Former members of Monster Magnet and Soundgarden make noise on the five year plan.
By Grant Alden
John McBain is half a day late picking up the phone, but he’s got a good excuse: something about a 4.0 earthquake — just enough on the Richter scale to rattle the teacups, really — out on Bainbridge Island, where he lives. Which is a short ferry boat ride from the Seattle rehearsal studio where the Wellwater Conspiracy…well, conspire.
Conspire? No, that’s far too active a verb. McBain, Matt Cameron, and Ben Shepherd make up the biggest manana cabal this side of a Mack Sennet silent movie, so it’s little short of a miracle that their 14-song debut, Declaration of Conformity, is finally out in the world. They only started working on it five years ago.
They’ve got good excuses for that indolence, naturally. Not the least of which is they weren’t on a deadline and the whole point was to have fun. Other projects have required more urgent care, and two or three Wellwater singles did slip out (courtesy of Steve “Mudhoney” Turner’s Super Electro label.) The trio, augmented by a handful of other native talent, also released the self-titled Hater CD in 1993, and claim to have nearly completed a second. (“I think we’re planning to finish it up tomorrow,” McBain says. “Oh, are we?” Cameron replies in bland disbelief.)
Besides, Cameron and Shepherd have also been a trifle busy with their principal — or at least more public– band, writing and performing as Soundgarden’s rhythm section, which will explain why they’re cloaked as “Ted Dameron” and “Zeb” for this outing. (Soundgarden has gone the way of the Dodo, but they’re still busy; Shepherd is now playing bass in Devilhead.)
[my note here: we now know that he has not become a permanent member, to say nothing of the fact that he was playing guitar with them, not bass]
Declaration of Conformity sounds nothing like Soundgarden. Nothing. Nor does it sound like McBain’s previous band, Monster Magnet, who opened for Soundgarden back in ’92. McBain was canned after that tour, Shepherd invited him out to Bainbridge a few months later, and he’s never quite left the Northwest.
“It’s been a five-year project for one of the noisiest CDs you’ll ever hear in your life,” Cameron says, absently plucking at a guitar in the background.
“Whenever you weren’t in Prague,” McBain answers.
“Whenever the throes of rock stardom weren’t knocking, we were in here,” Cameron chuckles.
Noise as in analog noise. Tape noise. Background noise. Not the noise of avant-jazz auteurs, but messy kinds of vinyl sounds that nobody today would intentionally allow to leak into the digital domain of compact discs. It lends a wonderful kind of 60’s garage psychedelia to the vaguely pop proceedings, and that’s only partly from following function.
“Everybody contributes,” McBain says. “Basically I’ll come in with a guitar idea, and most of the stuff we just did live. Then I’d leave the tape and a couple months later, when Matt had a chance to get around to putting the vocals on it, he would. Same with Ben. We had some problems with Ben because I couldn’t get our schedules to sync up. On ‘Trowerchord’, Matt gave him a two-track cassette mix-down of it. Ben put it in his four-track, put two tracks of vocals on it, and then said, ‘That was it, it’s done.’ So I had to take the cassette machine and sync it up with the half-inch eight-track, and do it line by line. It took two or three days.”
“And there’s the noise,” Matt says, quite happily.
“Well, we did it completely wrong, basically,” says McBain. “And that’s why it took five years to do.”
That’s right, Matt the drummer and Ben the bass player sing. They do that in Hater, too. Indeed, the functional difference between Wellwater and Hater boils down to who sings most of the lead vocals. Although Hater have played a few Wellwater songs during recent shows… (“We don’t want to cross-pollinate too much,” Cameron says.) Anyway, Hater tends to a more refined sound, and Shepherd does write most of those songs. Either way, both prove to be first-rate singers and both take their cues not from punk or metal, but from 60’s pop.
Which leads back to the noise factor. Actually, it’s kind of a Japanese noise Wellwater are about. Two of the disc’s three covers arrive courtesy the Carnabeats and the Spiders. (The third, “Lucy Leave,” comes via Syd Barrett.) “Those songs came off a really, really cool Japanese garage rock collection that I picked up a couple years ago,” McBain says. “It’s absolutely one of the most hilarious things you’ll ever hear in your life, and those were the two best songs on it.”
“I just wrote the lyrics down phonetically,” Cameron says. “I hope we’re not insulting anybody. If there are any curse words, let me know.”
“Before we end,” McBain says, “I’d like to mention that my Tesla-powered earthquake generator was a success. I was off by a day…
“I’m planning another one in 127 days, so mark that down on your calendar. Today was just a test.” That would be October 28, for those living in the Northwest, though punctuality is hardly a Wellwater virtue.