Archive for the ‘The Walkabouts’ 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.