Graham Reid | | 15 min read
No one could accuse reclusive songwriter and singer Scott Walker of haste. In the time between Walker's last album Tilt and his latest The Drift in May 2006, film director Peter Jackson delivered The Frighteners, his Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong.
Van Morrison coughed up 11 albums, and Oasis -- despite fraternal bickering, divorces and finding a new line-up -- managed to record four.
In that comparison Walker may seem leisurely, but oddly dependable: The Drift is his third album in as many decades.
He hasn't been entirely indolent however: between Tilt and The Drift he wrote a soundtrack, recorded a song for a Bond movie, wrote two for German chanteuse Ute Lemper, curated the 2000 Meltdown Festival in London, and produced Pulp's 2001 album We Love Life.
But when Walker admits the lyrically impenetrable song Cue on The Drift was started nine years ago you know he doesn't feel any great urgency -- and his albums are not exactly awaited by an eagre audience.
If the brittle and experimental Tilt in '95 defined uneasy listening and sold accordingly, The Drift goes even further into the abyss: it is punctuated by slabs of strings, percussion from a man beating a side of pork, and its imagistic lyrics suffused in death and emotional dislocation are delivered with dramatic theatricality.
As Britain's Mojo magazine observed: "Describing The Drift as 'scary and intense' is like calling 9/11 -- which casts an inevitable shadow over the album -- just another bad day at the office."
Yet despite, and because of, his courageously uncompromising career Walker is revered in the music world he barely inhabits. In 2003 he was honoured for his contribution by the British rock magazine Q -- the only previous recipients producers Phil Spector and Brian Eno -- and that year's five-CD retrospective (amusingly entitled Scott Walker In Five Easy Pieces) came with admiring quotes from David Bowie, Colin Greenwood and Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Tim Finn ("Scott's out there on his own path, albeit a very twisted one"), REM's Peter Buck, and avant-garde saxophonist Evan Parker.
Marc Almond summed up his subject neatly: "There is only one Scott Walker, the rest of us can just watch from the sidelines."
For the 63-year old Walker it has been a long, sometimes tortured, journey to art singer and auteur from his pop star years in the mid 60s when girls screamed at his chiselled looks and others admired his golden baritone in the Walker Brothers.
He doesn't do many interviews so this was a rare one. He answers the phone with a very fruity "hul-loo".
Thank you for your time, I know you do these things reluctantly if at all, so I do appreciate it.
It's fine really, I'm getting settled for the day.
Scott, in that regard do people make more of a fuss about this than you do in the sense that, 'Oh, this is Scott Walker and he's a famous recluse.'? I've always thought that you were less of a recluse than someone who just doesn't do what is expected of people in popular culture: you don't go to clubs, you don't do interviews. That seems perfectly valid to me.
That's more like it. A friend of mine said recently I was low-key and that's more what it is.
We live in a world where there are preconceptions about what artists are supposed to do and one of them is you are supposed to put yourself out in public or go clubbing. I've never thought that should be the case.
Well, I did that back in the 60s but it's a situation that to keep doing that over and over is a waste of time.
I should tell you I saw the Walker Brothers when you came to New Zealand in whenever that was, maybe 1966, and you were with the Yardbirds and Roy Orbison.
That's right. [Laughs] Oh, that's a long time ago.
I wonder if people of my generation are the problem for you because there is the inevitable story that I keep reading, and that is that is that you were in the incredibly popular Walker Brothers and you famously "walked away". Perhaps if you had arrived with the Scott 1 album this whole journey would have been easier to understand, you wouldn't have had that baggage of being the pop star and arrived with art music.
That's right and I'm certain it would have been easier. But there we are, they weren't the cards that were dealt. It's simplistic also to say that I walked away which wasn't the case, the first one to leave the group was John [Maus] but it doesn't matter.
Yet that part of your life comes out in that shorthand however, every time. If you'd arrived later your music would have been accessible to people who listen for example to Ute Lemper rather than the Arctic Monkeys -- or even the Walker Brothers.
[Laughs] Yeah, I think I arrived a little early.
Do you have any regrets about that period?
I actually don't. I kind of regretted the last stages of it, only because we went into that rock star mode of not speaking to each other on the last tour, and that went on a bit too long. But it doesn't keep me awake at night.
I'm given to understand -- and I'm obliged to work with the cliches of this business -- that when you first heard Jacques Brel, played to you by a German woman who worked at a Playboy Club, that there was something in that music that grabbed you immediately as being quite different from anything that you had heard previously.
Yes. I had been writing these - at that time -- very strange songs for B-sides for the Walker Brothers because our manager wanted to get the publishing, and I was the only one who wrote at all. So I started writing and basically I hit a wall because I was out there on my own. So when I heard [Brel] I realised there were these other people out there doing something like it, and they were making it pay in a sense by working, in France. So they -- Brel, Ferre and all of them -- became the big influences for me.
