“If you were looking to find my songs, Walking Papers has an address on the main street where you might need elaborate directions to find Staticland or the Missionary Position, and there might be construction going on and you might not find them ‘cause they are through an alley, down some stairs, in the basement with no sign on the door. The band names are like an address for the music and I think Walking Papers is easier for people to find than the others. So that’s probably the smart thing to move forward with”. Jeff Angell, the frontman of Walking Papers talks to last Alice in Chains/Walking Papers tour, the new WP2 album and his nearly future plans. Read our in-depth interview.
Jeff Angell (Photo credit: Ernie Sapiro)
“Making the record made me better”
How are you doing, Jeff?
I’m good, just doing my Seattle thing which right now is building a theatre. So most of my day is being a boss. I buy parts for bulldozers and that kind of stuff.
We were at a jazz club last night where you played a couple of songs. A John Lennon song and another one.
Sam Cooke was the other song.
Were you invited by the local jazz musicians?
We played with them over the weekend in Spokane with Allen Stone. Do you guys know him?
No, unfortunately not.
He’s from Seattle but he plays soul music. He had a private party in Spokane and invited us and the jazz band to play over there and that’s where I met them. They said they had a gig and invited me to come and sing some songs with them. I knew who they were already because Skerik plays with them sometimes.
Skerik? That Skerik?
Yes, he played saxophone on the ‘Mad Season’ album. There’s a whole jazz thing in Seattle.
I’ve read a lot of reviews about WP2 album and everybody said, “Yes, it’s fantastic!” but what are your feelings about the album?
Yeah, man, the reviews were great! Both albums got really good reviews. I’ve been pretty fortunate to not have not had many bad reviews in my musical career. But good reviews don’t amount to record sales. There are a lot of great albums that hard-core music fans love but they don’t always resonate with the general public. So, the reviews were really good but when I make a record, I come out the other side with the experience of having made that record. Every time I listen to one of my records, I already know that I’m better than that record. You know what I mean?
Making the record made me better. When I listen to the record, I hear where I was then. It’s like looking at pictures of yourself when you were a kid or something. I’m really proud of the record but now that I’ve lived through it. I would have done a few things differently.
Yeah because we’re experimenting, you know? We’re scientists with music and electronics and some experiments prove you wrong, but it’s nothing major. Just a guitar tone here or there or maybe I would have lowered the key or sang it in a different register, a little bit faster or slower; things like that. Also when you play certain songs live they evolve. Some of the songs from the first record are so much better now than they were when recorded. Like, “I’ll Stick Around”. We have a whole new part now after that chorus where it breaks down into a real quiet part and it does a whole thing. And for this tour, we’ve got horn sections building the songs and making them even bigger. The songs have another life after they’re recorded. The recording is just a picture of them when they still have crooked teeth and acne because they are still young. Later on they grow into mature, adult songs. Which I think is great!
I did an interview in the morning with Jack Endino and we talked about the second Walking Papers album and you. He mentioned that, ‘Jeff is a great songwriter, Jeff is a great singer but you have to know Jeff is a great guitarist.’
Maybe you remember when we did that interview last year, and I said, “ I feel that we need more guitar solos from you!” Jack Endino said something similar but you hired a guitarist for ‘Walking Papers’ and you only focus on singing.
The funny thing is that my confidence as a person is built off of playing music. I was a little guy when I was in school. I had an older brother who was always kicking my ass. And music raised me. I put the time in and I noticed that I was evolving and it helped build my confidence. I wanted a better guitar, so I got jobs washing cars and doing yard work. So I learned to save money and to set goals. I saw the results of putting in effort and hard work saw how it pays off. All those things help a person with their self-esteem. But the whole reason I started playing guitar and writing songs was to hide from people because my own perception of myself was never that grand. I’m proud of what I’ve done musically but I never thought I was all that great a guitar player. Playing with other guitar players that I think are really good and seeing them have difficulties with some things that I find easy helps me recognize what’s good about my guitar playing. It’s not usually about perfection. It’s about using the guitar as a voice. I try to make the guitar sing. I’m not the fastest, I’m not the trickiest but my playing is intense and has soul. I think that’s what people like about it. Which is really humbling. If you want to see an arrow fly, you have to pull back on the string. The harder you pull, the further the arrow will fly and hopefully it is aimed directly at someone’s heart.
