Most bands trying to break through in the music industry confront something that seems, at first, like a ladder. You make records and play shows, thankless though they may seem, hoping to move up that ladder to bigger venues. Maybe, eventually, a record deal, leading to radio airplay and the attendant mass adulation.
A few bands get there, but most wind up on something closer to a treadmill – trapped in a crushing cycle of day jobs, diminishing returns and dashed expectations.
Watershed, a power-pop band from Ohio, came closer than most, earning a brief stay on the major label Epic Records in the mid-1990s. They were close enough to get a tantalizing look at the penthouse before being shot back down to the minors, victimized by ill fortune and bad timing.
But even if Watershed never reached the toppermost of the poppermost, the band’s story is a fascinating tale of Everyband, as recounted by bassist Joe Oestreich in his fantastic new memoir “Hitless Wonder” (Lyons Press).
Subtitled “A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll,” the book is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking in chronicling Watershed’s many misadventures along the margins of the mainstream.
“You’ve got to enjoy it enough that even if you don’t get to your dream, it’s OK,” says Oestreich over the phone from his current home in Conway, S.C. “The game itself has to be its own reward. What’s so difficult is that you see so many others get that dream you want. It’s actually just a tiny percentage, but when you’re a kid, it seems like a lot. Some of the saddest people I know almost made it. Almost.”
“Hitless Wonder” arrives during an up cycle for Watershed, which has a new album out, “Brick and Mortar” (Curry House Records). The band is on the road again and Oestreich is doing readings in many of Watershed’s tour stops, including Raleigh. Having a book connected to the tour lends an extra sense of legitimacy to the undertaking.
But that hasn’t always been the case. “Hitless Wonder” is mostly set during a difficult 2008 tour that turned into something of a death march, with many shows happening for “crowds” scarcely more numerous than the band onstage. That forced Oestreich, his bandmates and everyone’s families to grapple with that eternal question: What the hell is the point of all this?
“All the support systems of people we leave behind, they’re not against the band,” Oestreich says. “But they do want the time away to count, to be worth it. The problem with rock-and-roll is you don’t know which shows will be that way ahead of time, so you have to do ’em all and see what happens. Some turn out to be a waste; some look like they’ll be a waste and turn out to be worth something.”
“Hitless Wonder” will bring to mind “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” the 2009 documentary about a middle-aged metal band still chasing dreams.
Drawn from Oestreich’s journals and the band’s collective remembrance (plus the Watershed archive kept by “Biggie,” the group’s faithful road manager), “Hitless Wonder” brings vivid detail to the large and small triumphs and humiliations of going up and down that ladder – from signing with Epic and being told they were surefire platinum, to frontman Colin Gawel returning to his day job and being asked to autograph a Subway sandwich he’d just made.
Oestreich seamlessly moves “Hitless Wonder” back and forth from Watershed’s past to present, eventually arriving at a Zen sense of redemption in the acceptance of their fate. By now, things are good for him all the way around. When he’s not playing with Watershed, Oestreich teaches writing at Coastal Carolina University and helps raise his two young kids. And even though his band has become more of a part-time hobby than fulltime occupation, it won’t be ending anytime soon.
“Colin and I are such good friends and have been for so long, that’s not going to end,” Oestreich says. “As long as I’m hanging out with him, that will involve writing songs and playing shows. And of course, now I’ve put it out there that we’re the band that doesn’t quit. I’ve screwed us all!
“Watershed won’t ‘quit,’ but we’re already playing less than we have at other points in time. I fill that void with writing and teaching and parenting. But even when the band isn’t playing, I’m still writing songs and I don’t think that will stop either. I’m not saying they’re all good, but they keep coming.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat