The Walkabouts’ association with the then grunge-oriented Sub Pop label initially made sense. In 1988, the Sub Pop 200 compilation offered a wonderful cross-section of late ’80s Northwest music. In addition to their flagship bands Mudhoney, TAD, and Nirvana (and Soundgarden, which at that point had moved beyond Sub Pop), the comp provided the acoustic “Dead is Dead” from Terry Lee Hale, and a surfy-rocker from Olympia’s Beat Happening. The Walkabouts contributed a Celtic/folk piece called “Got No Chains.”
By the early ’90s, however, as Seattle and grunge began to take off in the United States and internationally, the Walkabouts’ association with Sub Pop became problematic. “I remember, like, [a] pretty full club, which was pretty exciting…but suddenly you see the guys with the backwards baseball caps,” Chris recalls, “and the flannel shirts in the front with their arms crossed. And, you know, we start some song—some traditional folk song or something. And, you know, three or four songs later they’re no longer there. And, possibly, there’s about thirty other people that have left also. It was pretty brutal at times. But then we’d play [cities like] Chicago…[and] it would be great. Great audience. Local press really supported us. [We] got great reviews and people came out and accepted [our music] on its own merits.”
Ultimately for this great band, the explosion of grunge in 1992 and 1993 worked to its benefit. Since the Walkabouts were never limited by style, the band could continue to explore almost unlimited musical avenues unencumbered by the weight of industry expectation. “The surprising thing,” says Chris, “was when we got to Europe—certainly continental Europe seemed to also take us…on our own merits. Like, ‘these guys are from Seattle, but they’re different and, well, that’s just okay. Because what they’re doing is also cool in its own right.’”
In some ways, the Walkabouts have always been Chris’ band, but he has refused to take over. In fact, the open exchange of ideas continues to be encouraged. “Chris is never anyone that comes in and says, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’” says Carla. “He never had to be that person. He never wanted to be that person. He trusts everyone that they’ve put some time and thought into it.”
The Walkabouts’ “curse of diversity” has also proven to be their greatest blessing—one that continues to keep the band fresh and vital after all these years. Since they made their “last album” (See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens) in 1987, the Walkabouts have released 14 records, plus three as “Chris and Carla.” Last year, the band put out the epic Travels in the Dustland on the European label Glitterhouse. Next week, the Walkabouts will venture to Europe for a month-long tour, including opening for their idol Patti Smith in Bonn, Germany on July 9.
Ultimately, this band represents the power, soul, and sheer joy that music can provide to us all…unfettered by genre or commercial manipulation. “I think…what kind of got people’s attention,” says Carla, “was the idea that we took folk songs and fucked ’em up a bit.”