Was there something also in the fact that Brel was an outsider -- born in Belgium but his success was in France, he went to the South Seas and so on. Did you feel to some extent that you too were an exile from maybe America, or the pop business of the day?
I didn't know that history about him at that time so I couldn't possibly make that connection. Actually I don't think I was feeling exiled at all during that time, we'd always been warmly welcomed here [in London] and I felt more at home here. So I never had that. The exile thing is within yourself and that's a personal thing and you have that everywhere you are.
You had a European sensibility though.
Yes, when I was in America and discovered European art film that really clinched things for me. That's part of the reason, if not the main reason, I wanted to get to Europe in the first place. The others had their reasons, I can't remember what they were, but that was the driving force for me. It's strange, even as a child when I watched television I'd be taken when they'd show old British films or I'd see a Cocteau film, dubbed of course. Everything was chiaroscuro. The closest the Americans had was film-noir but it didn't have that dreamlike thing which always fascinated me as a child.
There is a dreamlike quality which has been quite consistent in your music too, what we might describe as an altered state?
Yes, I think so.
I hear from New Yorkers a European sensibility, but you grew up on the West Coast.
That's right. It was very, very strange because I was surrounded by surfers. I wasn't a surfer but it was that kind of culture -- so that was very odd.
Have you felt a sense of the outsider nature, particularly when you went into your solo career and things didn't go quite as well as you hoped.
I think so. According to the guys in the group I changed at some point dramatically and a lot of it had to do with the fact there was a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, because I was producing the records as well with John Franz. I was bringing the material in and I was also the focus of the group, so I think I withdrew at some stage and never came back again. I started to see the world in a different way.
I don't like pop stars who complain about their success, so I don't mean that. It was just that after a while if you are a certain kind of person it does start to get to you and it got to me.
A lack of personal space?
Yeah, all of that. And everywhere you turned you'd hit this wall. It was thrilling at the beginning but after a while you have to think, 'I've got to come up this album then I've got sing this and I've got to keep this success rate up' and after a while I thought, 'Uh-uh, I've just got to make the record I want to make'.
And you did, but in retrospect the commercial failure of Scott 4, was that the end of something or the beginning of complete break. I know some of what happened subsequently -- musically I mean -- was not to your satisfaction, but did it in retrospect allow you the opportunity to become somebody different again?
No. It's very complicated. But after that album didn't do the business it should have done I was carpeted by the record company and was told we had to do something more commercial. My friend John Franz took me aside -- we were right in the middle of starting this album which was a mishmash because we didn't know exactly where we were going with it -- and he said, 'Let's finish this, but we have to try to do something different, and if we do that we can come back to what we were doing before'. I went into some kind of despair mode at that point and started drinking very heavily, more than I did normally, and that went on for a long time, and it didn't stop until [the Walker Brothers] did Nite Flights.
That was the end of the contract record really because the record company was going to close. So we got together and made the album we wanted to make because it was all folding anyway. And that reignited everything for me. Then I thought I wasnt ever going back, I was going to keep going forward.
But it was a long haul because after that it reached the point I'd had a decade of hiatus and nobody knew where I was coming from. Everybody wants demos and I don't do demos, so that didn't help me to find record companies that would take you on trust.
You've never made a demo?
No. I've never made a demo. If you think about it, you couldn't make a demo of my last two records. How would you start? So [record companies] have to take you on trust and that's the course I've been on, and that would carry on for a long time while people sat and thought whether they were going to do it or not.
People always comment on the long gap between your albums but I am sure the answer is, 'Why hurry of you don't have to?'
That's right, and of course there are all sorts of extenuating circumstances at different times. It doesn't take a decade to write an album like the one I've just written. It takes a long time, but not a decade. But over that decade I have been doing other projects as well, and negotiating each time with each change of regime at Universal whenever they change, and the record business turns over so quickly that people you knew were in a job today are not in it tomorrow. So there would be she loves me-she loves me not.
Some people did and some didn't, but the final one spoke to us and was very enthusiastic and you could see marketing all over his eyes. He said if I could just get with a great producer and get the right songs and everything.
But my manager said, 'Before we go into this, have you heard Tilt?' and the guy said, 'No problem, I'm sure it's fine'. So he went back and heard it and the next meeting my manager had with him the guy's face was drained, just ashen, and said there was no way they could do this. 'If he's willing to take a producer on board and get some decent material' and all that kind of stuff . . . So we just walked away.
That process for instance can take a couple of years to sort out. So if you pile that on top of all the other projects and everything else the hiatus is understandable.
It's not like you haven't been doing anything, and of course you have a private life that you have to live.
Can I throw this one at you: you still have cult status and the admiration of your peers is one thing, but financially? Does this pay the bills?
I'm okay. I'm not fabulously rich but I'm surviving.
Which means you don't have to rush into things?
I do have to make money, but I'm very good at pacing myself in that respect. So I'm okay.
I mentioned the admiration of your peers but the subtitle of that Julian Cope album was 'the godlike genius of Scott Walker'. Did that actually make your life difficult, because it seems an appalling expectation to have to live up to.
