INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Observer NOVEMBER 9, 2008 - by Sean O'Hagan
In the '60s, he was part of the celebrated pop group the Walker Brothers - known as America's Beatles - but he rebelled against stardom and fled to a monastery before going solo. Since then, 'pop's own Salinger' has retreated ever further from the mainstream with each album. Now, as Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and others line up to perform his work in a series of concerts, he tells Sean O'Hagan, in a rare interview, why he's happy to be a loner.
Scott Walker was an only child and a nomadic one. His father, a geologist, travelled throughout America and the young Noel Scott Engel never had time to settle for long in one place. Born in Ohio in 1943, he lived in Texas for a time and then in California. "I never made friends that easily," he says, sounding not at all regretful. "I don't mind being on my own because when you're on your own a lot as a child, your imagination grows. That is still the case with me."
Wrapped up in his solitude, Walker can work on the lyrics of a single song for several years. On his last album, The Drift, a track called Cue took six years to complete. "It was the toughest song to write, but my most successful song lyrically," he says, his mid- Atlantic tones soft but clear, his eyes half hidden beneath the peak of his ever-present baseball cap. "It's sharp, it's angular, it all just chimes right. In that song, everything is exactly as I want it."
Cue, though, even by Scott Walker's recent standards, is a difficult song. The lyrics are dense and elliptical, the pace funereal and the atmosphere one of creeping anxiety. He delivers it in that doomy, semi-operatic tone that has long replaced the melodramatic flourish of his early solo albums. Featuring a chorus of wailing voices straight out of Dante's Inferno, it is not a song you would turn to for solace or uplift. It is, in fact, another of Scott Walker's musical excursions to hell. Can he appreciate why some of us find his later work wilfully impenetrable, too far out, in fact, to take in.
"Well, I never think that way," he says, sighing. "I think it sounds pretty normal so I'm kind of shocked when people say it's too much. For me," he says, laughing, "it's never far out enough."
We are sitting in the bright, airy living room of his manager's spacious house in London's leafy Holland Park, the place where Scott Walker chooses to suffer through the few interviews he grants these days. While no longer as reclusive as he once was - Mojo magazine once called him "pop's own Salinger" - he remains one of music's most famous loners. "I'm not a recluse," he says at one point when I ask him what he does when he is not making music. "I'm definitely not that. I have friends and I go to dinner. I like people, but sometimes I can't wait to get away and be on my own again. I am solitary, though. I need to be for my work. That's the deal."
Next week, he will break cover when the Barbican theatre hosts an ambitious series of concerts called Drifting And Tilting: The Songs Of Scott Walker. The seventy-minute programme will comprise eight songs taken from The Drift and 1995's equally challenging Tilt. Scott will be there each night, but not on stage, not singing. "I'll help mix the live sound," he says. "I got spooked years ago about performing and never repaired the damage."
In his place will be a succession of guest vocalists including Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, Dot Allison, Gavin Friday and classical baritone Grant Doyle. A forty-piece orchestra will also be in attendance alongside Walker's studio group and a contemporary dance troupe. "It will be a tightrope walk," he says. "There is never enough time to prepare these things, but if it's going to be a train wreck, it will certainly be an interesting one. There will be one or two surprises, too."
Those surprises will not, alas, include performances of any of his older songs. There will be no Big Louise, in all its swooning sadness, no We Came Through in all its galloping cavalry clatter, no Rosemary or Jackie in all their lovelorn glory. No Jacques Brel covers either, nor Walker Brothers hits.
"When we began discussing the event, it was taken as a given that Scott would not be singing and that none of his older work would feature," says his friend and collaborator Michael Morris, co-director of Artangel, the arts company which specialises in ambitious, site-specific events. "The performances will be dictated by the songs which are semi-operatic. The show will take the form of a semi-staged song cycle, almost like a lieder recital but a bit more dramatic. We're hoping," adds Morris, "that the audience doesn't clap between songs."
