photo by Libor Vitu
On November 30th of 2007, Chicago band Watchers played their last show. The show ended in hugs and handshakes. The night had an air of sadness but mostly all in attendance felt appreciation that they were able to witness the creative process and growth of a group of artists that wholeheartedly dedicated themselves to the art that they created.
Watchers was born at a time when “dance punk” bands were the rage and their focus on groove and their record label helped lump them into this category. The resurgence of “dance punk” in the form of NY bands like The Rapture and Radio 4 and the appearance of Watchers was not coincidence. Many of the musical elements that brewed the hybridization of the early 80’s (when genre tag “dance punk” was first conceived) were making a reappearance in record stores across the nation. Cds were still selling pretty well and labels were offering up older records for the first time on cd and reissuing them on lp. Bands like Liquid Liquid, A Certain Ratio, Konk and ESG found new fans in the 20’s somethings that were too young to experience them the first time around. Reggae re-issues galore were available to those with an ear for those rebellious rhythms. 60’s and 70’s music from places like Nigeria and Ethiopia played their part in shaping musical minds of the time as well. A trend towards “Northern Soul” was evident in the indie rock scene, bringing deejayed “soul nights” to bars and clubs all over. While unearthed musical gems brought fresh ideas from the past, the members of Watchers were some of many musicians taking it all in.
The genre misunderstanding worked in the Watchers’ favor for a short time. Their live show was (and remained throughout line up switches in the rhythm section) frantic, chaotic, exciting, danceable and sometimes bizarrely sexual. A cohesive and evocative visual aesthetic was created for their album artwork and posters that helped delineate a distinct mythical urban world that Watcher hailed from. The crowds were attending the shows and the material was just as, if not more infective, than NY’s finest. Armed with the standard 4 piece plus a percussionist and two female backing vocalists Watchers stepped forward with their first release “To The Rooftops.” Comparisons to Talking Heads and Gang Of Four peppered reviews. Admittedly fantastic tunes like their “When The Night Comes” echoed some of the same explorations into soulful new wave as the Talking Heads circa the 80’s live recordings on The Name Of The Band Is The Talking Heads. Surely these earlier bands were influences but Watchers seemed to be finding their path armed with similar tools as the bands often referred to in reviews. So in their musical search they uncovered sometimes chanted sometimes crooned vocals, extended grooves, and arty deconstructed guitar parts. The connection to the NY “dance punk” trend was ultimately limiting because it lead critics to assume a lot about the band’s intentions. When “dance punk” ended Watchers suffered the backlash from critics on upcoming releases and trend following crowds moved onto whatever was next.
As drummers and percussionists switched positions and then came and went, Watchers re-invented and rewrote and reconfigured as they grew. As the promise of large record sales and widespread popularity diminished, the adventurous musical spirit thrived. They lost their backing vocalists but gained a freedom to experiment with the recording process. The Dunes Phase ep produced a more unclassifiable sound from Watchers. The earlier comparisons made less sense than they once seemed to. The band was definitely on the road to an uncharted destination. The tunes were uniquely Watchers. The ep is brilliant in subtly, bounce and the songs reveal themselves in new and interesting ways. The structures and themes for the songs were in the voice of Watchers. They included two excellent remixes by Wayne Montana (bassist/keyboardist of The Eternals) on this ep. The remixes helped take their sound into unexpected places and sparked ideas for future mixing & recording.
It is around this time when they crossed paths with early 80’s NY musician James Chance and became the backing band for 3 U.S. tours. Watchers would open. Touring with one of their musical heroes was inspiring and challenging. Drummer changes and the downslide of the music industry took its toll on the band that put creative energy before timeliness or accessibility. The weight of being a band dragged on the spirits of the members as they discovered that the listening public doesn’t extend its listening ear willingly to bands that are not riding a wave of critical hype. The possibility of breaking up seemed to travel in the van with them, silent but taking up a lot of space.
Armed with the confidence, stamina and weariness of a long distance runner Watchers booked a month of time at Volume Studio to record what would become the Rabble ep and their final record, Vampire Driver (James Chance collaborations can be found on both). The Rabble ep was a Euro-only ep that supported their European tour. The record is great and is a wonderful set up for Vampire Driver, their finest work. Vampier Driver is experimental yet deliciously palatable. The record is adventurous and challenging, spontaneous and well constructed. The line-up for the final recordings brought forth their best material. Every facet of the Watchers’ nature is revealed and articulated. The studio time offered them the opportunity to stretch out and use the studio as an instrument as well. This benefited them untold amounts. Vampire Driver shows us a timeless band from a world of dark corners, paranoia, strained relationships, disturbing glimpses through bedroom curtains, corruption and disappointment. But even with all of this there is a positivity that exudes itself. With every song on this record offering another revelation of flavor it is difficult to point to stand out tracks but “(We’ve Got) A Witness”, “Rabble”, “Fire Ants”, and “Chess Champion” would make for a decent cross-section of stylistic offerings. These records are all we have left of the Watchers’ time here on earth and if you were not lucky enough to have experienced them live, take the time to check out these records. If you did see them live then you know what I say it true and you probably have several of these records in your collection already.
Watchers are survived by a vocalist, guitarist and percussionist whom will go on to make music together under another moniker.
– Damon Locks
artwork Ethan D’Ercole, color treatment by Damon Locks