An Interview with Scott Walker
Scott Walker, a.k.a. Noel Scott Engel, may be pop music’s most frustratingly elusive icon—the Thomas Pynchon of the ’60s singer-songwriter generation—whose marked absence from public conversation for nearly a decade at a time serves only to reignite fiery devotion and speculation among fans and critics when the latest record descends. Like Pynchon’s, Walker’s meritorious star appeared to burn brightly in the late ’60s, when, as the velvet baritone of the Walker Brothers trio, Scott earned adulation as the existential voice of London’s foppish counterculture. In fact, Walker had been releasing records and touring since he was thirteen, having spent his youth cutting class, watching foreign films, and playing clubs along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, where he was first discovered, by teen idol Eddie Fisher.
In the late ’60s, Walker released four solo albums—Scott 1 through 4—an epic, European Götterdämmerung of brooding, off-kilter pop. Produced for Philips Records with extraordinary efficiency between autumn 1967 and late 1969, the Scott albums laid out a vast panoply of influences, from classical composer Jean Sibelius to Flemish chanteur Jacques Brel to French Algerian author Albert Camus and Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Delivered with Walker’s trademark ululations, the songs evoked a baroque sound-world of diseased soldiers, bloodthirsty dictators, daydreaming psychotics, and bored housewives.
Skip ahead to the late ’70s and early ’80s, when, after a string of failed cover albums and a preempted Walker Brothers reunion, Scott released a pair of futurist gems, Nite Flights (a Walker Brothers album sliced into three solo efforts) and Climate of Hunter. Part Brian Eno, part Joy Division, Scott’s new sonic palette might sound thoroughly dated to the modern-rock ear, but it portended a major shift in the former crooner’s creative direction. However brilliant was the reinvigorated Scott Walker, the albums sank quickly into anonymity, as did the artist behind them.
Further efforts at recording would not materialize for another decade, with 1995’s dark, operatic masterpiece, Tilt. Many critics hailed it as the best comeback of the decade, though Walker reappeared only in glimpses, perpetually hidden beneath a baseball cap and refusing most interviews or on-camera appearances. Another ten years elapsed until the appearance of 2006’s The Drift, a terrifying Grand Guignol unlike anything else in contemporary music—a consummate reexamination of Walker’s own musical history. A brief appearance in Stephen Kijak’s 2006 Walker biopic, 30 Century Man (whose cast of fans included Brian Eno, David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, Johnny Marr, and Damon Albarn), signaled Scott’s intentions of developing a more public persona, although tentatively and very much on his own terms.
After two years in the organizing, this interview finally occurred with the 2012 release of Bish Bosch, an equally ambitious, (slightly) more approachable sequel to The Drift. While Walker’s reputation as a reserved and laconic figure precedes him, his humor, politeness, and enthusiasm exposed a side of the man rarely discussed by journalists. While deliberate and focused as a musician, he is also an avid shower-singer, moviegoer, and weekend imbiber. So, while the cult of Scott Walker remains an intriguing narrative of musical genius, it is apparent that the only mystery here is of an extraordinary artist dedicated unapologetically to craft, imagination, and necessary silences.
I. NIGHTMARISH SWAN
THE BELIEVER: May I call you Scott?
SCOTT WALKER: Yes, of course.
BLVR: My inclination is to call you “Mr. Walker,” but everyone seems to know you as “Scott.”
SW: Yes, that’s all right. Americans are very polite, so everyone calls me “Mr. Walker.” It’s very interesting. People over here [in the U.K.] don’t do that.
BLVR: They just know you as Scott.
SW: Yeah, among other things.
BLVR: I read that you are color-blind—
BLVR: I find that interesting, because so much of your work is about coloring sound, shading it, thinking about sound in color. Is that a condition that has been a source of either frustration or inspiration for you?
SW: It’s a different set of problems, of course, but, yes, it’s very freeing in comparison to the difficulties and constrictions of song. Matching sounds in your head is made a lot easier today, what with all the technology. It is the nonelectronic noises that are challenging, as you have to find ways of communicating those to the people you’re working with.
BLVR: You have spent a great deal of your adult life settled in London, Denmark, and Holland. Can you tell me a bit about how the European cityscape or way of life has influenced the way you imagine sound-worlds?
SW: I’m certain that it does. I’ve always loved European cities. Of course, I’ve read a lot of European literature. And I’ve talked about this a lot. When I lived in Los Angeles I was going to a lot of European cinema at a pretty early age, when everybody was going to surf movies. So it’s probably all there.
BLVR: But you grew up in a very small town in Ohio?
SW: Yes. But I left when I was a baby. It wouldn’t have had any effect. This really started when I was living in Los Angeles.
