The Age MAY 13, 2009 - by Kylie Northover


Reggie Watts can't explain what's in his head when he takes the stage, but his unique brand of improvised musical comedy has won fans in high places.

American performer Reggie Watts' Australia tour is true case of "back by popular demand".

Watts sold out eleven shows and garnered rave reviews when he appeared at the Sydney Festival in January, and was promptly invited back for the Sydney Comedy festival. This time around, Melbourne audiences also will have a chance to see what all the fuss is about.

Not having seen Watts perform live, it's hard for me to describe what he does. But it is even harder, it transpires, for Watts to explain his act.

Performing with a loop machine and a delay modeller, Watts sings "in layers", adding melodies and ad-libbing lyrics as he goes. He also uses his voice to create effects.

So, is Reggie maybe a bit like that guy from the Police Academy movies who made wacky beatbox noises with just his mouth and a microphone? Apparently not; in between his songs, Watts sprinkles his act with anecdotes, observations and improvised characters.

"I don't know what I am; I guess I'm a little bit of both comedian and musician, depending on the night. I guess I just like to use language as a way of expressing myself," Watts offers by way of shedding a tad more light on himself. "I consider myself an absurdist, a surrealist."

His publicity material gushes about his "ten-octave vocal range", even though such a range is humanly impossible. "It's not a lie," Watts says when called upon to explain. "It's a non-truth. A friend of mine wrote it in my bio for my press release, just for fun. But I do have a large range; I think about five is the limit."

There are, however, many reviews of his shows that report his ten-octave range as solid fact. "I know! And I even tell people it's not true, but it still gets reported," he says. "It's really only about four and a half. On a good day."

Such "half-truths" are all part of Watts' shtick; as well as the absurdist tag, he likes to call himself a "disinformationist".

"A lot of what I talk about is disinformation," he says. "I'll do 'anti-jokes' about wherever I am, and I'll try to get as many facts wrong as possible. Sometimes I tell true stories, but most of the time I tell half-truths."

Hmmm. So what can Melbourne audiences expect at his debut gig next week? Watts can't even tell you that. All his shows are improvised - the music, the jokes, the storytelling.

"Everything I do is improvised, so it's basically me talking about... whatever happens. Generally, I have nothing in mind when I go out on stage. It's more exciting that way," he says.

Watts concedes that improvising comes with risks, but says he can't work any other way. "I guess I think in contrast to the way other people do things but to me it's absolutely essential not to plan anything."

Whatever label he goes by, and whatever it is that he actually does, it's won Watts a legion of fans, including legendary musician and producer Brian Eno, who selected him to appear at next month's Luminous festival in Sydney.

Born in Germany and raised in the US, Watts is a classically trained pianist and jazz singer, and gained some fame playing in bands in the Seattle music scene in the 1990s. His most successful outfit, the Seattle-based Maktub, combines blues, soul, funk and jazz, and has released six albums.

But even his approach to being in a band is unconventional. Maktub rarely performs live, but regularly records albums.

"We used to perform live but we don't at all now," Watts says. "Now we just get together and build up a slow list of songs and then we edit them and then everyone goes back home to work on their various parts.

"We have fans who buy enough records to let us make other records, so they end up being paid for. It's an interesting process in that respect."

Indeed. Watts also records sporadically with another band called Tippy Toes, which describes its genre as "disco house/comedy/funk" and features members of Hercules and Love Affair and LCD Soundsystem. "We do kind of nouveau disco and I sing for them. And that's the same process: we improvise stuff and then we structure the songs separately and it comes together in the studio."

Like the Flight Of The Concords, with whom he often performs, Watts manages to pull off the rarest of feats: the music-comedy hybrid. Watts says he has more experience in music than in comedy, but the comedy side of his performance has certainly taken off.

"I only moved into comedy about five years ago because I wanted to do something by myself, that I could travel with. I wanted to do what was inside my head."

Just don't expect him to know what that is before he gets up on stage.