The Walkabouts: Roots and Branches

Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, a town known most for its name and for agriculture, may not seem likely as the birthplace of a remarkable band. But when students Chris Eckman, who had been playing around with his brothers in various punk acts, and Carla Torgerson, inclined to folk-inspired work, met and hit it off in 1983 and moved to Seattle the following year, the result was the birth of the Walkabouts, arguably one of the most overlooked and underrated bands of its time. Well before ‘Americana’ became a catchall term for any number of acts blending various roots musics old and new, the Walkabouts provided an ideal example of the form. In their early years they effortlessly combined blues, country, folk, early rock and roll and rhythm and blues, classic rock, punk, art-rock and much more besides, then on later albums they developed a stately, dramatic elegance drawing on any number of acts from or based in Europe in particular, where they received most of their recognition. They weren’t the only American band aiming for similarly broad ranges, but compared to fellow American acts ranging from Los Lobos to Wilco, the Walkabouts’ story and work remains little known in their home country.

Following an initial EP, 1985’s 22 Disasters, the group first settled into a four person lineup with Eckman’s brother Grant on drums and Michael Wells on bass. After See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens, a debut album on Seattle’s PopLlama label, the group perhaps unsurprisingly ended up on Sub Pop, with drummer Terri Moeller later replacing Grant Eckman in 1991. Keyboardist Glenn Slater had already joined in 1989, forming what, aside from some time without Wells and, briefly, Moeller, would be the most well-known version of the group for the rest of their time together. While Torgerson and Eckman’s singing and guitar work would always be the core of the Walkabouts — accentuated by a separate side career by the two simply called Chris and Carla — said quintet lineup’s ability to flesh out and provide a full drive, subtle detail and everything in between to those songs is what made them so remarkably special album after album.

Releases on Sub Pop included albums such as 1991’s Scavenger and 1993’s New West Motel, showing the Walkabouts rapidly perfecting their approach with fire and grace, their songs often sympathetic and well-observed stories of people on fringes or overlooked in the wider culture, character studies set to music. By the mid-1990s their approach was starting to resonate far more in Europe than at home, leading to a major label breakthrough there with 1996’s Devil’s Road and what would become their signature song, the stirring beauty of “The Light Will Stay On.” By this point Chris and Carla as a duo had released a studio debut and two live albums; both their act and the Walkabouts as a whole increasingly featured striking orchestrations, tipping a hat to acts like Lee Hazlewood and Scott Walker. Meantime, many bands and singers whose songs the Walkabouts loved featured in various one-off and live sessions and via two covers collections in particular, 1993’s Satisfied Mind and 2000’s The Train Leaves at Eight.

Tragedy struck when their late 1990s bassist, Mad Season member John Baker Saunders, died of an overdose in 1999, but the group continued on with involving albums like 2001’s Ended Up A Stranger and the angrier kick of 2005’s Acetylene, again gaining more attention and regular distribution on the German Glitterhouse label rather than back in the US aside from occasional reissues and compilations. Eckman and Torgerson separated personally during this time, continuing with both the Walkabouts and Chris and Carla while they individually pursued further solo work, with Torgerson releasing a 2003 collaborative soundtrack to a production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, then a full solo album the following year, Saint Stranger. Eckman had started his own irregular solo career beforehand with 1999’s A Janela and collaborated with other musicians on projects such as The Strange and Dirtmusic, as well as maintaining strong creative links with the Norwegian band Midnight Choir. Meantime Terri Moeller had started her own enjoyable side project, the Transmissionary Six, with the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Paul Austin. 

2011’s Travels in the Dustland carried the Walkabouts story to almost three decades, with the Berlin live album that followed providing a snapshot of the subsequent tour in the country and continent that had always appreciated their work the most. It turned out to be a final bow, however, with Eckman confirming in a 2015 interview that the group had formally broken up. Eckman’s solo and collaborative work, including the trio Distance, Light & Sky, has continued from his longtime home in Slovenia, while he has also become an active champion of a variety of musicians from throughout Africa in particular via the Glitterbeat label. As of 2022, Torgerson, whose initial plans for post-Walkabouts recording were interrupted by COVID, was set to begin work on her next solo album in turn. The Walkabouts are now a legacy, much of their work and that of its members’ side projects now regularly made available in America via Michael Wells’s Drums and Wires label, but that legacy is a rich and deep one still waiting for a proper appreciation in the home that never fully grasped what a treasure it had in them.

Ended Up a Stranger cover

“I keep crashing into parked cars” sings Carla Torgerson as the opening line for “Lazarus Heart,” the first song on Ended Up a Stranger, and the music, feeling more tense and direct than had been the case on Trail of Stars, signals a similar sense of stakes being raised. Meantime, the hope-chasing “See It In the Dark” was one of the Walkabouts’ most exultant songs in a long while, down to the horn section. As a whole, Ended Up a Stranger kept the general Walkabouts feeling of dark elegance going, with the concluding title track being a moving, haunted lament.

