The Black Watch: The quixotic adventures of John Andrew Fredrick

The Black Watch (Photo by Steve Keros)
The Black Watch (Photo by Steve Keros)

John Andrew Fredrick has been an up-and-coming indie-rocker for a lot longer than you have.

Thirteen albums and going on 30 years, with only a cult following for his band The Black Watch, and some of those “critical darling” press clippings. Try buying a latté with that at Stories in Echo Park.

By the time the door closes on 2015, Fredrick will have released two full-length Black Watch albums and two books. Of the latter, one is a book on the early works of Wes Anderson, and the other is “The King of Good Intentions II,” a sequel to his 2013 comic narrative about the indie-rock life. You would recognize a lot of characters.

Regarding the former, the new Black Watch album “Highs & Lows” comes out Friday. It’s probably the best thing we’ve heard this year from an artist who calls Echo Park home, even if this particular one speaks witheringly these days about his neighborhood. The album sounds like the holy union of Guided By Voices, the Wedding Present and any number of New Zealand pop heroes (David Kilgour, et al) whom Fredrick admires. In other words, it sounds truly indie: immediate, honest and just-enough lovingly rough.

“Highs & Lows” arrives two years after the double-disc “The End of When” — which included a 16-song retrospective — and eight months after “Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy,” which Fredrick insisted would be his swan song. Harumph. He doesn’t know when to quit, and thanks for that. “Highs & Lows” is a career high.

||| Stream: “Quondamn Redhead:

A list, because you like lists

Top 7 things you might find instructive about John Andew Frederick:

1) Fredrick is a college professor and has the bemused demeanor of someone who’s spent a lifetime dealing with youth. You know, the adage “They’re all baby geniuses until the first paper is due.”

2) He is 58 years old, still has girl problems and still wears his heart on his sleeve. So you have that to look forward to.

3) He uses “quondam” in a song title. Get your Google on.

4) He quite possibly has more ex-bandmates than Facebook friends. So click “like.”

5) He has a penchant for self-sabotage. The second-best song on the album “Quondam Redhead” ends with 3-plus minutes of guitar feedback. And the best song on the album, “There’s No Fucking Way,” is not going to be a radio hit no matter how mind-blowingly expansive its faux-British shoegaze majesty. If you know what you’re about, that will make you smile.

5) His meeting guitarist Tyson Cornell — and the ensuing work in producer Rob Campanella’s The Committee to Keep Music Evil studio with bassist Chris Rackard and drummer Rick Woodard — saved “Highs & Lows” from being one of those drab-but-well-meaning all-acoustic affairs. Campanella (Brian Jonestown Massacre) and Cornell know what they’re about. Find people who know what they’re about.

6) He had a mini-stroke this summer but is better now. So mind your health.

7) He’s the rumpled ex-preppy-looking guy reading Dickens on the back patio at Stories. Nod hello.

||| Stream: “Love’s Fever Dreams”

A meandering conversation with a prince of good intentions

John Andrew Fredrick is reading on the back patio at Stories on a recent afternoon. I nod hello.

I thought you were going to put the Black Watch out to pasture?

I did too, because I was so bummed at the prospect of continuing after the mayhem of “The End of When” and yet another retrospective, and all the hopes we had, and how LuAnn Williams had done this Kickstarter to have a label [Pop Culture Records]. But I made one more thing that I thought was going be acoustic, but then I met Tyson, whose guitar playing inspired me to write more songs.

Besides, nobody believed me when I said I was going to hang it up … although as a circumspect artist you reach a point where you think, “I’ve given the world enough music.” I know that there’s so much out there, and I don’t even listen to any of the au courant bands in L.A. or anywhere. I don’t keep up, and I don’t care.

The problem has historically been with me is that I’m a compulsive reader, and I enjoy reading about music more than listening to it.

Worshiping the Beatles made me do something quixotically that I know I’ll never be able to do.

Then actually making music trumps both, or you would have packed it in by now …

I’ve always maintained that every record we’ve ever made is just a way of making the last one obsolete. And if someone tells me that “Highs & Lows” is the best thing I’e ever done, it’s on you to tell me how that’s so. Because for me I’m only measuring it ostensibly against the last record we’ve done.

