Rob Watson
The Pour House
Saturday, April 29

The first instrument that attracted the attention of Durham-born, Garner-raised Rob Watson was the drum set owned by his babysitter’s son, but what really got him into music was singing in the church. From those loud and holy beginnings, Watson has grown into one of the most versatile musicians in the area, starting with the late heavy trio Abby 6 and reaching the point where he’s now making room for four musical outlets. He brings the songs from his terrific album To Trade Hands to life both in a solo setting and with a local-star-stocked band. He unveils his goofy side in the Oblivious Action Figures, a three-piece whose song titles–“Gangsta Smurph,” “Vowel Movement”–gently suggest that this might not be a deathly serious outfit, just in case the afro wigs didn’t tip you off. And his newest venture, a gospel group named The Whistlestop, was formed with a co-worker during their carpool drives and inspired by a gospel tape Watson’s grandmother made for her brother back in the day. (“It’s music that’s definitely inside me,” he says.) As different as all these are, at the center of each is Watson’s elastic voice, a marvel of an instrument that enables him to be whatever the song calls for–an amphitheatre troubadour, a modern rock hero, a neo-soulster, a costumed crusader, a country preacher–with flights of falsetto taking off at regular intervals.

But with a family and a full-time job, how is Watson doing it, and why? “What keeps me into it now, I guess, is the last song I wrote, whether I think it was pretty good or not,” he explains. “As long as they keep getting a little better or more interesting or truer.” So are his songs getting truer? “I think so. The older you get, the more truths you have to write about.”

Independent Weekly: You play in a bunch of different configurations. You do solo shows, just you and guitar. You do band shows…

Rob Watson: And I definitely want to mention those guys, because it’s band of the month.

IW: That’s right. You play with kind of the Rob Watson Band, you play with the Oblivious Action Figures, and you have the new gospel group. What are some of the major differences among those, in preparation, in delivery, whatever?

RW: The Rob Watson thing, with the guys who went with me in the studio, we basically play the record. There’s about 25 to 30 percent new material that wasn’t on the record and that has breathing room. When I play by myself, there’s no drummer, and I can go out of the time meter, slow down, stop, say something, whatever. That’s freer. That’s fun sometimes; that’s a breath of fresh air. But there’s not much that can compare with Jac [Cain] up there running sound, and Dave Bartholomew and Jesse Huebner, and John Boswell’s playing bass with us now. That’s fun with the whole band up there. It’s like Christmas morning. An Action Figures show is just silly. Anything goes. We get out a lot of whatever it is we need to get out as the Action Figures. It really helps us not take ourselves too seriously. I hope that it helps people who come to an Action Figures show. I don’t think they can take themselves too seriously after that. Or maybe they just don’t come back. And the gospel outlet is basically just stories straight from the Bible. If they touch you, they touch you. If they don’t, they don’t.

IW: What I really like about To Trade Hands is that it’s all over the place, and I mean that in a good way. There’s a pop song followed by a soul song, a rather ferocious rocker followed by a radio-friendly ballad. I like that.

RW: Me too. The To Trade Hands record–I say this sometimes live–I’m glad it’s called To Trade Hands and not To Go Kill Your Ex or anything like that. The material took shape over about a year and a half of a separation, but before the record was finished, I met my wife. So we named it To Trade Hands, which is a really great thing instead of just total heartbreak. I captured the door opening. And I had the song “To Trade Hands” finished, but I didn’t have that line “There’s no reason that love has told you to trade hands.” I was having me a 7&7 at Slim’s, and that line came to me, to finish the song. And I was like, well that’s the name of the record too.

IW: Now when that line came to you, were you talking to somebody, did something spark it? I’m always curious….

RW: Kenny Roby says he just catches them as they go by. I’ll go along with that. I have no idea where they come from. The good Lord, I hope. I don’t know what sparks them. You have those couple of lines in your set when you want the music to come down, you want everybody to hear them. I just try to catch ’em as they come by, like Kenny.

IW: “Reasons,” sung with your wife Joanna, is one I like a lot.

RW: That was her first time being recorded vocally, and she laid it down. Dave [Bartholomew, who produced To Trade Hands] loved it. I trusted Dave on that record. There was stuff I didn’t want to leave that he left. I had all my parts done for “Reasons,” and Joanna came in and did her part. And Dave was like, “OK, you have to go back in there and redo your parts. She just blew you away, man.” [laughs]

IW: OK, you play guitar front and center, but you’ve also played drums in bands. Certainly two different perspectives, from the back of the stage and the front of the stage. Other than the view probably being better from the front of the stage, what are the big differences?

RW: Actually, when I did play drums and do the lead thing [in Abbey 6], at Dave Bartholomew’s suggestion at the Brewery, we’d pull the drum riser out front. It worked for us, and I guess it was a good gimmick. I’m an only child, so the showmanship and the wanting the attention comes pretty easy.

IW: I’m wondering how you’d measure and define success music-wise. For some people it’s selling a million records. For others, it’s not having to have a day job, or maybe just getting to play out once a month. How do you measure it?

RW: I really love having a record finished to go play. I haven’t finished enough records. The other side of a record is a really happy place. June Carter Cash said that if you end up with the same passion about the music as when you started out, you did OK. And I reckon I’m pretty happy right now because I still want to write. I still have this list of songs that are almost finished.

Rick Cornell

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