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Interviews   

Walking Papers: (re)discovering everything


The most widely used metaphor to describe music that has an impact on us revolves around travel: “it carries me away”, “it makes me travel”. In this case, if Walking Papers’ album makes you travel, it’s because its mains theme is… travel. Drummer Barret Martin’s thirst for travels is still strong, since the man spends all his time on tour, when he’s not on stage, visiting the cities in which the band stops. The idea behind the project was to musically transcribe the diversity and beauty of American landscapes, which Martin seems to be madly in love with. The result is a record with grunge foundations, which features sounds not often heard in the genre. It’s also extremely diverse, which the calm and minimalist opening song, “Already Dead”, shows in a very smart way.

The fact that these musicians still hunger for novelty can be surprising, given that all of them have had ample time to get used to, and possibly to get weary of, touring. Because Walking Papers is a project that brings together renowned artists, from Barret Martin (Screaming Trees, Mad Season) to Duff McKagan (Velvet Revolver, former Guns N’ Roses). There’s a word to describe this kind of initiative, a word that particularly annoys Barret, since this project is a new beginning for him. He doesn’t deny that, because the bandmembers are so famous, things are more comfortable from a financial point of view, but the band doesn’t want to jump important steps and wishes to rediscover the path most artists have to take: build a fanbase, win over small venues before selling-out bigger ones, create a bond between the members by playing intimist shows.

Also, Walking Papers want to remain independent. For Barret, who’s particularly severe towards those bands signed on big labels, that’s the only way to remain a rock band.

« It’s just because we’re friends that we decided to form the band, not because Duff was in Guns N’ Roses, or I was in Mad Season. […] People can say it’s a supergroup, but I don’t really like that word. It’s just a great band, that’s what it is. »

Radio Metal: Are you ready for the interview?

Barrett Martin (drums): Yes, I am. I’m at the club, at the Nouveau Casino.

How is it like?

Oh, it’s great. It’s a very cool club. There’s a lot of people waiting outside to get in.

Did you do your soundcheck already?

Yeah, we did soundcheck. We spent the day walking around Paris and ate lots of good food – crêpes, éclairs. I took pictures of the Eiffel Tower and walked to the Louvre.

It looks like you really like to travel and visit the places where you play.

That’s the whole point of being in a band: to see the cities of the world.

Other bands most often just wait or relax before the show. It really looks like you want to know the cities where you play better. That’s great!

Yeah, I like that very much.

Can you tell us how this project was initiated and how everyone got involved?

I called Jefferson Angell when I was in New Mexico last summer. I said: “We should form a band that would tell stories about the American West”. We got together and started writing songs together. It became much more interesting when we brought in Duff [McKagan] to play bass and Ben Anderson to play keyboards. We’re all friends, we’ve known each other for many years. We just had never been in a band together. So it’s one of the bands where we were friends first, and then we decided to form a band together.

« Even though we’ve had some success as musicians, we still identify with people that work. I think in the United States, labor is the most important thing, and it should be the most respected thing. »

You said in an interview that you hate the term “supergroup”. But this is what you are in fact: a project founded by several well-known musicians. What do you hate so much about this word? Do you think it can have a negative, greedy connotation?

I think “supergroup” is kind of a lazy word that people use if you have some famous people that form a band. The truth is, we’re all in our forties, we’ve been in many bands and we’ve played all over the world. It’s just because we’re friends that we decided to form the band, not because Duff was in Guns N’ Roses, or I was in Mad Season. It doesn’t matter. It has to do with the musicians being able to play together, write songs together and make a band. That’s why we’re playing small clubs and doing things the old-fashioned way. You play small clubs for a close audience, and you forge the chemistry of the band in the live show. People can say it’s a supergroup, but I don’t really like that word. It’s just a great band, that’s what it is.

The name Walking Papers is quite interesting, since it has a lot of different meanings. It can refer to soldiers from World War II that were discharged, or people laid off by corporations, or people working very hard for no money. Did you pick this name because of the multiple meanings it has?

Everybody in the band comes from blue-collar, hard-working families – families we might even say were poor. Everybody worked very hard, but we just didn’t grow up having a lot of money. And even though we’ve had some success as musicians, we still identify with people that work. I think in the United States, labor is the most important thing, and it should be the most respected thing. The “walking papers” word means that, yes, you’ve been fired or laid off your job at the corporation, but it’s also a kind of freedom. It gives you the freedom to change and become something else, move away and start a new job somewhere else. That’s what a lot of people are doing right now.

This word perfectly describes the life of a musician. Do you see it that way?

Well, yes, everybody in this band has been given their walking papers at some point. The Screaming Trees broke up and I was given my walking papers. Duff was given his walking papers from Guns N’ Roses. All of us have been in bands that either we quit, or the bands broke up. So yeah, we’ve all experienced that.

