By Mark Guarino
Most teen idols grow up, get fat and find Jesus behind bars. Scott Walker became a cult star. When the Beatles invaded America, the Californian went to the UK and stole their audience. Sparked by his ethereal voice, the Walker Brothers packaged melodrama and romanticism in a package that shot them to fame, earning Top Ten hits, legions of fans but anonymity back home. In the years that followed, Walker entered a period of personal destruction and artistic deconstruction. His music incorporated strange song structures, elaborate strings, impressionistic lyrics and a heavy dose of existential woe, earning him admirers ranging from Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and David Bowie to Ute Lemper and Jarvis Cocker. Leaving stardom at the curb, he continues to live a career doing only what he wants, which means meticulously transcribing the sounds he hears in his head to music that defies classification.
Walker spoke from London about his career and first album in 11 years, The Drift.
You’ve written about fascism before and on this album, a few familiar dictators like Mussolini and Milosevic pop up.
Scott Walker: I don’t like out-and-out protest songs, people sort of strumming and shouting in my face about things. If I am going to want to write about those things, I want to sneak up on it. And that’s basically something that I’ve done with those ideas. Something like “Clara” is a fascist love song. But it’s just to get people talking again … or they might forget about it.
Many of the new tracks sound more like miniature radio plays than actual songs.
It’s difficult to know what they are anymore. I still regard them as songs but I don’t think of particular structures anymore when I’m writing. I just let them unfold, really. The basis of my work over the last at least three records has been the lyric, the words. That’s why it takes so long for me to get it. Because if I get that, it will inform everything else I do. It’s like a good movie script. If you get the script right you’ll have a good movie. If you don’t, nine out of ten times the movie is crap. So that’s why I work very hard to get that. So of course it informs all the sounds I use. This album is quite pared down really. Every single sound on it is pertinent to the lyric. Nothing is wasted. There’s no one strumming away just for the sake of it.
How do you get to that point where there’s so much space?
You just come to the point where you don’t need anymore. I’ve always wanted to do that in my work. You reach point in my work where you find the absolute thing you need for that sentence. And if you try to put other things with it, you realize it’s not working, so you get rid of them. So it’s question of throwing things away, basically.
I imagine most music to you sounds incredibly cluttered.
More and more. But it depends what it is. I’m probably not making that kind of music. That kind of music might call for it. It depends on what it is.
In your song “Jesse,” you make reference to the stillborn twin brother of Elvis Presley, a fact about the King not many people know about.
It’s my Sept. 11 song. I was looking for a metaphor for the Twin Towers and American hubris — far as big buildings are concerned, skyscrapers. It’s about might and power. (That kind of power) doesn’t have any authentic reflective quality. And the same thing goes for Elvis, another myth. He’s not able to see his brother, his brother was dead, basically. So he has no positive reflection. That’s how I married the two of those together. And then of course, it veers off to the prairie, which is more mythology. So you get a vertical image with a horizontal image in the end.
Talk about freaking out the RV crowd at Graceland. You write lyrics and then the next step is music. How do you find what you need?
You just have to sit and wait. To me, it’s a big waiting game. I try not to use synthesizers because synthesizers these days are like CGI. There’s nothing more you can do with it that can amaze people. People who are watching CGI can see it’s a great battle scene but so what?
So everything you do is a reaction against convention.
I’m trying not to move into cliché. It’s getting harder and harder. I want to use (sounds) that a musician can actually generate.
I imagine it’s difficult because we live in a world of clichés.
That’s right. And all these instruments carry it with them. The guitar carries a whole background of clichés now. So it’s difficult to find a way to use it in a very interesting way anymore.
You voice is so haunting on this album, mostly because you sing in a very high register. Why go there?
Once again I think it’s a question of the material dictating even that. On this record … the style has to be vertiginous so you have an on edge quality. Because there are a lot of low sounds and extremely high sounds, I had to place the voice in the middle more than I have before. Simply because the lyric is dictating that again. It might be different on the next record, it might go back down again. I didn’t want anyone drowning in baritone because to some sense, it’s a distraction. People start getting carried away with the sound and miss what is going on.
Do you listen to music like this yourself?
I don’t listen to a lot of vocal music anymore. I find it difficult. Because I’m always aware, especially now when we’re talking of clichés, that even soul singers or even a lot of indie singers as well, fall into cliché. There’s too much manipulation involved. So it’s hard for me to do that. So If I’m going to listen to something, I might listen to instrumental music. I don’t listen to much anymore. I know what’s in the air, we have a lot of new bands here like the Arctic Monkeys.
Your music becomes so stripped, the only thing left is your naked voice.
In the end, it boils down to the self. The bare self, I’m not talking about the ego self. So I like to leave the end of the song with that. It’s really come down to the issue where I’m just bare here. As all of us are.
You moved to the UK when you were 22 at the height of the British Invasion in the U.S. You reversed that and created a mini-U.S. invasion in London.