A Lie Of The Mind cover

While not her formal solo debut, Carla Torgerson’s collaboration with Mark Nichols, the Seattle-area musician who had done arrangements for various Walkabouts efforts in the 1990s, was her first album not done in collaboration with Chris Eckman, reflecting their separation beforehand. Created as a score for Sam Shepard’s play of the same title, the duo’s work here is often spare and atmospheric though with the occasional burst of feedback, strings and rhythm, Nichols’s voice providing a different, reedier resonance in contrast to Eckman’s huskier rasp.

Satisfied Mind cover

For their second 1993 album the Walkabouts turned to covering some inspirations and doing so with their exquisite skill. Many American heroes got the nod, including the Carter Family, Patti Smith, Gene Clark and Charlie Rich, the latter graced with an astonishing duet with Carla Torgerson and guest Mark Lanegan. Australia figures heavily: having long taken inspiration from the Go-Betweens, Chris Eckman delivered a stirring take on Robert Forster’s “The River People,” while Torgerson did a heartbreakingly lovely turn on Nick Cave’s “Loom of the Land.”

Life Full of Holes cover

Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson’s debut studio effort as a duo wasn’t simply the two of them as on the live album Shelter for an Evening, with numerous guests making appearances including Walkabouts bandmates, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McGaughey and, on two tracks, “Velvet Fog” and a cover of George Jones’s “Take Me,” the Tindersticks, a band perfectly simpatico with the general Walkabouts approach. But Chris and Carla remain the center of it all, with songs like “Sleep Will Pass Us By” showing a stark beauty.

Nights of Forgotten Films cover

The combination of the Walkabouts’ Chris Eckman and the sharp surf-derived sounds of Croatia’s Bambi Molesters as The Strange was one of those good ideas out of the gate, as their 2004 debut handily demonstrated. With Andrej Jakus adding further pep on trumpet on various tracks and Phill Brown holding things down on engineering, Nights of Forgotten Films has both zip and spy-movie mood, Eckman’s singing bringing a lived-in intensity with ease. A couple of covers close it out, including a solid romp through Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Villiers Terrace.”

Songs 2002 - 2012 cover

While the Transmissionary Six returned to sporadic recording in the early 2020s, this compilation serves as a good introduction to their initial run together, as Terri Moeller and Paul Austin created a string of enjoyable albums that, much like their main bands the Walkabouts and the Willard Grant Conspiracy, only gained cult appreciation in America. Moeller’s understated, quietly emotional vocals anchored explorations into drowsy psych/folk, country/classic rock tinged grooves and an atmosphere of easygoing musical energy.

Train Leaves At Eight cover

The Train Leaves At Eight is in ways a very atypical Walkabouts release, the only post-1991 studio effort not featuring either Michael Wells or Terri Moeller, but this spiritual sequel to Satisfied Mind, exchanging that album’s focus on generally American songs for specifically European ones, is also one of their most remarkable. While acts like Neu!, Jacques Brel, Solex and Scott Walker have a wider fame, it’s the selections of more regional legends like Luis Llach and Mikis Theodorakis that make this string-swept and moody collection all the more intriguing.

Acetylene cover

For the second album in a row the Walkabouts started off with a sharp punch of a song, with both Carla Torgerson and Chris Eckman singing “Fuck Your Fear,” simmering with images of destruction and unease in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War. On Acetylene, with Michael Wells returning on bass for the first time in years, louder rock and roll energy replaced the elegant moods of the stretch of albums beforehand. Compositions such as “Kalashnikov,” “Devil in the Details,” “Whisper” and “Have You Ever Seen the Morning?” burned brightly as a result.

Dirtmusic cover

The self-titled debut album by Dirtmusic’s combination of musicians — Chris Eckman, Chris Brokaw and Hugo Race, each familiar from their main bands like the Walkabouts, Come, and the Bad Seeds, makes a striking statement about the importance of a good ensemble of talented performers. Playing a variety of  instruments throughout, with Brokaw handling percussion along with Race, the trio perform a series of elegant, often folk-tinged songs, feeling like a good gentle jam session. Eckman’s first song, “The Other Side,” is a real beauty, while Race’s “Sun City Casino” and Brokaw’s “Summer Days” also stand out.

Scavenger cover

On their second album for Sub Pop, the Walkabouts proved that one of the great American bands was hiding in plain sight, with the opening Carla Torgerson-sung “Dead Man Rise” being a tight as hell combination of vivid rock and roll, a hint of classic r’n’b and country-touched spirit all at once. From there Torgerson and Chris Eckman deliver another set of killer songs, with guests like Natalie Merchant on “Where the Deep Water Goes” and Brian Eno singing and adding synth on the yearning Eckman-sung “Train to Mercy” showing who knew what was up.

