“There is only one Scott Walker, the rest of us can just watch from the sidelines.” – Marc Almond
When The Walker Brothers played the old Adelphi Cinema on Dublin’s Middle Abbey Street in 1966 with the Troggs, a car containing the young Scott Walker was overturned by fans. The Walkers were as big as the Beatles in those days. In a subsequent documentary, Scott revealed this frightening incident played a major part in his decision to shun the spotlight.
Tomorrow sees the release of Scott Walker’s soundtrack album for The Childhood of a Leader, a critically acclaimed dramatisation of the early years of a fascist dictator. I interviewed Scott Walker in May, 2006 for his twelfth studio album, The Drift – which features songs about Benito Mussolini, 9/11, Slobodan Milosevic and genocide in Srebrenica. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only Irish interview Scott has ever done. It was originally published in Foggy Notions magazine.
It’s spellbinding to hear that rich voice speaking down the phone line; the holder of the same vocal chords that sung “The Sun Won’t Shine Anymore”, “Take it Easy on Yourself”, “Jackie”, “Mathilda”, “Montague Terrace in Blue”, and a whole treasure chest of melodramatic classics from the sixties and seventies that were memorably likened to Tony Bennett on acid.
But wait a second…this is the Scott Walker? The same Scott Walker who doesn’t do interviews? The renowned recluse who releases on average one utterly unconventional avant-garde masterpiece a decade? I think I better stop drinking coffee, sit down and try to relax.
Perhaps it’s all an extravagantly exaggerated myth, as this friendly guy with an Anglo-American accent doesn’t sound like a shy recluse. He once laughed off the tag by stating that he is simply “low key’, while acknowledging that people who are certifiably insane usually claim the opposite. He also said, “I’m not interested in normality at all. That’s boring.”
Scott jokingly claimed to have idled away years watching people play darts in pubs. Indeed, his friend Richard Hawley confirmed Walker’s love of a game of darts and a pint of Guinness in the last edition of Foggy Notions. He also has a reputation for being hilarious in his own initable way. When Scott broke a long media silence in the mid-nineties with the release his dark and powerful album Tilt, he asked a starstruck journalist at the beginning of an interview if he was hungry. The writer said he was, anticipating an invite to dine out with one of the most intriguing enigmas in pop. Walker reached into his pocket and handed him a muesli bar.
“As I’ve gone on, I want everything to be clear and heard without any emotional distraction. A lot of emotion can be absolute bullshit, you know, lying to yourself too.” – Scott Walker
Approximately eleven years later, we’re talking about The Drift; a boldly uncompromising album that makes Tilt sound as experimental as Coldplay. My first encounter with The Drift was easily one of the most perplexing listening experiences I’ve ever had with any piece of recorded music. It’s a dazzling experience; sudden blasts of noise burst out of near silence, donkeys bray, a pork rind is used as instrument and Scott sings stark lyrics about “lung-covered corridors” and “six feet of foetus flung at sparrows in the sky”.
The songs themselves broach the weighty topics of 9/11, Slobodan Milosevic, genocide in Srebrenica and the execution of Benito Mussolini alongside his lover Clara Petacci. At the end of ‘The Escape’, Walker sinisterly howls “What’s up Doc?” in a demented wail closer in spirit to The Exorcist than Daffy Duck. What’s more, advance promotional copies of The Drift compressed ten sprawling tracks into a single continuous piece of music, forcing the listener to attempt to digest his latest magnum opus in its entirity without pressing the skip button.
“Oh, really?” Scott exclaims with audible astonishment. “I didn’t know they did that, but then again I never really know what record companies are getting up to. It certainly functions as a complete piece, so that’s definitely a good idea. It’s wonderful that they had such faith in this project because I don’t make demos. It would be impossible to demo what I do, at least these days anyway. So, you’ve got to have a record company on board that’s going to trust your instinct and will go along with all the stuff you’re going to do. Also, when you’re finally finished, hopefully it won’t be like you’re bringing in the plague or something with everybody’s face falling towards the ground going, “My God, what’s he brought in?” Doing Tilt was a little bit like that, but 4AD actually wanted me to bring in something like this.”
