Interview by Will Harris
With what’s being dubbed as a Seattle Super Group, Barrett Martin chats with MR’s Will Harris about his latest project and playing in the UK in November.
How are the live shows going so far?
Well we haven’t really started the tour yet, we’ve just played a few local shows in the Pacific Northwest, and they’re great. One of them was one of those great big outdoor festivals for a radio station where there were about a dozen bands playing, and we played about a 30-minute set. It was great, there were a few thousand people there and we’ve all played on the big stage before so we know how to do that. But the most fun have been the smaller club shows, and those have all been sold out. It’s just more fun when the audience is right there and it’s more intimate, and it’s kind of what we’re about with this kind of music.
What’s the reception been like for the album so far?
Well the reviews are just starting to come out right now, but the reviews I’ve seen people seem to love it because it’s a rock record but it’s very different. I think that’s because not only lyrically, it’s like each song is like a short story, but the whole album has this longer narrative feel to it. And we use different instruments on the record too, I mean we use guitar-bass-drums but it’s pretty easy to do that, but we decided to do some stuff with vibraphone and piano and marimba and upright bass and horns, and I think people like it, it’s refreshing.
How did Walking Papers first come together?
Well it started last summer and I was in New Mexico for the summer, and I was just driving around the desert and I started getting the feeling that I wanted to do another rock band but I wanted it to kind of have a soundtrack quality, and be able to tell the story of the American landscape and the stories of the country. I’d already met Jeff a couple of times — I’d seen him play and had become friends with him — and I called him up and I said “I’ve got this idea for a band, what do you think of it?”, and he immediately said “Absolutely, let’s do it.” So when I got back last year in the early fall we started writing songs and rehearsing, and we went into the studio in December and recorded the basic tracks for this first record. Then over the course of the next few months did all the final overdubs at a couple of different studios.
During that period of time, when we did the basic tracks, we started talking about a bass player, and Jeff had known Duff McKagan for a few years and I’d known him for many years, and he was in town, so we just asked him to come down to the studio and play some bass Then when it came time to add some keyboard parts, I play keyboard so I did some of it but we also wanted someone who could actually be the keyboard player, so we got Van Anderson. Two of the songs needed horns so I got two of the horn players from my jazz group, we basically just called people we already knew! There were a few songs that needed guitar solos and Jeff hadn’t done the guitar solos yet, and we had a mixing session coming up with Jack Endino, and I said, “well I’m in the studio with Mike [McCready] right now so why don’t we just get Mike to do it?” So it was very natural and organic.
Was the writing of the album largely down to just you and Jeff?
On this first record it was just me and Jeff, because we wrote the songs and arranged them just he and I, and he writes all the lyrics. But we’re working on songs right now for the second record, and everybody’s involved in that, so that’ll probably be it for next time.
For much of the album there’s an overarching blues-rock feel to it. Was that something you had in mind from the outset?
Jeff kind of plays that way as a guitar player, his previous band Post-Stardom Depression and he’s in another band called Missionary Position, and they’re pretty bluesy already, and that was a big influence on the Screaming Trees of course, and I’ve actually played with Delta blues musicians in the American Delta so as a drummer I like to play that backbeat feel. I think that if you’re an authentic American rock musician you sort of have to understand the blues, if you don’t understand it and you can’t play it then it’s not all the way there. How much of an influence comes into your music varies, depending on the band, but I’d say in Walking Papers it’s pretty bluesy. That’s kind of part of our influence and we’re not trying to suppress it or anything. It’s naturally there.
Obviously the work you did with Mad Season was pretty bluesy, with songs like ‘Artificial Red’ that were pure blues.
And the bass player for Mad Season, [John] Baker Saunders, he was a total blues bass player, he grew up playing Chicago blues. So between the way he played and the way I played and McCready, as a guitar player, he’s very influenced by the great American guitar players like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and those guys are very heavily blues-influenced. And so are the great British guitar players: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and I’m sure Pete Townshend to a degree.
So just to illuminate some of the readers, what other projects have you been involved in up until now?
Since the dissolution of Screaming Trees? Well I started my own solo jazz band just called the Barrett Martin Group, who just do what I would call soul-jazz, groovy kind of bluesy stuff. We’ve made a few records and we mostly just play the American West coast, we haven’t really played overseas or anything. I’ve been doing a lot of session work on other people’s records, like right now I’m in the studio with Jack Endino working for this woman named Bilama, from South Africa, and she’s making a really cool rock record, so I’m playing drums and other instruments on that.
