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Interview The Walkabouts

Label Spotlight: Drums & Wires Recordings

In today’s landscape, we are inundated with media. Long gone are the days when one had to go to record stores or rely on recommendations from friends in order to discover new music. Most people, at least under a certain age, don’t appear to purchase music with any regularity. With one click, YouTube and Spotify can access virtually any song that can imaginably be searched for. This is standard practice for millions of people, which has signified the death of record labels and physical media. CDs are out of fashion and records are only manufactured for a niche market. Yet, there is a flame that refuses to be extinguished, primarily in the independent music scene and the labels that support it. Seattle’s Drums & Wires Recordings is a label that maintains support for original artists and also embraces the technology of MP3s and streaming music as an option for those who prefer to ingest their music in that manner.

Three Imaginary Girls has been wholly impressed with Drums & Wires Recordings, a record label and musical collective, run by Michael Wells, who is vastly important in the Seattle music scene as bass player of the phenomenal and highly underrated band, The Walkabouts. He was also Director of Operations at the esteemed Light in the Attic Records for about three years. We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Michael and interview him about the label and its recently re-launched website where he detailed the concept behind the label and why record labels like this are still sorely needed and essential in today’s environment.

Drums & Wires is a collective for a diverse range of mainly Seattle artists. What was the original idea behind the label?

Drums & Wires Recordings is a one-person operation, but the spirit of the label is certainly collective in that independent artists and people such as me who are artists and also have experience in the biz need to work together to do everything we can to get the music to the people. This hybrid music catalog/record label is meant to be a partnership with the artists, so in that sense we’re building on a collective energy where everyone does what they can to grow the artists’ career and the label.

Legacy artists in the Drums & Wires catalog, such as Ottoman Bigwigs, are no longer active as a group but the musicians are still active. James Palmer, the Bigwigs guitarist, along with singer-songwriter Katy Palmer, are the core members of a new band called Long Wasted who are currently finishing work on their debut album that I’m really excited about. I’m talking with the band about how I can partner with them to release the album on the label, by doing things that I can do in my role as a label that aren’t necessarily in the band’s wheelhouse.

By including in the catalog groups that James and Katy have been a part of over the years, The Bolos, Dodi, The Lawnmowers and the Bigwigs, we’re creating a through-line, a narrative that puts all of this great music into a context. There’s a rich vein of music that was created by a community of musicians centered in and around Belltown in the ‘90s – sharing bandmates, recordists, managers, friendships, playing shows together at Sit & Spin, the Crocodile, the Speakeasy, The Two Bells and even the Vogue, and rehearsing in the mysterious and dank basement of The Rendezvous with who-knows-what dripping from the pipes above hour heads! An important part of why I started the label was to help tell the story of these Belltown bands, and hopefully introduce the still quite vital music of that scene to some new ears. But I’ve never intended the label to be solely nostalgic. The inspiration for the label has been, since its inception, to be a catalyst for current and future musical projects. In addition to the upcoming Long Wasted album, artists such as Greg Dember and Loose Wing have joined the catalog and my hope is that the label, not just the catalog, can be a part of the discussion when these folks start to plan their next album.

Drums and Wires was initially born in 2010. Tell me a little bit about the original concept and how it has evolved with the recent re-launch? Has the label been active for the entire nine-year span?

Drums & Wires began as an artist management entity that I started with the purpose of supporting The Walkabouts, a band I’ve been a longtime member of, when we recorded and toured for our last studio album Travels in the Dustland in 2010. After the tours were wrapped up for the that album and the band’s follow up live album Berlin, I began consulting for small labels and met the guys in one of the Seattle’s best kept musical secrets of a few years back, country-rockers Davidson Hart Kingsbery. I took up managing DHK for about a year before they disbanded, and then I went to work for Light In the Attic Records.

Needless to say, record labels have always been involved in artist’s careers, often handling their publishing, matching them up with songwriters and producers and of course recording budgets and promotion. Nowadays, because certain barriers to entry have been lowered for artists and they’re able to record and self-distribute their own music at least digitally, especially the indie labels are becoming more like business partners and less like the “bosses,” and in this context they now handle a lot of the same things traditionally handled by managers. So, it’s a fairly seamless transition for me as I evolve from management to running a label. My years spent working side by side with the owners at Light In the Attic, where I was exposed to pretty much every aspect of the day-to-day operation of a label, really helped prepare me for Drums & Wires Recordings. I owe a lot to those guys (Josh Wright and Matt Sullivan).

