The Slipperiness of Rock-n-Roll Success: A Chat with “Hitless Wonder” Author Joe Oestreich

Watershed is rock-n-roll. The band members aren’t stars by any means, but if the essence of rock-n-roll is getting up on stage, night after night, playing your heart out for whomever shows up, and then throwing back a few brews with the fans, then Watershed is on par with the Rolling Stones. And now they have the book to prove it. "Hitless Wonder" may not wallow in the depths of Keith Richard’s “Life,” but then again, “Keef” never slept in a rental van in his forties. Not out of necessity, anyway.

After seeing their beloved Cheap Trick in 1985, the teenage Colin Gowel convinced his buddy-since-grade-school Joe Oestreich to form a band. Colin played lead guitar, Joe slapped the bass, they split the singing duties, brought in a couple more pals, and called it Watershed. The Columbus Ohio-based kids had no idea that they were embarking on the rock-n-roll fantasy/nightmare of a lifetime. In 2012, Watershed embarked on their umpteenth tour, playing fourteen dates behind their latest album Brick & Mortar. 

Watershed may not be a household name, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t humped the same footlights as the bands in the pantheon. They’ve had the highs, signing a $250,000 deal with Epic Records and playing big-time concerts, and the lows, getting dropped by Epic eighteen months later and drunkenly stumbling through a show with a dozen fans. In a true testimony to following their collective heart, Watershed released seven albums, played more than 1,000 gigs, and sold fewer than 20,000 albums.

Below the video, see our chat with Oestreich, who captures it all in his hilarious and ultimately moving memoir “Hitless Wonder.”  It's the amazing story of a band that started out as buddies in a basement and continues to this day, adulthood be damned.

 

Your father was a priest, and your mother a nun who left the church to get married. Is there anything that you’ve taken from your parents’ unique background that applies to your life in rock-n-roll?

Although both of my parents no longer believe in Catholicism, or in organized religion at all, they both still have a lot of faith and optimism. I take that from them, the idea that we’re working towards something better, something more positive and enlightened -- all the time. That kind of faith keeps Watershed going on those dark nights in Detroit when fifteen people show up and we’re playing for no money. I always believe there’s something better around the corner. My parents leaving the church instilled a spirit of rebelliousness, and of finding what’s right for me. The best example being when Colin and I dropped out of Ohio State, with only one year left, to buy a crappy van, hit the road, and do this for real. There are parallels to my parents for sure.

The famous sportswriter axiom “The real stories are in the losing locker room” is what makes “Hitless Wonder” so appealing. Tales of sleeping on the floor of a van are vastly more entertaining than ones of flying in a private jet. From a writer’s standpoint, could you have written this book if Watershed was a much bigger success?

I’m a huge fan of Gay Talese, and he always writes about the losing side, like when Floyd Patterson lost that fight and had to wear a disguise. I’ve always been a fan of those stories because they’re more interesting, and lesser known. If we were winners at rock-n-roll, there would be less reason for introspection. People who are rich and successful have their troubles, everybody does, but there’s something about being less successful that lends itself to tension and questioning one’s place in the world. The second thing is, if we were bigger, I’d have a lot more to lose in writing “Hitless Wonder.” I would’ve pulled punches so I didn’t piss off our record company, or managers, or fans or whomever. I had nothing to lose, which enabled me to get to the truth of the thing.