So, sometimes the best thing a guy can do for his guitar playing is to not play guitar. Because then when you do play, you really do pull the arrow back. I will definitely play guitar again but I wanted to change some things and to keep people guessing. Also, we’re not playing with Duff and Barrett so the whole thing is going to be completely different. I guess it’s a similar to construction, sometimes you have to tear some thing down to rebuild it. I think if Ben and I would have put a band-aid on it, our wound would have just got infected. Instead we had to carve it up and really get in there, repair it and start over… and doing so has been great. But, I definitely think I’ll get back to playing guitar again and maybe even on this tour. I’m really happy to hear that Jack said that. I have a great deal of respect for him and one thing he doesn’t do is bullshit people.
It’s an opportunity to play with two guitarists on stage. Haven’t you thought about that?
Not a lot of bands do two guitars well. Music is not in the notes, it’s in the space between the notes. Often with two guitar players there’s not much space left. Even when I play with just Duff and Barrett I wouldn’t always play guitar. I think there’ll definitely be time for people to see me play guitar, but I don’t have to do the same thing every time. But people haven’t seen me be just a front man and I think that they may be surprised at that. They might go, ‘Wait a minute!’ A lot of people miss seeing a front person in a band, you know?
‘Duff is probably the best rock bass player on the planet’
You mentioned Duff and Barrett. What could they add to the whole thing or to the end result?
Well, I think that the big thing Barrett added was that a lot of times I had songs that I would have thrown away and he was like, “No! That’s a good song.” And I was like, “Really? You like that song?” It’s kind of like the guitar playing. People are like, “Oh, we like hearing you play guitar.” And I’m like, “Really?! Maybe I should play!” It’s the same thing with songs. I’ll have certain songs and I’ll go, “I think I’m going to throw this song away.” And he’s like, “I think that one’s great! We need to do that one!” He was kind of my producer in a lot of ways. The same with Duff, he has been very encouraging. They both encouraged me to have a second look at my work and as musicians, they also took my songs and made them sound bigger. They are both phenomenal players, you know? They really are as good as musician’s can be. Barrett is as good a rock drummer you can get, and Duff is probably the best rock bass player on the planet. So, to have them playing on your songs really elevates them.
What did they bring in songs?
Musically, they didn’t really bring in songs but they’d bring in parts. Barrett brought that guitar part in on ‘Hard to Look Away’. That’s his guitar riff and he’s not the best guitar player but he brought five or six ideas and most of them didn’t do much for me but that one… I was like, “Ok, that one’s really good!” and then I messed around with it and changed it up a bit. So, he contributed that and then Duff, on the song, ‘Right in Front of Me’. He added the bass part. We worked it out together at my house but those are their only song writing contributions and there was another song where I heard them jamming. I was like ‘that’s kind of cool’ and then I’d take a recording on my phone, go home and work on it and then bring it back. But, a lot of the songs I wrote by myself just on the tour bus. Everyone else would go out and look around Europe and I’d sit in back of the bus with the recording thing and write songs because I knew a record needed to get finished.
Right in Front of Me. In Hungary, all the journalists, said that this is something special. So, do you feel that this song is somehow different than the others or is it just the crowd, or the journalists, who feel that?
