Author Interviews
2:46 am
Sun July 1, 2012

'Hitless Wonder': On Tour With A Band Of Also-Rans

Originally published on Mon July 2, 2012 7:17 am

Barring a massive shake-up of the Billboard charts — and American tastes — "Little Mistakes" will not be the song of the summer. But that's not for lack of trying.

The song is the lead single off Brick and Mortar, the latest album by Watershed — a band from Columbus, Ohio, that most people have never heard of. But they have been playing dingy bars, tiny clubs and even the occasional arena for 27 years.

That career has inspired a new memoir called Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll, written by one of the band's founders, Joe Oestreich.

When Watershed headlined a concert at DC9 — a bar and club in Washington, D.C. — this June, the band's six members and road team pulled up in one white Ford van.

Since Watershed operates on a shoestring, its members handle everything on their own. But after years on the road and a couple of major surgeries, not everyone can lift the heavy drums and amps.

"At this point in our band, Dave, our drummer, has [had] major back surgery. [Guitarist and keyboardist Joe] Peppercorn's had major back surgery. So it kind of limits who can carry," says Colin Gawel, the lead guitarist and other founder of the band.

"And out of a six-member band, two of us are rocking canes on the tour, just in case," adds Ricki Cacchione, one of the band's roadies who's turning 60 years old on the monthlong tour.

No one in the band is under 30; its two founding members are in their 40s. Most have kids and day jobs back home.

Prepping For The Show

Oestreich, the book's author, plays bass and sings. He also parks the van.

"Parking on the streets of D.C., we're hoping to get a meter because we would only have to pay for the meter for the next 10 minutes," Oestreich says. "If that doesn't work, we're going to have to pay $20 to park in a lot. Some of our gigs on this tour, we haven't even made $20."

Because the band runs on such tight margins, its members have to be extra careful about their equipment.

"These are the chains that we're going to use to chain all the doors together in the front seat, with the steering wheel, so that if somebody gets in, hopefully — unless they brought bolt cutters — they won't be able to get the steering wheel to move or the two front doors to open," Oestreich says.

The band got together when Gawel and Oestreich were teenagers in Columbus. Their take on power-pop had a brief run at success in the early '90s. At one point, they had a record deal with Epic, but that fell apart when their album tanked.

The band kept going, though. It kept touring and releasing albums long after it stopped being profitable.

Silver Linings

Watershed's dedication has not rewarded its members with paychecks and fame, but they do have their superfans.

"The Reverend" Todd Baker drove 2 1/2 hours from Harrisburg, Pa., to see the show — and, no, he's not really a reverend.

"Well, it's not really official," Baker says about his title. "It's for comedy purposes, you know."

Baker is an aspiring comedian. He's unemployed. But this superfan was willing to put on a Watershed concert T-shirt from 1994 and spend the gas money to see the band at least one more time.

"I've probably seen Watershed 100 times in the last 20-some years," Baker says. "They're my best friends, the greatest rock-and-roll band in all of America. And I wouldn't miss this for the world."

By 10 p.m., the show is about to start. A few fans and old high school acquaintances stand close to the bar, but the room is mostly empty. It's not silent, though. Baker calls out the band's name in hopes of bringing them to the stage a bit earlier.

Measuring Success

After the show, Gawel and Oestreich share their take on the evening. They're happy — though realistic.

"It was a success by every measure except the one that is most commonly used to measure success," Oestreich says. "I mean, there were probably 25 people there, and they really seemed to like our songs, and there were superfans singing along with every word, and the band played great, and the soundman had us sounding good and it was really fun — and we made $37."

Despite the low pay and the time spent far from his family, Oestreich says touring with Watershed is hard to give up.

"I've got a 2 1/2-year-old son and a 3-month-old daughter, and my wife is at home with both of them, single parenting, right now," he says. "On the one hand, everyone says, 'Follow your dream,' and we're doing that, but is that in fact admirable? Some days it seems kind of pathetic. Maybe we should just pack it in and go home, but, at this point, I think it's just too late. This is what we do."

Besides, Gawel adds, "If you love what you're doing, and you still feel passionate about it, why would you stop?"

