What happens when you assemble musicians who have collectively contributed to Screaming Trees, Guns 'N Roses, Mad Season, Post Stardom Depression, Skin Yard, Tuatara, and The Missionary Position? You get Walking Papers, a powerful new rock and roll force from the Pacific Northwest.
Jeff Angell (vocals/guitar), Barrett Martin (drums/percussion), Duff McKagan (bass) and Ben Anderson issued their self-titled debut this week and Angell and Martin have given a behind-the-scenes look at the formation of Walking Papers, the purpose and motivation behind its songs, and a glimpse into their ambitious future plans.
MAKING THE BAND
Martin and Angell met while working with different bands in Seattle and a bond formed quickly but it was a little later before the idea and opportunity to collaborate was formed. Martin was splitting time between New Mexico where he launched an independent label for a solo career in jazz, world, and fusion as well as academic pursuits and Seattle. It was during that time landscapes, a constant source of inspiration for him, began speaking to him again. He wanted to tell the story of the American landscape and he wanted Angell to give voice to that story.
Martin and Angell began working together on ideas for an as-yet named band. Those sessions were hard work but also very productive- to the point they realized their two-man band was going to need reinforcements and a proper bass player. Enter Duff McKagan, another son of the Pacific Northwest.
"I met Duff in 1994 or '95, right after he had quit Guns N' Roses," said Martin. "He was living in LA and he and Mark Lanegan were hanging out a little bit and I was in LA and Mark introduced me to him."
Angell knew McKagan separately and was the one who reached out and asked McKagan if he'd be interested in playing on a few tracks with he and Martin. It started out as playing bass on a few tracks and ended with McKagan signing on as a member of the band and he'll be packing his suitcase to join them on the road, having already played with them at some local shows.
Martin had known McKagan for awhile but hadn't played a lot of music together. That part of their relationship -- clicking as a rhythm section -- came to together effortlessly.
"It was immediately pretty awesome," said Martin. "We didn't even have to talk about it or analyze it. We just play very well together intuitively. What there is on our rhythm section is a real deep sense of swing and groove, and space. It's in the space where you create that."
Angell says it's a pretty big thrill working with musicians he admired while finding and forming his own identity with Post Stardom Depression and Missionary Position (whose Consequences album from earlier this year is not to be missed), a band he continues to front. He and Martin formed a special relationship during the early days when WP was just the two of them.
"He (Martin) is very proactive," said Angell. "He wants a few things happening and he's a workaholic and obsessed and so am I. Both of us are constantly trying to make things as good as possible so nothing is getting through unless we both think it's great. It's not the easiest way to work but it's an honest way to work and the results come out better. "
A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Walking Papers is more than just a cool name for a rock and roll band, a name Martin said he came up with while attending a Wilco show in Seattle. All four bandmembers are very aware of the current economic climate and the negativity associated with someone being handed their walking papers, but Martin and Angell see something beyond that negativity.
"I see it as a term that applies to both people being laid off and the exploitation of labor," said Martin, "but I see it also as freedom. You're given walking papers from one thing, it gives you freedom to do something else."
Angell takes it a step further and how it enters his songwriting process.
"Some people say all songs are love songs," he said. "So I love for people to have freedom and make their own choices. I think those songs -- writing songs about that -- hopefully it will get to people and they'll know I'm on the side of that."
Geography and similar backgrounds helped give the new band a foundation from which to work.
"The truth of the matter is, everyone in this band including Duff (McKagan), Jeff, and myself came from total working class, blue collar families," Martin said. "None of us came from what would be called middle class and so we know the kind of work and financial struggles that families go through because we grew up in those families."
The name fit with the ideas they were already forming and maybe, just maybe, helped guide them as they worked through piles of songs for their debut record. Both men are passionate and outspoken about the corruption and corrosive elements they see and read about in the news each day. Martin speaks with a professorial authority and rails with an activist's passion at the decay he sees. Angell can be equally fiery, but also sees comedy in the midst of the tragedy.
"Sometimes a corporation can be a good thing, to stereotype a corporation- since we are going to give them the rights as human beings," he said, laughing. "I don't want to stereotype them any more than I would human beings."
