The latest album by Scott Walker pushes his artistic project further out into uncharted sonic territory, incorporating the sounds of clashing machetes, ram’s horns, and a chorus of farts. In a rare interview, the 69 year old pop idol turned cult auteur tells Mike Barnes he’s just dressing the lyrics, which reference brown dwarves, fallen dictators, bodily functions and the duality of epizootics. Photography by Jake Walters
“Hi, pleased to meet you,” says Scott Walker when we are introduced in the lounge of his management’s West London house, smiling and offering a firm handshake. He chats easily before the interview proper, and makes regular eye contact from beneath the peak of his forage cap. This, I realise, is the lanky figure who walked past me in the street 15 minutes ago, while I was window shopping, killing time after arriving early for our meeting.
Given the choice, Scott would probably rather be doing something else, but apart from occasional hints of diffidence, he’s friendly and charming, disarmingly so, in fact – which exemplifies the folly of getting suckered into believing the cartoonish approximation of reality that is a musician’s image. However enduring, powerful – and at times close to the truth – the image might be.
And what an enduringly misunderstood public image Scott’s has been. The photo on the cover of his 1967 debut solo album Scott was someway different to the usual smiling portraits designed to reassure the fans. The 24 year old superstar declined to meet the camera’s gaze, remaining pensive and inscrutable behind a pair of sunglasses, eyes cast downward, lips slightly parted in discomfort from the existential weight bearing down upon him. The intervening 45 years have seen Scott undergo a remarkable artistic metamorphosis, quite unlike that of any of his peers. (Incidentally, referring to him as Walker feels wrong, somehow – as with Miles Davis, another of postwar popular culture’s great unknowable figures, first name terms feel more appropriate, perversely.) His career trajectory still seems incredible, unreal, as if he were a bizarre and unfeasible concept rather than a flesh and blood human being. The story of his journey from The Walker Brothers’ 60s heyday via the ersatz Country albums of the mid-70s to the four self-reinventing tracks on the 1978 Walker Brothers swansong Nite Flights is well known by now. Since Nite Flights he has found his own pace of working, inching forward and slowly staking out hard-won artistic territory. The brief 30 minute Climate Of Hunter (1984) seemed to resonate with much of the pop and rock music of the time, while simultaneously occupying a space all its own. 11 years later, Tilt opened a portal onto a new way of organising language and song form. But while Tilt thrilled with its originality, any links to Scott’s past had been stretched to breaking point.
The image on the cover of the DVD edition of the documentary Scott Walker – 30 Century Man, released to coincide with Tilt’s epically bleak follow-up, The Drift (2006), was similar to the one on the cover of
Scott. But now his head was bowed down even further, as if he was trying to shrink out of sight. It was as if all the hyperbole, opprobrium, speculative chatter and the sheer seriousness of his artistic project in the intervening years now weighed on him like a yoke.
In more recent photos, he invariably wears a cap pulled down hard. In the video trailer for his new album Bish Bosch, the first sighting of Scott is of the back of his head, and he is only glimpsed fleetingly thereafter. It’s the antithesis of the generic pop video, a visual document of the Man Who Wasn’t There. Accompanying publicity images again find him in semiprofile, sunglasses in place, staring at the floor.
As we sit down to begin the interview, Scott’s comanager, Cathy Negus-Fancey, offers us drinks. Scott opts for a glass of water, which remains untouched throughout our meeting, despite the fact that he seems to be suffering from a cold, which he apologises for.
Bish Bosch is an extraordinary work, even by the standards of Tilt and The Drift. Both musically and lyrically, it’s his most complex – and at times baffling – set of songs to date. Could he outline the concept behind the title?
“Basically, I was looking for a universal woman artist kind of image and I just thought that bish is urban slang for bitch – ‘Here’s my bish’ – and I spelt Bosch like the artist,” he explains. “So it’s Bitch Bosch, really. I was thinking of this big woman artist. It’s a wordplay, but maybe it’s a desire to see women taking over more, generally.
