I met Walt McClements shortly after Katrina. It was my third day at a new job, manning the counter at Z’otz Cafe on Oak street. He was quiet nearly the entire shift, but utterly warm in some way as well. He taught me how to brew yerba mate in traditional gourds, avoiding the pitfalls that might results in a customer sucking up a mouthful of crushed leaf residue. It was the only time we worked together, but his enigmatic presence left an impression. I later learned that he was a musician and I began following his work, starting with the back catalog of his by then-defunct band Crooks and Nannies and watching as Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? was born. I always enjoyed his writing and arrangements, as well as his carriage in live shows: that spirit of unbalanced whimsy married with a hint of melancholy that lurked just below the surface. He was the kind of performer that elevated a live show to an unexpectedly deep level, so when I heard he had gone solo (under the moniker Lonesome Leash) and left New Orleans, my curiosity flared. I caught up with Walt at his home in Los Angeles, just before he departed for a European tour. Two hours later, I came away with a sense of profound excitement about his new material and a renewed belief that this multi-instrumentalist/sonic mercenary really is one of the most talented artists New Orleans has ever seen.
The resounding question in my mind when I heard you’d left New Orleans was, “Why L.A.?”
Walt McClements: Oh right, that thing. Why am I here? The easiest answer would be to say that my boyfriend moved here for a job, so I followed him. That’s kinda true. But my energy in New Orleans… the last couple years I lived there, I was somewhat avoiding the place. Not necessarily intentionally, as I was on tour a lot, but I guess I felt like I needed to not have any obligations for a second, which was going to be a hard thing to do in New Orleans. Everything I was doing there felt really good and important, but I had started to feel somewhat stagnant. And I really responded to that by avoiding it—by pretending that I was still living there but not really spending much of my time there. I ended up giving up my room about a year before I officially moved away, so eventually it became one of those things where you really just have to admit that you don’t live there anymore. But where did I live, then? My boyfriend moved out here from New Orleans for a job for a year, so I ended a tour out here last year with the intention of staying for a month or two, before heading out on tour again. When I did finally arrive here, this West Coast thing I was supposed to do in December fell through and I thought, “God, I should just stay here.” And here I am. It’s kind of a surprisingly pleasant place to be, actually. I don’t really know what I do here, but it’s nice.
I feel like most people who leave New Orleans for other cities tend to go one of three places: New York, San Francisco, or Austin. Those seem to be the cultural “sister cities” to New Orleans these days, whereas many New Orleanians would probably consider L.A. to be the pure antithesis of here. Has that been your experience? Or has the place surprised you?
I don’t want to let the secret out, but it feels like a conspiracy that L.A. is viewed so harshly. It seems like it has the most stigma of any major city. I mean, everything is true [laughs] but it’s not all true. I wouldn’t call it the antithesis of New Orleans… but maybe it is and that makes them related, which is a good thing. If you view those places that you just listed as bastions of authenticity, then maybe. But as those places are going through all these changes and people are trying to grasp on to “What was this place? what was this identity?” L.A. is interesting because it has never really pretended to be anything other than what it is. I’ve been here less than a year, but I haven’t sold my soul to Hollywood or anything. That world is there of course, and I’m sure it’s fascinating and terrible in all its ways, but I don’t see it from where I am. It’s a huge city, a diverse city. The sprawl is there, but that also means that if you want it to stop feeling like a densely populated city, it can. These neighborhoods are so spread out that it does allow for some green space and all that. And there are a lot of good people here making good art and music that is not necessarily related to this big machine that exists. In a way, I feel like the underground is less connected here because the industry is so tacky—it’s not highbrow. It makes what’s going on underneath it less self conscious. Whereas, I feel like in New York, the machine is highbrow, so people are constantly looking over their shoulder at DIY shows, because they might get discovered. In a way it feels like what exists outside of that machine feels… I don’t know, I hate to say more pure, but…
Perhaps more free? I can’t imagine the pressure of being an indie band in a scene as saturated as NYC.
Right. But that’s where you go to make it, if you’re in the indie scene. Whereas, Los Angeles… I don’t know why people come here. I don’t know why I’m here. There is an interesting flux of people from all those cities you mentioned earlier that I find are coming here now. I mean, it’s still a cool place and it’s a remarkably affordable place to live.
A great deal of the people we worked with at Z’otz spent significant amounts of time train-hopping. Was that ever your bag ?
That was part of what I did in my youth, but by the time I ended up in New Orleans I had stopped traveling, really.
