AS BRITAIN’S HOTTEST POP DUO, BEN Watt and Tracey Thorn are known as Everything but the Girl. But if Hollywood ever decides to film their life stories, they might have a different title in mind. Suggests guitarist Watt: “How about ‘A Star is Born, Almost Dies, and Is Reborn?’ ” Four years ago, Watt was stricken with Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare, often-fatal autoimmune disease that has reduced his once robust 160-pound frame to a ravaged 120 pounds.
Happily, the film would include an upbeat, surprise ending. Last year, after a 12-year romantic and professional collaboration that yielded six well-crafted-but-largely-ignored studio albums, Watt and Thorn, both 33, finally emerged from obscurity. Still mining gold from “Missing,” a global dance hit single from their seventh album, Amplified Heart, the couple are already reaping raves for their just released followup. On Walking Wounded, Watt and Thorn have fashioned a sultry, dance-friendly hit from trip-hop, jungle and dance-dub grooves. “Raw, pure and absolutely gorgeous,” gushed Rolling Stone.
With Watt’s languid melodies and Thorn’s plaintive vocals, the album creates a bleak-chic melancholy mood, mirroring that of its creators. “There is strength in discontentment,” says Watt. “We all have issues we have gotten over: failed relationships, the death of a parent. We’re meant to wrestle in life. But in the end you must feel you’re on top of it, and that is what our music’s about. These are survivors singing.”
And Watt, for one, knows a thing or two about survival. After he was diagnosed in 1992, Watt spent three months in the hospital, enduring four risky operations to remove dead tissue from his atrophying small intestine, of which only 20 percent remains. Following a fourth operation last July, Watt’s condition has improved, and although he tires easily, he and Thorn will kick off a U.S. tour in July. (Watt’s book about his ordeal, Patient, will be published in the U.K. in September.) Because he must remain on a strict, low-fat diet, Watt is likely to stay gaunt for the rest of his life, but still relatively healthy with the help of medication to regulate his immune system. “To look more like Kate Moss than, say, Bruce Willis,” he laughs, “is very strange.”
Waif or no, Thorn is happy just to have him back from the abyss. “Watching someone you love possibly die is a vicious thing,” she says. “During those [first] three months, I simply wanted the luxury of being bored again, where I wasn’t pressed up against life like that all the time.”
Now that the stress of the fight for life has passed, the couple cherish their time together in the London home they bought five years ago, though they have different ideas about downtime. “Ben doesn’t like reading or going to the movies,” says Thorn. “We’ll go see a film, and 10 minutes into it he’ll be snoring away. I’ve given up.” Still, she adds, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we remain together forever. We’re devoted to that idea and derive strength from it as a couple.”
Yet deep as their commitment is, the couple have no plans to marry. “There’s a teenage thing that still binds us together—[the idea] that at 33, we’re still getting away with life,” Watt says. “I still feel 19 in my head. I didn’t want to get married then, and I feel the same way now. I get so pissed off with people who have these multi-thousand-dollar weddings and then, within six months, it’s curtains. If you just want a good party, have a party. You don’t have to get married. I mean, after her fourth time, could we ever believe anything Melanie Griffith ever says again?”
Born and raised in Brookman’s Park, outside of London, Thorn met Watt, a native Londoner, in 1982, when both were students at Hull University and fledgling musicians. She majored in literature and he in music, and both were signed by Cherry Red Records. The two quickly teamed up, and in 1984 Everything but the Girl (named after a sign in a London thrift shop that cheekily offered “everything but the girl”) released their first album, Eden.
“Fate has been so bizarre in our lives,” Watt says, pondering the success that took so long in coming and which illness almost snatched away. “To nearly have died four times [in surgery] and then—in less than two years—to go to No. 2 on Billboard is ludicrous.” Chimes in Thorn: “Hollywood—are you listening?”