“I wrote it three years ago in a little over a year, and for me that was lightning speed,” he expands. “It was the recording of it that was the problem. Everything went wrong. We’d be recording for three days and then somebody would get sick or we couldn’t get musicians or get the studio, so it was a real trial. The album should have taken, at the most, eight weeks [to record].”
To these ears, Bish Bosch, while carbon-dark in places, is generally more energetic, expansive and colourful than The Drift, downplaying its predecessor’s sense of ominous portent and clammy claustrophobia. Scott broadly agrees. “A lot of things that create claustrophobia use a lot of bass. The bass gives you a grounding, that rumbling thing below, and if you take that away everything becomes suspended on nothing. Of course we use bass on many spots in the songs, but on others we don’t use it at all.
“I think the attitude really starts when you get an anchor song, and that kind of dictates what happens on the rest of the record,” he continues. “Not that one song relates to another, but it gives the feeing of what it’s going to be. And thank God I got that “Zercon” song first, because if I’d got it later on it would have been a really long haul.”
The song in question is Scott’s most ambitious single work to date – a 21 minute odyssey titled “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)”, which encompasses SDSS1416+13B, a brown dwarf that is the coolest sub-stellar body ever found outside the solar system, and Zercon, also a brown dwarf, who came originally from Libya and was a jester in the fifth century court of Attila The Hun. Zercon ends up freezing to death while sitting on a flagpole. The song exemplifies Scott’s idiosyncratic, absurdist sense of humour, and how his lyrics are fashioned into an assemblage of quotes from multiple sources: scientific data, historical fact, and total fantasy.
“It’s just part of the style I’ve developed, I guess,” he shrugs. “Different things interject or come in and out, but I would hope that they all pertain to what’s going on. If you read any sort of avant garde poetry from the 1950s, that’s going on there as well.”
The song leaves the listener questioning which part of the story is based in historical events and what is made up. It’s a nice puzzle to have. “Yes, because if you’re being historically accurate, you are giving in right away to a sincerity of a kind that doesn’t really exist there. You are starting to take it too seriously – you should take it for what it is. And of course the lyric is constantly playing with time. So you might drop into one period of time, then drop back in to another. And [you ascend to] different levels of height as it goes through.
“You can’t just go one way with these things. If you listen to a lot of records, everything will go one way. If [the artists] consider themselves to have written a dark song, then the track will be in that way, the recording will usually be terrible in that way, so everything is going that way. But you aren’t keeping interest in it, because you are not breaking it up with anything else. You need to get a good balance.”
A construction such as “Zercon” is lyrically so multifaceted and esoteric that it would be difficult to venture too far into it without a little help from the author. So in the album’s CD booklet, Scott has included a few reference notes along with the lyrics. These signposts help enormously. Another example of how this kind of annotation can better orientate the listener in the landscape of the song is “Jesse” from The Drift: knowing that the lyric is full of images of doubles, such as the Twin Towers and Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin brother Jesse, and that the whispered “Pow pow”s represent both the planes hitting the towers and the drumbeats that punctuate the guitar chords at the start of “Jailhouse Rock”, opens out a song that might otherwise resist comprehension.
“Yeah, it helps a little bit,” he admits. “I really want everyone to interpret each song themselves, but I had to give a little more away [in “Zercon”]. Especially at the opening of the song where he is being heckled by silence, because he is a comedian after all, and it really unfolds from that kernel.”
I tell him that, later in the song, I hear horns shrieking in laughter in response to Zercon’s routines. But maybe I’m reading too much into it? “No, it’s a good thing – what you say is probably the case as well,” he replies, after a pause to locate the section I'm referring to in his head. “There is so much noise going on… As the song moves on, he starts telling a few gags. There is another instance where there’s this hyena laugh from the horns – Eeeheeehh-eeehh – going on in the background, when he has become a flagpole sitter and is looking down at people walking around.”
With lyrical content of this complexity, is there a danger of the writing going over people’s heads? “No, I don’t think so, because if you read any modern literature or modern poetry, it’s all that way, so I don’t think I’m doing that. I’m hoping that people who buy my stuff will have the lyrics there as well as the music, because then you are getting it all. So I’m gambling on that. Probably losing, but I’m gambling. I dread it going on iTunes or something like that, because first of all I hate the sound of MP3, but second of all I hate the fact that one thing is divorced from the other. There’s no way to link it up and you can’t control it.”
