Dialogs: Reggie Watts Celebrates Glorious Black Nerds at the Old Town School

Reggie Watts is far more than James Corden’s bandleader on the former The Late Late Show. He’s an innovative musician (keyboard, looping machine, beatboxer), dry comedian, wearer of cool geometric glasses, and currently on the road promoting his new memoir, Great Falls, MT: Fast Times, Post-Punk Weirdos, and a Tale of Coming Home Again.

He recently chatted with Mark Bazer, an experienced interviewer who cut right to the chase without preamble and with interesting queries. The Chicago Humanities Festival crowd at the Old Town School of Folk Music was large and enthusiastic. Watts unspooled his origin story: his mom is French, his father was an African American from Cleveland, and in the army, so he was born in Stuttgart, Germany. The family ended up in Great Falls, Montana (hence the title), where he realized his unique outsider status. He played violin, watched PBS and stole cars (but returned them with a filled gas tank).

“I felt like a camera in a sitcom,” Watts said. “An outside perspective observing, but not necessarily in, life.” He wanted to be the “biggest, craziest, funniest, most different” person. He “did it all”: played football, excelled at speech and debate, and took drugs.

His diet of “underground PBS shows” like Britcoms, MTV bands like the Fat Boys, OG sound machine Michael Winslow, plus his love of musicians like Trent Reznor and “art terrorist” Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and bands like Talking Heads and the Meat Puppets, led him to the alternative scene, despite having a poster of Samantha Fox on his bedroom wall. He learned to “let things go where they take you” and felt that his teenaged experience was similar to the movie The Breakfast Club.

Reggie Watts. Photo courtesy Science Friday.

Watts started his second post-punk, funk-soul band out of high school in the early '90s, inspired by grunge groups like Soundgarden. He “wanted to make my weirdness, then add depth.” A natural mimic, he created a lot of remixes, including blending music, comedy, and pop culture “like an instrument.”

Following the lively conversation and before he took a few audience questions, Watts performed solo on his synthesizer, layering recorded beatbox sounds with quirky, stream-of-consciousness lyrics like “if you want to get laid, get inside a giant chicken.” He dedicated his second song to recently deceased Chicago music engineer Steve Albini, and likes that his songs are ephemeral and can’t be saved.

Watts would someday like to collaborate with Doja Cat and the Marias. In addition to John Hughes film fare, his favorite older movies are Terms of Endearment and Better Off Dead. A more recent pick is The Menu. When asked about his take on Chicago and the Rust Belt at-large, he asserted that “in the Midwest, we create from decay.”

Check out upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival programs, including poet aja monet on 9/29.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.