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How Everything But The Girl Got Back Into A Groove After 24 Years

Like many people, musicians Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn found themselves in isolation during the pandemic, conjuring up memories of sharing space with strangers on a dancefloor. The time spent indoors would eventually lead the pair, who began releasing music in the Eighties as Everything But the Girl, to find the creative spark that would become their new album, Fuse, out April 21st. The group’s first official release in 24 years. 

Speaking via Zoom from the couple’s home in London, Watt, who was diagnosed with the rare autoimmune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome in 1992, recalls having to be especially strident about precautions in the early days of the pandemic. “I couldn’t interact with the family, and we stayed at home probably much longer than other people,” he says. “I think when we came out of it and life started to get back to normal, we just looked at each other and said, ‘Are we going to go back to the lives we had before, or have we been changed by this?’” 

Last spring, Watt and Thorn started working together on new music in earnest. Up to that point, they’d helped in more technical ways on each other’s various solo projects (“I was the free session musician in the house,” Watt jokes), but that started to change. Watt recalls it was Thorn who convinced him that now was the right time to make music together again. “I think Ben had been working a little bit during the lockdown on some ambient tracks and piano improvisations and stuff, just for the pleasure of making music. And some of that formed our starting point,” she explains. 

Those early improvisations — saved under the name “Tracey and Ben” in an attempt at avoiding the pressures attached to a formal comeback — started to take on the feeling of finished songs. Thorn recalls rushing into the room after hearing Watt working on what sounded like a new take on some of the club tracks they’d done in the past. “We felt the pulse just quickening a bit, and we picked up the pace. And I think we just got more excited about it and got into our stride,” she recalls. 

Watt agrees, “It’s one of the reasons we call the album Fuse because however much we tried to underplay it at the beginning, it was as though we had lit a fuse and some kind of detonation was going to happen. It was quite eye-opening for both of us.”

Fuse indeed has the feeling of a work made from creative urgency. Lead single “Nothing Left to Lose” basically says as much. While it finds a pocket within the palette of dancefloor sonics that garnered the group international acclaim in the Nineties, there’s a quiet assuredness in its experimentation. The track’s blistering two-step eschews the blissful drum ‘n’ bass breaks of their 1996 album Walking Wounded, opting to try on new, unexpected arrangements almost as if it were instinct. “I was thinking the other day that when we made our very first album, Eden, which came out in 1984 in the U.K. That record was really made in isolation,” Watt says. “We were young students. We had this template of sounds that we thought would work. And I think that is something we felt again when we made this record. We made it almost like we did when we were teenagers.”

Thorn and Watt are both 60 and have been together since their teens, after meeting as students at the University of Hull in England. At the time, both had budding solo careers — Thorn was a member of the post-punk band Marine Girls, and Watt had already released a pair of solo projects, including his debut LP, North Marnine Drive, from 1982, which features much of the stripped down and acoustic sounds EBTG would explore in their early work. The couple soon started recording music together, at first making intimate, jazz-inspired tunes that solidified their emotional sensibility.

In 1994, they released their eighth album, Amplified Heart via the British record label Blanco y Negro. Though the music was the best they’d ever made, it did not do well commercially. As the story goes, they were in the process of being dropped by their label just as Todd Terry’s remix of their single “Missing” came out. The song ended up becoming a Top Five hit in the U.S., the first time they had ever made the American charts. Terry took the melancholy, acoustic guitar-driven ballad and turned it into an unforgettable house track. The “Missing” remix is by now stitched into the collective unconscious, a soundtrack for an entire decade of dance floor catharsis. Thorn’s patiently emotive voice delivering the still-banging line “like the deserts miss the rain,” changed the direction of her and Watt’s lives. They followed that success with Walking Wounded in 1996, a seamless marriage of pop songcraft and dance music. 

“I think our lives had a slightly strange trajectory because we did a lot of stuff when we were very young. Then, when Ben was 29, he got hit with this terrible illness and very nearly died, and that was very transformative,” Thorn explains. “The big success we had from Amplified Heart, the remix of “Missing,” Walking Wounded. We were still only in our thirties. We were living with a certain awareness of vulnerability and mortality, and some of that fed into the music. You call an album Walking Wounded. You’re talking about vulnerability, aren’t you?” 

It’s the group’s unwavering clarity with emotionally raw material, and Thorn’s ability as a vocalist to maintain a grip over such material, never veering into sentimentality, that’s garnered them a deeply devoted, and constantly growing, fanbase. “I think you basically live with mixed feelings about most things all your life, even if you write about them,” Watt says. “Even if you talk about them with your therapist or your doctor or your friend, they still live in your mind. And it’s just how you cope with it as life goes by.”

In 1999 EBTG released their last album, Temperamental. By then, Thorn had given birth to the couple’s first two children. “I’d reached the point where I wanted to have kids, and I wanted them to be the center of my life for a while,” she recalls. She says they were able to work out taking the kids with them during a run of shows supporting the album. “And then our third child came along and I really came to the decision that I wasn’t enjoying combining those two lifestyles,” Thorn says. 

