Archive for the ‘From the Cutting Room Floor’ Category

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.”

As Seattle’s underground music scene began to take flight in the latter ’80s, the Walkabouts rose with it, playing frequent gigs, even self-releasing a cassette called 22 Disasters in 1985.  By 1987, however, the whole notion of playing music for its own end seemed tired.  So the band decided to record a full length album before calling it a career.  That became See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens, released on Conrad Uno’s Popllama label in 1988.  “We simply handed Conrad Uno a cassette—I think it was a cassette of the mixes—we just decided to document the songs we had been doing that first three years and then get out of the business.  And then he came back at us and said, ‘You know, with a little bit of re-arranging, I believe you’ve made an album.’  And we’re like, ‘Really?’”

That first record did not yet define the Walkabouts’ collective sound, though, as the band continued to find its voice.  “When we started,” says Chris, “I think we were really envious of these bands that could only play one way.  Because, in a way, it was cool, because they had a sound.  They went on stage.  They played thirty minutes, and you were enthralled.  You were like, ‘Wow!  That really sounded like something.’  We’d play thirty minutes, and it would be like a sampler record.”

“I think I know what [Chris] means,” Carla adds.  “Like Mudhoney just gets up there and they can just march straightforward.  And we’re kinda like, ‘Okay, now.  We’re gonna leap over here and do this song that’ll confuse you.  And now we’re gonna leap over here and try to pull this off.’  But I guess that’s just the only way that we kept it interesting for ourselves.”

Fortunately, the Walkabouts decided to stick it out, and by the turn of the decade the chocolate/peanut butter combination began to coalesce.  To use Chris’ words, the band began to “sound like something.”  The fusion of folk, punk rock, Americana, and whatever else becomes evident with the release of the band’s next two records: Cataract and Rag and Bone, released by Sub Pop in 1989 and 1990.  Take a listen to “Hell’s Soup Kitchen” and “Whereabouts Unknown” from Cataract and “The Anvil Song” and “Medicine Hat” from Rag and Bone, to get an idea. (See link to “Medicine Hat” below.)

When you listen to these records, something else becomes apparent that differentiates this band from its contemporary peers.  While late ’80s Seattle featured unbridled creativity, lyrical sensibilities, song craft, and varied instrumentation were often not heavily emphasized.  Exceptions did exist: Capping Day, the Posies, and the Young Fresh Fellows come to mind, at least in terms of songwriting prowess and emphasis on lyrics.  The Walkabouts, though, took all of that and added more to the palette.  In addition to the typical guitar, bass, drums, and occasional keyboard, you’ll find violin, cello, trombone, harmonica, and mountain dulcimer on these albums.  “We had such expansive breadth of what we were listening to,” says Carla, “I mean from, probably, third grade on….We grew up with ELO, you know…for us to hear cellos and violins with rock—it didn’t seem [like] anything new.”

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?”

C: “Yes.”

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.’”

As part of my “grunge” class this fall, we’re going to spend some time on Seattle folks that didn’t get as much exposure as their more famous brethren (and of course should have)…including: the U-Men, Red Dress, the Young Fresh Fellows, the Squirrels, the Fastbacks, and the Walkabouts.

If you’re not familiar with the Walkabouts, they have been around since 1984 and write well-crafted songs drawing from folk music and the spirit of punk.  I’ve never experienced the band live, but I did get to sit in on a jam session in April with vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Carla Torgerson and keyboardist Glenn Slater.

I have a few interviews to do, as well as much music to listen to…when I’m done all that, I’ll post my write-up here.  I’m hoping to finish up before the band heads to Europe next month, including an opening slot for Patti Smith on July 9th.

The Blackouts’ divided songwriting duties between synthesizer player Roland Barker and singer/guitarist Erich Werner.  Werner’s lyrics reflected an intellectual level beyond his years.  An example, from “Chipped Beef”:

He said he spoke for you

“Follow that man—he’ll show

you to separate the seed from the chaff”

And that we did

It took time, but we realize

that leaves cling to trees

that may poison them…

The band’s trajectory suddenly changed when Roland’s synth was swiped at a Showbox gig.  He then switched to sax, and the balance of power shifted to Erich.  The band became darker, less poppy, more sparse.  For drummer Bill Rieflin, that was the moment when “the Blackouts became the Blackouts.”  Shortly thereafter, bassist Mike Davidson left the band, replaced by Roland’s brother Paul, who went by the stage name Ion.  Mike, who never cared for Roland’s poppy synth-driven songs, became a much bigger fan of the Blackouts after he left the band.  “I really loved what they did–they became like my favorite group after that,” says Mike.  “Shamelessly, I admitted, ‘Yeah, I quit that band, but man they’re great now!'”

