Interview with Nickie Shobiery

If you’ve never heard of The Wattingers and slaughterhouse blues, now’s your chance. Martin Wattinger kindly answered Nickie Shobeiry’s questions about Steampunk, sack-hoods, and Fish-Eyed Jill.

For those who don’t know, could you give a brief history of The Wattingers? What made you choose ‘The Wattingers’ as a name?

The name came from a children’s program ‘In the Night Garden’ where there are characters called ‘The Wottingers’. The sound of the name evoked a sense of the old American west, an inbred family of outlaws, living out in the swamplands. As time has progressed the mythology of the Wattingers has evolved and is still continuing

The Wattingers started sometime in 2008 and was formed after I left London to work in Plymouth. I wanted a really simple set up, and was interested in the idea of using a harmonica instead of guitar (which is what poor blues musicians who couldn’t afford guitars did back in the day). I also wanted live bass, this is probably my favourite instrument and I have played bass in a few bands previously. My brother lives in the Southwest and plays in Catherine and The Owl. He joined me in the first line up of the Wattingers until work commitments led to him leaving. At this time we had more gigs in London than down South, so I had a friend in London, Andy Blyth from The Probing Cranks and currently The Drift, play the bass for these gigs. Unfortunately the two main venues in London that we played at closed down (The Montague Arms in New Cross, and The Bull and Gate Kentish Town).

Ren (Laurence) who had also played in Catherine and The Owl offered to play bass and he has been with me since. It was Ren who suggested as a joke that he should wear a sack hood, as the bass players kept changing, so no-one would notice any future line-up changes.

To keep the whole project practical we have no drummer. I create the backing tracks and initially record all the music, the first CD ‘Slaughterhouse Blues’ was recorded in this way. The next CD release will have some tracks with Ren and Andy Blythe playing bass.

You describe yourselves as “Slaughterhouse Steampunk Blues”. Again for those who don’t know, could you explain what this means (and in what way The Wattingers are a ‘Steampunk’ band?)

Initially we had no conscious link with Steampunk. I knew of it from years before, having been totally inspired by William Gibson’s books and his vision of cyberpunk. I read the ‘Difference Engine’, and I also prior to this had made and drawn what would be now described as Steampunk contraptions, somewhere back in the late 70’s and 80’s

It was when an old friend made a comment on one of the sack hoods I had made that I could see the connection and further to that we were ‘discovered’ by Fey Pink of the Mysterious Freakshow, she asked us to play at the first Steampunk Yule Ball in Exeter, that she had set up. This was really the start of us being seen and making connections.

I have always tried to work on visuals in bands I have been in before, making props etc. This is an element of Steampunk that appeals to me, the range of creativity and craftsmanship, from to rough and ready ‘punk’ element to specialised fabric, leather and metal work.

Because the Steampunk genre/ethos/subculture originated in literature, there has not been a style of music that is exclusive to it. For that reason I think there is a huge range of music to pick from. Examples of this diversity: Valentine Wolf, The Men Who That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, Thomas Truax, The Copperfield Ensemble, Professor Elemental, BB Black Dog.

Initially I described our sound as ‘Slaughterhouse Blues’ inspired by the song ‘Killing Floor’ by Howling Wolf, a song about how he has to stay with a girl he met he had been ‘foolin’ with. The implications are that he got her pregnant, so instead of going off to Mexico with his friend he has to work at the slaughterhouse to earn money. I have also described us as being ‘Slaughterhouse Steampunk Weird West Gothic Blues’, which covers most of where we’re at! I also feel that we also have a lot in common with the early goth genre, i.e bands like The Birthday Party.

I would say that it is up to other people to decide whether or not we are part of their Steampunk world, we probably fit into a niche that may be a bit uncomfortable for the more genteel of the Steampunk Community.

Which bands/artists would you say have most influenced your sound?

How about non-musical influences?

Ok here’s the bit from our mailout, I can’t think of anything else I could add to this at the moment:

‘Our music is stripped down to the bare bones, inspired by the old blues players. With a black sense of humour, we lean in to the grimy underbelly of Western Steampunk, with influences from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sante Sangre, El Topo, the original Night of the Hunter, Cannibal the Musical and The Child Ballads.

