More than a decade after conducting Walker's last major interview, Richard Cook meets him again to hear about the years of silence. This article was originally published in The Wire 135 (May 1995). More than a decade after conducting Walker's last major interview, Richard Cook meets him again to hear about the years of silence. This article was originally published in The Wire 135 (May 1995).
Well, I have to ask. Where have you been all this time? "Who knows, right? Hanging out. Doing a little travelling. Nothing constructive." An answer to induce despair in the most patient of observers. Scott Walker is, though, his customary charming self. The most singular underachiever in music is a past master at explaining away whatever creative difficulty or business block he's had to labour under. One gets a glimpse of the beguiling manner that he's used to fend off some kind of disaster these past... oh, 25 years or so.
It's that long since the epochal Scott 4 was released to deafening disregard; 18 years since the tantalising EP's worth of material on Nite Flights; and more than a decade since Climate Of Hunter was detonated on the feckless pop surroundings of 1984. Some work rate. No wonder Walker exists as little more than a shadowy half-presence in music.
Tilt, his new record released this month, has a spectral quality about it that derives in part from his elusive, bewildering legend. It's a record of skeletal parts that coheres in the mighty, scarcely diminished voice that acts as its narrator. Just as Climate Of Hunter slipped Scott loose, finally, of most of his associations - the tormented crooner and lovelorn young man of 20 years before - so Tilt seems like a bulletin from an outer darkness that is very strange and rare ground for a 'rock' record to tackle. Or: who is this man and what is he doing here?
Now past 50, he is a veteran in a business that thrives on youthful fizz. At a time when Elastica and Oasis are touted as young radical gods, it might be asked who will want to hear such a dense, opaque meditation as this hour of music. There isn't much left of the thick romantic swirl that the early Scott Walker records were drenched in.
As finicky and detail-minded as Brian Wilson or Phil Spector, the young Scott Engel used European string writing to finesse a sorely beautiful songwriting style. The grand, sobbing orchestrations of Peter Knight, Wally Stott and Reg Guest on the early Walker Brothers records were a potent backdrop for his looming baritone voice. But now, that music seems as far away and remote from his current work as Beethoven is from Peter Maxwell Davies; as Charlie Patton is from Robert Cray.
"I didn't listen to lot of pop while I was doing this, because you subconsciously reference a lot. I listened to Beethoven's piano sonatas throughout and some Bartok string quartets. And some blues records. After it, I did what I used to do and gathered in every single thing that was going on and listening to all of it, to be sure I was... that the recording was going to be what I wanted.
"I can't tell you where it comes from. It comes from silence, most of it. I sit around and I'm waiting. I'm waiting and waiting."
Like the rest of us. Perhaps Scott Engel is just more patient than most. The waiting sits well on him: the famous Walker Brothers mane of hair has receded into a trimmed and thinning top layer, but otherwise he still has the lean, cowboyish physique that he brought with him from Ohio to London when he and John Maus and Gary Leeds set out to become 'bigger than The Beatles' on an exploratory trip to city in 1965. As The Walker Brothers, they sequenced some huge hits in the summer of that year. It didn't last long, and Maus and Leeds have never made much of an impact outside their few hits together. For Scott Walker, forever stuck with his adopted name, it was a different if equally star-crossed story.
Five solo records for Philips, cut between 1967 and 1971, were touchstones for a singer songwriter generation that never knew they existed. While bedsits everywhere hummed to the sound of Al Stewart or Cat Stevens, the deeper draughts of Scott Walker barely registered beyond his original following, which would always prefer him to return to "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More" in any case. By the time of Scott 4, which was deleted a year after it was made, the pop idol had lost his place and the enigmatic recluse had taken over.
Scott Engel's transition from one rock era to another might seem trudgingly slow. In fact, on the early records, he worked with almost indecent haste by today's standards. After a few compromised MOR records, came The Walker Brothers reunion, which seemed like no valuable escapade at all until the four mesmerising pieces which emerged on the Nite Flights album of 1977. Scott blueprinted all his subsequent work in those fractured, driven songs, culminating in "The Electrician", which enumerated many of the issues which have fired him since: the interface of politics and love, societies in flux, and music that bridges classical tradition with some displaced part of rock language.
