Maktub: On Tour Now With EV!
As the hottest band to break out of Seattle in more than a decade, Maktub walks a high road of expectations. To come out on top in that market, to be voted Best Band in the Seattle Weekly over hometown heavies like Pearl Jam, to more than hold their own while opening for headliners like the Dave Matthews Band Earth, Wind & Fire and Coldplay, Maktub has to be that good.
More than that: They’ve got to be different even as they draw from artists like Prince, Led Zeppelin, and Sly Stone - those who also channeled multiple influences into a sound unlike anything played in their time. Maktub’s new CD, Say What You Mean, compresses the diversity of their first two releases, Subtle Ways and Khronos, into an exhilarating, high-impact style. Locked into a taut groove behind singer Reggie Watts (known throughout the Northwest for his passionate vocals, riveting presence, live onstage sampling, and spectacular Afro) the band digs down to its essence and comes up with a sound that’s original yet accessible to the widest range of listeners.
Think of it as a Soul sprinkled with psychedelia and a high-octane, pop/rock blend. Better yet, don’t think at all until you give Say What You Mean a spin. The thundering drum lick that kicks off “Promise Me,“ the Memphis heat and teasing beat of “Say What You Mean,“ the crescendos that whip the choruses of “20 Years“ into explosions of emotion - whatever you want to call this music, it’s impossible to ignore and even harder to forget.
Producer Bob Power had something to do with this. His work with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, India.Arie, Ozomatli, and The Roots is all about getting to the heart of the artist. But, bottom line, Say What You Mean captures a great band at a critical moment. Everything that comes before is preparation; from this point, Maktub starts making some serious history.
Rewind to 1996 … Seattle teems with musicians who fall in and out of bands, all of them wondering how to make their imprint in a city known for its homegrown musical giants. Kevin Goldman, just off the bus from Phoenix with bass in hand, meets Davis Martin. They play together the next day; it feels right.
Davis calls on Reggie Watts, a young singer and student at Cornish College of the Arts. Born in Germany, Watts grew up in Great Falls, Montana, the son of an African-American Air Force officer and his French wife. Hoping to study jazz vocals and see what lies beyond the flat Montana horizon, he moves to Seattle, spends a few months at the Art Institute of Seattle, drops out, and begins performing with - in his word - “gazillions“ of local bands. After just a few minutes with Martin, Goldman, and original keyboardist Alex Veley, Watts realises that this combination is unique. Before the end of the day they write their first song.
“The balance just felt right,“ Watts remembers. “Kevin and Davis are a deep-pocket symbiotic rhythm section. Kevin came from a dub background. Davis had played a lot of in-the-pocket, trip-hop stuff. And I’ve always been into pretty much everything.“
They hatch a plan: commit to each other. Cut down on other gigs. Hold down day jobs to buy time as they develop the band. Don’t record or perform until they’re ready. And call the group Maktub, an Arabic word that Watts lifts from Paul Coelho’s novel The Alchemist. Translated as “it is written“ or “destiny,“ it has a ring of inevitability that keeps everyone motivated as they settle into the wilderness of rehearsal.
Time goes by, bringing changes. They finish their first CD, Subtle Ways, as a quartet, with the talented Alex Veley on keyboards. Response is immediate: The album hits number one on KCMU and later on the soul and urban charts at MP3.com and earns them Best R&B Album at the Northwest Music Awards. They start picking up fans as far away as England, though Subtle Ways isn’t available there.
Then they expand again, this time recruiting Thaddeus Turner on guitar and Daniel Spils on keys. Thaddeus’ scorching guitar work and Americana roots along with Daniel’s signature keyboard work add precisely the sweetening they all want. The circle is complete.
“Daniel is really solid - for lack of a better word, German,“ Watts explains. “He learns everything perfectly and plays it perfectly. He’s added cool sounds, a good aesthetic, and is a great songwriter. Now he’s playing guitar too, which gives us even more to work with. And Thaddeus adds the chaos that we need within that order: He plays beautiful solos, he’s really great at textures and soundscapes, and as a rhythm player he adds that extra juice. He makes us rock hard.“
Khronos, recorded during one two-week stretch, follows in 2001. As more than 20,000 copies sell, Velour Music in New York takes notice and, a year later, re-releases Khronos nationally. They take off on the road for six months at a time, touring obsessively until they blow the trailer spindle on their Chevy van - for the third time. Taking this as an omen, they head back home to write songs and demo most of them with their minidisc recorder and a single button microphone. Winter sets in; wrapped now in long johns and scarves, they start tracking Say What You Mean, with Bob Power out from New York to produce. It’s summer by the time they’re done, with the band’s basement studio now a hotbox of creative fever.
From the heat of a Seattle summer comes Say What You Mean, the perfect distillation of Maktub, the herald of their breakthrough as a vital new force. “When I look back,“ Watts says, “I can say that we came out of the trip-hop scene - Portishead and all that. Now we’ve come to understand that this is just part of what we do. There’s still something trippy in what we do, but the songs have become starker. There’s always been a rock element in what we’ve done, but on the new album that’s our foundation. The next record will be even more rock - more stripped down and straight up.“
“I guess this makes it easier to reach more people,“ he muses, “but I’ve never thought of that as a conscious goal. I don’t worry about my image or feeling pressure from the industry to be this way or that. It’s more important that I never lose my connection to people on the darker side, who like to experiment with all the parts of their lives, musical or otherwise. That’s where I get my inspiration. Really, all we want to do is rock.“