Walking Papers - The Light Below - Spring 2021
We’d like to share a tale of two cities. Not the 1859 historical novel by Charles Dickens about London and Paris but a more modern story connecting 2 transatlantic locations: Seattle USA and Manchester UK. At first glance you may offer a puzzled response to the hypothesis that these cities have such strongly shared characteristics - but humour us a moment. Both reside in the North West corners of their respective homelands, they share exactly the same climate and they are both known for their incredible football teams. However, it’s perhaps their respective musical heritages that binds the closest ties. Not only have they spawned the worlds best bands, they have actually created new musical movements. Manchester can take credit for New Wave and Britpop whilst Seattle can of course stand proudly as the birthplace of grunge. Grunge may have been at its peak in the 90s but the city of Seattle has continued to be a leader in bringing the world the most original new music. One band such band deserving of your attention is Walking Papers. Having released their self-titled debut album in 2013 and 2018’s follow up WP2, the band led by frontman and songwriter Jefferson Angell have now released their entirely epic new album The Light Below. This record is quite simply outstanding with its ability to immerse the listener in it’s chilled yet powerful vibes and hold us very happily captive throughout its 12 tracks. On the eve of the album’s release we catch up with Jefferson to find out how it all came together.
This is a hugely exciting time with the release of Walking Papers third studio album The Light Below on 12th February. With just a few days to go, what sort of thoughts are going through your mind at album release time?
Usually, it’s like when’s the next one going to be? (Laughs!) Honestly that’s what I’m mostly thinking about, which is why I’ve had to have other people working on this one. Once I finish a record I’m ready to move onto the next one. But we did a few videos and we’re working on a fourth video right now and that’s being edited which is kind of cool. Usually at this time I would be on tour or preparing to go on tour but that isn’t happening now so I’m trying to find other ways to stay occupied because I kind of got a little crazy if I don’t have a project to work on, you know.
That’s really interesting what you say about when one album is complete you’re already thinking of the next. Do you feel a sort of sense of ‘crossing the finish line’ and do you ever take stock what you’ve created and achieved?
I don’t know, sometimes I think I’m actually forced to stop. The world has demands too so definitely when you finish your record you are like ‘Okay, let’s clean up the mess of all the things we left behind when we dug into this thing and it took over our lives’. But I don’t necessarily welcome a break from the process. I love it. I can do it every day: wake up and work on a record. Unfortunately, we’ve all got things we’ve got to do too. I’m happy to talk about it to someone like yourself because it does help me organise my own thoughts. I’m kind of a verbal thinker like that. Even though you’ve got me thinking about this in a different way which is usually, I guess you get breaks anyway. I don’t have to prepare for a break. You get breaks like ‘Hey, let’s go make a video’, so that gives you a break from songs, or you have Christmas with your family. But I don’t necessarily look for breaks.
Before we talk about some specific tracks, I wanted talk about Walking Papers as a band. Perhaps more than any other band, Walking Papers have this incredible ability to create the most wonderfully emotive mood and the most hypnotic and infectious ambience within your new music. I would go as far to say that as a band there is nothing else quite like Walking Papers. Of course you are a rock band but you’ve almost created your own genre. To what extent do you think is this fair thing to say?
Well, I think that it’s weird that that’s unusual. For one, it’s very complimentary considering what I’m striving for and I feel very grateful for that observation, but what I find interesting is how many bands sound exactly like other bands or have ingredients of the other bands – I don’t consider that art. I consider that kind of ‘product’. It’s important to carve out your own sound and create your own identity for better or worse. Now you do have the ingredients available to you and all the things that you grew up on but that’s what I look for in a band. Some of my favourite bands through time I’ve always said that they became the cumulative thing of their influences. You could tell that they must have liked Black Sabbath but that they also probably like this thing and together they created this new thing. And I think that’s okay but sometimes when I hear bands and a song comes out, and especially when it gets popular, it’s a thorn in my side. When I see something that was derivative I can go ‘Has no one else realised that this song is pretty much exactly the same song?’. That’s always kind of a bummer to see people call for that. Some people like that. They don’t want their music to be challenging. They want it to sound like something that’s been done before. And there’s also the industry – if they’re going to try and get it on the radio, they want something they know is going to keep their audience rather than challenging their audience. So with me I think that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do the whole time: to make our own thing to where it’s definitive of who we are. One thing I’d like to add to that is when you’re a band, like Alice In Chains or something – and those guys are friends and I’ve toured with them a few times – we have so many bands that ripped them of. It was kind of hard to realise how original they were in 1990. Because if you’re a kid that grew up on that harmony thing that they do, it’s like a staple of hard rock radio now, or some of the riffs and kind of tempo and stuff. So when you hear that I kinda like screws them over. Somebody has ate their style so much they think it’s their style but it doesn’t sound original. I guess I should be fortunate not to be in a position of a bunch of people ripping me off! (Laughs!)