We’re doing a box set for Mad Season, I’ve been in the studio with Mike McCready working on that. And that’s the Above album remastered, and we remixed the Moore Theatre concert and put it on to DVD, because it was only available on VHS tape. And there’s a bunch of live recordings that nobody’s ever heard so we mixed that, and then there were three songs that we did with Mark Lanegan, that are bonus tracks. It’s really a cool little package, it comes out in March.
I’m working on a project with Mike McCready which is a bunch of songs that he’s envisioned. I play drums and Duff played bass, and it’s a side project of sorts that Mike wanted to do. And then just here in Seattle there’s always some kind of band or singer-songwriter that needs a drummer and I love doing that, I love working with people. I also became a college professor! I went to graduate school, I’ve been working on my PhD for a while but I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m a Professor of Liberal Arts at Antioch University, so I teach ‘Liberation Theory’, how to liberate the mind from conventional thinking.
Sounds interesting stuff!
Yeah, I actually learn more than my students to be honest with you!
You also released on your label the Screaming Trees’ Last Words: The Final Recordings album. How did that come about?
Well basically these two-inch tapes had been sitting in the basement of a studio here in Seattle, and Jack Endino and I were recording my most recent jazz record we found them and pulled them out and kind of blew the dust off, and Jack said “Let’s put these up on the machine and have a listen.” And it was really good and we decided to ahead and transfer them from the two-inch tape into ProTools and did quick rough mixes, and I sent them to Mark Lanegan and he said “man, these are really good songs, let’s put them out!” So we didn’t want to deal with another record label, we’ve already been through that gauntlet, and they just asked me to put it out on my label. So Jack and I mixed it and the whole band approved the mixes and we created a sequence that everybody was happy with. Basically those are the songs — they’re essentially demos, they’re 24-track, two-inch tape demos — of what would’ve been our final record. It’s not produced the way our final record was but I think they’re pretty good recordings and they have a fiery, inspired feeling to it. The band was in a good space when we made those recordings; everyone was clean, everyone was sober, and happy and it’s a good way to kind of put a final capstone on it.
And looking forward, what do you plan to do? You’ve got a European tour coming up and you mentioned you’ve already started writing some songs for the second album. Do you have any estimated time of completion for that?
Well I think what we’re going to do is we do the UK tour and then we come back and do the American west coast, and then we actually go into the studio the day after that west coast tour for a few days to record basic tracks for the next record. Peter Buck from REM is going to come in and do a couple of songs with us, playing acoustic guitar because he’s a really good guitar player, and he’s so good at writing songs we said “God, we’ve got to do something with Peter.” So we’ll probably just work on the next record through the winter here in Seattle, because that’s a good time to hunker down in the studio, nobody’s really out on tour at that time. And then in the spring and summer I think we’re heading back to Europe to do a more extensive European tour, and I think we’ll probably play more American shows, probably do a little bit on the east coast.
It’s one of those bands where we want to play all over the world if we can, everybody wants to do that. We just have to be selective about where we play because it’s very expensive to tour and we are a new band even though everybody in the band has played in some really great bands. Walking Papers is a new band, and we have to make it a band, and you do that by playing small shows and by creating the chemistry of the band, I mean there’s really an art to the whole thing. You need to play a lot of small shows in front of an intimate audience and really create the chemistry of the band and you also have to keep writing songs and recording. You can’t do one record and think that that’s going to carry you, you have to keep creating, so that’s why I think we’re even going to try doing a recording session in London at the end of our UK tour. And then we’re doing a day in Joshua Tree, California during our west coast tour, and generally just keep recording as we’re on the road. I would hope to have another recording within a year.
Do you see it as a band that you’ll just take it as far as it can go?
I think so, as far as we can go. Me and Duff have talked about it and Duff wanted to play bass in a band again. He plays guitar and sings in Loaded and he’s still doing Loaded but he also wanted to play bass and just kind of be in a rock band. I admit, I haven’t been in a rock band since the Screaming Trees, and I really wanted to do that again. I love a lot of different kinds of music but there’s really nothing quite like playing good rock ‘n’ roll, it’s just fun! And I think we have a lot of experience to draw from, it’s helpful because we know how to do it, but it’s also exciting to start a new band and all the ideas are coming out. We’re not going to kill ourselves on the road, we’re not going to do those kinds of tours that we did when we were in our 20s, but we’re going to go out and play select shows, and it is a really good live show, people that come see it are really going to have a good time!