BLVR: So your first introduction to Europe was through the cinema?
SW: Yes. After school or even cutting school I would go to Hollywood Boulevard, where there were all these cinemas. You could see four movies for a quarter, or something like that. You could watch these films into the night. So I went to one of these things, paid my quarter, didn’t know what I was going to see. The last movie on was quite late. It was the Bergman film The Virgin Spring. I took in the name. At the same time I discovered Kurosawa, because Los Angeles had a Japanese cinema at the time. So it was on that one night that I became interested. I was very struck by the imagery and the chiaroscuro. And then Bergman later admitted about that film that it was pure Kurosawa, the way he had done it.
BLVR: What was the last film you saw that really blew you away?
SW: The [Michael] Haneke film The White Ribbon. I haven’t seen the newest one [Amour]. I’m going to see it this weekend, along with The Master.
BLVR: I wonder if there is also a science-fiction tradition that you draw from, whether it be the films of Tarkovsky and Kubrick or the futurist sound palette of Joe Meek and Stockhausen.
SW: No, I’ve never been a great fan of science fiction. I did read that book that Tarkovsky made Stalker from—I believe it was Roadside Picnic. But no, not really, nor am I a religious person. I was interested in [Robert] Bresson’s aesthetic style, but I’m not interested at all in his beliefs. Same with Tarkovsky. I love some of his films, like Stalker, some of those early films. But at other times I find him a bit too mystical. I remember talking about this with [film director] Leos Carax, and we both found his mysticism a bit much at times.
BLVR: Would you say you are using sound in an architectural way?
SW: I tend to think of it more as space. And maybe that’s the same thing. And once again, I’ve gone on and on about how I always begin with the lyric. The lyric informs everything that I do. When I’m doing the sound, I’m trying to match the lyric in front of me. I’m trying to think, What would this sound like? But I realize that my songs are more spatial than a lot of people’s work.
BLVR: You stated in an interview that your songs “come from silence, most of it. I sit around and I’m waiting.”
SW: I think that after so long it’s within my character. When I put things on the page, the space between words or the space between things is dictating that space in the music. The silences have gotten a bit pronounced, like in a song like [“SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)”]—it begins with a lot of silence. If you look at the lyric sheet, there’s a lot of space between the ripostes. We knew this was how it was going to happen, so when we recorded the album, we did it simultaneously in digital and analogue, because at a certain point we could cut off the analogue and just have the digital there to get more silence.
BLVR: I guess the kernel of my question is: how do you conceive of the lyrics spatially?
SW: When I’m writing a lyric, I totally forget about the music. I’m just looking at the lyric and thinking about it almost as a separate entity. And then I’ll go to my keyboard with all the lyrics printed out and try to think of how to make this a complete musical thing. I’ve got a very basic keyboard with some presets. These are the kinds of songs you realize you can’t just pick up a guitar and start strumming to. It’s ludicrous. You have to start by almost arranging them—and that’s a bad word for what I do. But let’s risk it. You have to start arranging it almost right away with all the sounds you’d be hearing. Then I get into the studio with these sketches and we try to find the sounds in my head with the more sophisticated equipment. Because that’s half the surprise and the joy of finding those things going on in your head. I’ve got probably 70 percent laid out on the keyboard in a sketch, and then I take it in there and the other 30 percent is accidents and surprises. But I have to have a map when I go in, because there’s no standard way of playing this stuff.
BLVR: With all the emphasis on silence and the stripping of sound in Bish Bosch, how do you negotiate the space reserved for your voice and instrumentation?
SW: If you listen carefully to the songs, the sounds are pitched very low or very high. So even in one of the simple songs, like “See You Don’t Bump His Head,” the song about the swans, the drums are going “bump-bump-bump-bump-bump,” and they’re quite deep. The drums are kind of identifying with the image of the swan on a lake. What you see superficially is it gliding along the surface, but underneath all hell is breaking loose. That’s the idea of that drum. It’s this kind of nightmarish swan. Then what eventually comes in above it is this very high synthesizer. The voice goes right in between those two sounds. That’s kind of how it works.
BLVR: Do you think of your voice now as solely a vehicle for the lyrics, or is there a material “grain” or pathos that you try to exude when singing?
SW: I’m just trying to bring the lyrics across. It’s another instrument, if you like. Many of these songs have characters. If you’re doing a song like “Zercon,” you don’t want to act out the song in approximation with the character. That’s not what I’m trying to do. Otherwise, I would just get an actor to do that. I’m just trying to give you a flavor of what it is, and, at the same time, retain a kind of distance from the character. So it kind of balances out that way.
