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Walkabouts - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 5 / 1 / 2005

Walkabouts - Interview


Walkabouts frontwoman Carla Torgerson has just released her debut solo album, 'Saint Stranger'. She speaks to John Clarkson about its long conception and the Walkabouts' forthcoming first studio album in four years

Carla Torgerson, who has just released her debut solo album ’Saint Stranger’, is internationally known as the front woman with the hard-wearing Seattle group, the Walkabouts. The classically-trained Torgerson (vocals, guitar) formed the Walkabouts with songwriter and philosophy student Chris Eckman (vocals, guitar) in 1983 when they met while working at summer jobs in an Alaskan fish cannery. In the time since then they have released 15 albums, and to much critical success lavishly experimented with music in a variety of formats including folk, rock and country. Although the Walkabouts remain very much a working band, their recordings have become more sporadic since Eckman married a Slovenian woman, Anda Beer, in 2001 and moved to Llubljana. He released a solo album, ‘The Black Field’ last year, and the other Walkabouts too have become involved in their own projects. While the role of bassist in the band is what the group describe as “a revolving door”, keyboardist Glenn Slater has become a much-in-demand session musician. Drummer Terri Moeller has recorded three albums with the Transmissionary Six, the band she fronts with her husband, ex-Willard Grant Conspiracy guitarist, Paul Austin. Torgerson meanwhile wrote the music for a Seattle theatre’s production of the Sam Shepard play ‘Lie of the Mind’ with her boyfriend, poet and lyricist Michael Willet. She has also worked on a variety of other short-term projects. ‘Saint Stranger’ took its genesis after Torgerson recorded a track in 2002 for ‘Sixteen Haiku and Other Stories’, an album of haiku poems by the Greek Nobel prize-winning poet laureate George Seferis, set colourfully to music by the Greek musician and producer Akis Boyatzis and his band Sigmatropic. ‘Sixteen Haiku and Other Stories’ is very much a who’s who of the independent music scene and also features contributions from the likes of Mark Eitzel, Edith Frost, Howe Gelb, Mark Mulcahy, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Robert Wyatt and Steve Wynn. “After the Walkabouts European tour in October of 2003, I stayed on in Europe to travel around with Michael Willet” reveals Torgerson, who says in the sleeve notes to ‘Saint Stranger’ that, while she began working on it “many,many years ago”, it took her “awhile to find the sound, the feel, the material, the collaboration, the reason for a solo project.” “Michael is half German, so we stayed with his grandmother and mother, and then Akis Boyatzsis found out that I was in Europe and invited me to come to Greece to play a couple of shows and do the release party for ‘Sixteen Haiku’. I went to Athens, and hung out there for an entire week and worked with him and Sigmatropic and it just kind of slowly dawned on me that here was another person that was doing something so left of field, but so sensible that he and Sigmatropic were the ones that I should be collaborating on ‘Saint Stranger’ with.” Torgerson and Willet returned to Athens for two months in May of last year where with Willet providing the lyrics, Torgerson the vocals and all three working on the music and arrangements they recorded the bulk of ‘Saint Stranger’ with Sigmatropic acting as a backing band. On ‘Saint Stranger’ traditional instruments are married with more contemporary instrumentation. Acoustic guitars are hurled up against electric guitars, and synthesisers and loops are thrown against strings to create on several of the tracks a whirlwind, dervish sound. With songs never finishing where they started, perhaps what will be most surprising to fans of the elegiac, often sultry Walkabouts is that many of the songs on ‘Saint Stranger’ have dance beats. “I wanted to record some modern , current dance songs” says Torgerson. “But I don’t like as you do in so many current songs hearing the same verse over and over. I just want to turn the radio off then. I like things that go somewhere else, that pull the listener into the song.” “I don’t think you should under estimate the listener” she enthuses. “People are really smart. I like to play up to that. I don’t like to dumb people down. People have got ‘Saint Stranger’ right away. The very first thing that I did when I came back from Greece was to fly into San Francisco because a cousin was getting married. The groom, my cousin, was going to be his own DJ. He had an i-Pod and early in the day I said ‘Try these out tonight. Mix them in’. We did ‘Dreh es Um’ first of all. It’s an 8 minute 50 second song. Everyone was out in the barn for the reception, and the second it came on everyone started moving and their hips were wiggling. Nobody had heard it before, and all these 50 year olds, 60 year olds and 70 year old as well as young people were dancing. I thought to myself ‘Okay, it’s working’. Later on in the summer I tested it out again at my sister’s wedding and it had the same effect.” “Another thing that has surprised me is that I have asked people after they have danced and have come off the dance floor how long they think they have been dancing, and they would say ‘I don’t know. 4 minutes, 5 minutes’ and I would tell them in the case of ‘Dreh Es Um’, for example, that 8 minutes, 50 seconds had just gone past.” ‘Saint Stranger’ is an album of two distinct parts. While the majority of the album, its first two thirds, was recorded in Greece and has a flamboyant, brazen sound, its last part and remaining third was recorded in Torgerson’s home studio and in contrast has a quiet, introspective feel. Two of these four songs that were recorded in Seattle are covers. The first of these, ‘Through December’, is a song by rising fellow Seattle singer-songwriter Laura Veirs, and is a stark semi-acoustic reflection on death and morbidity with rumbling, spooky atmospherics and a mouth harmonica solo from former Walkabouts bassist Michael Wells. The latter, ‘Guardian Angels’, is a reworking of a track by the largely forgotten 60’s folk act, Pearls Before Swine, and is a slow-burning , hymnal love song, which uses a pedal steel guitar as a main instrument and focuses around this strings and a French horn. “I heard ‘Through December’ for the first time one night when I saw Laura Veirs open for the Transmissionary Six” Torgerson recalls. “I bought the album and and then a while later I was on a ferry boat and had the album on for the first time and that song came on my disc player and I think I must have hit replay about 15 times in a row. I just fell in love with it. I think that it could be a classic. It’s a kind of Western country Americana number. Sometimes songs hit me like that, more so than whole albums. It was the same with ‘Guardian Angel’. That song was written by Pearls for Swine’s frontman Tom Rapp. They were predicted to be as big as the Beatles, but their career never really took off. Tom Rapp is now an attorney. He’s very much for the people and is a really good attorney. The Dead Can Dance have apparently covered one of his songs, and also more recently Neko Case.” In what was a creatively very fertile few months, Torgerson in September of last year also recorded with the Walkabouts their sixteenth album, and first full length record since 2001’s ‘Ended up a Stranger’. The album, which is to be called ‘The Settling’, is due out in the summer. “I think we have survived because we never had a huge, destructive success” she reflects when asked about the reason for the Walkabouts’ longevity despite often great odds. In its history the group has had to deal with traumas that have included the loss of record deals, the break-up after many years of Torgerson and Eckman’s relationship, and the death in 1999 of a former bassist John “Baker” Saunders a few months after he had left the band from an accidental heroin overdose. “We have, however, always achieved enough success to keep it interesting, and to hang in there. We have also had Chris’ songwriting behind us to show off our strengths such as Glenn’s set work and Terri’s drumming. Any time you are in a band that is utilising peoples’ strengths you have some chance of making it.” “ I think that it is going to be seen as one of our milestone records” Torgerson says, carrying on to talk about ‘The Settling’. "It’s a really strong record. It’s really angry and it’s a real rock ‘n’ roll album. it is just like how it was 20 years ago when we first formed the band. We had to go through the Reagan years and the George Bush Senior years, and there was always something to dispute and to feel frustrated about. It became worn away for a while, but we have watched our country lose respect and lose common sense again over the last few years, and so these lyrics that Chris has come up with are very hard-hitting.” “We got together and learnt the material in three weeks and then recorded the album in another three weeks. That is the fastest album we have done in a long time. When Chris and I lived together, we would work sometimes for a year or more on songs and arrangements even before taking them to the band. We don’t have the luxury of rehearsng though anymore. It was a lot of fun recording it so quickly.” While Torgerson will be touring Europe with the Walkabouts in September to promote ‘The Settling’, she has no immediate plans to go out on the road with ‘Saint Stranger’. She has recently bought a large house in Seattle with a recording studio that she plans to convert into a musician’s commune, and her immediate plan is to focus on this instead. “I really wanted to go out on tour with ‘Saint Stranger’ she says. “But these are tough times right now. In Europe in particular there’s a recession which people aren’t talking about. It cost quite a lot to make the album, and to go out on the road right now with the Greeks would be fun, but would be financially crippling. "I am going to get the studio ready and then my long term plan is to get the Greeks to come here and to hopefully record a next album, and we might then try for a US tour.” The Walkabouts have always been an inventive act, but in the last year or so both a solo act and also as a member of the group Torgerson has propelled herself creatively into new territory and towards new focus. With her new studio now also on its way, the immediate future for her looks similarly fulfilling.

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Walkabouts - Interview

Walkabouts - Interview

Walkabouts - Interview

Walkabouts - Interview

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