Harry Waters, who has just released a collaboration with John Clark in January, discusses his penchant for jazz, jam bands, heavy metal, and scores; reflects on life in Los Angeles
The world - casual and earnest music fans alike - has heard his voice repeatedly on Goodbye Blue Sky: two-year old Harry Waters contributed the introductory quote to the track from 1979's The Wall - an album similar in stature to Dark Side of the Moon, embedded in our collective cultural conscience, and a part of so many people's life soundtrack (as of 2010, The Wall had sold over 30 million copies). Pink Floyd enthusiasts are familiar with his work in the Roger Waters band, in the Harry Waters Quartet, and in the Harry Waters Band... but not as many might realize his recent work on films, television shows, and several other collaborations is stamping popular culture and musical genres in full force. The trajectory, influences, and musical roles Harry Waters is navigating contain - as Walt Whitman would say - multitudes... but no contradictions here: the diverse array of parts Waters has embraced in these different spaces all share the common thread of an exceptional talent for composition and improvisation. We discussed Waters' recent collaborations and the timeline of his musical work...
Ed Lopez-Reyes: I know a lot of musicians nowadays – especially compared to about 20 or 30 years ago – spread themselves across a lot of projects. 20, 30 years ago you were in a band and focused on that effort… and maybe you had a side project here and there, but it's a different world now and you guys are all juggling a lot of projects at once. I know that you just released a new McNally Waters album last October, which had been previously published in a partial, EP format earlier in the year. And then, of course, you have the new project with John Clark that was just released in late January. In the timeline of your bands, where does the Harry Waters Quartet and the Harry Waters Band fit sonically – is there an evolution or are these parallel, simultaneous outlets for different creative expressions?
Harry Waters: Well, the Harry Waters Band… I made one record with that band – that was years ago, in 2008; I was playing a lot of jazz at the time, and I wanted to make a jazz album. That was a great bunch of guys, a really good time. We went into the studio for two days and just recorded all the songs. They were all original compositions by me… but I haven't made a jazz record since then. I just made the one, I think I would like to maybe make another one someday, you know.
But five years after that I moved here [to Los Angeles], and my plan was not to have a band.
ELR: What was the main motivation to move to Los Angeles?
HW: I moved here to get away from being in a band. I'd been on the road, constantly touring since I was 19, which was fine, but I had young babies and I was just away so much. So, I moved here. The idea of moving here was so that I could make a living from making music and not leave home to be on tour for six to 10 months of the year.
McNally Waters is the one band that I've formed since moving here - with Larry John McNally.
ELR: Has being in Los Angeles helped you cultivate that musical trajectory, has it emancipated you to work through musical planes you hadn’t had the time for before? What is influencing the work you have been doing since relocating to Los Angeles and what has it given you exposure to?
HW: Larry McNally is hugely influenced by jazz as well. We have a huge cross-section of music that we both love. You know, there's very little that one of us really doesn't like, and the other one does. The only thing that I can really think of is that Larry really doesn't like heavy metal – and I really do. That's about the only place where we just don't intersect. We both love Bill Evans and Chet Baker. I could list my jazz influences for days. I won't bother doing that here. My love for jazz has certainly influenced my sound and I get to practice playing jazz piano every day.
Actually, I have a regular gig now on Saturday afternoons, just a local gig, literally two streets away, playing jazz. There's a bunch of old guys: they just set up and play and they've been doing it since COVID started. I’ve been playing with them. I've been doing it maybe a year now or something. Every Saturday morning I would hear this jazz music just coming in through our bedroom window. So, I went exploring and I found this… just like a driveway jazz band. I got chatting and they said, ‘oh, well… do you play?’, ‘do you wanna play?’. And I said ‘yeah, yeah; great.’ So, I joined that band. I've been doing that for about a year, playing every Saturday afternoon. And that's really cool. I would love to be playing more jazz.
So that music certainly does influence my sound, regularly. I don’t how much you or the readers will have experienced jazz or have much knowledge of it, but there are certain sounds that you play – certain chords, certain extensions… the ninth, the 11th, and the 13th, flattened or sharp – to make sounds that you're only really hearing in jazz, and Larry and I both love those sounds but realize they're not really used in pop music; not much popular music uses the same chords and changes as jazz music, but that definitely influences my sound and has done so over the years.
ELR: So your projects have sojourned through jazz influences – you can also hear a lot of a blues influences, folk..?
HW: Yes, it's America: more blues. But you know, jazz itself is hugely influenced by blues. McNally Waters music doesn't sound like jazz, but it's very informed by jazz. How could it not be? Because we both love jazz.
ELR: I’ve always felt one of the most interesting things about Los Angeles is how musicians that live there but travel the world playing arenas and stadiums also play small venues while home – you just have to find these gigs, sometimes by knowing the right people! One of them is former Pink Floyd saxophonist and rhythm guitarist Scott Page. It’s pretty amazing catching him at a small venue, sitting in with a local band anywhere between the San Fernando Valley and Venice Beach – I know sometimes he’s gone as far as San Diego, just to get up there and jam with some local friends. Have you met Scott? You both have a similar penchant for this.
HW: Scott. Yeah, yeah: we met at a NAMM event. It was a very small thing for like 200 or 300 people – some ‘invite only’ thing. They were demoing some gear, some microphones and stuff; it was very small, for some industry professionals – and I met Scott there. He plays Pink Floyd covers in a project with Steven Perkins, the drummer from Jane’s Addiction. Eric Day on guitar, and a bunch of people. They asked me to do a gig with them, which I said I would do, but then COVID happened and I never ended playing with them.
ELR: It seems these local gigs, like with the jazz band you’re playing with on Saturdays, are a good way to keep things casual – to play unencumbered by the responsibilities that come with larger tours?
HW: I mean, yeah, there's no rehearsal. They just play for two hours in the afternoon. They play pretty early [laughs], especially for jazz, you know, which is like really late night music, normally!
ELR: You had a band when you were younger called Hubble Deep Field that I was curious about. Especially now that you mentioned you were into things like heavy metal earlier on. How different was that project? How far did you guys get? Where does that fit in this musical sojourn?
HW: It's a really good question. We were all very, very influenced by sixties pop but heavy rock as well. We all love Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Queen, and Led Zeppelin and stuff, but we loved The Beatles and the Beach Boys – Beach Boys was number one… but we didn't sound like the Beach Boys. It was like heavy pop rock, I guess?
ELR: Do you miss exploring that sort of sound?
HW: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I didn't write anything for that band. I was just a keyboard player. We did go through a couple of lineup changes. But I was there from the beginning with the guitarist and singer. And the drummer, Mark, that they put out an ad for in Loot. It was before the internet, you know: if you wanted to buy something or find someone you had to come by this newspaper that cost a pound. They put an advert in there for keyboard players, and I answered that. And then we got a bass player and that was it. Yeah. That was the five of us. And then another singer.
Yeah, I do miss it. It was really good fun, you know… we were never signed. We did a ton of gigs, but at some point I quit; I left because I was doing other stuff, like in other bands that were making money – and we didn't make any money… and it was clear it was never gonna be a successful project. So I left and then, as memory serves and that, I think the band just sort of dissolved.
ELR: Did you guys get gigs mainly in the London area?
HW: Yeah, exactly. The small London gigs, you know, the King's Head and the The Half Moon in Putney. The Orange, The Borderline. Those sort of smaller London gigs.
ELR: There’s something about small venues in the UK – and live music in the UK: I used to live there and went to school at Durham University, up north, which I know your family has some history in. I really think the local venues in places like Newcastle are so great – and of course the venues you’ve mentioned in London…
HW: I can't remember much… my dad’s father who died in the war, of course, was from County Durham. [The son of a County Durham coal miner, Eric Fletcher Waters won a scholarship to Durham University; before joining the military he worked as a teacher].
ELR: ...so I lived up north for school, but I lived in London for a little bit too. The music scene in the UK has always felt a lot more accessible to me. I found it a lot more diverse. From small gigs to big ones, I felt you could get a lot more from the live music experience there for some reason. In the United States things are more compartmentalized. If you go to a festival you don't have as eclectic or as good of a mix of bands. In the UK, it seems promoters are more willing to mix things up and you get a lot of really great session musicians on stage with some bigger artists too.
Speaking of eclectic: how did you connect with John Clark? That's your new project - you've released new material with Clark recently.
HW: Yes, end of last month.