Before the release of the album we were teased with videos for What Do You Expect? last year and The Value Of Zero which is the album’s opening track and more recently Divine Intervention. The reaction from fans has been phenomenal with comments such as ‘Damn, that’s good!, ‘completely crushing track!’, ‘this new record is blowing my mind’, ‘knocked it out the park again’, ‘another brilliant song’, and there are hundreds of other examples. How does it make you feel when you hear feedback like this?
I’m just surprised my mom has that many different accounts! (Laughs!) It’s really great! It fuels you to keep pushing forward. It makes you feel good about what you’re doing and that it’s connecting with people. I’ve spent a lot of years doing this and I’ve showed up in places to play bars where it’s just a bartender and they’re paying me with a six-pack because there was no money at the door. If you go through any kind of years like that you’re definitely grateful for anyone listening to what you’re doing. I think sometimes when it happens to people and they’re really young and they start getting their attention right out of the gates there can almost be a sense of entitlement or something. To me, I couldn’t be more grateful. Any single person listening to what we do, I really truly am. I’m not going to beg them to listen to it because it’s like I wouldn’t want love I have to pay for. It’s a real cool place to find yourself in that position.
The lyrical content of The Light Below is something quite striking, and as a band you haven’t been afraid to reference War, death and darker subjects, and I hugely respect that because this depicts the realities of life and these are things that people will be able to relate to. But even with those darker subjects, what has been really interesting to me has been how I have felt an enormous sense of contentment when listening to the album and overall actually feeling really empowered, which is a hugely positive thing. Was this something you consciously wanted to achieve within your songwriting?
It’s interesting that you’ve touched on a couple of things. One thing is that when I’m writing songs, a lot of times it’s me working something out. It’s almost like I’m keeping journals and then taking ideas from those journals and making them listenable. But when I have good times I don’t really feel the need to write songs about them. I feel like an optimist that is focused on the negative because that’s what needs the attention to improve your world. Sometimes it can be mistaken as being gloomy. I’ve also done some therapy and stuff for the last couple of years and a lot of that stuff I’ve been exploring those things in the songs. So there is stuff in the record about not being, you know, blinded by your thoughts. I feel as though there is some therapy in the record and I did have a little bit of that intent. On the last record I was really kind of focused on dreams and subconscious and on this record I was definitely focused on the blank slate of your brain. A friend of mine said this thing where ‘when an artist deals in truth they may have commercial success or not, but that the art will have longevity because truth is what the universe resonates on’. And I wrote that down. I was like ‘I can’t believe you just said that!’ and he said ‘I can’t believe I just said that!’ (laughs!). I held onto that and I was trying to write something that was my truth at this moment and my truth was really about having a lot of questions about friends passing away. I had some dealings of my own, allowing myself to get obsessed over things and thoughts, and questioning whether my brain is a tool or is it dragging me around like a wild horse? So I’m trying to figure out how to use my brain as a tool rather than let it use me.
With The Light Below, you have created the most incredible cohesive album. Each of the albums 12 tracks vary wildly in length from 2 minutes and 39 seconds up to 9 minutes and 22 seconds, yet what is really interesting is that listening to the album, I never noticed. I simply received a cohesive album experience. How important is it to you to create that album experience?
I think it’s really important. I think the album’s like a family and a couple of those songs are friends that have kind of somehow made their way into the family. So there are definitely a couple of those songs but we did kind of really dig in. I would say Rich Man’s War and the California (One More Phone Call) songs have been hanging around for a while. I like them but I couldn’t find the right place on the record, but when we started writing the record we definitely had some ideas – we wanted it to be something we called ‘southern cinematic/southern gothic’. That’s kind of what we wanted to do. We wanted to lower the keys a little bit. The vocal was more like someone talking to you than someone screaming at you. We’ve made other records that were meant to have barn burners, really shake it up and really reach out and get your attention, but we wanted this one to be one where you had to lean in to it to hear it, on the vocals at least. Also with the tempos, the last record we made was pretty fast and we wanted to make a record that was a little more laid-back. It’s interesting with these times that when we started making that record and Covid kicked in we kind of felt like with all the things that are going on that we are polarising people politically and I felt like anxiety was just at an all-time high with the pressure cooker. We wanted to make a record that was soothing. We wanted to still be a rock record. We wanted it to be a record that wasn’t to stir the drink but to let it settle. I’m not saying we didn’t want to rock the boat. We maybe wanted to get people to think but we didn’t want to create anxiety with what we were doing. We just didn’t feel like it was the time to be making everybody more agitated. It was more of a time to help heal and settle down, and quite frankly I feel that’s what the world should be looking to do right now. There are a lot of people losing their minds being stuck in their houses. I think a lot of it has to do with how there is a 24-hour news cycle and everybody is carrying the newspaper around in their pocket, and as creatures we are so gravitated towards fear. So hopefully we are being of some sort of service to people with this record if they take the time to listen.