Musically The Wattingers are inspired by: Prison ‘Hollers’ as recorded by Alan Lomax, Howling Wolf, Joan Baez, Martin Carthy, The Birthday Party, Screaming Jay Hawkins, The Bad Seeds, Gallon Drunk, The Butthole Surfers, the Beasts Of Bourbon, Jawbone, Seasick Steve and Tom Waits, to name but a few.’

How has your sound evolved since the band first formed? What was your first ever performance like?

Our first gig was at Tiggaz Bar in Exeter, it went very well, and pretty much set a standard that we tried to maintain. My brother John was playing the bass. Until Fey Pink contacted me, we found it hard to get gigs after this one, apart from at the Wells Tavern, which was a great place to try out new songs and any new technology I had made.

I would say that our sound has evolved to include more easily accessible songs like ‘Arkansas Beardstalker’, partly due to wanting live gigs to be dynamic and powerful. Initially when our set was made up of songs from the first cd we had more songs that were slow and people talked all the way through them so I wanted to get a better balance for future gigs. We have more songs that kick ass now, and it seems to work well live with the mix. As we get to play longer sets we have brought some of the older slower songs back in and the balance seems to work.

Ren’s bass playing has added a new nuance to the sound and he has created his own basslines to some of the new songs. He is also very dynamic on stage and I think it adds a lot to the overall Wattingers performance.

I have also introduced a background ‘swamp’ soundtrack which runs all the way through the set, to add to the ambience.

And on that note, do you have any favourite performances, any memories you’d like to share of the stage? – Are there any of your songs that you love to play the most?

I think the recent event that was put together following the demise of ‘Altfest’ would have to be a memorable event. This was ‘Full Steam Metal Racket’ and was extremely short notice. Bands that were still available who would have been on the Sophie Stage or the Steampunk Experience stage played there. It was a great atmosphere and attracted a really good diversity of bands, other performer and audience. It was set up at Llanfyllin Workhouse in Wales.

For me performing at The Bull and Gate in Kentish Town, prior to it closing down as a music venue was very important. This was where most of the bands I was in played at one time or another. Several nights where organised as a run up to it closing, to celebrate it’s significance to many other bands who had played there in their formative years.

Also the first gig at the Yule Steampunk Ball in Exeter was memorable for being the first big sized venue with a good sound that we had played at. We always play ‘Arkansas Beardstalker’ as it really helps pull people into our world, if they aren’t too sure. Killing Floor seems to go down well too and it has always been on the set list. It is one of the first songs I did in the Wattingers.

I really like doing ‘Mockingbird Hill’, this is where the ‘goth’ element comes into our music, lyrically, it’s quite moody and reminds me of the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. It also helps pace the set out.

Now, The Wattingers are a two-piece band, but on your site ( it says “the mortal remains of Ezekial Obediah Wattinger supplying percussion and rhythms” – could you tell me a little about this Ezekial?

Ezekial is essentially the container for my radio microphones (one for vocals and one for the harmonicas) mini disc player for the backing (old school technology, but reliable) a mini mixer for the backing, harmonicas, stylophone and ambience soundtrack. The cabinet came from my brother who had an idea to make a ’spiricom’ out of it, a theoretical instrument for contacting the dead. He gave it to me in the end and I have run with the idea of it being a spiricom connected to my great ancestor Ezekial. So bits have been added to it, including Ezekial’s skull, as time has progressed. It is now very heavy and is danger of collapsing or causing an injury to anyone who tries to lift it (him). I always introduce him to the audience with an explanation as to who he is, who we are and where we come from. Which is the Seven Devil’s Swamp in Arkansas, where we run a family butchers and slaughterhouse business, established back in the 1800s.

A lot of your songs seem to have a black-comedy narrative to them; where does the inspiration for your songs come from? Could you share your writing process?

I have always liked dark humour, and also narrative songs. Nick Cave was a big influence on me, particularly from the Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds. Also Tom Waits. The ideas can come out of nowhere. ‘Arkansas Beardstalker’ came to me as the song title first, so I had to write a story about it.

