For singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Tommy Walter, the name of his musical alter ego, Abandoned Pools, once more seems to fit his situation like a well-worn glove.
On Humanistic, his 2001 debut, it referred to his leaving behind a seemingly carefree upbringing in the L.A. suburb of Westlake Village to pursue a career in rock, which led him to become one of the founding members of the eels after studying French horn and composition at USC and then University of the Pacific. That dream had its roots in Walter’s childhood love of pop and rock music, beginning with the Star Wars soundtrack and Prince, then growing to include ’80s U. K. new wave bands, indie guitar rock and cutting-edge electronics, all of them apparent on Humanistic as well as his brand-new Universal Records EP, The Reverb EP.
That first album went on to sell almost 100,000 copies, thanks to the Modern Rock hit “The Remedy” and tours with the likes of Remy Zero, Garbage, Lenny Kravitz, Billy Corgan and A Perfect Circle, but after the demise of his label, Walter found himself back where he started. It took the dissolution of an intense romance for him to throw himself back into his music, once again recording demos in his home studio.
Produced by Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Interpol, Clinic, Erasure and Einstürzende Neubauten) and mixed by Ken Andrews (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Failure, Year of the Rabbit), Abandoned Pools’ new full-length album, Armed to the Teeth, once again showcases Walter’s ability to combine the macro and the micro, contrasting his despair with the world situation and his own personal heartbreak.
Featuring holdover drummer Bryan Head and guitarist Sean Woolstenhulme, the band’s songs include “Armed to the Teeth,“ about “the way people wield their power by how they consume and spend their money,” whose slashing guitars and dance rhythms evoke the likes of U2 and Joy Division. “Sooner or Later” suggests a world on the edge of destruction, its layers of sound easing towards apocalypse with lyrics like “I’ve got my finger/On trigger.” Walter takes a crunching, grunge-rock approach to his cover of Bjork’s “Army of Me,” while “The Catalyst” (“I wish I could say something beautiful/To make you fall in love again”) and the Coldplay jangle of “Waiting to Panic” (“I’m thinking/My head is exploding”) both deal with the regret in the aftermath of a relationship gone awry.
“On that first record, people said they could hear the influences,” says Walter. “But this time, I think there’s a little bit of bravado in there. I wrote what I felt like writing. Things were happening in my life, and I just had to write about them. That’s how I dealt with it. I had to just dive right in.”
When Walter isn’t blaming himself for letting things unravel, he’s taking on the hypocrisy and fear in a post-9/11 universe. “This is such an aggressive world,” he says of Armed to the Teeth. “There’s a very militaristic attitude in our country right now. You can’t walk down the street without getting run over by somebody in an SUV. It’s very mean-spirited and I just don’t get that.”
Wiser from his first brush with the music industry merry-go-round, Walter is sure he’s “armed to the teeth” for another opportunity.
“You sort of get caught up in yourself and how important you think everything is,” he says of lessons learned. “I’m a much calmer person now. I feel much better about this record than I did the first one. I know it’s good; I don’t care what other people think. If it does well, that would be nice, but it’s not the most important thing to me.”
Walter also expresses confidence in his band, drummer Head and guitarist Woolstenhulme, who’ll be going out on tour with him, and have played with him for several years.
Woolstenhulme, a fellow music conservatory grad who has toured with both Lifehouse and The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex while counting iconoclasts Bill Frisell and Thelonious Monk among his favorites, was drawn to Walter’s compositional ambition.
“This is definitely a band. What’s great about playing with Abandoned Pools is how it allows me to use a wide palette of sounds,” he says. “The music can be as offensive or as pretty as you want. It covers the entire spectrum of rock. The possibilities are endless. There’s a meaning and purpose to it, as well as a system behind it… which makes it more of a challenge to play.”
Drummer Head, who joined Tommy in Abandoned Pools as part of his first touring band, is also a classically trained musician who has played with Geffen Records band Black Lab and EMI act Ross Golan & Molehead. “It’s difficult music, not the kind you get tired of playing night after night,” he says. “We span the gamut from classical to hip-hop, electronic music and punk-rock. And my thing has always been playing in a lot of different styles, which makes it difficult for me to be in a single band. With this group, we get to stretch our muscles, creatively and mentally. You leave every show exhausted. And the record has that live feeling because we basically recorded it playing all together in a room.”
“I’m a better performer and singer now,” says Walter about his own development. “I’m really looking forward to playing live and promoting this album. I’m just going to go out there and say, ‘Here are some songs about love and loss.’ And I’m sure people can relate.”
Happily, Tommy Walter’s loss represents a musical gain for Abandoned Pools fans.