Walking Papers’ Barrett Martin on Pouring the Concrete Right
Walking Papers are a four-piece rock band that hit on an arid Texas-style blues sound full of big, hesitating riffs and sly, wily darkness. Jeff Angell sings and plays guitar, Barrett Martin is on drums, Duff McKagen plays bass, and Benjamin Anderson weighs in on keys. There is something sinister in their sound, and Angell's lyrics develop characters, as stories are told inside the songs. It all moves on the outskirts, open to interpretation. Scenes arise—the boots of a fugitive trudge down an alley at dusk. The man has a knife wound, and blood loss is causing his vision to fade. He's trying to make it to his only friend in town.
Martin has been an active Seattle musician through the years, playing with Screaming Trees, Mad Season, Skin Yard, Tuatara, and R.E.M. Besides being a musician and a producer, he runs his own label, called Sunyata Records. He has master's degrees in anthropology, ethnomusicology, and linguistics, and he has a book coming out this fall about the way different places encode music into their culture. He also may be the nicest guy of all time.
Your song "Two Tickets" has this hesitation in the riff—a patience to it. Jeff's singing and the offbeat pauses make it all seem huge and evil.
That song came together from Jeff and I jamming the riff and the rhythm. You can't play that song fast, otherwise it doesn't have the same character. But then at the very end, it goes into double time.
Y'all sort of remind me of older ZZ Top, their album Rio Grande Mud.
We totally love ZZ Top! In fact, we're opening for them at a festival in France. Jeff spends a lot of time thinking about his guitar tones, and that's what Billy Gibbons is famous for, too, the tones. I haven't listened to the new ZZ Top record, but Jeff has, and he was just telling me that the guitar tones are amazing.
How did Walking Papers form? What was the impetus? Who was behind it all saying, "Hey, these people, let's play"?
I made the first call. I was down in New Mexico visiting during the summer. I had ankle fusion surgery, because my doctor was down there—I'd broken my ankle like 20 years ago on a Screaming Trees tour, and finally had to have this radical surgery to fix it. So I was basically just hanging out in New Mexico with this cast on my leg, and I got to thinking, you know, I'd really like to do a band again. I'd seen Jeff play with the Missionary Position a few times, and I love that band. So I called him and said, I'm not trying to get you to quit your band or anything, but if you want to do a project, we could write songs and have some fun.
It was a very innocent suggestion. It was originally just a little duo project—I wanted to write songs and play vibraphone, marimba, upright bass, and drums, and have him do all the other stuff. We started recording the record a little over a year ago now, and we did all the basic tracks in about a week here in Seattle. But then we realized we wanted to bring in people to play specialty stuff. He and I had both worked with Duff in years past, so we brought him in to do some bass. Then Ben Anderson came in to do some keyboard stuff, and we got the horn section from my jazz group to come in and do horn parts, and it just kind of became a band in the studio. I put the record out on my label. I have pretty good distribution—it's slowly making its way around the world—but it just ended up getting a lot more attention than any of us thought it would. We've only played a handful of shows. We did two tours—a short UK tour and a little West Coast tour. After that, it's just been local shows in the Pacific Northwest.
You guys are building a solid foundation. Duff is a big hitter and Mike McCready sounds killer on those tracks. You guys are kind of a supergroup.
Duff and I have talked about this. If you're building a house, you have to get into the mud and dig out the foundation and pour the concrete right. Otherwise, everything you build after that is on shaky footing. We've deliberately played club shows, and we're playing venues that are the right size, that we can either fill or sell out. I think that in turn makes the band a better live band, and it creates this chemistry that we've been developing and building upon—chemistry you wouldn't have if you just went out and tried to play big places and nobody shows up and you look like a fool.
You've played with so many people and played so many shows. What's a memory that stands out?
I'd say opening for Johnny Cash with Mark Lanegan. It was Mark's first live shows as a solo artist—he'd made his first two records, The Winding Sheet and Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, but he'd never played live shows. So he got offered to open two shows for Johnny Cash, at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle and down in Portland at the Rose Garden. The band Lanegan put together was Dan Peters from Mudhoney on drums, me on upright bass, Mike Johnson on guitar, and J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. on electric guitar, with Lanegan singing. We got to meet Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and Johnny stood at the side of the stage and watched us play. It was 20 years ago, and as the time has passed, I realized how amazing that was, to not only see Johnny Cash but to open for Johnny Cash, to actually get to share the stage with him. You don't really appreciate that sort of thing until enough time has passed that you realize those are rare things.
What was Johnny Cash like?
He was very friendly and polite and gracious—just an elegant man. A spiritual man. He radiated this kind of gravitas, like he'd been there; he'd walked through the fire and came back. People like that are very different.
Did his drummer have a gigantic drum set? I heard his drummer had a massive set.
Oh yeah, he did, he had that drummer. He had a double-kick drum set with all these tom-toms, and all he played was boom-tak, boom-tak, boom-tak. It was totally unnecessary to have that drum set, but that's what he had.
Johnny Cash's drummer can have whatever kit he wants.