In person, Scott Walker does not look like a living legend. His clothes are casual - faded jeans, denim jacket, trainers - and his manner diffident but charming. Throughout the interview, he sits perched, thin and bird-like, on the edge of a huge, floral-patterned sofa as if, at any moment, he might take flight. He looks much younger than his sixty-five years but his eyes, when I catch a glimpse of them beneath that pulled-down baseball cap, have a flickering intensity that speaks of deep unease. It is hard to imagine that he was ever a heart-throb who induced mass hysteria. For a moment, though, back in the mid-'60s, The Walker Brothers, who weren't brothers at all, were known as "America's Beatles".
"Oh, it was amazing at first," he says, smiling, "but a little goes a long way. I was not cut out for that world. I love pop music, but I didn't have the temperament for fame."
On their most famous song, and second Number 1, 1966's The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore, he sang the prophetic lines: "Loneliness is a cloak you wear, a deep shade of blue is always there". He could have been describing his future self, both his personality and his music. The song was teenage heartbreak writ large and remains perhaps the most dramatic example of a certain strain of mid-'60s pop melodrama, wherein everything - the music, the delivery, the production - was overloaded. It possesses what Johnny Marr would later describe as "that gothic and beautiful gloom that was as much about England in the '60s as was Day Tripper".
The group imploded in 1967, with Scott frustrated to the point of breakdown by the formula into which their songs had fallen. His aversion to fame, and the fan hysteria that came with it, sent him running for the hills. He spent a week in a monastery in 1966, and the following year, there were reports that he had attempted suicide.
The Scott Walker who emerged on the solo albums that followed was a different kind of pop star, a crooner who veered between mainstream, Jack Jones-style balladeering and middle European angst. His hero was the Flemish chansonnier Jacques Brel, whose music he had been turned on to by a German Bunny Girl he had picked up at a party in the Playboy Club on Park Lane. "I don't listen to Brel that much now," he says, "but in those days, hearing him sing was like a hurricane blowing through the room."
By 1969's Scott 4, on which his own songwriting finally came to the fore, his themes were darker and a quote from Camus graced the sleeve: "A man's work is nothing but his slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened." The pop idol had metamorphosed into an arbiter of existential angst.
"It has always been a certain kind of European writer who has captivated me," he says. "It started when I was a drop-out from high school in California and read Sartre, who I don't care for much now, but back then he had a huge impact on my way of thinking about the world. And Kafka, of course. Those writers were my main sources alongside the European films I saw in the '60s in an art cinema on Wilshire Boulevard, Bergman and Kurosawa and the like."
Those solo records have influenced several generations of pop mavericks from Marc Almond and David Sylvian in the Eighties to the Divine Comedy a decade later. Jarvis Cocker is a fan and persuaded Walker to produce Pulp's 2001 album, We Love Life. Most recently, Alex Turner's other project, The Last Shadow Puppets, released their debut album, The Age Of Understatement, which, despite its title, was a homage to Walker's orchestrated emotional melodramas.
He wrote Scott 4, he says, "on drink", and fell into depression when it failed to sell like its predecessors. "I snapped," he says. "The pressure was everywhere and, in my crazy imagination, I thought, 'I'd better keep doing this just to stay in the game.'" In desperation, he reformed the Walker Brothers, and the band had chart success again with the single No Regrets. But his heart was not in it, at least until they went into the studio to record Nite Flights, their valedictory album from 1978, on which he let loose the full force of his teeming imagination.
At its centre is an extraordinary song called The Electrician, a symphonic ode to S&M that would not have sounded out of place on a Pasolini soundtrack. In the recent documentary film Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, an animated Brian Eno enthused about Nite Flights' sonic experimentation, while castigating the conservatism of most contemporary pop music. "We haven't got any further than this," he sighed. "It's a disgrace."