In terms of Scott’s writing process, the lyrics come first, then he builds the song around them. Bypassing rock and pop styles, his singing can sound operatic, but the way he creates a linear melody line from a series of syllables sung on one note feels much closer to plainsong. This would seem to confirm the rumour that he studied Gregorian chant when he began a series of retreats at Quarr Abbey on the Isle Of Wight in 1966. Anyway, the days when he would compose using a guitar or a piano are long gone.
“If I get the lyric right, then everything else should fall into place,” he explains. “It’s like writing a script for a film: if you get a good script, you’ll get a good film. So I work a long time on the lyric and then I just dress it. When I’m working on the music, I do the entire – and I use this word cautiously, because I don’t like the word – ‘arrangement’ as I’m working: the drum parts, guitar parts and strings.”
On Bish Bosch he uses an expanded instrumental palette including eruptions of Metal guitar riffing, Latin percussion, pounding drums, massed strings, gongs, shofars (ram’s horn trumpets), marbles rolling around on dustbin lids, and a tubax. “This thing is like a cross between a tuba and a big fat saxophone that you have to sit on the floor,” he explains. Characteristically, all this is punctuated by pensive tracts of humming silence, through which his voice floats and soars.
Played by Pete Long, the tubax’s growling low notes introduce “Epizootics!”, the album’s most percussive track, which includes some elements of hot jazz, Scott Walker-style.
“It starts with a woman having a Hawaiian nightmare, then I was looking for a block of idiomatic language and thought that I would take the hipster period before the Beats,” he explains. Epizootics actually means an outbreak of disease in animals, I say. “Well, yeah, that’s one [definition], but the other thing people are missing is that it was part of that hipster language. People would talk about, ‘Go, go, baby! Say, epi-zooootics!’” he sings, clicking his fingers in time, before laughing, “Because it’s me, they go for the illness thing right way. But that’s why it’s got an exclamation mark.”
On “Corps De Blah”, he had 20 string players playing a canon. Deciding that wasn’t enough, he superimposed a different canon from later on in the song and then added more string samples. Only when he got to a total of 80 string parts was he happy with the sound. Does he score it all himself?
“No, I’m really slow at it, so I don’t do it often. It goes through this machine that writes it out. One of the blessings of modern technology…”
As well as evoking atmospheres with instruments, Scott also strives to evoke specific sounds. At the start of “The Cockfighter” on Tilt, he asked percussionist Alasdair Malloy to try to achieve the sound of claws scratching against the inside of an eggshell. Sometimes he feels the need to get even more literal. On “Clara”, from The Drift, he recorded Malloy punching a side of pork to replicate the sound of the crowd raining blows on the dangling bodies of Mussolini and his lover Clara Petacci after they had been executed in Milan in 1945. On Bish Bosch, these sound effects include the noise of chiselled stone, and machete blades being scraped together for the rhythm track of “Tar”.
“It’s all part of dressing the song in a way that will engage the ear and interest you, and have something to do with the lyric,” Scott enthuses. “The machetes were a whole other incident. They were terrified at the studio in case the police came, you know? And these were monster things. The blades were nearly four feet long,” he says, spreading his arms. “I sent Cathy [Negus-Fancey] a picture and she ordered them over the internet. People were saying, ‘Oh, my God!’, and I was saying, ‘People must use these for gardening; what are you getting so excited about?’”
On parts of Bish Bosch, some unusually jarring and visceral imagery jumps out at the listener. Along with references to genitals, fucking, buggery and self-mutilation, there is a scatological element, including a fusillade of farts on “Corps De Blah”. “I have in the past done a lot with the body because it keeps everything – kind of a bad word – existentially concentrated within an un-human situation, but this is even more so,” he explains. “Like you said, it’s a lot more centred on the body. Hopefully there’s once again humour along the way, so that it alleviates some of that plague element that I’m always meant to be bringing in.” This last comment is followed by a selfdeprecating laugh.