Swinger 500 cover

Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson took a slight turn on their second studio album Swinger 500; while the moody stateliness familiar from the late 1990s Walkabouts carries over, there’s also unexpected choices of instruments and arrangements suggesting experimental edges, with both credited for synths and loops as well as more familiar choices. Once again various guests take a bow, notably guitarist David Immerglück, and songs like “The Good News First,” “Mercury Rising” and “Fear” add to their overall canon of excellence.

Fly High Brave Dreamers cover

Jointly dedicated to the then-recently deceased Arthur Lee and Grant McLennan, the final studio album Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson did as a duo is their most lush and warm in many ways, recorded in Eckman’s new home city of Ljubljana, Slovenia with many local musicians. The core duo once again play many instruments themselves, and from the stirring, aching opener “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” one of Torgerson’s best vocal performances ever, it’s a beauty. Standout songs include “Long Slow River,” “Rising Backwards” and “Whatever It Takes.”

A Janela cover

Eckman’s first full solo album signaled what would become the focus of his creative milieu going forward, beginning to exchange Seattle for Europe, in this instance Lisbon, Portugal, though still working primarily with a number of Pacific Northwest musicians like Tucker Martine, Kevin Suggs and Steve Moore. There’s various nods to Portugal throughout from the title on, including “Fadista” and the concluding “Sonhos E Sombras,” while musically the feeling is understated, some louder rock moments surrounded by space, delicacy and contemplation.

See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens cover

The Walkabouts’ formal full-length debut came four years into their existence, a good example of steady woodshedding via earlier EPs and tapes paying engaging dividends. While See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens on first blush may simply seem like an engaging indie folk-rock album of its time, there’s both steely bite in the overall performances and arrangements and, in Carla Torgerson and Chris Eckman, strong vocals that already showed their lyrical and singing talents well on songs like “This Rotten Tree,” “Glass Palace” and “Feast Or Famine.”

Trail of Stars cover

On their followup to Nighttown the Walkabouts formed a new partnership with a key producer: Phill Brown, already famed for his engineering work but at that time especially praised for his role in the last Talk Talk albums. There’s a sense of those albums’ almost tactile presence on songs like the stellar opener “Desert Skies,” another Carla Torgerson-sung tour de force. The haunted, lush elegance of their late 90s work continues here, feeling like a return to America under dark heavens on songs like “Straight to the Stars,” “On the Day” and “Last Tears.”

New West Motel cover

The Walkabouts confronted the spectacle of what grunge’s commercial breakthrough had done to their scene and town on one of their most fiery numbers, “Grand Theft Auto.” But New West Motel in general was much more than that, showing the band well on its way to claiming its own dark-shadowed space in what could later be called Americana, with song-stories like “Jack Candy” depicting a landscape of lost souls and desperate measures, all while the music suggests escape and possible solace, somehow.

Nighttown cover

With Nighttown the Walkabouts built on their Devil’s Road success to fully dive into smoky nightclub feelings that absolutely were in line with a late 1990s vibe among such acts ranging from Portishead to Nick Cave to the Tindersticks, moody as hell and with just the right approach to orchestration courtesy of Mark Nichols. Arguably Glenn Slater’s keyboards had never been more important on a Walkabouts album, while Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson’s singing throughout conveyed suppressed fire on songs like “Follow Me An Angel” and “Harbour Lights.”

Saint Stranger cover

Torgerson’s 2004 full solo effort was a quietly remarkable record, with Greek band Sigmatropic as the main backing ensemble and bandleader Akis Boyatzis as coproducer, plus numerous other friends as guests such as Bill Rieflin and Walkabouts associates Fred Chalenor and Nancy Wharton. Working mostly with songs cowritten with Michael Willet but also covers of Pearls Before Swine and Laura Veirs, Torgerson, in fine voice as ever, explores intriguing ground throughout, including the mesmerizing, nearly ten minute long jam “Dreh Es Um.”

Devil’s Road cover

By the time of Devil’s Road, the Walkabouts weren’t getting American releases on any kind of regular basis, having found a greater response to their work in Europe. But that was well rewarded thanks to their commercial breakthrough in Germany in particular with “The Light Will Stay On,” a dramatic string-swept Carla Torgerson vocal effort that rivaled the atmosphere and passion of prime Lee Hazlewood. It was far from the only standout, as songs like the Chris Eckman-sung “The Stopping-Off Place,” “Christmas Valley” and “Forgiveness Song” all showed.

Where the Spirit Rests cover

Backed at various points by his regular rhythm section of Žiga Golob and Blaž Celarec plus a variety of guest performers, including co-producer Alastair McNeill, Chuck Johnson and Chris Cacavas, on Where The Spirit Rests Eckman audibly sounds the veteran songwriter he is, the rough edges of his voice a complement and balance to much of the album’s hushed, late-night-in-a-quiet-roadhouse feeling. “Early Snow” sets a vivid, ruminative tone from the start; further songs like “Drinking in America” underscore the sense of hanging on as one can.