So the launching of the label has really been a multi-phased, multi-year process, beginning with The Walkabouts album, evolving into a curated catalog of amazing music coming out of the Belltown scene, of which The Walkabouts were a part of, to now forging relationships with current artists who I don’t necessarily know before hearing their music but whose music touches me and who I think are a good fit with the label.

The website is dedicated to the memory of your brother, Josh. What was his role in the music industry and what has his impact been on your label?

My brother Joshua Wells didn’t have a formal background in the industry, but he was a creative and influential club owner in Los Angeles prior to his passing a few years ago. He was a deep feeling person with amazing style, personality, humor and intelligence. He had a genuine love of music and an ability to really articulate what moved him in music. He would often fête musicians when they were in L.A. and he formed close bonds with many of them – Love and Rockets, U2, REM, and I’m pretty sure he even had Bowie in one of his clubs for an evening – and everyone loved Josh! He was a special person. One of my most treasured memories of my brother was how much he loved the music of Dodi, one of the Belltown bands that I played in. I knew that his compliments of Dodi’s music were deeply considered. This meant more to me than any Rolling Stone endorsement could ever mean.

Some proceeds from the label are donated to Lifelong. Can you tell me a little bit about that organization and your decision to donate a portion of the money earned to them?

My brother died after battling HIV-AIDS for over twenty years. For many of those years he was an activist, an early member of Act Up and an early advocate for clean needle exchanges in Los Angeles and throughout the country. I sometimes feel that there’s more that I could have done to support him and stand by him in the fight to battle the bigots and the reactionaries, people like the Reagans, who at best ignored the epidemic and at worst preyed on the epidemic for political gain and to hurt people. Lifelong is a Seattle-based organization that provides food, housing, and health services to people living with chronic illnesses, including HIV and AIDS (formerly NW AIDS Foundation, Chicken Soup Brigade and Evergreen Wellness Advocates). My decision to donate some of Drums & Wires Recordings’ profits to Lifelong is a small way that I can hold the memory of my brother close and help support people who are struggling with the disease right here at home.

How do you feel about the state of the music industry? What are the challenges and what are the advantages in the current climate?

That’s a big question, where to begin?! 

If I were to distill it down to a few tasty soundbites it would be that the most significant challenge is how does an artist make an impression and somehow build a viable career in a world where listener’s have so much to choose from… a million songs instantly on your iPhone, and music has become so devalued in the digital age.

Because of the erosion of music income due to file sharing and streaming, many artists are now required to adapt to a patron approach to fund their art and feed themselves. Amanda Palmer is pretty much the poster woman for this and her book The Art of Asking explores this in depth. Touring was once a loss-leader to sell records, and now touring artists need to figure out how to make touring their primary income with their recordings being the loss-leader. More and more, artists are touring solo or with stripped-down bands, to cut costs so they can actually bring some money home at the end of the tour. The changing economics of making music is changing the making of music.

At the risk of seeming Pollyanna, I think this massive shift in the economics of the music industry has also created opportunities for enterprising people who are willing to get creative about how to make and promote music. This new environment has opened the door for small, scrappy labels like Drums & Wires Recordings to help reinvent the way artists collaborate with business people to get their music to the people. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and artist/label partnerships make more sense than ever before.

What are your current musical projects? Are there any bands that you are involved in? 

I’m playing in a band called glimmer, we’re finishing a record that I’m very excited about that’s due for release later this year. I first started playing with David Russell, glimmer’s songwriter/bandleader, when he recruited me to play bass in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that was staged at the Moore Theater a few years ago. The Sad, Sad Songs is another band project I’m doing with a group of players who I’m super thrilled to be working with, including Katy from Long Wasted, and we’ll start doing shows later this year.

Is there anything on the horizon for The Walkabouts? Fans, including myself, would be delighted to see another tour or album if the stars were to align.

The Walkabouts are pretty much retired. Bandleader Chris Eckman lives in Slovenia which is a long commute from Seattle where the rest of us live, and he’s busy with his label Glitterbeat as well as a few different bands he plays in, Dirt Music with co-collaborator Hugo Race, The Frictions and Croatian instrumental band The Strange. Carla Torgerson is working on her second solo album which I’m hoping to add to the Drums & Wires catalog. Drummer Terri Pearson is doing a variety of projects including her own music as Terri Tarantula, playing with Paul Austin (The Transmissionary Six) and she’s playing in singer-songwriter Greg Dember’s live band. I believe keyboardist Glenn Slater is resurrecting his old band Melting Fish, and as for me, I’ve got a few irons in the fire. So… not much room for The Walkabouts, but you never know when those stars might align. In the immortal words of the musical poet-philosophers Romeo Void, never say never.

Do you have any advice for young aspiring artists?

