Nearly 40 years on, Watershed is still at home on the stage

The long-running Columbus power pop band is back with a new album, ‘Blow It Up Before It Breaks,’ and a pair of weekend release shows at Rumba Cafe.
WatershedGreg Bartram

Watershed’s new album, Blow It Up Before It Breaks, is populated with narrators who soldier on amid heartbreak and regret, who linger on the hangovers rather than the good times that led to them, and who cling tight to rock ’n’ roll dreams well into middle age, the stage continuing to serve as one place that always feels like home.

Similar characters might have cropped up in the power pop band’s earliest songs, though nearly 40 years after they first formed as the Wire in eighth grade, these narratives now carry the weight of experience.

“We started playing gigs and writing original songs together before I even kissed a girl, held a girl’s hand or even had a beer,” said singer/guitarist Colin Gawel, 53, who will join bandmates Joe Oestreich (bass/vocals), Rick Kinsinger (guitar) and Herb Schupp (drums) for a pair of record release shows at Rumba Cafe on Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15. (Friday’s concert is sold out.) “I mean, think about writing songs when you’ve never even been on a date?”

Gawel recalled one high school talent show when the musicians performed a pair of originals – “There’s Always Someone Between Us” and the ballad “Missing Out” – the latter of which included the line, “I’ve been missing out on things I want to be in on/And I know without a doubt it’s much too late.” 

“And I’m singing this at 17, right? That it’s much too late,” Gawel said, and laughed. “At 17, it’s much too late. It’s over, man! … And I can’t say that what we’re singing about has changed much. We’re just rock and roll guys. We’re not arr-teests, as some would say. But if something feels real to you, it will stand the test of time if it’s coming from an honest place.”

Looking back, Gawel said he has a hard time discerning what was driving the musicians in those earliest days, expressing a belief that they simply picked up instruments at such a young age that it fundamentally rewired their brains in ways from which they could never truly recover. As a result, Watershed has carried on making music after being dropped by a major label, in the wake of a trainwreck of a tour opening for Insane Clown Posse, and after starting families and launching full-time careers – all points when other groups might have called it quits.

“It was never about ‘fame’ or anything like that. We were always just having fun with it,” said Gawel, who described the band’s brief mid-90s run on Epic Records as “a peek behind the curtain.” “When you get dropped, maybe that would have been a smart time to quit. And it never even crossed our minds. It was like, ‘Oh, we have to make another record now.’ ... And then we toured with Insane Clown Posse, which was a disaster, and Herb, who was an original member, left the band. And maybe that would have been a good time to quit. And again, we didn’t even think about it. It was like, ‘Oh, we’ve still got more songs.’ … I remember in Hitless Wonder, Joe’s book [about his life in Watershed], his wife says that ‘the only one who gives a shit about a new Watershed album or Watershed tour are the guys in Watershed.’ And that’s not too far from the truth. It’s a real pain to do all of this stuff. But it’s something that’s in us. And it’s just assumed we will always keep playing.”

This perspective was further shaped by coming up in a Columbus music scene behind bands such as the Royal Crescent Mob and Willie Phoenix, both of whom Gawel views as mentors and ongoing sources of musical inspiration.

“We’d go to see RC Mob. And we’d go to see Willie Phoenix. And we knew all these guys had been on major labels. And they were all way better than we ever were, and we knew they had never ‘made it,’” Gawel said. “And I think that helped us keep our feet on the ground. Even when people were taking us out for fancy dinners and telling us all of this crazy stuff, we never had any illusions [of fame]. We’d just kind of elbow each other and roll our eyes. We weren’t even the best band in our hometown, what are we going to do? Conquer the world? And I think that mentality has served us well over the years.”

Phoenix also provided the members of Watershed with comparatively practical advice in the group’s earliest days. He told them to change their name from the Wire, which already belonged to the influential British rock band. And he told them to recruit a new lead singer and to finish school, no matter what. “So, we dropped out of school and didn’t get a new lead singer,” Gawel said. “But we did change the name.”

In some ways, Gawel said, Watershed has been shaped by its limitations. When the bandmates started playing, they aspired to the likes of Cheap Trick, but also carried with them a knowledge that no one in the group could sing like Robin Zander or riff like Rick Nielsen. “And that forced us to find ourselves,” Gawel said. “It was like, ‘Well, if I’m going to be Robin, you’re going to be Robin, too.’ And that’s why Joe and I both sang, because no one wanted to sing. If both of us sang, we’d each only be embarrassed half of the time.”

For Gawel and the other members of Watershed, reflection tends to be a disorienting experience, and one to which the musicians are generally not prone. In the times they are able to gather in a room and play, Gawel said, the focus still remains relentlessly on the future, with any feints toward nostalgia generally resulting in eyerolls or worse. “Anyone in the group would be relentlessly mocked for being like, ‘Remember the time…’” Gawel said. “Maybe if you get really hammered on your birthday, you’re allowed one good story. But if you start going down memory lane it’s going to be a bloodbath.”

And yet, “Sensational Things,” one of the standout tracks on Blow It Up, is partially rooted in this sense of nostalgia, centered on an aging rocker who still lives for the gig, and whose experiences aren’t too far removed from the musicians in Watershed.

“That was one where I thought Tim would balk and be like, ‘It’s too much, too you,’” Gawel said. “I don’t want to name-drop, but Slim Dunlap from the Replacements is a friend and a huge influence on us, and he has this philosophy to always look for the gifts. And we were in that sticky spot where things didn’t work out with major labels, and we were fumbling around. And you start realizing, if even one person is singing your song, that’s a gift. You have to look for things that keep you going. And we got good at that.”

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