ELR: You had collaborated on a project titled Helen Green before, correct?
HW: John approached me – this all happened relatively recently – within the last six months or so. He was doing an album of covers – of solo covers: people playing their instrument, on a record he had done for his grandmother, I believe. So he made these songs and he said, ‘hey, do you wanna do a piano cover of one of these songs?’ And I listened to them and said ‘yeah, great; I'd love to’. So I did a solo piano cover of one of his songs and then very shortly after that, (there wasn't really any gap), he said, ‘I'm making a record’ or ‘I'm about to sort of finish making a record’ and he asked ‘do you wanna play keyboards on one of the tracks?’ So I did, and he loved it. He said, ‘oh, will you play on a couple more?’ So I did that. And then he said, ‘do you wanna play on the whole album?’ And I agreed, said ‘OK, I'll do that’. So I ended up playing on the whole record.
ELR: Do you have a production role in this too or did you just play your parts?
HW: Good question: for this one, it was mainly just playing the keyboards but he wanted it to be more of a collaborative thing. So we did have some conversations about some mix issues. There were some existing keyboards, so he asked my input about certain things. It was mainly done, but with almost no keyboards on it. There were keyboards on one or two tracks, but different from what I was playing, like synth stuff… so I did sort of put my stamp on it by the end, by the time we were done.
ELR: I saw, recently, that you had a post on Instagram where you invited people to watch you lay down material for the John Clark project. I was curious about this, because that's another thing that's changed a lot in our entertainment culture, especially in the music space: you never saw the sausage being made, so to speak. Everything was sort of embargoed up to a full, sudden, and official release… now it's really more organic: people put one song out and then another one, maybe an album down the road. So what made you think about doing this and does it make you nervous to have the product judged and witnessed in that process? And how does that also work in terms of copyright?
HW: I don't see that there's much risk. I think, as you say, in this day and age, people love to know what's going on behind the curtain. Production can be quite opaque and sometimes people don't necessarily realize what a producer does or what an engineer does – and what the difference is.
But yeah, I think the Instagram thing, everything is so much about engagement, right? On a more personal level. So you have the product and you have the music, but engaging on social media is such a huge and important part of it. I'm terrible at it. You know? So I'm always trying to do more, but it's not in my nature to do that kind of thing. It was probably my wife that said ‘you've gotta do this; go on, go live’. But I love doing that kind of stuff, I just don't like putting any old thing up on Instagram. I find the whole process tiresome, but doing that is great. I love just doing what I'm doing, and if I happen to be live on Instagram, then that's fine. And people can see me recording a part. I mean, that's great. You know, I know that's something that people like to see.
ELR: It's a good thing to have your wife supporting you in this work. I noticed she helped with one of the videos from your October release?
HW: Yeah. We've done two. We want to do three because those were the three songs that were on the EP before it became a full album. We wanted to do a video for each of those tracks. We haven't got around to doing the third video… at some point we'll get around to doing it. I would hope.
ELR: I wanted to ask you about your film scores. Other musicians who have shifted from rock and popular music to film scoring include Cliff Martinez...
HW: Yeah. I'm a huge, huge fan!
ELR: … also Trevor Rabin, Clint Mansell, Trent Reznor, and Danny Elfman, among others: what was your first movie project? And when did you start feeling the inclination to move into the film score space?
HW: Cliff Martinez… oh, I love his work. His work is amazing. I came here eight years ago – almost 10 years ago – to explore things like score work. Because I didn't want to go on the road. You know, I've always loved all music, including movie scores. I want to start writing classical music and finding my voice and finding out exactly what I like to write. And, you know, Cliff Martinez is a big, big influence; in fact, the score for More Human Than Human is sort of influenced by Cliff Martinez’ score for The Knick, which I absolutely love. I'm a huge Stephen Soderberg fan. Cliff Martinez’ score for that is interesting because the show was set in 1900, but it was an electronic score. That was a big influence for me and informed my score for More Human Than Human, which was my first feature score documentary.
ELR: Can you stream the More Human Than Human score? I ask because I find some scores and soundtracks are difficult to find on streaming services - or hard copy, for that matter. That was the case with David Norland's score for Anvil! The Story of Anvil documentary, which I think is an amazing body of work.
