Conspiracy Theory

by Paul Fontana for Seattle Weekly

Ex-Soundgarden and Monster Magnet members flaunt their love of garage rock.

I don’t say so, of course, but immediately upon arriving for my interview with the Wellwater Conspiracy at Space Studios I’m overcome with jealousy. The studio is minutes from downtown but so inconspicuous that it feels like a secret hideaway. I’m greeted at the door by Chuck, a big friendly dog, and led into a room with a drum kit, a mess of keyboards (not fancy new ones but cool, well-worn vintage types), and a few guitars. There’s a cozy corner for lounging, with a view of Lake Union. This is the kind of place I should be spending all my afternoons, I think. If only my parents had let me have those drums instead of that damn trumpet when I was 10, maybe I would be.

I get the feeling that Wellwater’s principals, Matt Cameron and John McBain, also know that they’re in a pretty cool place–literally and figuratively. McBain was a founding member of Monster Magnet and Cameron a longtime member of Soundgarden. For the past couple of years, Cameron’s had the enviable task of drumming for Pearl Jam. Being in the Wellwater Conspiracy, though, might be the best gig of all. “This project is a lot of fun,” notes Cameron. “We’re not doing it to become rich and famous, because it’s just not going to happen.” Like fellow grunge stalwarts Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney–who’ve been satisfying their own ’60s garage rock cravings with Monkeywrench–Cameron and McBain are more than happy to get back to basics. “The Monkeywrench guys and us are in the same boat in that we all really like playing music. That was our original reason for starting bands, and that’s never changed.”

Cameron and McBain first worked together in 1993 for the Hater project with Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepard (also a Wellwater contributor) and have been playing together with increasing frequency over the last few years. They released Wellwater Conspiracy records in 1997 and 1999, but their just-released The Scroll and Its Combinations (TVT) is a different sort of record.

First off, it’s really good. That’s not to say that the others weren’t, but Scroll has a coherence that doesn’t smack of side project status. It does, however, reveal a lot about their record collections. Psychedelic and garage influences abound. Says the particularly encyclopedic McBain (Cameron jokes about him being able to stump the famously knowledgeable staff at N.Y.C.’s record mecca Other Music), “During the late ’80s and early ’90s, I bought every garage-psych compilation I could find.” One of his discoveries was Q65, a Dutch garage outfit whose “I Got Nightmares” is splendidly covered on Scroll. The Wellwater album also features an even more obscure cover of a 1969 Steve Morgan song, “Of Dreams.” Originals like the swirling “What Becomes of the Clock,” the fuzzy “Brotherhood of Electric,” and the loopy “Keppy’s Lament” show off the more psychedelic bent. “Tick Tock 3 O’Clock” sounds especially Brit-flavored and even a tad twee–something that probably couldn’t be said of any of the music for which the two are better known.

Those only familiar with the more famous bands with which the two have been associated certainly aren’t left out in the cold, though. “C, Myself and Eye” sounds an awful lot like a Soundgarden track (Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil happens to guest on the song). Wes C. Addle (a.k.a. Eddie Vedder) handles the vocals on “Felicity’s Surprise,” and turns in a melodic performance that will surely appeal to Pearl Jam fans and surprise some nonfans too. Despite the desire to be judged on the merits of their new work, Cameron and McBain have no qualms about keeping ties to their famous mates. To them it’s still just having fun with some friends. “And besides, it’s not like we’re totally ashamed of our past,” says Cameron. “We’ve been in really good bands . . . there are Soundgarden and now Pearl Jam fans that are attracted to us, but a lot of them end up liking what we do anyway.”

And many more people will get the chance to like them, too. Cameron and McBain will head out on a short tour this summer–with Jack Endino on bass and the Walkabouts’ Glenn Slater on keyboards–and are already eight songs into their next album. There’ll be more cool covers (they’ve already recorded a song by ’60s mod greats the Move) and special guests. They’re “not at liberty to say” who those might be at this time; McBain jokes (or is it wishful thinking?) about getting David Lee Roth. Whoever they get and when it comes out doesn’t seem to matter much, though, because there’ll be plenty more fun-filled afternoons banging out tunes in the hideout with their buddies and good ol’ Chuck in the meantime.

Goddamn trumpet.