I don’t know. You know what’s funny? It seems that many people identify as rockers, right? But then, if you ask me what Pearl Jam’s best song is, because it is Pearl Jam Week over here, Black is their best song. It’s not the animal song. And that’s a rocker. I think it’s like guys pounding on their chests. They don’t let everybody see their sensitive side. So, when they do let it out it makes for the best songs. I love songwriters like Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Boy Dylan and a lot of their songs are sappy. I think Right in Front of Me is that’s kind of song. That and ‘Red &White’ and ‘Don’t Owe Me Nothing’ those are kind of the mellower ones and I guess at the end of the day, those will probably be the ones I like the best. The rock ones are fun to play, and I guess it just depends on what mood you are you in at any particular time. Is it the song that takes you to the party or is it the song for when you get home from the party and you’re by yourself? So, I guess we need more than one kind of song and I’m pleased to hear anyone likes any of my songs.
‘Sean Kinney, Ben and I hang out all the time because Sean still lives in Seattle.1
You have worked with a Ben Anderson for a long time now. He was with you in Missionary Position, Staticland, and now in Walking Papers. Is this your future in your musical career? To work with Ben and continue this Walking Papers thing or Staticland?
I don’t know. If you were looking to find my songs, Walking Papers has an address on the main street where you might need elaborate directions to find Staticland or the Missionary Position, and there might be construction going on and you might not find them ‘cause they are through an alley, down some stairs, in the basement with no sign on the door. The band names are like an address for the music and I think Walking Papers is easier for people to find than the others. So that’s probably the smart thing to move forward with. I get a lot of people who say, ‘you just need to call it Jeff Angell.’ But, I feel like that’s not fair to the other people that I make music with especially Ben. He is probably the biggest contributor to the songs other than myself and he deserves a lot of credit. He is very influential on what I do. Like ‘Red &White’ the majority of the music in that song is his contribution. Ben is there the whole time. On earlier songs like: ‘Already Dead’, ‘The Butcher’, ‘Leave Me in the Dark’ and ‘A Place Like This’. I had all those songs before I knew Barrett. Me and Ben maybe worked on some of those just a little bit and we decided not to use them. We thought the other stuff we were doing was better. But with Duff and Barrett a lot people take interest because of their history and the obsession people have with all of what was so powerful about Seattle. It was a great time in music and in people’s lives. I’m happy to play with them because they validate what I’m doing. But then again Ben…for a guy who doesn’t say much and nobody pays much attention to, he has a lot to do with why what I do sounds the way it does and I think that’s important. That’s kind of how he is as a person. He’s not jumping into the spotlight. Sometimes I have to drag him out of his coffin. You know, he’s sleeping in a closet upside-down like a vampire and have to drag him out, “Come on, man! Let’s do something!” Even with the original Walking Papers, he just played on the record but he wasn’t going to join the band. He was just happy doing the Missionary Position.
I really like you never play covers on Walking Papers or Staticland stages, you only focus on your songs. I think it’s a more difficult way to find the crowd.
When I was growing up playing covers was the cheap way to get an audience. I always thought you were supposed to write your own songs. Now, as I’m older, I think if people enjoy it and have fun they should go ahead but I don’t have enough time to play all of my own songs that I want to play so, why would I waste five minutes playing someone else’s song? When David Bowie died he said this thing that I thought was pretty profound. He said, ‘The only mistakes that I made in my career was when I tried to please the audience.’ So, if I was playing a cover the only reason I’d be doing it at this point would be to make everybody happy but I’m not making music to make everybody else happy. I’m making music as an exorcism of my own thoughts. If people are coming to see me then hopefully they are coming to hear my songs.
How was the tour with Alice in Chains?
Great! They were a huge influence on me. If you’d told me when I was fifteen years old that one day I would be on tour with them that would that would have been all I could have hoped for. Now, I have done it multiple times. It’s been awesome, and I love all those guys. We’re now friends and stay in touch even when we’re not on tour. It’s kind of a family at this point. Sean Kinney, Ben and I hang out all the time because Sean still lives in Seattle. So, if they go on tour and we’re not with them, it’s kind of like, “Who’s he hanging out with?” because we’re his main crew around here. We ride motorcycles together.
I saw some pictures.
