MAKTUB: IT IS WRITTEN AND SO IT SHALL BE


Maktub
Modern culture likes easy categories. This thing goes in this slot, that thing goes in that box, and each will be marketed to the appropriate demographic. Maktub, however, straddle genres the way Prince and Sly Stone once did – rock played soulfully, soul with power pop grit under its wheels, and hints of jazz's improvisational bent. While this makes them a harder sell in a mass media world that wants to immediately know on which Clear Channel station to program a group, it also identifies Seattle's Maktub as a band into music for the sake of music. This fact is especially clear on their catchy new release, Say What You Mean - a carefully constructed pop album that moves them some distance from their groove-soul reputation.


Reggie Watts
"We knew we were writing a lot more pop material in the year leading up to recording. When we were playing that live, we knew it was going to be something different," states lead singer Reggie Watts, a multi-octave marvel with a grace not often heard these days. "When we got together with the producers, it unfolded into something even more different than what we'd envisioned through our writing process."

When asked what kind of music his band makes, he responds, "I usually tell them it's a rock band just because it's kinda rockin' (laughs). I also say there are some soul influences." Their brand of soul echoes the gut-level thump of Minneapolis' five-foot wonder and Marvin Gaye's relentless pressing at the edges of his chosen style. There's also the clean, cosmopolitan funk that young, white America is laying down in recent hit makers like LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, and Franz Ferdinand - a generation suddenly and excitedly aware of the Gang of Four and Roxy Music. When told parts of the new record have a strong Duran Duran vibe, especially the slow churning "20 Years," Watts chimes, "That's hot, man! Duran Duran is one of my favorite bands. They're great musicians, great songwriters." Maktub's diversity comes from a wildly diverse background.


Kevin Goldman & Thaddeus Turner
By Todd Bradley
"It's cool because it's such a mixed bag of musicians. Everybody's experienced but in different ways," enthuses Watts. "Thaddeus [Turner] [guitar] has a background in gospel music and some jazz, a lot of early '80s/late '70s R&B. Then Kevin [Goldman] [bass] never took music lessons or anything but started playing bass in dub bands so he has a deep, low-end sound. Davis [Martin] [drums] is a drum corps guy out of high school who can also play like a drum machine. Daniel [Spils] [keys] is a pretty experienced musician who's had musical training and plays piano and guitar, and he's a great songwriter. And I've been involved with music and studied music theory since I was five. The range is pretty huge in the realm of experience. When we all get together to write songs it's a cool balance. It kinda puts things in check as we're developing a collective style of writing and arranging."

The confusion about Maktub begins with their name. "It came from the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I had read the book and was inspired by it, and that word was in it - one of the only Arabic words in it. It was used by this salesman who described it as [meaning] 'It is written,' like destiny or something like that," states Watts. "We were looking for names for the band, and that was really the only one where everyone said 'Oh sure.' So, we stuck with it. We learned more about the name as time's gone on. Some people could view it as problematic at times, wondering what it means or how to pronounce it [it's "Mock-tube" for the curious]. I'm glad it is what it is."

 
One of the largest things about it is there's no music industry per se. No huge, monolithic record labels have their offices here [Seattle]. So when you play music, you're generally free to do what you want to do. That produces some interesting results."
--Reggie Watts
 
Photo by Todd Bradley

In contrast to their smooth, well-produced studio work, the band's live shows are legendarily intense and full of spontaneous musical tangents. Watts in particular always seems happy to warp things from their official versions, using custom tools to achieve unique effects. "The telephone mic is simply a handset from a 1950's phone that's been wired so I can plug it into effects pedals," explains Watts. "The real time vocal sampling is this looping pedal I use to create loops and sampling live. I really enjoy, and kind of insist on, having control over the effects on my voice. Some of it I leave up to the sound engineer, but any of the effected things I do I want to have control over. It's good for me to have that outlet on stage because I think of it as another instrument."


Reggie Watts by W. Churgin
Watts is often compared to classic soul singers like Al Green and Bill Withers, but his own take on his voice is a bit different.

"Of the comparisons I've heard, I can usually hear a little bit of it, here and there. One person, for some of the early recordings I used to do, pointed out that I sounded like Roland Orzabal from Tears For Fears, which I thought was kinda cool. I think there's some Al Jarreau in what I do. People may not pick up on that, or maybe it's just something I think about while I'm singing. I can hear what some of the comparisons are, there's bits and pieces of it intertwined. It's the human voice, so it's inevitably going to sound like someone else's voice."

"I like the way [Jarreau] used his voice. He treated it like an instrument," continues Watts. "I also draw some comparisons, at least in my mind, to Peter Murphy [Bauhaus] in the lower register in my voice. He's really inspired me with his cool, dark intensity. I really enjoy that. I think he has one of the most compelling male voices."