I think a great example of how cohesive the album is is demonstrated brilliantly in your latest video for Divine Intervention in that it’s actually 2 tracks: Divine Intervention and Stood Up To The Gates Of Heaven. However, to the uniformed they wouldn’t have a clue. They sit together as an epic piece of musical brilliance. But just picking up on that video, it was filmed over 2 nights in the bitterly cold and wet industrial area of Seattle, and that clearly provided the perfect cinematic backdrop. But that did make me wonder how much has Seattle actually influenced your music and songwriting?
I was hugely influenced by the Seattle thing. When I was a kid, when I was like 14 years old, the first local show I went to was Alice In Chains playing for a couple of hundred people and with Mother Love Bone who became Pearl Jam. That was my first exposure to local bands. If you can imagine I was pretty much like ‘This is better than everything I see on MTV. It’s so real!‘ All I had for another musical influence at that time was MTV. As a family we had some records around and my mum would listen to the radio but there was no musicians or huge record collection or anything like that but I always felt like I was always going to play music. Before school band or anything like that I was already inventing fictitious bands and playing air guitar with a tennis rackets or whatever. I just knew that I was going to do that. We used to videotape Headbangers Ball so that we didn’t have to sit through all the commercials and all the crap to get the stuff. Where I live you might get a cassette tape of the Sex Pistols from one of your friends and you didn’t know them. You would think they were a band that still existed. We didn’t have access to all the history that they had broke up and all this kind of stuff. There is no Internet. So over time you might find out that they broke up or you might learn about The Misfits because one of the guys in Metallica wore their T-shirt or something. That’s really how we all discovered new stuff. So I think when I saw those Seattle bands I was immediately coming to Seattle. I lived in Tacoma which is about 45 minutes or an hour south, and I just started taking the bus and hitching a ride from anybody I could to get a ride from up to Seattle. I’d hang out at the clubs outside sitting on the curb and I just felt like I’d found my people. I think at the time Guns N’ Roses and Janes addiction really kind of kicked that door open to where if you were a kid and you were watching MTV and you’re a skinny guy thinking ‘I ain’t never gonna be some Bon Jovi honk in spandex pants with my furry both chest hanging out‘, and then when these guys came out in like dirty jeans, dirty shoes and holes in their blue jeans you were like ‘That’s the kind of dude I am. That’s my tribe!’. So when those Seattle bands came out they kind of validated what you thought? I felt like I liked Black Sabbath but also liked The Police and U2. I also liked blues music and The Rolling Stones and some of the classics but I kind of just got used to the Seattle stuff. I found those guys probably had similar interests were they liked punk but they also liked classic rock. I think Seattle bands were image orientated in some ways. It was interesting to watch it back because at the time I thought they were anti-image but now if I watch some of the Soundgarden videos I’m pretty sure that Chris Cornell didn’t even have a shirt the entire 90s! (Laughs!). So he was definitely trying to get some sort of attention from the way that he appeared but the music was so epic. I was just fortunate to be born here at that time and the scene played a huge influence on me. I’m also actually grateful that I didn’t become a part of that at that time because I think it was a lot for all those guys to deal with and of course, as you can see, most of them are not with us anymore. You know maybe I dodged a bullet there. I’m able to continue to make records and enjoy my existence.
One specific track I would like to focus on for a moment is Creation, Reproduction and Death. This is an epic track both sonically and lyrically, standing at over 9 minutes in length with the final 2 minute outro appearing to represent the title perfectly with an ethereal heartbeat that perhaps quickens with life’s treadmill until a final stillness and calm. Was this song written to reflect quite directly what some may consider to be the mean of life?
