Imagine a band unfettered by style, by rules, by genre, by method. Such is the Walkabouts. The creation of Carla Torgerson and Chris Eckman, the Walkabouts somehow have taken the eclectic and turned it into a defined sound. In my book, I use a chocolate/peanut butter analogy to describe a band that combined the folk influences of Carla and the punk background provided by Chris (remember those old great Reese’s commercials?). Well, that analogy is a bit dumbed down, as you’ll soon see.
Let’s start with Carla, who came from Seattle and then ventured to Whitman College in Walla Walla (sorry, but that reminds me of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.) Bored with small town life in Eastern Washington, Carla spent some time studying in Germany. There, she became exposed to cutting-edge punk rock then happening in early ’80s Europe. Mostly, though, she was attracted to songs—especially lyrics—and used that talent to become a street performer. “[I was] able to make enough money to afford a good meal and a hotel room,” she says, “and just thought, ‘Hmmm, I could get into this.’”
Finishing up her studies in Germany, Carla returned to the States—specifically to a fish cannery in Alaska. The following exchange shows the cultural divide that can exist between a Philadelphian like myself and a Northwesterner like Carla.
Carla: “Came back to America [and] went back up to the fish cannery…that’s where I met Chris Eckman.”
Steve: “That’s in Alaska, right?”
S: “What brought you up there?”
C: “To can salmon.”
S: “Just lookin’ for work?”
C: “Yeah. I’d already done two summers up there and uh–”
S: “I mean, you have to remember I’m coming from the East Coast. I’m thinkin’ ‘Okay…’”
C: [laughs] “It’s the salmon industry. And there was always like a six week period that worked really well for a lot of college students, because it was the six weeks…that you had off for summer….So you could go up there and make $3,500 in six weeks.”
The Walkabouts’ other founding member, Chris Eckman, grew up a suburban kid, in the dreaded Bellevue on Seattle’s Eastside. He loved playing guitar, but soon found out he couldn’t emulate Jimmy Page. Then he discovered punk rock, and began venturing to shows at Seattle’s Showbox theater. The passion of the music appealed to this bored suburbanite. “[I] realized [punk was] much easier to play—much more immediate,” says Chris. “I could write songs. I could actually create my own band. I didn’t have to audition for some terrible covers group, and learn ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and all of that.
“Also as a fan,” Chris continues, “I saw Patti Smith—I think, ’78…maybe ’77, and that really changed my life. I mean, more or less, I sold all of my records—started over….and basically just started building my collection from zero: Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, the Ramones, everything.”
Chris brought all that with him when he met Carla at that fish cannery. “[Chris and I] traveled around—after the [canning] season was done,” says Carla. “We traveled in Alaska a bit, just hitchhiking. And that’s always a good test to see if you can get along with somebody. And he was very much into…adventure—just like [me]. I always liked to put myself out there to see what happens.”
In overly simplistic terms, Carla taught Chris about folk stylings, and Chris showed Carla how to play punk rock. “I was aware of [punk rock],” says Carla. “I just couldn’t quite play like that. Like he could play that way—he knew the Stranglers, he knew the Only Ones, he knew those songs and how to play them….And I learned how to play with a flat pick. That’s when you start bein’ able to do rock n roll.”
After Chris finished up college, the pair returned to Seattle and formed the Walkabouts, with Chris’ brothers Curt and Grant filling out the band on bass and drums, respectively. It was 1984. To the naked eye, Seattle seemed finished. The punk movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s had evaporated. Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, which had featured a vibrant all-ages scene, had become a ghost town. So, people left…anyone who had any aspirations of making music a career or even just as a lifestyle left town. They ventured to LA, the Bay Area, New York, Boston…anywhere seemed better than here.
It was at this point, right around the formation of the Walkabouts in 1984, that Seattle became especially interesting. With no possible career aspirations in sight, and no clubs to speak of, the people that stayed in Seattle moved the scene literally into basements. Punk rock rules dictated by London and New York became non sequitur. People simply had nothing to lose.
As the scene appeared to be bottoming out in 1984 and 1985, Seattle began to showcase underground bands that ventured beyond the rules dictated from the outside including: the surf/punk/pop Young Fresh Fellows, the avant-jazz/post-punk/garage U-Men, the psych influenced Room Nine and Green Pajamas, and early grunge bands Soundgarden and Green River. “I’ve traveled all over the world playing music,” says Chris. “And I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a town—and I’m really talking internationally—and people would just go, ‘Ohhhh, you can’t believe what a wasteland this place is. This is the worst place to play music in the world.’ I’d say, ‘You know, I feel your pain. But everyone said that in Seattle in 1985.’”