For fifteen years Ben Watkins has been recording under the name Juno Reactor and has released seven magnificent albums which have grown progressively better and more diverse. His Soundtrack work, most memorably for The Matrix, has also been an enormous success. Utilizing musicians from around the globe he has taken Trance music from its meager Goa beginnings to embrace ethnic and tribal influences found in various locations in the world. While still firmly rooted in Electronic constructs his use of primitive instrumentation to make a cold style of music more Earthy and Human is an inspiration to millions of fans on every continent. His latest release, Gods & Monsters, is his most striking and diversified work yet and Metropolis Records has seen fit to re-release most of Juno Reactor's albums to celebrate Watkins' prolific career.
We were granted the opportunity to chat with Watkins just after he returned from a vacation with his family and was gearing up for a brief US tour.
Interview by Christopher Roddy
DTC: What were some of your earliest experiences with music during childhood and what ignited the desire within you to to actively pursue it as a hobby and ultimately a career?
Ben Watkins: My dad is a classical music nut, he could just leave me by the record player for days on end, no problem. Throw me a symphony and I would eat it up. I still love classical/orchestral music, maybe the most.
DTC: Was music an integral part of your early education?
Ben Watkins: Music became my blood. I'm heavily dyslexic, which I didn't know back then. I think it gave me a way to be proud,.a sense of self worth. I started singing in choirs and I won a choral scholarship that paid for my schooling. I left school and formed bands.
DTC: What is your approach toward your own children in regard to music? How much do you share with them and do they seem receptive to it as an art form or even simply as a means for escapism?
Ben Watkins: I love teaching my kids to play and have fun with instruments. This morning we bashed around, Django on drums me on guitar. He's much more interested in the expression of music and dance.
DTC: All your albums are being re-released and your most recent effort, Gods & Monsters garnered much critical acclaim. You still seem like a creative force at the top of your game and yet you've hinted that there may only be one more Juno Reactor album inside of you. Would it be so easy for you to walk away from the legacy you've built up and leave it behind?
Ben Watkins: Ummm, sometimes it feels like a heavy weight around my neck; What is Juno Reactor? Can it be a living entity? If yes, then why stop? If no, then there is nowhere for me to go with it, except backwards.
DTC: You've shrugged off a lot of the claims from people that you were a "pioneer" of Goa and Psy Trance. Some seem to have taken a small degree of offense toward what they see as a dismissive attitude toward the style you abandoned well over a decade ago. In your view is there any cause for performers to still be trying to mine some sort of treasure we haven't yet found in those styles or do you truly see it as a lost cause? Are there any musicians you admire that have managed to further what has already been achieved down that particular avenue?
Ben Watkins: I do not intend to be offensive. It is a great form of music for learning arrangement, production, and writing as it has easily digestible parts, clear points, easy beats, etc. It's a bit like Lego blocks; you just stick them together. That isn't to say the are no good tracks being made by others, it is just that in the last 10 years I haven't heard one.
I like bands like Broken Note at the moment - heavy duty Dub with the mentality of a psycho. Heavy, dark beats.
DTC: What keeps you rooted in electronic music? In spite of your fascination with primitive instrumentation and ancient/traditional spirituality you still construct most of your songs through the modern technology of programming. Peter Gabriel has done quite a bit for World Music by incorporating it into Western Pop constructs. The longer his career stretches the less he seems interested in maintaining those ties to modern production techniques. As an artist that has embraced both the modern and the traditional have you vacillated between the two and occasionally entertained the idea of dropping the programming altogether?
Ben Watkins: No way. I LOVE programming, and I hate it, but more of the time I love it. I feel I am back in love with it. My andromeda keyboard and all my toys, my guitars - I'm just waiting for my next jet stream to send me down the particle alley. I think I need to write a very electronic album next.
DTC: Do you get critical of your early output and even look back on your older material with a slight level of disgust at times? Does it pain you that it's
out there and you can't take it back? Do you sometimes wish that you could just erase what you now perceive as creative missteps? And when you have such thoughts do you take into consideration your own artistic development, bearing in mind that it was all part of the steep incline that has led you to the peak you find yourself at now?
Ben Watkins: I do not see it as a peak. You don't know the music (I hope) that I am embarrassed by. Maybe you do. There's nothing I can do about it now but laugh! *cough*
I think I must have made at least 3 albums of complete crap, but with Juno I tend to like even the bad ones.
DTC: So then, are you capable of truly appreciating an album like Transmissions at this point in your career? What nostalgic or emotional context does that album elicit in you? What triggered the shift from SciFi themes to Tribal Spirituality?
