A circus from the netherworld

Ben Watkins has created a live act that features "incantations, chants, vocals, lighting, mesmerizing visualizations and raw live action."

April 28, 2010 23:34
3 minute read.
CONSTANT FLUX. In a unremitting search for ‘the ri

juno reactor 311. (photo credit: .)


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Most people can sit through a cinematic thriller, action movie or drama without consciously noticing the mood that can be created when the musical score shares the same heartbeat with what’s taking place on the screen.

As a teenager in England, Ben Watkins was like that – until he saw the Steven Spielberg epic Jaws, which featured some of the most distinctive – and memorable – background music in a film up until then.

“I think that was probably the first time that I definitely noticed that there was music playing, and the whole idea of a soundtrack – that foreboding ‘dum dum dum,’” said Watkins, adding, “I’ve always been a big film buff, sitting like a vegetable on the sofa, or going to the cinema.”

That movie-watching experience and his eye-opening Jaws chapter provided a timely education for Watkins, who received his musical schooling in classical music before succumbing to the pleasures of rock and ultimately, electronic music. Fast forward a couple decades and Watkins is considered to be one of the craftiest practitioners of electronic music, and he’s utilized his talent to create riveting albums and film scores under the moniker Juno Reactor.

Ranging from mainstream releases like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, starring Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas, and Virtuosity, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, to sci-fi thrillers like Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions to Japanese anime features Brave Story and Dimension Bomb, the film world is full of Watkins’s fusion of Goa trance and techno music, which he describes on his Web site as “throbbing rhythms of the universe align as planets spin into uncharted musical territories from beyond the trance.”

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post from his London home, the in-demand Watkins explained that the inspiration needed to create the music that complements the visuals on the screen doesn’t always come from the same point.

“There are many ways to score a film. In the case of Japanese animation, I was sent pencil drawings way before the finished product, and worked from that. Other times, it entails working from a written script,” he said.

“For The Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers, showed me the main themes, but I hadn’t seen the film when I wrote the music. That was the best experience I’ve had. They would send the scenes and I would score directly to the picture. There was a lot of back and forth. With some directors, there’s never even a need to speak to them. You just send them the files and they go ‘fantastic.’

“On The Matrix, we had meetings all the time, going over things. It was incredibly collaborative.”

ENJOYING WORKING with people and not just on his own electronic musical toolbox, Watkins decided a decade ago to make his music come alive and began recording and touring as Juno Reactor, a loose aggregate of musicians he picks and chooses according to the mood and type of music. Among the revolving-door band members and collaborators over the years have been everyone from notable South African percussionists Amampondo and Mabi Thobejane to Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, drummer Budgie of the seminal punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees, and even Israeli Judaeo-Spanish vocalist Yasmin Levy.

“I search for the right chemistry for the band, so it’s in a constant state of change,” said Watkins, who will be bringing the latest seven-member version of Juno Reactor to Tel Aviv’s Barby club on May 7. “I’ve got two great African percussionists with me now, but people come and people go. I lost one percussionist along the way somewhere. He’s herding cows now, I think.”

Even without a film in the foreground, attendees of a Juno Reactor show may find themselves thinking that they’ve walked into the middle of a scene from a futuristic thriller. Watkins described their performance as “a circus from the netherworld featuring incantations, chants, vocals, lighting, mesmerizing visualizations and raw live action.”

“There’s a different energy that comes into play when you perform live,” he said. “Some people go and expect to hear a clean, clinical studio sound, but it’s not. There’s a quite brutal raw effect, rather than the purity of a recording.”

It sounds like they won’t even have to pass out 3-D glasses at the door.

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