Scott’s history with record labels hasn’t always been as harmonious. He once memorably quipped, “I’ve become the Orson Welles of the record industry. People want to buy me lunch, but nobody will finance the picture.
“It’s so true,” he sighs. “They did that with Welles. Spielberg even wanted to buy Rosebud, which is the sleigh from the end of Citizen Kane, but aside from that and a few anecdotes, he was wasn’t interested in anything else. It was all a bit sad. But 4AD were the first company my manager spoke to. We were starting to think, “Who can we go to with this?” He happened to know someone in there so it became easy. Sure, they’ve a good back catalogue and track record, but I’ll be honest with you – all I was thinking was let’s get this done.”
“Surrender to Walker’s lyrics and his extreme sense of arrangement, and you leave the world of the mundane.” – Sasha Frere Jones
In a forthcoming documentary feature film entitled 30 Century Man directed by Steve Kijack and produced by David Bowie, Brian Eno says of Walker, “As far as I’m concerned, he really should be recognised as not just one of our great composers, but one of our great poets as well.” Indeed, reading the lavish lyrics booklet and letting it soak in is as moving as the startling music itself.
“I always take a long time getting a lyric right because if I get the lyric right it informs everything else I do,” Walker begins. “It’s like getting a good film script. If you get a good film script, chances are you’ll get a good film and that’s why I take a particularly long time working on lyrics. I find it a mysterious process, because a lyric will tell me – “Yes.” “No.” “Yes.” “No.” “Don’t use that! You must use this.” I use the right connection with whatever the word or lyric is at any particular time. It’s really a long waiting game. You’ve got to be patient and it can drive you mad, but suddenly it’ll happen and you’ll say, “Ah, that’s what it is. It’s a side of pork!” That’s the juxtaposition. Or the woman singing the lovely melody on “Clara”. It’s just a lot of Eureka moments and you’ve just got to wait for them.”
Waiting…that’s certainly an apt word for Walker’s creative process. Although he is keen to point out that he is done a lot more in the intervening years than he is often accredited for. “During the first decade, I had a lot of other things going on,” he explains. “I was working a soundtrack, curating Meltdown and producing Pulp. I started to think about “Clara” about eight years ago. I started on it and left it for a year. Then I did a bit more and waited until the next piece fitted. If I was to condense the time taken on The Drift, I would say it took between four and five years to do it and to get everything absolutely right.”
Is it just another hubristic notion of the music industry to dictate to an artist that they should release an album every two or three years? “Yes,” he responds. “But I don’t take any of that into consideration. I’ve stared to work on some new ideas and I’m hoping to complete them within a couple of years. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case recently because I like to let the songs ferment. I let them ferment for a while and then I’ll go back and check on them after six months or a year later. If they’re still sounding good, then I’m pretty sure they’re going to work.”
The Drift is lyrically dark, febrile, sparse and minimal. “There aren’t a lot of arrangements,” he agrees. “There are big columns of sound and other noises but there aren’t any standard arrangements. This is getting into a dangerous area, but it’s almost a way of trying to get rid of music in a sense, or maybe hearing it in another way. Again, the lyric is telling you that. I mean, if I wrote a very romantic song, I’d use a romantic string section or arrangement, but this didn’t call for it. The “Clara” song has romantic elements; it’s a fascist love song, but it’s not a pure love song in the standard clichéd sense of the word. It’s a minefield. You’re just trying to get through and find out what this thing is. Finally, the lyric will come through and tell you. I see my lyrics as my soldiers in the field. I set them out and whoever works on designing the sleeve takes care of that. I gave them a brief description and off they went. It was the one thing I really wanted to leave out of my hands because everything else was far too much firmly in my hands.”
“Jesse” has an astonishing and haunting metaphor from a little known snippet of American mythology. It is reputed that Elvis Presley had a still-born twin called Jesse. Walker’s song about one of the defining moments of this young century; the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, with is also entitled “Jesse”. It pictures the King trying to come to grips with these events in an imaginary conversation with his twin in the Memphis moonlight.
