On first vinyl release, Watershed focuses on finishing

Joel Oliphint
Watershed with producer Tim Patalan

For a few years now, singer/bassist Joe Oestreich and singer/guitarist Colin Gawel have been working on a new album for Watershed, the Columbus power-pop band the two friends started as kids 35 years ago. Beginning the record wasn’t so hard, even though the two songwriters now live a few states away from each other. Finishing it, however — that was the tough part.

And so, last year, Gawel and Oestreich came up with a new plan. Alongside original Watershed drummer Herb Schupp, they booked some studio time in January 2020 with producer Tim Patalan, who worked with Watershed on the band’s best-known albums (The More It Hurts, the More it Works and The Fifth of July). The goal? To start and finish some songs.

“We figured, ‘If we could get four songs done and recorded in four days, that'd be amazing. We don't need to do a whole record right now,’” said Oestreich, who’s also an author and the chair of the English department at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. “One of the things we're all learning in this pandemic is: know your limitations, and just try to do the best you can. You don't have to aim for the moon. Just aim for the roof, maybe.”

In the most basic sense, then, the resulting four-song EP, aptly titled Extended Player, would be a success. It exists, which means the band did what it set out to do. Fortunately, the EP also highlights what Watershed does best: trim, guitar-driven rock songs with big, catchy choruses that you’ll be humming for days.

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While musical chemistry comes easy to Watershed after decades of writing and rehearsing and touring, Patalan pushed the band hard during four days of 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. recording sessions, often suggesting entire lyrical rewrites and wholesale chord changes for the ideas Gawel and Oestreich brought to the table. To Watershed, though, Patalan is more than a producer. He’s a trusted creative partner (complete with songwriting credits he never asked for).

“We have a tremendous amount of trust in Tim,” said Gawel, also the purveyor of Colin’s Coffee in Upper Arlington. “I mean, we end the album with a Carole King line [‘It’s too late, baby’]. And I was like, ‘Are we sure? Really?’ Because we had other lyrics, but Tim was like, ‘No, this is better. This will work.’ That's probably the biggest leap of faith I've ever taken in music. … And on ‘Decorated Scars,’ he’s like, ‘Why don't we just talk the verses?’ Watershed doesn't talk verses. But Tim said let’s do it, and we don’t even fight.”

“He helps us find something in our songs that even we didn't know was there,” Oestreich said.

For the first time, Watershed also decided to issue the songs on vinyl. “I think back to when Colin and I were 13, 14 — way too young, probably, to be riding the COTA bus down High Street all by ourselves to go to Mole's Record Exchange and Singing Dog and Magnolia Thunderpussy. From those days forward, there's something magical about the record — about holding that thing in your hand,” Oestreich said. “If we put out four songs electronically, and it was just streaming, it would almost dissipate into the ether. It just seemed like it would exist in a more substantial form if there was an object.”

Extended Player is more than just a slab of vinyl, too. The EP packaging, which was conceptualized by longtime Watershed manager Mike McDermott, comes with a foldout poster featuring a collage of images collected from the band’s 35-year career. “What do you put on our press release? Where do you start?” Gawel said. “That poster is kind of like, ‘Here's our band. Look at this, and this will tell you more than we could ever tell you.'”

Watershed sold some of its vinyl copies through website preorders, and the rest were recently distributed locally at no cost to record shops (Used Kids, Spoonful, Lost Weekend, Magnolia Thunderpussy, Elizabeth’s Records) and venues (Ace of Cups, Natalie’s, Little Rock), with all proceeds going to the businesses themselves. (The songs will also be available to stream sometime next month; get a sneak peek of the first track, “Bleeding on the Blank Page,” via a music video the band made during quarantine.)

To Gawel and Oestreich, though, the EP is primarily a way to document a great weekend playing music with lifelong friends. “Obviously we're doing this because we hope other people like it, too. If not, you wouldn't share it with people. We would just record it on our iPhones and listen to it at night. … But, at this point, the rewards that we get out of this are largely in the process. This is just a really good souvenir that we get to take home from the process,” Oestreich said. “And we’re still trying to get better every time we do it. We’re trying to hopefully write a song that's a little bit better than the last one we wrote.”