Carolina based guitarist Steve Watson has an impressive list
of album sessions to his credit including his acclaimed 2012 CD with
the band Watsons Riddle that also featured keyboardist Chuck
Leavell. In the spirit of that jazz-rock classic, the sound of Steve
Watsons 2015 solo CD Heat It Up is pure
21st century fusion. Heat It Up reaches for and attains a musically
accomplished caliber of instrumental jazzone part smooth jazz
and one part a groove based instrumental guitar sound that owes something
to the jazzy and melodic instrumental guitar melodies of Southern
rock bands like The Allman Brothers. Anybody here remember the Dickie
Betts instrumental "Jessica" from Brothers And Sisters?
Watson worked for many years in Los Angeles and was guitarist
for soundtrack kind Mike Post, and theres plenty of cinematic
type grooves in Watsons music. Theres a number of excellent
tracks here including the sizzling sounding Left Turn In Space
that works its magic as an intricate jazz fusion track. Watson gets
rare support from his band mates including Matt Olson (sax),
Keith Davis (keys), Rusty Milner (rhythm guitar) Greg
Alewine (bass), Hazen Bannister (keys) and Big Tez Sherard
(drums). Heat It Up is essential guitar based instro jazz-rock
and is Steve Watsons most impressive recorded works so far.
mwe3.com presents an interview
After the success of the Watsons Riddle CD, what brought you
back to recording your new CD Heat It Up as a solo artist?
Did you take some of the tracks that might have worked on a new Watsons
Riddle CD and decide to use them on your album? How would you describe
the difference, musically and otherwise, between Heat It Up
and the Watsons Riddle CD?
Steve Watson: I felt that I wanted the creative freedom that
comes from being a solo artist, rather than decisions being made by
committee. I had written about half of the songs on Heat It Up
while we had the Watsons Riddle band together but I was
looking for more of a funky sound. Watson's Riddle was more or less
a commissioned work where I had to make musical decisions that I might
not have made if I were on my own. Heat It Up is really the
music that I hear in my head. It is really me.
mwe3: When was the music on Heat It Up written and recorded
and what was the recording process like? Live in the studio or lots
of overdubs and different recording locations?
Steve Watson: The songs on Heat It Up were written between
2011-2013. The recording process started in January 2013 and was finished
in June 2014. I have the freedom to record when I am creatively ready
because I have a studio at The Fine Arts Center in Greenville, South
Carolina and I have an overdub studio at WatsonWood Music. That is
another reason I wanted to record this material as a solo artist.
I didn't have to book a studio and feel the pressure of the clock
ticking as we worked. I could record, listen and accept the work or
redo it until I was satisfied.
My recording process on Heat It Up was to record the basic
song with a drum loop and me playing the guitars and bass. Then I
brought in Big Tez Sherard and Greg Alewine to replace the drum loop
and my bass part. Next, I did the keyboards, horns, and redid most
of my original guitar parts. Other than the live drum and bass parts,
which Eddie Howard recorded, I engineered all of the overdub sessions.
Lucky for me I could call Eddie if I ran into problems. He is the
Recording Arts engineering teacher at The Fine Arts Center. He was
raised in the recording studio by his uncles who had a very successful
Southern Gospel Studio in Greenville during the 1960s and 1970's.
Eddie lived and worked in Nashville before moving back to Greenville.
He is a pleasure to work with everyday.
Whats the chemistry like between you and the other members of
the band that you recorded Heat It Up with including Greg Alewine
on bass and drummer Big Ted Sherard? How did you put the band together
on Heat It Up and who else plays on the CD with you?
Steve Watson: I chose guys to play on the CD that I wanted
to play in the live band. Hazen, Greg and I have been playing together
for years. The chemistry in this band is great. We are all into making
the music the most important thing when we are together. I have to
give a big shout out to Big Tez Sherard, Greg Alewine, Hazen Banister,
Doug Norwine and Rusty Milner. They have all gone way above the mark
to make this project the best we could.
Wendel Donald is a student of mine at The Fine Arts Center and a future
star. He is 16 years old and an incredible talent. The kid plays keyboards,
bass and drums. We love having him in the band. I am going to produce
a record for him in the near future. Matt Olson, sax, and Keith Davis,
keyboards, Furman University colleagues of mine, play on Left
Turn In Space. Also, Mark Rapp plays trumpet and flugelhorn
on the CD.
mwe3: Last time we spoke you were talking about your jazz guitar
school in South Carolina, The Fine Arts Center. Thats where
you recorded the Heat It Up album as well. Whats the
recording facility like there? The CD has a great sound so the studio
must be quite good.
Steve Watson: The Fine Arts Center is one of the premier Arts
Magnet high schools in the world, led by Dr. Roy Fluhrer. We have
a state of the art facility, which offers music, recording arts, visual
arts, film, theater, technical theater, architecture and creative
writing. My jazz studies program places young students in the finest
jazz and commercial music schools in the nation.