“The idea for that one came shortly after (9/11),” Walker reveals. “Some people rushed something out. I think that approach was questionable, but in literature a lot of people said they really needed time to digest the enormity of what had happened. From my point of view, I’d been thinking about it a lot. Suddenly, this idea popped into my head. I was very lucky and I almost had it right away. I begun working on it a couple of months afterwards. The whole process carried on for a while, but I got the basic core of the idea back then. On the day itself, I was in Cyprus. We all remember. I have a nightmarish imagination and I’ve always had very bad dreams throughout my life. Everything in my world is big. I hear the phenomenon of the words coming out of silence.”
“At an award ceremony a couple of years ago they presented me with an award and they played some music as my introduction. So they’re playing this thing before I came on and I asked, ‘What the hell is that?’ ‘Oh, that’s from Tilt.” I‘d totally forgotten about it.”
One the more puzzling repeated refrains bursting out of silence is “I’ll punch a donkey on the streets of Galway” on “Jolson and Jones”. “There are a few songs on the record that I really don’t like talking too much about,” Scott cautions. “I’m afraid that happens to be one of them. I like to leave a lot of stuff to people’s imagination and allow them to unlock it for themselves because nine times out of ten, their interpretation will be far better than mine. I’d like to keep that one under wraps for a while if you don’t mind, even though you’re Irish. But just to give you a little bit of background -“Jolson and Jones” refers to Allen Jones, the father of Jack Jones who was a matinée tenor and had a huge hit in the thirties or forties with a song called ‘Donkey Serenade’. There are a couple of quotes from that in there as well, so there are a few donkey things going on. If you want to see what he looked like, he plays the romantic lead in the Marx Brothers Night at the Opera movie.”
While a generation of Walker Brothers’ fans are mystified by his recent output, a lot of younger fans and musicians experienced a Scott initiation with Tilt. “It’s very interesting,” he agrees. “I curated a festival over here called Meltdown and I brought some American artists over such as Bill Callahan from Smog and Elliot Smith. Because I’m not that well-known in America, these guys hadn’t heard of me until Tilt, so they were coming over strictly on the back of that. When someone asked Callahan if he’d heard my first album, he said, “No. But I’m sure it couldn’t be any better than what he is doing now.”
Bill Callahan is not alone. 30 Century Man sees a stellar cast of musical luminaries queue up to pay their respects including David Bowie, Radiohead, Jarvis Cocker, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Neil Hannon, Marc Almond, Alison Goldfrapp, Sting, Dot Allison, Richard Hawley and Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins.
30 Century Man will be premiered at the London Film Festival at the end of October and then tour various international film festivals in 2007. “I hear it’s good but I’m as in the dark as everybody else because I wasn’t directly involved with the production side of things,” Scott says. “I just did an interview and they came into the studio for a day when we were tracking something. There weren’t there right in the heat of things. I’ve no idea what it’s going to be like, so I’ll be as surprised as anyone. I find these things can go either way. There have been quite a few people over the years who’ve wanted to do a film, but my manager felt this guy was potentially good. I try not to think about it because it can spook you. I would never do anything if I believed everything that was said about me. I’d be too terrified to make anything.”
Despite being documented in celluloid and being the subject of several books, Walker, like fellow “low key” artist Kate Bush, hasn’t toured since the late seventies. Somehow, it’s almost impossible to imagine The Drift ever being performed live. “It’s very interesting you should say that because a guy in charge of a big theatre here in London just called my manager,” Scott says. “He wants to put it on as a theatrical event, but without me singing of course, because I don’t do live. He feels the songs are mini-theatrical pieces that would lend themselves to being presented in that format. Perhaps they could be put on with some of my other stuff with a proper orchestra and everything else it may entail. It sure would be a massive overtaking for him to do and it’s a quite ambitious idea, but I’m going to talk to him next week. If he is still crazy enough to want to do it, then we’ll see if he can pull it off. I can see what he means though, and I certainly can see the opportunity. It could be interesting, but it would have to be very carefully executed.”
