Seattle Rock Veterans Present their Walking Papers (Part 1)
Around 20 years ago, Seattle was home to two true rock supergroups—Temple of the Dog and Mad Season. Though short-lived (by design and by untimely death, respectively), both bands still have fans who will likely dig the city’s newest uber-talented collective, Walking Papers—and not just because of its familiar faces. Turns out when vocalist/guitarist Jeff Angell (Post Stardom Depression, Missionary Position), drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Mad Season), keyboardist Benjamin Anderson (Rorschach Test, Missionary Position), and bassist Duff McKagan (Guns N Roses, Loaded) get together, they make really good music.
But the guys dismiss the “supergroup” tag. They’re probably sick of it, sure, but there are more fundamental reasons. Like humility and respect. In a thoughtful exchange, Duff told me it’s “a rather lazy title that affords an instant-label for the Information-Age Internetters.” Barrett added that “it implies that you are already playing to this special league, which we are not.” Also, focus. Walking Papers’ members are far too concerned with cultivating the chemistry that spurred their first record, out October 2—and planning a second—to bother with capitalizing on their own cachet.
The band’s heads-down creative focus is reflected in its choice of cozy live venues: the Sunset, Sole Repair, and Slim’s Last Chance. On October 5, they’ll celebrate their record’s release at the spiffy, tiny Barboza beneath Neumos. (The label behind the release? Not a major, but Barrett’s own, Sunyata Records.) Then they’ll close a fall tour back at the Crocodile on December 15.
Try as they might to be all Clark Kent, Walking Papers can’t help but be super. Who do they call for a little guitar solo flair? Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready. Here’s more on that, how the band formed, the debut record, and more.
So how did you guys first connect?
Barrett Martin: I spent last summer in New Mexico and the desert landscape just kind of spoke to me with the idea of making an album with Jeff. I had seen Missionary Position play a few times and I loved Jeff’s voice, his lyrics. We had become friends because we found that we had a lot in common as far as the music we liked. I was also itching to do a heavy band again, a band that could conjure the feel of the American landscape. I figured Jeff could probably pull that off.
And the name—why Walking Papers?
Jeff Angell: We like that it’s a negative that could have the possibility of becoming a positive over time. Barrett suggested it and I had a lyric lying around with the same phrase. So it was already decided for us.
You’re both credited with writing and producing the record. How did the songs come together?
Barrett: I think we write, arrange, and produce the best songs in the “workshop method,” where we each bring ideas to be hammered out in the forge of the rehearsal room. We also just jam to see what might appear. I always have drum grooves, but I also play upright bass, piano, marimba, and vibes, so I tend to write in the more acoustic realms. Every now and then I even have a guitar riff. Jeff writes on all sorts of instruments, and he writes the lyrics; he’s the storyteller.
Jeff: Barrett is a merciless taskmaster and like Andrew Oldham with the Stones, he’d lock me in the rehearsal room and wouldn’t allow me to come out until I’d written something. Seriously though, the music was almost automatic. If Barrett is providing the beat it’s almost impossible to play something that doesn’t sound inviting. Other ideas I retrieve from my voicemail. I hum a lot of riffs in my phone while I’m driving. I know it’s dangerous, but the last thing the world needs is safe rock music.
How did Duff come into the fold? Is he an official member?
Barrett: Duff is “officially an official member” of the band. So is Ben. We got lucky. It started as a duo, but became a quartet as we were making the album. I had jammed with Duff 15 years ago in LA and we were going to form a band way back then. But he ended up forming Velvet Revolver and I went back to graduate school in New Mexico.
Jeff had jammed with Duff during the interim period, and when it came time to record the bass tracks, he made the call and Duff started coming down to the studio. And Ben was a natural for the part; he just quietly added the coolest stuff on the album when nobody was watching. He’s sneaky that way.
Duff, what drew you in?
Duff McKagan: Most times in my experience, musical opportunity just happens when it is supposed to, if that makes sense. I’ve been really wanting to play bass again lately—and Jeff and Barrett and I have been friends for eons—so, suddenly, BAM, this thing happens, really out of nowhere.
And Mike McCready? How did he get involved?
Barrett: I called Mike because he and I had been working on the Mad Season box set, and we had been kicking around the idea of playing together again. So I just asked him if he wanted to play a couple guitar solos [for “The Whole World’s Watching” and “I’ll Stick Around”]. Mike jumped in and did them in a day, and it totally changed the direction of the songs. Much for the better.
Jeff: If [Mike] sticks with it, he might just have a future someday.
Barrett: Jeff was just being lazy and hadn’t done his solos yet! I wanted to light a fire to raise the game, but we also knew it would be fun and rather awesome to have two Mike McCready solos on our album. I don’t know how often people notice this at a Pearl Jam show, but Mike is an absolutely brilliant soloist. I mean really, he was born to do just that. He solos like Hendrix and SRV. I call him “The Conjurer.”
Jeff, what’s it like to play with these world-famous guys?
Jeff: I’ve known Barrett and Duff long enough that I don’t really think of them as world-famous guys. They put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. The only difference is they have each lived through a rock and roll shit-storm and come out the other side as gentlemen, with their senses of humor and humility intact. However, once they plug in and play it is pretty obvious that they are legends. Musically, I was raised by all three of them. So in some ways I’m like their illegitimate musical offspring. It is very humbling to have my ideas considered by such giants, and playing at Slim’s with all three of these guys, and of course Ben, was pretty much an out-of-body experience.
Did everything just click when you came together?
Barrett: I’ve never played in a band where the music flowed so easily. When Jeff and I jammed the first time, the songs naturally emerged, quickly and abundantly. We played our first shows as a duo and it worked just fine. Then Duff came on board and suddenly we became a rather lethal rhythm section. Ben brought his keyboard work from the album straight to the live stage and it just balanced everything perfectly.
The term “supergroup” can be overblown. But with you guys it fits.
Duff: I get it, sure, but from my angle, we are just dudes creating grooves and melody or whatever. You can’t just grab “the dude from this band,” and “the guy from THAT band” and insure it’s gonna be good because those OTHER bands are good. There has to be chemistry first—before anything else.
Barrett: I try to avoid that term. The hard truth of rock and roll is that even an established band is only as good as its last album, at least in the eyes/ears of the public. So just because you have a couple famous guys in a band does not mean anything unless you make a truly great album and play great live shows. If you can’t do that, then the term “supergroup” becomes an albatross. A band has to become “a band” in the sense that it has to become an entity unto itself. That is the most important thing, and it’s really the secret to success for any band, supergroup or not.
[Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Walking Papers, coming soon.]