After D.C., the band heads to Pittsburgh, Ohio and then, finally, Chicago — that's where Watershed will play the final show of the tour Sunday night.

Then they'll leave the van, get back to their families and dream of their next tour.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Barring some kind of shake-up on the Billboard charts, this will probably not be the song of the summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE MISTAKES")

WATERSHED: (Singing) Who gets with the bad (unintelligible) but with the leather pants. Ain't gonna tell me everything that goes wrong...

GREENE: But it's not for lack of trying. "Little Mistakes" is the lead single off the latest album from a band called Watershed. You may never have heard of the Columbus, Ohio band. But they've been playing in dingy bars, tiny clubs, and even the occasional arena for the last 27 years. And that long career has inspired a new memoir, called "Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE MISTAKES")

WATERSHED: (Singing) 'Cause, what I do ain't enough, well, you won't (unintelligible), because what I do, it ain't enough to (unintelligible). Nowhere to run, nowhere to run to you...

GREENE: The book is proof that life in a rock band does involve beer, seedy motels and long nights of praying that the van doesn't break down on the interstate. It's also proof that life as a rocker is hard, but kind of addictive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE MISTAKES")

WATERSHED: (Singing) ...the next time you'd like to think and drink. I'd like to graduate...

GREENE: The book was written by one of Watershed's founders, Joe Oestreich.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

JOE OESTREICH: Are we good to leave it double-parked while we load?

GREENE: We met up Joe and the band outside DC9. That's a bar in Washington, D.C. where they had a gig. Six guys - the musicians, their manager, Biggie, and their friend Ricky rolled up in a white Ford van. And they were getting set to unload their gear.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNLOADING GEAR)

GREENE: No one is under 30, and the two founding members of Watershed are in their 40s. Most of the guys have kids and day jobs back at home. Joe Oestreich, who wrote the new memoir, plays bass and sings - oh, and parks the van.

OESTREICH: We're hoping to get a meter, because we would only have to pay for the meter for the next 10 minutes. If that doesn't work, we're going to have to pay $20 to park in a lot.

GREENE: As you can probably tell, the band runs on a tight budget, so they have to keep an eye on their parking costs and their vehicle.

OESTREICH: These are the chains that we're going to use to chain all the doors together in the front seat with the steering wheel, so that if somebody gets in, they won't be able to get the steering wheel to move, or the two front doors to open.

GREENE: After securing the van, the guys lug their drums, guitars and amps up to the stage on the second floor, and then it was time for sound check.

OESTREICH: Check, check, check.

GREENE: The band was born back in 1985, when Joe and his fellow singer and friend, Colin Gawel, were just teenagers. And their power-pop sound had a brief run at success in the early '90s. At one point, they had a record deal with Epic. It fell apart when their album tanked. But the band kept going, kept touring, and kept releasing albums, long after it stopped being profitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Their dedication through all these years has not earned them big paychecks or fame. But they do have their superfans.

TODD BAKER: Reverend Todd Baker from Columbus, Ohio. Go Bucks.

GREENE: Todd Baker drove two-and-a-half hours from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to see the show. And, no, he's not really a reverend.

BAKER: Well, it's not really official. It's more for comedy purposes, you know.

GREENE: Todd is an aspiring comedian. He's unemployed right now. But still, he put on his Watershed concert T-shirt from 1994, spent the gas money, and got himself to D.C. to see the band at least one more time. And on nights like this, when there are barely 20 people out in the crowd, Todd's voice is important.

BAKER: Watershed, Watershed, Watershed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: After the late night show wrapped up, the band went to tour the monuments on the National Mall until 3:00 A.M. That was actually an earlier than usual bedtime for them. Joe and Colin, the two founding members, looked a little weary when they came into our studios the morning after the show. We asked them if they made any money the night before.

OESTREICH: It was a success by every measure except the one that is most commonly used to measure success. I mean, there were probably 25 people there and they really seemed to like our songs. And there were superfans, singing along with every word and the band played great and the sound man had us sounding good. And it was really fun. And we made $37.

GREENE: Between all of you.

COLIN GAWEL: Not each, total.

OESTREICH: That's total $37.

GREENE: That's a little disheartening, I can imagine.