Ben Watkins: I have great memories of that album so when I listen to it, (which is rare) it feels like a time tunnel. Somehow the air is fresher in the past, crisper. Juno Reactor has always felt like a family of musicians.
I got bored of SciFi landscapes and chemical sounds. I wanted, as you say, a sense of spirituality which I found as soon as I fell over Mabi in a
Johannesburg recording studio. We talk the same music, we hear the same way - in colors, shapes, images. After I came back from a trip to Namibia where Mabi's family come from, we clicked. Since then we have been stuck like glue.
DTC: You've done some phenomenal Soundtrack work for films, including the Matrix series. What sorts of films do you particularly enjoy and what are some of your favorites?
Ben Watkins: There are so many films I love. Lawrence Of Arabia, The Orphanage, 2001, Jaws, Colour Of Pomegranates, La Haine, Sin City, Pan's Labyrinth, Amos Peros. So many. Kung Fu Panda. I like blockbusters, leftfield art-house, Anima, The Matrix, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, The Magician - an Oz film. I watch films all the time, maybe it is best I don't write for many films as that way I am still taken in by the show.
DTC: You've incorporated a variety of styles into your music over the years and on your most recent effort even showcased a rare, intimate side featuring your own vocals accompanied by piano. Does everything you write automatically become a "Juno Reactor" song or are there things you've put together that seemed like they should be part of a different project altogether?
Ben Watkins: Maybe, I am feeling the bars of my cage with Pretty Girl and Perfect crime. Maybe I reached out too far for some people.
DTC: Oh, I don't know about that. If there's one thing your tracks are known for it's their "reach." And since the songs you write can sometimes stretch on for eight to ten minutes I'm curious about what goes into making the decision as to how and when to end a track? Is it just a feeling or is there usually some sort of methodical element or structural impasse which occurs?
Ben Watkins: I know inside when it is finished, usually after a month. It can be longer or quicker but my brain works slow. I have tried every drug known to man to try and speed it up and the best to date is nicotine but seeing as I gave up smoking 3 years ago I'm back on the black stuff...coffee.
DTC: So when you need a break from music what do you like to do for fun? Do you have many, or any, other hobbies that occupy your time and mind?
Ben Watkins: Swim. I am a fish for sure. Stick me in water, keep me warm, feed me, stick me on a rock. I love being in the water looking at fish. They relax me. They seem so perfect. A long Cigar, sun, sea and sex, what more could a mollusk want...
DTC: How important is family to you? Do you have enough time in your busy life to nurture intimate friendships beyond your family life? What sorts of people really interest you?
Ben Watkins: My family is my life, I have no problem forming deep relationships with men or women outside my family but they usually are predictably music related.
I went to the Picasso Museum in Spain last week. What I loved about his work was that some of his paintings that he did when he was 93 were amazing. That is so inspiring.
DTC: Of all the places to which you've traveled what are some of the most memorable spots? What areas have really stuck with you and compel you to return? Are there places you have yet to see that really interest you and are there parts of the world in which you would still like to stage performances?
Ben Watkins: Egypt, the Sinai. The smell of the dust and the sand, the sea; the Red Sea. I want to go to Tibet, China and all over Latin America. I love Donkeys.
DTC: With all the social and political unrest around the globe have you ever been affected by violence or upheaval while traveling either alone or on tour? Do
you spend much time ruminating on all the negative things happening in the world? Is politics something in which you are ever actively involved?
Ben Watkins: As a member of the Human race I feel totally numb by our inability to face up to the reality of the destruction we see all around us all the time.
DTC: What are your perceptions on the music industry these days and how much things have changed since you started?
Ben Watkins: I think for a young musician staring out now it is amazing. For me it is confusing I am adjusting. It's a bit like crabbing; you need to look under every stone.
DTC: With the rising costs of fuel and travel becoming more expensive in general do you consider scaling back on touring? Is it at all troubling to you?
Ben Watkins: It all troubles me. I have 4 guys from South Africa (in the touring band), one from Japan, one from the USA and four from the UK. Do not even mention Visa's.
DTC: When it comes to leaving a legacy what are the aspect of your career you most want people to remember? What are some of the things you've achieved that elicit the most pride out of you?
Ben Watkins: Working on The Matrix will always be my favorite music life experience. I was in heaven, only to be returned to Earth. Navras.
DTC: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, Ben. We really appreciate it!
Ben Watkins: Thank you.