On Monday, musicians and Polvo fans began paying tribute to Eddie Watkins, the distinctive, powerful drummer of the indie rock institution Polvo. Watkins died Sunday evening in Durham at the age of forty-seven.
But the members of the great Chapel Hill band, whose template Watkins helped create, instead remembered Eddie, the guy they knew and friend they had.
“Everybody’s talking about the band now,” says Polvo singer and guitarist Ash Bowie, “but that was just sort of the setting in which we became friends, you know?”
All three other original members essentially say the same things about Watkins.
“He was always fun to be around,” says Polvo bassist Steve Popson. “Always lighthearted. Never down in the dumps. Never a bummer. He just had a good spirit about him.
“He was incredibly nice—very calm and easygoing,” he continues. “But also, he had characters within him. Like, he would kinda decide”—and here, Popson drops into a Southern drawl—”‘I’m gonna be the guy from Charleston this weekend’ or, ‘I’m gonna be the good ol’ boy from Johnston County.’”
Polvo formed around 1990, after guitarist-singer and then-UNC student Dave Brylawski met Watkins and Bowie. They discovered they had mutual musical interests. Popson, an N.C. State student and old friend of Brylawski’s, soon joined.
“Dave and I were going to try to play, and he said he had met this great drummer,” Bowie recalls. “Dave and Steve grew up together, so, that was it. That was the whole start of a band, basically.”
Like many great experimental bands, the four musicians developed an internal musical language as they learned to play together.
“I’d never been in a band,” says Bowie. “It was a lot of fun. Eddie was a real big part of it. Just playing with a real drummer—it’s pretty awesome.”
Popson recalls how some of Watkins’ unexpected influences seeped into that lexicon.
“Eddie definitely liked weird jazz,” says Popson. “Understanding the complexity and the coolness of those things helped him to quickly adapt to the weird time changes. That was kind of a learning curve for all of us. Eddie was probably the most seasoned musician of all of us.”
As band practices became a regular thing, Bowie and Brylawski began developing their distinctive tunings and uniquely jarring riffs.
“Their innovations increased really quickly, as we played more and more,” says Popson. “The first time Ash brought in that song from Cor-Crane Secret, ‘Bend or Break,’ we were just like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ But we figured it out. We all learned to translate, together, what Dave or Ash’s vision of a song was, and make it work.”
Watkins, he says, brought many non-traditional ideas to the drums, which worked well with Polvo’s idiosyncratic songwriting.
“Structurally, he kept it simple,” adds Bowie “And I think that was helpful, to sort of allow people to have a bit more patience with it. Because if he was doing anything more busy or complicated, it might have been too much. You now, there’s already enough going on.”
Bowie and Popson struggle to come up with a favorite Watkins story they feel comfortable sharing, or to name a favorite performance. Understandably, they’re not ready to think about him that way. But Bowie manages to bring up one drumming move that still slays him.
“I loved the break he played on ‘Tilebreaker,’” Bowie remembers. “It was a creative use of space—minimal, but at the same time, it switched gears in a cool way.”
On a sad Monday, when friends and fans were sharing Polvo videos online and mourning Eddie’s loss, local drummer and comedian Jon Wurster elicited smiles with a remembrance of touring alongside Polvo in the early nineties, as a member of Superchunk.
“He was a delight to watch,” Wurster wrote of Watkins, “and his unique style and economy of movement were such that Jim [Wilbur] dubbed him ‘The Chef,’ because he always looked like he was making a salad when he drummed.”
Watkins’ former bandmates laugh when they hear that; they can see it.
After three albums, three EPs, and five singles with Polvo, Watkins amicably left the band in 1996 to focus on his career and family. When Polvo reunited for two new albums and several short tours during the last decade, Brian Quast was the band’s new drummer. Popson says he missed Watkins’ “carefree-ness”after he left.
“Eddie was just his own person,” says Popson. “When he decided to move on, it wasn’t totally unexpected, because he had gotten married. He was the first person in the band to have kids. Life called him away to do that.”
Popson, now a teacher, says he watched Watkins’ two kids, Ned and Lucie, grow up close-by.
‘When I would work at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, he would bring them. They knew me as one of the guys from Eddie’s old band,” says Popson, who saw them about every six months. “I really hope they’re able to be in a good head space. That’s the first thing I thought of when I heard the news.”
Though Polvo’s Dave Brylawski was too shaken to talk about the news, he did send a recollection of Watkins. They met when Watkins was only 18.
“We started playing music together almost immediately. He knew a lot more about music than I did, and his aesthetic opinions on music and otherwise were very influential on me. He seemed quite worldly,” says Brylawski. “At the same time, he was extremely down-to-earth and kind. He had hair down to his rear and loved to let loose. We had so many adventures together, many in the three years before Polvo started. The picture on the back of Today’s Active Lifestyles is probably my favorite frozen memory of him.”
In recent years, Watkins lived in Durham and worked as a senior project manager for LexisNexis. He got married again, last summer, to Terri Watkins. His close friend and recent bandmate (in Strangers in the Valley of the Kings) Dave Jernigan says that’s one of the things that’s so tragic about the loss.
“He clearly adored her,” says Jernigan. “She clearly adores him, and very, very obviously adored Eddie’s children. If you kept up with him on Facebook…”
He stops and chuckles.
“I told him, the last time I saw him, ‘Man, you gotta knock off the ‘I’m checking in at Rue Cler with my lady love,”” he says. “I was like, ‘Come on, Eddie, stop rubbing it in our faces.’”
Kidding aside, Jernigan says he was in awe of Watkins’ artistry, and that he admires his friend’s approach to life.
“Eddie? Oh my god. Easily one of the funniest fucking people I know,” he remembers. “He was so intelligent, yet so respectful and irreverent with his humor. He seemed to see humor in everything.”