It's been seven years since Abandoned Pools -- the one-man act of multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Tommy Walter -- released its last set, "Armed to the Teeth," on Universal Records. Despite being a sublime alternative rock soundtrack of pained, contemplative yearning, the follow-up to 2001's Extasy Records debut, "Humanistic," failed to chart. It was a disappointing setback for Walter after "Humanistic" had peaked on the Heatseekers chart at No. 12 and its moody track "The Remedy" hit No. 27 on the Hot Modern Rock Tracks and No. 35 on the Adult Top 40 charts.
But that doesn't mean Walter, who co-founded indie band eels before forming Abandoned Pools, has been musically inactive this whole time. Primarily, he's been juggling mixing/producing/songwriting projects both as a freelancer and an employee for Rumble Music studio in Venice, Calif. The latter has found him creating TV spots for clients like Target, while on his own he's done producing/mixing/songwriting for such acts as Backstreet Boys, Ryan Tedder and Sara Bareilles.
"[You know that guy who] you shake his hand and then you know everything and everyone he's worked with in about a minute-and-a-half? I'm not that guy," Walter admits with a laugh. "I'd rather people find out on their own."
Walter also busied himself with electro act Oliver the Penguin, releasing a self-titled album, as well as dropping "The Color by Number EP" with indie project Glacier Hiking, both in 2009 on Button Pusher. However, the Abandoned Pools dream never dried up. While Walter dedicated the last 18 months to writing and recording the new album himself, he already had unfinished tracks in the works. The result is "Sublime Currency" (Aug. 28, Tooth & Nail), an undeniably more uptempo and concise package than "Armed to the Teeth." But a softer cut like "Behemoth," for example, is no less intense than its predecessors, and the hard-charging track "9 Billion" shows Walter's still got plenty of angst to exorcise.
Unlike most musicians who dream of giving up their day job, Walter plans to keep his at Rumble. However, he's plenty dedicated to promoting "Sublime Currency." Alternative Press exclusively premiered the title track, CMJ debuted "Behemoth," and Spinner is now onboard with hosting a listening party for the whole album. Watch the "Sublime Currency" video at Baebel. Abandoned Pools will play an official release party on Sept. 15 at Hollywood's the Roxy, followed by a show on Sept. 27 at the Wire in Upland, Calif. Walter wants to do more live dates, but when remains to be seen.
"Ultimately I think we should tour, but I'm a little hesitant to jump in a van with a bunch of guys and go do shows in clubs," Walter says. "I'd rather wait for a solid tour where we make some money, because it's so easy to lose money on tour. I'm just kind of seeing what happens with that."
Why so long since the last Abandoned Pools record?
I initially started my hiatus because I had such a bad experience with Universal Records, which is sort of a typical story. I produced an artist [who] had the exact same experience. I don't think it's really rare where he worked really hard to make a record, they spend some money, to you and to me a significant amount of money, and then you finish it and you're sittin' around ready to go and then nothing happens. For an artist, it's just super disappointing. We're kind of sensitive people. So when you work really hard on something and it falls through like that and it's a disappointing experience, I just felt like I put a lot into that record and I felt like, "I need a break from all this."
I started a couple side projects with varying degrees of success and then I did sort of freelance TV things here and there, some production jobs and mixing jobs. Rumble came along around the end of 2008. It just became making a living at that point out of necessity. Once I was feeling pretty comfortable with everything I just decided to bring this back. Seven years is a long time, but it seems to be working out in terms of being able to deliver something that I feel good about, because I learned a lot about working with other artists.
Your blog mentioned that when you wrote that album you were also going through a hard time.
Yeah, that was sort of a struggle for me at that time. I felt a little lost, wasn't sure about much of anything. It was also kind of on the heels of the first album, which I felt we did really well with, which came out on Extasy through Warner Bros. We had a lot of momentum for that first record, and we were on tour and doing great, and then as we were on tour that label started shutting down. So kind of on the heels of that disappointment too, I think it just kind of compounded itself.
What else can you say about the experience with Universal?
When we finished the album [I was] told, "You gotta get on the road and tour. If you're not on the road touring you're wasting time." And then I go out on the road and tour, and we're actually wasting money because there's nobody behind the album, there's nobody promoting the shows. You go out and do shows to nobody, which is a huge waste of money. Then you start calling the label and they won't take your calls, which I take personally because as far as I knew, we were all friends . . .
I'm not naming any names. I don't need to make any enemies, but the message from the label was that I had quit the project on my own, which was like, "Really? You're blaming me for this?" Which was kind of insult to injury, which was really inaccurate, because I have an email that says, "Hey, if there's a problem and you need to drop me, call me back. We're friends. What is the problem? Why won't you contact me?" To find out from two different sources I was being blamed as the guy that bailed out on it was really upsetting, and I sent a very nicely worded email that I don't want to hear that again . . . There's some excellent people [at the label] and I don't want to paint that broad of a brush, but that was just my experience.
What was the trigger that got you to start making another Abandoned Pools record?
Working with a lot of different artists kind of improved my skills as a mixer and a producer and as an engineer and as a songwriter. It's not like even though I'm calling it a hiatus there were kind of bed tracks floating around, bed tracks meaning everything but vocals floating around that I thought would make good Abandoned Pools tracks, so I had some material kind of percolating. Then my two side projects, which were Glacier Hiking and Oliver the Penguin, I think they both could have been more successful than they were. There were sort of built-in limitations and I felt like, "You know what? I'd really like to get back to the helm of Abandoned Pools where I can be in control of how business is run, how production is run. I want to be the lead singer, I want to take control of the project." So there was all of the motivation to reassert myself into that role.
I'm not a dictator, I'm not very good at being one, I don't wanna be. That's kind of why I work alone, because when I don't work alone I tend to worry about how everyone else is feeling, and I think those sort of motivations can kind of disrupt what I feel is a focused vision for an album.
You played everything but the drums on "Sublime Currency." Doesn't that get tiring?
Yes. It really does. It's really daunting. It is a lot of work, because then on top of that you're producing and mixing and also producing your own vocal. That's one thing I probably would do again is maybe have someone I trust be there for vocal sessions so I can some feedback. It's hard to be objective about your own vocals.
When you were putting the album together, were there certain lyrical themes you were trying to express?
With "Armed to the Teeth" it was kind of a struggle record, it's kind of a lost record a little bit, and there's no real answer. But on this record I feel like I can still acknowledge some struggle, I can still talk about certain issues but I feel there's a general overtone of like overcoming things and getting through things and being happy . . . I don't think I did it on purpose. I think that's just what happened.
Musically, what would you say you were trying to go for?
Like "Humanistic," which kind of jumps around stylistically, this album does too, because there's that track "9 Billion," which is kind of a heavy rock track, which is pretty close to "Behemoth," which is more of a vibe, softer song. But to me I'm always concerned about melody. Regardless of what's going on around it, melody to me is king, because even if you don't understand what I'm saying, you're gong to hear that melody and that's going to affect you somehow. And actually, No. 2, even before lyrics, I would think the harmony, the counterpoint that's going on, because even if you can't understand what I'm saying, you get that support harmonically. Then rhythmically I always try to do something that's not so standard, like something that's a little different-sounding. Those three elements are always in the forefront of my mind of what I'm going for.