Yeah, he doesn’t have a wife or kids or anything like that so we’re like teenage boys running around, ‘Want to go to the classical car show? Or so and so is playing at the whatever.’ So, they are really great guys. Those guys are really adamant about touring with the people they like. People that aren’t familiar with the music business, don’t know that a lot of big bands just take the support bands that will pay them for the exposure. Maybe they pay for the trucking or pay for the advertisement or their record label does. So, when these guys take us on tour they have to leave money on the table to take us. So we are grateful on multiple levels. We are not in the position to pay them for the tour since we’re an independent band so getting that break from them, and getting to play to their audience, is a huge. It’s a gift from to let us play to their audience and give us their stamp of approval. Also I think we‘re sort of a buffer. They are pretty private people and they get a lot of fanatics. They’re kind of our brothers so we’re protective of them and if we see someone out of line we try to make sure they’re not getting into their space.
You have a new video and there is a Hungarian connection because the artist who…
Oh, yeah! Csaba Mester. He drew that comic. I met him when we played in Hungary last time. He drew some pictures of Walking Papers and he gave us the pictures. Later I met the writer Matt Hayward in Ireland who also knew Csaba and they were working together on something. Matt put it all together. It took a long time but it finally came out as a comic book and then as a video for the song which I think is great. Earlier, we were talking about Fantagraphic’s connection with Sub-Pop and the artist Charles Burns who did Black Hole and Peter Bagge who did Hate Comics. And then there’s Mike Groening, who did The Simpsons and before that he did Life is Hell. It was all sub-culture stuff, you know? There’s like Marvel Comics but then there’s sub-culture scene of people into graphic novels and comics. I think it’s cool to have someone take your song and reinterpret it and put visuals to it. It really is pretty amazing.
‘I think there are ways of using social media to get people thinking and talking about things in a way that doesn’t have to be trolling’
I remember one of your posts on Facebook where you wrote lots of titles of other musician’s songs because of the political content. There was a similar conversation going on in Hungary: Does a musician have to be a politician of sorts? What’s your opinion?
Well, my opinion is that some people are not very smart and at times they say things without considering the consequences and they will never admit they were wrong. To me admitting that you’re wrong is a sign of intelligence, you know? It’s to say, new information was presented to me so I need to re-think my position. Some people online were saying that musicians should just sing their songs and stay out of politics. I don’t want to alienate people, politically. I think I can say what I think politically in a diplomatic way without pointing a finger at someone. Because if you can make someone think differently, you’re going to have a lot better chance doing it without telling them how wrong they are. So, when these people were saying that musicians and artists should stay out of politics, I was like that’s the most ignorant statement I have ever heard. So, I thought it would be interesting to say to these people, “Here are the musician’s you would lose if musicians were no longer allowed to make politically inspired music.” For instance, Metallica or Black Sabbath. Those are bands that say very political bands. Ministry, was very critical of George Bush. Roger Waters is anti Trump. If you said that artists should stay out of politics, we would have no Metallica, no Rage Against The Machine… And that’s the rockers. Then there’s Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, so I thought get the dialogue going and listed twenty politically inspired songs and it turned into four hundred different songs.
I absolutely know what you mean. I remember.
People use Facebook to show what they ate, which is cool. Maybe you’ll turn me onto something new that I haven’t had before. But, I think there are ways of using social media to get people thinking and talking about things in a way that doesn’t have to be trolling. So, when I wrote that post I knew exactly who it was who inspired me to say something but I didn’t go and say, “You’re an idiot and what are you thinking?” I looked for a way to share my opinion without offending that person. I didn’t call anybody out or make anyone feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. I just said what I had to say and I wasn’t saying anything negative. I was just saying that maybe people should think about all the great music that was politically motivated and how it helped shape the world. I mean, Jazz music did so much for civil rights. They kicked the door down! And that was way before the 60’s. A lot of people think it was the Beatles with “All You Need is Love” but think about what Duke Ellington was doing in the 40’s. Probably before John Lennon was even born. So, yeah! This is why I get fired up! The same people who say artists should stay out of politics are pissed about people kneeling during the National Anthem which is a political song and they don’t even know the second verse which is basically pro slavery. Have you read it?