Does Walker regard the studio as his natural home? “Oh, absolutely,” he replies. “The studio is my domain and where I exist. Everything I do is geared towards that. The problem is that my imagination runs away with me and suddenly I’ve got something you can never possibly tour with. It would just be completely impossible and no one would make any money. Of course, nobody will be interested in that if they’re a promoter. Every time I start thinking about an album I say to myself, “I’ve really got to keep this down and do something I can actually go out with.” But then my imagination takes over and suddenly I’m hearing God know what – Mormon tabernacle choirs or whatever. But we’ll see what happens.“
Tilt puzzled the hell out of people at the time, but it’s become appraised as a career high alongside Scott 4. However, Scott doesn’t really look back. “I never listen to my albums when they’re finished,” he reveals. “I don’t own any of my albums. I haven’t heard any of them in a long time. At an award ceremony a couple of years ago they presented me with an award and played some music as my introduction. So they’re playing this thing before I came on and I asked, ‘What the hell is that?’ ‘Oh, that’s from Tilt.” I‘d totally forgotten about it. You see, I work so long on the bloody things – singing and arranging and mixing and whatever else, that the last thing I want to do is to sit down and listen to it. I’d rather just put it out and let other people get into it and move on to the next thing.”
For the last twenty-five years, Scott’s chief collaborator and producer has been Peter Walsh whom he hired on hearing New Gold Dream by Simple Minds. “I’ve been working with him for over twenty-five years on a lot of different projects,” Scott says. “It’s great because we’re not really shocked by what we want to do, even though we do some shocking things. It’s like having someone like-minded on board. We try to improve the sound every time. We try to get it sounding like our world. I think we’re getting closer all the time. We might have one more to go before we get it absolutely right, but we’re getting closer.”
Does Walker write on the studio floor? “Everything is pretty much ready by the time I get in there,” he answers. “I’ve been working with the players for years. Everything is either in my head, or I’ve made a blueprint of it on my keyboard, so by the time we get in there it’s all set and it just becomes a question of playing it better. Somebody might play something fantastic and we’ll go, “God that sounds great – let’s have that!” The sixties was different. We did it all live. You really had to think on your feet and everything had to be ready. You didn’t have the time and the recording process had to be quick. Between mixing and everything else, this album took about a month, or maybe a little over. Sometimes we’d only have two days a month to work on it because the musicians wouldn’t be available, or they’ll be off on tour or whatever, so that nearly drove us all crazy. But I think you can hear the stress on the record, which is good.”
For Scott, the stress of making a record begins with the lyrics. “I like it when the lyrics finally work but I hate doing it,” he says. “It’s just so maddening. I don’t think there is anything harder than writing a song. It’s really difficult for me and I know Nick Cave has said that as well. It comes out of nothing and you’ve just got to be ready to address it. However, it’s an amazing process because it comes out of nothing. I suppose a painter can have a similar effect using a brush stroke or a certain colour.”
Given the poetic qualities of his work, has he ever been tempted to dabble in poetry? “It’s always on my mind and I do a little on the side,” he replies. “It’s so different from doing songs though. I suppose it’s similar for someone like Leonard Cohen, but they’re not the same thing and poetry is a much looser form. Songs have got to be singable. It’s a very different process. I think it’s a lot harder than writing poetry.”
Scott is reluctant to set any future plans in stone. However, retirement isn’t an option yet, as he intends to follow his muse on whatever path it may demand.
“Again, I always start with the lyric,” he says. “I’ll do whatever the lyric tells me to do. This process seems to work best for me. But the lyrics mightn’t tell me that this time around and I might get into a whole different mode. It could be a totally electronic album. Who knows? We’ll just have to see. I’ve been thinking…no, sorry, I better not say. It’ll be bad luck.”
We exchange our pleasantries. Phones are hung up. Scott Walker’s voice has left the building.
“I suppose I’m doing it for myself . . . hoping to reach a lot of other me’s.”