Husband, father, coffee shop owner, armchair pitching coach, and, perhaps, one day, public official—these are the roles filled by songwriter Colin Gawel ever since the once nonstop machine of Watershed decided to take a well-deserved hiatus. Since then, he has made an emotional fortune in domesticity.
Yet, as busy as the family life may be, Gawel hasn’t given up on his eternal quest for rock stardom. He’s spent three decades cultivating that persona, but for the last six years he’s done it mostly alone, writing songs when he can and assembling bands made up of friends gathered along the way. Those results appear on this month’s release of Superior: The Best of Colin Gawel.
The album isn’t so much a “greatest hits” package, as much as it is a collection of snapshots from various sessions, single releases, and digital EPs. A good half of Superior was recorded alongside the Lonely Bones, a crack staff of musicians Gawel formed in the void of Watershed, while the other half features a variety of notable players who were in the “right place at the right time.” The hooks and melodies one would expect on a Watershed album remain, but there’s certainly been a mellowing out for the songwriter, and Superior boasts what Gawel contends is a rootsier, more reflective side of himself.
Still, that doesn’t mean Gawel has given up on any of those dreams—he’s just channeled his creative efforts into myriad other “pet” projects, be it the Buckeye-themed punk of the Dead Schembechlers, who just released the mocking “Harbaugh to Hell” (“Michigan hates it more than Ohio loves it”), his popular culture blog Pencilstorm.com discusses Reds baseball and Kiss with equal aplomb, or his Cheap Trick cover band, Why Isn’t Cheap Trick in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?, the publicity for which may or may not have influenced the Rockford, Illinois power-pop legends recent HOF nomination. It’s really all in day’s work for Gawel.
The tales from the ’90s in Columbus are always a topic of contention or introspection. From your perspective, was it as magical as it is remembered? I was aware that there were a lot of great bands playing all the time. I was in the moment. When we were coming up there was the RC Mob and the Toll, and they were from two different camps. But those bands eventually went away and in came the Haynes Boys, Scrawl, and New Bomb Turks—there was Willie Phoenix and of course, Gaunt. I’m sure I’m forgetting a ton of other bands. For us, it was just every weekend there were good bands playing. You’d go to Stache’s and there would always be a good show from a local band. Like Greenhorn. F**k, Greenhorn was awesome.
Well, where do you think that Watershed fit in that mythology? We weren’t as good at that time. We were a little young and a little green. We weren’t punk enough to be punk, jam enough to be a jam band, or frat enough to be frat. We never had a readymade crowd. We would just take any gigs we could get and promote our own thing. We tried to play out of town. We had our own insular unit. So I kind of don’t know where we fit? But one thing is that we would actively see everybody, all the time. For better or for worse, you would see those guys out at the bars. We made a conscious effort not to confine ourselves into one little niche.
…our talk veers into a lengthy timeline of Watershed through the band’s mistakes and triumphs. There was the quick deal with Epic Records in 1995, the resurgence with their 2002 album, The More It Hurts, The More It Works, and the recent success of guitarist Joe Oestreich’s book about that journey, Hitless Wonder.
Watershed indeed survived those days, so what prompted the release of this “best of” your solo songs, the Superior album? There was one day when Joe decided to move out of town and get a real job. I understood. I would have preferred to keep the band together, but I knew that was not reality. Around that time Mike Landolt moved to town and that was a blessing. He was legit and he did a lot of front-of-the-house work for the Goo Goo Dolls and the Replacements, so he was talented. He started moving his gear here from L.A. and eventually found a studio. We started doing songs together, but put them out as singles, as they came. This was 2009, and you have to think about how you are going to put out a record. There’s no reason to think about how you’re going to put out a full record when you can do an EP today. We did “Words We Say” and the Chemotherapy EP and I realized that these were things I could never do with Watershed. No one was out to get rich from this. After a while though, we saw there was enough there to do a full record.
If you had to define what separates these songs from what you would do on a Watershed record, how would you do that? Garageband is a crazy thing. I’m always motivated to some degree, but there’s only so much creative time in the day. What I try to do, is, in moments, is always put an idea down. I sing it on my phone. Basically I’ll assemble things, and every once in a while it will just come. “Superior” was a song like that. Whereas the line in “Chemotherapy” I’ve had for 10 years and one day I just had to push it and finish it. I try to write about where I’m at now. It doesn’t matter where you write that, as long as you write about that moment, it makes it valid forever. Some of them hit a little too close to home, so they wouldn’t end up on a Watershed record.
You also recently wrote a lot of songs for the latest Erica Blinn album. Is that something you’d like to do for other musicians? If I were smart I would do it more, but it’s just not genuine to me. Erica is genuine—she’s the real deal. I’m really proud of that record. She’s a natural… I felt good about the album and was happy to help, but I’m not here to manage careers. I liked the idea of helping get that going.
What has kept you here all of these years? What is it about Columbus music that keeps you involved? Well I’m definitely not up on the latest bands, but for me it has always been such a great scene. There are so many places to play now that it’s shocking. Who’s going to all of these shows? We are a creative city. From a rock viewpoint, it’s the geography of Columbus that creates the sound. We are basically north, but just enough West Virginia to make it edgy and uncommercial. Columbus is never going to be Husker Du and we are never going to be Widespread Panic.
Colin Gawel will celebrate the release of Superior December 23 at Woodlands Tavern (1200 W Third Ave). For more, visit music.colingawel.com.