Hearsay #16 / 1997 / Email interview with Neil

"Instead of digging a wider ditch, we tried to dig a deeper one."

Arch purveyors of 'the light of night, streetlights off metal, that kind of mood', Seattle's Walkabouts consistently deliver the noir-steeped goods. Collating styles from country to punk, their latest tales find the band inhabiting the darkest alleys of an urban sprawl. Knowing of our readers' admiration for their work, Neil had no qualms about interupting Chris and Carla's first holiday in ages to pursue one of his favourite, your favourite, heck, everybody's favourite, bands. At last in Hearsay, Chris Eckman divulges all (well, most) of their secrets. ('And all we do is talk about / The meaning of the Walkabouts', to paraphrase someone great.)

HEARSAY: Nighttown finds your songs decamping squarely to the city where previously they inhabited a Hopperesque rural or small-town landscape. Was the new record envisaged as a concept album from the outset with the songs written to fit the overall theme of the city after dark?

CHRIS ECKMAN: I never try to plan things very firmly, so the answer is this album was not thought of in terms of a theme or the dreaded word 'concept' until well into the process of writing it. I wrote about twenty-five songs in the year that preceded recording, so there was ample stuff to choose from. It really was all over the place - yes, there were even a few rock songs. But the song that got me going down the 'city at night' thing, was the first song I wrote for the album, Follow Me An Angel. There was no conscious thing that led to that song, it more or less appeared and the lyrics definitely had a different shading than much of what I had written in the past. After collecting a few more songs, we began to notice there were some constants appearing in some of them—they took place in the dark and the silence of wide open spaces was missing, there was more or less a hum of traffic, and bar rooms and possibly even discos in the background of them. We thought, why not just submit to this, and try doing a whole album along these lines. We then began to push to the side the songs that didn't fit in, and as we finished up the later songs we made sure they fit. Certainly by the end of the writing process, the theme did start to consume things and we purposely limited the breadth of what we were doing. I learned an interesting thing: while you might expect that having a theme would make the writing harder, at least in this case it made it easier, and I think gave the emotion of the songs a sharper focus. We didn't feel compelled to try to plug all our musical and lyrical ideas into one album, as we have often done in the past. Instead of digging a wide ditch, we tried to dig a deeper one.

So what accounts for this rural depopulation, beyond the simple lure of the bright lights? As a Seattleite, are you finding yourself drawn closer to home or do you still love to explore the rural alongside the urban?

The shift to city songs was probably more or less inevitable given our experience of the last few years. While we have always been city dwellers, we always seemed more attracted to the exotica of what lay beyond Seattle—the timber towns and desert towns which are never more than a few hours away from the city. But in the last few years Carla and I found ourselves visiting those places less, mainly because touring and making albums had limited our chances to venture out into them. In the past we would just pack up the car, and head out, with no real agenda, and gather up impressions and stories in these places. When it came time to write this album, those stories simply weren't there. And frankly I'm glad they weren't. After a while you run the risk of becoming a parody of yourself if you keep retracing your steps. Also, by writing about cities in some ways this became the most personal record I have worked on, with the exception of the Life Full Of Holes.

Instead of reaching out for stories, instead of going out and trying to drum them up, I cast my view much closer to the way we more or less lived everyday. I can't say that I have a preference between the urban and the rural; they both have their romance and they both have plenty of confused, dead-end myths. The clash of romance and a darker, grittier reality is usually what gets me excited enough to write a song.

A strong narrative drive is central to your writing but good old-fashioned storytelling in songs seems a lost art these days bar the work of yourselves and a few other practitioners such as Stan Ridgway and Grant McLennan. Do you feel you're writing out of a great tradition of American storytelling/songwriting? Do you ever feel more of an affinity with novelists than with your musical peers?

