Wellwater Conspiracy: Riding High on Low Tide

by Jessica Letkemann for SPIN Online

What happens when the music industry is in a slump and proto-grunge musicians ex-Soundgarden/Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron and ex-Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain join forces? SPIN online’s Jessica Letkemann unearths the Conspiracy.

"We’re hacks," Matt Cameron says with a straight face. "We have no idea what we’re doing." He’s talking about his band Wellwater Conspiracy, but after he says that, he breaks down and laughs. This guy is earnest, to
be sure, but one listen to Wellwater’s new album, Brotherhood of Electric: Operational Directives, and there’s no way you could think that Cameron and bandmate John McBain are hacks. That’s the joke–Cameron and McBain absolutely know what they’re doing in terms of musicianship; it’s Wellwater’s willingness to break away from the three-and-a-half-minute, ready-for-modern-rock-radio cookie cutter that has a refreshing air of exploration.

Which is fitting, considering that these two seem not only passionate about music, but realistic. Open to new approaches, but aware of the clich├ęs. Matt Cameron, who spoke from Wellwater’s Seattle studio, was very friendly, but please hold the dumb-drummer stereotypes. You may be ready to cringe when you hear he’s Wellwater’s main singer and lyricist, but his words are nimble, economic thoughts ("keep the pace you can’t handle," "just to the right of left field") and he’s got a surprisingly pleasing, understated singing voice. Ex-Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain, who was funny and enthused even though he was home with the flu, is WWC’s strictly instrumental man.

Brotherhood of Electric is an opus of sorts, a huge sprawling record that swirls and grinds, and totally rocks. "B.O.U" (which McBain explains means "Bordering On Unacceptable") is a perfect example of the eclectic crunch. "We are trying to help create the new rock," Matt says, "as well as having it still come from a place of innocence and wonder." Sonically, this translates into what Matt calls a ’68 sound–shades of seminal, less noted late ’60s garage rock and psychedelia. But there’s something far less constrained by time about many of the songs; "Born With A Tail" has synths and harmonics reminiscent of the Beatles’ "Because" but is too forward to really be mistaken for something 30 years old. And in addition to all that, if you listen very closely, if you give the album some time, layers of sound reveal themselves: bits and pieces of reality (chairs scraping floors, people talking) and ingeniously submerged rhythms and instruments.

But what stands out the most here is rock ‘n’ roll. Not the tired, processed, formulaic, ear candy that most popular rock is now, but rock–primal and body- moving–through and through. No mistaking it. It shouldn’t be surprising because, having drummed for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, Matt knows about that intimately. Of Soundgarden’s 1997 break-up, which ended his 11-year stint with them, Matt says: "I knew I wanted to make another Wellwater record, but I didn’t really expect to go join another band. I’m hopefully learning things from playing with a lot of different people now. I’m trying to keep myself open for whatever situation comes my way. I’m a freelancer."

One of those situations cropped up last summer when Matt manned the kit for Pearl Jam’s 47-date U.S. tour after their regular skinsman Jack Irons bowed out due to health concerns. When the subject comes up, Matt speaks enthusiastically. "It was a blast. They made me feel really welcome. They had a good crowd–people so happy to see Pearl Jam play live they were going apeshit. It was pretty interesting to witness how much their crowd loved them. In Soundgarden, we
definitely had our loyal fan base, but it was never that big. It’s a whole different league." A side benefit of playing that tour was the many legendary opening acts. Matt doesn’t hesitate for a second in naming his favorites: Cheap Trick ("they’re the four kings of rock!") and X. But he mentions Iggy Pop’s power of presence. "Iggy was cool to behold. He was complete royalty, that guy, but he’s short. He’s got the same kind of compact, muscular, small-dude thing Eddie [Vedder] has going on."

While he has not officially joined the band, Matt’s drumming appears on Pearl Jam’s recent live album, Live On Two Legs, and their fan club Christmas single (both of which were recorded during the tour). He is also slated to go into the studio with them next month. The idea of Seattle’s bands being very incestuous is alive and well, especially when you consider Matt was the drummer on the very earliest pre-Eddie Pearl Jam demos, as well as Temple of the Dog and Soundgarden. Wellwater is no exception. Ex-Kyuss guitarist Josh Homme, who was briefly WWC’s bassist after he finished a tour with Screaming Trees in 1997, sings on a handful of Brotherhood of Electric’s songs. Homme currently fronts the dirge-rock groovalicious Queens of the Stone Age (who are, incidentally, on Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s Loosegroove Records). "I think Josh and I’s [sic] styles are pretty similar," John McBain mused. "Though, he’s more on the metal side, and I’m more on the psychedelic side. Working with him was a lot of fun. It was natural."

John McBain sees WWC this way: "It’s cryptic in that it’s about not trying to be a band per se. WWC is an entity and every once in a while we release a record. We wanted to avoid all of the trappings of being in a band. The industry wants to slap leather pants on you and make you wear those ridiculous orange tinted glasses. Matt and I had done that to a degree with our previous bands. WWC was a reaction. We just wanted to start all over."

"The music industry ebbs and flows. It’s at low tide now," Matt says. Hmm, just like ten years ago when hair metal ruled the charts? Matt laughs, and responds, "My fondest memories in Soundgarden were the early days [in the late 1980s] when we played CBGB’s, The Metro in Chicago, St. Andrews in Detroit…" All of the small venues bands play when they’re not necessarily playing the kind of rock that’s on the radio. On WWC, Matt concludes: "John and I have our own little warped view of what making music should be. It doesn’t always fit in with everyone. We were able to go off in some interesting directions. Hopefully we can continue to do that."