Do you feel like that spirit persists, perhaps? I feel like a lot of the traveling kids I knew ended up being touring musicians and I sometimes wonder if that need to feed the beast of constant movement isn’t just always there lurking in the background.
I wonder. Let me answer this with a slight tangent. Sometimes I forget that not every indie band comes from either a traveling or anarchist punk background. I forget that a lot. And I realize that’s not actually the case, but when I was on the road with Dark Dark Dark and we were on a tour bus with a bunch of other bands in Australia, I looked around and thought, “Man, all these people have nice clothes and their luggage works and we look really weird.” Or looking around at these other bands we were on tour with and realizing that they didn’t sleep on floors. They thought we got hotels every night. I guess I sort of felt like I grew out of that travel bug, but I suppose I really didn’t. I’ve just changed the way I do it. There’s direction behind it now, so the concept of “I’m gonna head up here and I don’t know when I’ll get there” is sort of foreign to me at this point… probably because I usually have a show to play [laughs]. And if I stop playing shows, I become financially destitute, which I guess is kind of how it was back then. So to succinctly answer the question… yeah.
You slung a decent cappuccino back in the day. Do you still have a part- time gig like that, or has touring become enough of a regular support that you don’t have to worry about that anymore?
I heard that you recently participated in a medical study for tour money.
That’s true. You know, leaving the service industry for six years, a lot of things change. I tried to get a coffee shop job when I moved here and I realized I was extremely underqualified.
Can you do latte art? Because that’s apparently a requirement now.
I can’t! I don’t know how to. I thought I could get someone to teach me, maybe. I had three interviews at this coffee shop and I thought they loved me, because they kept asking me back to meet this manager and that manager. On my third visit I thought surely they’re going to hire me, and then they didn’t hire me. I was like, Jesus Christ!
Is this an American Idol audition or a coffee shop?
Totally. I mean, in New Orleans, I was lucky enough to play with Panorama Jazz Band for many years and they play a lot, so that was a big help in supporting myself. I learned so much from them about how to be a better musician. And then I started being on the road more and it all sort of balanced out. Moving here—as part of that obligations thing I was running away from—I kinda didn’t want to be a “musician.” Honestly, I don’t want to play jazz music… or other people’s music at all, really. I’m interested in a lot of these traditions of course, but it’s definitely not my passion. And musician communities… I mean, musicians are great, but there are a lot of these cocky dude scenes and the idea of trying to find a “niche” out here just wasn’t appealing to me. Taking a step away from that scene (“gigging musicians/professional musicians”) has a lot to do with where I am in my own life and my relation to music. But I also had this thought of, “I wonder if I can get another job.” After being on the road for five or six years, there’s that fear of “Oh my God, could I do anything else? I actually have no other skills.” And it turns out I can. The first job I had in L.A. was delivering pizzas.
I never had done that before and so I thought to myself that I moved to the city with the most stigma and got the job with the most stigma. It’s like being the poster child for “What am I doing with my life?” After that I had a moment of thinking that I wanted to get a “good job” or a “cool job” with people I liked, so that’s when I tried the coffee shop. When that didn’t work out, I realized that I don’t need a “good job.” I need a place to make some money in between tours, but I don’t want to work somewhere that I have to feel bad about leaving when I go on tour. Then came the medical experiments. I moved to L.A. not to make it in Hollywood, but to become a punk again. I wash dishes for a temp agency and I do medical studies.
Did the temp agency set you up with the medical studies or was that a Craigslist find?
Oh, I definitely found those on Craigslist. The temp agency sets me up with dishwashing gigs. Like, they got me a job washing dishes at Google, which is also pretty fun.
Google?! Like, the offices?
Yeah, they have a campus here. It’s in this hideous, hideous building in Venice. It’s a Frank Gehry/Claes Oldenberg collaboration. The Oldenberg part of it is the entrance to the parking garage that is these huge gray cylinders that are actually binoculars, so it’s really very fitting. He didn’t build it for Google, but when they decided to move in a few years ago, they were like “Ah yes, let’s move into the surveillance building.”
I’m super curious about these medical studies. What are you being tested/studied for?