I definitely want to write songs that fit into a storytelling tradition. There was a point in the late eighties, around the time of the Rag and Bone EP, that I really started to zero in on what I wanted to do. Part of what led me there were writers like Carver and Robert Stone and Richard Ford—especially Ford's amazing collection of short stories Rock Springs. But the biggest influence were songwriters and songs. At first it was traditional folk music, which we were turned on to by Carla—it is she who taught us the songs we covered in our early years like John Reilly and Drille Terriers. But as much as I was fascinated by those songs, and their twisted stories, and the unflinching eye, when I first heard the music of Townes Van Zandt everything started to roll together. He had the stories, but he also had the poetry, and the way he brought them together seemed genuine and uncontrived and part of the present, not the past. His songs started to steer me away from literary influences and into the study of songwriters and songwriting as something distinct and in some ways very anti-literary. A good song usually doesn't read well on the page. How it sounds is what matters. At that point I stopped writing lyrics first, and since then I have always written the musical skeleton first. I really want the music to dictate the story. I get the mood first, and then look for the words to flesh it out. I also stopped treating words as being precious in themselves. You have to be able to throw words away, just as easily as you throw chords away. And I guess I spend most of my time throwing things away.

When I think of the Pacific Northwest these days, three things come immediately to mind: Carver, Twin Peaks and The Walkabouts. Fairly disparate reference points perhaps yet also with some thematic common ground. Do you feel part of any local tradition or scene, beyond the obvious Seattle/Sub Pop connection?

In the early nineties I used to take much pleasure in claiming that we were the most 'northwest' band of the Sub Pop stable. It was a conceit of course, and a meaningless one at that, but I do believe we are one of the few bands from this area who ever tried to directly conjure up the mood of the region. Bands like Nirvana were more or less a reaction to where they came from—a lot of small-town anger that came to the big city and got vented. We have more or less done a lot of songs that wallowed in the rain and the fog and these towns obscured by mountains and trees. Our songs tend to give in to the melancholy. It is a very different sensibility. I guess we have always felt more comfortable as observers, standing a bit on the outside of things.

It's astonishing that Devil's Road didn't come out in the US. Isn't that incredibly frustrating, especially in the wake of your troubles with Sub Pop US? Do you feel underappreciated by your compatriots? Or is your popularity in Europe satisfaction enough?

Our relationship with America is very confusing. I certainly won't lie and say that we revel in the fact that now our last two albums, arguably our best albums, have never been released here. It is extremely frustrating and a bit inexplicable. A certain amount of blame can fall on Sub Pop's shoulders—they never knew what to do with us in the States, they never put money into us here, they never even did the basic stuff like buying ads. At some point grunge became easy for them to sell and since we were a harder sell they just stopped trying. The European operation had a different view—they actually believed they could sell our records and they set out and did it. Around 1992 it became clear that our Stateside situation was a disaster, that we were stigmatized as a band who got good press, but sold nothing, as a band who didn't fit into to what people thought Sub Pop or even Seattle rock and roll should be, and so we basically went and worked the places where we were getting some help. Europe was that place. I have never felt abandoned by America, that’s too pathetic a viewpoint: how can we have been abandoned when in the last few years folks that buy records, or critics or radio or whatever, haven't even had a chance to get turned onto our stuff? Of course we are also to blame, because we have ignored America; our last tour here was a short one in 1995. Our own decisions, and heading for the path of least resistance have made us a non-entity in our own country. Labels have offered us deals in the last few years but they always want our European rights and those rights have always been locked up. It is sad, but hey, we also have made a living playing music, doing exactly what we want to do for the last five years and I certainly make no apologies about that and I wake up feeling lucky most of the time.

Given that you've produced a number of records by other artists yourself, what do you look for when choosing someone to produce Walkabouts records? Have people like Gary Smith, Steve Fisk and Ed Brooks left indelible marks? And is Victor Van Vugt the perfect partner-in-crime to realize your vision in Panavision?