‘Fish Eye Jill and Cotton Eye Joe’ came about because someone made a comment about someone else, referring to her having a fish eye. So I thought of ‘Fish Eye Jill’ as a name. That made me think of Cotton Eye Joe, then I thought about what if they were together, what would they do?

‘Weak’ is an early song and it is probably the only song that is influenced from my daytime job. It is about domestic violence, drug dependency, co-dependency and murder, it’s based on real events, but generalised for the song. ‘Weak’ sort of has a ‘happy’ ending, unlike the real story.

Most of my songs end up with folk being dead or missing bits of their body.

Another way I have written is to use the ‘cut up’ method, where you write out lines that may or may not make narrative sense, then cut them up and randomly re-arrange them to see what you’ve got. Then re-write what you have, or add bits. ‘The Killer Set’ is an example. I wrote it back in the 90’s when in Custard Gun, it was called ‘Ebola Shortnin’ then (very topical now). I recut and re-arranged and added new lines. (you may know about cut ups, so apologies if I’m telling you stuff you already know!)

When I first saw you play, your song ‘Lazy Town’ seemed to have everyone rooted to the spot and standing in attention. Could you tell me a little about the inspiration behind the song?

It was partly inspired around the culture shock of moving from a big city where everything works on a very high level of activity to a place /places where everything is a lot slower. Lazy Town isn’t about anywhere in particular, but I did have the experience of waiting for a ridiculously long time at the barbers for some guy with hardly any hair to have it cut. In Lazy Town even the birds can’t be bothered to spend time there.

Did you always know you wanted to be a performing musician? And did you have an interest in the Steampunk community before you joined it as a musician?

I always wanted to be in a band, probably from the age of 12, at that time my favourite band was Black Sabbath. I used to do a bit of singing around my mates house when I was 15. He was a guitarist. We attempted some Thin Lizzy songs I seem to recall. It wasn’t until I went to college in 1977 that I actually started playing in bands. I have always been doing stuff on and off since then, from experimental industrial stuff where people throw glasses at you (think Throbbing Gristle) to slightly more straightforward rock stuff. I was unaware of The Steampunk Community until Fey Pink and my friend pointed out our connection. Since then I have become very interested in a lot of bands, met and befriended performers and individuals and I guess I’m very glad to be a part of something as eclectic as this.

You’re very creative with the costumes you wear on stage. Do you create all of your artefacts yourself? Do you have any favourite pieces?

Yes, I make everything. I am currently experimenting with mould making and casting and I’ve made a skull headed cane, which is featured on the short video ‘Dead Men Walking’, along with a voodoo style top hat. I expect I will be sporting both at the Frome Halloween event this Friday 31st where we are headlining.

The last thing I make is usually my favourite piece, which currently is a modified paintball mask. I think the hood above that Ren wears most of the time is one of my favourite artefacts. It’s the piece that links all the threads together, steampunk, gothic horror and is a good visual way of describing the Wattingers without hearing any of our music.

What can we expect from The Wattingers in the future? Any upcoming gigs, tours, music releases?

After Frome the next gig is the Steampunk Yule Ball on the 13th December. We are managing the Voodoo Lounge room at the Phoenix on that night, so the idea is that when one act finishes then another starts in the other room (alternating between the main hall and the Voodoo Lounge).

I am working on the 2nd CD which has the working title of ‘Dead Men Walking’; I have to write one more new song, which is taking ages to do. This one I hope to release properly not burned at home. It should be going through Steampunk Records, run I believe by Dale Rowles of BB Black Dog. Realistically it will be early next year when it’s out. There will be some industrial-dubby remixes on it which are being worked on by a colleague. I’m also looking at collaborating with Miss Von Trapp, Gurdybird (Tamsyn Swingler) and also Fey Pink on new songs in the future.

You recently played at Alt-Fest, and played at last year’s Exeter Steampunk Yule Ball. Could you tell me a little about both events?

(see above!)

And finally – if you could have any rider request (no judgements, no expenses), what would you ask for?

Someone to drive us around and pack everything after the gig, so I can drink, then drink some more!