Roadburn Interview #1

by Keith Ingersoll

The exhaust from the expired end of his cigarette crashes so heavily into his end of the phone that had we not been separated by a continent, I might have waited till the smoke cleared to feel the weighty presence of one John McBain in my midst. McBain has paused again in our, as yet, brief conversation. He wants to make a point. He lights another cigarette butt and continues. It’s the umpteenth point he’s made in as many minutes, but like almost every other thing McBain – former lead guitarist for Monster Magnet, and now co-conspirator for the Wellwater Conspiracy – has said thus far, it’s laced with conviction and urgency.

I find his newest point quite interesting, perhaps even amusing. McBain wants to talk about
bass players and his problems with them. I am not one to argue with him – in general – but more specifically, on this point. He has dismissed another potential replacement for the group’s original bassist, Soundgarden’s Ben Shepherd, and wants to tell me all about it. “He just didn’t understand the role of being a bass player,” says McBain, of the aforementioned bassist. “You have to swallow your ego. I’m working on a whole grand theory of bass players. Think about all the bass players you know – they’re fucking insane. I think that it’s all those years of their ego having to be shelved, mixed in with the low frequencies (they play). They’re just some of the weirdest characters I’ve ever met in my life.”

A cabalistic conspiracy of the broadest sort among demented bassists could not thwart the neo-psychedelic rock flurry that is the Wellwater Conspiracy, and indeed, it has not; the group’s second album, Brotherhood of Electric: Operational Directive(s), was recently released on Time Bomb Recordings. God has sent the Wellwater Conspiracy here on a mission – to reinvigorate the spirit of experimental rock. McBain and co-pilot Matt Cameron, former drummer for Soundgarden, have followed His call; garagerock of the most divine sort pours from each track on the group’s latest opus. Influenced by mid to late ’60s pop bands like The Zombies and The Troggs, hard edges and funky guitars take these genuinely bizarre tracks over the top of “rock” (So says the group’s biography – who am I to argue?).”I think the approach with this album was, ‘Let’s make it the same but a sort of different kind of thing,'” says McBain. “To me, it sounds like the first record, but the fidelity is up a bit. We’re up fidelity-wise to about circa 1975. So, we’re actually getting up there; you can actually hear the kick drum a bit. “I’m just kind of getting a little bit more into song writing without getting too mathematical about it. I don’t want to just have to throw parts on it for the sake of having them on there. It always progresses. I don’t think my abilities have gotten better or anything – they’re just different.”

Slick rock curries no favor with the Wellwater Conspiracy; you will not have pleasure to feast your senses on rumbling bass lines or thundering drums on the group’s latest effort. The lo-fi aesthetic rules, says McBain, but within reason. “I can appreciate it (the lo-fi aesthetic) if it’s genuine, but I mean, it’s like you got the whole thing where people are trying to work the lo-fi thing into it,” he says. “I mean, there are people who can do it well; there are some moments where Beck tries to add the lo-fi touches but for the most part, it’s like, ‘No.’ “Once you get stuck in that whole lo-fi thing, man, you gotta keep doing it. Look at what happened to poor Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices vocalist). He got tired of not having his records played on the radio so he went and upped the ante a bit and they shot him down. It’s like, where is he now?”

To comprehend the Wellwater Conspiracy, it is entirely necessary to dispose of any preconceived notions towards the band. The Wellwater Conspiracy is not Monster Magnet. The Wellwater Conspiracy is not Soundgarden. Think more along the lines of The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, even Moby Grape.

“The sound of this record and the songs, and the way I wrote them, is just kind of a result of just years and years of being a record collecting geek,” says McBain. “It’s the end result of my way-too-big record collection that I have.

“I just pick stuff here and there; I hear a drum fill that I like or a little guitar part that I like or something like that, or a particular sound. So, it’s just kind of like little found things here and there. But it’s definitely got a, if anything, ’60s-ish sort of British base to it.”