This last one was a really great one. I’ve done a few over the years. When I first moved here I had practically no money, but I thought I was going to be fine because I got picked up for this electronic cigarette testing study. I was supposed to go in once a week for eight weeks and it paid $3,000. I went in for the first visit and it’s 8 a.m., I haven’t eaten, I’m in this sketchy clinic in Burbank and they’ve got the IV in my arm and I’m supposed to take a drag off my cigarette every 30 seconds. I’m actually not very good at this because I pass out if I see blood, so I don’t look and usually that works out, but apparently I hadn’t had enough water and they were having a hard time getting a sample. So I had this mild nicotine buzz going and they just kept moving the needle around so I got totally faint and passed out. And they kicked me out of the study. I thought at that point maybe I shouldn’t do medical studies anymore since I can’t really handle being poked with needles. But this last one I did was really great. I was super lucky because it involved no drugs and no blood work. It was just a brain scan study, so I was in there for four days, mostly just doing memory puzzles and things like that.
Four days and you went home every evening ? Or four consecutive days?
Oh, you live there.
Did they at least provide you with two hots and a cot?
Well, it’s in the hospital, so they have this ward for testing and you just live there for a few days. It was fine. I tried to get into a different group of the same study that lasted for ten days, because it paid quite a bit more, but no luck. All things considered, it was a very pleasant experience.
Have you ever tried to get in on the sleep trials? I feel like maybe that’s the sweet spot of medical testing, because then you just get to nap a lot.
You know, I think that they’re bad. Some people do fine, but everyone I know who has done a sleep study says it’s the worst. It sounds like a good idea, but they generally last a long time, you can’t see outside or have any contact with the outside world and ten days of that could be really, really weird. The room they do them in is super creepy and it has this fake window with a babbling brook painted on it. It’s very eerie.
Okay, ignore my advice then.
But you know, I would probably do it [laughs]. NASA is doing this long- running study where you stay in bed for 70 days and they pay like $18,000, but that would probably fuck you up for a long time. I think it would take a while to get over that. It’s an interesting… option. An interesting industry in general. The first time I did one of these studies, going back into the monitoring room, I felt kind of empowered, honestly. Because I’d had all these bad jobs and you can get by—barely scrape by, really—but it just feels so easy to get stuck. Being in that waiting room, I was struck with a sense of “Oh, so this is an option.” It’s a way to get a quick chunk of money without that obligation and it’s a different option for amassing resources.
Let’s talk about the accordion. Pretty popular in this neck of the woods thanks to zydeco traditions, but otherwise I feel like it’s maligned as a somewhat gimmicky instrument (see: polka, circus music, “Weird Al” Yankovic) What drew you to it initially?
I picked one up in high school. I always thought it was an interesting sound, but I didn’t really start playing it until later. In my later teens, I was playing mostly “old-timey” instruments like banjo and fiddle and I moved to Seattle for about five minutes, where I was playing with a few accordion players. I fell off my bike and broke my wrist, so I couldn’t play the banjo or fiddle, but I could play the accordion with just my left hand. At that time, people were getting really into the Amelie soundtrack, which was very accordion-heavy. So that was some of the first music I ever learned to play on the accordion, that Yann Piersen style of Philip Glass-meets-French traditional music, which is very pleasant and sort of has a vague sense of quaint epic-ness to it. I got my hands on one about six months after I moved to New Orleans. It was a challenge, but at a certain point its versatility appealed to me the most— which may sound strange, considering how often it is pigeonholed.
What do you get out of using an accordion as your base instrumentation that you wouldn’t get out of using more common backbones, like piano or guitar?
Even though my passion has never been in learning or mastering a specific folk tradition, I have always loved the texture of these more traditional instruments, starting with the banjo and fiddle when I lived in North Carolina. Those things were experiencing a resurgence in popularity as I was getting tired of playing guitar in garage rock bands and tired of carrying amps around. A lot of that traditional music is so drone-y and every song has a couple melodies that repeat, but there’s no real flair. It’s this even-keeled sort of trance. So I got interested in how you could layer those instruments together, to bring those textures somewhere else. At this point, I realize that I feel very comfortable and it is second nature to play the accordion and I’m still so interested in the ways of playing it that I don’t see people doing. Like how you can drone on a bass note but press on these chord keys and it can sound like an organ. It’s still surprising me, what you can do with it. So I’m not tired yet of the sonic options it’s presenting to me.
Do you think you’re done with the banjo and fiddle etc., or do you see yourself mixing those back into your work down the road?
I’m definitely open to still folding those things in. At the moment I’m using the accordion and the trumpet, which is my newest thing. I picked it up a couple years ago, playing with Dark Dark Dark. When I was playing with [Why are We Building Such a] Big Ship it was good to learn because before I did, I was writing these parts for my poor trumpet players that were really hard and they were valiant in their efforts, but once I started playing it I actually realized what they were talking about [laughs]. I am a very limited trumpet player. I can play long notes and that’s about it. I can also play for about six minutes a day. Which is all I need to right now, but the actual muscle of it is pretty intense. It’s fun though; it’s a nice challenge.
