All in all, marking his 32nd birthday on tour in San Juan Capistrano instead of relaxing at home in England is all right with Ben Watt, half of the pop duo Everything But the Girl.
“Birthdays have taken on a strange kind of quality in the last couple of years, seeing as I nearly didn’t have any more,” said Watt, who isn’t sure how he and partner Tracey Thorn will celebrate on Tuesday when they finish a two-night stand at the Coach House, the last stop on a 40-date tour, their longest-ever performing trek through the United States.
Everything But the Girl rebounded this year after Watt’s almost-fatal bout during 1992-93 with Churg Strauss syndrome, a rare disorder in which the autoimmune system attacks the body instead of protecting it.
The disease literally has taken a lot out of Watt, who lost a substantial chunk of his digestive track to surgery and saw his weight dwindle from 165 to 115 pounds as a result of the illness and the restricted diet he has had to follow since his recovery.
But the crisis provided Everything But the Girl with plenty of emotional grist for “Amplified Heart,” its first album of new material since 1991. And it gave Watt and lead singer Thorn, who are a couple as well as a musical partnership, a special appreciation for being able to count off another year.
“Last year’s (birthday) was very emotional,” Watt said in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Austin. “We had a party at home. I had a lot of close friends come around, and there was a lot of reflection on (his brush with mortality). I don’t think many people have birthdays like that. I felt quite moved by it all but very dislocated as well. At least this one will be very different.” For one thing, he will have 480 fans on hand to wish him well.
He says his illness--and Thorn’s assumption of responsibility as his primary care-giver--put Everything But the Girl’s music-making on hold for about a year.
“I was wired up in hospital for three months, flat on my back for 24 hours a day, unable to move. After that I went home and I was really disconnected from the whole routine of writing and performing for about six months before I came back on line mentally. Even so, the first few songs I tried to write didn’t have very much to offer. They were very generic, formulaic songs, things I’d said before.”
Finally, in September, 1993, songs he considered worthwhile “came out in a rush,” marking his return to effective musicality. Thorn and Watt, who share the songwriting, often have drawn on intimate, reflective moods in the course of an album discography that dates back to 1984. “Amplified Heart,” with its subtext of illness and mortality and its stripped-down, folk-based arrangements, burrows deep into quiet moments of thoughtful melancholy.
Watt says they were determined to avoid making a musical diary of his illness. What they wanted was to preserve the emotional gist of the experience.
“I certainly didn’t want to make it self-obsessed. That was the one thing I realized early on I mustn’t do. If I was to articulate the emotions stirred up by the whole experience, I had to make them accessible in a more general form that would deal with the uncertainties and vulnerabilities we all feel--(such as) the death of a parent, or a relationship that goes terribly wrong.
“We’ve all hit rock-bottom in our lives, where we’ve had to reassess what’s very important. I had to take the songs into that territory to make them work, because there’d be nothing more sickening than a lot of ER-type dramas.”
Watt’s illness may have interrupted Everything But the Girl’s career but it didn’t deflect the duo from the path it already had begun to follow in recent years in performances marked by simplified arrangements and a quiet, intimate sound. On such albums as “Baby, the Stars Shine Bright” (1986) and “The Language of Life” (1990), EBTG had gone in for record-making with-the-works, employing horns and strings on the former and the slick, high-tech sound produced by an array of Los Angeles session pros on the latter.
“I think we came to the end of the road in terms of experimenting with ornate production techniques,” Watt said. “I began to wonder whether that layering of texture got in the way of what we were trying to say, whether Tracey wasn’t more expressive and moving with less surrounding her, whether our songs said more with less ornament.” Even before Watt’s illness, EBTG had gone to an acoustic duo format for its live shows, and it has continued to perform as an unadorned duo this year.
Watt and Thorn began working together after meeting as students at the University of Hull in 1981. She was a member of an all-female band, the Marine Girls, and he had launched a solo career. Both put out albums of their own before deciding in 1983 to concentrate on Everything But the Girl. In 1984 they embarked on a stylistically diverse series of albums that have incorporated everything from cool, lush R&B; to touches of rock, country and folk.
They took their band name from what Watt describes as the “revoltingly cheesy” slogan of a furniture shop in Hull that promised it could provide “everything but the girl to make your home complete.” EBTG’s intention, Watt says, has been to carry forward the punk rock ethic that calls for shaking up established pop formulas, without trying to disguise the fact that Thorn’s beautiful and emotive alto gives the act a strong basis for traditional pop appeal.
“The early ‘80s in the U.K. were very much about an inversion of sexual politics, bands which wouldn’t adhere to the myths of rock ‘n’ roll. If punk did anything, it blew the rock ‘n’ roll myth out of the water and left this vacuum where bands were encouraged to draw on (styles of) music that weren’t specifically rock. Everything But the Girl is an attempt to remain somehow contradictory and independent-spirited, (while) making a form of music which isn’t traditionally regarded as rebellious.”
While enjoying occasional chart hits in its home country (Thorn also scored a U.K. hit recently as guest vocalist on “Protection,” the title song of a new album by the group Massive Attack), EBTG remains a cult-level item in the United States. Some of its most popular tracks have been renditions of popular hits, including songs written by Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper and the oft-covered Crazy Horse ballad “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” Current shows include an acoustic rendition of “Kotton Krown,” an uncharacteristically romantic number from noise-merchants Sonic Youth that originally appeared on the 1987 album “Sister.”
“I’m realistic enough to realize that the songs we write naturally aren’t all that commercial,” Watt said (although the current album isn’t without its contenders: The tense, pining “Missing” brings to mind the Eurythmics of “Here Comes the Rain Again;" “We Walk the Same Line,” Thorn’s warm missive of devotion and encouragement to Watt as he struggled with illness, is a near-ringer for the dusky Christine McVie-Fleetwood Mac sound).
“I find it pointless trying to bend what comes naturally to me in a commercial direction,” Watt continued. “But I do realize there is something commercial about our sound. Tracey has a very accessible voice, and I see no problem in accessing a mainstream audience sometimes with songs that are more commercial than ours.”
* Everything But the Girl plays tonight and Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Both shows are sold out. (714) 496-8930.