In a 1995 interview he did with Richard Cook in The Wire 135, at the time of the release of Tilt, Scott described the creative process as mainly sitting around waiting. He has been more prolific in recent years, and wrote Bish Bosch relatively quickly. Does he find it easier now to catch an idea and pin it down?
“Well, I think it is because I got Tilt and The Drift out of the way. With Tilt I just took a long time, but we’ve kind of developed a style now in our sound, so I had that worry out of the way; I just had to refine it. I’m given to prevarication, so I can go off for weeks or months not doing music, but I just spent the whole year with my head down and concentrated and worked all the time. But I still had to wait for it. I still couldn’t put anything in that wasn’t right.”
Has he reached a point where he has amassed a personal musical vocabulary?
“It’s easier now to hear how it might happen. With Tilt I was really in uncharted territory. I hadn’t worked with some of the musicians I’ve worked with now, and I thought it might happen, but wasn’t sure – and it did. With The Drift, I was a little more confident. I
thought, I know what these guys can do, I know their limitations and their greatness, so if I want to do this, it’s achievable.”
Another unfeasible aspect of Scott Walker is that for someone who’s just a few months shy of his 70th birthday, he not only looks youthful, he also talks about his work with the enthusiasm of a much younger man. More remarkable still is that voice, which sounds virtually untouched by age. The transformation from a rich, assured baritone to an edgy, slightly tremulous near-tenor that first emerged on Tilt was the consequence of a belief that singing in a deeper register would have too much of a tranquilising effect on the listener. And it’s still up there.
“When you get older your voice gets lower, and so you lower your keys. I’m going in the opposite direction,” he observes with some amusement. So how does he keep his voice in shape? Does he have a daily regime of vocal exercises? “No,” he chuckles, “I’m drinking less these days, but part of it is that I don’t tour. I’m never sure that it’s going to work. It’s always like this alien creature to me. I never know what’s going to happen, but when I take it out of the case, because it’s not working all the time, it comes out pretty new every time. So I’ve been lucky.
“Look, before I do anything like this, I do have to work on it at home so that it is wider in range. There’s no way you could just do that cold. So I do three months before I go in, maybe, just to work on it. I’m not a professionally trained singer, so I don’t know much about it from a technical point of view.”
In the past, he has said that he tries to strike a balance between over-emoting with the voice and being too cool. But on this album some of the singing is quite strident, even aggressive.
“That rule didn’t particularly apply to this, because I knew I was going to be opening out more,” he explains. “I try to keep a proper balance between everything, but I knew that I would have to give it – as they say in tennis – some more on the ball [laughs]. It flies more, but then the material does. That’s the difference.”
Lyrically speaking, geopolitical intrigues and, particularly, the machinations of dictatorial regimes have held a perennial fascination for Scott, from “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime)” on Scott 4 (1969) to the Third World torture chamber at the centre of “The Electrician” (1978) and the Mussolini-inspired “Clara”. On Bish Bosch there’s “The Day The ‘Conducator’ Died”, which recasts the fate of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu into a macabre Christmas song. “I don’t analyse it very carefully,” he says. “I know when I pick a character, a dictator, I’ll check in on them and read about them. But once again it’s a device to talk about a lot of things, a taking off point. They’re all such clowns, but they are dangerous, and that’s a weird mix.
“I remember my father telling me, when I was a little kid, that when people in America saw Hitler they laughed at him. They couldn’t believe that anyone was following this ridiculous person. And they are all like that, Mussolini as well. They have this thing in common: unlimited ego and total denial. They are fascinating people.”
In the past he has said that his music is exaggerated in scale, so that it focuses on the very small and the very large, so maybe he’s attracted to tyrants as exaggerated people.“Yes,” he replies, laughing, “totally absurd, ridiculous human beings. Somewhere down the middle doesn’t always do it, you know.”
The four songs he contributed to The Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights – especially the title track and “The Electrician” – are often cited as the beginning of his mature writing style. “I think that’s true,” he agrees. “You see, your sound and your style are in many ways what you are. There’s not a lot else in the world that identifies what you are, if anything at all – a self of any kind. I think that’s where it started.”