It does, because in their minds you now have to make something superhuman. But in my life I can't let that affect me because it would affect my work, so I have to put things like that out of my mind.
Let's talk about your work and the current album. I have seen you refer to the 'shaved down' arrangements, a phrase I really like, and you seem to have abandoned melodic arrangements for textural and sonic effect. What has pulled you in that direction?
There is just so far you can go in a sense with that whole thing. What really dictates everything is I work a long time on the lyrics, if I get the lyric right then it will inform everything else, all the noises I make and everything. If I had written a lyric which needed a big romantic string section then I would have used that, so it's simply listening to what the material is telling me to do. But there was no point in this record which called for anything of that. It calls for something more unique than that.
I've heard recently Thom Yorke from Radiohead whom I know saying, 'If I could do without harmony of any kind I would do it, I'd just use rhythm'. In a sense I know what he means because I have done that, almost literally. You don't know why you have to at that point, but you have to do that to make those kinds of records. Maybe down the line another one of the other kind of records will come to you, I don't know.
On this record the way you use your voice is dark and dramatic, very theatrical. I'm thinking of Clara for example, a very theatrical piece which would seem to demand exactly the kind of arrangement you have put with it.
There is just no other way you can think about it. Even if you got a little bit romantic it might have become a little bit sentimental, and you have to avoid those things. The lyric will be dictating that all the time.
You're not a sentimentalist at all by nature these days?
Some of the lyrics in Cossacks Are for example are not cut-up but seem like appropriated phrases, "a rare outcry makes you lead a larger life" which you put on the lyric sheet in quotes. These have come from other sources which you have found?
Some of them have, and some of them I've cribbed out of reviews or something that I've read in the Sunday papers. And some of them are original, that's a bad word, but you know what I mean.
There's something in the metre of those phrases which attracts you?
Yes, because many of them can be read as backhanded compliments which is kind of, kind of, the idea I was driving at.
Some people might say your work is almost wilfully obscure. Is that fair or is it just that you are working with imagistic language that people are not familiar with.
Believe me it isn't at all wilful, it is something that takes a long time -- I'm not talking about the final product -- to get the lyric right to listen to what the material is telling you to do. It's a very mysterious process. I would be the first person to avoid . . . I would never use a cheap effect for the sake of it. I hate that in art and I hate it in everything else. I use what I use because that is what is appropriate for whatever it is. That's why it takes time, you have to wait for those things to happen.
And we live in a world of instant gratification so if people don't get it immediately they are not prepared to spend any time with these things.
Which is what I was suggesting at the outset: in popular culture it is very much 'we want it and we want it now' whereas in art music people will take the time because they expect that they would have to take time.
So when you are writing and you have the phrases, will you change the words in the studio or are you going in with those . . .
I would never -- well, I say never but I haven't to this point -- ever changed anything in the studio lyric wise, or melody wise really. Because it has just taken so long. If I work a song, and sometimes I work it over sometimes years, but I'll also leave to ferment -- so when you go back to it, if it's still singing and sounding right, then it is correct. So that's all part of what that is.
There are nuances of politics throughout. Jesse interests me immensely the notion of twins: Elvis talking to his dead twin, the link with the Twin Towers. How did the idea come together? Elvis talking to his dead brother then the notion of death and the Twin Towers.
It was the reverse actually. I was looking for a link which was going to connect all that together. One day, months down the line that idea [of Elvis] came to me. You have to wait for ideas like that, you know what I mean. Sometimes they'll come fast but if you are prepared to put in the time you'll get something like that.
Okay, as someone out here in your audience, how much time am I going to have to put into Cue, because I don't get it.
[Laughs] Cue is the one that I can't talk about really. I can't talk about a lot of them really because I don't want to deconstruct all this stuff, because that's why I constructed all this stuff in the first place. Why would I want to do it? [Laughs]
That was the one that took the longest time. It started as one thing then became a personal song in the sense of Self, not ego-self or knowable-self but in the way of whatever the Self is. It's a very, very difficult song and I just hope that when people look at it they see that it has the rhythm in the lyric and the rhythm otherwise that will carry it along, because it was really tough.
But what I also say is, if you interpret the song that's fine. I like whoever the audience is to interpret my songs because maybe nine times out of ten they've got a better interpretation than I do, and that's important as well because then they become a part of it.
Your lyrics are so refined that there is so much space within and between them that it's almost inevitable people are going to fill those gaps for themselves.
And that's a good thing?
A good thing. A good thing.
Finally, I know you have to do promotional work at the moment but I know also you aren't going out on tour, are you working on anything in particular now, or are you taking a break because this is over?
I'm taking a little break and then I'm starting another record and hopefully do something I can go out and tour with because I couldn't do it with the last two, because they are too epic and financially it is impossible. I always start optimistically, but then my imagination takes over and suddenly the whole string sections are in! [Laughs]
I'll try to keep my imagination on a lead for the next one.