First off, it is hard to even define what a producer is in the first place. It can mean so many things—someone who picks the songs, arranges them, dresses them up in a lot of his or her own ideas, or it can just be just another voice in the room, in some way trying to guide the project along. I've been involved in projects with producers and as a producer, that run the gamut between these two extremes. For me, it really depends on the project as to what kind of person you want to get involved. I mean, Gary Smith was extremely hands on—he even wanted to be involved in the video! And while we were not extremely pleased with the results we got from that collaboration, Scavenger would have been a much worse album if he hadn't had his fingers everywhere. We had simply reached a point as a band where we didn't have a reservoir of ideas and he was a great motivator and catalyst. Ed Brooks, who worked with us for years on the other hand, barely said a word and more or less engineered the albums and attempted to, wisely, keep my hands off the faders while we mixed. But we always credited him as a co-producer because, even if his ideas were often unstated, they ended up on the album. He controlled the sound of things and frankly I think that is a big part of what constitutes production. Victor Van Vugt works somewhere between Gary and Ed. He has many ideas, he freely shares them, but there are many points where he steps back and says, 'well this is what I think, but in the end, it’s your album.' He is great at taking the raw material we give him, and moulding it into something where all the parts have a place. It’s often been said that we used strings on the last couple albums because of Victor. That is way off—we developed those ideas with the arranger Mark Nichols, quite separate of Victor's involvement. But, that said, we hired Victor in the first place because he had worked a lot with strings, and we felt we needed someone like him to sort it all out sonically. Left to ourselves the results would have probably been much more muddled and, certainly, less 70mm. Victor is also a fair judge of arguments. In fact, that is an essential producer role. Pete Buck told me once that the only reason [REM] work with Scott Litt is so that they don't end up strangling each other. We have never strangled each other, at least when Victor was in the room.

Is your embodiment of stylistic extremes an attempt to bridge the gaps between genres?

I wish we had it figured out, why we jump around styles so much. I think it comes down to a short attention span, combined with a big album collection. Surely we have always admired Neil Young's approach to things—the guitar freakouts, combined with the pastoral ballads, but I don't think we have ever consciously set out with an agenda like, 'hey wouldn't it be clever if we combined these different styles of music?' Basically, we never talk about stuff like that. I just write different styles of songs, because I’m interested in different textures and shadings and moods to things, and I am lucky to play in a band with people who have wildly-ranging tastes and are willing to stumble down different paths. It's certainly way harder for us to do an album like Nighttown or Satisfied Mind than a real schizo platter like New West Motel. I remember all of us listening back to Satisfied Mind with white faces of fear, thinking, 'every fucking song sounds the same'. It was like we had cut off one arm just to prove that we could do everything we needed to with the other arm. We love that album, but that kind of stylistic purity is a hard place for us to go.

Can we take it from your storming choice of covers that you own the world's most enviable record collection? Are your covers an acknowledgment of a debt or do they fulfil another role?

Well, I guess we do have a reasonable album collection. A couple of thousand by last count, but I am not sure that I would call it enviable; in fact, it is so all over the place that I imagine it would only make sense to Carla and me. We had a French journalist over to our place for coffee last week and he couldn't believe that we had Leftfield filed next to Los Lobos, the Louvin Brothers and Luscious Jackson. It is all a bit confusing, but much of what we own we don't necessarily love; we always make an effort to listen to new things, to clean out the cobwebs. You never know where you might find some pearl of inspiration.

As far as covers go, obviously we generally gravitate to songs by artists we love. But that is not enough. In my mind, covers can't always be effectively done of your absolute favourite songs. Some songs are so perfectly executed by those who wrote them, or are so personal and individual in how they look at the world, that it might be very hard for you to find a way into them. We often look for songs we rather arrogantly think we could add something to, or at least destroy in a valid way! I never learn the chords of a song when I want to cover it—I just make them up, fashion together the song out of my memory, thinking, 'this is how I think the song goes', or even better, 'this is how I think the song should go.' I never work from songbooks and never sit down with the album, trying to get it right. In fact, I want to get it wrong somehow. I really want to steal it and put our own stamp on it. And I think the other artists actually appreciate this; they like the fact that their song is so durable. I know that Townes loved our version of Snake Mountain Blues. He loved that we fucked it up, and brought out the punk anger in it. He once said to me, 'that was the way it was supposed to have been done.'

