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July 17, 2017

Meet Jimmy Watkins: World Champs 800-meter runner turned touring musician

For far too long now, I’ve churned out posts on this site drawing incredibly loose parallels between rock and roll music and running. Well, this one requires no such mental gymnastics. I’ve had the pleasure of swapping DMs for a while now with Jimmy Watkins, who made the 2006 World Championships final and who has also opened for DIY-scene mainstay Jeff Rosenstock.

Amidst the stresses and joys of moving into a new home and becoming a father, Jimmy took the time to answer some of my questions, which I hope you will all enjoy.

So go ahead and listen to the below track from his band, the Vega Bodegas, and get to know Jimmy Watkins.

In introing you for this piece, how would you want to be described as an athlete and as a musician?

Hmmm. Probably a guy who likes to run and can write a song now and again. It’s all relative though…if I’m with people who don’t run, I feel like an athlete…if I’m in a room full of drummers, I’ll feel like a musician.

How’d you get started with running?

I joke that I started running when I realized walking was too slow. I always knew I was fast. I remember the moment I realized that my speed was something that impressed people…it was after school one day. I’ve always been a show-off, so I got a real buzz out of that, and worked on my speed. Those days it was never fitness. I just wanted to be fast. If I remember correctly, I wanted to be as fast as a train. I had a little prayer I made up that went something like “please make me as fast as a train, I’ll train as much as I need to train, just so I can be as fast as a train.” What a weird kid I was, and probably still am in some parallel universe

For fans of the sport here in the US, we tend to hear more about English and Scottish athletes representing the UK. Was your experience coming from Wales any different?

In a way, I was lucky coming from Wales because we had Iwan Thomas, who I absolutely idolized. He was everywhere when I was a kid. I remember going down the boys club to watch him race on the TV. A few years later I went out drinking with him and he kept saying, “I really like you. You’re going to be a star.” I feel bad for letting him down.

You ran 1:46 and made a World Championship final during your racing career, among other things. What race or accolade or moment do you look back on most fondly now?

Most people would assume my highlight was running in the final of the World Indoor Championships in 2006, but the one race I remember the most was in Kaunus in Lithuania on the 1st of July 2006. Out of all my races, this is the only one where I’ve kept the medal. I have no idea where my other medals are. I front ran the race it and it was the easiest race of my life…one of those days where everything felt perfect. You obviously train hard for the success, but now and again you’ll race and it feels effortless…for me, that was always the most rewarding thing.

How’d you get started with music? 

My dad is a musician. He introduced me to Pere Ubu and David Bowie when I was a kid. I had my first guitar when I was four and I wrote a song about a pigsty. I’ve always loved music.

Did you perform or tour at all while still training or are those two lifestyles pretty incompatible?

I had a band called Orga-Tora when I was in school…that has now become The Vega Bodegas, minus our original drummer who lives miles away. Apart from that, the gigging and stuff came after running. I ran my last proper race in 2007 and started Strange News From Another Star a few months later. In my old age, I think the two lifestyles would have worked well together and my running may have even benefited from it…but that’s life, we all have degrees in hindsight.

Do you feel like your musician life and your running life have any overlap at all? Any people who occupy both spheres around you?

I come up with almost all my song ideas whilst running or exercising. I never have any good ideas unless I’m moving. I used to train with a guy called James Thie. He always said I was a rock and roll runner. We’re still good mates. Also, Harry who drummed in my first band SNFAS, used to be my training partner. A good band can be like a good training group. You meet up as often as possible and you work together on what you’re good at. You push each other to be better. For example, Marc, the guitarist in The Vega Bodegas is probably the best guitarist I know…I watch him play and I can’t believe it. When we play loud together it really pushes me to not only be a better guitarist, but to write stuff that he probably wouldn’t come up with himself. It forces me to work on my own personality if you will. Running with a good group of athletes is similar. It makes you find what you’re good at and what nobody else around you is doing. As an athlete I knew I was good at being gutsy. I worked on that in training and it paid off in races.

Your current band, The Vega Bodegas, might remind some of our readers of Jeff Rosenstock’s solo stuff. When y’all are writing songs, are there any bands or musicians who you are listening to a ton?

Ah, thank you for that. A band I used to be in toured the States with Jeff a few years ago. Lyrically I’m inspired by Hip Hop, musically it’s a broad spectrum that included Supergrass, Pere Ubu, Songhoy Blues, Alex Dingley and, well, pretty much anything…but mostly Supergrass. They’re the best. I try and listen to as many new bands as possible, but I haven’t really gotten into anything new for a long time. There’s lots of plinky plonky guitars which I’m just not a fan of.

What other bands have you worked with in the past? 

I was in Future of the Left for a few years, but I try not to think too much about that these days. Looking back it really wasn’t a happy time for me. It’s strange to feel you were being used by a band, but when I think about everything that happened with those guys, it’s hard not to feel I was just there to fill a temporary gap. They’d recently lost a “character”, in massive inverted commas, and I was first to be drafted in as replacement nutter. It really could have been anyone else in Cardiff at the time. I knew before my last gig that I wouldn’t be playing with them again. There was a strange vibe and one band member even said to me “I’m so glad you’re in this band. I couldn’t be in this band without you.” That’s quite an odd thing to say before a show.

Finances in both independent music and track & field are pretty shitty. There’s just not a lot of it to go around. What was the support like for you as an athlete? What about now as a working musician?

I’ve pretty much always had full time jobs to support my love of both. The funding with athletics was okay, but I’ve certainly made more money from music than I ever did from athletics. I’ve also drunk a lot more beer. I like the idea of prize money though. The incentive that if you go out and do something better than other people, you’ll get rewarded for it. The Vega Bodegas released a song called Rupert are you Ready? and I honestly didn’t hear a better song by a Welsh band that year. Some prize money for that would have been good. I could have splashed out on a pub lasagne or a good book.

There don’t seem to be a ton of athletes who walk away from the sport and into a super creative profession like you have. Why do you think that’s the case?

I’m not sure really. I’ve always felt that being a runner and being creative went hand in hand, but there were certainly moments when I felt the sport and those in charge were trying to chip away at my personality so I became less of a risk. If you’re a low risk athlete, people are more likely to let you borrow an altitude tent without worrying about you using it to drink beer in. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s certainly how I felt at the time.

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