An isolated farmhouse somewhere between Kingston and Gananoque, Ontario, is home to probably the only neo-psychedelic music guru working in Canada: Greg Watson. While a new wave of psychedelia rules the college airwaves with bands like The Apples In Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Olivia Tremor Control being the rage du jour, Watson is one of the very few musicians in Canada devoting time to the genre.
In fact, hes been playing music under the moniker of The Orange Alabaster Mushroom long before the above-mentioned crop of trippy bands began releasing albums in the mid-1990s. Its fair to say he could have cut himself a slice of the cult following the Apples are enjoying, if not for the fact his debut album, Space & Time, took seven years to make.
But fame and instant recognition isnt something the 30-year-old seeks. He seems just as happy having people in out of the way places discover his music through strong word-of-mouth. In England and Norway, hes been selling 7" vinyl records by the boatload. A two-song single Watson released on Englands Earworm label in 1998 reportedly sold out its entire 600-copy run in less than a month.
Watson says hes never set foot England, much less toured it. So how does he explain his UK fan base? "The Internet helps [spread the word], for sure," says the musician, who is also a LAN administrator at Queens University in Kingston. "I think even prior to me having any contact with the Internet, theres always been fanzines, labels, and other artists in the garage and psychedelic scenes whove been really supportive."
Active in the underground music scene for 15 years, Watsons first band, The Buzzards, was one of the late-1980s alternative rock bands in Ottawa trying -- and mostly failing -- to recapture the success of REM. Since that early start, hes played in at least 12 other bands with a broad range of musical styles throughout Canada and the US. Hes been a member of a Spinal Tap-like metal band (Thorax), a folk-rock band (Green Achers), and perhaps most famously with the Vancouver garage-punk band known as The Fiends. Through the years though, he says psychedelic music has remained his first love.
"A lot of the music I was listening to when I was younger -- and still listen to -- was a hybrid garage-psych sound from the States," says Watson, citing the Paisley Underground movement of the early '80s as a big influence. "Also, a lot of the British psychedelic stuff, especially early Pink Floyd, had almost a punk-kind of attitude. That's what really appealed to me. I don't really like hippy music. Im more into the pop song, the punk energy and the trippy aspect. I definitely appreciate and enjoy what various Elephant 6 bands are doing," he adds, "but my influences [come from] a little earlier." (Elephant 6 is an indie label dedicated to psychedelic music that was set up in Denver by The Apples In Stereo during the early '90s.)
Watsons been producing indie cassette-only or vinyl-only releases since 1989. Forming the Orange Alabaster Mushroom in 1991 while still a student at Queens University, he immediately began recording himself on a four-track in his Kingston bedroom. "[I came up with the name] when my eyes scanned my room and fell upon a gift that a friend of mine had given to me a few years before: an orange alabaster mushroom," he says. "I dont think I could come up with a name for a psychedelic pop act that was more fitting than that!"
It took five years before some of these songs were unearthed on The Psychedelic Bedroom EP, issued on Norways Perfect Pop Records. The following year, the aforementioned 7" of newer material came out as The Slug. Earworm finally got around to compiling both the EP and 7", as well as a whole cluster of other tracks, as Space & Time in mid-2000. All in all, it took more than seven years to complete the album, having been recorded between February 1991 and June 1998. Coyly hidden on the back cover, a quote from one of OAMs songs sort of sums up Watsons attitude behind the long road to completion: "Time is an elephant; it just never goes away."
Watson says he slowly went about recording songs, releasing them sporadically here and there. The albums opening song, "Your Face Is In My Mind" originally appeared on a cassette released by his old band, The 14th Wray, in 1991 and a US record label compilation in 1993. It was not until 1996, after labels on the other side of the world began to approach him, that he began to seriously contemplate releasing an entire album of psychedelic-pop gems.
"I wasnt extremely ambitious in selling [my music] to labels," says Watson. "It was more like the other way around. [Perfect Pop] tracked me down through a mutual friend and bugged me to send some recordings. I find those are the labels that are the most conscientious and fair to artists in general. Theyre not doing it for the money, obviously, because there really isnt any involved."
The debut album from the Orange Alabaster Mushroom is neatly divided on vinyl between the four-track recordings he made in his bedroom during the early '90s and eight-track studio songs recorded later in the decade. In typical Todd Rundgren-esque fashion, all of the tracks were recorded entirely by Watson -- except for the first and last songs on the album. Theres not a huge difference in sound quality between the two sides, however, and the songwriting is just as consistent. Occupying space in a dreamy, sonic neverland outside of the aggressive rap and metal sounds dominating todays alternative rock, the Orange Alabaster Mushroom closely resembles what youd get if John Lennon had sung the mad poetry of Syd Barrett. For added measure, include squelchy electric organ sounds -- à la The Doors' keyboardist Ray Manzarek -- in all the appropriate places and you get the idea. Needless to say, with titles like "Rainbow Man," "Sunny Day," and "Valerie Vanillaroma," there is also a high level of singsongy quirkiness here.
Given the nine-year delay it took to release a proper full-length album, Watson says he has a whole bank of material to draw upon for future releases. He was originally going to commission Space & Time as a double-LP, with the second album nothing but acoustic demo versions from the original sessions. The plan now is that once Space & Time sells out sometime this year, a CD version will follow with some of the outtakes tacked on as bonus tracks. Watson intends to put his techie knowledge to good use and make a gift of his songs as downloads on his website.
Watson ultimately decided that most of the songs didnt sound good enough to be released for sale. "They werent recorded as well or the master tapes had degraded a bit. So it's just to have them out there [for fans]."
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