Kit Watkins

Out on his own after Happy The Man & Camel

by Russ Summers
KEYBOARD Magazine, July 1983

MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE Americans as a culture have never really been comfortable with intellectual concerns and intellectual approaches. We’d rather follow our gut instincts, even when they lead us astray, than cope with all of the complexities of real life. For whatever reasons, progressive rock, with its grandiose symphonic sonorities, odd time signatures, and overt classical references, never caught on on this side of the Atlantic quite the way it did in England. Only a few American bands could really claim to be the musical descendants of groups like Genesis and Yes, and fewer still achieved any great popularity. One of the casualties of this trend was a short-lived band called Happy The Man. They released only two albums before breaking up in 1979, but a dedicated following is still clamoring for news about the group’s keyboard player, Kit Watkins.

Since leaving Happy The Man, Watkins has resurfaced first with British progressives Camel, with whom he did one album and three tours, and more recently with two solo LPs on his own Azimuth Records label. Kit hasn’t let a little adversity slow him down, and we can expect that he’ll be favoring us with his distinctive lead synthesizer and other keyboard work for some time to come. So this seemed to be the right time to let his fans know what he has been up to lately, and also let the rest of you in on the secret.

Born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1953, Kit had a head start in becoming a musician—both parents were piano teachers. After eight years of classical lessons, though, he made the switch to playing in rock bands. Some of the intricacies of classical music had rubbed off, and he began exploring more complex melodies and time signatures with other musicians in the area, who eventually formed the nucleus of Happy The Man. After moving to Washington, D.C., the band attracted the support of college radio station WGTB, who played their tapes and gave them opportunities to headline at concerts. Their manager landed them an audition with Clive Davis at Arista Records, and they shortly found themselves signed to the label.

One of the most striking elements of the first Happy The Man album (released in 1977) was Watkins’ Minimoog solos, which rivalled those of Jan Hammer in terms of originality of expression. But the band’s experience at Arista wasn’t entirely a happy one. “We were pretty young and naive,” Watkins recalls. “We didn’t know much about the business.” After two albums with disappointing sales figures, Arista let the band go. They continued working another year, and did a demo for a third album, but in June of 1979 Watkins was lured away by an offer from guitarist Andy Latimer to join Latimer’s band Camel.

He stayed with Camel for only one album, I Can See Your House From Here, but continued to tour with them even after leaving, sharing keyboard duties with Jan Schelhaas. Even this arrangement has apparently come to an end by now, however, and Watkins has been devoting full time to his solo career. His two recent albums, Labyrinth and Frames of Mind, were self-produced, the first in a studio and the second at home on a four-track. He spoke recently to Keyboard about some of his secrets for getting a professional quality sound out of a small home studio, and also about what happened behind the scenes and onstage with Happy The Man and Camel.

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IT’S A HEAVY responsibility to go out on your own as a solo artist. Is there anything you miss about working within the normal confines of a group?

I miss being in a group, but a group is worthwhile only when the chemistry among the members can benefit or at least satisfy everyone. It’s nice to have the feedback of ideas, which can really enhance everyone’s output. I think bands that are successful usually start with a strong commitment, at least from the writing members, almost like a marriage. I’ve chosen the solo route out of necessity more than anything else, although my latest album project is a collaboration with [guitarist/singer] Brad Allen. We’re like a mini-band.

What kind of differences are there between your solo work and Happy The Man’s music?

I suppose Happy The Man had a bit more diversity, because there were two other writers. But Happy The Man may have had a confused identity because of the variety of styles, although I liked that. Of course, trying to describe any of this music is difficult. The label “progressive” is so ambiguous any more. It’s still used to describe the early-’70s classical rock, which I find unappealing, especially now that my musical interests have changed somewhat.

You’ve been getting into other instruments besides keyboards. Do you find that your lack of technique on those instruments helps bring about any unexpected twists in your music?

Mistakes that occur because of lack of technique can be incredibly useful. I like that kind of chance occurrence, though my music has been pretty structured up until recently. I find that employing a bit of chance is much more interesting than if everything is so controlled. It’s not so much pure chance in the way John Cage uses chance, it’s more just spontaneous things. On the first song on side two of Frames of Mind, for instance, I picked up a water glass and hit it. There was never any set place I’d hit it; I’d just hit it every now and then throughout the song. I liked the way it popped up unexpectedly. There was water in the glass, and you can hear the pitch change because I was shaking the glass when I hit it. My interest in other instruments and items like this is mostly for use in recording, where so many possibilities are available.

