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Mammy's Weird Jogger: Jimmy Watkins Talks Vega Bodegas, Sober Living And Loving Gigs Again

Thursday, 25 November 2021 Written by Laura Johnson

Time runs the same way for all of us, but some people seem to be able to cram several lives’ worth of living into one stint on Earth. Take Jimmy Watkins, for example. In a little shy of 40 years, he’s been an elite athlete, guitarist in a couple of acclaimed noise-rock bands and, now, the face of Running Punks, the internet’s favourite posi-vibe music-fitness hybrid.

But it wasn’t always this way. Three years ago he hit a wall, eventually coming to the realisation that things needed to change. “I wasn’t in a good place, and I had a real chip on my shoulder,” he recalls. “I felt like everybody was out to get me. It was just mental, I felt like everybody hated me. 

“I felt like everybody hated every bit of music I put out. It was such a slog. It was real paranoia. I knew deep down the only person to blame was me, but the easiest thing to do was to blame other people. It took weeks of not drinking, and real tough runs in the winter on my own to just go, 'Oh my God, I’m the dick. It’s me.’”

Watkins had long been a familiar face in the South Wales music scene thanks to his stint in cult favourites Future of the Left, but following his departure from that band he made a name for himself all over again by fronting The Vega Bodegas—named after bottles of wine he and his schoolmates would pinch from his dad.

Completed by guitarist Marc Roberts, bassist Jamie Roberts and drummer Nathan Griffiths, the band initially came together out of necessity when punk raconteur Jeff Rosenstock asked Watkins to support him at a show in Cardiff. The two had met when Future of the Left toured America but, despite having hashed out a few home demos, Watkins had no band at the time. 

He called his old school friends, asking them to back him. “To this day I can’t believe I asked them that question,” he says. “They said ‘We’ll do it but it’s not going to be the Jimmy Watkins band. It has to be a proper band.’ I was like, ‘Cool. Let’s do it!’ So that’s how we started back as we were, as a school band.” 

They used songs they wrote in their teens to warm up at their rehearsals, which gave them a childlike energy that bled into their debut album, 2018’s ‘A Complete History of Witchcraft’. The record offered nine songs that clocked in at just over 30 minutes and was clearly the result of a band trying to find their feet, with each track delving into different recesses of punk and rock. Watkins admits he would write tracks thinking “this has got [BBC Radio Wales DJ] Adam Walton written all over it”  or “this will get us played at [Cardiff festival] Sŵn”.

That sort of calculated approach is not something he wishes to repeat on their second LP, which will be released in 2022, though no further details have been revealed. “On the last album I felt like we were trying to be something, but this album we’re just being ourselves,” explains the frontman. He is also no longer using his experiences writing with Future of the Left as his reference point, and that’s thanks in part to the sheer amount of new music he’s been exposed to through his Running Punks enterprise: his creative language has changed along with his tastes, broadening his horizons in the process. “I’ve been listening to the wrong music for a long time,” he admits, adding that it scratched an itch he didn’t know he had.

Watkins started the Running Punks community back in 2019 with former bandmate Rhodri Morgan, and at the same time he began making waves with his Running Reviews of albums old and new, garnering media interest from the BBC and plenty of online buzz. It was a return to his roots in some ways. 

In his youth Watkins was an international calibre middle distance runner, breaking the Welsh 800m indoor record in 2006 and making the final at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow. But in 2007, at 25, he decided to go the rock star route instead, and he fully committed to it with many alcohol-fuelled, cringeworthy anecdotes and sloppy sets to his name. That can only last so long, though, and after his “I’m the dick!” revelation in 2018 everything changed.

“I’m just loving it, more than I have in 16 years. Every day I’m always thinking about what I can get into a song. I was in the bin for years, I couldn’t think straight,” he candidly shares. “Now I’m sober and I’m healthy—I count being healthy more important than being sober, for me, so that I don’t feel like a sack of shit all the time.