GAWEL: Yeah. We know going on tour we're not going to make money but we have a responsibility to go out and give it our best.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WATERSHED: (Singing) Oh, yeah...

GREENE: You talk about the band coming together, and it was you and Colin, who's sitting beside you, on a bus as kids in Columbus, Ohio. I wondered if you guys could just both take me on that bus as kids and sort of how does this play out? How did this idea come about?

OESTREICH: I'll start. We were already friends growing up and we would do a paper route together and we would fold the papers in Colin's garage and listen to Bob Seeger and Aerosmith and Bad Company and all these bands on the radio. And one day we found out that Cheap Trick was coming to town. And Colin said we've got to go see Cheap Trick. I'd never been to a rock concert before. I was probably 13 years old. And so we went to the Cheap Trick show on the city bus. And on the way home from the concert, Colin said we got to start a band. And I said, well, yeah, that sounds good to me. Colin was kind of my friend and my hero anyway. And so if my hero says let's start a band, I was ready to follow him into battle. I'm still following him into battle 27 years later.

GREENE: Did you review the book, and is this the story you would have told if you had been writing it?

GAWEL: I wouldn't be as good, but, yeah, no, Joe, I think he nailed it. I think this is how 99.99 percent of bands work, and it doesn't end up with a pot of gold. I think Joe did a really good job of capturing what it's really like to be in a rock band and the sacrifices it puts on your family and everyone else. Because everybody loves you 'cause you're in a band to a certain age, and then everybody hates you 'cause you in a band at a certain age. Like, why don't you stop? But, you know, you love what you're doing and you still feel passionate about it, you know, why would you stop?

GREENE: You bring up the sacrifices for your family. And I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, you both are parents now. People who are listening to this, some might say, God, guys, come on. It's time to mature. Stop leaving your kids, stop leaving your families and going out on the road. Get a "real job," quote-unquote. I mean, what is your answer when you hear that?

OESTREICH: I mean, that's a valid argument.

GAWEL: Yeah.

OESTREICH: That's very valid. I can absolutely understand why anybody would think that and there are times out on the road when we think what are we doing out there? I've got a two-and-a-half-year-old son and a three-month-old daughter and my wife is at home with both of them single-parenting right now. And so on the one hand, everybody says follow your dream, and we're doing that. But is that in fact admirable, or some days it seems kind of pathetic, you know? Maybe we should just pack it in and go home.

GAWEL: But, yeah, at this point I think it's too late.

BAKER: Play "Freedom."

OESTREICH: I'm not gonna play "Freedom," Todd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WATERSHED: (Singing) Now it's a sad, sad drive on a sad, dark and lonely night. It's a sad, sad drive...

GREENE: In a sense, you guys say you are capturing the reality that 99.9 percent of rock bands sort of live. But the majority sort of stop at some point and become the kind of washed-up rockers that talk about the olden days. You're scared of that, which makes your sort of story very unique in a way.

WATERSHED: Yeah, that's my greatest fear, is being used to play in a band guy. And let me buy a minivan so I can relive the glory days. Maybe we'll get the band back together for one more show. There's something about that that...

GAWEL: Oh God, yeah, nightmare.

WATERSHED: ...seems tragic. I almost want to avoid being that more than I want to have actual success.

GAWEL: You know, everybody wants more an wants better things but if you would have told us when we were, you know, in the floor of my garage we were going to have all these experiences and do all these neat things and have all this time with our friends and make all this good music, it's going to - you know, it may just be a handful of people - you saw them last night - but I know we have touched people by being creative and doing what we love to do. And that matters.

All right. This is called "Broken Radio." We'll see you next time. We're Watershed. Thank you so much for coming out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN RADIO")

GREENE: After their D.C. performance, Watershed was heading to Pittsburgh, then Ohio, and finally, Chicago. That's where they'll play the final show of their tour tonight. And then they'll leave the van behind, return to their families, and start dreaming of their next tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN RADIO")

WATERSHED: (Singing) (Unintelligible) look out the window, you can feel drenched in the (unintelligible)...

GREENE: Joe Oestreich's new book is "Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll." Watershed's new album is called "Brick and Mortar." This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.