As far as paying homage to artists, that of course is one reason to do a song—certainly our covers of Young, Townes, Forster, Cave, Mary Margaret O'Hara fall into that camp—but sometimes there is just some strange attraction in the song itself. Poor Side Of Town on Satisfied Mind was like that. The Johnny Rivers version is an upbeat, sixties hit, and I heard it in a bar one night, and thought that it had one of the most painful lyrics I had ever heard. I decided we should try and slow it down and bring out the mournful side of the song.

Any plans for Son of Satisfied Mind?

Many people have asked us to do another covers album. It would be fun to put it together, but there really has to be some purpose to do it again, there has to be some kind of guiding idea. Last time we used it as a springboard to venture into country music, at this point however I don't see any good reason to do it. One thought we had a while back though, is that if we were to do it again, it would be great to contact artists and have them write songs specifically for the project. That would be a hell of a lot of work for everyone but the results could be really magical.

Which records are currently wearing out your stylus?

What am I listening to now? This year I have really been into the Cave album, Prefab Sprout's Andromeda Heights, the new Spiritualized album, especially the closing track with Dr John on it, and the Walker Brothers reissue Nite Flites, but of course I can only recommend the first four songs, the ones written and sung by Scott. I finally got into the last Palace album, Arise Therefore. The albums I have played the most recently have been the new Smog (Red Apple Falls) and the second album by Richard Buckner, certainly one of the best singer-songwriters in America. His album is called Devotion & Doubt and I have listened to it fifty times and my heart breaks in new places every time. No shit. The Giant Sand boys back him up on many of the tracks, and the whole thing is just riddled with mood.

What was the spur behind the Chris & Carla album [Life Full of Holes, 1995]? Was it an opportunity to explore things which couldn't be sheltered under the band umbrella?

Like many things, the C&C album started innocently enough, without any grand scheme. We had been touring and making albums with the band for a solid two years and we all agreed we needed a six-month break from each other. Also at that point Michael was threatening to retire from his bass job, so we weren't really sure when we would get the Walkabouts thing up and running again. During the months before that Carla and I had done about a dozen or so acoustic shows, and I had written some songs with that kind of presentation in mind. We thought why not do a very stripped back EP, five or six songs to get some of that material out. That was the plan until one night I found myself drinking with Pete Buck and Scott McCaughey and they both offered us songs for the project. Then the whole thing started to grow. Our friend Tony sent us a tape of him and his brother doing some ambient banjo stuff. We met a musician in the souk in Marrakesh and he gave us a song, and then we ended up recording two songs with the Tindersticks, which really shifted things because we then had these fully arranged numbers that weren't simple and acoustic—the original concept was well lost at that point. I certainly think a number of those songs could have been recorded on a Walks album, and in fact one song, Comfort of a Stranger, is The Walkabouts although everyone recorded their tracks on different days and it was only after we all had finished our parts that we realised that. Terri was a little pissed that I didn't save Death at Low Water for the band, and she felt that a number of songs on Life Full of Holes were better than the material on Setting The Woods on Fire. I certainly agree with that. And there is no doubt that Carla and I were reacting to Setting The Woods on Fire with the way we approached the C&C album. Woods was done basically live but we spent weeks getting the takes, and it also was about as much of a rock album as we had ever made. We all felt even while we were making it that it became too rock, and the songs didn't really play to our strengths as a band. With the C&C album we wanted to do it fast, we wanted make it up in the studio and we wanted to stay wide away from rock cliches. It was a bit of an attempt to re-invent our vocabulary and strangely it turned out to be a very similar working process to how we had worked on the first two Walkabouts albums. We played a lot of instruments we are not very good at, like banjo or keyboards, and kept a real frenzied, wide-eyed attitude through the whole thing. It started us back to having fun again in the studio—recording gets real boring when you start treating the studio as some kind of solemn shrine.

There are all manner of bizarre deaths in your songs—how would you like to meet your end? More optimistically, does Rebecca Wild betray a faith in reincarnation?