It took him another seven years to release Climate Of Hunter. Frustratingly brief, the record still seems like an interim report: half of it is so powerful that it shames almost everything done in rock before or since, while some of the tracks seem nearly but not quite right. As with Scott 4, his other half-baked masterpiece, Engel couldn't seem to see it absolutely through. The best of these records is so extraordinary that anything else seems like failure.
Now, though, 11 years after we last met at the time of the release of Climate Of Hunter, we have some catching up to do...
"I think I said to you before, I don't write until I'm ready to record. It's pointless. If I'm going to sit around in a wilderness because I can't record any songs... I threw a whole lot of my songs away, as many as I could write. Which isn't a lot. Ever."
Finally, with a deal with Phonogram/Mercury/Fontana having bubbled under for several years, he started work on a new record. "I'll start an idea, the next part might come up in a couple of months... Nothing's wasted at all. I'll read something or see something and think, that's where that goes. . . I'm trying to go for something as carved down as possible. It's unlike a Dylan song or a Neil Young song where everything is moving along. That's not what I want. Everything that way seems too pat, to me."
Nothing on Tilt could be described that way. From the aria-like opening of "Farmer In The City" to the Delta blues threnody of "Rosary", the record unspools as a sequence of tableaux that abjure both simple interpretation and gratification. This is hard stuff so far removed from rock songwriting that it might as well line up with Franz Schubert as with Van Morrison. How is it put together in the studio?
"By the time I get to the studio, it's all written down. I have to have readers I can work with, because I always want the music to be played together, at once. I don't want any drum machines or click tracks. Nothing like that. Very little overdubbing, if possible. I never try to give them too much indications of what I'm going to do. Because then it'll turn into a group thing, which is what I don't want either. I want each piece to have an intensity of its own. So it has a kind of febrile quality.
"I'll do a couple of tunes on the first day, then take them home and listen to them in the evening, go in and do them again if I don't like them - I don't have any equipment at home except a guitar and an amp and a little five-octave keyboard, so I don't have any fantasy or idea of what it'll be like when I get in there. So I'm surprised, constantly."
What does Peter Walsh (co-producer of both Tilt and Climate Of Hunter) do? "He understands how I work. It's hard for a co-producer to work with me because everything is... everything comes from the songs. Every single sound in the track relates to the lyric in some way. So he's a security thing there. as it goes along, I give him indications of what I want and he tells me if he can get it. I leave that to him. That's valuable to me, because a lot of guys will feel they have to justify themselves in some kind of way. And then they get in the way."
Which is what seemed to happen in the lost collaboration with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (about whom, Engel confesses, "I just couldn't get along with that guy"). With another record left on the blocks before it even got started, Scott's contract with Virgin, who only ever had Climate Of Hunter to show for their association, was axed. Still, one feels that such superstar collaborations aren't really Engel's forte. One striking aspect of both Climate Of Hunter and Tilt is the way he coaxes scintillating work from a cast of relative unknowns: such as Brian Gascoigne (Bamber's brother), keyboards and string arrangements, or the almost subliminal bassist John Giblin. Or free improvising saxophonist Evan Parker, who has so far not been asked to perform on any Peter Gabriel records.
"I've no idea where this record belongs. I'm not making records or that reason."
Was he disappointed with the commercial failure of Climate Of Hunter?
"No, I stopped expecting it years ago. My only thing is I want to make the records. That's where I get off. After it's finished, I'll promote it or whatever, but there's nothing I can do about it then. It's done." Surely a musician wants an audience for his or her work?
"I'm trying to get one. But there's all kinds of artists who have different audiences for their work. I know I'm not in the mainstream at all. I'm a marginal artist. But these days so is Lou Reed or John Cale or anyone like that. I don't think I'm unusual in that kind of way."
The difference, perhaps, is that for all their geopolitical musings and 'adult' preoccupations, the likes of Reed of Cale have never really aspired to the density and weight at both a lyrical and musical level that distinguishes the processes of Tilt. Cale, for instance, may have done songs about Hedda Gabler and Chinese envoys, but Engel, in the thematic threads of the Tilt material, spins together a vista of war criminals, immigrants and displaced persons, Pier Paulo Pasolini, South American despots and a host of unidentified 'personal' matters with a delicacy and intensity that is heartstopping. What, for instance, is "Tilt" itself about?
