It's soundcheck time at the Vic Theater in Chicago and Reggie Watts is making weird, gurgling noises into the microphone. Suddenly, he busts into the Motown hit "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" – a typically unorthodox moment from the massively afro'd 40-year-old comedian, whose blend of onstage song creation via electronic loops and severely parched wit has elevated him to one of the country's most sought-after comic talents.
Watts, who cut his teeth playing in rock and jazz bands in Seattle before moving to New York, has quite a resumè: he's opened for Conan O'Brien and LCD Soundsystem, cut a live album at Jack White's Third Man Records in Nashville and worked with bigwig directors Steven Soderbergh and J.J. Abrams. This week, he released his second Comedy Central special, Reggie Watts: A Live in Central Park. He sat down in Chicago on the eve of his three-week tour to talk with Rolling Stone about his nonstop performance schedule, his budding friendship with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and his long-term plans to run a production house. He also donned one amazing sweater emblazoned with a golfer.
It's your first show of a tour. Nervous?
It's hard to say when a first show is a first show. For me, I'm always performing. It's just kind of the next thing. It just happens to have the name "tour" on it.
It's been an exciting week or so, with your comedy special debuting.
Did I just inform you of this?
(laughs) It's kind of an abstract concept. You work on something and then you hear about it and you do promotion for it. But other than that, it's just really no proof that it exists. For me, I've done the projects so now it's time to think about what's next, in a way.
That's not an uncommon feeling among musicians: record, wait, move on.
Some people are very involved with the whole process. They know what it's like to release something. I've done many projects like that. I just stopped after awhile because I generally trust the people I work with.
So it was about two to three years ago when shit got real for Reggie Watts.
(laughs) Shit got real!
When did you realize things had changed?
I usually tell by the neighborhood I live in. People are like, "Yo, man; hey, man" more than usual. Sometimes airport security people recognize me. I'll go through the whole screening process and at the end they'll go, "Hey, man, I really like your work." That's so cool.
There's always been this lingering question: is Reggie Watts a comedian or a musician?
I guess, in a weird way, I've never actually thought of this until now, which is really odd. I guess, in a way, I grew up mixed race: half white, half black. That question's always been on my mind: what are you? Are you this or that? Are you a white dude or are you a black dude? In a strange way, music and comedy is kind of the same thing. I'm both. They're just different modes of expression.
People always want things to fit into a nice, tidy box.
Everybody's got their take on it. That's the cool thing about art. Everyone gets their own opinions, which is awesome. For myself, I just think, "Oh yeah, this is what I've always done."
Your musical performance is inundated with loops and samplers.
I've always been fascinated in technology. In the Eighties, I fell in love with synthesizers. And then when I got to Seattle, I ran into people using early looping pedals – Boomerangs and JamMans. I was like, "That’s cool; you can build stuff on your own." Over time, it started evolving into me using it more and more. It was a way to entertain people with very little.
You've amassed quite the Rolodex of collaborators in recent years.
With Conan, it came because a few of his writers were friends of mine. In the case of Jack White, it's because of Conan. I didn't perform when I was at Third Man Records [the first time]. But I did have a really brief chat with Jack White and just said, "Yo man, I'd love to do a show here." That floated around the ether for four or five months and then I got an email saying, "Jack White would like you to come record a live set." I was like, "Sick!" Running into [Brian] Eno was me performing and him seeing me and us just having a conversation.
And LCD Soundsystem?
LCD was just because James [Murphy] is just a fan of comedy. He hangs out with a lot of comedians. He fancies himself a bit of a comedic guy. It was a combination of me knowing members of the house band for [his record label] DFA – the players that were on call to fill in for sessions – so that got me on his radar. It's mainly just people telling people, "Hey, check out this guy," and they dig it and I get lucky. It was that way with J.J. Abrams too. I just got a call one day: "JJ would like to see you." I came and visited him on the set of Super 8. It was totally surreal. I didn't know a lot about J.J. at that time. I just knew he was really kicking ass. He's a great guy and Soderbergh was the same thing: "Soderbergh would like you to do a cameo in his movie [Bitter Pill]." It was just a tiny little thing but it was a huge honor to not have to audition. If you have something you do that's unique, you just end up in situations. Your art can take you to places without you working too hard to force something to happen.
Where do you go from here?
I have visualizations where I'm living in a really cool place – probably outside of town – with a really dope studio where I can record music or film things. Just have my own mini production house. That's really the thing I'd love to end up with the most and only do gigs when I needed to and also amass a little bit of a crew around me. Almost the Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips model.
We love Wayne Coyne.
A fantastic man. They have a compound in Oklahoma City and they live to perform and record. Wayne is another guy that I ended up meeting at Sasquatch and now we send MMSs and pictures back and forth to each other. He's awesome. I like what he does and the lifestyle he's created for himself.
Is traveling wearing you out?
The traveling is cool but I feel that I need to make something more substantial. I'm trying to change that.
You've composed music for Louis CK's Louie. What's it like working with him?
He's a very natural comic genius. But he's a heavy thinker. He's comes from a dark side and that's what informs his work. He's still very pleasant even though he's talking about dark things. He has that ability to talk about pretty heavy things but he has that smile that erases the heaviness of it.
What music is Reggie Watts listening to these days?
I've been listening to a lot of Shuggie Otis. I rediscovered Shuggie. A lot of Wings. I just can't stay away from Wings. There's just something about that music. Dionne Warwick – some early stuff like "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" The new Santigold cut, "Disparate Youth," is ill. The new St. Vincent is dope. She needs to be stopped. Washed Out. Feist's new one is great too. Band of Skulls, I really like those guys. And my old standbys like Stereolab and Broadcast and Chicago, too.
I'm a big fan of Kate Berlant and Greg Barris and Rory Scovel and Hari Kondabolu. Sean Patton is another great comedian. At one point, I was that crew.
Please tell us where you got your old man golfer sweater.
It was either in Montana at a Goodwill or L.A. at a Goodwill. Or it just got handed to me and I forgot. People really like this sweater. I like sweaters.