Our recording studio is Pro Tools HD with all of the state of the
art plug-ins. But the most important thing we have is Eddie Howard
as the teacher. He has great musical ears and is an excellent teacher.
mwe3: The lead off track on Heat It Up is Remembering
and it was written by you and keyboardist Hazen Bannister. How do
you co-write music, for example this track with Hazen, and how and
when did you meet up with Hazen? His keyboard parts really enhance
your guitar sound on this track especially.
Watson: Hazen Bannister and I have been working together for about
ten years. He is a former member of The Swinging Medallions from Greenwood,
and he played in the Watsons Riddle live band. We were rehearsing
for a jazz concert and playing this introduction to I Remember
April and Hazen came up with this really cool melody. I felt
I needed to write a song around that riff. So now we have Remembering.
Hazens A Section and the rest is my stuff. Nothing like the
original, it just came from jamming in G major.
mwe3: The title track Heat It Up is very funky.
Is that the funky direction you mentioned the music was going to take
on the proposed second Watsons Riddle CD? Theres also
a second guitarist on the album, Rusty Milner, who is also credited
as being one of the executive producers on Heat It Up. Tell
us about working with Rusty, who also did the mixing and mastering,
and the part he played in the making of Heat It Up.
Steve Watson: Heat It Up is the funky sound I was
talking about. It has elements of Memphis soul, edgy guitar, sax and
a horn section.
Rusty Milner is a delight to work with. He recorded and mixed the
Watsons Riddle record and he also played in the Watsons
Riddle band. When I started working on this project I knew he was
a valuable resource that I wanted to use. His musical ideas are great,
his ears are to die for and his attention to detail is over the top.
He played rhythm guitar, mixed and mastered this record, and is also
playing live with us. Thats Rusty in the intro to Heat
It Up. He and I wrote American Frontier. Rusty and
Hazen were both in the Watsons Riddle live band.
mwe3: Track 3 The Big White Dog has a driving kind
of rhythm with some hot guitar playing. What is the inspiration behind
that track and why did you call it The Big White Dog,
especially as I know youre a cat fancier!
Steve Watson: First of all, that song was written for my Big
White Labrador, Charley. Tough when he wanted to be and a sweet side
as well. Unfortunately, Charley passed away in November before the
CD was released. But he sat with me and listened to many, many rough
mixes of that song. The version on the CD was his favorite. (lol)
He really said if you play that song one more time I am going to bite
you. The Maine Coons came into our family about a year ago. No songs
for them yet, except I am working on one called Ear Plug Ingester,
a metal tune. (lol)
mwe3: Mary Anna is track four. This track gets
back to a kind of smoother jazz guitar sound. Is it more fun to write
more upbeat tracks like this or the more wide screen soundtrack arrangements?
Even if some of your music is breezy, you definitely transcend smooth
I wrote Mary Anna with one thing in mind, smooth jazz
radio. If you are going to exist as an instrumental artist and not
play straight ahead jazz that is the format. Every record needs a
single and that is what I was going for. It is one of the lighter
tunes on the record but to me it doesnt compromise the harmony,
melody or soloing. No one key pentatonic solos here. I am very proud
of that tune especially the live version on You Tube with my intro.
Check it out!
My friend and co/producer Richard Smith had a lot to do with the final
product on this one. Richard has been making great records in this
format since the late 1980s. He just had a big hit with his
record Tangos. I listened to everything he had to say...
edits, tempo, etc.
mwe3: Track 5 Wistful is kind of a different track
for you in that it features acoustic guitar and is embellished by
flugelhorn and a string section. Does this track get back to your
soundtrack music sound with Mike Post? The song has a kind of soundtrack
or even neoclassical sound to it. The Fine Arts Center String Quartet
is featured here. Are those musicians from your school and tell us
about Dr. Jon Jeffery Grier. Would you consider writing more music
with strings in mind? Speaking of Mike Post, do you still speak with
Steve Watson: I wrote this tune early in the Watsons
Riddle days. It didnt make it on that record but I always liked
it. The acoustic guitar was Richard Smith and Greg Alewines
idea. The string section idea came to me one night while I was listening
to a rough mix early in the process. I thought it would bring more
air to the sound instead of the standard keyboard string part. Mike
Post never came to my mind here. The form of an American Songbook
piece was more what I had in mind.
Dr. Jon Grier is the composer in residence and theory teacher at The
Fine Arts Center. He wrote a great string chart and the Fine Arts
Center students played really well.
I havent spoken with Mike in a while. I worked a lot with him
in the 1980s in LA. He gave me my first chance at playing in
the real big time LA session scene. I will forever be grateful to
him for that. I met him when I was playing with Bruce Hornsby.
Track six is Havin Fun and it kicks off the second
half of the CD. The track features Wendel Donalds horn arrangements.
Do you prefer working with horns or in a more trio / quartet kind
of sound? What is involved in recording with horns? Did you record
live with the horns in the studio or were they overdubbed?
Steve Watson: I really prefer what works for the song. In this
case, it was screaming for horns. We overdubbed them after Wendel
played the parts on a keyboard - two trumpets and two saxophones.