British – as in Cream, Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin? Um, no. Haven’t we already established that the Wellwater Conspiracy isn’t Monster Magnet? Are you listening or what? “I like the pop stuff, I really do,” McBain says. “I mean, I love the stuff that goes on and on, but it’s those two-and-a-half minute pop songs that always get me. And they jump out, especially songs from that period (’60s). You listen to an oldies radio station and you’ll go through all the old Frankie Valli stuff. It’s totally genuine stuff. It comes from the songwriting and it just comes from the time where you didn’t have…you couldn’t overdub too much and you didn’t have much time in the studio so you had to know exactly what you were doing. And all that stuff was written for the radio so it had to be two minutes and 20 seconds long.”

This past year, McBain and Cameron began working on a follow-up to the band’s first album, Declaration of Conformity (Third Gear). The two went to Space Studio and Studio Litho in Seattle with Adam Kasper as producer. “We recorded a couple of songs, including the single that we did for Super Electro at Studio Litho,” McBain says. “Then we recorded the rest of the album at Soundgarden’s rehearsal space. Matt went out and bought an old
24-track machine that used to belong to the band Toto. They recorded all of their hits on it. So, yeah, we recorded on the same machine that ‘Rosanna’ and ‘Africa’ was on.” Guest musicians — Glenn Slater (The Walkabouts), Luke St. Kimble, Gerry Amandes, the Wardencliffe Trio – frequent the album, but it’s the presence of Josh Homme (ex-Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age) that should pique the interest of some in the hard rock set. McBain and Homme met and became friends during the recording sessions for the first two Desert Sessions albums, an ongoing set of jam, psych-esque recordings for Man’s Ruin Records featuring a revolving cast of musicians on each album. Homme plays bass on the new Wellwater Conspiracy album, and other minor instrumental parts.” Josh was in town, we finagled him into the studio, got him in and strapped a bass on him,” McBain says. “We showed him the songs and he recorded. He’s a great bassist.”

Homme’s capacity as bassist for the latest Wellwater sortie begs, of course, a simple question: Where thou is Ben Shepherd, the group’s original bassist and founding member? McBain, with heavy heart, says his friend is on hiatus from Wellwater for what McBain hopes will only be temporary. “Ben and I…I love that guy so much and he loves me so much, but we have a hard time working together because we know each other too well,” he says,sighing. “It’s like we know what we’re thinking, so we figured it would just be better to get away.

“He had done the whole Soundgarden thing and it was tough on him. It was like, I knew the day that he left that band he was gonna be dropped by like 90 percent of the people he considered friends. And it happened and it was hard on him to just transition things. That’s all he ever did was Soundgarden. So he just kind of went his way and dropped out of music for a while. But he’s back around and we’ll see. It’s a totally open thing. He could show up at any time and be back in the band as far as I’m concerned.”

Wellwater Conspiracy first came together in 1992, the product of a chance encounter between Cameron and McBain. Both of the duo’s ex-bands toured together that year, but not until 1993 would the two would unite in a musical project of their own, Hater (also featuring Soundgarden’s Ben Shepherd).

During the Hater sessions, McBain and Cameron discovered they both had a common interest: an appreciation for experimental recording. The two began a spontaneous writing collaboration in a makeshift eight-track studio, laying the tracks for what would become the Wellwater Conspiracy.

Following the band’s official organization in 1996, it released three 7″ singles on Super Electro (run by Mudhoney’s Steve Turner).

The group’s first album was also released that year on Third Gear Records. McBain explains why the new album is being released on Time Bomb Recordings.” Poor Third Gear was just my buddy Joe and he was doing everything,” he says. “He was just run guy running the whole label. Instead of dealing with him for everything, now we can deal with someone specifically.

“Time Bomb is a great label. It’s indie enough that we can stay involved and we don’t have to sign our lives away, but it’s also big enough that this record is actually going to be available in store.”

The band is in no hurry to sign with a bigger label, even in the face of several offers, according to McBain. He says he and Cameron would prefer to work on maintaining the group’s autonomy – both personal and creative – for the time being.” Two things I wanted to avoid was the big label thing ’cause they just won’t get it,” he says. “We’re gonna be one of a thousand bands, but the indie thing is just as deadly these days. It’s weird. We had a good relationship with Third Gear, but in general with the indie labels, there’s that attitude there.