There were various reasons. The army was chasing us. The other thing was I’d become enthralled with European culture, the cinema culture in particular. I’d been going to a lot of European cinema and stuff like that. I was anxious to see it. And this was going to be my opportunity. And when I got over here, of course everyone wanted to talk about American films. So that was my reason for coming here initially. I lived in Scandinavia for while and when I went there I thought, “at last, I can talk about (Ingmar) Bergman and (Carl Theodor) Dreyer.” And when I got over there it was the same thing, everyone want to talk about Woody Allen or something (laughs). We were probably the first band in the States to do the Beatles haircut so we were kind of into that. So part of it was fashion.
Yet you stayed in Europe. Did you ever want to return?
Now and then I’ll awake in the night and I’ll have been dreaming about the American desert. I will get those vivid flashbacks. It’s a very interesting thing. Basically I’m said to make more European-sounding records than the Europeans now. That’s basically one of the things that keep me here. It’s my noise. I’ll tell you a story. A cousin of mine went into Tower Records in L.A. looking for one of my records. She went up to the guy and said, “I’m looking for Scott Walker.” He called his assistant and asked, “do we have any Scott Walker records?” and the guy said, “oh yeah, he’s the English singer, he’s in the international section.” That sums things up.
Yet you can’t escape American culture, especially in the age of global marketing.
When I came here, I had been watching British comedies. I had seen people like Terry Thomas and Margaret Rutherford and all these fantastic English comics. And when I got off the plane, there were people around like that! There were these amazing eccentric people. Nowadays they’ve disappeared into the woodwork because everything has been blanded out. That’s partly because of American culture as well as Europeans going that way. All their characters have been ironed out.
Can we expect you playing these new songs live?
No, no, no. Because the problem with these records is that they’re on such a scale … they’re prohibitive to do financially. If you did it for one night, the pressure would be so difficult for the musicians, including myself, I think we’d all have a breakdown. What I’m trying to do now is I’m trying to write a record that’s on a smaller scale that I can actually do some gigs with. Something more realistic. But it would only be stuff from that particular record.
You have so many admirers, both peers like David Bowie and younger guns like Jarvis Cocker, it seems natural that you would have opportunities to collaborate.
There haven’t many people who have wanted to collaborate with me. People speak of my influence but not many people want to actually get into a studio with me. I’m not a real collaborative kind of guy, too. I kind of put out that vibe anyway. I think people get that. It’s not that I object to it for other people but I can’t imagine myself doing it. I can’t see it in my mind how that would happen.
Was it your teen idol period that taught you the grim realities of being a pop music product?
For the first initial couple of years it was fantastic. And I don’t like people in the business who bitch about their good fortune. But things do change. You find out suddenly that you’re not enjoying it so much. That happened to a lot of groups. Bickering with other groups and they do childish things. That happens when you’re young.
How bad did it get?
We wound up on the last tour not speaking and having separate road managers. It was totally ridiculous.
It’s interesting that now a lot of your peers from the 1960s are playing late career cash-grab tours that capitalize on that time.
I don’t quite understand it. I think music should move on. I’m still surprised now that people are doing that especially when you have bands like Radiohead. I’m shocked at other bands that are still chugging away in Beatles mode. I’m not a good person to ask about nostalgia. Because to me I don’t understand it.
Once the Walker Brothers broke up, you hosted a TV show in the 1970s.
I had a television show on BBC2.
Was that transition period between the pop fluff and now?
That was the worst period. That was the period of heavy drinking and stuff like that. What had happened was, I had gotten to my fourth record (Scott 4) over at Phillips. I wanted to go on but the record didn’t sell that well. And now of course it’s considered my best records. Basically, they said to me: “look you have to start making some more mainstream stuff.” I felt, okay fine. I don’t know why I did it. It was a period of terrible faith. I really went off the deep end. And I made a lot of crap records. I was just churning them out to complete contracts. So one day I woke up and didn’t do it anymore. But it was a bad period … I didn’t dig my way out until I made an album with the Brothers again called Night Flight. I don’t blame anyone else.
French chanson singer Jacques Brel was the one who set you on a different course.
Absolutely. He totally changed my life. Our group had split up and everybody was going to record solo albums. And I was really looking for something, something that I could identify with. Because I had been a big European film buff for years. One night I went to the Playboy club we were drinking tons as usual. We picked up a couple of bunnies, basically. We went back to her place and we were drinking schnapps. And she said, “you have to hear this guy” and she put him on. And my French wasn’t that good so she started to translate it for me. And this, this is amazing, this is absolute fortune: A week or so later I went up to see Andrew Oldham, he used to manage the Stones. I used to drink black Russians with him and talk. And I said, “I heard this amazing guy,” and he said, “it’s funny you should say that because last week someone sent me a demo of his translations in English.” And he put this scratchy old thing on, just this guy and a piano. And I said, “I’ll have it.” And I had the key to my first album and it totally changed my life. It informed my writing tremendously in the beginning. Not so much now.
So the moral is, it pays off to hang with Playboy bunnies.
It was this one German girl. I never saw her again, funnily enough. To go into something like that and come out with something like I got is a very weird thing. (laughs)