Australian Musician’s Baz Bardoe chats with Ben Watkins from Juno Reactor, an act which recently astonished fans on a national tour for earthcore’s recent ‘One Night In…’ series
Juno Reactor began in 1990 as a collaborative art based project designed to integrate experimental music with installation art and film work. Now the act, which centres around one Ben Watkins and an evolving cast of collaborators, is a world renowned act that plays huge outdoor raves. And if you are not into rave culture chances are you have heard the music of Juno Reactor on soundtracks, most notably the Matrix trilogy. It is fair to say that Ben and company are now one of the biggest electronic music acts on earth. I asked Ben if he ever imagined that he would wind up playing such vast festivals?
“I didn’t really have any expectations when Juno Reactor began”, he admits, “ as it was started as a art project doing installations and avant-garde ambient music!”
One of Ben’s singular achievements has been to balance the experimental aspects with a high level of commercial appeal. “I found out in other projects that I did not have a commercially minded music brain” he explains, “and by following my nose I got better results. I found it much more interesting to have less limitations when it comes to music, three or four minute songs can be great but I am not so good in that field”.
There can’t be too many people who haven’t at least heard of the hugely popular Matrix films, in which Keanu Reeves battles to free humanity from a vast illusion. The music fits beautifully with the visual tone and action of the films, and I wondered how Ben gained the opportunity to score films. “It has always come from the directors of films rather than me chasing it. I do also chase for work but it is much harder that way and so far pointless. But I do love making film scores, and when there is no limit to the budget it is unbelievable. The Matrix Trilogy was a one off, and I do get as much pleasure working with a restricted budget… Okay I am lying there, I prefer big budgets!”
Ben has worked with some pretty amazing people over the years. I asked him what the highlights of his collaborative work had been. “ Well, a highlight has definitely been the Matrix films and working with the Wachowski’s. They have been my favourite people to work with, so easy and no ego. Playing live is always a big buzz, and I have not lost the thirst to perform anywhere at any time. Working with Dr John in the mid 80’s, and recording one of his songs in Run DMC’s studio in New York was great too”.
Many musicians have expressed to me that they might have a preference for either live work or recording. Personally I much prefer the latter. I wondered if Ben had a preference. “When I’m recording I might not see many people for years! Sessions come and go and I stay in the studio for a long time. When we tour it is amazing to see people and meet new friends, get new inspiration for new ways of writing music. I love doing both, it’s great finding a balance as one feeds the other very well”.
As befits Juno’s very ‘warm’ sound he has an “analogue studio”.
“I have a Amek Media 5.1 mixing console which is great and have a very transparent sound; I have many old synths I bought years ago like the Korg Mono Poly which is a great work horse; the Andromeda A6 is amazing – drums from Africa. Favourite compressor is an Api 2500 and the retro Instruments valve compressor; TC system 6000 do all of my reverbs, and I have lots of old rack equipment like the FS 1 Cyclosonic Panner which can be amazing. When it comes to live I keep it simple and have a live band where reaction to one another is the most important element”
I asked Ben about the challenges he faced integrating electronic music with organic elements – how hard is it to get it right? “The challenge is to put the right people in the band:) That has always been by luck and fate, and sometimes needs time to develop, as I have more than likely changed the band twice since you last saw it!”
A huge challenge for all musicians these days is the downloading phenomenon, especially the fact that stopping illegal downloading seems almost impossible. There now seems to be an expectation that music will be free, which has proven disasterous for many record labels and artists. I wondered if Ben had any thoughts on the way forward?
“If a new format was discovered for music that obliterated downloading, all musicians would go crazy with happiness, but seeing as that is not about to happen you just have to decide if you can or want to continue… For new bands and artists that have grown up with downloading it is not a problem, it is just the way it is”.
So what lies ahead for Juno in the near future? “I am excited to be asked to play on the Great Wall of China in June. Japan is always fun to play too. I want to do a number of collaborations with artists that are new to me, like Grouch, who I really like and has been fantastic company on the Australian tour”
Speaking of which Ben had a personal message for Spiro from Earthcore who has made the Australian gigs possible. “Spiro and his earthcore crew have a great festival. Spiro might be one crazy mother fucker, but he has a good heart. (Ok I’m not sure about that bit but his aim is true … haha!) Good luck and massive thanks to all to the people we met in OZ, we had a ball, and hope to return under a flag soon”.
Juno’s current album is the ‘The Golden Sun of the Great East’. It is his eighth studio album and continues his vision of fusing a filmic quality with electronic beats and world music flavours.
The writer Baz Bardoe is also an electronic music producer and releases music as Sunsaria