by Joe Ehrbar for The Rocket: May 12, 1999
Music journalists love to shine the light on new or previously obscure bands. Their paychecks depend on it. After all, it’s a trend-driven business and if a music writer is to stay ahead of the curve, they must continually seek out ripening talent.
But what if the band isn’t so eager for the exposure?
Such could be said for Seattle’s modern psych-healers Wellwater Conspiracy, who have long been among the Northwest’s most promising bands, but have also been one of its most invisible. Since forming in 1992, the troupe’s movements have been more covert than a CIA’s spy. It’s true Wellwater Conspiracy’s public performances can be counted on one hand. Their early 7-inches are out of print and their 1997 debut album, Declaration of Conformity (Third Gear/Super Electro), is nearly impossible to find.
And until the release of their latest album, Brotherhood of Electric: Operational Directives (released two months ago), the band’s members had concealed their identities.
Wellwater Conspiracy had legitimate cause for staying underground. Co-conspirators Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd constituted the rhythm section of Soundgarden and John McBain was an alumni of Monster Magnet. Not wanting to be marginalized or dismissed as a side-project curiosity, the last thing the wanted was for people to focus on the personnel issue, so they kept things low-key and anonymous, even if it means that very few people might hear the band. In addition, until 1997, Cameron and Shepherd were still under contract with Soundgarden’s label A&M. The fact that none of the band’s initial recordings appeared on A&M could have caused some legal complications.
But now, in 1999, having struck a deal with the major label-distributed Time Bomb Records, Wellwater Conspiracy, presently a duo of Cameron (vocals, guitars, drums) and McBain (guitars), seem more willing to reveal themselves to a wider audience. As they should, as their sophomore album, Brotherhood of Electric, is nothing short of magnificent.
By comparison, Wellwater Conspiracy share few commonalities with Soundgarden, Monster Magnet, or even Pearl Jam (for whom Cameron now plays drums), other than having a penchant for riff-based songs. Wellwater’s music is of a different dichotomy, stemming from lo-fi basement musing, 4-track experimentations and the 1960s, as evidenced by their latest studio endeavor.
On the majestic and sprawling Brotherhood of Electric, washes of atmosphere psychedelia drift like tumble weeds over a sandy, sun-baked terrain of desert (not “stoner”) rock. Just like the greatest psych bands, Wellwater Conspiracy waste no time setting a mood and whisking the listener off on a sonic journey colored with sweetly crooned vocals (courtesy of Cameron), the occasional lazy rhythm, a haze of keyboard melodies and a whirlpool of studio effects. Featuring guests such as Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme (with whom McBain collaborates on the acclaimed studio project Desert Sessions) and Cameron’s wife, violinist April, Brotherhood of Electric rocks when it must and retains just enough urgency (with “Compellor,” “Destination 7” and “Good Pushin”) to push the listener along.
Brotherhood of Electric is an album worth celebrating and on the eve of its release, The Rocket managed to talk Cameron and McBain to come out of hiding and sit down for an interview at Seattle’s Sit & Spin.
The Rocket: How did Wellwater Conspiracy come to be?
John McBain: I met Matt on the road when we toured with Soundgarden in 1992.
Matt Cameron: We started 4-tracking together at my house in ’92. We’d write things, record them, just mess around. Lo and behold, we amassed a collection of songs that sounded like something that resembled a record.
McBain: It was after I had moved from New Jersey. It actually started with a single. I gave a tape to Steve Turner and I must have pressured him in some way to put it out because he was kind of wary about it. But it did well.
Rocket: Declaration of Conformity just sort of turned up with no fanfare. Did anyone even know about it, much less buy it?
Cameron: Yeah, it did all right. It sold between 4,000 and 5,000 copies.
Rocket: Was releasing your first album independently a much more inviting proposition than shopping it to big labels?
Cameron: It’s not a shoppable record at all. It’s got tons of 4-track cassette noise. It sounds really bad.
McBain: The fact that it came out sounding so bad made it authentic in a way.
Rocket: It sounds like a lo-fi/garage psychedelic record. It sounds the way it ought to.
McBain: We did it in what, a half-hour at your [Cameron’s] basement?
Cameron: pretty much. I didn’t know how to work my soundboard [at the time], so mixes ended up being in mono.
Rocket: Who was involved in the making of Declaration?