Playing music is a very personal experience, and it takes a long time to truly find your own voice. Keep doing it because you have to, because you love it at least most of the time, because it’s your community, because to not play music is not an option for you.

Thank you very much to Michael Wells for his time. It is people like him who help to keep the music industry fresh and exciting for those of us who cherish music as the sacred art that it is.

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Graig Markel Imaginary Scoop Sunset Tavern The Walkabouts

Get your drink on early with Drunken Soundtracks at the Sunset Saturday, August 14; solo Graig Markel opening

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0KikSWn2fQ]

This Saturday, August 14 loyal Walkabouts followers are in for a treat at the Sunset, with doors opening at 6 pm (during happy hour). Carla Torgerson, Michael Wells, Glenn Slater, Paul Austin, and Terri Moeller (otherwise known in Terri Tarantula) will be playing songs written and/or recorded with Walkabouts leader Chris Eckman, who comes back to Seattle to work with the band in autumn.

Just because Eckman lives in Slovenia now doesn’t mean the other vibrantly creative members of the Walkabouts shouldn’t be able to play for their hometown fans, right? Thus, the Drunken Soundtracks, the moniker the Walkabouts play under while Eckman is away, taken from a sublime double CD compilation of lost songs by the group released in 2002. The show will be opened by Animals At Night leader Graig Markel, putting down production duties in his new home studio for one night to come out and deliver an also rare solo set. Walkabouts fans are a fervent and loyal throng, so be sure to buy your advance tickets here if you’re as excited by this news as I am.

For fans of roots-based, poetic but dynamic rock, who want to sample more of the Walkabouts oeuvre by also legendary alternative artists such as The Minus 5, Jon Langford (of the Mekons), Steve Wynn and Linda Pittman, Gary Heffern and Beautiful People, etc., check the 2010 anthology in the meantime: Got No Chains: The Songs of the Walkabouts. They’ll probably have some copies for sale at the show this weekend, and it is as highly recommended a taste of the talents of the band as their own Drunken Soundtracks.

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Betty Davis D.O.A. Daniel Johnston Half-handed Cloud Imaginary Scoop Parenthetical Girls The Walkabouts X-Ray Spex

Best gift discs they might miss (best music of 2009)

There are a lot of fantastic books, albums, DVDs, and other things that any music fan would love to get this year, but may not know that they would love them yet. The pop culture pie hole is insatiable, and with the battered economy not everything I loved got the proper hype. This is Part One for me, the recorded sound segment.

When it comes time to buy stuff for friends (Christmas Eve, at Easy Street, Sonic Boom, or in my next installment, the Fantagraphics Store), you might see bundles of the below spilling out of my weary arms (if I haven’t mail ordered extras already).

Parenthetical Girls, The Scottish Play: Wherein The Group Parenthetical Girls Pay Well-Intentioned (If Occasionally Misguided) Tribute To The Works Of Ivor Cutler

Eight super-short “tracks,” half spoken word with light keyboard texture, words by a salty old Scotsman who knew the Beatles and couldn’t stand loud pop music. Just out on Tomlab, floating as a ten inch in Europe, I can’t stop listening to this Portland band’s delightful devotion to Cutler’s astonishing writing. PG singer Zac Pennington’s voice has never been better (my wife insists he’s Colin Meloy murdered by a sailor-lover and returned to earth as a perfect-crooner angel), and the spirit of play and precision for these cranky odes to doughnuts and coffins, environmentalists in leather boots pissing in ditches and thus forever changing the eco-system, men losing their lunch to the dismay of their socialite wives, and the triangle of hair we all think about but don’t talk about and so Zac must sing about. Got to tell you, I don’t think pop music ever gets more brave or adorable.

X-Ray Spex, Live @ The Roundhouse London 2008

There was a recent picture in SPIN of many of the old punk rock icons, and I won’t name names, as a lot of them look like zombies from the next brain-fueled splatter-flick. The freshest-looking gal, who looked like she started her band in 2007 not 1977, was Poly Styrene, whose commitment to a fairly rigid Eastern religion may have killed her new wave social life in the 80s, but apparently kept her pristinely preserved. Big time evidence of this testimony can be found on the eagerly longed-for reunion of her band X-Ray Spex, in a glorious pink and black combination CD/DVD collection which shows the (probably first) feminist-punk singing her anti-consumerist, anti-intoxicant, anti-materialist, anti-patriarchy manifestos with the same vengeful, perky charm she had on their immortal debut Germ-Free Adolescents. Opening with one of the biggest girl snarls ever recorded (and now just as powerfully rerecorded), “Oh BOndage! Up Yours,” and howling and punk-popping out some of the best and weirdest protest songs ever (for example, “I Can’t Do Anything,” which the Hernandez Bros. loved enough to devote a couple of pages of their Love & Rockets comic to their proto-riot grrrls character’s singing). She never gets out of breath, and the band isn’t trying too hard to keep up either. One of the essential purchases most effectively arguing for a world of less, um, purchases.

