- full page spread in Dutch newspaper ‘Het Parool’, by Peter van Brummelen, 25 September 2013:
John Watts Singer of Fischer-Z is in Amsterdam with the multimedia performance ‘The Last Picasso’
‘I’ve got so much more to say’
In the late seventies he was the singer of the new-wave band Fischer -Z .
Tomorrow John Watts (58) performs at De Kleine Komedie. With music ánd a radio play.
A few weeks ago he had to perform at the Fringe festival in Edinburgh. One time during the day he sang some songs on the street, right next to a record store. As soon as he’d opened his mouth, he had the attention of a small group of Dutch tourists. “After a few songs one of them approached me: ‘Sir, your voice sound so familiar, is it possible that we have heard you somewhere before?’ And when I started to play The worker they said, ‘But you’re John Watts!’ ”
It often happens to Watts that people recognize him by his voice alone. A voice that has hardly changed since the late seventies, early eighties, when he was the lead singer of the band Fischer -Z. In his appearance you can see that he is now 58 years old, but when he sings he sounds almost like he did back in the days: sharp, high, energetic. How do you keep a voice like that in good shape? “Simple: by not smoking and leaving spirits alone. I only drink red wine.”
New Wave, a reggae rhythm here and there, political lyrics. That was what Fischer-Z stood for. Back home in England, the band never got past cult status, but in continental Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, the band was really big. Some hits of that time: The Worker, So Long, Marliese. “It went very quickly. In one year we were playing in large halls. On my 26th I had sold two million records. In England almost no one knew who we were. Because of that strange name Fischer -Z they thought we were Germans.”
In 1981 Watts quit the band Fischer -Z (whose name was incidentally derived from a term from statistics) and began a solo career. “I was quite erratic during that time. I didn’t occupy myself with something like a career. Ideals came before earning top money . The record company promised me a fortune if I’d continue in the band, but I said no. I did not want to make the kind of records that they expected from me. Now that I’m older and wiser, I think I should have taken that money. And then simply still do the kind of record that wanted to make. That record company was part of a multinational, so I wouldn’t have had to feel guilty about anything.”
Reminiscing: “I could have had my own house, and to never have financial worries.” Is he off so much worse, in that respect? “It’s not exactly a money tree, but the important thing is : I can do exactly what I want. And if it does go wrong: I have five grown children. I could always sleep with someone in the garage, of course.” He laughs out loud when he says it.
When he ended Fischer -Z it also had to do with what he calls the limitations of rock music. “Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not look down on rock, and I will never claim that I now make high art, but at the time, however, I felt limited in my possibilities. It was: “Oh, you’re John Watts of Fischer-Z, the guy who always sings about cruise missiles.” But I had so much more to say. And in so many different ways.”
John Watts has been making music since (and later even adapting the moniker Fischer-Z again), but he also draws and paints. He photographs, he published a collection of poems and he does theater. For his performance tomorrow in De Kleine Komedie, before the break there’s the multimedia performance The last Picasso. “It’s a play in the form of a radio play. I’m the only actor on the stage, the other characters you only see on video.”
And it’s about Picasso? “Yes, but also about myself and about death. From a very early age I was fascinated by Picasso. On my boys room I had two pictures on my wall: one of the football player George Best, and Picasso. A great artist, but not a very pleasant man. That part I’m trying to make up for in The last Picasso. He returns to earth and visits a writer, who has cancer, on his deathbed. I play that writer.”
He sighs deeply, swallows once. “The irony is that my father has cancer and is dying. During this tour I go back to England every two or three days, because it can be over just like that. How weird is that: I’m playing a man who is dying of cancer, while my own father, to whom I carry a big resemblance, is going through the same thing.”
The music he plays after the break is done with local musicians.. “This is the way I do it everywhere during this tour. I send them the music we play in advance: six new songs and six old songs, Fischer-Z classics, but they are allowed to give it a unique twist. Here in Amsterdam I have the time to rehearse with them, but usually it happens that I just meet the musicians a few hours in advance.”
And that always turns out well? “There are some nights that are truly magical. You don’t always get to this level, but it never goes wrong. The best part is the variety. In Wales, I was on stage with 17-year-old punks, but in Paris I played with Moroccan musicians with instruments that I do not even know the names of.”
“Amsterdam is going to be something special. Amongst the regular instruments we have a tuba and saxophone, but it also includes a mandoloncello and a musical saw.”
John Watts, De Kleine Komedie,
tomorrow, starting at 20.15.