“They’re kind of snobbish. When people pick up a record on an indie label they like, and then you jump and go to another label, they cut you loose. They’re done with you. It’s just ruthless right now, the whole indie thing. It’s like right now, the people who liked our first album, a lot of them are just waiting to turn on us. It’s like they’re almost hoping it’s going to be this overproduced, slick album.”

There’s more than one teenager who’ll admit to having his mind blown listening to Monster Magnet’s debut album, Spine of God for the first time. The problem, of course, is there probably aren’t numbers high enough – no pun intended — to log all of them.

If you’re familiar with the album, it will come as no surprise to you that John McBain is forever irreducibly linked with it. To be certain, he appeared on the band’s two previous releases – 1990’s Monster Magnet, and 1991’s Tab EP, both for Glitterhouse – but it’s on Spine of God he and the rest of the group arguably achieved their finest moments (Powertrip notwithstanding, but that is open to interpretation).

His persona forms the core of the album’s very fiber; from his face — hidden behind a pair of cheap sunglasses on the album’s inside cover, peering as he does into the lysergic netherworld — to his guitar work on reefer anthems like “Nod Scene” and “Black Mastermind.” It’s music of a time and tangent most at odds with the Wellwater Conspiracy. Or is it? “You know, after we’d rehearse, Dave (Wyndorf, Monster Magnet guitarist and vocalist) and I would go in the basement and then Tim (Cronin, Monster Magnet’s first drummer) would come down,” he says. “We’d have our other bands – our garage bands. We’d set up a four-track and record all the ’60s garage stuff.

“You can hear it (Wellwater Conspiracy) on the early Magnet stuff. There’s a lot of the garage stuff going on, but of course it filters through everyone else. It filters through Dave, and of course, he’s right there with me. But the way everyone plays it, by the end, it comes out something completely different. That was always the stuff I really liked.”

By his own estimation, McBain was a late bloomer musically. A native son of Allenhurst, New Jersey – not far from Monster Magnet’s home base of Red Bank – he attended a local college, Monmouth University. It was there, in the late ’80s, that he began playing music. “I never really had a band,” he says. “I just basically bought a guitar to play because there were buddies of mine who worked at the college radio station and they were all ‘real musicians.’ Great guys, we had some fun, and we did the whole thing where we’re gonna do this type of song, and then this kind of song. We never had an agenda.”

Experimentation, however, was in his blood. The Cool Beans tapes – a set of compilation tapes released locally without McBain’s permission in 1995 – are testament to that conviction. The tapes chronicle the fertile Jersey Shore rock scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but the four-track recordings of McBain and pal Tim Cronin clearly dominate most of the release. The tapes paint a picture of two guys who enjoyed making home recordings. While featured performing under a number of monikers, several songs recorded under three distinct names – Dog of Mystery, Love Monster, and Airport ’75 – later formed the basis of what became Monster Magnet. In its earliest days, circa 1988, Monster Magnet was McBain and Cronin. In 1989, local guy Dave Wyndorf (ex-Sharpnel) was asked to join. The band, McBain concedes, still had little focus; that was about to change. “We kept trying out bassists and none of them worked,” he says. “We went and saw Jon (Kleiman’s) band, The Watch Children, who were an excellent band. Once we got Jon and Joe in, that was it. We played the Brighton (Bar, music joint in Long Branch, NJ) and then Tim knew everyone up around New Brunswick and all that so we would get hooked up with shows. We started to get enough exposure so we could play at bigger places like Maxwells.”

These were Monster Magnet’s salad days, says McBain – a time of intense musical experimentation and, above all, good times. “That’s why Dave and I got along so well in the early days doing this stuff,” he says. “‘Cause we enjoyed it. It was not something obviously that the audience would catch on to all the time. I remember doing countless shows where by the time we were done, finishing up the set, there would be literally no one left. No one got it; the only people who got it were these old people who would be a bunch of freaks.”

