ORANGE — 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.
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.