Hazen also added a lot to this one with his piano keyboard parts.
mwe3: After Wistful and Havin Fun,
track seven Shrimp And Grits gets back to a more stripped
down Southern rock kind of sound. Theres a kind of Allman Brothers
sound on the guitar sound. Did you double track your guitars or try
to get a kind of Allman like effect on the guitars? Is Shrimp
And Grits more of a classic Watsons Riddle type of sound?
Steve Watson: Interesting that everyone hears this tune as
that Southern rock sound. Thats what Roger Lifeset, my radio
promo guy said as well. I hear it as an R&B soul song. To me its
much funkier than Southern rock. The double tracking was really an
afterthought. I was trying to make some passages stand out more. Again,
our live You Tube version is really fun. My solo is really out, kind
of like Miles Davis in the 1980s. I would say the CD version
would be my choice for the second single.
mwe3: Track 8, Left Turn In Space is one of the
best songs on Heat It Up. It has some real hairpin musical
turns. Is Left Turn In Space more of a jazz-rock fusion
track as opposed to a more funky, smooth or Southern rock sound? What
was the inspiration for Left Turn In Space? Great guitar
solo in the middle of the track!
Steve Watson: Left Turn In Space is a lot of fun.
Its much more fusion than the rest of the record. I really enjoy
soloing over a pedal point somewhat the same way John Coltrane and
McCoy Tyner played over My Favorite Things in the 1960s.
You could also think of the way Indian musicians solo over a drone.
I took that concept and wrote a bridge with it. Matt Olson sounds
awesome on the sax solo. He is a colleague of mine at Furman University.
Thanks for the complements on the guitar solo. After Matt played,
I went back and re-recorded my solo. His was so good, I couldnt
let him top me. (lol) My solo has a real rock solo ending with the
harmony stuff. I played the solo and harmonized it later.
mwe3: Track nine Back To The Meade has a driving
beat. What inspired the title? What is the Meade? This track has another
kind of Southern Rock inspired sound.
Watson: Back To The Meade, well the title is really
inspired from a Tower Of Power tune Back To Oakland. The
Meade is the neighborhood I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina.
Belle Meade, the same name as the famous neighborhood in Nashville.
It is where I grew up listening with my friends to WHYZ, the only
station in the area that played Otis, Carla, Wilson, James, and all
of the soul artists. No white bubble gum stuff for me. I caught the
R&B bug in the 7th grade and I have never lost it. So not Southern
Rock to me at all. Its as close as I could get to a Tower of
Power feel but with an aggressive guitar vibe. Doug Norwine sounds
great on the sax solo here. He and I were session musicians in L.A.
during the 1980s. We both played on the TV show Full House
and we both ended up in the Upstate of South Carolina.
mwe3: Track ten American Frontier closes out Heat
It Up in style. Were you going for more of an anthemic kind of
feel? The track kind of sounds like a soundtrack or theme song. How
does American Frontier fit into your sound and style?
Steve Watson: Sandy Shore mentioned in a review of the Watsons
Riddle CD that we had the sound of Americana. So I set out to write
a song with that feel. I was thinking of what Chuck Leavell would
have played. He is such a soulful piano player, one of a kind. He
ended up not playing on this track, but that is the story here. I
thought the slide added a different sound than the rest of the record.
I also had Doug Norwine play soprano sax on this one. The battle between
the sax and slide at the end of the CD is a favorite moment for me.
The CD ends with the slide going off into space.
You mentioned you were a gear head, so whats new and interesting
in the guitar world for you? Are you playing the Tom Anderson guitars
on Heat It Up? Any new modifications on the guitars? How about
amps and strings and picks and other sonic enhancers that are also
featured on the Heat It Up album? Do you have a favorite pedal
or effect that you use to color your sound?
CD is all Tom Anderson Custom guitars. It includes my new Anderson
Bulldog with P90s, my Hollow T Classic and my Classic Strat.
They are the best playing, most in-tune guitars made. They make you
forget about the instrument and just concentrate on the music. I used
a Mesa Boogie studio pre-amp with a Mesa Boogie M190 power amp with
a ported cabinet loaded with an EV12L. My live rig is the same but
in stereo. My favorite pedal is a Timmie overdrive. It sounds so natural
and is easy to EQ. All of my delays and compression on the CD are
vintage style Pro Tools plug-ins. I use Jim Dunlap Jazz Tone picks
and Elixir and SIT strings.
mwe3: With so many things cooking in your career, such as your
music and your teaching career, how do you balance your life? How
do you spend your relaxing time?
Steve Watson: I relax working in my backyard gardening with
my wife Susan. I plan on spending as much time as I can with my new
granddaughter, Perrin Elizabeth Hunter.
What other plans do you have for 2015? Touring, writing new music,
recording... What kind of sonic direction would you like to go in
Steve Watson: Plans for this year are to play live as much
as possible to support this CD. I have a great band that can stand
up and play with anyone.