The title track is a strange mix of styles, combining a disco bassline with big blocks of keyboards, which makes it sound a bit… “Dated?” Scott suggests. I was going to say unusual, as it combined a motorik groove with a very slow moving background. The same could be said of Climate Of Hunter, with its odd mix of purring fretless bass, keyboard drones, guitar solos by Ray Russell, and Evan Parker’s saxophone multiphonics. “You’re talking about juxtaposition, but that wasn’t really intentional, as I didn’t really have a grip on everything then as I do now. I think I was relying more on the musicians to bring it. I thought, well, I’ve already got enough on my plate.”
So how does it sound to him now? “I haven’t heard it in years, but from your description I remember it.” He never listens to his own records after he records them, and when I ask him about his instrumental compositions for the dance piece And Who Shall Go To The Ball? And What Shall Go To The Ball?, released on CD in 2007, he admits he can’t remember anything at all about the music. “Look, when you’ve spent so long writing the thing, laying the thing out, producing the thing, singing the thing, mixing the thing, you never want to see it again. If you are a singer and are just singing it, or a producer, then you could do it, but if you do all the stuff, and these are not easy… ”
It’s difficult to identify a signature trope running through Scott Walker’s work, from 60s pop idol, through 70s MOR singer to one of the most exploratory auteurs currently working in song based music. “Well, people say they are worlds apart and in lots of ways they are, but you can find a thread, I think, of character, probably from early on. I used to write B sides for The Walker Brothers for money, and I wrote this song called “Archangel” [in 1966]. I used an organ in a cinema in Leicester Square. Obviously it is different soundwise, but there is a character link.”
Does he mean a link to those ‘blocks of sound’, such as the big keyboard drones on Climate Of Hunter, or the monolithic string sections on the more recent material? “No,” he clarifies, “I think an inner style, an inner character style within a human being – the kind of thing they are trying to get at that runs through all their life. It’s some little thing inside you and later on it expands from that little thing. You don’t really see it clearly [with me] till something like Climate Of Hunter.”
In 1999, between Tilt and The Drift, Scott made a strange detour by recording the ballad “Only Myself To Blame” for the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough – which would have seemed a far more natural thing for him to have done in the 60s or 70s. “Yes, now, I can’t remember the reasons for that,” he says, looking both confused and slightly evasive. “[The song’s composer] David Arnold asked me. I must have had some reason for doing that, apart from money. But of course they wound up cutting the scene anyway, so it never came out. I probably just did it as an exercise.”
I imagine at the time some people were thinking, with some relief, that he was finally returning to the kind of song he did best. “Oh hell, no!” he retorts, laughing.
As a songwriter he admits to being inspired by film directors, but is the episodic format of his songs an intentionally filmic construction?
“It isn’t deliberate, but I am a film addict and it has influenced my work. I can hear it in lots of ways, but it doesn’t register with me that I’m creating a scene or anything. I think there’s a lot of visualisation in my songs, a lot of imagery and sometimes I’ll be hitting one after the other after the other [he clicks his fingers]. So it’s not so much a narrative, I think it’s where you hear it – or see it.”
The video for the single “Track Three” from Climate Of Hunter seemed to reference Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker.
“Yes, I remember. I can’t remember who directed it, so I didn’t have a hand in any of that. I know what you mean, though. When Stalker was first released, I was dragging people to see it. It was in a little cinema off the Kings Road that’s no longer there. I was going to see it every night and bringing friends in.”
Ever since songs such as “The Seventh Seal” on Scott 4, and his relatively forgettable 1972 album of film themes, The Moviegoer, Scott has worn his love of cinema on his sleeve. But in 1999 he was given the opportunity to compose his first complete soundtrack: to Leos Carax’s film Pola X. “I was writing more or less to a brief,” he explains. “He wanted a romantic thing here; this there. In a sense I would like to have done that now because I think I would have done a better job, but that was then…”
Although some of the music is harsh and abrasive, and characteristic of Scott’s more recent style, “Light” and “Meadow” are lush and pastoral orchestral pieces. Could he ever envisage that this sort of romantic element might creep back into his own song based music?
