Ex-Soundgarden Drummer Finds Voice In Wellwater Conspiracy

Matt Cameron -- who beats the skins for Pearl Jam on tour -- takes over vocals in side project.

Ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron said he didn't know how difficult it was to be a frontman until he stepped up to the microphone for the sophomore album by his side project, Wellwater Conspiracy.

It was then, the drummer said, that he learned a fast, hard lesson.

"Oh man, it was a pretty nerve-wracking experience," Cameron said of his vocal takes for the disc, Brotherhood of Electric: Operational Directive(s).

"I was always concentrating on playing drums before. And I thought singing took away from it. I sang in the high school choir, but I never took it seriously before. "

Cameron said he spent a lot of time recording in his room at home before he was ready to let people hear him sing. Previously, he'd sporadically sung backing vocals for Soundgarden but otherwise remained mute.

The 16-track follow-up to the band's instrumental-heavy 1996 debut, Declaration of Conformity, again pairs Cameron -- currently the touring drummer with Pearl Jam -- with ex-Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain. Ex-Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepard, who provided the minimal vocals of Wellwater Conspiracy's first disc, is out of the mix this time.

Shepard's absence created a double challenge for Cameron and McBain. They were left to look for a new voice, and find creative ways to fill out the sound, building on the '60s time-warp vibe of the debut.

Recording in fits and starts early last year at Soundgarden's rehearsal space in Seattle -- before Cameron was tapped to tour with Pearl Jam -- the two came up with another psychedelic dose of mid-'60s garage rock. But this time they accented the record with a number of ambient instrumentals, as well as a string section on several songs.

The album also features guest vocals from Josh Homme, leader of the rockers Queens of the Stone Age and the former frontman for Kyuss, who spells Cameron on the songs "Teen Lambchop," "Red Light Green Light" and "Ladder to the Moon."

"I think we had the same inspirations this time around," said McBain, 33, who left metal act Monster Magnet in 1993 to concentrate on Wellwater Conspiracy. "It's still '60s garage music, because I think 1966 to '68 was the apex of genuine rock 'n' roll, without all the mustaches and flash pots."

McBain said he wanted the new album to have a more studied, fuller sound, some of which might bring to mind both musicians' pasts.

If songs such as the lumbering mid-tempo rocker "Van Vanishing"(RealAudio excerpt) remind fans of Cameron's former Seattle grunge band's sound, the drummer-turned-singer said that's perfectly understandable.

"I suppose that does sound a bit like Soundgarden, doesn't it?," Cameron said, "because that was a very influential time for me. But what's fun about working with John is that we're able to run the gamut of the styles or types of songs we might not get the chance to play with the other groups we're in."

In the case of Brotherhood of Electric that meant more experimentation with Moog synthesizers on such warped sludge pop as "Compellor" and the Led Zeppelin-like rocker "BOU," which McBain said features layers of mellotron and mini-Moog on top of backwards guitar, drums and piano.

Mixed in are instrumental interludes -- including album opener "Destination 24" -- of material Cameron jokingly said the duo thought of as "musical sorbet," intended to cleanse the aural palette between the bursts of guitar-heavy tunes and hints of '70s-style prog rock. "Those are basically meant to mess with the listener a bit," Cameron said.

Both musicians also credited the final, rhythm-heavy track "Jefferson Experiment" (RealAudio excerpt) with being their favorite on the album.

"A song like that," McBain said, of the cacophonous two and a half minutes of overlapping drum tracks, heavy bass and random keyboard squiggles, "just leaves it wide open for the third record."

"Jefferson Experiment," to him, Cameron said, embodies the spirit of home recording that is the band's real allure.

"John and I are just big fans of coming across happy accidents that we can make into a weird little ditty," he explained.

The band played one of its two live shows at hometown Seattle bar the Crocodile last year. The other, last February, met with mixed results, according to McBain.

Playing on a bill with Canadian rockers Our Lady Peace and Everclear, McBain said the duo, joined by Homme and a friend on bass, played to a screaming crowd that seemed to have no idea who they were.

"It was in a hockey arena and we just played the whole first record," McBain said. "There were 10,000 14-year-old girls screaming. I don't know why. Maybe they caught sight of [Everclear leader] Art [Alexakis] or something."

Both said they'd love to try playing live more, but, McBain said only if they can find "a bass player who can sing too."