Though the mythical brass ring of success in the music business is million-selling records, universal fame and adoration, and a jetset, big-spender lifestyle, in reality most musicians would settle for one thing: giving up their day job. To be able to make records, tour the country, and come home without having to go back to the office, restaurant, bookstore or whatever workplace may have paid the bills for many years of double-time toil is enough of a dream gig.
It’s just that you don’t expect your dream gig will end up being on the other side of the Atlantic.
That’s life these days for the Walkabouts, but then, they’ve never quite fit in on their home turf. In the mid-late 1980s, the Walkabouts were the anomaly in grunge-incubating Seattle, playing an aggressive brand of folk-pop that was a far cry from Mudhoney and Soundgarden, yet was just twisted enough to attract the interest of Sub Pop. Though their relationship with the label deteriorated in the early ’90s, a lasting bond was formed with Sub Pop Europe/Glitterhouse Records, which continued releasing Walkabouts albums overseas until Virgin signed them to a European deal in 1995 and released the band’s major-label debut, Devil’s Road.
Nighttown, the band’s second release on Virgin, came out in Europe this summer and continues the sonic mood established on Devil’s Road. String arrangements bring a rich depth to the darkness that has always permeated the band’s songs; Chris Eckman’s foreboding lyrics and Carla Torgerson’s eerily beautiful vocals have never before sounded so elegantly framed. “Lift Your Burdens Up” (from the new record) and “The Light Will Stay On” (from Devil’s Road) may be the two best tracks they’ve ever recorded, partly because of the songs themselves but also because of the ornate majesty of sound that surrounds them.
But these last two records are only one aspect of the Walkabouts’ musical identity. Eckman and Torgerson, who are partners in marriage as well as in music, have released an astounding 10 records in the past five years — seven with the Walkabouts and three under the name Chris & Carla. The latter records are, as one would expect, a bit more stripped-down and acoustic, while the Walkabouts records range from the lush orchestration of the Virgin discs to the rawer rock ‘n’ roll edge of 1994′s Setting The Woods On Fire to 1993′s countrified covers project Satisfied Mind.
At its heart, this is all American music — all the more ironic, then, that they’ve had to go to Europe to find a market for it. Not that the crowds were huge from the beginning. “Our first show in Cologne, Germany, had 50 people there,” Torgerson recalls.
“But it was like 50 people who knew every song,” Eckman continues. “It was a little bit weird. And we had just done this horrible tour in America; we went out with Uncle Tupelo for a bit of it, and I think we did like two interviews in four weeks. And then in Europe, I was doing, like, three interviews a day, on this initial tour.”
All this was happening in the wake of the band’s 1991 release Scavenger, one of its better albums but the beginning of the end of its relationship with Sub Pop in America. Original plans for a $40,000 recording budget, made possible because Sub Pop had a deal in the works with Columbia, were scrapped before the sessions were completed after the Columbia deal fell through, leaving both the band and the label with “this giant behemoth that nobody knew what to do with,” as Eckman put it.
Without the anticipated major-label backing, Sub Pop was on the brink of going out of business (and might have, without Mudhoney’s self-titled 1991 LP), but the company finally got back on its feet financially — and then some — when Nirvana broke in late 1991. By that time, however, Scavenger had already been released, and the label decided “they didn’t wanna drop one more dollar into the project,” Torgerson recalls. Eckman adds: “Which I think was probably smart on their part. I mean, frankly, it was a relationship that never worked from the beginning.”
The turning point that led the Walkabouts down the path to a European career came in the summer of 1992 at a backyard barbecue at the Beverungen, Germany, home of Reinhard Holstein, owner of Glitterhouse Records and a partner with Sub Pop honchos Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman in Sub Pop’s European operations. “Jonathan was there, and we had this little meeting, and we didn’t get along at all; everyone was literally yelling at each other,” Eckman recalls. “Finally everything chills out, and we’re sitting at this picnic table later, and Reinhard just like, pulls me aside and says, ‘How much do you need to make an album?’ I just threw out this figure, $18,000, and he goes, ‘I’ll send it to you next week. You guys make it for me.’ And that’s where it started: We thought, okay, we’ll do this one album for them, and then we’ll shop it back to someone in the States. And we’ve just never really gotten back here; it kept taking off over there, and we kept going there.”
It was an unusual business arrangement, to be certain — the Walkabouts’ records coming out on Sub Pop Europe, but not on the label’s American home base — but it worked. From 1993′s New West Motel and Satisfied Mind to 1994′s Setting The Woods On Fire, the Walkabouts continued to increase their following overseas, even though no labels back home were biting. Part of that was the simple business reality of spending half the year on tour in Europe, with no one back home available to follow up on potential interest from U.S. labels. Part of it, however, is probably attributable to a difference in the musical tastes of Europeans and Americans.