The Band that Wouldn't Quit
A new chapter forms in the annals of Columbus’ power pop warriors
By Travis HoewischerPublished June 1, 2012
Watershed didn’t make any Robert Johnson-like deal with the devil.
One of the most successful Columbus bands got their big break the old-fashioned way: by writing catchy songs, touring their tits off, and playing every show as if they were the biggest goddamn band in the world.
But rock and roll, as we all know, is the devil’s music, and the architects of rock and roll dreams are equally fiendish. Almost as soon as the band signed their major label contract with Epic Records in the mid-90s, it was torched with the ink barely dry.
Today, it would seem as if Watershed has worked the road for more than 20 years just to have an eight-month courtship with the opportunity of a lifetime.
But, in lead singer Joe Oestreich’s new book, Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll, there is no woe-is-us vitriol toward the music industry that wooed and then shooed the once-upstarts. The current creative writing professor has woven a clever and poignant portrait of five men, a van and a handful of power chords, and how they found honor and meaning in becoming the band that just wouldn’t quit.
This month, they kick off a new tour in support of the first Watershed album in seven years, Brick and Mortar, a potentially terrifying prospect for a band full of 40-year-old rockers whose flirtation with greatness happened so long ago. Not for Watershed, though. I mean, they once opened for ICP. What’s a new tour compared to slogging through two months of Faygo-soaked stonings? Oestreich plugged in with (614) to talk writing, rocking and chasing the major label dream with his best friend, guitar player Colin Gawel.
The book moves to a sort of natural, albeit open ending, with Watershed shrugging their shoulders and finishing out what could be one last tour. Now, you’re firing up for another. How do you guys find the energy to keep doing it?
It does take a lot of energy. But, it also takes more energy to not get beaten down, than it does to just give in. But, yeah, we’re this close to saying, ‘f*ck it’ every day.
What’s worse in your mind: never getting your big break, or having it snatched from you after such a brief courtship?
The hardest part, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was when we were dropped by Epic. That’s the moment when almost every band breaks up. I mean, you’ve set up your whole life chasing the dream and getting that dream feels like such fulfillment. To lose that … for most bands, they can’t survive. It’s such a crushing blow. But never having gotten it would have been worse. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t everything we thought it would be, but it was still pretty great. For two years, I didn’t have a real job.
To spend the better part of two decades essentially living in vans and hotels has to be so surreal.
It’s not like real life. Even if you’re Puff Daddy – it’s just so bizarre. There’s so many bands we’ve played with, that weren’t even huge, like The Smithereens – when they go out on the road, it’s like stepping into a phone booth. They leave New Jersey as mild-mannered husbands and fathers and then get on the tour bus and it’s a martini in one hand and a cigar in the other. Here’s the thing: in real life, you can’t indulge in your most child-like, selfish behaviors. On the road, you can.
The book brings so much detail to light about what 20 years in Watershed has been like. Was it hard to be in the band, while also writing about the band?
The writing and the music don’t always mix. One of the hardest parts for Watershed was when I started taking the time off to write this book. The working title for a long time, in my head, was The Book That Killed My Band. (laughs).
Was there ever any worry about printing too much about this very insular, private thing that you share with your bandmates?
I was really trying hard to really tell the truth. I was confident the truth wouldn’t make anyone look too bad – or too good (laughs).
One of the most impactful moments in the book is in the beginning when your wife stings you with, ‘No one gives a shit about a Watershed tour – except Watershed.’ You thank her in the intro for “living this twice.” How does that play when you’re back on tour once again?
Haha, yeah, she has had to live it three times. And we just had a baby! It’s gonna be difficult. For the month of June, she’ll be here at home with a two-and-a-half-year-old and a seven-week-old … AND she’ll be teaching. It’s that kind of thing that’s difficult for our families and us. I really wanted to capture that in the book. You hear platitudes all the time, like ‘Never stop following your dreams.’ But you must realize there is a price to pay; there is a cost for following your dreams into middle age.
It’s a bit of a gamble, wouldn’t you say?