Yeah, I have written about death a fair amount. I wish I could say why—of course most people think it is because of some obsession I have with it, some fascination with other people's misfortune or at some excessive mortal fear. I can't say 'yes' or 'no' to any of that—the psychological analysis is really beyond me, and it is probably not very interesting to begin with. I can say, some of my interest in 'death' songs definitely comes from an admiration for American traditional songs. We used to jokingly call them 'dead baby songs’. So many of those old narratives were an unblinking reportage on life's ultimate hardship. They didn't have the nightly news to pass along the information, they just had their songs. But also a death is a great dramatic device! It is a quick, convenient way to bring a story to a close, and I am sure I have exploited that angle more than once.

Rebecca Wild is not about reincarnation in the actual sense, but more the belief that ideas or a certain spirit can be passed on or at can at least be rekindled in people that remain behind. In some ways The Light Will Stay On is about the same idea. I never really have believed that we actually come back as another being. That is a bit too wide-eyed and forgiving to fit into my world view. If I have any belief in reincarnation it probably fits more in with Nietzsche's idea that we return as the same people, to forever re-live the mistakes we made in our last life. So hey, don't fuck up! Do everything you can to get it right the first time.

As far as my own death—I'll walk away like the Eskimo elders and die quietly on my own, away from tubes and artificial life support, with only my walkman and a few Ray Carver poems to keep me company.

Has the move to a major label affected your attitude to work? Will Virgin be happy to let you retain your prolific rate of output?

So far the Virgin thing hasn't slowed us down any. I know they don't want another album next year from the band, but I'm not in any hurry to do another Walkabouts album either. Carla and I have our next album to do, and there are other projects floating around. If they continue to let us do two albums in a three-year period, I'm sure we'll remain happy.

It is hard to say overall how the shift to a major has influenced our work. I like to think that it hasn't in any way but that is probably very naive. They certainly have stayed out of the way while we recorded the albums, but on the other hand they always ask for demos, which is something we never did in the past. In a way they ask us to justify or demonstrate what we are about to do. They are also obsessed with that one song, the big single that is going to push us over the top. We hear about this song all the time, we nod our heads, we tell them we know how important it is, and then we go back to work, trying to do everything we can to ignore that kind of pressure. I guess we've ignored that pressure fairly well, because we can't seem to write a single for the life of us. Certainly Nighttown has been perceived by the label as a complete disaster in terms of its crop of potential hits. This of course could be a huge problem when it comes to the next album—they have left us alone and the hit harvest has been barren. It leads me to believe they won't leave us alone next time.

How do you account for your prolific output, by the way? It's so rare in these days when we're used to expecting an album every three years from people. It's not the subliminal influence of spending your early professional career on a production line at a canning factory is it? Or does forever trekking around Europe allow plenty of time to write on the road?

I think you come very close in nailing down why we have been so prolific the last few years. It is not quite the influence of the canning factory but it is the influence of having worked two jobs—The Walkabouts and our dead-end day jobs—for so many years. Our lives used to be eight-hour jobs by day and then four hours of rehearsal by night, and gigs or band business or recording on the weekends. We did every album up until Scavenger under those conditions. Right before New West Motel came out, in January of 1993, we were so busy and stressed that we finally had to quit our day jobs even though there was certainly no guarantee of enough money to live on. Thankfully, it has worked out since then. At that point, we realised suddenly that, compared to the past, we had enormous amounts of time on our hands that used to be filled working for other people. And I guess, being the workaholics that we are, we saw no other choice set but to fill it up, with project after project.

I think it is also a matter of making up for lost time. For a long while no one cared what we did. I mean, we were a band almost four years before we recorded our first album, and now we get asked to do all kinds of things. We feel privileged to be in that position, because at least in our case it was hard to get there. So instead of resting on laurels, we do new and hopefully risky things, and we feel damn lucky to be able to do them.

And yes, I seem to be one of the few folks who can write on the road. In fact there are precious few places that I can't write. It is a quality that makes me a very annoying dinner guest, as I often stop whatever I'm doing and scribble into my notebook.