Are there any other instruments you’re jonesing to try your hand at?
I’m sure I will, but for what I’m doing with this project, I’m pretty limited. It will change down the road I’m sure, but for now the one thing I’m really adamant about is not using any looping, which limits what I can use to create a full sound. So the accordion and the drum works well. It actually started out with all accordion and drum machine, until I lost my drum machine… somewhere. I am interested in a certain approach to electronics that I think could be interesting. I don’t ever see myself pushing play on backing tracks, as is a somewhat common thing to do these days, but I guess I’m interested for this project in the idea of drum triggers to trigger samples as a way to still maintain a live feel. I like the capacity to make mistakes in a performance. I want danger. I want disasters to be able to happen, or else it’s not fun.
The solo route is a very different place for you after having been in the huge ensemble that was Big Ship and playing with Hurray for the Riff Raff and Dark Dark Dark. Was that an organic outgrowth, or a conversation you had with yourself that determined it was time to be alone for a while?
This started really when I would be home in New Orleans on short breaks between touring with Dark Dark Dark. Being a bandleader for a big band is really a full time job. Organizing rehearsals and booking shows and just making sure everybody is being considerate of each other… I have a lot of respect for people who do it well. As I began spending less and less time in New Orleans though, it was harder to maintain that as an outlet all the time, so this solo project started more as a staging ground for song ideas and a chance to work with a different palette. After all those years writing parts for a large ensemble and worrying about layering parts and having all this lush orchestration, I worried that I had forgotten about songwriting. I recognize now that it’s just different things you’re going for and neither one is necessarily inherently better or worse. But that was sort of the impetus. I didn’t really know how long it would last. I was excited to make a record and a lot of those songs on the first Lonesome Leash record had been floating around for a while, so after putting so much time into other projects, when it came out I just wanted to see what would happen if I really went at it religiously and tried to get myself out there. And it felt so different from touring with a band.
It started out very hard, with a lot of learning. But it was also really amazing. After having toured with bands, being out there alone became this sort of meditative thing, doing these long drives by myself. Sometimes the social muscle gets tired, you know? I’m lucky to have a lot of outposts of close friends around the country, but if I go for a while and don’t have time in places where I don’t really know anybody, I do start to get exhausted just socially from having to be “on” all the time. It’s hard. But I am actually worried now that I won’t ever be able to be in a band again, because I’ve been spoiled by being able to make all the decisions and being able to pace myself. Now everything is my fault. There’s no blame. Well, there is blame, but it’s all mine. It’s an easy way to flip into town and not have to plan where to stay, because 1) nobody gets mad at me if I forget to do it and 2) it’s a lot easier for people to put up one person, than twelve. It can be a lot more flexible. It’s nice.
Where are you in relation to Dark Dark Dark at this point? Do you think you’ll work with them again?
We were supposed to take a year hiatus, which basically just ended. But I don’t know where people are at, necessarily. I don’t think anything will happen with that band for a while, if ever. I imagine I would be involved if there were to be another record. It’s a weird thing to put so much time and energy into something and do it for years and right when it gains momentum, you start to feel like “God, I can’t do this anymore.” I’m glad this year was taken off, because sometimes there’s the danger of getting scared of real life. You start to think, “Oh God, what do I do? Am I supposed to get a job? We should go back on tour. Let’s make a record.” But of course that’s not really a great reason to make a record. I mean, it is a reason. And sometimes to make a living, you do have to do that, but I think it’s good that maybe everybody’s getting past that hurdle of “what do I do now?”
Lonesome Leash. I could read a lot into the symbolism there, but should I?
It came from a Big Ship song, but it had a very different connotation and context then. I guess I just like confusing things—like naming your solo project after a song off your band’s album. But they belong in the same universe. Big Ship’s name actually came from one of the first songs we recorded. We needed something to put on the flier, so I thought that would be a funny name. Band names are funny beasts in general; they sort of exist in this awkward period until they become what they are, then it doesn’t really matter anymore because they come to mean whatever they’re representing. I still find a lot of meanings in it though. The concept of the leash is a funny idea. I prefer that it mean many things, but a leash in its simplest form is something that ties something to something else and by default needs two elements. I guess that’s the lonesome part. Which I don’t really like. It feels kind of silly to be in a solo project that starts out with the word lonesome.
