Cool, Clear Water : With a Thirst for Fame, This O.C. Band Trusts in an Elemental Sound

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Playing rock on a sweeping scale, at a highly emotional pitch, is no job for a bunch of jokers, and the four members of the band Water seem like an earnest, highly focused lot suited to the task.

Don't let it be said, though, that Dean Bradley, Mark Cohen, John Guest and Howie Howell can't laugh at themselves. During a recent interview outside the low-slung, whitewashed row of warehouse cubicles where they rehearse, grins, guffaws and amused nods broke out when they had to admit just how ambitious they are.

The question was posed whether the Water members ever find themselves daydreaming, during the commute to their musty rehearsal room, about a certain landmark they pass along the way--Orange County's gleaming entertainment palace, the nearby Pond of Anaheim.

"Every time," answered singer-guitarist Bradley, letting go a slightly embarrassed laugh that tossed his long, blond hair back and raised his scruffy Van Dyke skyward.

"We like to dream a lot," conceded a grinning Cohen, the bassist whose own Van Dyke is impeccably trim. Guitarist Howell, tall, blond and long-haired like Bradley, and drummer Guest, slighter and darker, like Cohen, smiled as well.

They were laughing at the absurdly long odds against any new band ever reaching arena-headliner status--and the fact that, all absurdity aside, Water is serious about defying them. The band is taking its chances with "Nipple," the strong, accessible debut album MCA Records released last week (review, F2).

"We have big goals," Bradley said, straight-faced after his quick bout of laughter. "We're not a band that says we want to play clubs and be an underground band the rest of our lives. I know that's the cool thing to do, but we're big dreamers and we want to have as many people hear our music as possible. If you don't dream big, the odds of being successful are pretty grim.

"You can come off arrogant wanting these great things," he added, having noted that his fantasies sometimes alight just west of the 19,000-seat Pond, at the 60,000-capacity Anaheim Stadium. "But we're the most humble band. I don't think there's anything wrong in wanting to play coliseums in 10 years."

Indeed, high ambition does not come with the usual cheekiness or bluster in the case of Water's members, who range in age from 23 (Bradley) to 27 (Howell). If a larger-than-life image is what it takes to become huge in the rock world, then the low-keyed Water may be out of its element. But if a quiet sense of purpose and the ability to put across grand-scale, highly melodic, predominantly uplifting songs like those found on "Nipple" is enough, Water just might find itself playing the Pond someday, and reminiscing about that smelly rehearsal hall it once occupied down the road.

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If patience is one of the keys to mass success, Water already has shown, albeit reluctantly, that it has the goods. "Nipple" has arrived nearly a year after the band finished recording it and almost two years after Water signed its deal with MCA.

The first half-year's delay had to do with the busy schedule of Gavin MacKillop, the Scottish producer whose work with the Church and Toad the Wet Sprocket had convinced the members of Water that he would be right for them.

Water finally convened with MacKillop early in 1994 in New Orleans, where the band members found it fortunate that the bars stay open all night.

"We were drowning our sorrows," Bradley recalled in a wry but somewhat pained voice. MacKillop proved a demanding master. "It wasn't an easy recording process," Bradley continued.

"He was pushing us to do better, which we're really happy about now. But at the time it was kind of a nightmare." Bradley said MacKillop's way of critiquing performances he found less than optimal "was straight and to the point. There was no compliment before he stabbed you."

With recording and its attendant sweat and tears behind the band by mid-April, 1994, Water looked forward to a summer album release. Then MCA's selling machinery began to crank up, and the band members began to worry about all that can happen when music becomes a commodity.

"They would say, 'We're trying to find your image,' and we'd say, 'Just look at us. What more do you want?' " Bradley recalls. "They wanted to classify us as a 'stoner band' and we were totally against it . . . a band that people were going to put on headphones and smoke pot to. That was a bit scary."

Water eventually won the right to supervise its own imaging and album art and opted for a moody, indeterminate impression--starting with the album cover's watercolor (what else?) of a meditative beauty.

But the proposed summer-fall release window had been missed, and MCA, which has had difficulty breaking new rock acts, didn't want to throw Water in against the superstar releases of Christmas season. "Nipple" was delayed until mid-March.

Cohen came up with the album's title at a time when Water was desperately brainstorming for a new band name because a Colorado band called Water had staked a prior legal claim. Unable to come up with something better, and ultimately unwilling to give up so memorable and ubiquitous a name, the band members shelled out about $20,000 of record company advance money to buy the rights to the name. "Nipple" became an album title rather than a band name.

"What we initially liked about it was it had a humor to it," Bradley said. "We sometimes get overly serious, and it showed a different side that's there but doesn't always come through."

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During the year Water waited, punk rock became the favorite new flavor in mainstream rock. Punk's raw, simple, style and ironic tone are far from Water's highly textured, impressionistic swirls of sound and its emphasis on open-hearted feeling.

At the same time, though, such earnest, kindred bands as Live and Toad the Wet Sprocket did well during '94; Water will be trying to reach a similar fan base as it represents another side of Orange County music to a world that is now well aware of the Offspring's roots in the local punk scene.

