Anything but boring

Everything But the Girl have survived chart success and near-fatal illness. Glyn Brown met them
Rejuvenation, regeneration - terms you don't use every day. In the case of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, however, no others will do so well. As a couple and as Everything But the Girl, they've weathered storms - including, in the last few years, what might be called a hurricane. But for the moment - sitting languidly in a bar off Ladbroke Grove - all is calm. Always close, they've reached a stage where even their shapes mirror each other: svelte to the point of concave, Calvin Klein models manque, perfect for photo-shoots. Except that Thorn's immaculate crop has more than a fair share of grey, and Watt's goatee'd take on the folkie aesthetic errs on the consumptive side. Their appearance is a consequence of a story that, around 1992, seemed tragic, and now sees EBTG, once the least funky thing on the planet, topping the charts, hanging with the cool guys (experimental dance pioneers Massive Attack, Mo'Wax's James Lavelle) and courted by the hippest style mags.

The duo's fortunes have always ebbed and flowed. They were already making music individually - he as a Nick Drake-style soloist, she with fey warblers the Marine Girls - when they met at Hull University in 1982, stole their name from a local furniture shop and fashioned their hallmark sound. Lo- fi and acoustic, their jazz/ latin/bossa nova rhythms made them the Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto of the cappuccino set, though their politics were strenuously Red Wedge and the likes of Paul Weller, Johnny Marr and Working Week endorsed them. Over the course of six studio and three compilation albums they embraced cinematic orchestration and slick American production, as well as some scary hairstyles, with varying degrees of success. But inspiration finally curdled and, by the early 1990s, they were a blank in most people's consciousness. Ill fortune chose the moment to pounce. First, Watt developed Churg Strauss Syndrome, an auto-immune disease, which brought him to the brink of death (his weight dropped from 12 stone to the current nine). Then, after he'd pulled through and the band had delivered an album, Amplified Heart, which hinted at new things, they were "let go" by long-time label blanco y negro (Warner Bros). Watt shrugs: "I thought we'd had our moment, I genuinely did. I wanted to reinvent the band, we even thought about dropping the name, but friends said, 'You won't fox anyone like that'."

Which is when Brit-hop maestros Massive Attack put in a call to Thorn ("I was astonished"). She contributed lyrics and her lush voice to "Protection", the Massive Attack single which went supernova in 1994, and collaborated with Watt on another Massive track, "Better Things", prompting him to develop his interest in the polyrhythmic drum'n'bass club sound he calls "futuristic be-bop". Meanwhile, techno producer Todd Terry fed their achingly soulful "Missing" through a sonic blender. The remix reached No 2 in the American charts, Virgin signed the band and now they are about to release a grooved-up LP, Walking Wounded.

The future seems klieg-bright, but feelings are tempered. Watt remains haunted by his illness: "I nearly died four times, but I can't rationalise it. It was arbitrary fate, like the Lottery finger saying, 'It's you, you're the one that's gonna get this rare thing no one's ever heard of'." Despite which: "I've never been more driven, and I don't know whether that's because people want us again, or whether it's just something that's happened philosophically to me."

Although Thorn has her own view on this - "Ben sometimes puts every aspect of his personality down to that time. He'll say, 'I'm like this because that happened.' And I look at him and think, you were always like that" - the emotions have fed into the deeps of the new album; even its title, Walking Wounded, tells tales of longing and desire, pain and doubt. Some of these, though the couple half-deny it, must be rooted in their own bond; the rest are a result of Ben's new hypersensitivity. Like the telepathic angels in Wings of Desire, he's become tuned in to short-wave turmoil; in New York, to write the album, "I noticed on faces this emotional burden people carry, though I know that's not an original thought." There's further inspiration in "the tension between extremes - when something's languid and laidback but hard and dark at the same time. Hospital life's all about that - ridiculous conversations with doctors who talk about your 'tummy' and your 'waterworks', when really they're saying you've got prostate cancer. It's a leftover of the illness, that black and white are so close together." (Another consequence was a diary, to be published later this year.)

They returned to the States this Easter where, in something of a coup, film-maker Hal Hartley (Simple Men, Trust) directed their latest video - "though at first the music freaked him out, he's a Stones and Sonic Youth fan". Hartley enlisted actors from his next movie, and after the shoot dragged EBTG out for a few cliquey evenings. Watt: "I remember I'd been ten-pin bowling for about five minutes next to this little guy. I turned to him and said, 'So what's your name again?' Turned out he was Michael Almereyda [arthouse auteur of such gems as Another Girl, Another Planet]. That revolutionised his next strike."

As good as it evidently feels to be in with the in-crowd again, it's a feat achieved by copping something off the current vibe. Detractors will accuse EBTG of jumping on a useful bandwagon, but Watt won't have that: "We picked up on drum'n'bass and deep house because they felt right for our music. I like aspects of Detroit techno, there was just nothing I could do with it. Whereas when Massive called Tracey, I saw they were both dark, melancholy, blunted sounds ...

"A few years ago, NME asked us to fill in a questionnaire, and under Biggest Failing, I put 'insularity'. Which was true, but I was using it as a defence mechanism, saying, 'I know I'm insular and there's nothing I can do about it.' I was frightened of anything different at the time. But that way, we could've been a cabaret band by now. We could've crashed and burned."

As he pauses for a sip of water - one of the things he's allowed on his new, and lifelong, dietary vigil - light from outside glances on disturbingly prominent cheekbones. "Tommy Lipuma [producer of Miles Davis's Tutu] told me Davis used to call up when he heard a tune on the radio where the simplicity of the melody appealed to him. Two he picked up on were 'Perfect Way' by Scritti Politti and Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time' - I mean, you'd never twin Cyndi Lauper with Miles, but he'd heard something there he felt suited his sound. And, as soon as he recorded it, we all went, 'Of course!' That's what matching music's about."

Resilient, acerbic, a bit egotistical - Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, scorched but healing fast.

'Walking Wounded' (Virgin) is released on 13 May. EBTG tour the UK in June. Ben Watt's book, 'Patient' (Penguin), is published in September.