Did it always feel silly? Or has it just grown to feel that way?
Maybe it always has felt silly. Not silly—that’s not exactly the right word. But I sometimes roll my eyes at it. Ultimately, I guess I’m just okay with it.
You have a publicist now. Is this the first time you’ve had that kind of support?
I’ve been with Annie [Okstrowski, of Riot Act Media] for a little while now. We’ve done a few campaigns together and it’s really nice. I used to mistrust everything—and I still do sometimes. But I really had this idea about publicists being evil, because with booking agents they get a percentage, but publicists you just pay them a flat fee and who knows what they’re gonna do? But really, they’re the best. Because while I might not like doing everything, if nothing happens, I will always bemaking records and I will always be going on tour. Whether or not I have a label or a booking agent, those are things that I just need to do and I will do them no matter what. I will never, ever write a press release. It makes me so uncomfortable. Self-promotion is the ugly underside of the DIY aesthetic. If you really wanna do it well, you have to become this self-absorbed thing. Do you really want to go on tour for six months, then come home and write a bunch of emails about yourself and send them to strangers? No. It’s nice to have some separation and a little bit of help with that.
I heard you harbor a love for hip- hop, which is not the first thing I would’ve guessed about you. Do you take any sort of influence from such a disparate genre to your own, or are you simply a fan of the music?
In high school, I was actually in a weird hip-hop group for a second—we were very arty. Our idols were Aesop Rock and El-P. I wasn’t rapping, just so you know. I played saxophone. I appreciate the way some rappers construct their words and the way that some instrumental hip-hop albums’ beats are constructed with their layering. I did think about that when I was writing for Big Ship, with the way the horns are layered on top of each other. But it’s true that I don’t really listen to much music anymore. I feel proud of myself if I get into one album a year and I frankly don’t really know what’s going on most of the time.
But you must have a huge backlog of favorites. I ask people this question a lot and I find it very telling. It’s the desert island top album scenario. Say you get dropped off at your windowless medical experiment room with one record. They won’t play it Clockwork Orange style until you crack or anything, but it’s your only option for a soundtrack. What do you take?
That’s tricky. There are a lot of albums I love, but it’s just cheating if I circle around it and name a lot of things, isn’t it? You could look at it like “what’s a comforting album?” or you could bring something that you don’t understand. Maybe some highly complex modern classical? No, that would be hell. Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music [laughs]. The question itself makes me claustrophobic. I feel like it would destroy any of my favorite records if that was all you had to listen to; inevitably they would get grating. I’d rather have the memory of recorded music. You could sing your favorite songs to yourself, you’d get them wrong and they would change, but you’d miss it, and not grow resentful of the repetition. This coming from someone who doesn’t listen to recorded music much anymore and I’m not actually on a deserted island. I’d probably make some instruments out of coconuts and have fun with that.
Your show here in New Orleans: can we expect any guest appearances by old bandmates, or will this be strictly solo material?
It’ll probably just be the solo material. I’ll be arriving that day, so I probably won’t have a ton of time to work stuff out with anybody. I’m in between a West Coast and European tour right now and I’ve been playing mostly new, unreleased stuff. After I play New Orleans, I’ll be headed up the East Coast to make a new record, which will come out in 2015. So I’m excited about this new material. It’s coming together nicely. I’m learning how to sing, which is fun. Maybe I’ll be singing like a bird by the time I hit New Orleans; right now I’m sort of at the level of a somewhat talented goat who might be dying. One thing I’ve been doing here is practicing a lot. I finally have work space outside of my house, which is really nice.
New Orleans has long been known as a place that grabs people in a unique way. It makes it hard to leave (and sometimes hard to stay), but other than friends, what do you miss the most about New Orleans?
This might sound awful. People ask me if I miss it, and I’ve been saying no. I miss people, but I don’t miss the place. I don’t know if I’m just an anti-nostalgia robot right now, but it’s true. I miss people, but I haven’t been feeling attachment to places. I don’t necessarily feel an attachment to this place that I’m standing in right now, and I don’t miss that place that I once stood. But yes, New Orleans was a very important place for me. I guess I could tell you the night-blooming jasmine. It would be a good answer, but it would also be a lie, because they actually they have that here.
I think that’s healthy. I find that sometimes people leave and have a hard time living their lives for thinking too much of the life they could’ve lived here. It’s good to know there is life on the other side.
Thankfully, there’s life everywhere.
Lonesome Leash opens for O’Death at The BEATnik on Saturday, November 9th. For more information, visit lonesomeleash.com