Sometimes when you’re young you think you’ve got it figured out and I think as I’m getting older I’m starting to think the older I get the less I think I know. Also, sometimes the smartest guy in the room isn’t the one who claims to know everything. So how that song goes and builds organically and how it goes at the end, a lot of that wasn’t really planned. We were just lost in the moment and kind allowed it to happen. Often when we play live we just kind of let it go wherever it goes. By that time in the studio we were pretty comfortable with what we were doing. We were like ‘Why can’t we just stretch this out? It’s not like we are recording on tape. It’s digital. Just let us do our thing’. But you’ve got me thinking there. With life we are not sure if we are kicking tires or the rubber is meeting the road kind of thing. It’s hard to know whether to dip a toe in the water dive in head first.
Let’s take a moment to focus on the artwork for The Light Below. It’s great to see a band investing in how the album is visually represented. With an open pair of scissors the imagery is quite striking. How did this concept come about? Is it about trying to cut out negative people and influences?
Well that is the concept. It started with a friend of mine had a play based on the 3 Greek fates and then they are cutting the string of life. I went to see the play with my wife and what really caught me was I started thinking about scissors, like on a clock and how this represents the hands of time. Then I was thinking about the thread of life and I was also interested in the Joseph Campbell ‘shed your own skin‘ kind of stuff. It could be cutting out the negative people or cutting off your past, but I just link the whole idea of having a break. Interestingly we know these people that own a copy machine place and we were entertaining doing a video and doing everything kind of like an old school fanzine, where you used to make your copies before everybody had a computer. In Seattle back in the day if you wanted to hang out with the rockstars you just needed to go to Kinkos FedEx Copy at 2 in the morning and that’s where everybody was! (Laughs!). The whole scene was there at that time, making their flyers on a Monday night – that’s where we would find a bunch of band dudes! So I kind of liked that fanzine handmade kind of quality versus making everything perfect on PhotoShop or whatever. So when we went there we had a few titles in mind and we never thought about The Light Below but when they shot the scissors on the copy machine there is a light below shining on the scissors. We just thought there may be multiple meanings to those kind of things. I’m glad that you kind of caught that concept because that was the point. That lyric ‘the scissors and the string’ actually shows up in different songs because I was just kind of loving that idea at the time.
Finally, moving on to Walking Papers in a live setting – and I’m aware of course that we are still living in crazy times – what plans do you have, or hope to have, to ensure that The Light Below fulfils it’s incredible potential?
Well, I appreciate that! We are game to go. Usually right now I would be on tour but there are no plans right now. I’m in touch with the agents – they are listening to the record and liking it but I think when touring does happen, as well as Covid restrictions you guys have Brexit and that’s going to cause a lot of trouble too if you are a band that’s travelling in the UK. I’ve heard stories that they’re going to expect you to do a whole new coronet to get over in to Europe and that you might not even be able to use the same drivers or the same rigs because of work visas and stuff like that. I’m not claiming that I know what’s going to go on but I know that it’s going to be different than it used to be. Also, when touring there is going to be a lot of people looking to see who is going to be the guinea pig to take these chances of possibly not having many people showing up. Or maybe it’s going to be super expensive due to certain things. Usually businesses and corporations when they suffer some sort of hit like this eventually the customer ends up paying for it because businesses are not in the business of working for free. We might see people trying to pick up the money that they lost and that might change ticket prices. It’s really kind of uncharted territory. But there’s all the streaming stuff too. We’ve been choosing to make videos, and we are making a video for Creation Reproduction and Death. We’ve made videos already and normally we don’t do that. But I’m finding a lot of people now that are doing live streams, they aren’t actually live. I think people are figuring out pretty quickly that putting out videos and stuff that sound like crap may have been charming at first but after a while it all just look the same and then your kinda thinking I’d rather just listen to record because it sounds so much better. Some bigger bands can afford to professionally record these things but smaller bands need all their money to make a record. I can’t afford to go in and professionally record some huge live stream, especially if you’re going to charge people to see it. It should be of quality otherwise you’re just ripping people off. So at this point we are just experimenting with that but we’re not putting anything out until it’s a quality that’s worthy of people who tell us our album is crushing. I don’t want people to feel like we took their money without delivering them something worth checking out. So that’s kind of what we’re doing. We are just going to continue to make videos, probably start making another record and then if we can we will tour. We are eager to do so! If there is an opportunity to do something that streaming that’s good and if we can figure out a way to do it that’s worthy we will get into some of that as well.
As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect on what a hugely important band Walking Papers are and what a wholly outstanding record The Light Below really is. Find out more at the band’s Facebook page @walkingpapersmusic and in the meantime enjoy the video Divine Intervention below.