Reggie Watts’s Afro is a marvel, as wispy, intricate and far-out as the universe itself. Like the stream-of-consciousness flow of his ideas, his nimble multioctave, pan-percussive voice, his gift for vocal imitation and his fiercely intelligent, absurdist comedy, Watts’s Afro is in a class by itself. It surrounds him like a halo and enters a room of its own accord as if bristling with cosmic ideas. As he walks into the Roebling Tea Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Watts is hard to miss, even in a part of town known for colorful characters. Aside from his hair and equally healthy wild beard, he is wearing giant sunglasses, a striped sweater and suspenders attached to pants pulled high above his waist. They are rolled up to reveal brightly colored socks and short black sneaker boots. He is carrying a folded-up vehicle with a large front tire—something between a bike and a Razor scooter. He is every bit a benevolent imp from the land of make-believe.
Watts personifies the offbeat genius that is typical of Williamsburg, and in his case that genius is getting its close-up. In the past year Watts was handpicked by Conan O’Brien to open O’Brien’s live comedy tour Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television, and he released a Comedy Central special called Why $#!+ So Crazy? as a CD-DVD combo pack. He has maintained a nonstop international touring schedule that shows no sign of letting up, and he is a thoroughly modern comedian, in touch on Twitter and at home on YouTube, where much of his best material can be found. Whether baffling engineers at Google for the first half of his set by speaking to them in the voice of a hoary BBC announcer (see “Musicians@Google: Reggie Watts” on YouTube) or creating witty, orchestrally complex songs using only his voice and a looping machine in his apartment or on national television, Watts is nothing short of brilliant. His is a career on the cusp. It has been an unconventional journey, but it’s as much a compliment to our collective consciousness as it is to his vision to say that the world is now ready for Reggie Watts.
“I don’t prepare anything aside from watching and looking and hearing and logging and registering things,” he says. “When I go onstage those things may come out or may not, and other things will happen during the performance. It’s really up in the air. I do have things I return to time and again, though, like messing with my microphone stand or the cables. I also like to face the wrong way. Those are recurring mechanisms, but even though I use them often I always try to improvise differently each and every time.”
Those visual touchstones aside, the rest of Watts’s sets are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. First and foremost they are driven by sound—noises, voices, echoes—and a deep love of the possibilities of language. He may open with a nonsensical melody sung in a munchkin-on-helium voice or a professorial tone, or begin a discourse on an imaginary course addendum that will feature special guests with names like Barbara Fensvorough and Truck Martinsonsen. None of it makes sense, but it doesn’t need to. The humor is in the way he bends language, polishes pronunciation and topically changes channels. His genre bending isn’t random just for the sake of randomness; it’s evidence of a higher power at work. When he bursts into song in the middle of a seemingly rambling riff, it all comes together as his multifaceted talents truly coalesce. In the first few minutes of Why $#!+ So Crazy? he launches into a hip-hop song in which he raps as if his microphone has a short circuit, controlling his voice and delivery so well that only bits of words come out. The glitch corrects itself in time for Watts to tell a story of a shared pastry. The chorus of that song, if you can call it that, is “Nobody needs a whole croissant.” It is followed by a hilarious riff about a girl named E. Claire who is a Google hooligan. Once Watts is rolling, topic be damned, it’s impossible to avoid being drawn in.
In conversation Watts has a knack for relating stories with an abundance of academic wordplay, but he’s never pretentious; rather, his method gets to the essence of communication in an enthusiastically engaging yet detached way. His humor is observational and joyous, at once awed by the possibilities but keenly aware of the parameters. Watts is a Renaissance man for the now: a musician, a comedian and an unabashed pop-culturally aware technology geek. He takes in the new and regurgitates it, with humor, in real time.
He is also truly grateful to be doing what he does, because it’s not an act; it’s just an extension of him. “Getting the Conan gig was a game changer for me,” he says. “A lot of people saw who I am and then did extraordinarily generous things for me. Conan is like the benevolent Mafia: If you get to work with him and you do good things, he’ll always find a way to pay you back triple. It’s an honor that he and his people are even interested in me in the first place because they’ve been doing what they do for two decades, and that means a lot.”
Watts also caught the eye of several music icons this year. He was chosen by LCD Soundsystem founder James Murphy to perform a song with the band during its weeklong farewell concerts in New York, and White Stripes impresario Jack White hosted an evening of comedy featuring Watts at his Third Man Records in Nashville, a performance, photography and recording production emporium established in 2009. Third Man features state-of-the-art sound recorded to analog high-fidelity reel-to-reel tape and then pressed onto vinyl. “Aesthetically it’s such an advanced setting, and that’s a reflection of Jack White, who has really great, excellent taste,” Watts says. “I did two 24-minute sets, because that’s how long they can record on one reel, and I went off in between, and the whole time Jack was doing the lighting himself. He was so creative about it. He’d put this small follow spotlight on me, and when I was at the piano all you’d see was my head, in a pink, blue or yellow light.”
Everyone who attended Watts’s show received a 12-inch of it as part of their admission price; it’s a well-engineered memento of today captured via yesteryear. “At the end of the night I followed the engineers up to the sound booth to hear some of the set,” Watts says, growing genuinely wide-eyed. “They have that room so well miked. It was so incredibly warm. They pressed play on that one-inch tape machine, and out came holographic audio. I felt as though my voice was floating in space with the audience murmuring all around it. It was beautiful. It inspired me to do music again if I find the right people to work with.”
