record it from there. I start to try to hear the music. I don’t always hear it in my head right away. I start from the bassline first. For that one, I was messing around playing some grooves in 7/8 and 9/8 combined, which in mathematical terms, stays in 4/4. I was messing around with different time signatures. I was recording that, looping that, and building a baseline there.
That’s where the title “79” initially came from, with the 7 and 9 there. With instrumental music, particularly, the title can come from any random thing. But then I realized that the song really did have a late 70s fusion vibe to it, like Jean-Luc Ponte, or something from that era. I love late 70s music, in general. The more I put it together, the more I thought I should reference the year and the era.
AH: It’s got a lot of warmth to it and feels very substantial.
DW: Sonically, it is pleasing to my ear.
AH: It’s hard for me not to see the rest of the album in the way that I see “79.” Something about that song has an atmosphere that reminds me of the rest of the album, even though you all contributed songs. The moods and attitudes fit together.
DW: That’s part of spending time together and sharing similar influences. Garrett, the bass player, and I have been playing together for 20 years. There’s going to be a thread!
AH: The song “All Day” ended up being the title track and was written by Joey. It’s a very different song from “79” but the energy is very approachable. When you first heard this song, what was your reaction?
DW: We were all pretty excited to play it. It was one of the first songs that we worked on coming out of the pandemic. After touring together, we basically didn’t see each other for 8 months. Then we started rehearsing together, knowing that we’d be making another record. We had just lost our singer and one of our horn players, who had moved on. We knew at that point that we’d put out an instrumental record and focus on that until we found a new singer. That was sort of exciting because there was so much to choose from.
For this song, “All Day,” there are four or five different sections, and it’s a little different from our typical sound, because it has a little bit of Hip-Hop to it. Our horn player is Garrett’s brother, Drew, and he’s been really enthusiastic about taking up synthesizers, and there’s a lot of room for him. That’s something that’s unusual about this album, is that it’s the first we’ve released without horns on all the tracks. On those tracks without horns, there’s synthesizer or guitar and that is pretty exciting to our ears.
AH: That is quite a difference and really plays into the late 70s and early 80s vibe well, too. It feels transitional. That song has an interesting cinematic feel.
DW: There’s so much instrumental music that works well in that context. I can even think of songs, or the set you might find in a performance, in terms of the arc that you might see in a movie. A movie’s arc can start off in a lot of ways. It can start off super-hectic, like a car chase, or it can start off mellow. It can have a big crux at the end, or it can fade out. I find there’s a lot of similarities between music and film that’s really interesting.
AH: When you play a set at a show, are you aware, then, of a kind of arc to it that you’ve designed?
DW: Yes. It can be different. It can start off energetically, or it might draw people in more slowly. It might have a build towards the beginning and more of a lull in the middle. When we’re working with a vocalist, we might concentrate the vocals in the middle, and then again at the end. There are different ways of approaching it, which makes it interesting to me.
AH: I think confining the idea of storytelling to words, that’s not really accurate, and we can find the idea of storytelling with instrumental music as well. It’s like an emotional landscape that people are encountering.
DW: In some ways, that’s even more personal. Lyrics can really demand for things to be looked at one way, though some are open to interpretation. Instrumental music can be interpreted so much more broadly.
AH: I meant to ask if knowing that you all would be making an instrumental album changed the ways in which you approached songwriting.
DW: It’s something I want to get into more with vocal music, but with instrumental music, I tend to write things more through-composed, which means that their parts and sections aren’t repeating themselves. Generally, people to write vocal music as verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, chorus. It can become very blocky and predictable. There’s a song on the record called “Evil Twin” and it just never repeats itself. None of the sections go back.
I’ve never written a vocal song that does that because with vocal songs, the tendency is always to come back to the chorus. To be able to write that, through-composed with vocals, would be hard. But I’d like to integrate that more when we start to write more with our new singer. I was even thinking of adding vocals to the song “79” for the live version, where I think they could fit into the second half of that song. I think it could be interesting for the listener to hear some vocal tunes that are not quite so predictable.
Thanks very much for chatting with us, Dave Watts. You can find more information and tour dates on the band’s website, here: https://www.themotet.com/