Lots of songwriters we interview express a passion for contributing to film scores and you've already been involved with this via Brian Rockwell. Can you tell us a little about the project? Are films a big influence on songwriting, either musically or in terms of narrative and mood?

Brian is a Seattle indie filmmaker whose stuff we have been involved with for a long time. We provided songs to his pictures even back when he was making student films. He finally made a feature last year called Where The Air Is Cool And Dark. Carla and I, along with a friend of ours Pete Gerrald composed the music. We knew the script for years, so it was very easy for us to find a way into the project. The mood of the film is dark and wet, most of it being shot over on the Olympic peninsula in a couple of the run-down old timber towns. Brian gave us full control and we just went out and did what we wanted. The first half of the film is heavy and slow and that was quite easy to score. The second half swings into romantic bliss territory and that was harder for us to get a handle on. We learned a hell of a lot in the process and we plan to do work on his second feature sometime early next year. I think we were lucky, however, in the positive experience we had—I have talked to quite a few musicians now who fantasized about scoring a film; and when they finally got the chance they found the whole thing difficult and deflating. I talked at length to Stuart from Tindersticks about this. It would be hard, when you are used to doing exactly what you want, to try to meld your vision, to the vision of other non-musical folks that you are not used to working with. It really could turn into chaos.

For the most part film doesn't have any direct influence on what we do in terms of musicianship and songwriting. I can think of only a few directors whose pictures have somehow inspired me musically: Wim Wenders, Terrence Mallick, and maybe early Robert Altman films like Nashville and McCabe & Mrs Miller. But, that doesn't mean we don't think of the music we do as in some way being 'soundtracks'. We always try to create musical moods that enhance the lyrics and voices, and somehow underline whatever story is trying to be told. I guess that is exactly what film soundtrack composers also try to do—except they work with images and dialogue, and we work with a different kind of material.

Presumably most of your guest-spots and co-writing stems purely from a desire to get together with friends and see what happens. Is this generally how it works? How did Brian Eno and Natalie Merchant wind up on Scavenger for instance?

I have often been asked 'why don't you work with this person, or why don't you write songs with that guy?' and to be honest that sort of speculation has never led to any of the collaborations we have been involved with. Usually you just meet someone, you like the jokes they tell when they drink, and then you end up working with them at some point in the studio. I mean you can go down the list: The Tindersticks called us about touring, eventually we ended up meeting them in a bar; Mark Lanegan and Scott McCaughey and Gary Heffern and Terry Lee Hale and Ivan Kral or Warren Ellis from the Dirty Three we all knew from bars and clubs. Peter Buck was introduced to us by a mutual friend and his future wife, and she owns a bar! Brian Eno miraculously stopped by a studio where we working, we started drinking, and in a few hours he was fooling around on the keyboard and singing backup vocals. Natalie Merchant is about the only person we ever actually tracked down—she was a friend of Scavenger's producer Gary Smith—and frankly it is the only collaboration that we have done that I ever felt strange about. The producer simply wanted her name on the album, which is the worst possible reason to work with someone.

The only person I regret never working with is Townes. We called him on his birthday last year, and while I was talking to him I almost ventured an offer to produce an album for him. I felt he needed to make a raw album again. I'm sure he would have said no, but I almost tried. Shortly after that I heard that Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth was going to produce him, and I felt relieved that he would be in cool hands. They started the damn thing, but he died three days into it.

Other than that I keep an open mind and trust that someone interesting is going to walk into a bar some night, and hours or weeks or years later we will end up in a studio together.

What's next?

The immediate plans are for the next Chris & Carla album [Swinger 500], which we will record in December and release around March on Glitterhouse. There might be a short C&C tour in April. Also, next year Carla and I will do a slowcore bluegrass record with a banjo player and singer named Danny Barnes who plays with an amazing Austin band called the Bad Livers. This project will have a band name we haven't settled on yet. I am going to produce an album for an old friend and a wonderful songwriter named Terry Lee Hale in early January, probably in London. Also there is the next Rockwell film to score. And by the middle of the summer, the Walkabouts hope to be in the studio doing our next album.

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