Pop: The band that came back from the edge of the world

The Walkabouts met and got the hell out of Seattle before the music industry had even heard of the place. Fifteen years on, having survived oblivion and grunge, they've found home. By Nick Hasted
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Fifteen years and 10 albums into their career as American rock's most deeply buried secret, and The Walkabouts have finally fulfilled their potential, with an album, Trail of Stars, in which lyrics of hard love and millennial reckoning hang suspended in washes of brass and woodwind, thanks in part to producer Phill Brown (engineer for Talk Talk and Roxy Music at their most experimental). It's a stately and sophisticated addition to rock'n'roll's achievements at the century's end, a real find. All the more incredible that, only a year previously, its makers had seemed about to break apart, their backs forced firmly against the wall.

Seattle natives, signed to Sub Pop soon after their formation in 1984, The Walkabouts were never grunge. Instead, songwriter Chris Eckman and co-singer Carla Torgerson pushed into mental vistas of America opened up by influences as disparate as Wim Wenders, Jim Thompson and Townes Van Zandt until, by their fourth album, New West Motel (1992), they'd created a vision all their own, a soundscape of roaring guitars and bare ambience underlying lyrics about isolated lives.

Ignored at home, feeling a growing affinity with Europe, where Sub Pop affiliate Glitterhouse became home, they could have continued in honourable exile. But, in 1996, the major labels' gold-prospecting among Seattle bands finally reached their door. It picked them to pieces.

"They were still living off this promise that they were going to find the new Nirvana. They were just dangling money," remembers Eckman, a big and disciplined man, sitting backstage after an Amsterdam gig with the more mercurial Torgerson. "We really underestimated how difficult it would be. We knew our second album for Virgin, Night Town, was dark and hard to get into, we never expected it to compete with Janet Jackson. But they did. Everyone around us talked like it was a failure. I just felt stupid. I needed to go away, so I went to Lisbon. I was in a place where I didn't know anybody, and I was forced to come up with the goods. I didn't think about Virgin Records, or where I fitted into the rock'n'roll business. I didn't even think about the band. When I had some songs, I called."

Trail of Stars was the result, special for focusing on what had always been nascent in The Walkabouts' work - a sense of space, interludes and atmospheres hanging between the words, shaping them, emphasising their sense of stalled, longing lives. The Western landscapes are the one brooding constant from their past - bizarre, it would seem, for a band forged in the rain-lashed north-west state.

"Well, that really is the landscape," Eckman says. "Two and a half hours drive from Seattle, you're in the raw desert. That's the world we knew, that's the world we grew up in. Mark from Mudhoney once told us, `You write the most Seattle songs of anybody from here'. Sometimes, if you set up the place, then you have the story."

To an outsider, the choice of so many intelligent American bands to make the American West their subject, the way it's been reclaimed as some sort of raw, isolating inner frontier for white American music, is inexplicable, a wilful denial of their country's urban wonders. The Walkabouts see no mystery.

"The mythic America is still the West," Eckman says. "There are things about the myth that are actually right. The Jack Kerouac myth, wind blowing back your hair on the highway, that you can be anyone you want, invent yourself. There's truth to that. It's a false promise, too, though, as Seattle proves. You can't go any farther in America than Seattle. We are the last stop.

"We didn't grow up on traditional American music. We were, for the most part, suburban kids that listened to bad rock music. I think that's a pretty common experience of a lot of people who are doing this twisted Americana. After a while, you feel rootless, so you look for a heritage underneath the surface.

"A lot of the people I know in bands think that they're not like most Americans," Torgerson puts in. "They've travelled, so they feel isolated because they've seen things under different lights. They find the lonelier landscapes in America a comfort, a relief from the media bombardment, the struggle to keep saying `no'."

Eckman fitted Torgerson's model of wanderlust as a teenager, striking out across Europe, reaching England in 1981 to worship at the feet of New Order and Echo & the Bunnymen, music that seemed "from another planet", stuck as he was in a city rock had forgotten. "Pretty much the only topic of conversation hanging out as musicians in 1985 in Seattle was `Well, maybe we should leave now'," he recalls. `` `Maybe we should go somewhere else. Maybe we should go to Minneapolis.' I always thought it was a special place, though. That's why we stayed."

While the teenage Eckman was consuming every record he could find, Torgerson's parents were giving her a classical education, and a culture of campfire folk songs, till a move to Germany in 1978 opened her up to punk too. The pair met in 1980, canning salmon in Alaska. The bond that would build The Walkabouts was forged then. Almost 20 years later, they don't want to let it go.

"I think we always see the end," Eckman says. "We've broken up the band after every album since 1993. We have to sort it out after every record, to see if it's something people still want to do. I'm fairly confident this line-up will make another album. After that, we'll have to see.'

Tour dates: Dublin, 25 Sept; Manchester University, 26 Sept; London Underworld, 27 Sept