A giant drum set fills up a lot of the stage and looks cool. I can't remember the guy's name, but that was his drummer who'd been with him from the beginning. He kept that same band together for almost his whole career. That drummer, he had the silver hair slicked back, playing this giant drum set. It was great.
Where did Walking Papers record?
We did the first record all at Avast! in Greenwood. I love that studio, I've been working there 20 years. We recorded in the big room, which is also where we recorded with Mad Season. I've done Tuatara stuff there, and just a million sessions for other people. We mixed it at Jack Endino's studio, Soundhouse. This new record, we started recording down in Joshua Tree at the Rancho de la Luna, where Josh Homme does sessions. I've recorded there many times. Josh doesn't own it, it's actually owned by Dave Catching, who is a great guitar player—he played in Queens of the Stone Age during the Rated R period. I actually played on that record, too. We did two songs down there during our West Coast tour and then we came back and did a session back at Avast!, in that same big room. We're just recording a little bit at a time as we get the songs ready.
What did the desert bring out of Walking Papers?
The idea of this band came to me in the New Mexico desert, in Santa Fe. When you record in the desert, when you write music that was conceived in the desert, it usually has a lot of space to it. It's usually very spacious and has a sort of soundtrack quality. The desert's all about looking within yourself, because you're in this wide-open exposed place. All you've got is you and the landscape, and the only place to go is inside, or out into the abyss. That's what I love about the desert. Joshua Tree was loved by Graham Parsons, and the Stones used to go out there too; it's really an amazing place.
The great Jack Endino mixed your album. How does he go about mixing? What does he listen for? What did you learn from him?
Okay, so Jack and I, this year we've been working together for 25 years. He produced a single for my first punk rock band in 1987, we were called the Thin Men. We were kind of a punk band when everybody was going grunge. Out of that, Jack asked me to play on some of his recordings, and I ended up joining Skin Yard, and that was my first real rock band. Jack and I have produced records together, and I've done sessions where I've played on his stuff that he's producing. And we've just kind of developed this understanding. He knows what I like to hear when it's one of my records. And I know what he wants aesthetically when it comes to making a rock record.
Right now, we're working on the next Walking Papers album, and he's been recording it from the beginning. We basically try to get the best sounds we can get from each individual musician and their instruments. I'm speaking a little bit for Jack, but I know that Jack's philosophy is to get the best performance you can get out of the band. Don't try to change and influence things in a way that the band wouldn't naturally want to do. I think that's been what he's done his whole career, capture the magic of the band as it is.
What was the hardest part for Walking Papers recording?
Tempo [laughs]. Is it a fast song, is it a slow song, is it in between, how far in between? We do everything live with no click track and trying to make it perfect—we play it in the studio just like we play it live onstage. The basic tracking is always a pretty intense period for me as a drummer.
So what's Endino's trick?
I'd say knowledge of what kind of amps and vintage amplifiers create certain sounds, what kinds of mics to use for those amps, and what distances to place them at. There's no one single thing. Oh, and the guitar that goes through them, you know? Like if you put a Les Paul through a Marshall versus a Les Paul through a Fender Deluxe, or if you want to use a ribbon mic, or a tube, or a condenser—all these different things to think about.
Who's producing the new Walking Papers?
It's the same thing, it's a coproduction between us and Jack.
Do you know when you're going to put it out?
We're talking about either later this year or early next year. We're just going to take our time, there's no rush. And this first album is still building— it's only been out since October, so it's been out for three months.
Will you guys have Mike McCready on the new stuff at all?
Oh yeah, I'm sure. And Peter Buck. He's playing acoustic guitar on a couple things—he has incredible acoustic guitar abilities. That first Tuatara record has both Peter Buck and Mike McCready on it.
Wait, so why the name Walking Papers?
We were trying to come up with the band name and several names were being bandied about. And I started putting them through a thesaurus on my phone. I was actually at a Wilco show at the Paramount. We were waiting for the show to start, and I was putting band names into the thesaurus and all of the sudden I got Walking Papers. I texted it to the band, and they were like, "That's it, that's the name." It was a term that came out in World War II: When soldiers were given their freedom, they were given their walking papers, and they could leave. But then it also became a term for if you get laid off or fired. And we were thinking, we've all been in bands where we either got fired or the label dropped us, and we were given our walking papers.
Lyrics on "The Butcher" and "A Place Like This" engage a darkness. Something impending. Jeff's talking about a ghost. In "The Butcher," someone dies and lies there for weeks.
Jeff writes a lot of these based on experience, or knowledge of things that have happened to him, or just stories that he's heard. I think the vague and nebulous quality lets the listener read into it whatever they want to read into it. I've gotten to work with some great storytellers, Mark Lanegan, and Layne Staley, and even Michael Stipe when I played with R.E.M. These are really good, poetic, lyrical singers. I wanted Walking Papers to have that quality. And Jeff really rose to the occasion. It surprised us when we started getting reviews of the album, and critics were saying, "It's like Raymond Chandler writing for a rock band" or David Lynch and Tom Waits. I like it.
Let's be honest, darkness is sexy.
[Laughs] All the bands we've been in were pretty dark. Darkness is just part of the continuum of light, you know—if you go too far one way, you're in darkness, if you go too far the other way, you're in unrealistic bliss.