I’ve always said I go into the studio every single time trying to make the “White Album” knowing that I’m going to fail. I’m never going to make a record as good as that, but I’m going to try. It’s a ludicrous comparison, but the Beatles made me make a band. They made me. They made me listen to music. And worshiping the Beatles made me do something quixotically that I know I’ll never be able to do.

I missed out on punk, because I was in graduate school [at UC Santa Barbara] and still listening to Steely Dan, but once post-punk came along, it was a major inspiration. I got the Mary Chain and Husker Du and the Replacements, whom I saw play a record store with about 15 people. It’s funny, the thing that worked for all my L.A. friends — punk — didn’t work for me. But Echo & the Bunnymen did.

||| Stream: “Pershing/Harvard Square”

So were there any life events that made you say to yourself, “I’m going to resume”?

I think it was meeting Tyson and the idea that I did “Sugarplum Fairy” by myself, and how lonely that was. I missed the laddish element of having a band. It was a matter of economics — we barely scraped up the money to put out “The End of When,” so I told my band at the time, hey I’m just going to do this by myself.

In the new thing, the idea was to under-rehearse and do [something in the studio] that we would have done had I had more of a budget before. So there was a real excitement for “Highs & Lows” in that Rick and Chris had only heard the songs a handful of times before we recorded. You know, the first time a song comes together and how thrilling it is? I wanted that to happen in the studio. So that’s why this has a more “alive” feeling than “Sugarplum Fairy.”

I was also devastated by a girl I was going to move to Austin to be with.

A former redhead?

No, not the redhead. The one the redhead replaced.

There’s always an element of devastating romance, right?

Of course. What are you going to write, happy songs all the time?

You could write political songs …

But I’m an apolitical person. I haven’t voted since I voted against Reagan. When there’s a philosopher king, that’s when I’ll cast my vote again. Of course, with all the Trump and Ben Carson nonsense, I might have to come out again.

Did the health problems you had this year change anything? What happened?

We embarked on a national tour this summer, and made it to Raleigh, N.C., and our old guitar player and old  bass player came along, because the [two current members] had families and serious jobs. And despite the fact they respect each other, they loathe each other, and have an incredible rivalry in the most puerile way. … They fought with each other onstage, in the van, afterwards. And we were doing an indie tour — up, down, up, down — with all the rigors, like being asked to play a 1 a.m. set. I’m a guy that gets up at 5 in the morning and starts reading Dickens. Anyway, I’m a professor and it’s the summer. I have records that speak for themselves and I have the books and I’m 58 years old and I don’t have to do this. … Anyway, we just stopped. There were three days of tough driving home.

Two days after we came back, I woke up one morning really dizzy, and then on the way home from the doctor’s I got double vision. It turns out I had a mini-stroke. For 2 1/2 months, I had diplopia. I thought I had a tumor or something, but it was just high stress, cholesterol and blood sugar. Even though I play tennis five times a week, I was always the kind of guy who if you asked, “Want a piece of cake and an enchilada with a double margarita followed by some custard? I would go, “Yeah.” I had been very indulgent, but that’s all changed.

When did you make the record, and how did it go?

We made the record this past spring with Rob Campanella, who would probably say that I was difficult, because he’s very meticulous and I’m not. He and Tyson wanted to walk down every open avenue [musically]. I wanted to put up some metaphorical yellow tape around things and go, “Maybe this song doesn’t need a fourth sitar part.” But I would tease him and say, “Rob, this is really gonna put you on the map” to try and butter him up, you know, so we wouldn’t burn up so much time in the studio. I’m kind of a hurry-up offense, no-huddle kind of deal. But it worked out.

Of course, it’s all about money, Our records barely recoup and then we scrape together enough money to make the next one. I’d love to work with him again, but I’m not sure he’d say the same thing about me. And I’m glad he won out, because I’m really proud of the record. I wish it had one more punkiish, head-rush of of a song on it, but …

It sounds like hubris, but when I want to hear a good record, I go make one.

Wait, it’s not even out yet and you’re second-guessing the record?