By 1982, the Blackouts realized their career options were severely limited in Seattle, and so they decided to head to Boston.  Early ’80s Boston had become a vibrant music community.  At the time, avant-postpunkers Mission of Burma ruled the scene, with future Seattle producer Chris Hanzsek attending their shows.  In any event, the Blackouts scheduled their final Seattle gig at the Oddfellows Hall up on Capitol Hill.  Two bands opened: the Horrible Truth, and a fledgling weirdo punk/garage band called the U-Men.  Jim Tillman, who played bass for the Horrible Truth and later the U-Men, remembers the Blackouts fondly.  “Their recordings literally do not do them justice,” says Jim.  “Their live shows were about the most invigorating, visceral, and just wild-eyed experiences.”

Unfortunately for the Blackouts, the Boston venture did not go well.  Two years later, the band relocated to San Francisco, and quickly imploded.  Ion and Bill ended up in Ministry…Bill also later drummed for R.E.M.  Despite the band’s limited national impact, its imprint upon the local scene was incalculable.  “The Blackouts were probably THEE proto-grunge template,” observes Larry Reid, who had hosted the band at his Rosco Louie art gallery.  “It was sort of a thick, heavy sound.”

You talk to enough Seattle people, you listen to enough music, and you begin to figure out the Northwest’s standout bands…those special bands …bands that created something beyond categorization.  Going back to the ’60s, four Seattle groups stand out, in my opinion—four bands that can’t be duplicated: the Sonics, Red Dress, the U-Men, and the Blackouts.

The Sonics basically invented Northwest garage rock, and continue to influence people with their raw, honest, and inherently creative sound.  Red Dress would result if James Brown and Captain Beefheart had a baby…and that baby that was brought up by a nanny named the Band.  I wrote a piece about them on this blog, so check it out.  The U-Men get more mention in my book than any other band, and with good reason.  That band influenced more of the grunge folks than any other local act, but they were far from grunge.

That leaves us with the Blackouts.  In late ’70s Seattle, you had to play covers to get bar gigs.  Punk bands found themselves putting on their own shows, with a few exceptions.  The only newer acts that got regular club shows were of the cleaned up “new wave” variety.  Musical innovation and experimentation were discouraged…which is why the Blackouts become even more remarkable in retrospect.

The Blackouts descended from the Telepaths, one of Seattle’s original “punk” bands.  The Telepaths played Seattle’s first major punk rock show in 1976—the notorious “TMT Show,” alongside the Meyce and Tupperwares.  But they weren’t punk rock, really.  The Telepaths did not subscribe to the less competence is more punk aesthetic.  They were fans of intricate progressive rock.  At that time, liking prog was the worst possible sin for a punk rocker.  “They were like King Crimson and the Stooges kind of mixed together,” says bassist Mike Davidson of the Lewd, who later joined the Telepaths.

The Telepaths featured brothers Curt and Erich Werner, Homer Spence, Davidson, and drummer Bill Rieflin, whose stellar percussion ability has left most Seattleites to anoint him “Seattle’s greatest drummer.”  That means something, given Seattle’s propensity for generating great trapmeisters including Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, Mother Love Bone’s Greg Gilmore, the Melvins’ Dale Crover (originally from Montesano), the Presidents’ Jason Finn, and others.  Rieflin would later bring his drumming talents to Ministry and R.E.M. 

(The pic above, courtesy of the Meyce’s Paul Hood, shows the Telepaths’ Curt Werner singing at the Bird in 1978.)

By 1979, though, the Telepaths had run their course, and a new band emerged: the Blackouts.  Taking a more bare-boned postpunk approach, Erich Werner would soon take center stage, with Roland Barker on synthesizer, Davidson on bass, and Rieflin on drums.  Local promoter Terry Morgan soon took notice of this new “all star” band.  “They just had an aggressive ‘in your face’ kind of [attitude] that wasn’t just punk rock,” he says, “but it was very musical and intellectual.  They as people were just challenging individuals who wanted to go out and do something spectacular.”