HW: Good question - I don't know, I'll have to check. I know you can watch the movie on Amazon. But not sure if you can stream the score.
I’m working with David Norland at the moment! I literally spoke to him two days ago. I went to a party at Magnus Fiennes’ house, a year ago or something, and I met David there and we had a fairly interesting conversation about music. He told me about an AI thing – a piece of AI – an algorithm that creates dance music on the fly, procedurally, 24/7. You can go onto this website and the music plays 24/7 and it's always different. It's just robots and AI, you know; I said, ‘you've gotta send me this link’. It's fascinating. And it's not very good (the music), but it's interesting. So, since connecting, David and I have been working on some choral music together. We will be using a string quartet, some melodic percussion...
ELR: Is it an album you're working on?
HW: Yes, we really get on well and we clearly have similar sensibilities, so we wanted to work on a project together. It's still a work in progress.
ELR: How diverse is your work in film and television? Do you find yourself exploring really different musical landscapes with each project? Or do you feel like there's a really strong, common thread that makes it clear its your work across the board?
HW: I guess a bit of both: you can never get away from who you are, your music is always gonna be your own... but if I'm writing an orchestral thing, it'll be very different from a jazz thing or an electronic thing. If you listen to the music I did for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, it's completely different from the music I did for More Human Than Human, and completely different from the music I did for Retrospekt.
ELR: What kind of latitude are you afforded, creatively, when a production team recruits you?
HW: It's very different each time. With the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, I never spoke to or met Jerry Seinfeld. I didn't even know this, but my Harry Waters Band album… I licensed it to BMG to try and get sync and licensing opportunities. I had no idea it was used on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. My music production company rep came up to me and said: ‘Hey, look, I can see your music's being used all the time on this show, and they're about to do another season; will you write a bunch more jazz for it?’ And I said, ‘oh yeah, of course, of course’. So I wrote, I don't know, 10 or 15 jazz songs, but just me – just drums, bass, and piano – just trio music, you know? So that's very much a case where I know exactly the style I'm going for. It's just like happy swing jazz, and I know exactly what it’s gonna sound like, and I know how to make it, and I can do it quickly. I don't wanna say easily, but I know what it's gonna sound like at the end; it's trio jazz, in a sort of Bill Evans style.
ELR: Are there projects where they ask you to watch the film or clips so you can decide what music will be suitable for it?
HW: It depends on the team, the director - you are usually trying to make directors, and producers, and executive producers happy. Sometimes it's just the director: Halcyon - I did that with Greg Loman, he literally just walked out of here; we've been working together all day today on another short film, very different from Halcyon. But for Halcyon it was very clear what it would be like - it was informed by his guitar playing. As soon as you hear it you know what you're getting: guitars - a Paris, Texas vibe, violins, cellos... that was just work with the director. It's always different but you get an idea when you start seeing treatment and cuts at the end... but I like to be in from the ground up, reading the scripts as early as possible, before they shoot it.
To give you an idea, I'm about to start doing two shorts with the same director and I'm already starting to think about both of those even though the first one won't start shooting until the end of this month. I'm already talking to the director about orchestration, instrumentation... just ideas.
John Williams - the main theme for Superman is my favorite piece of film music of all time; I love Alan Silvestri scores, Back to the Future is one of my favorites, I love Danny Elfman, the Batman scores are fantastic, I love Johnny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood. Jóhann Jóhannsson scores, in general; his score for Sicario in particular - similar in style to Johnny Greenwood's scores.
ELR: What other musicians in this genre do you feel have influenced you?
HW: John Williams - the main theme for Superman is my favorite piece of film music of all time; I love Alan Silvestri scores, Back to the Future is one of my favorites, I love Danny Elfman, the Batman scores are fantastic, I love Johnny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood. Jóhann Jóhannsson scores, in general; his score for Sicario in particular - similar in style to Johnny Greenwood's scores.
ELR: Switching gears and considering other influences: you're a fan of jam bands; to the extent The Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead remain pillars in that space, do you feel more partial to one or another? There always seemed to be a friendly rivalry, do you lean one way or another?
