The Walkabouts have never been about flash. Their pyrotechnic sense has always been more akin to a ribbon of light cutting through the bedroom darkness and across your lover's face. In "More Heat Than Light," one of 13 smoldering tracks from their latest disc, Ended Up a Stranger, that clarity is summarized in a single couplet: "There are moments of grace/In the heat of the chase."
It's an understatement that pierces romantic and emotional fog like a lighthouse beam.
Unfortunately, the Walkabout's own luminous presence, at least in America, itself has been too long understated. Formed in Seattle in 1984, the band was signed to Sub Pop in '89 just as the indie imprint was heating up, yet they failed to catch fire like their local counterparts.
That their music was different from the fashion of the day certainly played into a lack of mainstream acceptance. Their sharp songwriting skills were more rooted in folk than metal, their music and lyrics more poetic than punk. Proximity also proved a problem. The Walkabouts almost immediately found greater favor in Europe than America, so they fanned that fire instead. Still, nearly 20 years later, the Walkabouts' flame continues to burn while that of most their early contemporaries has been snuffed. Armed with a new U.S. distribution deal through Innerstate, Stranger, hopefully, will serve to bring the group's music back home.
"We went eight years without a label in this country," says Carla Torgerson bluntly, "so that pretty much killed our career here." The diminutive singer, who co-founded the Walkabouts with guitarist Chris Eckman, is sitting alongside keyboard player Glenn Slater in the backyard of Mulleady's Irish pub. Although ensconced in east Magnolia, the tavern, with its heavily brogued bartender and ruddy-faced regulars, seems a fitting place for these part-time expatriates.
"Yeah, but it isn't like we were forced into being expatriates," laughs Torgerson. "We didn't try here for three or four years, because Europe was really exciting." The band scored a surprise European hit with "The Light Will Stay On" and continued to record for Sub Pop's overseas counterpart, Glitterhouse, even after being dropped from the label in America. "But when we started trying here again," Torgerson continues, "it just didn't work out."
"At that time, we had a manager over there," adds Slater, "but we just didn't have the resources to afford two managers. In order to get your visibility up in this country, you have to have somebody really working it."
Still, the band carried on, maintaining homes in the Seattle area while touring Europe for much of the year. They let fate, commerce, and their artistic instincts lead them to experiences and associations that would never have happened had they remained a strictly stateside act. Along with their own prodigious output—some 14 albums, plus various EPs and compilation tracks—they've worked with a diverse array of artists, from Greek folk musicians to the Warsaw Philharmonic. Even as they soak up the momentary Seattle sunshine, Torgerson and Slater are talking about flying back to Europe to record with Austrian artist Andre Heller. So why, one wonders, don't they just move there?
"We've all thought about it at one time or another," says Slater, "but I have a daughter here. If I didn't, I'd move to Prague, at least for a while."
"And I almost moved to Scotland once," Torgerson adds. Instead, she keeps a house in lower Queen Anne where she's building a basement studio. "I guess if you can have your own home studio, you're doing pretty well."
Home recording, in fact, became particularly important during the making of Ended Up a Stranger.
"We recorded the basic tracks at regular analog studios," explains Torgerson, "then we took those tracks home. Glen went to his studio in Ballard and worked on the horn and string arrangements, and Chris and I went to his home studio and worked on vocals and guitars and whatever else we felt like doing. It was great because we had the freedom to work without anyone watching. You could just try anything without feeling silly."
Longtime drummer Terri Moeller and bassist Joe Skyward join Eckman, Torgerson, and Slater in rounding out the band's lineup, while guest players include violinist Anne Maria Ruljancich, vocalist Gary Heffern, Fountains of Wayne percussionist Brian Young, the Phat Sidy Smokehouse horns, and, on keyboards, former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. In addition, Slater's 12-year-old daughter, Fern, plays piano on one of her father's two instrumental contributions.
"She got her part on the second take," beams Slater.
Although the band didn't try for any thematic thread, all the songs share the title track's dark cinematic sensibilities. "That's just how Chris writes," says Slater. "He sees these movies in his head, these characters, and he puts them down." The title of one of the best tracks, "Winslow Place," came from the name of an apartment building in the Wallingford area near Aurora.
"But I see it by the water," says Torgerson. "A big house, whipped by the wind, with all these different stories going on inside." The band played the song at almost every show last year, often as the opener. But after Sept. 11, the tune took on a special significance.
"The opening lines are 'Planes fly low over our heads, over our beds/The sky went lavender for just one day,'" says Torgerson. "We did it the night after 9/11 in Barcelona. It was so spooky. I nearly cry every time we do it now."
Quiet for a moment, Torgerson brightens when reminded that the same spooky quality has been something of a calling card for the band, informing many of their best songs.
"Yeah," she says, smiling again. "I remember once when Fern was maybe 4, we were all outside our old house on Capitol Hill, kind of partying out in the yard. Chris was holding Fern and rocking her, and it had gotten really quiet, when suddenly Fern said, 'Chris, why are you always writing about ghost towns and graveyards?'
"And Chris looked down at her and said, 'You know, that's the best question I've ever been asked.'"