« With a band like this, we’re making money from the beginning. But we’re deliberately playing small places, because, as I said before, the idea is to build the band up. »

You guys are well-known musicians. Do you still have trouble making a living out of music?

No. With a band like this, we’re making money from the beginning. But we’re deliberately playing small places, because, as I said before, the idea is to build the band up. We are very successful musicians, it’s just that we’re deciding to do things from the very beginning with this band.

You’ve declared: “I don’t really like most of what passes for rock these days. Corporate radio and the major labels have somewhat destroyed it. I like many other kinds of new music, but rock seems to be pretty limp at the moment”. On the album, we can hear a lot of instruments that are pretty rare in the rock scene. Do you think the essence of rock can’t be found in actual rock bands, but in other musical styles?

I think rock’n’roll is a form of resistance and rebellion against hegemonic power structures. So the truth of the matter is, being a band on a major corporate label is really not being a rock’n’roll band, because you’re working for a corporation. With Walking Papers, we’re totally independent. Our record label is my record label [note: Sunyata Records], that I started. So we control every aspect of our band through the label; all aspects of our band are controlled by us. When I say I don’t like a lot of what passes for rock’n’roll, it’s because these bands are on major labels and get played on corporate radio. People are fooled into thinking that this is rock’n’roll. But it isn’t. That’s why I like bands like The Black Keys, they’re an incredibly good rock band. Or Jack White, all the different bands that he’s done. These are indie rock bands. I know the Black Keys are on Nonesuch now, but they started out independent, and they pretty much built their career being independent. As opposed to a band like Nickelback, for example; that’s a fabricated band.

« The truth of the matter is, being a band on a major corporate label is really not being a rock’n’roll band, because you’re working for a corporation. With Walking Papers, we’re totally independent. »

What would be your definition of rock’n’roll?

As I said, it’s a form of musical resistance against power structures. That’s what it is. You can express rock’n’roll with drums, bass and guitar, but you can also express it with piano or a marimba. The most important thing is good story-telling.

So do you think Walking Papers are a rock’n’roll band?

I know we’re a great rock’n’roll band! We’re a really good live band, and we’re very good in the studio, because we have so much collective experience at recording.

About this album, you’ve declared: “I wanted to do this band that would be heavy, but have a story-telling quality that would be able to capture the American landscape”. What do you find so inspiring about those landscapes?

Oh, the American landscape is one of the most beautiful in the world, with the deserts, the canyons, the mountains, and the wide open space. You have to see the American West to truly understand it. I love the United States. I don’t like much of the political and military policy, but I love the American people, I love the American landscape, and I love the stories that come from the United States. When you think about it, it’s really a nation of great story-tellers: think of all the writers, the filmmakers and the poets that have come from the United States. There are great musicians – Bob Dylan, Springsteen, and Tom Petty –, people that are known for their great story-telling in their songs. There’s something about the United States that causes that.

The album is actually very diverse. Is it a way to symbolize the diversity of American landscapes?

Yes, I think so. We deliberately tried to make each song unique, but when they’re strung together, the album is a larger narrative. Each song is sort of like a short story within the larger narrative.

« I love the United States. I don’t like much of the political and military policy, but I love the American people, I love the American landscape, and I love the stories that come from the United States. When you think about it, it’s really a nation of great story-tellers. »

On the band’s Facebook page, you write a lot about the cities you visit while on tour. It really looks like travelling is your main influence?

I’ve travelled all over the world, even when I wasn’t playing rock’n’roll. I’ve spent time in Africa, I’ve spent time in Cuba, I’ve lived and played music in Brazil. I’ve also spent time in Amazonia, studying indigenous music. Then I went back to graduate school and became a college professor at one point. I’ve done a lot of travelling, studying music, that was separate from my rock’n’roll career. I think that’s the greatest gift you get from being a musician: the ability to travel.

You often publish long messages and thoughts on your Facebook page. It looks like you’re trying to have a very open relationship with your fans and your audience.

I think so. We want to be connected to the people that love this band. I’m also writing a book right now, so I tend to write more than most people do! Duff’s a writer as well. He’s written a book, and he writes a weekly column for the Seattle Weekly. So he and I are writing all the time.

My last question is about Mad Season. I’ve heard you intend to release a second album. Is that still the case?

It’s not a second album. It’s actually a boxed set, coming out on March 12th, through Sony. I oversaw the making of this boxed set. There are three new songs that Mark Lanegan sang on, there’s a DVD of a Mad Season concert, and another one of a club show that we did. It was filmed, but nobody’s ever seen it. So that’s three discs in a beautiful package. I wrote the liner notes. It was all overseen by Mike and I, so it’s completely done by the band. It will be coming out on Sony Legacy.

Interview conducted by phone on November, 10th, 2012
Transcription: Saff’

Photos taken from the band’s Facebook page.

Album Walking Papers released on October, 2nd, 2012 via Sunyata Records



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