Early this April, the Bay Area rock band WATERS made their late-night TV debut on Conan, ripping through “Got To My Head,” the lead single from their new album What’s Real.
On a stage set with bouquets of flowers evoking both the album’s cover art and Nirvana’s famous flower-filled MTV performance, front man Van Pierszalowski bounced on his feet as if the stage were on fire, his blond hair spinning around his head like helicopter blades. The rest of the band matched his fervent energy, pounding drums and howling backup vocals like it was their last gig ever.
Although WATERS doesn’t possess the nuance of more finicky groups like the Arcade Fire, opting instead for gargantuan hooks and chunky riffs, their performance revealed a similar urgency. Like most of What’s Real, “Got To My Head” is gloriously simplistic, three minutes of utilitarian, anthemic rock 'n' roll. But even with the sweet flowers, O'Brien’s giddy congratulations and the beaming backup singers, you could tell that not everything was as it seemed: the song was still desperately sad.
Pierszalowski first gained attention in the second half of the aughts as the co-frontman of the mellow, often acoustic group Port O’Brien. Although many of those songs felt restrained, they hinted at a grandeur to come. The group dissolved in 2011, and soon after, Pierszalowski wrote what became WATERS’ debut, Out in the Light, while living in Oslo and “romancing a particular girl.”
The album, produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, Brian Wilson, Earl Sweatshirt) in Dallas, was far grittier than Port O’Brien; his voice and guitar were distorted and scratchy, and the songs felt like the blues even if they didn’t sound like it. As Pierszalowski explains to me in a recent phone interview, "I wanted to make it really raw, loud, [full of Nirvana’s] In Utero drum sounds.”
While on the road in support of Out in the Light, Pierszalowski says he heard a lot of what he calls “alt-rock” on the radio. He wasn’t impressed by the bulk of the subject material: dancing, partying, hanging out with friends. “For me, that kind of stuff is cool,” Pierszalowski says, “but that’s what pop radio is for.” Rock and roll, he continues, “is not about that, it’s about having an escape, real and meaningful.” So Pierszalowski set about writing songs that celebrated the same sensibilities of his rock heroes, bands like Weezer and Green Day, but tackled much tougher subject material: heartbreak, anger and fear.
The result is What’s Real. Although over the course of its 11 songs Pierszalowski and the band stuff huge hooks and riffs anywhere they can, these big catchy moments only provide a foil for Pierszalowski's bitterness and anger. The feelings are blunt, deadpan, the sound of “trying to not be too cool at all,” Pierszalowski says. On “I Feel Everything,” the band shows their cards upfront, opening with a colossal wordless pre-chorus before Pierszalowski echoes Kurt Cobain’s menacing refrain on “Come As You Are”: “You found my brother’s gun / I think it’s more fun like that.”
Later, “Stupid Games” sparkles with chipper synthesizers and a snappy B-52s groove, but quickly reveals a manipulative and resentful narrator: “I walk away with another / Yeah, I’ll cop a feel but I’m tired of these,” Pierszalowski snarls. On the album’s cover, an immaculate bouquet of photos sits in the center, a picture of serenity. You don’t have to look too hard, however, to notice that it’s on fire.
WATERS is currently touring the U.S. with the hook-driven duo Matt & Kim; both groups bring their fist-pumping anthems to the Warfield on May 2. And even though only three members of WATERS still live in the Bay Area, they are still, at heart, a San Francisco band. And while they'll inevitably bring all of the excitement and energy that hometown shows provide, don’t forget that something else lurks under the surface -- WATERS' music is more than just a party. It's an escape.