I think we all are gambling. What we try to do now is really make it count, book the shows that are gonna be worth the extent of leaving home. That’s what we try to do; it’s not always successful. There is this really interesting thing that happens: all rock and roll wives, or anyone who loves someone in a band – they love you because you’re in a band. By the time you’re 35, it’s the reason why they hate you. They’re like, ‘Why can’t you go and get a job like everyone else now?’ That’s why I hope this isn’t just a book for rock and roll bands, but that anyone working behind a desk, in a cubicle, can relate to this.
Now that it’s time to roll out the publicity machine, how do you feel about the book?
This book went through a whole bunch of drafts, and the more times I went through it, the more I started to hate it a little bit. But I started to love the band. By the end, I was like, ‘You know what? Everyone says we should be proud of what we have done.’ By the end, I really believed that. ‘Everyone gives up,’ I thought, ‘But, we didn’t. Good for us.’ The thing is, once we become known as the band that won’t quit, we can’t quit. Will that be a pain in the ass? Yeah. But, I remember 20 years ago, people were reaming the Rolling Stones – even then – for being old and still out there. Colin said, ‘Who says rock and roll has to be young?’ Pretty soon, everyone gets old. Rock and roll has now become an old man’s game. We’re just growing into it now.
Colin convinced you to start a band when you were 13, on a COTA bus, riding home from a Cheap Trick concert. Is it still Colin that convinces you, at times, to keep Watershed going?
No doubt, Colin is the tent pole that holds up the whole thing – by the sheer force of his whole personality. Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Man, why are we still doing this? Is this worth it when we’re sitting here playing for 20 people on a Tuesday night? The sheer force of Colin’s optimism will beat me down. Soon, I’ll be like, ‘Yeah! F*ck it! This is it. This is great.’
Is there still hope for something to happen on these tours that gives you guys another shot at the quote-unquote big time?
The logical side of us says we’re just gonna go out and play these shows and play in front of our fans. But somewhere, deep down inside, are we hoping somehow that some kind of break happens? I think so. Maybe that’s pathetic, but I think that’s honest. Everybody wants that.
You throw a lot of credit to Andyman and CD101 for pumping Watershed when no one else really was. Was it safe to say Andy was the band’s biggest supporter?
Whether you knew him or not, Andy Davis was the trunk of the Columbus music family tree. He and CD101, they were our biggest backers. But, the reason why it mattered so much, was not because he just played Watershed, but because he took a bunch of local bands, like Miranda Sound and Earwig, and played all of us, right alongside U2 and Green Day everybody else. It gave bands like us legitimacy, to the extent that we still have a huge good following in Columbus. A huge debt for that is paid to CD101 and Andy.
We can’t leave this interview without touching on one of the best chapters of the book, and of the overall Watershed saga – your tour supporting the Insane Clown Posse.
Like so many things in the Watershed story, it’s about the mindset. Objectively, it was probably one of the worst ideas ever. You’re playing in front of 32,000 13-year-olds and you’re the one thing standing in the way of their beloved clowns. What they want to do is get you the heck out of there, and that means throwing stuff – shoes, batteries, quarters. On one hand, it was terrible; on the other, it was a f*cking blast. It was so different than our usual gigs … plus, there’s only so much fear you can work up towards kids getting dropped off by their moms in minivans. They’re just little punks. Once we embraced the ridiculousness of the whole thing, it became really fun. One show, in Louisville, the kids actually loved us. Here’s what happened: the night before in Milwaukee, I broke one of Colin’s guitars. Now, we only had one. Colin said, ‘If I break a string tonight, it’s over; I’m not changing a string in front of 10,000 juggalos.’ Second song, Colin breaks two strings. Just about the time the full-on ICP hatred is about to go into effect, we say, ‘Thank you! Good night!’ A two-song set. They went nuts. They loved us.
Watershed will kick off their latest tour June 8th at The Bluestone, 583 E Broad St. Copies of Brick and Mortar and Hitless Wonder will be available for sale. For more information, visit www.liveatthebluestone.com or www.watershedcentral.com.