When The Walker Brothers played the Adelphi Cinema on Dublin’s Middle Abbey Street in 1966 on a double bill with the Troggs, a car containing the young Scott Walker was overturned by exuberant fans. In those days, The Walkers, who were not actual brothers, were as big as the Beatles.
In a subsequent documentary, 30 Century Man, Scott Walker – who died one year ago this week – revealed that this incident played a major part in why he chose to create uncompromising music rather than court fame or celebrity.
I interviewed Scott Walker in May, 2006 for his twelfth studio album, The Drift. This interview was originally published in Foggy Notions magazine.
Scott Walker: “People wanted to buy me lunch, but nobody would finance the picture.”
It’s spellbinding to hear such a familiar voice speaking on the phone from his manager’s home in London, once memorably likened to Tony Bennett on acid, and which famously sung The Sun Won’t Shine Anymore, Take it Easy on Yourself, Jackie, Mathilda, Montague Terrace in Blue, and a host of others.
But wait a second…this is the Scott Walker? The same Scott Walker who doesn’t do interviews? A renowned recluse who releases approximately one avant-garde masterpiece per decade? Maybe it’s all an extravagantly exaggerated myth, because this friendly and impeccably polite guy with an Anglo-American accent doesn’t sound like a recluse.
When Scott Walker broke a lengthy long media silence in the mid-90s, he asked a starstruck journalist if they were hungry. The writer answered in the affirmative, anticipating a tantalising invite to dine with one of the most intriguing enigmas in pop. Walker dug into his pocket and handed him a muesli bar.
Approximately eleven years later, we’re talking about an audacious album called The Drift. Sudden blasts of noise burst out of near silence, a donkey brays, a pork rind is used as a percussive instrument, and Scott sings stark lyrics about “lung-covered corridors” and “six feet of foetus flung at sparrows in the sky”.
The lyrics broach 9/11, Slobodan Milosevic, genocide in Srebrenica, the execution of Benito Mussolini alongside his lover, Clara Petacci, and punching a donkey on the streets of Galway. Advance promotional copies of The Drift format ten sprawling tracks into a single continuous piece of music, forcing the listener to digest his latest magnum opus in its entirety without the option of pressing a skip button.
“Oh, really?” Walker exclaims with audible astonishment. “I honestly didn’t know they did that. Then again, I never know what record companies get up to. It certainly functions as a complete piece, so it’s a good idea. It’s wonderful that 4AD had such faith in this project. You’ve got to have a record company on board that’s going to trust your instinct. Also, when you’re finally finished, hopefully it won’t seem like you’re bringing in the plague with everybody’s face falling towards the ground going, ‘My God, what has he brought in?’ Doing Tilt was a bit like that, but 4AD actually wanted me to bring in something like this.”
Walker’s history with record labels hasn’t always been so harmonious. “I became the Orson Welles of the record industry,” he says. “People wanted to buy me lunch, but nobody would finance the picture, which is exactly what they did with Welles. Steven Spielberg wanted to buy Rosebud, which is the sleigh from the end of Citizen Kane, but he was wasn’t interested in anything else and it was all a bit sad. 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 there, so it became easy. Sure, they’ve a great back catalogue and a good track record, but I’ll be honest with you – all I was thinking was let’s get this done.”
Walker is keen to point out that he has 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. 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 get everything absolutely right.”
Is it a silly music industry diktat that an artist should release an album every couple of years? “Yes,” Walker instantly answers. “But I don’t take any of that into consideration. I’ve stared to work on some new ideas, which I’m hoping to complete 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. 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.”
Is the studio his natural home? “Oh, absolutely,” he replies. “The studio is my domain. It is where I exist. Everything I do is geared towards that. The problem is that my imagination runs away with me. Suddenly, I’ve got something I could never possibly tour. 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. Suddenly, I’m hearing God know what. Mormon tabernacle choirs or whatever.”
Does he 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 just becomes a question of playing it better. The 60s were very different. We did it all live. You had to think on your feet and everything had to be ready because the recording process was very quick.”
On Tilt, Jesse features 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 the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 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.”
One the more puzzling repeated refrains that bursts out of silence is a lyric on Jolson and Jones, “I’ll punch a donkey on the streets of Galway”.
“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.”
When Walker finishes a project he moves on. “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 an introduction. So they’re playing this thing before I came on. 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 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.”
Unsurprisingly, Walker is reluctant to reveal any future plans. “I will always start with a lyric,” he says. “I do whatever the lyrics tell me to do. They might tell me to do an entirely electronic album. Who knows? We’ll just have to see. Actually, I have been thinking about…no, sorry, I better not say any more. It will be bad luck.”
We exchange our pleasantries. Phones are hung up. Scott Walker’s voice has left the building.