We all know what happens when rock stars splinter off from their main gigs and record albums with other rockers. Sometimes the music is enjoyable, occasionally itâ€™s flecked with brilliance, but all too often it sounds too similar to the outfits the musicians started out in. Enter Wellwater Conspiracy, whose third album The Scroll and Itâ€™s Combinations shatters the supergroup mold.
The band features ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Monster Magnet founding member John McBain, but its music is anything but angst-inflated, distortion-drenched arena rock. Instead, Wellwater Conspiracy creates evocative, tumbling psychedelia that echoes with spontaneity and innovation, recalling such influential outfits as the 13th Floor Elevators, Pretty Things and dozens of underground sensations from the legendary Nuggets compilations.
â€œWeâ€™re just trying to make records that kids can play at a kegger,â€? says Cameron. â€œWe want to try to be creative and have fun along the way. Itâ€™s all for kicks. Thereâ€™s no real anger or frustration there. You know Freddie the Freshman, that big fur coat guy in the cartoons? Thatâ€™s who weâ€™re aiming to please. Also, I think Bugs Bunny would really dig us.â€?
Needless to say, Wellwater Conspiracy has no political agenda and no masterplan. Its music isnâ€™t part of a campaign to recapture a golden era of noise or a reaction to whatâ€™s happened to the modern rock scene. Itâ€™s simply a reflection of Cameronâ€™s and McBainâ€™s voluminous record collections and insatiable musical appetites.
â€œWeâ€™re inspired by everything from Cat From Dog Mountain to Cream to the Music Machine,â€? says McBain. â€œThe reason we sound kinda garagey, is thatâ€™s all Iâ€™ve ever played and listen to. It wasnâ€™t a matter of sitting down and deciding to start a psych band. I canâ€™t write in major keys, and whenever you write in minor keys you end up with something that sounds psychedelic.â€?
The Scroll and Itâ€™s Combinations offers a treasure trove of the foreign and familiar, juxtaposing classic rock rhythms with serrated flurries of noise, combining sizzling guitar lines with heavy-lidded vocals and soaring strings. Compared to past Wellwater offerings (1997â€™s Declaration of Conformity, and 1999â€™s Brotherhood of Electric: Operational Directives) which were somewhat freeform and unfocused, the new disc is balanced and well-crafted. And while many of the songs sound like they could have been recorded in the insurrectionary late â€˜60s, theyâ€™re filled with modern rock flourishes as timely as todayâ€™s newspaper.
â€œI Got Nightmaresâ€? is a cross between The Whoâ€™s â€œBoris the Spiderâ€? and the Seeds. â€œC, Myself and Eyeâ€? is more sedate, matching serene vocals with a bobbing, syncopated groove and â€œFelicityâ€™s Surprise,â€? which features vocals by â€œWes. C. Addleâ€? (you should easily guess who it really is), could be the folk-era Byrds brought back down to earth by emotional â€˜90s alt-rock.
The first single off The Scroll and Itâ€™s Combinations is â€œOf Dreams,â€? a cover of an obscure Steve Morgan tune, and itâ€™s dizzying and potent, sounding like a dangerous hybrid of Ride, Blue Cheer and the Zombies. â€œI found that in a record store,â€? says McBain. â€œItâ€™s from 1969 and the original just sounds like Steve and his buddies downstairs at Steveâ€™s momâ€™s house recording a record.â€?
Wellwater Conspiracy created The Scroll and Itâ€™s Combinations at Space Studio, an old Kentucky Fried Chicken in Seattle that Cameron purchased and refurbished. The disc was recorded from mid-1999 through mid-2000, and though it sounds unified and cohesive, the bandâ€™s schedule was somewhat limited by Cameronâ€™s other obligations. â€œI started working with Pearl Jam, and that delayed things a little,â€? he says. â€œBut we had the luxury of doing it whenever we were able to. It was so great not to feel the pressure of some impending deadline.â€?
Ever more liberating was the bandâ€™s creative approach. Cameron played drums on the record, but he also played much of the guitar and bass, and even sang. McBain also played various instruments. â€œI think the idea of playing lots of different instruments comes out of the whole four-track school of recording,â€? says McBain. â€œWhen youâ€™re doing four tracks, youâ€™re generally by yourself in your bedroom, so you canâ€™t really call a guitar player at two in the morning and have him rush over. So you learn to do everything yourself.â€?
â€œItâ€™s kind of an epiphany,â€? agrees Cameron. â€œYou realize that itâ€™s kind of fun doing it that way. The guitar is such an easy instrument. Everyone should play guitar. Taking on multiple roles like that definitely make this more fun. This was definitely a fun record to make.â€?
Adding to the enjoyment was a coterie of special guests including Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, who recorded parts for â€œC, Myself and Eyeâ€? and â€œThe Scrollâ€?; local musicians from the band Cat From Dog Mountain, Derek Burns and Paul Burbeck, who recorded vocals on â€œTidepool Telegraphâ€? and â€œTick Tock 3 Oâ€™Clockâ€?; and Cameronâ€™s wife April, who played viola on various cuts. Soundgarden bassist, Ben Sheperd, also helped out, though at the time, he was completely unaware of his contribution. â€œWe had an ADAT recording that he did a long time ago that was really cool,â€? says Cameron. â€œWe used his playing on that track and we mixed it with other music that we did.â€?
The seeds of Wellwater Conspiracy were planted in 1993 when Cameron, Shepherd and McBain hooked up in the side project Hater. They recorded one impressive album together, then split to focus on their main gigs. But the specter of Hater haunted Cameron and McBain, and by the mid â€˜90s they could no longer resist their urge to play together. They adopted the moniker Wellwater Conspiracy at the suggestion of ex-Monster Magnet member and McBainâ€™s pal, Tim Cronin.
â€œTim used to sit around at night and think up band names,â€? relates McBain. â€œHeâ€™d even go so far as to make up flyers for these imaginary bands. And one of them was Wellwater Conspiracy. The name comes from this urban legend about a hippie in the mid-70s who threatened to put LSD in the drinking water in Minnesota.â€?
Summing up his feelings on going from one extreme in his musical career to another, Cameron remarks â€œI love doing this because we have a real sense of freedom. Itâ€™s not as much of a business fuck or a cluster fuck as Soundgarden was, with all these thousands of people piling in. If no one wants a piece of us thatâ€™s perfectly fine with me.â€?