HW: No, I certainly got into The Allman Brothers Band first... I can play some guitar and I would listen to Duane Allman and Dickey Betts... then I got into the Grateful Dead later on. I listened to Allman Brothers longer. I first listened to the Dead when I was 20 or 21. I just saw Dead & Company recently at the Hollywood Bowl and it was excellent. John Mayer is an excellent guitar player and singer.
ELR: As a multi-instrumentalist who can appreciate guitar playing, how do you feel John Mayer has impacted the Dead's sound? How is he different from Jerry Garcia?
HW: Jerry Garcia is one of my all-time favorite musicians, he's so unique and incredible... John Mayer is not trying to be Jerry Garcia. He has obviously listened to the music a ton - he is definitely not a replacement. You can't replace Jerry Garcia. Except someone like Steve Kimock who plays Jerry's licks note for note, including the mistakes he made! Kimock is a brilliant imitator of Jerry Garcia - but why do I want to listen to that? Mayer plays similarly enough but doesn't copy Jerry's licks. Mayer plays more notes and faster. On differences, Jerry does these chromatic run-ups, very unique and unmistakably his, which I didn't hear Mayer doing. He's quite different. But to answer this fully I'd have to sit down and transcribe solos and think about it.
ELR: Speaking of guitar players, you were eight years old when Roger Waters toured with Eric Clapton: did you have some cognizance of this touring band at the time? When you look back at that collaboration, how do you feel it worked? Was it a good match?
HW: I was young, I remember it vaguely. I remember seeing the shows. I didn't really know who Eric Clapton was, I didn't really discover Cream until I was in my teens. I discovered music when I was about seven and listened to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. I didn't discover Pink Floyd until I was 14 or 15. Before that I listened to Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Beach Boys.
ELR: In your work with Roger Waters, how much latitude were you given to improvise or to give shape to the music?
HW: Very little. It's like being a pit musician in a theater. There are natural variations but nothing like playing jazz. There was a moment... I think it was in Young Lust, at the beginning, when we started touring, there was a solo in there and maybe there was another in Brick II - but they were scrapped; so I did those for a few gigs, but no - it was pretty much the same thing otherwise.
ELR: You mentioned being a fan of hard rock and heavy metal earlier - have you found a space to give expression to your taste for these genres?
HW: No [laughs], and I hope before I die that I make a heavy metal record. Don't know when that will be but I'll have to get a band together and write a bunch of heavy metal songs. Being a piano player, it's hard. If I was a guitar player it might be easier - but someday I'd like to explore that. It's always in the back of my mind. I can't just do it. It would be a huge undertaking: I'd have to write songs, get a band together... it all costs money. Unless someone hires me - and I would love that. You know, to write a heavy metal score.
ELR: You have a very eclectic taste; having grown up around Pink Floyd and Roger Waters music, how did that body of work impact you or influence you?
HW: I love the music, irrespective of any familial ties. I don't think it has influenced me a great deal. It would be awful if I went out there and my band sounded like a second rate Pink Floyd knock-off. There are other children of famous musicians who go out there and sound exactly like their dad, like Julian Lennon - he sounds exactly like his dad. Sean Lennon doesn't. He's managed to make a successful music career that is nothing like John Lennon's. And I'm not a singer-songwriter like dad, you know - I'm a piano player, I do songs but I don't write lyrics - not in the same category.
ELR: Do you anticipate any live dates for your two most recent projects?
HW: I hope so. The John Clark thing... we don't have any plans, we haven't discussed that. It's John's project... if he says to me 'hey, I'm gonna organize a tour, do you want to play keyboards on that', then I would definitely consider that. McNally Waters - for that, we are trying to book a jazz festival in Italy. Umbria Jazz Festival. Will that happen? Who knows. We've had so much touring cancelled in the last two years...
ELR: Next year will be 10 years since you played the last show on The Wall Live tour...
HW: That was September 22nd or 21st?
ELR: It was. And the 10th anniversary of Quebec City is this year. Do you remember anything in particular from that show?
HW: Scale - and walking around the length of the wall. It was amazing. But I did the show 220 times so I can't remember anything unusual about that show... but scale.
You can follow news about Harry Waters' projects at www.harrywaters.com, Facebook, and Instagram. For more information on McNally Waters, you can reach several links at Linktree. You can listen to and purchase John Clark's and Harry Waters' Sea Oddity at Bandcamp. All photography courtesy of Harry Waters Music.
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