Cameron: John pretty much recorded everything. I sang on some of the stuff. And then we gave Ben some cassettes so that he could do it on his 4-track. That was pretty much it. It was just the three of us.
Rocket: had you always been able to sing?
Cameron: Yeah, I guess so. I never sang lead in a band other than like cover bands when I lived in San Diego. I guess I’ve always sang, just for the hell of it. I sang “The Sound of Silence” in high school. It was a duet with this girl I had a crush on. And then she saw me at a party later on and I was really stoned, and she had nothing to do with me after that. Yeah, I guess I’ve always kind of crooned.
McBain: Someone’s got to. Lord knows I won’t.
Rocket: When you started this band, was it your M.O. to have this loose, pseudo-experimental nature about the band?
Cameron: We got wider tape now to use – we just got a 24 track machine. We try to record fast to get the essence of the song on tape. A lot of times, when you make records…like, over there [Cameron points across the street to the space that was once Bad Animals, where Soundgarden recorded their 1994 album Superunknown], you gotta have a producer, you have to do demos, you have to work the songs to where there’s no life left in the recordings.
Rocket: So is Wellwater Conspiracy your reaction to that process?
Cameron: No, it’s not a reaction, it’s just a different way of approaching it.
McBain: It’s not wanting to do it the usual ay. I think the secret goal is to avoid getting caught in the hamster wheel and going through the process.
Cameron: When we did Superunknown over there, it was that whole process of like a big-time producer. We did rehearsals. We did demos. We went through all this rigmarole. for some bands, you gotta do that. For me and John, we know how to write and arrange. We can forgo that whole process.
McBain: There’s no egos. There’s no frontman. It’s the way to go.
Rocket: But you are the lead singer, Matt.
Cameron: Sort of. I don’t really look at it that way.
McBain: If you listen to the way we mix the vocals, they’re [mixed into the music so that they’re] just another part of the song. I like that approach.
Cameron: Most of the time they’re in the music as opposed to being all you hear and then there’s this background music. But on Brotherhood of Electric, we also have Josh [Homme] singing and my friend, Luke [St. Kimble], sang on one song. It’s kind of the same approach as the last one-we had two singers. But Josh’s vocals and my vocals are a little more similar than Ben and myself. Ben just has this unique, singular style that I haven’t heard in a long time.
Rocket: Where was Shepherd for Brotherhood of Electric?
Cameron: I don’t think it was the kind of project that he was really into. He likes to have control of the whole environment. He’s got a lot of his own songs and a lot of talent. We just kind of started on our own and we had no problems doing it ourselves.
Rocket: Will Wellwater Conspiracy ever play live?
Cameron: We’re working on the right now. We’ve had some offers for summer and fall to play Europe, so we’re trying to get a band together.
McBain: We just want to be careful about not getting into that overkill situation. It seems like bands who come out of Seattle or the area plaster themselves everywhere. We don’t want that.
Rocket: So you prefer to remain anonymous?
McBain: Exactly. That’s what we want.
Rocket: Even if no one pays attention? The first album drew almost no fanfare, aside from garnering a short feature in Magnet.
Cameron: We had a lot of interest in Detroit, Chicago, New York and the U.K. But here if you don’t play live, people don’t really connect with you.
McBain: Not that it’s bad, but it’s the baggage that we brought with the band. We don’t want people to look at it and go, “Oh, those guys and that guy-whatever.” I’m sure that’s why people brushed aside the first record, because they had other ideas of what it would be like. That’s why leaving it anonymous has really helped.
Rocket: Time Bomb doesn’t want the band to be anonymous. On the bio, it explicitly says, “Matt Cameron formerly of Soundgarden” and “John McBain formerly of Monster
Magnet.” The label makes it a selling point.
McBain: It was through knowing Jim Guerinot, who is head of Time Bomb. He was with A&M and worked with Soundgarden. We sort of shopped it to a couple of different labels and no one was really interested. We had a few people telling us, “You should try shopping it at a major, man.” And I’m glad we didn’t because it would have been lost. A&M
passed on it anyway.
Cameron: We like that fact that there’s a good Internet buzz about it.
McBain: We get a lot of messages.
Rocket: So Wellwater Conspiracy have some fanatical fans.
Cameron: All 19 of them, to be exact.