You’ve said that you could have used more time to work on recording Labyrinth. What would you have doen with the extra time if you had had it?

Ideally, I would have liked to record Labyrinth at home, where I’m more comfortable, and able to work on my own time, the way I did with Frames of Mind. But it would have been nice to spend more time on individual sounds and on mixing. I liked doing the album quickly, though, because sometimes if you dwell on things too long, they can lose their life or character.

Did working with producer Ken Scott [Supertramp, David Bowie, Mahavishnu, Dixie Dregs] on the Happy The Man albums help in your knowledge of recording?

Ken is a very precise sort of producer. He always goes for perfection in timing. Unfortunately, this means that you might do several dozen takes when overdubbing, which can be very stifling. The things that I learned from him that I still use occasionally are things like left/right doubling of a part for thickness, and changing the tape speed to change the timbre—recording cymbals at half-speed so they’ll sound like gongs, for instance.

What is the most difficult aspect of releasing your own records?

Selling myself. I find it hard doing the heavy salesman bit, but I have a lot of help from my business partner, Sally Heldrich. Besides investing in the company, Sally is of immense help when it comes to contacting people in the business—FM stations, magazines, record distributors, and so on.

What is your current keyboard setup?

I have a Minimoog that I run through a Maestro Echoplex, a Hohner Clavinet with an MXR Flanger, a Solina [ARP] String Ensemble with a 10-band MXR graphic equalizer that I built into the instrument, a Hammond B-3 with two MXR Flangers for stereo, and a Rhodes electric piano with a pair of wah-wah pedals. Each of the pedals is couped with an MXR Phase 90 and an MXR noise gate for a bi-phased stereo sound. The wah-wah pedals are actually creating a particular equalization that I’ve never been able to duplicate with conventional EQ, even parametric. They’re kept in the brightest position, and I don’t actually use the wah-wah effect. So they’ve been installed in a permanent effects box. I really like the bell-like effect that the Rhodes gets this way, and it’s a fairly inexpensive way to improve the sound. I also have an Oberheim DMX drum machine and a Korg KR-55 drum machine.

What about your recording equipment?

I have a TEAC 40-4 four-track with dbx noise reduction and a Revox two-track, a Yamaha 430 mixer, a Tapco stereo 10-band equalizer, a Biamp stereo spring reverb, a Crown D150 amp, and ADS monitors. Sometimes I record the drums without dbx, because I found I was losing some of the dynamic range. But I usually record reverb right on the tracks, because my reverb is not very good at handling lots of signals at once. Since I was doing premixes, I’d put the reverb on the snare drum when I had the chance.

Did you have to do a lot of ping-ponging [bouncing tracks back and forth] to get such a full sound out of a four-track on Frames Of Mind?

Occasionally I would bounce from one channel to another of the four-track, but mostly the way I did it was to go back and forth from the TEAC to the Revox. I would start with a drum mix on two of the tracks of the four-track, and then add whatever else I knew was going to happen, like bass or a rhythm instrument, on the other two tracks. Then I would bounce that down to the Revox, maybe adding another instrument while I was bouncing it. Then I’d bounce that stereo mix back to two of the tracks on the four-track, maybe adding another live instrument at that time. That gave me two more open tracks, and I might do even more live stuff when I was mixing the final master. It was a real weird way of working.

How do you achieve that clarity of tone in your Minimoog leads?

The Minimoog has a slight quirkiness in the loudness contour decay time knob. To get a snappier sound, you should keep the knob on zero, even though you’ve also got the decay switch in the left-hand click for largercontrol section in the off position. Setting the knob anywhere but zero creates a slight delay in the decay, which can sound a bit mushy, especially in quicker passages where you want a clean separation between notes. Also, you must pick your fingers up completely between notes to retrigger the envelope so the notes don’t sound slurred.

You also get some excellent string sounds out of your String Ensemble. How do you do that?