Another attribute that gets constant attention in Maktub's press is Reggie's hair - a classic back-in-the-day afro. When pressed about whether this ever gets on his nerves, he states, "It's one of those things where sometimes I wonder, 'What is the deal?' It's just hair (laughs). At the same time, I try to keep an open mind. People wouldn't comment on it if they didn't feel they needed to comment on it. If you feel you need to talk about the hair then cool. People are fascinated with it – What is it? How does it work? - like it's some kind of indescribable software. There's just this weird fascination with anybody that's ethnic by the white population pretty much across the board, as verified by Halloween and all the frat guys with their afro wigs." When it's suggested that maybe whitey thinks afros are imbued with magical powers, Watts replies, "Yeah, maybe (laughs). They think if they wear this it'll give them access to perceptions they'd never considered. I'm sure that's what they're thinking."


Reggie Watts by Todd Bradley
One thing that isn't old school about them is their focused, highly modern songwriting on Say What You Mean, which has all the earmarks of a radio friendly sleeper. Unlike their previous effort, Khronos, which featured a simmering cover of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter," the new one is all originals.

"We thought about doing several covers, including one from the Jeff Buckley posthumous release called 'Everybody Wants You' because it sounded like such a Maktub tune. It's completely everything that we are. It's crazy," says Watts. "We used to do White Snake's 'Is This Love?' and we considered doing that. It was an ultra-band, man, the most ridiculous stage musicians ever. It's like the hair rock version of a Joni Mitchell all-star band. Awful (trails off)."

On their latest, Maktub once again dips into slow songs, setting them apart from so much modern music that's fixated on aggression and on fitting into three-minute time frames for radio and TV.

 
One person, for some of the early recordings I used to do, pointed out that I sounded like Roland Orzabal from Tears For Fears, which I thought was kinda cool. I think there's some Al Jarreau in what I do. People may not pick up on that, or maybe it's just something I think about while I'm singing. I can hear what some of the comparisons are, there's bits and pieces of it intertwined. It's the human voice, so it's inevitably going to sound like someone else's voice.

--Reggie Watts

 
Photo by W. Churgin

"We just really like slow, heavy stuff. Last album we did 'No Quarter,' and this album's equivalent is 'Nobody Loves You Like I Do.' We'll always be interested in that. I think all tempos are great, and if you can really play a ballad well, it's a really long-lasting piece of work that you can play anytime. Ballads are really the only kind of song you can play anytime, whereas high-energy songs have a particular time bracket."


Reggie Watts
Seattle was the birthplace of grunge rock, but there's also a genre-busting strain that surfaces in Maktub and kindred spirits Critters Buggin. When asked if there's something in the water that produces bands that recombine a lot of different elements, Watts thoughtfully offers, "One of the largest things about it is there's no music industry per se. No huge, monolithic record labels have their offices here. So when you play music, you're generally free to do what you want to do. That produces some interesting results."

"The weather is so rainy and cloudy a lot of the time that people are forced to be a little more introspective and think about things more thoroughly. As they practice in garages and grungy rehearsal spaces and it's raining outside, they're thinking about Iggy Pop and British ambient music and California ska. You end up putting these influences together because no one's telling you, 'That's not cool.' And there are a lot of great venues. There are at least 10-12 venues a new band can play in. It's a pretty small community, and people know each other and help each other out. You have the freedom and the bandwidth to do what you want without much judgment."


Maktub
In addition to working on a solo follow-up to last year's '80s-tastic Simplified, Watts is exploring new spaces in a new project called Synth Club - live, improvised techno-house that includes Daniel from Maktub, Steve Scalfati, and laptop tweaker Nordic Soul. Still, his priority remains Maktub and their hopes for the new album and tour, which began in April.

"It's pretty simple in that we're all songwriters, we enjoy playing music, and we like playing music in this formation. And we keep working at it until it's done. Obviously we'd love to see it go as far as it can go. We'd love to win a Grammy or to play huge coliseums, but at the end of the day, it's more about how cool a song can be. The other stuff, like Grammys, are just nice goals. We'll just keep writing music because we enjoy it."

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Seattle
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Comments

G$Love starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/6/2005 09:02AM
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G$Love

Great article Dennis! I just saw the band in Chicago and they were awesome. It was the 5th time I've seen them and they've really come into their own, they're a real rock band these days with Thaddeus laying down some of the finest guitar chops out there. More people need to hear this band!

bender69 starstarstarstarstar Sun 5/15/2005 05:49PM
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WORD!....because of this article i have just discovered my favorite band in the past 10 years...im soooo hooked.
Thank you for introducing me to the now of music. Cheers!

Mr. Aaron starstarstar Mon 5/16/2005 09:31AM
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Mr. Aaron

This is a pretty good band. i saw them at the brandyhouse on Saturday night. They are very talented, not exaclty my thing though. Lead guitar is pretty weak. The whole thing has a "chick flick" feel to it. R&B love song type stuff.