He certainly sees the ugly side of what corporations have done and found himself if not necessarily inspired, attuned to what was happening with the Occupy Wall Street movement. He understands the motivation behind the movement if he doesn't himself direct it at a particular individual, party, or entity. He's more appalled at and bemused by the greed at the core of the behavior.
"The funny thing about is they figured out that people would pay $25 a gallon for coffee," he said. "That's about what it adds up to when you put a four or five dollar latte into a gallon, so these people have too much money if they can spend that."
That isn't the only observation he's had into the nature of greed. He remembers working for a non-profit organization as a youngster only discover the business of helping others is still that: a business. While he was cold calling people and asking them to donate money to help needy children, his boss was driving a Corvette.
"What can people do? It's a hard question to ask because even when people think they're doing the right thing, people are taking advantage of those things," he said. "Green building. They're doing green recycling and then you find out it's all a gimmick and they're taking advantage of people wanting to do the right thing. It'll all be over soon. We're all going to die. There's no getting out of that."
These dilemmas, contradictions, and problems are at the heart of the stories Angell tells with Walking Papers. That may sound a bit jaded and fatalistic but the vocalist/guitarist maintains a sense of humor and hasn't convinced himself he's writing humanity's epitaph.
"This may not sound very dangerous or rock and roll," he said "but they're finding out with all this quantum physics and new technology that they can measure brain activity is that hope and faith are the only things that can make changes."
While the troubling times were on their mind in the rehearsal and recording studio, this album is not a protest record, or not just a protest record. Some songs are about the tumult in the world while others are about relationships, all told through the prism of Angell's keen wit and at times caustic sense of humor.
"Jeff can write from a lot of different perspectives," said Martin, "but he is a classic storyteller disguised as a rock and roll musician. He's really good at using a poetic lyric to tell a broader story. Jeff can naturally channel what the band is thinking about and talking about."
Martin and McKagan both have ongoing solo careers and each has contributed to different albums while Angell continues working with The Missionary Position. So where does Walking Papers fit in that context? Prominently. They've booked a run of US tour dates on the West Coast this fall, including a special date in Little Rock, AR that will feature Delta bluesman CeDell Davis and the solo debut of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. They're also playing a series of dates in the UK are thinking beyond that.
Martin has played occasional dates for his jazz projects but it's been awhile since he loaded his drums into a band and hit the road and he says he's excited about returning to regular live performances.
"Touring and taking that music out to the world, that really is the completion of the process and you have to do that to really complete the circuit," he said.
Martin and Angell both talked about trying to capture the live energy of the band in the studio, a concept lost in so many modern recordings in any of the different fractals of music. Angell said it's also something lost in the listening experience for music fans even if a record is recorded the right way with the popularization of digital music players, streaming, and YouTube. There is a part of him that misses the older media and even the compact disc but also sees an opportunity for live shows to be an even more powerful experience.
"There's nothing like hearing the crack of a snare drum by a really good drummer," he said. "They've never been able to capture that but it's going to be more and more obvious as people's stereos get crappier and crappier."
There is a good chance they'll be playing shows together next year but the initial sessions left them with songs that didn't make the debut and they've booked time in December to start recording a followup. Martin said one of his favorite songs from those first sessions didn't make the final cut this time and he's excited for people to hear that and the other ideas they're working on, some of which have already gotten their live debut.
"Of the 11 songs on the (debut) record, we've been regularly been playing nine of them," he said. "The two we haven't been playing are "The Butcher" because it's grand piano and vibraphone and "A Place Like This" because it's kind of a quiet songs with acoustic and marimbas.
"We've just been playing rock and roll shows with drums, bass, guitar, and Ben's keyboard but we're already starting to play some of the stuff that's going to be on the second album. Every one of the songs is really fun to play. They're all different. You've got 'The Whole World's Watching,' which has this blues-shuffle kind of thing and then 'Your Secret's Safe With Me' is this funky-groove-disco thing and then 'Capital T' and 'Two Tickets' are heavy rock, groove songs. It's a great live show."
Forming a band, recording an album, booking US and European tour dates, and planning a second record all in the span of one year is daunting but Angell said he wouldn't have it any other way.
"People ask me, 'Don't you want to relax?' but that is recreation for me," he said. "I guess I've been getting lots of relaxing in this year. It is work and it requires effort but if you're passionate about it, it's not hard to get into doing it."