Of course. I make records so I can listen to them. It sounds like hubris, but when I want to hear a good record, I go make one. Or I pull out some old twee stuff, or the 4AD and Creation bands.

I heard second-hand that somebody said, “I’m a secret fan of the Black Watch.” But why does it have to be secret? Well, because we’re not cool. We are definitely not a cool band. In some ways, that might make us more cool, I hope. Fifteen years ago we were in a rehearsal space and Frank Black was next door and I got to meet him. And I remember he said, “You know, it’s just not that cool of a thing to be in a band. It’s just not that cool.” But you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting 14 people who are in one in this particularly egregious neighborhood.

Everyone’s in a band, so it’s not that cool anymore, kids. Said the venerable band guy.

Whose idea was the feedback on “Quondam Redhead?”

There was unanimity on that one — it was me and Tyson and Rob. Tyson has a million effects and he just rang out the last chord. We all hushed and just encouraged him to keep it going. .. Again, it’s the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot motif again. You’re going to do that to the catchiest, most upbeat number — unless it’s “There’s No Fucking Way,” and there’s no fucking way that’s ever gonna get on the radio.

Trouser Press once characterized our “Amphetamine” album as “our failed bid for indie stardom.” But this one will probably take the place of that.

But I keep going back to “There’s No Fucking Way” … Where did [the titular] proclamation come from?

I don’t know. I’m the last person to ask those kind of things. I suppose it’s just an anti-hackneyed platitudes that I loathe, like “Everything happens for a reason” and “It is what it is.” I do know the middle bit with the piano might be the most beautiful minute of music I’ve ever written, another irony. It makes my spine tingle — and how narcissistic does that sound? Oh well. Anyway, it’s another of life’s little indie ironies that that won’t be heard by too many people.

[Pause] This is supposed to be my year. Two books and two records in the same year, and I’m not trying to get my hopes up but in a quiet way things are going great for the band and my writing career.

If you could only writing an anthem without the word “fucking” in it …

Yeah, that’d be nice.

We never set out to be a giant band, and we’ve succeeded in our aspirations not to be big.

If I were an acerbic person, I might suggest that it should be the subtitle under “The Black Watch” on the Wiki page.


Somebody once told me, “John, you’re not gonna get your due till you’re dead.” And my quip was, “Well, then, I can wait.”

We never set out to be a giant band, and we’ve succeeded in our aspirations not to be big. “Fail Beautifully” is my bumper sticker idea. But it’s quite possible that success would have been the worst thing that have happened to me, because I’m essentially a shy ham. Everything about me is an oxymoron. I don’t like being the center of attention. I only became the front person because I didn’t want to teach anybody else to sing the songs, or deal with the narcissism of a singer.

What’s the deal with “Harvard/Pershing Square”?

I needed a dialectic to go coast to coast, as it were. A scenester in each location. And the nasty line about “Just because you say strange things doesn’t make you an artist.” Because I know so many people who, instead of having talent, try to act weird or dress weird, and think that they’re Chrissie Hynde because they’ve sidled up to you and said something really weird.

There are a lot of people who “act” the artist.

Yes, and I’m against them. I can never be them. I’m just the preppy tennis bum wearing the same Izod shirts I had in the ’80s.

You’re 16 years old and you have a beard?

And “Eleanor’s Not Hiding”? She’s “not able to leave her room because all she sees is gloom and doom.” How sad.

Well, Eleanor is me. I stopped going out a couple years ago. In fact, I pretty much stopped leaving my house except to go to Stories, or El Compadre, or the tennis courts, or work. I don’t go see shows or movies. I occasionally visit friends, but generally I don’t go out, and I can lay that at the feet of Echo Park, my own neighborhood. It makes me sick. The bearded children. You’ve read the book. It’s a complete rant about how the neighborhood has been appropriated by posers, going back to the idea that people who get a new ZIP code think they’re artists.

You’re 16 years old and you have a beard? You should not have a beard unless you’re a lumberjack, a professor or at least 30 years old. Or girls that walk around looking like Coachella is still going on. Hey, it’s over.

Ah, curmudgeons unite …

Not really. I don’t take all this seriously, or even myself seriously, but it’s there to see.