Rewind: Watchers Revel In Vampire Driver's Nocturnal Rhythm
BY GREGORY ADAMS
Hey folks! We're back with another rewind, this time around cult Chicago quintet Watchers. I'd interviewed vocalist Michael Guarrine back in early 2007 for California's Chord Magazine, right around the time the band were releasing their sophomore full-length, Vampire Driver.
Watchers were on Gern Blandsten Records (a label you might recall I'm quite fond of), and even amongst the roster of a small punk label they seemed to fly by under the radar. I dug the records, though.
Vampire Driver, in particular, shaved off a bit of the sheen of 2003's To the Rooftops in favour of loose, bottle-boppin' percussive jams ("S.I.S.I.A.I.") and mean-mugging, minimalist funk ("Chess Champion", "Slicker Pays"). That said, guitarist Ethan D'Ercole busts out some vibrantly jangled chord work through melodically-angled, highly-danceable joints like "Mercenary Birds".
This is a bit of a shorter piece. It also feels a little too weighted towards a stellar guest appearance on Vampire Driver from James Chance. I know I have the Memorex with this phone interview on it tucked away somewhere, and I'd be curious to find out if Michael got deeper into the direction of Vampire Driver.
Full disclosure: I reorganized/remixed a few sentence structures from how it was originally published. Enjoy!
Four years ago, Chicago quintet Watchers released debut album To the Rooftops — a lavish record embracing, funk, Latin jazz, and ‘80s post-punk — to a market already bored of butt-shaking rock music. Despite the hooky mash-up, vocalist Michael Guarrine feels the record got the bum’s rush from critics at the time.
“After the whole dance-punk explosion, we were left with a weird taste in our mouth,” he says of getting lumped in with the indie Zeitgeist. “We never started off going, ‘We’re going to ride this wave,’ but that’s what all the reviews said. It was a little frustrating for us.”
Make no mistake, Watchers still shimmies on their outstanding follow-up, Vampire Driver, but the record also hones in on the grittier aspects of the act’s live show. “After listening to To the Rooftops, we were like, ‘Man, we play these songs so much heavier,’” Guarrine explains of why they stepped up the intensity for their sophomore full-length.
As it stands, Vampire Driver’s opening “Chess Champion” locks into a simple but menacing bass and tom-tom groove, this setting a stripped-down and somewhat stream-of-conscious tone for the LP. Freer than its predecessor, Vampire Driver’s tunes are the product of midnight improvisation, lending a nocturnal aesthetic to the skittish paranoia of “(We’ve Got) A Witness” or the laid-back vibraphone flow of “I Don’t Want It.” “A lot of the goodness of the record came out of these super late night jam sessions, just sitting around and creating,” Watchers’ frontman confirms.
Inspired by a story about David Bowie recording his vocals off-the-cuff early in his career, Guarrine likewise approached his vocals with a looser zeal. His spontaneity often juggles smooth singing with ad-lib rants, as well as a number of James Brown funk grunts.
His strongest influence, however, might be his co-vocalist on “Crumbs”: ‘70s No Wave sax maniac James Chance. After Watchers spent some time on the road as the skronk legend’s backing band, the act relished the opportunity to bring him onto a song of their own. “I was really nervous, because it’s fucking James Chance,” Guarrine gushes, “He’s a great pioneer, as far as punk rock is concerned.”
A career highlight for Watchers, “Crumbs” pits Chance’s gruff vocals against Guarrine’s own helium-inhaling crooning. Full of wailing sax solos and eerie slide guitar, “Crumbs” makes for one of the meanest songs on an already imposing album. While certainly heavy enough on its own, Guarrine suggests that working with the icon gave Watchers extra incentive to boost Vampire Driver’s dirty funk sound.
“He’s our friend, but son of a bitch, the guy is unbelievable. He pushes us to be spot-on musicians.”
Stella "Le Vampire"
Sticking to a theme, of sorts, it is once again October, and I am once again reviewing Monster Party songs daily on Instagram. This Drac-adjacent jam from teenage yé-yé singer Stella has been the clear standout so far.
Released in 1966 under the weighty title of "Si Vous Connaissez Quelque Chose De Pire Qu'un Vampire, Parlez M'en Toujours, Ça Pourra Peut-être Me Faire Sourire," but found on YouTube under the more bite-sized name of "Le Vampire," the track definitely plays into French pop conventions of the time. It also mangles itself through an on-the-beat urgency, and some wild wind instrument drones (I'd thought sax, originally. Maybe it's a clarinet?).
Question for all of y'all: is there a technical term for when a riff bookends itself with the same chord? Devilishly simple songwriting trick, and that disgustingly warbly bass tone anchors it in perfectly.
Stella talks up her love of a good scare, and the prospect of some gnarly English musician picking her up for the next midnight horror show. Great stuff!
Stella moved on from teen pop to prog-rock in the '70s as part of Magma, of which she's still a member!