That year, the band released its first single, “Make No Mistake”/“The Underpass” on Neil Hubbard’s Engram label.  While Rocket music critic George Romansic* did not believe the single fully captured the band’s live sound, he nevertheless lauded the Blackouts.  “This band is one of the very few in Seattle that transcend the local scene,” he wrote in the Rocket’s May 1980 issue.  “Those who’ve seen one of the shows where their energy, intelligence and deeply felt emotionalism have sparked and fused together, know about the potential of the Blackouts.”

A few months later, Engram released the band’s first EP, Men in Motion, that included four songs: “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Probabilities,” “Being Be,” and a beautiful industrial, yet melodic instrumental called “Five is 5.”  The Rocket’s Danielle Elliott gave it a favorable review, writing “what a classic it is.”

The Blackouts quickly became the kings of Seattle’s underground scene, happily positioning themselves as the antithesis to poppy new wave bands like the Heats.  The Blackouts landed an ironic gig opening for said Heats at a club called Baby O’s.  Feeling like they needed to make an anti-Heats statement, the Blackouts appeared on stage covered in pig’s blood.  The site and smell of the spectacle elicited screams from the shocked crowd.  “Nice statement,” says the Heats’ Steve Pearson.  “[But] I don’t know what it is you’re stating.  You hate the Heats?  You hate the Heats audience?  You don’t like pigs?”

*- note, Romansic drummed for two Seattle postpunk bands: the Beakers and 3 Swimmers.

While putting my book together, I had to make some calls about which bands to write about, and how much print to give each one.  Since Seattle had so many great bands over the period I cover (1975 to 1990), that task proved a challenge.  Once I completed my initial selection process, I had to cut a bunch more during editing.  Fortunately, this blog allows me to write about those bands that didn’t make the cuts.

That leaves us with the Living, who had a brief life…1981 to 1982 (maybe ’83), but had an incredible amount of talent and following.  The Living featured an extremely talented, melodic singer in John Conte, and bassist in Todd Fleischman.  Initially, the guitar player and drummer rotated instruments: Duff McKagan (later in 10 Minute Warning and Guns N Roses), and Chris Utting (aka Chris Crass).  “John was a good singer,” says Todd, “probably too good of one for punk rock.  He knew how to sing from the diaphragm.”

Duff, who would go on to play bass for GNR, also had incredible talent.  “Duff is like Brian Jones,” says John.  “You can stick him in a room with an instrument he’s never played and within thirty minutes, he’ll have learned the instrument.”

Desiring a full-time drummer, the band jettisoned Utting and put an ad in the Rocket, Seattle’s monthly music magazine.  “I answered an ad in…the Rocket,” says virtuoso percussionist Greg Gilmore, “…some [band’s] looking for a drummer.”

Gilmore immediately upgraded the band.  “We became…tighter,” says Todd.

“Just [an] amazing drummer,” he continues.  “Boy, that guy could play [in] any band and be amazing.”

The Living gigged around town, and began to gain quite a following.  They also quickly learned about the sleazier side of the club scene.  Fortunately, all of the band members save Conte stood over six feet in height, and were not afraid to confront some of the seamier players.  “We did a gig one night down in Pioneer Square,” says John.  “This place was notorious for—you set up your equipment, and you turn your back and it gets stolen.  And it happened weekend after weekend after weekend.

“And I am totally fearful that this is gonna happen to us,” he continues.  “And I kept saying [to the other band members], ‘We can’t leave the club to go out and have a smoke or anything.  We cannot leave the club.’

“And sure enough, all the guys wanna go outside and go eat or do something for a while until the show’s supposed to start at 9.  And we get back there a half hour before, and all of our instruments are gone.  We go to one person in the club.  And we told him that if the equipment isn’t back up on stage in 30 minutes, then we are going to basically break him in half.  And Todd’s family is there—his brothers.  And…the equipment magically reappears.

“And no one ever messed with us—everywhere we went—no one ever messed with our band.”

The band members’ tough reputation quickly permeated the town.  “I have my one singular connective experience with Todd Fleischman,” remembers Stone Gossard, later with Pearl Jam.  “…I was completely out of my mind drunk and probably on some kind of valium, or something, and was [obnoxious] at some party, and Todd Fleischman finally just said, ‘Oh, shut up,’ and fuckin’ slugged me—knocked me out.  Fantastic.”