“Well, it once again would relate to the lyric, and that’s why I’m not, strictly speaking, an avant garde artist – which is how people describe me – because all I’m doing is dressing songs: I don’t have an agenda like that. So if I was to write something that… it might be ironic now, but not cynical… I might be using it that way. But if I was to write something that needed that sort of background, of course I would use it. If the lyrics said, ‘Wow, you need to sound like Mantovani’, I would do it, because it would bring the lyric across.”
Scott seems to thrive on being totally in control of the recording process. Perhaps that’s why his collaboration with Brian Eno foundered so quickly. “This was after we did Climate Of Hunter,” he recalls. “We went into Phil Manzanera’s studio out in the country somewhere. I brought some of my guys, [bass guitarist] Mo Foster, and he had Daniel Lanois there as well, and I didn’t get Daniel’s thing at all. It didn’t get beyond a night. I’m still friends with Brian, there’s no animosity, but I just couldn’t work like that.
“I could probably work with Brian now,” he adds. “I think his attitude is different now, and wasn’t like what was happening that night. It’s hard to explain…” He pauses for some time, considering. “I’m kind of a one-vision character. Normally I’ll bring in a lyric and quite a lot as a basis to start with, so there is more or less a place we can go to right away, and we can build around that. Once I’ve got the vision of it I’ve got to pull it together. I mean, I like freewheeling, if it’s that kind of session, but I’ve got to know it’s that kind of proposition from the beginning rather than, ‘Bring in your songs and we are going to noodle around with them…’”
In the pause, a small dog starts yapping outside. “Hello! Sounds like a St Bernard at the door,” Scott quips.
Wondering how he feels about how he is currently perceived, I mention a blog post that praised The Drift, but which asked rhetorically if “Jesse” was the bleakest song ever written. “Was that [the writer’s] suicide note?” laughs Scott. “Well, it’s his interpretation and that’s important if that’s what it meant to him. I never understand this entirely. Because even the ending of that song, it’s terrifying, but it’s funny in a sense, because you’ve got this guy crawling around the desert trying to smooth out holes. This is how it came to me late one night. So it has its absurd side as well, so I never understand how [people think] I bring in the plague and other people don’t, you know what I mean?”
He certainly occupies his own niche, but it’s difficult to locate that niche on the great edifice of pop and rock. “Yeah, I don’t know any more. To me it sounds normal. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t sound like a problem. Some German guy was saying to me, ‘You’re out there on your own now’, and it was scary. God, I said, has it come to this?.”
Scott brings up the subject of the Drifting And Tilting shows at London’s Barbican in 2008, where songs from the two albums were performed by a number of guest vocalists including Gavin Friday, Jarvis Cocker, Dot Allison and Damon Albarn. Scott himself was in charge of the sound and submitted sketches for stage sets. “The second night in I thought it was pretty good,” he says. “Everything sounded good and everyone sang well.”
I was there, and recall the rumours that he might make an appearance. “No, no, because it was such a big thing, controlling the strings because they were down in the pit, and controlling the sound and everything else. I thought, no, I’ll have a nervous breakdown if I try and sing everything as well.
“The problem I have is that when I start to make a record it starts growing, and then it would be so terrifying to do it live – it’s too daunting,” he continues, explaining his reluctance to perform live. “So if I start to write next year, I have to think, I’m going to have to try and keep it down to Radiohead size, because then you could do it. But you can’t take all these fucking strings and all the noises and everything else, and drag it with you. First of all, it wouldn’t be profitable to anyone in any way, and so I’d have to figure out how to not let my imagination go in that way.”
But would he even want to fetter the material like that? “Well, maybe I’ll make a groove record, something that I can just get onto the stage with. Once I do that I’ll be OK,” he says, sighing, “just take a totally different tack. We’ll see… that’s the way you could do it, though. It is also because, when people go out in bands, you have guys doing solos. There are no solo breaks in my music – it’s singing all the way through. There is no escaping the horror of it!” Bish Bosch is out this month on 4AD