"I can only say that it's satirical. It's kind of a black Country music song. I structured the chords very carefully through the whole album and there are new chords, not used before. The chords in "Tilt" are meant to be like a yin and yang thing. David Rhodes is actually playing a major and a minor at the same time.
"I'm trying to avoid talking about the material, aren't I? It's a Country song that becomes my own vision of something else during the key change. That's all I can say."
Do you want people to work at this material?
"Yes. Because otherwise it would have been a dance record or something, something for the background. I don't want to make that kind of record and I'm not the only one. I worked hard at it and they should work at it as well. More and more I think there are people around who'll do that."
The cult of Scott Walker has persisted through the 80s and into the 90s. After Julian Cope's Fire Escape In The Sky compilation and the long-awaited reissue of the first four solo albums on CD, at least people could get their hands on material that was more often talked about than heard, even if its creator still spent most of his time hidden from view. Occasional hints of activity have filtered through, though, such as a project with David Sylvian.
"Nothing really happened. I don't really remember. I was doing something else at the time..." He furrows his brow. "All those years of drinking have finally taken their toll!
"He did say that he felt his stuff could use a little more balls. He's much more of an ethereal merchant than I am. I'm a man who struggles with spirituality whereas he's given in to it. My album and the one before it is about struggle in a Dostoyevskian sense. It's a real fight for me in every line. Whereas he's given in to a state of grace.
"I wouldn't want someone to come along and suggest a collaboration with a record which they thought was like mine. You might as well make your own record. When you can get someone to finance you!"
It might be fanciful to trace the influence of Scott Walker's music on David Sylvian. In any case, the Engel baritone still has no real precedent elsewhere in the music. When his old producer at Philips, John Franz, first heard that voice, he thought he was going to be grooming the greatest ballad singer in the world. One of the fascinating things about the early records is the split between Scott's ambitions as a writer and composer and the inevitable leanings towards territory staked out by Sinatra and his generation. It was a time when the worlds of pop and MOR were still not far apart, when the old-timers of the business had worked in the industry since the days of Glenn Miller. The sleeve photos on Scott 4 show the besuited Franz and Peter Knight at work in the studio, as if they might have been recording Edmund Hockridge. But that peculiar British elegance gives those records much of their invincible refinement.
The voice was still in magnificent shape on Climate Of Hunter. On Tilt, there is a stretched quality to some of the singing, and the vibrato that used to bother John Franz can occasionally sound more like a quaver. Engel has also mixed himself further back than he ever has on some tracks. But it's still an astonishing voice.
"I usually sing afterwards, so the musicians don't know what's going on. But I don't do a lot of takes and I don't rehearse it at home. So I'm surprised as well, when I'm doing the vocal. I have the spontaneity. I don't always sing what I've written but I might keep it anyway. In "The Bouncer" song I didn't sing a line as it was written, but because felt I couldn't improve on the take, I kept it.
"Singing's Always hard for me. Not physically. But to get it neutral, where it's not too emotional and not too deadpan. Somewhere in between is what I'm looking for. It drives me crazy sometimes. In this case, I think it's a little better than some of the shots I've had at it."
He agrees that an album done all in the style of the closing "Rosary", a voice virtually alone in the studio, would be an interesting idea. But he laughs at the suggestion that records are never finished because of a temptation to spend hours brooding alone in the digital silence of the studio. "No, I'm very confident in the studio! The first day I was a bit edgy, but I don't feel like I'll never come out with anything. I don't work in digital silence, either. I record in analogue.
"I just hope my option's going to be picked up and I can do more stuff. It's so crazy to me. You get unbelievable, or even believable people being picked up all the time who aren't selling any records. It's puzzled me. People expect a lot more sales out of me than are generated. So they're vastly disappointed. Whereas with other artists they'll eke it out." Which leaves us with the future.
"I'll do something else, and if I get a positive reaction, I'll do a little tour with the band. Well, I won't love the idea. I'll... go and see. "You don't think I can do it, do you, Richard?" I'm waiting, and waiting. Silence.