II. “I DON’T CONSIDER MYSELF A MODERNIST”
BLVR: I notice you are often singing in a higher register now than the baritone for which you became famous.
SW: And lower as well. When I’m in the lower register, it’s lower than what I did before, because the material calls for it. Once again, I’m a slave to the lyric. They’re different than the songs I did years ago, and they’re much more difficult to do. That’s why you’re hearing the difference.
BLVR: Aside from the effects that aging has on any voice, I’m wondering, what is your relationship to your singing voice now and how has it changed over the past few decades?
SW: I can still use it like I used to. I can approximate that. But I can also do more with it simply because of the material. It’s forcing me to put more on the ball, to use a tennis term. I think my voice has always been a kind of alien creature, anyway. I’m not a trained singer, so I don’t know what’s going on. I kind of look at it as another person. I never know what I’m going to get when I wake up in the morning.
BLVR: Do you ever sing outside the studio?
SW: Sure, I sing in the shower. And when I know I’m going in to the studio, for three or four weeks beforehand I’ll sing the material at home, take my voice out of its case and see how it’s going. I have to know I’m going to be able to carry it when I get in there.
BLVR: Do you have a typical regimen for taking care of your voice? You’ve mentioned in the past that for years you were drinking pretty heavily, and I imagine that must be hard on your voice.
SW: Oh, yes. Well, I don’t drink as much as I used to. I tend to keep it down to weekends. I am pretty careful with it, though I’m not neurotic about it.
BLVR: You often use glossolalia, slang, gibberish, and phonemes, which has garnered you comparisons to Joyce, Eliot, Beckett, Artaud, Pierre Guyotat. Are these expulsions of sound purely emotional? Are they political?
SW: There’s a political element only if it’s a springboard into something else, something that perhaps we find interesting but difficult to talk about. When I write a lyric about a dictator, for instance, I’m not a slave to the history. That’s not the idea of it. I think I’m simply playing around with language, sometimes for the joy of it, and sometimes to talk about other things. I guess it’s sort of a collage. You can find these things in The Waste Land and things like that, but I don’t consider myself a modernist. Modernism is a very closed system. I think of myself as quite a bit more open than that.
BLVR: Is there maybe a scatting influence from jazz as well?
SW: It could definitely apply.
BLVR: I know you’ve been asked this before, but given the continued path you’ve taken in Bish Bosch, I’m sure people are curious if you see yourself as a dramaturge as much as a musician or singer.
SW: I have heard people say it, that [Bisch Bosch] should be put onstage, or that it’s like a mini-opera. But I think that still has some sort of standard linear narrative, and, of course, none of these [songs] do. I’m not quite sure what it is. I suppose I could be called a dramatist, but not in the standard way.
BLVR: Do you think there’s any difference in what you’re doing between what one would call a “song” in the conventional sense and a performance or sound collage?
SW: Well, that’s the big question. I had a French interviewer ask me recently about this and I said, “Well, I’m not even sure if they are songs,” and he said, “Oh, no, no. They are definitely songs. They’re just another way of doing it.” So I suppose you could look at that way, too. It’s just another way of coming up with something.
III. BINDING SOUND
BLVR: I am going to avoid asking you the hoary “What happened to melody?” question in favor of something slightly different—
SW: That’s an interesting question in itself, because I never understand that question. I personally believe the melodies are far more interesting now. They are there, in your face, in certain sections of the songs. People do complain about the melody thing, but we do hit patches of melody and beauty, as well as the other stuff. And the melodies are far better than what I did early on. I just never understand that question.
BLVR: I wonder whether or not you ever think of the music you write now in terms of refrain, rather than in terms of melody. Not like verse-chorus-verse structure, but really, in a larger sense, anything that is reproducible to the human ear, or is “hummable.”
SW: A lot of that sounds like, in a Tarkovskian sense, a kind of nostalgia. What you’re describing is a nostalgia for something. That could be applied to any melody that’s memorable, I suppose.
BLVR: You’re absolutely right about this. And it seems that with your recent albums you are both developing and escaping these refrains. You are working within a pop structure, perhaps, but also trying to step your way out of its refrain into something else.
SW: I don’t often consciously think of “stepping out” of something anymore. My instincts tend to take over automatically when it comes to making those kinds of choices.
BLVR: You carried the music of Bish Bosch around in your head for three or four years. How do you live with this soundtrack in your day-to-day life?