By 1991, Monster Magnet was well on its way to success. The band had, by now, established its reputation as a total force to be reckoned with on the live stage. This writer recalls seeing the band for the first time in 1992 – May 8, to be exact, not that it left an impression or anything, right? — opening up for the late, great Soundgarden. It was an awe-inspiring performance – but McBain was no part of it. In April of that year, he left the band. Rumors as to why he departed have swirled like wildfire ever since; one says he left because of the old “creative differences” stand-by; another says he simply fell out of favor with the rest of the band. McBain sighs calmly. It’s obvious he’s heard the rumors many times before. He wants to set the record straight. He looks squarely at the band’s success and sees his own downfall.” I didn’t think we would get that big,” he says. “I
didn’t think it would get that big that quickly. As soon as we started playing like theater shows, I realized we had to up the ante a bit and put on more of a show. And I just wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t prepared.

“There was a period between 1989 and 1992 where I burnt every bridge that I had just because of insecurities. I was insecure about myself, uncomfortable with myself and the idea of being up onstage and being a guitar player and all that. I just didn’t know what to do. It was like, instead of trying to cope with it, I’m just going to distance myself from everybody. So, I was basically the biggest prick in the scene.”

McBain says, by nature, he’s a “solitary” person. By the time the prospect of touring with Soundgarden happened, he found himself in an unusual position. Disenchanted with road life, he withdrew from the rest of the band. “It was just a thing of me not being able to be around my band anymore,” he says. “And just trying to avoid them. Once I realized I was distancing myself from them, it was too late. I understand now. I just did not want to be in that band anymore. I did not want to be on the road; the whole road life was just not for me. It just got to me. It was too much, too quickly and I just kind of snapped.

“It had nothing to do with the music. I just didn’t want to play that kind of music anymore, but I didn’t realize it then. And it was like, I didn’t have the option I normally have of just going home and locking myself in my room and getting away from it for a while. I had to go out there every night. I saw those guys (Monster Magnet) every night and it was like, ‘These are my friends.’ After a point, I looked at them not as my friends. They represented
everything I wanted to get away from. And instead of taking it out on myself, I took it out on them.”

There is, thankfully, a cheerful ending to the whole story. McBain says he’s on good speaking terms with the band, even hanging out with them on their last foray through Seattle.” I went to the show, hung out with them on the bus and talked with them,” he says. “There’s no hard feelings at all. Any animosity that was there, it will never totally be gone and that’s fine, I can accept that. I think both sides of this thing just realized it was just a bad time.” The grand success of Powertrip has, by all accounts, taken Monster Magnet to an even greater plateau. The band has garnered the most acclaim, and by extension, a greater number of fans than at any time during its lengthy career. It’s also fostered detractors – those who’ve accused the band of “selling out.”

McBain hold his deadliest venom for that crowd. “The only thing that upsets me now is the way all these people who said they were fans of the band have just completely turned on them,” he says. “It’s like you can’t get on one of those stoner rock sites without countless things about, ‘Dave is a sell-out,’ and blah, blah, blah. It’s like, leave them alone. It’s music. It’s not astrophysics. It’s rock. Dave can do whatever he wants and that’s fine.

“It’s just all such bullshit. To sellout is to devote yourself, as I see it. It’s like you take this step and you say, ‘Ok, this isn’t just going to be a hobby. This is my job now.’ These people just want them to keep putting out the same sloppy record over and over again. They want to hear Superjudge and Spine of God over and over again. You just can’t do that and succeed.”

At the end of the day, the past is the past for McBain. The future is but one thing – the Wellwater Conspiracy. That’s the way he likes it; he says he and Cameron hope to solidify a line-up in anticipation of playing some higher profile shows this year. Like? Well, the College Music Journal (CMJ) Fest in New York for one, and he says, most likely the vaunted Terrastock Fest, to be held in London this year. Attend the shows, he says – just keep your mind open, ok? “We actually got a show opening up for Everclear at the Vancouver Hockey Arena,” McBain says. “We played there and it was like 10,000 little girls all screaming for Everclear. We were completely out of our element. Most people, of course, didn’t get I but we had the experience of playing on a big stage and I don’t think we’ll do that again, especially with the kind of stuff we’re doing. We don’t jump around and give devil signs and we don’t have pyrotechnics or any of that stuff.”