The String Ensemble has a very high-frequency grainy sound. Removing the highs with EQ can give it a richer, more natural sound. So I cut as much of the top as possible, depending on where I’m playing on the keyboard and on how it’s being mixed with other parts. Also i cut back in the 1k [1 kiloHertz] area. In addition to EQ, it’s important how you play the keyboard because of the way the built-in VCA works. As on the Minimoog, you have to let all the keys up between chords in order to retrigger the crescendo on the attack, which gives the bowing effect. Plus, it’s very important not to overplay or orchestrate too heavily if you want a natural string orchestra sound. Another trick is that if you’re recording, you can overdub and double the parts on another track slightly out of tune, and then spread the two tracks into stereo while adding a good dose of reverb for depth. On the Happy The Man albums, we actually broke the string parts into one- or two-note lines and recorded the lines separately onto four tracks, with doubling and detuning.

Have you found that having a drum machine has changed the kind of tunes that you’re able to write?

Yeah, it really has. On Frames Of Mind I wanted to try something that was more repetitive—almost a drone, except with rhythm. Then I just played with the rhythm ideas, and put different things on top of them. But all those tunes started with the drum machine. I couldn’t imagine a real drummer doing that for so long. Also, a drum machine is great for recording at home, because I can plug the drums directly into the mixer without needing mikes, a drum booth, and so on.

In the first tune on side two there’s a very prominent sound that’s like a heavily reverbed bongo drum going through a Harmonizer or something. What exactly is that?

That’s the two high tom-toms from the DMX going through my two flangers, which are feeding back on themselves. One of the flangers is stationary, and the other one is moving a bit to make the harmonics change. They’re set right on the edge of feedback, so they ring a bit every time the drum hits. I played with the settings for several hours and got all kinds of weird sounds, and then it got to a point where it started ringing in a key that I could play along with. So I kept that setting. I didn’t touch it once it started, because getting a setting like that back can be a real touchy thing.

What keyboards did you use on the last Camel tour [July ’82]?

A Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, a Korg CX-3 organ, and a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-5 synthesizer.

Did you program the Prophet sounds yourself?

Yes, although some of them were variations on factory programs. I set up a sound that was as close to a Minimoog as I could get, but I never quite got as good a lead line sound as the Mini has. My main complaint about the Prophet, though, is the button labelled ‘keyboard’ on the filter section, which is designed to taper the brightness of the filter as you play up the keyboard. Unfortunately, it’s an on/off button; it’s not as variable as the three-position switch on the Minimoog, or the continuously variable knob on the Korg Polysix. I often used a lot of the Prophet’s range, and would constantly have notes up high too bright, and notes down low too dull.

Andy Latimer and you co-composed “Remote Romance.” How did the two of you collaborate?

He had the bass line and the chord changes, plus one melody, and I worked with his demo to write some other melodies and arrangements. All of the vocal lines were a band collaboration. We had a lot of fun improvising those ideas in the studio.

Did you use the Yamaha CS-80 [polyphonic synthesizer] for the ring modulator sounds on that tune?

Actually, that wasn’t the CS-80, it was Andy’s guitar going through an old Maestro ring modulator. That was the second half of the solo section. The first half was the Minimoog with two oscillators tuned apart in the 2’ range to create a bell-like overtone. I think I used the CS-80 for chord backing on “Remote Romance.” The CS-80 has some nice qualities, especially for studio use. But it is a bit cumbersome in size, and it doesn’t have enough user presets.

In “Open Book,” from Crafty Hands, there is a sound that resembles a heavily filtered string ensemble making a few odd punctuations. How was that achieved?

I always wished that the String Ensemble could have a switch to eliminate the mushy sound on occasion, but since it doesn’t, the only way I could get more percussive attacks was to switch the preset sounds on and off quickly which holding down a note or chord.

Your new album is something of a departure from what you’ve done in the past. Why the change?

Well, I’d gotten somewhat tired of the genre I’ve been associated with. I wanted to try out some new things. In a lot of ways, this album is lighter, as well as being more fun and more spontaneous. Probably my next record will end up being different from this one.

Do you feel that the type of music you play is due for a resurgence of popularity?

That’s a hard question for me to answer, because the type of music I write is always changing. Frames Of Mind may have more commercial potential, because of the addition of vocals, although it’s still a mixed bag. I think there are ways to make one’s music more accessible without sacrificing artistic goals, and that’s what I’m working on.