The Tripwires, House To House

Where have all the great new albums gone? The ones with songs you replay till they wake up with you, that sound so good they’re on endless iPod repeat on the bus, and then you can’t help crank before finishing that final beer of the night? The Minus Five’s Scott McCaughey believes that The Tripwires’ John Ramberg is “the world’s most underrated songwriter” and considering McCaughey himself released three solid ‘A’ records of his own this year, a full-length dozen of Ramberg’s songs recorded with Johnny Sangster (Mudhoney, Makers producer), Mark Pickerel (the beloved Praying Hands), and Jim Sangster (Young Fresh Fellows, Flamin’ Groovies’ Roy Loney!) is a sweet-ass stocking tickler. I’ll let you uncover the wit and wonderfulness of his lyrics under the crackling layers of guitar and flipping hot rhythms, but if I don’t see third track “Another Planet Now” in your own iPod “Most Played” list I’m going to think you don’t give a furry rat butt about the beat music. And the other eleven are the opposite of filler.

The Walkabouts and Various Artists, Got No Chains

The Walkabouts are early no-fear country-college rock pioneers, but their historical noteworthiness isn’t what makes them, eh, worth noting. It’s the same needle-sharp diarizing clarity, restless beats and riffs, raw emotional imagery, philosophical bravery, and fluid campfire melody that makes them our own perhaps Mekons. Proving just how tragically overlooked this band can be by Seattle scene-watchers, this double CD pairs fifteen of their best songs with the same fifteen covered by Walter Salas-Humara, The Minus 5, Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon, and yes, even Jon Langford (on a hilarious, tremendous reggae redux of “Christmas Island”). The Willard Grant Conspiracy take on “The Bitter Tree,” all spiny and doomed, the make-over of “Unholy Dreams” from chamber rock into Pixies anthem, and the return of also-underrated Pacific NW bar-room visionary Terry Lee Hale (with “The Seattle Clams,” eh wot?) are really quite stunning. This is where to begin with The Walkabouts, for sure.

D.O.A., Kings of Punk, Hockey, And Beer

They invented hardcore, before “crossover” and the suburbs infected it with “personal pain.” In fact, leader Joey Shithead is such a stoic, when he stayed at my group house in 1985, he stopped me from hitting after-show party-goers with a plank I was carrying around. I had just lost a very important part of my body that day (seriously). I told him this, and he told me to buck up and stop whining about it. I have never stopped loving D.O.A., even when the records weren’t that exciting. Which was long ago. Like great bluesmen, this Vancouver-based punk rock band are exactly this album’s title.

Betty Davis, Is It Love Or Desire?

Very nervously, as I was once her publicist and already risk accusations of helping my ex-employers with this mention (so this is brief). But seriously, Light In The Attic found a missing masterpiece by a woman who created punk-funk, poured her heart into this boundary-crushing autobiographical album, and so few websites and magazines covered it? When I was at LiTA, the former Mrs. Miles Davis’ final record wasn’t even thought to exist. It became available this year, completely blowing the minds of fans, but no one else, it seemed, got the story? Good Lord.

Half-handed Cloud, Cut Me Down & Count My Rings

Forty-six Jesus Freak on spiritual speed songs, spinning out into infinity, filled with love and light and some cosmic drip from the espresso machine of the angels. What do you call this music that Sufjan Stevens’ pal John Ringhofer makes? Holy-core? Best buy for those into the sacred and the strange. There’s like two double albums worth of singles, EP tracks, etc., all collected on to one relentless, riveting platter of personal vision. Awesome, and a little scary.

Daniel Johnston, Is And Always Was

This is the first Johnston album that really impressed me almost all of the way through. And those details about his life meant nothing as I listened to it. I appreciate his struggles, but these are just really good songs, fully embracing joy and love, and taking a wizened view at those hacking it out (“Fake Records of Rock and Roll”).

Caveat: This is all stuff within the past three-six months. I’m sure there were lots of great records earlier this year, too, and the minute this is posted will drive me insane for not listing them as well! Thanks for your time.

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Erik Blood Imaginary Scoop Redwood Plan Sunset Tavern The High Dive The Walkabouts

This Saturday night: The Walkabouts reunion, the Redwood Plan, or…

I am going crazy trying to decide what to do this Saturday night. One of my very favorite new bands, The Redwood Plan (featuring the incredibly awesome Lesli Wood and the awesomely talented Jamie Hellgate) is playing KEXP's Audioasis at the Sunset at 8pm. (Erik Blood opens the show at 6:30, too.) Their EP is due out soon and it's four tracks of heavy dance power pop bliss.