The album still sounds otherworldly and futuristic. After it, though, came six years of silence and, with 1984's Climate Of Hunter album, the beginning of the enigma that is Scott Walker Mk3. Gone was the musical extravagance of old, replaced by a minimalist sound that bordered on ambience. Only half the songs had actual titles. On the first line of the opening track, Rawhide, he sang: "This is how you disappear." Then he disappeared again. Tilt was ten years in the making, The Drift another eleven. They both sound, in their emotional and tonal extremity, like nothing else in contemporary music.
"A lot of what I do is waiting," he says. "I begin always with the lyrics and they seem to take some considerable time. They have become more angular of late and now come in blocks of words. It's just a different way of writing. When I see the page and the lyrics, I see soldiers in a field. There's a lot of white space which represents me in a sense. It's an abstract way of putting it, but I see it that way visually."
His songs, he says, are clear to him, but he does not like having to explain or analyse them. He admits, though, that his recent music requires a certain amount of effort and patience from the listener. "I try to avoid cliché. I want to make it sound like nothing I have ever heard before," he says, his low Californian drawl still detectable after a forty-year exile in Europe. "All that guitar-based rock stuff - I just feel like I've heard it before so many times. It goes on and on and never seems to end. It's just the same narrow ground being worked over. It would drive me mad to have to work within those parameters."
So he has gone the other way - into texture and dissonance. The music he makes with strangely tuned strings and off-key piano chords, is, he says, "always dictated by the lyrics", which tend to be obscure and, at times, wilfully nonsensical. His songs often seem to be haunted by the darker narratives of the last century, by war, disease, displacement and genocide. Cue, for instance, seems to be about a bacterial plague carried by the "flugleman" of the song's subtitle, a viral pestilence that spreads "through the dormant wards and nurseries... in the lung-smeared slides and corridors".
In the documentary, the most revealing insight into his work comes from his orchestrator, Brian Gascoigne (brother of Bamber), who says: "He believes, and I take issue with this, that to convey a very strong emotion in the music, you have to be feeling it when you're making it. That couldn't be true because the people who are playing Bruckner and Mahler every night would be basket cases... after three of four hours in the studio, he is a basket case because he lives the thing with such emotion."
How would Scott Walker describe his singular artistic sensibility? "Essentially, I'm really trying to find a way to talk about the things that cannot be spoken of," he says. "I cannot fake that or take short cuts. There is an absurdity there, too, of course, and I hope that people pick up on that. Without the humour, it would just be heavy and boring. I hope," he says, once more, "people get that. If you're not connecting with the absurdity, you shouldn't be there."
Scott Walker's late music, in its evocation of anxiety and horror, may, as Michael Morris suggests, be more comparable with the paintings of Francis Bacon than with any musical contemporary. His songs, if they can still be called that, are as far from the drift of contemporary pop as one could possibly imagine.
"Oh, I have long since stopped worrying about fitting in any way," he says, laughing. "I'm an outsider, for sure. That suits me fine. Solitude is like a drug for me. I crave it." Why, though, does it take so long to make a record, write a song? "A certain amount of it is about making it difficult for myself. I'm not interested in traditional narrative, say, or in having pat endings to the songs. I want the sense in my music of a constant moving forward into an open future."
Of late, though, his music often seems to be drifting towards the last final, awful silence. "Perhaps," he says, "perhaps." Does he ever, I ask, miss the old days, when his songs lasted three minutes, had verses and choruses and were easier to write? He laughs. "Not really, no. I mean, back then, I could write a song like Big Louise in an evening. That would be good sometimes and, you know, I would do that if the lyrics demanded it."
Could he ever see that happening again? "No. I write a different kind of song these days. There's not a lot of harmony and there aren't the thick textures I used to use. It's generally just big blocks of sound, raw and stark. A big emotional noise." Another silence. "Essentially, I am attempting the impossible over and over, trying to find a way to say the unsayable. For some reason," he says, laughing, "that just seems to take a lot longer."
Drifting And Tilting: The Songs Of Scott Walker is at the Barbican, London EC2 from Friday, November 14 to Sunday, November 16