“I can’t believe I got anything done. Everytime I woke up I had to hit the reset button: what did I do yesterday? Who have I got to say sorry to? But I wake up now, and I’m like, something I started yesterday, let’s finish it. It was such a healing process. Every day I was going for a run it was like going to therapy. It was reminding me why exercise was important to me and it was reminding me why music was important to me, and it was reminding me to not limit your thoughts, being open with yourself, and admitting why you love stuff or why you don’t like things. ”

“When I was a kid, a young man, that was my favourite way to listen to new music, out running. I’d buy a CD, copy it straight onto cassette and that would be my first listen, out running. When I stopped looking after myself, I lost all that.”

With a renewed sense of self, Watkins has spent the past year crafting material for The Vega Bodegas’ next record, favouring home demoing over practice room jams, which also allows them to view the material more objectively than if they were face to face. “I’m really impulsive, and as I get older I just want to make music that’s better,” he explains. “I’ve kind of felt that in the past it was always first thought, best thought. When I was jamming, the first thing that came into my head, that went into the song, the first thing that I played.

“I wanted to see what I could come up with if I spent a bit more time doing stuff. Particularly with the new songs, the lyrics, some of them took weeks to write, whereas before I would write the lyrics to a song in a couple of hours. Having the demos there to listen to, to take running, has really helped me work a lot harder at what I’m doing.”

The Vega Bodegas’ first single of 2021, All My Fish Are Dead, boasts 600 words and Watkins explains that it is a tour of where he lives, and what he heard when out on runs: “I hear the song and I remember exactly where I was when I thought that. The whole song is about Llanelli. It’s the most Llanelli song ever.”

Guitarist Marc Roberts wrote the music after a lot of rum, and sent it to Watkins in the hope some of it could be salvaged. “No, it’s amazing, the whole thing,” Watkins responded. “I’ve never heard anything like it, it’s wild. Let’s work with it.” Then the realisation set in that he’d have to write lyrics to a five-minute song with a lot of changes. “I tried so much stuff that I was like, ‘I’m gonna have to knock this on the head’ or ‘This is going to have to become an instrumental, there’s nothing I can do.’”

The tipping point came when Watkins asked Roberts to name the demo, which he called All My Fish Are Dead “because his fish had actually died”. Once Watkins heard that title, he sprung out of the blocks and the rest is very wordy history. It could be easy to dismiss a track with such abstract phrases amid everyday conversation as nonsense, but to do so would be doing Watkins and the band a disservice. 

“I’m really inspired by Kendrick Lamar, he’s my absolute hero,” says Watkins, while holding up a piece of paper with quotes that he likes from Lamar interviews he’s watched. One in particular struck a chord, he remembers it as something along the lines of, “no matter what you write, it’s got to be true to you.” Otherwise, he believes, people will smell the bullshit.

On the band’s latest single, Welcome To Slow Cooker, he references himself as Mammy’s Weird Jogger, and the first line goes “nice to meet you, I’m the small talk Buffalo”. “Sometimes I feel like that, ramming people out of the way with my non-stop talking,” he says. He has learnt that by making it about yourself, you limit what you can write about. Some people may think having boundaries such as this would be restrictive, but it has allowed Watkins to be more creative within those parameters. He dismisses anything that he writes that doesn’t relate to him, however obscurely, as “garbage” and “nonsense.”

As Watkins endeavours to become more self aware, so has the band. Looking back, he admits there were a lot of ideas “floating about” on their debut LP, and this time around they wanted to hone their sound. “We made a decision to just be heavy,” he declares matter of factly, later divulging the recipe for a Vega Bodegas track: “A little bit off the wall and pack the riffs in.”

The growth in Watkins is evident in his vocal delivery, which has gone from leisurely to full of vigour and conviction. “I’m so glad you picked up on that,” he beams. “I think it’s down to confidence. I feel more confident now, because since going sober I trust myself a lot more. I trust that I’m not winging things. 