BUT a mostly-complete recollection of The Walkabouts is also playing, at the High Dive, at exactly the same time. I thought for sure I could see one as the early show, and one later, but just to drive me nuts they're both booked for early evening.

The Walkabouts (under the for-this-event monikerDrunken Soundtracks) show is of special notice, as it is a benefit for BF Elementary School's music program, and their usual bass player is temporarily replaced by Paul Austin from Transmissionary Six (drummer Terri Moeller has always been in both). Yet the band will be playing all the aggressive but sophisticated alternative rock goodness which made them exceptional to both grunge and roots bands sharing their milieu through the 90s and into the new century.

The festive atmosphere of The High Dive seems like a wonderful place to reencounter the superb songwriting skills of The Walkabouts, under their pseudonym for this night. And now I realize that they're probably headlining, after Seeing Blind and the Randy Hicks Band, which means I can probably see Redwood Plan first and then head like hell over to Fremont to catch Drunken Soundtracks.

Do you have any scheduling conundrums this weekend?

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Carrie Akre Critters Buggin' Infomatik Kinski Record Review Reggie Watts The Supersuckers The Walkabouts Vita

Out of the Rain Compilation: Seattle's Musicians for Seattle's Youth

A local non-profit organization called YouthCare is releasing Out of the Rain, a compilation album by local musicians to help finance and raise awareness for their Barista Training Program. As a guy who needs a job, that sounds like a great idea to me!

But are you reading this web-page looking for worthy causes to support? You there — in the black — YOU are? Well, here's one then!

Harder question: Do you buy many compilation albums put out for worthy causes? I didn't think so. Because they usually really suck, don't they? Oh yeah! Activists seem to have a LOT of musician friends. Too many, and their hobby has to end up someplace sometime I guess. And that place would be for a quarter at Every Day Music.

So why am I giving this a 7.0 rating? That's pretty high, isn't it? I ain't that noble — I sure wish there was a Barista training program for someone MY age. *Cough cough.* But really, power to the people, fuck Bush, all that, I'm with ya kids.

The reason this eleven-song up-with-yooth sampler should not escape your attention has to do with the musical gems amongst the, um, usual unspiced chorizo.

The second song is "1,000 Fragments" by a group called Infomatik, and it's a mean little anthem about "killing your idols." Okay, that's a wee bit ye olde line … but it has that splendid Cure bass riff played on guitar, a nice sulky vocal, and drives your wavo girlfriend home after a short stop to Jack in the Box. Good greasy techno-punk.

But then the third track comes up, and it's "Devil in the Details" by the Walkabouts, and yeah, that's why people say those things about them. And it's an exclusive! And the lyrics are brilliant fragments about ennui and every day evil and the mocking universe, like a really good Denis Johnson poem, and the musical tone is like a stark confession from a friend. "The future is a muscle you don't have." It's imagery, a story, and a song to never forget. It's worth the whole cost of the album alone. Well, if you have a lot of money. But really.

But right after it Reggie Watts comes in singing (I mean, really SINGING) a joyful little R&B ditty called "Part of the World," which reminds all the Jonahs out there that Nineveh is just down the road from Nineveh and you never get any farther. His Al Green-style chorus is classic, and while this stuff is hardly my forte, I mean, come on, it's like Al Green, man. "I can't believe this town / it kicks you when you're down / no matter who you are." Ouch! Fucking Seattle. We should just pitch and buy the kids bus tickets to somewhere else then. But really. Poignant, emotional, and melodic — nice stuff.

Then a good Supersuckers song about drinking and fucking up. "I drink too much / I'm broke so let's go dutch." Funny stuff. You can read your collection of HATE comics to it. Peter Bagge made heroin jokes that'd split yer gut before '93. I guess they decided not to offer up the one they wrote about the recent post-structuralist responses to Lacan. Or what it's like to be sodomized by major labels. I'd kinda like to hear a few of those, because their feelings might be strong enough to take what is an exercise in club-soundtrack to the level of verisimilitude, well worn territory regardless.

Critters Buggin advertises all the gear you can buy at Trading Musician (someone steal their gear!), Carrie Akre gives a big old wave out to Joss Stone (tell me what I'm doing here!), some friends squeeze their way in, and Kinski scrape up the barest scrap of minimalist-noodling to lovingly hand over for the cause, but the above fawned-over tracks make this worthy of your donation.