Watson Park (Profile)

After a battle with cancer, drummer Nate Staggs returns strong

When I step into Reality Tuesdays, a Covington coffee joint, I scan the room for “band signs” — tattoos, Chucks, skate shoes, black clothes, wrecked hair or wicked t-shirts, the usual dead giveaways. Then I see two guys huddling in a booth — early twenties, whispering about sound systems. Bingo. Watson Park.

Drummer Nate Staggs wears a T-shirt that reads “Alive” in big block letters. Although his happy-go-lucky, blue eyes shine, Staggs has been through the wringer — in November of 2006, he was diagnosed with Leukemia. After 10 months of chemotherapy treatments, his disease went into remission.

When we move to a bigger table, Staggs picks up one crutch. Wearing black-framed glasses, he limps over, sitting down. Hip replacement, he explains. Staggs says, “All the drugs I’ve been on — the steroids especially — they mess with your joints.”

“He went to practice this weekend,” guitarist Joey Miles says, shaking his head.

Staggs reveals several bird tattoos. One’s a dove, another a sparrow.

“Which one do you think is cooler?” he asks me, chuckling.

It’s like guessing someone’s age. You can’t win, so I refuse to pick.

Then Miles joins in. Miles’ features are dark; he has shadowy stubble and he speaks with a soft heart. He tells me that Scott Singleton (bass) just got a canary tat.

“I might get one too,” he says with a relaxed smile. “Any ideas?” Although I have many ideas, I keep my mouth shut. Wouldn’t want to be blamed for tattoo remorse.

Beyond skin art, this band’s bond goes way back. Singleton, Staggs and Miles played in a Northern Kentucky high school band together. Meanwhile, vocalist Philip Dunn was pumping out acoustic solo songs in Lexington until Singleton met Dunn at the University of Kentucky in 2005.

But right before their first show, Staggs says, “That week, I was diagnosed, so I didn’t play, which sucked because I had to go straight into the hospital for treatments. They were playing acoustic without me and when I felt up to it I’d play, but it wasn’t very often. They waited. They weren’t like, ‘Hey, we’ll cut you loose and get another drummer.’ They’re my three best friends, so they’re supportive in that aspect too.”

Since that time, Watson Park has played several benefit shows for the Leukemia Research Foundation, “something Scott has really spearheaded,” says Miles. At one show they met the band Ellison, who introduced them to Mitch Wyatt of Sounds Underground Studio where Watson Park just recorded their first five-song E.P., Maine to California.

When asked about the recording process, Staggs jokes, “(Wyatt) had a Jagermeister machine in his kitchen. Needless to say, we kept goin’ back.”

So think of the Florida trio Copeland and children-of-the-’90s Alt-band Jimmy Eat World, but add in Miles’ more eclectic My Morning Jacket-ish approach and Singleton’s Punk taste as well.

“Philip’s pretty easy to write with. It’s fresh, catchy stuff. There’s no negativity. It’s fun,” Staggs comments. “Big choruses.”

This past year, Dunn toured across the country solo, promoting Watson Park songs. Miles says, “Philip went to art school. He’s talented. He wrote a lot of Folky, soft stuff and he plays a lot of piano. I guess he decided he wanted to go the more poppy route and it really shows on the CD, obviously. I don’t write all the guitar parts. We do it together. I play a Telecaster with a lot of reverb … when you put that with what they already had going, it just kind of solidified it.”

With management and an upcoming show with MTV’s recent band of the month Thriving Ivory, Watson Park’s future looks rocking. But Staggs stays in the moment:

“This might sound weird, but once you’re threatened with a life-threatening illness, you’re like, ‘Ah, if it happens, it happens,’ ” he says. “In a weird way, you accept it. Of course I think about it (relapsing) sometimes. But you just gotta take what life throws at you and make the best of it. That’s what you gotta do.”

“Nate’s been my best friend. He’s a killer. He’s awesome. I thought it sucked about his hip, but Nate was like, ‘It’s not cancer,’ and that put it in perspective,” Miles states quietly.

He admits, “Nate’s telling me I’m uptight all the time.”

“Yeah, you do worry a little bit.” Staggs nods, picking up his crutch.

The lights dim. Closing time. Life may be fragile, yes, but Staggs maneuvers outside with little struggle. Not even a wince. Actually, he grins, heading into the big, yellow sun.

WATSON PARK (myspace.com/watsonpark) plays the Madison Theater Thursday with The Flight Station. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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