Music

"An Arms Race of Who's Doing What With Whom": An Interview with Abandoned Pools

Photo: Corinne Buchanan

Tommy Walter, the Abandoned Pools leader, speaks candidly to PopMatters about finding his place, reconciling with his faith, and putting out his most serene album to date.


Abandoned Pools

Sublime Currency

Label: Tooth & Nail
US Release Date: 2012-09-04
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Tommy Walter is at a crossroads.

As a founding member of the band eels, Walter has had his foot in the music industry door for some time. Although he was a notable contributor to Eels' successful debut Beautiful Freak in 1996 (buoyed by the iconic alternative single "Novocaine for the Soul"), Walter soon left the group to pursue his own muse. However, after stopping and starting various projects, he finally settled on his own solo venture, which he dubbed Abandoned Pools. Their 2001 record Humanistic became a notable minor hit in the alt-rock landscape, with dark songs like "The Remedy" and "Monster" showcasing Walter's own thoroughly considered vision, cathartic and damning in equal measures. Of course, these songs, in their own way, also proved to be red herrings: while half of Humanistic relied on minor-key dirges and pummeling guitar choruses (which the then-moody rock landscape was ready to embrace), the other half of the album showcased Walter's intensely well-honed pop instincts, capable of crafting gigantic hooks on which he could hang his ideas about love and romance.

The album became a cult-classic in its own way, and Walter wound up endearing himself to the geek-niche contingent all the more for performing the notable theme song to the short-lived but widely-beloved animated show Clone High, which had a brief run on MTV (and helped launch the careers of several Scrubs regulars as well as creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who went on to direct such notable films as Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street). Cartoon triumphs notwithstanding, Walter had a much harder time with his second album, 2005's Armed to the Teeth. Now signed to Universal, Walter took his sound deeper and darker, resulting in an album that was gritty, cathartic, and much more aggressive than anything he had done before. Although he was ready to go out and tour, Universal stopped promotion at a fairly early stage in the game, which led to Walter eventually leaving the label altogether and spend his newfound free time working on side-projects like Oliver the Penguin and Glacier Hiking.

Yet all of these events remain entirely surface-level: Walter's own life was seeing its own profound changes outside of the public eye. Following the dissolution of a close relationship, Armed to the Teeth's tone -- questioning, angry, fiery -- was understandable. The album's various political undertones, which went from questioning faith to taking a stand against the powers that be (which, in 2005, was a common occurrence), were hailed by the people that discovered the record on their own, fitting in well with the then-polarized political climate. Yet the seven year gap between Armed to the Teeth and this year's electronica-inspired Sublime Currency showed Walter coming to terms with where his life was meant to go: while supporting himself by working on music for films and television, he's now married and has come to develop a healthy relationship with his Christian beliefs.

Sitting down with PopMatters, Walter was unafraid to discuss the problems he encountered with his label, what it means for his fans to discover that he is Christian, the joys to be found in his new album, and what it's like navigating the half-truths of the L.A. social climate.

* * *

Leading up to the album's release, how did you feel: relieved that the hard part is over with? Nervous about the reaction would be?

Mostly relieved because it's a lot of work making a record. On this one in particular, I did 95% of it on my own; produced it and mixed it alone. It's the first time I've mixed my own album. I've co-produced the previous two.

And mixing is where it all comes together.

Yeah, and I'm [a] somewhat experienced mixer, but I'm not some A-list guy. The thing is: you learn it as you got along and you want it to sound as good as your previous record, and you feel pretty good about it.

I've been following the blog posts and the various side-projects (like Oliver the Penguin) that you've had over the year, and in your own words, why did you want to bring back Abandoned Pools instead of staying with something like Glacier Hiking?

Well, I think it was more like [...] I always planned on bringing it back. I just kind of needed a break for a while because my experience with Armed to the Teeth with Universal was kind of disappointing, just 'cause we made a record and they didn't do a lot of promotion on it and I was ready to tour and get out there and do stuff and none of that came together. So I needed a little bit of a break and, like you said, I did a couple side projects and I've been doing some work in TV & commercials and that kind of stuff. Really, to be honest with you, what it comes down to is that you got to make a living. The music industry changed quite a bit even between now and my last album, and it became increasingly difficult to find deals and advances had really struck, so in a lot of ways I was just trying to make a living. And then once I got myself in a position where I was doing TV stuff, I was like, "Well, let's start doing Abandoned Pools, too." I knew I was going to bring it back -- it was just a question of when. I mean, who knows what would have happened if [something] like Glacier Hiking had taken off? I'm kind of glad that they didn't, because I do like being in this position where it's my project and I really just have to worry about myself pretty much. So the way it panned out, I'm pretty happy.

