Abandoned Pools may well be the ideal way to describe Tommy Walter's escape from a seemingly idyllic upbringing in the affluent L.A. community of Westlake Village. He might have "ruined his life," to paraphrase one of his song titles, but Walter has most definitely spurned a predestined future of the perfect family, a manicured backyard, a two-car garage and the pacifying comforts of the TV in the living room for something far less certain.
On his Extasy Records International debut, Humanistic, Walter takes matters into his own hands, casting a knowing eye on society's hypocrisies and deceits with a musical palette that combines some of his own unique influences. His first musical obsession was the "Star Wars" soundtrack (his publishing company is Boba Fettish Music). He also had a childhood fascination with Prince, and later on, an admiration for '80s U.K. new wave bands, indie-guitar rock and cutting-edge, sample-based electronic music.
"I wanted the listener not to know what's coming next," he says. "So that just when you think it's going in one direction, it goes in another."
Produced by the Boston-based team of Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade (the duo behind both Hole's Live Through This and Radiohead's Pablo Honey), and mixed by Chris Lord Alge (Green Day, Replacements), Humanistic is Walter's first work since leaving the influential band eels, with whom he recorded the acclaimed Beautiful Freak, the first record ever released by DreamWorks. The new album, coincidentally, the first for impressive start-up Extasy, incorporates both the sturm und grind of the first single, "Mercy Kiss," which revisits adolescent humiliation with the hindsight of experience and the feverish rush of the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way," and the wall of sound surrounding "The Remedy, " a song which tweaks his former band's alternative radio hit with its playful refrain, "I could use a shot/ your Novocain."
There's also a kinder, gentler side to Walter, as shown on the acoustic guitar and single piano notes of "Never," from the very first demo he recorded, with the original basic tracks and vocal remaining intact. "My producers told me I wasn't naﶥ enough to sing it that way anymore," he laughs. The multi-talented musician co-produced the album and played the majority of instruments. Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle, The Vandals) played drums while an assortment of instruments bits including bass clarinet, piano, clavinet and guitar were added by both Slade and Kolderie.
Walter uses the industrial metal blasts of "Monster" and "Seed" to cast a jaundiced eye on the world of rock stardom, while the sweetly nostalgic "Suburban Muse" and the sprightly, tongue-in-cheek "Sunny Day" perfectly express Walter's ambivalence about his upbringing. The sampled drum loops of "Start Over" and the soulful, Prince-like falsetto vocals in "Ruin Your Life" (courtesy of Walter and Frente's Angie Hart, who sings back-up on three other tracks) are the silver linings to what he views as the dark cloud of conforming to others' expectations. It's something Walter has tried to avoid his whole life.
He grew up the son of a former World War II bomber pilot for the Canadian Air Force (who was 50 years of age when Tommy was born) and a mother who was a stewardess 20 years his father's junior. The sinister "Blood" describes his ambivalent feelings about growing up inside this "happy" family: "I see the happy family tree/It sways so easily/We're smiling all the time/This world just isn't mine."
Tommy learned to play electric bass in grade school, and then was classically trained on the French horn (shades of the Who's John Entwhistle) soon after high school. He majored in the instrument at USC before switching to composition after learning the hard way the role of departmental politics. You can hear him play French horn on "Ruin Your Life" as well as eels' "Beautiful Freak."
While at Southern Cal, he played "Tusk" one too many times on the mellophone as a member of the university's famed marching band. After graduation, he enrolled at University of Pacific in Stockton, CA, where he studied and taught a class in musical theory-hence his eels nickname "The Professor." While there, he specialized in early 20th century, 12-tone and modal composers like Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky, traces of which can be heard in the "discordant, non-tonal" musique concrete of tracks like "Blood," "The Remedy" and the "I Am The Walrus"-style pastiche of "Fluorescein."
Disillusioned with academia, Walter tried to find like-minded collaborators in the local L.A. pop-rock community.
"At this point, I'd played in more symphonic orchestras than garage bands," he admitted, developing a melodic style of bass-playing and back-up singing in one local group, Mrs. God. At an open mic night at L.A. club The Mint, he met singer/songwriter E, who was impressed enough to invite Walter, along with drummer Butch Norton, to join the original trio which would eventually form eels. The group quickly attracted the interest of DreamWorks Records.
And while the group quickly attracted the interest of fans and critical praise, Walter's goals were not your usual rock dreams.
"I'm not the type of musician who started out playing guitar just to get laid," he says ruefully, though he was exposed to all manner of abusive behavior ("including my own") as a member of the group, touring around the world to great acclaim. As he complains in "Sunny Day": "All this talk of rock stars really makes me sick."
He left the band after one album, citing as a reason his desire, once again, not to lock himself into an inevitable future. "Everyone's a genius/Brushing up on irony," he sings in "Monster," putting down the prevailing attitude of the cooler-than-thou music snob circles he ultimately fled from
"At first, it was a band," he says, "but when the ink dried, it was a different story. But that's just my naivet鮠It was a good lesson. I learned to trust my own instincts. I thought the three of us were great live and worked well together. We had some fun times. But once you get a fancy tour bus and the crowds get bigger, everything goes to hell."
Wood-shedding in his South Pasadena apartment, Walter set out to "reinvent himself," writing and recording on his home eight-track system with a goal. "I tried to balance two things-what made me happy as a songwriter and what could speak to fans," he says. "It's a good challenge. I want people to hear my music."
Transferring the songs from eight-track to Pro Tools, he took the demos up to Boston's Q Division studio, where he finished up the album with Kolderie and Slade.
"The songs are about what it's like to be human," he says. "Everything doesn't have to be so bottom-line, profit-based, black and white. You can do things for the right reasons."
The final track of the album, "Fluorescein," revisits Walter's relationship with his father, who died last year. If you listen carefully, after the final note, his father can be heard describing matter-of-factly how he jumped out of a plane moments before it blew up as a 21-year-old fighter pilot. It is a chilling conclusion, symbolizing his son's own tendency to shift gears just before the proverbial shit hits the fan.
"It was hard for me to express who I was or what I was all about." he says before admitting he's finally coming to terms with the relationship.
As for his own ambitions, Walter insists: "I wouldn't say I don't want to be a rock star. I just want to make records that mean something to people, that have an impact on them Of course, I say now I won't get caught up in the trappings, but I know I will."
He laughs. After all, Tommy Walter, the man behind Abandoned Pools, is only human.