Songwriting and longnecks. It’s a hit. A bang on the wall. Is that the neighbours? No. It’s Sony. Brisbane in the mid 1990’s. Rock against Work. Shaving off a beard to discover another one hiding underneath.
Nick had a loud voice. An unusual mix of Stipe, Corgan and others, he knew all the words to It’s the End of the World as We Know It. That’s a lot of words. I’d seen him sing with Brett Collery and Paul Morris in their first band Spiral I at the ironically titled Rock Against Work at Metropolis in 1994. It was heavy , often screamy music, but their set was sprinkled with some more melodic material that I really liked.
Starting by singing tunes at parties, we ended up writing songs together. This was new to me, providing only the music. I’d come with a chord structure, something jangly and hypnotic, a verse and chorus pattern and some beers. Across the table, with his beers, he’d work while I played, opening a thick folder of lyrics in plastic sleeves.
Then at a certain point, he’d sing. And there the song would be. We’d sing it again, sometimes to fix something up or record it on cassette, but more often because there was so much pleasure in going over what we’d created. We never discussed what the songs were ‘about’ but they were full of emotion and delicate imagery. Nick was writing with other members of the band as well, so we started to build up a bank of original songs. Then we’d have a beer.
The following selection of tunes takes in acoustic demos & whole band arrangements. There’s plenty more in the vault. I’d never really played in a band with a permanent drummer on a full kit before. Rehearsals were louder than I was used to. I think the idea was that Watertower were going to ROCK but were all in thrall to Radiohead’s The Bends at the time which blended songcraft with dynamics. The anticipated swap from acoustic to electric guitars never really happened. At an early gig at the Story Bridge Hotel there was a dB meter on the wall, monitoring sound levels to ensure noise levels didn’t disturb the nearby residents. If it stayed in the red, we were told, our power would be cut. I saw it as a personal challenge, but then noticed we didn’t even push it into the amber. In rehearsal, spidery, delicate basslines, riffs and harmonies were added to the acoustic core of the song, we’d work out how to play it as a group fairly easily, locking it in. Then have a beer.
I’m not sure who arranged the gigs. We’d load in to The Zoo, soundcheck, play. Beers before, during and after. We played the Crash and Burn on Edward Street (now a ‘Gentleman’s Club’), The Orient Hotel, with its sticky carpet, bar-stools, wedge-shaped stage, and window that enabled passers by to see that band’s bums. We did the Treasury Hotel supporting Rob Clarkson. (A bit like Billy Bragg on helium) You’d be hard pressed to find original music in the Brisbane CBD now, it’s all shifted to FortitudeValley.
We rehearsed without a PA so each time we played at a venue, I’d have to tune in to the band’s sound, the onstage murk of drums, amps, foldback, and feedback and just hope that the dopey guy with the hat behind the sound desk was mixing the sound well out the front.
I noted there wasn’t much ‘performing’ going on. We liked the songs, and played them well. What more do you need? By his own admission Nick wasn’t a natural performer and would get quite nervous before he went on. We’d just do our stuff and get off. Maybe have a beer. Therefore on reflection there wasn’t that much difference between rehearsals and performance. There was no pretence. Or presence.
I can’t rock convincingly. It’s like gluing a beard onto a clean-shaven guy. It just looks silly. Especially in movies. You can tell it’s not real.
The band earned little – usually $50-100 per gig, but enough to record at a little studio out in Brookfield called OPM which was popular with Brisbands like Custard and others at the time because it was relatively cheap. It was built under the engineer’s family home, and looked out to a bushland view. Having played the songs together, all the parts were now recorded separately, built around the drum track. It was different, sustaining performance energy, while recording your part in isolation. You’d do your bit, then maybe go out the back and have a beer, looking at trees through the trellis. We did two sessions, a year apart, capturing nine songs. Nick and I would later do acoustic sessions, putting down quite a few more. An album’s worth.
We got rough mixes and got out of there. It would cost money that we didn’t have to mix the songs properly. We’d get to that. Anthony sent me a rough mix of session while I was in the UK. I thought it sounded amazing.
Brisbane’s music scene was apparently getting ‘hotter’. Powderfinger’s success drew more attention to the place. They seemed to be able to combine accessible songcraft with a level-headed on-stage appeal, as well as magoo’s studio genius. Sony were looking for local bands to put on a compilation, so I entered our song I’m Not Here. We were selected. By Sony. Wow. Surely this was the opportunity we didn’t even know we were looking for. The narrative of being ‘discovered’ is pervasive, despite all evidence to the contrary. Finally we’d be able to mix the recording properly and maybe end up putting out an album.
I was excited. I thought maybe there’d be resources provided to remix and master our beloved track, but that was naïve, so Brett ended up doing it at his garage studio milliamp. I delivered the master not to Sony’s offices, but to a chap called James’s place. He was nice, but his flat was messy.
The CD was called Core Sample. There were a lot of good Brisbane bands on it, and we were one of them. There was a launch of the CD at a club called the Underground near the Paddington barracks. An unusual venue. I thought there would be record company types there, so I bought a relatively expensive T-Shirt to wear onstage for the gig. Our girlfriends and wives came and sat awkwardly around a table.
Watertower did their thing and got off. We were blown off the stage by a nu-metal band called Sunk Loto who looked about fourteen. Low slung guitars, bouncing about, they weren’t my cup of tea, but you could see how seriously they took it. As much as I loved the music we were making, I realized perhaps we weren’t taking it seriously. The songs weren’t enough. Watertower were a charisma-free zone. And the expensive T-shirt really didn’t match my pants. The other bands were interesting but very loud so I went home. We had an album’s worth of unfinished recordings that increasingly looked like they’d stay that way.
Anthony Mullins and I were making films at the time so we shot (but never edited properly) a video for the song. We wanted to experiment with reverse filming. Including shaving backwards. I think we were influenced by Bob Geldof’s Great Song of Indifference where he gets rougher-looking as the song progresses. We didn’t plan the shoot, and it looks like it. I later crash-edited the footage with two VHS players. I played it to the band at a party. They thought it was alright. We had a beer.
By 1999 we were no longer rehearsing or playing. Nick and I did an underwhelming duo performance at Bonaparte’s for a Radio ZZZ gig. We had to take time off work so we could play the gig, which was called ‘Rock Against Work’. We did one last recording session, gathering together the last lot of songs we’d composed. And then we had a beer.