SW: If I’m working on something, if I’m absorbed in it, then if I’m going out to shop or whatever, it’s always in the back of my head. I can say that in the case of Tilt or The Drift, at times I was very easily drawn away. I would have rather prevaricated or not engaged with it, because I can be lazy like anyone else. It was not a twenty-four-hour preoccupation. With Bish Bosch, it was very different, because I was actually trying to deliver it a little quicker. But working the way that I do, you can’t. You have to lay in wait for it. I had to sit around and wait, but at least I did it. I didn’t run away from it. The only thing I would take issue with is that I think my albums work on a lot of different levels. They’re not all darkness and terror. This album has a lot of humor in it, too. If there’s one thing I absolutely hate, it’s these records that go one way. It’s what they call a “heavy” artist. The music will be dark, the singer will sound like he gargled with sulfuric acid. That’s not art. It’s art only when it’s being balanced by lots of layers. Sometimes you have to dig for it, but it’s there. When Kafka was reading his stories to friends, he’d become furious when they weren’t laughing. What I’m trying to say is, let the album roll over you. Don’t worry about it.
BLVR: During the time of recording, what kind of working relationship do you have to the studio? From what I’ve seen, it seems you don’t have as much time to work as some people probably imagine. There is a mythos surrounding Scott Walker that he hibernates in this acoustic interior and becomes lost behind the recording wall.
SW: No such luxury, I’m afraid. I had a great apprenticeship in the ’60s, because when I was doing those Philips records it was in the contract that you had to go in and do four tunes in a three-hour session. And they had to be done live. That’s how it worked with the [Walker] Brothers and in my solo records, so you had to get everything prepared before you went in there, and that’s always stayed with me. Even though people who work with me now say, “He won’t have time to do this,” I’ll say, “Yes, we’ll have time, but I want everything as prepared as possible.” And I’ll do a lot of it at home, and I’ll have a lot of the sounds and noises to bring in so we’re not wasting time noodling around, which drives me insane. I remember doing a session like that. Someone came in and started noodling around for hours on a synthesizer. This is the way they started the session. It was very clear to me that it was going to go on for years, and I just don’t have the patience for that. I have to go in with something that we can go with so we can actually achieve it. For instance, for this latest record, I did it very quickly. It took me just over a year, because I buckled down at home and didn’t procrastinate. I felt fantastic. I thought we’d go into the studio and get it worked out in eight weeks. But, of course, in the end, things didn’t happen that way. Things started going wrong. People weren’t available, studios weren’t available. [Coproducer] Pete [Walsh]’s father died. Then we had to stop and do something for the Royal Opera House. So something that should have taken eight weeks took two years. There were two days in-studio, then three months off, three days in the studio, then another month off. So I had to keep it all balanced in my head the whole way. It was really maddening at times.
BLVR: You mentioned your coproducer, Pete Walsh. Can you tell me a bit about your collaboration, how it began, and what he has added to your recordings that has given them such a distinct aural identity?
SW: When I signed with Virgin, they sent me over a load of engineer-producers. I picked Pete, and that’s how we first met. I can’t tell you exactly why I chose him. I like the bottom end of sound and he has that better than anyone else. Pete and I both have a word for it: it’s a binding sound. And that can be done with the vocals or the bass and drums, how it “binds” your track. I was trying to describe this sound to someone the other day, and this may sound fanciful, but I’ll have a shot at it. What it’s always sounded like to me, when it’s working well—it reminds me of the aural equivalent of [H. R.] Giger’s drawings of Alien. Do you know those drawings?
SW: To me, it sounds like those drawings look, the sound we’re getting. That’s a combination of Pete’s engineering and where I’m putting the instruments and the vocal. It’s not just glossy black and gray, but it’s splashes of white as well.
BLVR: Are you ever concerned that the studio provides you with such a particular kind of comfort with recording and playing music that you have forgotten how different music “feels” in a live setting?
SW: Well, I haven’t performed in so long, but live performance these days is fantastic. It’s formed from all the stuff you have in the studio anyway, so it’d be possible to actually re-create this. We did something at the Barbican a number of years ago, with three or four nights of my songs. They were performed by other people, and Pete and I did the sound. All the musicians we used were there and all the strings were there. It was pretty damn close. The problem with me now is that whenever I sit down to write, my imagination expands and suddenly I have this cast of thousands I’m carrying around with me. The music becomes very demanding. There are no guitar breaks. No soloing, that kind of thing. It would be a very demanding night to do, and it would cost a fortune. No one—none of the promoters—would make any money. And that’s not the idea of live performance these days. But every time I do this, I sit down with an intention of writing something that I can play live, because my manager, everybody, is on my back about it. Of course, it escapes me. But next year I’ll try again. Come February, I’ll start to work again, and maybe I can keep it down. One certainly hopes.
Thanks to Sonya Kolowrat, Charles Negus-Fancey, Stephen Kijak, Geoff Nicholson, Vardui Sharapkhanyan, and Hedi El Kholti.