Both Thorn and Watt decided to take a hiatus. They would go on to work independently from each other for several years. Watt produced albums, opened venues in London, and started the record label Buzzin’ Fly. He wrote two books, a memoir about his illness and a biography about his parents. In 2014, he released his second solo album Hendra, leaning into the acoustic and downtempo sounds that defined EBTG’s earliest work. In 2016 he released Fever Dream, and just before the pandemic, he was planning a tour as a solo musician. “We’ve kept being creative, albeit quietly in smaller areas, book writing, DJing in underground clubs, running a label, and putting out less commercial albums, Watt says. “But I do think there’s been a kind of respect that we’ve just kept doing it.”

After spending a few years focused solely on their kids, Thorn also returned to making music, releasing four solo albums, including 2007’s Out of the Woods, and the excellent Love and its Opposite in 2010, as well as a string of collaborations with U.K. electronic music titans like Massive Attack and Adam F. Thorn also wrote four books, including three memoirs and a work of nonfiction about female singers. “That was a luxury that I was able to take a break from work for a few years. I never took that for granted. I really enjoyed that time; It’s really intense when you’re in the middle of it, but it goes so quickly, and then that’s it.” 

“It’s probably also one of the reasons why we didn’t work together for so long, because something had to give,” Watt adds. “We couldn’t be both parents to three kids and a couple and then also work professionally. I think something would have snapped.” 

Now, the kids are all grown up and Fuse could be considered something of an empty nest album. “I think it’s probably largely because of not only the aftermath of the pandemic but the fact that the kids are now older, they’re not living at home anymore, and we have a bit more time and space between ourselves,” Watt says. “A lot of it does seem to reflect different attitudes towards the isolation we’d each felt in the previous couple of years. There are songs that both analyze the inside of your own head and how you feel being isolated. There are songs which actually dream about the exact opposite; Two or three other songs are memories of my heyday of clubbing.” 

One such track, “No One Knows We’re Dancing,” opens on almost literary terms, as Thorn’s vocals, delicately intentional, guide us through sparse, curated details.  We’re introduced to a cast of characters clubbing on a Sunday evening. Amy, who works weekends at a pet store, and Peter, whose father is a lawyer for the E.U. in Munich. The song blooms with shimmering synths progressions that sound plucked from a sci-fi film. “It’s 5 pm on Sunday,” Thorn sings, “And no one knows we’re dancing.”

Watt says the track is partly inspired by a club night he started in the Nineties with fellow DJ Jay Hannan. “You could still smoke in clubs. We’re talking in the late nineties.” Watt recalls. “People would party all weekend, and we would run a Sunday club. There was a hedonism, a sort of freedom to it all.” 

Fuse arrives at a moment when nostalgia for precisely that era is in high demand as a new generation of artists finds inspiration in the sounds that originated in Nineties and early 2000s nightclubs. “We most noticed it because of our own kids who are in their mid-twenties now. And a couple of years ago, they started coming home from parties and stuff going, ‘Oh, people were playing “Before Today” at the party,’” Thorn explains. “And that was quite startling. Then, one of my daughters started borrowing all my old clothes.” 

“A few years ago, Tyler, the Creator picked up our very first single from the early Eighties, “Night and Day,” and put it on his Instagram, and that really opened the door,” Watt recalls. “Suddenly, that song went from being a completely obscure nugget from the past to now being one of our most streamed tracks on Spotify.” 

Thorn is cautious in her view of Gen Z’s fascination with an era they lived through. “I think it’s very easy to get into this slightly fetishized version of the past,” she says. “I’m speaking to our kids, and they do have a kind of nostalgia for something they feel like they missed. It’s like they feel like there was this moment in time when culture and music, and fashion were more authentic.”

Still, Watt notes that young people’s interest in their work “opened our eyes to how we could speak again musically, not creating some nineties homage, but accepting that perhaps we did make some moves back then that were inspirational for other artists.” The key, he says, is to keep things fresh. It’s a word that Watt returns to when he describes the new album. While the timing couldn’t be better from a purely strategic standpoint, Fuse finds both Thorn and Watt as unafraid as ever to subvert expectations. 

“If you listen to the beats on this record, there’s actually nothing that’s the same as on Walking Wounded. Everything’s got a bit of a twist to it,” Watt says. “I found myself actually really interested in working with plugins and production techniques that perhaps we’d never had the chance to use before because they hadn’t even been invented. You can bend the tonality of the voice now, and traditionally, Tracy’s voice has been this sacred instrument that should never be messed with. But we just thought, why not? Let’s see what kinds of effects we can get.” 

The result is a song like “When You Mess Up,” a wrenching and slow-rolling ballad in which we hear Thorn effectively having a dialogue with herself. The song opens with a stirring piano melody as her voice arrives warmly. “You seem so young again,” Thorn sings. “I think that’s because you’re in pain.” The song is about being able to forgive oneself, and the internal dialogue gains emotional heft in the ways Thorn’s voice manages to bend along the fractures of human imperfection.


“I thought, what would happen if we actually dramatize one of those voices into this devil-like voice on her shoulder, the mad voice in your head?” Watt recalls. “As soon as we did it, we thought, ‘Look, we’ve never done shit like this before. And it sounds great.’” 

“It’s working with similar ingredients, but just mixing them up in a different order or a different ratio so that what you end up with tastes different. And that’s what you’re always trying to come up with,” Thorn adds. After all these years, the pair still share a remarkable synergy. “It’s very intangible, and that can be a very personal feeling. But luckily, that feeling we often share quite instinctively.”

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