Mike Barnes recalls meeting the singer whose music made his listeners get a bit too carried away
When I received an email in early October 2012 asking if I would like to interview Scott Walker for The Wire, my eager acceptance carried an element of trepidation. He was notorious for being press-shy and so the task might not be easy. But that reservation was swept aside by a wave of excitement.
Like many, I was aware of Scott’s work with The Walker Brothers and had heard his famous quartet of late 1960s solo albums, but what had really caught my ear was 1984’s Climate Of Hunter. It carried some of the hallmark sounds of the decade – lush string synth, fretless bass – and Billy Ocean sung backing vocals. But there was also Evan Parker’s soprano sax multiphonics and Scott’s carved down and cryptic lyrics. The songs, although ostensibly rock, also felt oddly deconstructed and so it sat rather awkwardly with everything else around at the time. And that was its great attraction.
His 1995 album Tilt was different again. It felt so strangely shaped, its texts even more refracted. Scott had also reinvented his voice. Thinking his reassuring baritone to be “too soporific” he decided to explore the upper limit of his range. The result was a magnificent but somewhat mannered tenor, which went from hushed conspiratorial tones to soaring, tremulous outbursts.
In an interview feature with Scott in The Wire 135 (May 1995) Richard Cook described Tilt as “a bulletin from an outer darkness…”. And a writer friend commented more recently that Tilt might have seemed perplexing at first, but when compared to the forbidding, claustrophobic spaces of 2006’s The Drift it now sounded relatively conventional. This was music of such originality that it took time to assimilate. And by the autumn of 2012 Scott had taken another stride forward with Bish Bosch.
To prepare for our meeting I listened to some of his 70s albums, The Moviegoer and Any Day Now among them. They re-emphasised that the difference between the path he could easily have taken – that of an MOR merchant, a rather hipper version of Jack Jones or Matt Monro – and his current position, as the most singular and uncompromising songwriter of his times, was so vast that in artistic terms it still felt almost absurdly improbable. And as a career arc it was unprecedented.
On 11 October I went to Scott’s manager’s house in Holland Park, West London. I later found out that after an initial batch of face-to-face interviews he had reverted to email, but on that afternoon I found him friendly and personable. Meanwhile my inner voice alternated between, “Look, he’s just some guy who makes music”, and, “Bloody hell – it’s Scott Walker!”
I had followed my own cardinal rules in interview preparation.
Never wade straight into an interview. Have a chat with the interviewee first – preferably about something non-musical – to establish a rapport.
Always research thoroughly and start with a question that shows the interviewee that you know your subject.
Write out your questions and never try and just busk an interview with someone who would probably rather be elsewhere. You run the risk of losing your drift and their attention.
Don’t be afraid to posit strong questions that may be slightly off the mark – sometimes deliberately. This usually provokes an animated and quotable reaction.
This last strategy worked well on a couple of occasions with Scott, who would pipe up “No, No, No”, before firmly and politely correcting me.
Musically Scott linked his work from then to now via a personal characteristic that somehow manifested in slow moving sounds: the block organ chords on The Walker Brothers’ B-side “Archangel”; the synth backdrops on The Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights (1978) and his own Climate Of Hunter; and the hovering, dissonant strings of The Drift. One can add to that the huge guitar drones of his last song based album Soused recorded in 2014 with Sunn 0))).
Scott explained that he always started with the lyric and the way the musical structure evolved was by him gradually “dressing the lyric” with melody, instrumental arrangements and non-instrumental sounds to enhance the words and to give them space. “I never sit down and do a chordal thing with guitar or piano [as] I used to years and years ago,” he said.
During the interview Scott talked about how composing was a slow process as he waited for ideas to come. He explained how some of his song lyrics represent two or more viewpoints, or historically accurate observations mixed with fictional sequences, and how he couldn’t see any problem for a rock audience engaging with them. “If you read any sort of modern poetry, that’s going on as well,” he said. “I think it’s just part of the style I’ve developed – things interject or come in and out.”
The song that most clearly demonstrates this use of dual viewpoints is “Jesse” on The Drift, which deals with twinned structures, or people, juxtaposing the 11 September attack on New York City’s Twin Towers with Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin Jesse. In it Scott deploys pitiless imagery, such as his description of the charred carnage, “nose holes caked with black cocaine”, and “six feet of foetus flung at sparrows in the sky”, the destruction of human bodies returning them back to the constituent elements from which their life had arisen. It’s a deeply disturbing song that seems to embody the idea of bulletins from an outer darkness, with Scott boldly venturing alone, further and further out into a murky existential wasteland. But he insisted that, in all his songs, darkness always needed to be broken up with humour or absurdity. “Some songs just go serious all the way through but not many of mine. You need to get a good balance.”
Scott Walker died on Friday 22 March. On Monday his record company 4AD issued a press release stating, “He has produced works that dare to explore human vulnerability and the godless darkness encircling it.” That’s a fair observation but then maybe his extraordinary music has also made us all get a little too carried away.
As part of the inevitable assessment of an artist’s work after they have passed I broached this subject with another writer friend and she said, “I think Scott had a great sense of humour, I’ve definitely laughed out loud at some of his stuff. People take him too seriously.”
Back in the interview room I deploy a familiar strategy. Always tell the interviewee somewhere towards the end that you’ve nearly finished and are just going to ask a couple more questions. That isn’t contractually binding, of course, and with the end in sight they often relax, and in some cases suddenly become more voluble. Scott said that he was perfectly fine for a while longer and just carried on as before delivering his focused answers. When we were done I asked him to autograph my The Drift LP. And if you think his music is weird you should see his handwriting. “Thanks for your time Scott,” I concluded. “I enjoyed that.” “Yeah, I did too,” he replied. And while I wasn’t wholly convinced, I’d like to think that was at least partly true.