“I kind of think, right, these words came when I was sober and there’s been a lot of thought put into them, so I must genuinely mean them. A lot of songs I wrote when I was pissed, I’d be like: ‘I don’t really know what it means, but it sounded cool when I was drunk.’ Singing those, that lack of conviction was there. But now I know exactly what all this means to me and I feel a lot more confident doing it.”

One of the areas there’s still room for improvement in, though, is consideration of how the new material will translate live. It’s something Watkins admits to not previously considering. “That annoys the boys,” he says. “In my head I don’t want to do gigs. In my head, gigs are where things always went wrong for me in the past. There was always that temptation to get pissed. So in my head, I don’t want to do gigs anymore, and that’s how I was recording the first two songs: All My Fish Are Dead and North Norfolk Plastics.”

The former initially culminated with a whisper of the title, which producer Todd Campbell felt was a missed opportunity. He came over Watkins’ headphones during the vocal take at his Stompbox Recording Studios in Pontyclun: “You’ve got to scream that, because when you do it live everyone’s going to scream it with you.” It clicked, and Watkins was clear on his objectives from then on. Considering the live element has made him look forward to playing gigs again, something he thought was behind him.

Learning from track to track is something the band have also found extremely beneficial to their writing process, and so they are recording their upcoming album two songs at a time, taking what’s worked from the last pair and using that to inform the next batch, all with Campbell at the helm. 

Armed with a newfound confidence and tracks they were fully invested in, the band shared All My Fish Are Dead on the BBC uploader in the hope of radio play, only for three to four weeks go by and nothing happening. “We were like, fuck, that’s embarassing. That’s really embarrassing,” Watkins says. 

So, he decided to get the opinion of fellow Running Punk Kevin Cole, the Drive Time co-host at radio station KEXP in Seattle. Watkins expected some constructive criticism, but what he got from Cole was a question: “When can I play this on the radio?” He said it was the best song he’d heard all year. Watkins submitted it via official channels for station-wide rotation by other KEXP DJs.

Despite not being played in their home country—something Watkins thinks happens regularly to heavier bands in the Welsh scene—The Vega Bodegas saw All My Fish Are Dead make KEXP’s song of the day, which led to it being included on the Sub Pop Recommends Playlist, which then opened up a conversation with Sub Pop, who asked to be kept apprised of the band’s new material. 

“I just don’t want Wales to sound like we’re making music like the rest of the country,” he says, before divulging that prior to their album The Vega Bodegas will release an EP via Daemon TV, the record label run by Du Blonde, who apparently “nearly spewed” with laughter upon hearing All My Fish Are Dead. 

If that wasn’t enough, Watkins is also the main character of the newly released indie film Bald, Bristol gig legend Big Jeff did a portrait of him for his new art exhibition, he took Running Punks to Focus Wales and Green Man festival, and became a mental health first aider at Boardmasters. So, what’s next for Jimmy Watkins? 

“I’m teaching in BIMM in Bristol now once a week, business enterprise,” he says. “It’s based on how Running Punks came about basically. Every week I go down there and I talk about little things we did to make it take off. It’s wicked, but stressful.” 

What about the bucket list for the band? “Got to be a KEXP session, going out to Seattle to do that. Maybe an American Tour?” What about a UK tour? “Fucking nobody would have us,” he laughs. “Where would we play? I dunno. Yeah, whatever, I’m not fussed.”

Joking aside, The Vega Bodegas will headline a show at Tiny Rebel in Cardiff on April 9. Judging by their recent set at the city’s Clwb Ifor Bach venue, it should be some night as a confident Watkins banters with the crowd and delivers a rock show as it should be: a joyous, communal affair where music is the focus and egos are checked at the door.

The Vega Bodegas Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows

Sat April 09 2022 - CARDIFF Tiny Rebel

Compare & Buy The Vega Bodegas Tickets at Stereoboard.com.


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