If Water succeeds, look for aspiring musicians to start transferring to Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, much as aspiring tailbacks and linebackers try to enroll at schools with great football traditions. Pacifica is alma mater to all four Offspring and to all the Water members except for drummer Guest, who went to Los Alamitos High.

Water readily applauds the Offspring's success, proclaiming that it couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of guys. Cohen says he used to hang out with Bryan (Dexter) Holland, the Offspring singer, while Bradley washed dishes during his school years at a Garden Grove pizzeria where Offspring guitarist Kevin (Noodles) Wasserman was the delivery man. On Monday nights, Bradley recalled, the boss would take off and Wasserman would bring in his guitar and amplifier and show the younger Bradley some licks.

But Water is happy not to be among the multitude of new bands trying to sound like the next Offspring or Green Day. "It's a good feeling that we're not another punk band," Guest said. "Things are going to come and go, and we'll always be doing our own thing," Cohen added. "As long as we're progressing in our own way, it's a good place to be."

Cohen almost got nowhere when he tried to put Water together in 1991. He approached Bradley about starting a band and got a less than encouraging response. After high school the two had played together in a band called Greenland; Bradley had gone on to form a group with Howell, his across-the-street neighbor in Garden Grove. But that band failed to progress, and when Cohen tried to recruit Bradley he found that the guitarist had pretty much given up on his rock 'n' roll dream--one that had begun when Bradley played drums in a junior high school punk band called Immortal Youth. Instead, he was studying to become a fireman.

A mutual friend, Brian Clark, nicknamed the Chicken, stepped forward and insisted that Cohen, Bradley and Howell perform at a Halloween party he was about to throw; he also hooked them up with Guest, who knew Bradley and Howell only casually and had never met Cohen. The combination clicked in its first rehearsal, and Bradley soon quit firefighting school in favor of the band--which never did play at the Chicken's party.

The four new band mates began to write songs together, and Bradley, who was new to singing, began spinning impressionistic images and idealistic, spiritually informed themes to go with Water's soaring melodies.

"I write real subconsciously," he says. "I just let it spew out and figure it out later." The more or less straightforward lyrics to such songs as "Seeds" and "Under My Skin" were inspired by the always-poetically-ripe experience of romantic separation (Bradley wrote them while his girlfriend was away in Italy). But other song meanings can be more elusive, even to their author.

Bradley said he changed his vision for the ominous but sketchily outlined "Oven" from something mundane--"a hot day in L.A."--to something incomparably weighty after producer MacKillop remarked that he thought it evoked the Holocaust.

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When Water started, its ambitions were down-to-earth: Its first slot on one of Bogart's four-local-bands-for-a-buck bills seemed like a dream fulfilled. But in little more than a year and a half after that first rehearsal, the band had won a major label deal.

"Everything was straight up right away," Cohen said, emitting a whistling sound while tracing a rising line in the air--the kind that, on a corporate earnings chart, would have the directors toasting one another with champagne.

Then came the two years of delay. When Tom Petty sang "the waiting is the hardest part," he may have envisioned the kind of month Water had in February, the last full month of biding time before the action on "Nipple" finally could begin.

Guest cut his arm badly. Cohen's uncle died. Howell caught the flu. And Bradley stewed in jail for eight days, thanks to an irate judge in Municipal Court in Westminster who, Bradley says, sentenced him for missing payment on a $120 ticket incurred when he was caught riding a motorbike without a special motorcycle license.

"I don't think she liked the way I looked," Bradley said. "Next time, I know to go in with my attorney." Major label deal or no, he said, he was too broke to pay the fine on time (all four Water members have been living at their parents' homes).

Jail, a new experience for him, "was exactly like the movies," he said. "You have to watch your back at all times." He was careful about what he said to other inmates, and wound up suffering nothing worse than the milder indignities of incarceration; he also came down with the flu. "I wrote a poem about the whole experience on the last night (in jail), and a couple of lines got into one of our new songs."

The lesson of that difficult February, notes Howell, is that "free time's dangerous."

That won't be a problem much longer. Water is getting ready to offer its "Nipple" to the world. KROQ's new-music maven Rodney Bingenheimer already has given the single, "Spin," its first radio play. The plan calls for the band to spend some time rushing around the country introducing itself to radio programmers and listeners in acoustic on-air performances at various stations.

Then it will begin its touring campaign, starting very small--band members may be daydreaming about the Pond, but they feel it is prudent to gain exposure by playing clubs where they will be second-billed in each city to a hot-drawing local band.

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If all goes well, radio will take to "Spin," MTV will follow suit for an as-yet-unmade video version of the song, and Water will rise from there.

The band members know that those are big "ifs" for any new band.

Their current motto is "Never tell me the odds," which, they say, is what a frantic Han Solo told Princess Leia as he was about to plunge his ship through an asteroid field.

In that light, Bradley noted dryly, maybe his recent incarceration can be taken as a hopeful sign:

"Going to jail on a (minor) ticket. I beat the odds."

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Water, Vasoline Machine Gun and On play March 31 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $8. (714) 496-8930.

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