In the summer of 1982, the Living shared a bill with the Fastbacks at Larry Reid’s Rosco Louie gallery.  “That was a great show,” Todd remembers.  “Just really killer.  We played a version of ‘Ballroom Blitz’ and it just knocked the place down.”

“The Living opened with Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz,’ one of the coolest songs ever,” adds Dave Dederer, (later with the Presidents) in a piece he wrote for the Seattle Times, “and they even did the little intro rap (‘Ready, Todd; alright, Duff; OK, fellas, let’s go!’).

“After the show,” Dave continues, “[my friend] Ben and I and a few others were hanging out in front of the gallery, winding down in a sort of post-orgasmic daze.  A large group of frat-boy types…sniffed us out and started advancing down the street, taunting us with crude locker-room epithets.  I was scared.  I mean, there were 20 of these huge drunk guys, and our ragtag little group would be no match.  I was looking to run down the alley.

“And then Todd Fleischman just snapped….he took off up the street with his shirt off, screaming at the top of his lungs.  He didn’t utter a word, just roared like a lion.”

“I just went crazy then,” says Todd.  “I was just kind of a wild kinda guy.  I wasn’t gonna let my friends get pushed around by frat boys.  I kinda went crazy.  And then they ran away [laughs].”

“Score one for the good guys,” says Dave.

As far as the band’s sound went, it’s hard to get a definitive answer.  “It was pretty straightforward power pop,” says Greg, who has never been a big punk rock fan.  “We had a guy who could actually sing.

“It was,” Greg continues, “somewhat similar maybe to [the Southern California surf/punk band] Agent Orange.”

“I was thinking more of…Generation X [Billy Idol’s band before his solo career],” Todd counters.  “I don’t know if we were really totally like the Agent Orange.

“I don’t even consider us,” Todd adds, “…that much punk rock.  We played fast and stuff, and kinda semi-political.

“I think John was more like Roger Daltrey.  ’Cause he liked to swing that microphone and sometimes it’d smack onto people’s heads.”

Regardless, the Living’s talent and regular gigs got the band noticed by a person who would become a pivotal figure in the scene.  “We played around for awhile,” says Greg.  “People liked us.  One day at rehearsal, some guy approached us, said he had this idea to make records.  And he was kinda starting this label thing.  And he just thought that there really was a sound developing…in Seattle, and he thought he could do something with that.  And we didn’t really pay that much attention to him.  We thought he was a little bit weird.”

And who would that be?

“That was Bruce Pavitt [who later started Sub Pop Records],” Greg answers. “…We blew Bruce off.  And there’s a lesson for ya.”

The Living’s talent, egos, and drugs eventually doomed the band’s long-term career prospects.  “One thing that those guys don’t know,” says John, “is once the band ended, LA was calling.  They wanted us.  I had three different offers for the Living from LA.  But I was a person who always was honest.  And each time I talked to them, it went ‘click’ when I told ’em that the group didn’t exist anymore.  And they’d say, ‘Well can’t you get it back together?’  And I’d say, ‘No.  I don’t think it’s ever gonna get back together.’  And they’d say, ‘Well, okay…if it ever gets back together…we’re gonna be interested.’”

Following the band’s demise, John dropped out of the music scene, Todd joined the hardcore Silly Killers, and Greg and Duff headed down to LA*.  Duff answered an ad in the local paper from a guitar player named Slash.  A bunch of the musicians got together to jam.  After a few months, Greg had enough of the excess drinking and partying and headed back to Seattle, while Duff stayed…and that became Guns N Roses.  “I see and hear the Living in Duff’s band,” says John, “with his heavy metal band, with Axl and Slash.  I can hear it, definitely.  I even think that ‘[Paradise] City’—I don’t remember exactly, but I think he has a lot to do with that song, ’cause he used to talk about Madison Park, where all the girls are fresh and pretty.”

“And every time like I hear the first album from Guns N Roses,” Todd adds, “I go, ‘Hey, that sounds a lot like us!’

“If we coulda hung on just a few more years,” Todd continues, “we coulda been where the Pearl Jams, and Nirvanas [ended up.]  We coulda been there.  Mudhoney and all those guys—we woulda smoked ’em.

“We were a band that coulda been.”

* – note: Duff and Greg played in 10 Minute Warning before heading to LA.