Now one thing back to the record: I've listened to the album quite a bit, and while I don't normally read press releases, there was a part of it that struck me, where it noted that your album was informed by both your recent marriage and your faith. Now the marriage part I could see come through, like all of "In Shadows", the line "Honey I know we've seen bad weather / But what do you know, it's already gone", but hearing about your faith in all honesty, it kind of surprised me. There aren't many allusions to it -- possibly in "Marigolds" -- but if you don't mind talking about it, I was wondering if you could tell me how it informed your music and specifically this record.

As my A&R guy at Tooth & Nail said, "It's not like [you're] out there dropping J-Bombs for Jesus" or something. When people find out [that I'm Christian], I think they're really surprised, especially compared to the last record, which was asking a lot of questions, and most people went "Yay, Tommy's an atheist!" after hearing the second record. It's all a part of a search, basically. When people find out [that I'm Christian], I think they get the wrong idea. Because the way a modern American Christian is perceived as is someone who's obsessed with homosexuality and abortion, basically. So it's not really me and what I want Christians to represent.

You do enough investigation into philosophy, and Christian theology and science, and it all just starts to become this wonderful picture to you. That, to me, is where my faith lies: that kind of awe and wonder of the world. You can find that in Christian theology -- Christian theology is based on that, and people have lost that narrative and story throughout the years. And now, when people think about Christians, they think about people being judgmental and politically right-wing, and that's not how it's supposed to be. So that's where I'm coming from.

So then would you say that your faith wasn't as much a factor in Armed to the Teeth, especially with people saying "Yay, Tommy's an atheist!" after listening to it?

Well -- I think Armed to the Teeth was more [about] searching for answers but it came across like that. It was a really tough time and I was just asking a lot of really tough questions and I [was] almost being demanding in a certain way. Demanding for answers. Almost having an argument with God, in a way. I even hate putting it in those kinds of terms -- putting it into words seems to make it come across kind of shallow. I think I was just having struggles over that.

I think Armed to the Teeth was just a much angrier expression of you: songs like "Renegade" were very gritty and biting, which is a sharp contrast to this record which is a lot more pop-oriented. While I think a lot of people viewed Armed to the Teeth as politically informed, I think there's still some elements that come through on this record, but in subtle ways. Like when you mention the causalities of war not being the most obvious or apparent -- there's these slight political elements, but never as overt as on Armed to the Teeth.

I think that's true. In some ways, Armed to the Teeth is a little bit preachy. It is, in a way, a little bit soapbox-y -- but that's where I was at the time. For this one, I'm in a bit of a better place and I can be a bit more eloquent on my views.

My favorite song on the new record is "Hype is the Enemy", as it's the most natural inclinations of your pop instincts. It sounds so commercial, but there's those lyrics of "Hype is the enemy of everything that's beautiful" -- it seems very indicative of your time in dealing with Universal, so I was wondering if by chance you could expand a little bit upon those thoughts.

I'm glad you're asking, 'cause that's kind of my mindset for the entire album. In this industry, in this town [L.A.], everything is so hyped up and so inflated that after awhile, nothing has any value and all the quiet, normal things have so much value because everything else is kind of a lie, you know? So that's where I was coming from. It's not as much specific to labels as it's specific to certain personalities who, when if you listen to what they say -- if you cut in half, that's what the truth is. The truth gets lost when you hear people talk about themselves: "I'm doing this and doing that and blah blah blah," and this person is kind of like, "That's probably not true." It terms into this arms race of who's doing what with whom. If everyone would just stop that and just be real, there's real value in that. There's real beauty in the quieter, normal things, and the things that get lost in all that white noise are the things that I think have real value.

How do you feel your relationship with your fans has changed over the past seven years?

Well I'm just amazed they're still around after that much time! What's changed now is that because of Facebook and Twitter, there's a much more direct connection. I don't think I realized what kind of fanbase we had. I think after the second record I was a bit of a sad sack. I was like, "Oh, no one wants to hear my album, I'll just go away," but there are plenty of fans out there, and now hearing directly from them -- I have a blog, a tumblr where people can ask questions -- I don't think I'd be doing it if it wasn't for them. In that regard, the fans have been really supportive and it's nice to see that they're still around and they're really anxious to hear the record, which is fantastic.

Looking back on everything you've done to now, what do you feel is the biggest regret in your career and, conversely, what do think has been your proudest accomplishment?

I think they are two sides of the same coin. The regret would be the fight with confidence: every time you start a new project, a new album, as even when I was starting the first record after leaving the Eels, I was all gung-ho: "Yeah, I'm gonna do this and make a record and feel good!" And then you start realizing what kind of mountain you're going to climb, and I think you do that every time you do a new record. For me, the first regret is the confidence issue: I should have had more confidence in myself, and I feel like I've made good records and managed to make a living in the music industry. But at the time when you first start out doing that, you don't know what you're going to do, so I think that sometimes it really gets to me and my confidence will start to wane.

On the flip side, in terms of accomplishments, I'd have to say still maintaining a career after all those years even after all that adversity. Two sides of the same coin, really.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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