Even though he was busy with his hard-rock, high-concept band Torture Town and his bar-rock duo the Fairy God Muthas (with City Paper's Ballard Lesemann on drums), local songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and City Paper contributing writer Doug Walters found time this year to assemble a solo album of instrumentals and experimental music.
A follow-up his 2009 solo debut Into the Light, Vagabond consists of one spoken-word letter to a forgotten love, the opening track, "Nadine," followed by 10 compositions and soundscapes mixing conventional instruments (all played by Walters) with random, bizarre recordings of voicemails, squeaky bicycle wheels, and even monkeys (on "It's a Jungle in Here"). At times haunting, bluesy, and just plain weird, the album grows on you with each listen and has now all but taken over my CD player.
Walters spoke with me about his most recent project, his love of Neil Young, his artistic philosophy, his gratitude at being able to make music for a living, and how Hendrix saved his life.
City Paper: You've got two bands, a solo career, and countless other musical projects. What made you want to make an experimental album like Vagabond?
Doug Walters: I've always really liked sounds and moods and vibes as much as meaning or words. If it puts me in a mood, like a movie or a Neil Young song where I might not even understand the words, I like it. I heard [Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist] John Frusciante's first solo album, To Record Only Water for Ten Days, which is way out there, way raw, but I think it's beautiful, and I probably wouldn't have made this without hearing that. It's not sophisticated. It doesn't have an ego. It's just feeling, raw feeling. And I wanted to do something like that and I'm a heavy-hearted Capricorn, and shit gets dour sometimes. I used to party and it was a full-time thing. There's some stuff from a dark period in my life, and some of that is hard for me to listen to now. But that's life, shadows and light — can't have light without the shadow — that's why I have to embrace bad moments and make it art. My favorite emotion is the space between a smile and a tear, where there's some melancholy mixed with some hope, like if you had a childhood dog and maybe he was killed or died and it's sad but you remember it fondly.
CP: How long did it take to make?
DW: It's really a compilation of stuff I recorded whenever the mood struck for the past three or four years. I have a home studio, so I've always recorded and I just started stacking up old recordings that were alike enough, just interesting stuff that didn't have a home. That's why I called it Vagabond, because they were just homeless little nuggets.
CP: On the back of the album it says, "All songs written, performed, and produced by Doug Walters," so this album was really all you. What was that like?
DW: Yeah, I played all the instruments, all the guitars, drums, and bass, and all the weird sounds like a squeaky bicycle, old radio noise, whatever I could find that made a cool sound. It's really much more creative than technical. I'm not very sophisticated musically, I'm not that great of a singer, bassist, or guitar player, but if people connect with it, it's because I mean it, they can feel that.
CP: You mentioned Neil Young as an inspiration, but this album doesn't sound anything like most of his work.
DW: Yeah, as an artist, my whole thing is feel. That's why I love Neil Young so much. The music is like a soundtrack to your life. And, like I said, I don't even have to understand the words, it's just a feeling I get from his songs. The songs on this album are open-ended, open to your interpretation, so you plug in your thing to this album, if it makes you feel a certain way or think about things, then that's good, let it become your movie. That's what I want this album to be, not the soundtrack to my life but the soundtrack to yours. I don't like to insult audiences. I like open-endedness in movies and music, and that's what [Vagabond] is, it makes you think, which is what art's supposed to do, make you feel and make you think. I believe that the reason I'm here is to make art, make records, so that's what I'm trying to do, and the hope is that it helps someone or inspires somebody. It's not about ego or anything like that. I just put it out there and see who it sticks to.
CP: Has music always been such a big part of your life? What do you remember listening to as a child?
DW: My family wasn't musical. They weren't creative people. They were more into competitive, organized sports, and I never fit in. It was hard growing up in Columbia as a sensitive-artist type, but it helped me because art needs struggle — it comes from struggle. Once you move past the self-imposed prisons of bitterness and regret, you appreciate the struggle. Everything changed for me when the cool dude down the street laid Hendrix on me. I was seven or eight years old, and I finally found something I could relate to. It was "Foxy Lady," and just the feedback intro on that song told me if I was an alien, at least there were other aliens too. If it wasn't for Hendrix, we wouldn't be talking today. Jimi changed my life — saved my life. If there's one artist to lay on someone, it's Jimi. He had everything: the skill, the style, the swagger, the soul, the balls, and the feeling. I realized I was my own person, and I didn't have to be like my parents. He showed me possibilities, showed me that there are no rules, that you make your own rules.
CP: You've been playing music for a long time, and you have so much going on right now. Are you liking all the attention?
DW: I'm more art than jukebox. I'm a niche guy, so it's been a struggle connecting at times, but I'm really grateful to do what I do, live in a great town with cool people doing something from the heart. And it's kick-ass to be able to do that. I've got three things and they're doing great, so I'm grateful. Vagabond is not a big deal. It's just a side project, and it's getting a lot of attention, which is great, but Torture Town is a much more serious band, and we have a double album coming out, so I hope my time doesn't run out [laughs].
CP: What's the weirdest song on Vagabond?
DW: My favorite song, which is also probably the weirdest, is "Rachel's Math Grades," which comes from somebody who had the wrong number and called my house. It was this girl's math teacher who proceeded to tell me why Rachel was failing math, and I was like, "Oh God, poor girl, this would make a great song!" So I put that voicemail on there, and it turned out pretty interesting. I love miscommunication and odd shit, confusion and chaos, the chaotic art of miscommunication. And I don't really like spelling stuff out, so there's some Spanish TV in the background too, just showing how miscommunication and disconnection is life. A lot of people won't pick up on that, and that's OK, I'm not trying to tell you, "Look how important this is, look how clever I am," I'm just putting it out there. I'm a hole in the big flute, no more, no less.