The second verse of the National Anthem, I think it was written during the War of 1812. The verse says that if slaves fled to Canada you know because Canada was a British providence, right?
They were saying that if any slaves escaped to Canada where they would be free they would be executed. But they weren’t free in America. Why wouldn’t they want to go where they are free and fight for their freedom? So the National Anthem is basically pro-slavery, and it’s a political song as well.
I didn’t know that but I am Hungarian.
Yeah, well people don’t know this because no one reads. It’s like, “Do you know the second verse?” People don’t know it. They only know the chorus. No one cares about the verse. Some people are singing along to these songs and they don’t even know what they are saying. You got an arena full of people going to a football game and they are singing, ‘We Are the Champions’ by Freddie Mercury. And he’s a gay guy but they don’t like gay people. You know what I mean? They don’t even know. It’s ignorance. They are happy to sing along but they don’t think about the consequences of what that statement is and they do the same when they vote. They vote for things that are against their own agenda and they don’t even realize it because they didn’t bother to look but you know, it’s no different than it’s always been. That’s kind of my statement on it. I’ve written some political songs but I try to write them in a way that’s us vs. them because I think that the government is, the majority of the government, is too easily influenced by corporations.
Like everywhere in the world.
Yeah but at that point, I don’t know if it’s ever been different but I don’t think people are ready to lay down their lives for that but then, of course, they go lay down their lives for some other cause and they don’t even know what they are getting into. Whether it’s going to other countries and interfering in their political processes… When they don’t even know what’s going on.
‘I could make a mellow record or a hard rock record or a like a spacey record or something’
What will the next step be after the European tour? What is your a plan?
We’re going to do some more shows in the United States on the West Coast and then it’s time to make another record. And it’ll probably be a Walking Papers record.
Probably! But I do think I’ll play with a lot of different people, guests, and that kind of thing. I have a lot of songs right now but I’m not sure what kind of record to make. I could make a mellow record or a hard rock record or a like a spacey record or something. I guess I’m kind of waving a loaded gun around but haven’t really chosen a target yet.
Yeah! That’s what I spend most of my energy on when I’m at home. Making sure all the songs are coming together but I haven’t really got to play with the songs with other people. We did some shows the other day. I played a bunch of recordings for Ben. We were driving and it was like the first time I let him hear what I was working on.
But are you open to play with Duff and Barrett?
Yeah, I don’t think Duff is available. If he’s around, I’ll ask him. Barrett sounded like he was into it but, at this point, I haven’t shown him any songs. So, we’ll see. He encouraged me to run with it. I thought we were just going to tour the record. And Barrett was kind of like, “I don’t think I can tour anymore and you should just take over with this thing and do what you want.” I was surprised to hear that.
Haven’t you thought about playing with Sean Kinney? You are friends.
You guys can do music together.
We’ve jammed at his house and I would love to do a song with him, but I don’t know.…He doesn’t seem to do that very much. He’s an amazing drummer! He could play so many different kinds of styles. He can play country, shuffle beats and all sorts of jazz stuff but in his band he sticks to pretty much rock. He really is a phenomenal drummer! He’s as good as they get. I jam with him but I’ve never asked him to record before. If we did record together, he’d probably say, ‘Don’t put my name on it’.
Because he’s a very private person. I would think he would be all for recording for fun but I think he’d have some crazy name he would make up. He’d probably think up a false name and be like, I’ll play with you but I don’t want people to be asking me questions. He’s kind of like that, you never know with that guy because he’s a character. He would be good because me and Ben hang out with him. We could just say, ‘Hey! We’re in the studio if you want to come hang out and play drums.’
Good idea! Glad you thought of that.