The waitress passes by our table, saying she’ll be back in a moment to take our order. “I think I’m going to have the oatmeal,” Watts says, scratching his beard. “It’s steel-cut whole grain with raw brown sugar on top, which is the way they made it in the 1800s. If time travel were possible and anybody could have it, I’d like to be able to order oatmeal that actually was from 1866, and I’d like to be able to eat that in a restaurant. If our waitress were able to go back in time and get me a bowl of oatmeal from 1866 and serve it to me, that would be so authentic.” He smiles a grin that could crack a pro cardplayer’s poker face.
He pulls a small brown bottle from his pocket. “I need to take my medicine,” he says, squirting an eyedropper’s worth of misty tincture into his water. “Do you want some vitamins?”
“Sure,” I say. “What kind?”
“THC. It boosts the immune system.”
“Yes, please. I feel like I’m coming down with something.”
Over the next eight hours, which go by in an instant, Watts holds forth on music, comedy, science, science fiction, physics, technology, time travel and his past, present and future. He is entirely engaging, enthusiastic, informed and hilariously demonstrative. He slips in and out of voices, accents and languages (he speaks English, French and German fluently) easier than most people do their slippers. He is a vessel for the ideas flowing through his mind and the metaphorical ether, yet he’s never so far-out that he forgets his context. He takes to conversation with improvisational glee, be it as expository as detailing his upbringing or as conceptual as grasping at the meaning of life. He often says things like this:
“I’m so interested in what this fucking thing is.” He makes a cartoonish, guttural noise that should be in a quote bubble beside his head: “Urr! What is this thing? What is experience? Oftentimes you’ll find more fantastic descriptions of what this thing could be through physics than any fantasy book or sci-fi movie. Listen to a physicist describe the simple things, like what dark matter is or if there is an origin of the universe or if we are just part of a never-ending, pulsing, collapsing, expanding whatever this is. All their theories are so imaginative that your mind just explodes into a myriad of ideas, much more so than it does while reading a book that says, ‘Zeldock was a tall man, but his laser pistol wasn’t.’ Anything you can dream of is possible within physics on some theoretical level because the people involved are neutral. They’re math philosophers. It’s pure imagination, though physicists don’t think of it that way. Ask a theoretical physicist about invisibility. He’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s possible on some level, and here’s why, theoretically speaking.’ That is magic to me.”
Reggie Watts was born Reginald Lucien Frank Roger Watts in Germany, the only child of an African American father and a white French mother. The family lived in Italy and Spain until he was four, then moved to Great Falls, Montana in 1976. “I was a total latchkey kid, and I loved that,” he says. “I would race home so I could have extra time alone before my parents got home from work.” Watts took violin and piano lessons for nine years and participated in drama at Great Falls High School. “It’s funny. A lot of what I did in drama class in high school informed the origins of my comedy, once I started using a loop pedal. I went back to what I used to do in order to evolve. It was a form of regressive evolution, or something like that.”
After high school Watts moved to Seattle, where he briefly attended the Art Institute of Seattle before studying jazz at the renowned Cornish College of the Arts, one of the top institutions in the country for the performing and visual arts. Watts grew as a musician, and in his jazz voice classes he developed his versatile vocal abilities. “My heroes vocally are Bobby McFerrin and Michael Winslow, who is best known for his role as Motor Mouth Jones in the Police Academy films. Michael can do anything with his voice, and what’s crazy to me now is that I’m friends with him.” Uncannily, an hour or so later, Winslow calls Watts from his home in Florida to chat.
After college Watts dove into Seattle’s rich early-1990s music scene, devoting his ample talents as a keyboardist and singer to a wide variety of projects. The collection of bands he was in is telling of the times and entertaining in list form alone: Hit Explosion, Swampdweller, Action Buddy, IPD (Ironing Pants Definitely), Chiarrscuro, Clementine, Smell No Taste, Wayne Horvitz 4+1 Ensemble, Das Rut, Synthclub, Elemental, Eyvand Kang Seven Nades and Free Space. He spent the most time in Synthclub and Maktub, a band with whom he made five records. These bands ranged from punk rock to Afro-pop to heavy metal to house music to drum and bass to jazz. Watts started beat boxing as well, making tracks from scratch for a number of hip-hop acts. “Musically I really love everything,” he says. “I like the potential realities of the various worlds of each genre of music, and I loved being in all of those very different bands at that time. It felt like time traveling. I’m very big on time traveling.”
He plants a forearm on the table, leans forward for emphasis and with that launches into another of the asides that make watching Watts onstage or encountering him in any form so spontaneously entertaining. “I’m very caught up with the concept of what it would feel like to actually be in another time period and be aware that you are not from there. I thought of this one day while walking all the way from Chelsea to the Lower East Side during a New York transit strike. I was crossing Union Square, which was full of people with luggage in a kind of gridlock, and as I looked at that giant clock with the numbers that never stop running at the south end of the square, I got this feeling that if I had a realization that I was in an extraordinary time period, maybe that feeling was just me in the future recognizing this moment as an important event, so in essence, at that moment, I felt I was time traveling to a certain degree. I called up my friend and collaborator Tommy Smith and asked him, ‘If I feel like I’m in the middle of an extraordinary event right now, does that mean I’m aware of this event from a different time period and perspective?’ Without hesitation he said yes. I said, ‘Okay, thank you.’ And I hung up.”