"It's difficult to keep reinventing yourself. It's a restless journey. You can't kick back," says Chris Eckman of the Walkabouts.
Crocodile, Saturday, December 12
Eckman is keenly familiar with journeys, restless and otherwise. After gamboling through the '80s as an area club staple, the Walkabouts took their Seattle-bred act on the road and across the Atlantic in 1990. Recording primarily for the German label Glitterhouse and spending the better part of each intervening year in a tour bus rocketing down one autobahn or another, they've made a name and career for themselves overseas. While still loved and respected in its city of origin, the band—which once shared local stages with every grunge proto-legend, and which released two early '90s albums, New West Motel and Setting the Woods on Fire, that galvanized local interest in the fledgling genre of alternative country—now belongs to Europe alone.
"We play Hamburg or Paris more than we play Seattle," says songwriter Eckman, who shares singing duties with partner Carla Torgerson. "Our last two records aren't even available in America."
"This will be our third Seattle show in three years," adds Torgerson, referring to the Walkabouts' upcoming appearance at the Crocodile, during which the band's new bassist, Fred Chalenor (of progressive jazz band Pigpen), will make his debut. Torgerson also promises that numerous celebrity guest musicians will join them on stage. This rare Seattle appearance will afford Torgerson and Eckman the opportunity to unveil recent compositions and begin the process of reinventing themselves before heading into the studio in January.
The Walkabouts left alternative country behind in 1996, releasing Devil's Road, a stylish, expansive, string-enriched work, recorded with the Warsaw Philharmonic. "I felt like Frank Sinatra," Torgerson recalls of the ensuing tour, which included a 12-piece string section. "We were producing so much sound on stage, and it was so lush and full. That was a highlight of our career."
Explaining their exit from Americana rock when the idiom's popularity was about to crest, Eckman says that the Walkabouts as a band, and he and Torgerson as a separate act (their duo incarnation, Chris and Carla, released a 1993 album of country covers, Satisfied Mind) felt they had done as much as they could with alternative country. Eckman expresses no regrets at leaving before the party was over, even voicing some concerns for the genre's future. "There's a danger that it will lead to a self-satisfied clique," he says. "Once people become satisfied with it, it leads to creative death. The whole idea of art is to keep being dangerous."
To remain in the path of danger and in pursuit of artistic excellence, the Walkabouts re-crafted their sound again in 1997 with the release of Nighttown, an even more complex work than Devil's Road. Horns joined strings, more fully developing the music's nocturnal and urban themes. "We've learned to act when it serves the song," notes Torgerson. "If the song cries out for five trumpets, you go out and get the five trumpet players."
At that time, according to Eckman, the band started "opening up to what was around us—being in Europe, being in big cities. The whole Americana thing started to seem quite distant. [Nighttown] was closer to writing about who we were and what we were doing than a lot of the previous records.
"It's definitely not an album about being in a rock band," he continues. "That's the kiss of death. When you do that, you've really lost it. There's got to be more in the world to write about than that—you'd hope. It's boring to me. . . . When you start singing about celebrity, you've become so insulated from the world that you're kind of meaningless at that point."
For their next album, Eckman and Torgerson will head to Index, Washington, and begin developing a new aesthetic. They've brought in Phil Brown, an engineer legendary in music circles for his work with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, and the later works of Talk Talk, a British band that followed up lucrative, formulaic pop success in the '80s with experimental works that are widely admired by musicians. After Talk Talk made its best recordings, says Eckman, "They fell off the commercial map."
"And Phil Brown facilitated it," Torgerson interjects. "That's what we want for the next album—not to just be bizarre for bizarre's sake, but to stretch it out a little."
"The last few albums we've used a lot of strings and it's been very organized," explains Eckman. "This record we want to make it up in the studio. We haven't done that for a while."
Torgerson agrees. "Arrangements had to be organized down to each stanza. We learned from it, but we want to strip back down."
"Or just build it back up with different toys," adds Eckman.
Rumors persist of the Walkabouts landing an American record deal, but Eckman discounts them: "We always talk [to US labels], but it's a little bit frustrating."
The Walkabouts could release their material here on smaller independent labels, he says, but those labels expect their bands to get in a van and hit the low-budget highway to promote their records. The prospect of an endless American tour holds little appeal for Eckman. "We're not 22 years old anymore, and none of us is too interested in starting over," he concludes. "We've got a pretty good thing going in Europe."