For artists, a change in scenery often leads to creative rejuvenation. That was the case for The Watchmen.
In 1998, the Winnipeg rockers readied their latest batch of songs and set out to make their fourth album. After the commercial disappointment of Brand New Day — the band’s first record to not reach Gold status for sales of 50,000 units — the band left MCA Records.
Inspired by a new label, a new approach in the studio, and a new locale in Seattle, a breakthrough occurred. Silent Radar, The Watchmen’s first release for EMI, reinvigorated them. The dozen tracks feature some of the best — and the most melodic — songs the band ever wrote. The album’s commercial success returned the group to their golden expectations and took them to new markets.
In making Silent Radar, The Watchmen soaked in the vibes of the late 1990s Seattle grunge scene. They also enjoyed using some cool gear available to them in the Pearl-Jam-owned Litho Studio where they recorded the album with Adam Kasper (Foo Fighters, REM, Soundgarden).
For six weeks, the quartet lived together in a rental apartment in the seaport city. It was a wondrous time. The camaraderie among the four band members — Daniel Greaves, Joey Serlin, Sammy Kohn, and Ken Tizzard — felt just like the band’s early days when they jammed in their parents’ basements on wintry Winnipeg nights. The reason they played then was for fun, not about chasing sales. This youthful spirit is infused in Silent Radar.
Silent Radar produced The Watchmen’s first big radio hit. “Stereo” not only resonated in Canada, but also climbed the Australian charts. But the record is much more than that single, which guitarist Serlin admits to not even liking initially.
Catching up with Serlin and Greaves a day before the digital-only release of Silent Radar Super Deluxe Anniversary Edition — a 46-song curated collection of the remastered original album, previously unreleased live recordings, acoustic versions, outtakes, and demos — finds the pair excited about the opportunity for fans to revisit these songs and to also hear some stripped-down hidden gems. Greaves chats from his home while Serlin, sporting a black Winnipeg Jets baseball cap, connects from his Vapor Music office in Toronto, the audio production studio where he serves as president and creative director.
“There was a lot on the line at that time,” recalls Serlin about the making of Silent Radar 25 years ago. “We had just changed labels and we came off Brand New Day, which did not do as well for us commercially. I do not want to say we got Brand New Day wrong, but we definitely wanted to get Silent Radar right.
“We wrote a ton and did a lot of pre-production before going into the studio,” he continues. “I forgot, until we went through the process for this anniversary package, that we actually recorded the album twice! So a lot went into the making of this record, but we nailed it. There are some songs on that album that I’m really proud of … I believe our craft of songwriting hit a nice stride and you can hear a real maturity in our writing.”
“Any Day Now” is one of Serlin’s personal favorites.
“It’s just a really well-written song in terms of the chord changes and the bridge,” he says. “It felt both crafty and intelligent. I also love ‘Brighter Hell.’ It’s an ambient and atmospheric piece and I just love Danny’s lyrics on that one. It really takes you to a place. When I think of music, I think a lot in colours and that one really took me to a certain place.”
Critics agreed. Upon its release, the Edmonton Journal called the record a “nice surprise” and a “dynamic and thoughtful piece of rock ‘n’ roll work.” The Kingston Whig-Standard wrote that Silent Radar was “the band’s most focused effort to date.”
Producer Adam Kasper (who won a Grammy in 1999 for his work on the Foo Fighters’ There is Nothing Left to Lose) influenced the record’s soundscape.
“He was the right guy at the right time,” Serlin recalls. “We just clicked. After having worked with Doug Olson on our previous two records, who was meticulous and liked to do multiple takes, Adam [Kasper] was more organic and performance-based. He liked to record the full band on the floor to try to capture an authentic performance.”
Greaves adds: “At that time we were a road tested band. Kasper’s approach felt right. It was important to capture that attitude on that record. Looking back, it felt like the real height of the ‘I need to hear a single’ era and that added some extra pressure that motivated us.”
SEATTLE SIGHTS, SOUNDS AND SOAPS
Silent Radar was the first record The Watchmen recorded outside of Toronto. The environment of this vibrant West Coast city definitely shaped the resulting soundscapes Kasper helped the band create.
“That was my most memorable recording experience ever,” Greaves says. “We immersed ourselves in the city. The coffee was amazing, the pot was amazing, and the best part was that we didn’t have to get in a van at the end of the day and drive somewhere else. It was truly a beautiful time. Joey and I also got into the TV show ‘Dallas.’ We did not go to the studio each day until we had watched an episode!”
Since Kasper was a local and entrenched in the Seattle grunge scene, the band had access that some other bands might not have had. For example, Matt Cameron, Pearl Jam’s drummer, would stop by every morning on his motorcycle and stay for a coffee. Serlin also remembers using a Mesa/Boogie guitar amplifier owned by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell to create one of the signature sounds on Silent Radar. Greaves also enjoyed some cool gear like a Sony-C condenser microphone that Pearl Jam’s frontman Eddie Vedder had previously recorded with in the studio.
“We were trying to be cool, but we were still just Winnipeg kids working in this amazing studio and using stuff that bands we idolized had used,” Greaves says. “It was a big deal!”
AUSSIE RULES: TWO TALES FROM DOWN UNDER
Silent Radar was the first Watchmen record to sell well in Australia. This led to the band doing several tours there: one with American alternative rock trio Marcy Playground and another with Australian hard-rockers the Screaming Jets. These “down under” gigs were filled with adventures they’ll never forget. Greaves recalls being treated like stars.
“That was our first experience being popular in a place that was not off the Trans-Canada Highway,” he says.
Serlin shares two funny stories about their time touring Australia.
“Our drummer and I brought our girlfriends and the budget from the record label had us getting one room each. We asked for an extra room for our girlfriends and we had a great time, but when we got back home, EMI sent me an invoice for like $5,000! I was like, ‘pardon me!’“
The other story Serlin shares involves a powerful pill and the road manager they had, who was also the manager for Australian band INXS.
“I was bitching about the flight home and how I can’t sleep on airplanes. This guy said, ‘I’m going to give you a pill I used to give Michael [Hutchence, INXS’ lead singer], but only take half of it.’ I got on the plane and figured since I’m like 200 pounds that I could take the whole thing. I started reading a book as the plane took off. Ten hours later we landed and it took three flight attendants to wake me up. The woman beside me said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody sleep like that in my entire life!’ I texted the Australian road manager after we got off the plane and asked him what the hell he had given me; apparently, it was a roofie!”
Twenty-five years since the release of Silent Radar, The Watchmen’s fans are still loyal. For that, the band is full of gratitude. “I took a lot of it for granted when it was happening and I had my head down,” concludes Greaves. “We would play a show and then move on to the next town and do it again. Today, I’m extremely humbled. Our fans are now bringing their kids to their first show and that’s a big deal.”
RECORD FAST FACTS
Album: Silent Radar
Band: The Watchmen
Sales: 50,000 (Canada)
Producer: Adam Kasper (Foo Fighters, REM, Soundgarden)
Additional Engineers: Matt Barnes, Sam Hopstedt
Mastered By: Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering, Portland, Maine
Studio: Studio Litho in Seattle, Washington
The Players: Daniel Greaves (vocals, piano, harmonica); Joey Serlin (guitars); Sammy Kohn (drums); Ken Tizzard (bass); Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, played Hammond B3 and piano on three tracks: “Any Day Now,” “Rooster,” and “On My Way.”)
2. Any Day Now
3. I’m Waiting
5. Silent Radar
6. Do It
7. He’s Gone
8. Say Something
9. On My Way
10. Top Of The World
11. Come Around
12. Brighter Hell